Monday, February 22, 2016

Interview with Brian Conway

If the concept of Irish music isn’t foreign to you, then Brian Conway is no stranger. Growing up in New York, the Bronx to be exact, his family adored Irish music. He plays the Sligo style, made popular by the great Sligo-born fiddler, Michael Coleman. He is not only one of my favorite Irish musicians and fiddlers in general, but he is also my mentor. I met Brian for the first time, shortly after I started playing Irish music, two years prior to my first Mid-Atlantic Fleadh. I played a tune for him at the request of a friend of his, and a few months later began taking lessons from him.

Photo Credit: Bernard Keilty 
Now, six years later, I sat down to interview Brian, to ask him about his take on this genre of music.

What made you begin playing Irish music? How old were you?
Believe it or not, when I was seven, I tried Irish dancing for a while. I hated it and it turned out to not be the most successful endeavor. So, at the age of ten, my parents told me I was going to learn how to play the fiddle. I had no choice in the matter. 

Who was your first teacher?
Martin Mulvihill, a fellow from Limerick who had a big music school at the time. I started by taking private lessons, then moved on to group lessons shortly after. When I teach, I try to keep my first lesson with Martin Mulvihill in mind. I try not to make it too traumatic for the student. I didn’t even attempt holding the bow or anything like that before I came in for the lesson, so he kept telling me to “pint” my finger down. My mother had to translate, he was saying to point my fingers down on the bow. I couldn’t play just one string at a time. I kept hitting two. I was on a little 3/4 size violin. 

Who most influenced your playing growing up?
My biggest influences were, in this order, Andy McGann, Martin Wynne, and Michael Coleman. Andy McGann was a huge positive influence on me. But, behind the scenes, all of the time was Dave Collins, who was my mentor. His and my father’s enthusiasm for the music was very contagious and it really helped spark a fire under me that got me playing. 

What were your first memories including Andy McGann and Martin Wynne?
My first memory of Martin Wynne was about a year and a half after I started taking lessons. I went to Martin’s apartment with Dave Collins, my dad, and my brother Sean. My father told me Martin was very strict and if we didn’t make a good impression, he wouldn’t want to teach us. That couldn’t have been further from the truth. He was very kind. My first memory of Andy McGann was one of my fondest. I was watching he and Larry Redican play at a feis in 1972. In those days, the greatest players were the ones you would see performing at the feis’. It was a way to make money and a very different world then. I used to love watching those guys play. 

When did you record your first album?
When I was twelve, I did an album for the Garry Owen Ceili band in ’73 or ’74. 

What made you decide to become a lawyer instead of a full-time musician?
Growing up, in my family, being a full-time musician was frowned upon. It was akin to being sort of lazy. That is not the view I hold of it at all, but it was drilled into my head growing up. I think it is very courageous to be a full-time musician. You’re putting it all out there, and you’re basically investing in yourself. But, I am happy I made the decision to become a lawyer, and have two things going on and having a day job gives me some financial security, not that I’m rich, but having that financial security has given me the freedom to play the music I want to play instead of the music I have to play. 

When and why did you start competing?
I wasn’t really given a choice. It was the same as, “you’re going to play the fiddle”. It was just considered normal. My first feis was when I was ten, I had only been playing for about five months. It was in New Haven. The judge was Billy Greenall, a piano accordion player, who happened to be very good friends with Martin Mulvihill. I played the Mountain Road reel and won first. I had no idea how nervous I was going to be until I actually got up there and started playing. Anyway, every time there was a feis, I just competed, I never even really thought about it. I was twelve when I won my first All-Ireland title. 

How often did you travel to Ireland to compete?
I went over every year from 1973-1976. I took a break until 1983. I went again in 1986. The last time I competed was in 1998 in some duets and trios.

Who are some of your favorite people to perform with?
I always love to play with Brendan Dolan. I like playing with my sister, Rose Flanagan. I used to love playing with Joe Burke. Currently, John Whelan is one of my favorite players and just a joy to play with. We talked about being sort of brought up on a jet stream when you’re playing, John and Brendan do that for me. And I love my group, Gailfean, they’re all great musicians, a lot of fun to be around. A lot of who you enjoy playing with, and the character of those whom you’re playing with creates a sort of chemistry in the music, on stage and off. They also need to be good musicians who complement what you do. The players I mentioned all do that.

What have been some of your most memorable gigs?
One of my favorites was a concert I did in Paris, 1996, with Felix Dolan, Patrick Ourceau, Tony DeMarco, and Brendan. There are so many gigs. Some of the concerts over the years at Swannanoa Gathering, and Elkins were so enjoyable. 

Did you ever play gigs with Andy McGann and Martin Wynne?
When I made my first solo album, First Through the Gate, I ended up doing some tracks with Andy McGann and Pat Mangan, we were hired to do some gigs and festivals as well. I did a lot of gigs with Andy. There’s a recording from Eagle Tavern in the late 1980’s that was used on the wonderful video documentary From Shore to Shore. I couldn’t believe that I had gone from this eleven year old kid who played with him at a session in Dave Collins’ house, to performing with him and recording with him. That was certainly a memorable time for me.

When did you start teaching?
When I was way too young, probably twelve, and I had only been playing for about two years. I had a couple of students for a while, then I taught some private lessons when I was in high school. Nothing on a huge scale. When I was in college I started teaching more, and maybe too much then, because I had a lot on my plate. But, at that time, I had a group of 30-something-year-olds, and they really helped me become a better teacher. It made me really break down what I was doing that they didn’t understand so I could explain it. That has carried forward in my teaching ever since. 

What qualities do you think make a good student?
A student that is very inquisitive, one who goes beyond the assignment. Someone who listens to other music. Obviously having an immense amount of talent is great, but talent alone won’t do it and sometimes I prefer teaching kids who might not have that top one percentile of talent, but are really hungry and want to do it. They’re really a joy to teach. It’s the ones who don’t have an interest that are hard to teach. 

What are the important skills you try to teach your students?
I try to make them understand that technique is important in traditional Irish music. It’s not just something that is the province of classical musicians. Playing in tune, getting a good tone, projecting, what makes it sound Irish, and understanding the relationship between phrasing, bowing, and slur combinations is really important. Achieving a level of autonomy over what bowing and slurring decisions you make is very important. I try to get my students to do that, and the really good ones get it. Then they can make their own decisions about what bowing combinations they like later. For the most part, as the students get older, they kind of stay with the fundamental philosophy that I preach regarding bowing. There have been one or two exceptions over the years, but they have been few and far between.