Sunday, October 23, 2016

Literary Explorations

Here I am, writing a blog post for the first time in months! Sorry about that. After a busy summer I'm finally getting back into the swing of things. 

I started my freshman year of homeschool a couple of months ago. As you can probably tell by the fact that I have a blog, writing is my favorite subject--as long as music doesn't count as schooling. Also, many of you know that I have a fabulous writing mentor, Miss Kathy, who assists me in all of my wordy endeavors. She is also my literature teacher, and as we are both great fans of the lovely Jane Austen, we've been reading her last book written--but not finished--Sanditon. 

Jane was twelve chapters into writing the book when she became too sick to complete it. At the age of 41 she passed away. Several people have attempted to finish Jane's work, one of whom writes under the pen-name "Another Lady". We have five remaining chapters to read before moving on to other literary experiences, but first, let's talk a bit about this one. 

Sanditon follows a beautiful and smart young woman named Charlotte Heywood who is vacationing in Sanditon, a small sea bathing resort. Charlotte is in search of a husband, just like any other twenty-two year old of her time. Though there were many bachelors in Sanditon, the only one Charlotte has eyes for is a witty young man named Sidney Parker. Charlotte spends an abundance of time worrying herself with the wonder of whether or not Sidney could ever think of her the way she thinks of him, and she’s flattered when she learns that things might turn out in her favor. 

Each week, Miss Kathy and I read through five chapters, and I summarize the plot of each one. She also gets my brain working on some fun projects, this week's being memes! I gathered three different quotes and used original photos for each quote. Two of the quotes are by Jane, one by "Another Lady". See if you can guess who wrote which quote, and leave your answer in the comments.

Don't get too excited--I don't own a cat. This is a stray kitten who ran across the road in front of my mom's car while mom was on her way to work. The poor thing lost one of her eyes, and has an infection in the other but she's such a darling little thing and only four weeks old. Fortunately our friend, Steve, will be giving her a home, but I thought I'd put her to good use at least for one photo. 

Aside from Jane Austen and "Another Lady", Miss Kathy and I have been working on another super exciting project that I can't wait to share with you.

Hint: it concerns my writing, yet it has very little to do with me!

Until next time!

Friday, July 22, 2016

My Summer Schedule-- music, music, and more music!

This summer I’ll spend many a late night into early morning playing music in good company. 

I kicked off the summer with a lively weekend of music and celebration at the annual Mid-Atlantic Fleadh in Parsippany, New Jersey. Competitors, adjudicators, volunteers, and those who came just for the fun of it, gathered for a hectic weekend of music, dance, and song. The competitions qualify the first, second, and sometimes third (depending on the judge’s choice) place winners to compete in the All-Ireland Fleadh, which will be held in Ennis, County Clare, this August. 

Mom and I arrived in Parsippany on Friday, June 24th—my birthday BTW. We spent the evening playing tunes and eating delicious chocolate-coconut cake, courtesy of my friend Keegan. I continued to play music until midnight, but sadly had to retire to bed because of the competition starting at 9:00am.  

I awoke bright and early (thanks to coffee) and ready to compete. There were 23 fellow competitors in the under-fifteen solo fiddle competition. I happened to be the not-so-lucky twenty-third competitor. I rushed to the slow-air competition where everyone is prepared with four airs. The judge picks one, and you play an air of your choice. I was asked to play a lovely air which I learned from a recording of the excellent box player, James Keane, titled Paddy’s Rambles Through the Park. My choice air was The Dear Irish Boy, learned from a video of fiddler Eileen O’Brien. 

All in all, it was a good day of competition. I took first in two out of two of my competitions for the day. As you might be able to guess, the good day was followed by more tunes and a steak dinner with John Whelan, Jeanne Freeman, a couple of very talented young musicians, and a few more new friends. 

Sunday kicked off with a rocky start. I was to play in a duet with Keegan on the uillean pipes. Although he was sick, he managed to pull through. We finished the duet competition in second place. So, guess what? We’re going to Ireland!

The Mid-Atlantic Fleadh was only the beginning of my fun summer. That Thursday, I jetted off to Oregon for a July 4th celebration with the locals. I was excited and honored to perform with the American Band College ensemble. We played a few pieces composed by Bill Whelan, the writer of Riverdance, as well as a lovely collection of songs and tunes written by the conductor, Johan de Meij. The performance finished a four-week-long camp for the American Band College students.

After a fun-filled Independence Day celebration, I traveled to Asheville, North Carolina for my favorite week of the year, aka Celtic Week at The Swannanoa Gathering. I was thrilled to return for my eighth year in a row, assisting my friend Alan Murray, by providing melody for his guitar accompaniment classes. 

Now, it’s off to Kean College for my third year of Studio2Stage. I’ll spend nine days in a windowless rehearsal room with five musical maniacs, Anton, Sully, Gerlisa, Adam, and Dylan, where we’ll create the soundtrack for a full-scale dance show including young dancers, and Riverdance performers choreographing the numbers. I’m also the designated video-blogger for all nine days, so I’ll do my best to divulge the details behind the scenes and let you in on a few “Studio2Secrets.” 

In August, my successful showing at the Parsippany Fleadh will send me to County Clare for the All-Ireland Fleadh. It will be my seventh year of All-Ireland Fleadh fun, and my eighth time visiting this delightful country. Needless to say, I have a fairly busy summer ahead, but I will try to keep you posted as best I can, even if I can only do so through the occasional Facebook post. Stay tuned. 

“Music…This is the favorite passion of my soul.” - Thomas Jefferson

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Interview with Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh

Soft dulcet tones, warm crackling fire, elderberry echinachea tea, and the fragrance of peat, transports me to a small town in Donegal where Mairead Ní Mhaonaigh lives--one of my favorite vocalists, a dear friend, and role model in Irish music. I had the pleasure of interviewing her before a show a couple of months ago when she was touring state-side with Altan. 

What made you choose to play the fiddle?
They say the fiddle is the closest thing to the human voice and I love singing. My father played fiddle and I remember being totally attracted to the sound of it. There weren’t a lot of women I knew playing traditional music at that time, so (choosing to play the fiddle) was a challenge.

Who were your mentors/musical influences growing up?
My father, Francie Mooney, first. He was always hoping my siblings and I would play an instrument. We didn’t become interested until we were a bit older. I was ten when I started only holding the fiddle, not playing. Around that time Denny McLoughlin would come to our house and play tunes with my dad. He sort of took me under his wing and started teaching me properly, just as my dad had tried to do for years. Now, in retrospect, I didn’t listen to their instruction as much as I should have because I hold the bow the wrong way. But, whenever I’m teaching, I always tell students to hold the bow properly because I don’t think my way makes any sense. But, Denny was a great educator because he would make you believe in yourself. As a teacher now, later in my life, I use the proper technique.

What was the music scene like when you were growing up in Donegal?
It was very sparse and all the musicians knew each other. It wasn’t as popular as it is now. It was a bit isolated, but I’m glad I kept playing because when I went to college it set me apart. Back then it was very rare to hear young people play, but, when I did meet someone my age who played I would get so excited because then we'd have something in common. But nowadays it is completely different, and all for the best.

Did you learn both the Irish and English language growing up?
I was brought up with Gaelic, it was always the language used in my home. My family would only speak English if visitors came into the house so they wouldn’t feel left out. I can’t even remember learning English. It was like a jewel language. 

Why do you think it is important to preserve the Irish language?
The language is beautiful, but I think the most important thing with language is the mind and the way the brain works. The Gaelic language is full of poetic descriptions and you use a lot of adjectives. The English language, which I also love, is more direct. If the Gaelic language died, our identity as an Irish nation would die as well. There’s a saying, “Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam. A country without a language is a country without a soul.”

How old were you when you recorded your first album?
I must’ve been in my twenties. I didn’t expect to record any other album after it either. It was an album Frankie Kennedy and I recorded called Ceol Aduaidh. A record company asked us to do it and we were so delighted. I think we were asked to record because we brought a new repertoire of tunes to Dublin and people liked the quirkiness of the tunes and the different time signatures. So, it gave us a new platform and that’s what Altan was based off of. 

When did the idea for Altan come about?
We had Ciaran Curran play on Ceol Aduaidh. A few years later, in 1987, a company, Green Linnet, asked us to make the first Altan album. What they wanted was a duet album, but Frankie and I thought it would be nice to start a band. We named the CD Altan and decided it would be a great platform for forming a band. The group has now been together for nearly thirty years.

Why do you think Altan has been popular for so long?
I think it has to do with energy and luck. I’ve been very lucky. Talent is one thing, but if you’re very lucky and have people who follow you, that’s another. You have to respect your followers. I think that’s really important. Also, we love what we do, and if you love what you do, that’s contagious. If I see a musician playing and they love it, I get very excited. Integrity is part of it as well. You stick to what you know and bring it across as well as you can.

What have been some of your favorite experiences with the band so far?
I adore having people onstage with us. Traveling to different places is always great fun. When we first came to America we were so excited. We love coming here and making new friends each time. It was so fun being able to play with Dolly Parton and Ricky Scaggs. They would’ve been people we listened to quite a bit. Then, when you meet them and discover that they’re such serious musicians and they feel the same about music as we do, that makes it more enjoyable.

Have there been any other ensembles besides Altan that you’ve enjoyed taking part in?
At the moment I’m recording with my family, Na Mooneys. I’ve also recorded with Tea with The Maggies. I’ve played with the String Sisters, all of these fiddlers from all over the world and they’re all wonderful musicians. I just love playing with them.

What made you decide on music as a full-time job?
It decided on me somehow. I never looked at it as “that’s where I want to be”. I went to third level college and wanted to be a teacher like my father, teaching primary school. During the summer at home we have a very long holiday so I was able to go to festivals all summer long. I thought being a teacher would be a great lifestyle because you have Halloween and Christmas off. Then, all of a sudden, an opportunity arose and people started calling us, asking if we’d like to come to America, England, France, etc. So, we decided to take a chance and we’re really delighted. I can’t see myself being anywhere else.

What’s your favorite place to travel when playing music?
Definitely America. There’s so much diversity here. Everyone is super friendly, and there’s great music everywhere. All of the traditional music, old-time, bluegrass, blues, jazz, rock and roll, and Irish. I even went to see an Opera the other night. The eating experience here for us, coming from Ireland initially, was such a lovely, exiting experience trying out all of these ethnic foods.

What advice do you have for young female musicians who want to tour?
When I was growing up, female musicians were kind of secondary. Though, playing with the band I never felt like that. I always felt an equal. But especially in Ireland, there were two layers: the higher male dominated world, and the female world which is why there weren’t a lot of older female fiddle players when I was growing up. Nowadays I think the whole thing has changed. My advice is to keep yourself safe and to go with your gut instinct. When you’re being asked to play somewhere, check it out and make sure it’s safe. But I’m sure any female musician won’t be totally on their own when touring. I wasn’t confident and that was a very big problem. Musically it affected me for a long time but I had to gain that confidence and respect. Aim for what you want and go for it with all of your heart.   

How do you balance touring life with being a mother?
That’s the hardest part. I love touring, I really do. But since I’ve had Nia, I find that I break my heart when I have to leave her. She’s on tour with me now but she’s come to the point where she doesn’t want to know me. (laughs) No, I don’t mean it like that! She’s a teenager, so her important people are more her friends than being with me. But, the last twelve years,  I just kept yearning to go back to her while on tour. I’m sure she’s gotten used to me touring, but being without her is the hardest part as a mom. 

What influenced the bluegrass vibe on your most recent album, The Widening Gyre?
The bluegrass and old-time music is just a step away from Irish music. I suppose we came across it the very first time we came to America. When we were asked by Dolly Parton to come to Dollywood, we realized we had a lot in common with these musicians. We had been on the road for 27 years when we made this album and people were asking if we were just going to make the same old album. But, that’s what we do, we play Irish music. Someone suggested having an angle incorporating all of these musicians we know who play this different style of music. So, we chose some things we liked to do, and some things we hadn’t even rehearsed or thought about that just happened right there in the studio. I learned Buffalo Gals, Gypsy Davie, and No Ash Will Burn over in Nashville. 

Who made your fiddle and bow?
My fiddle is a Colin Mason, and the bow is made by Noel Burke. Since visiting Norway many years ago, I had always wanted a Hardanger fiddle as well, so I received one for Christmas about nine years ago and I love playing with that as well.

I always enjoy playing music with Mairéad, whether here in the states or on the other side of the pond. I can’t wait until my next trip to meet with her and have another lovely conversation.

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.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Interview with Liz Carroll: Part Three

I've had loads of fun with this interview series. Sadly, this is the third and final part. However, I do hope you've had a great time learning all-things Liz. This post is all about albums. Enjoy!

If you haven't yet read parts one and two, here they are:

This past Summer, Liz and I sat down to chat in an interview format. What follows is the last of three interview transcripts of our conversation adapted for print posting.  
When did you record your 1st album?
I believe the first album was recorded in 1976, but came out in 1977. It was with Tommy Maguire, called Kiss Me Kate.
What have been some of your favorite recording collaborations?
There has been plenty of them. I enjoyed recording with Billy McComiskey and Daithi Sproule. I loved playing with John Doyle. I have recorded with a lot of nice little combos such as String Sisters and Cherish the Ladies. There’s nothing like Joanie Madden. I love playing with her when she switches tunes and says, “Doing it again, doll.” She’s really great to be on stage with. But the favorites are endless.
How did you decide what tunes to put on your most recent album, On the Off Beat?
The Yellow Tinker is a great traditional tune. I thought, “What can I do with it?” I always wanted to do something with that tune. Then, I had written other tunes I wanted to record. But, I wasn’t sure how the world would view that. Maybe they would say, “Will she stop doing that and stick with trad?” I thought the next album might be a completely traditional thing where I just mess around with trad tunes, no newly composed tunes. I have been thinking about recording one of the legendary fiddler’s repertoire. Like Michael Coleman. What if I took it and did what I wanted to it? Adding my own variations to the tunes. Then I thought that might sound really arrogant so, I might just play my favorites of the trad tunes. That’s hard for me to choose because I like everything.

You played a track, The Wolf and The Duck, on your recent albumThe track was composed for Peter and the Wolf. How did that come about?
The Wolf and the Duck were going to be part of an Irish version of Peter and the Wolf. Recording was set for November, in Scotland but it fell through in October. I wrote tunes for all the characters. After the recording fell through, I asked the other musicians, Seamus Egan and Sean Og Graham if they would like to just record a solo album with me, because I had all these tunes and now nothing to do with them. We made some changes because Kevin Burke was going to tell the story and the characters had Irish names. I used the Liam Child’s slip jig with the other tunes I had written for Childsplay in Boston, but I kinda wanted to do them for myself, too. 
How many albums have you recorded?
With my name on them as being really involved, and not counting any compilations, I’d say eleven or twelve.
Are there any people whose albums have influenced yours?
Plenty. I am always listening. I really like Darol Anger, a consummate musician, who has done a couple of albums. One of them is called The Republic of Strings. It’s really interesting listening to this gang of fiddlers in the Americana world, such as Darol, Brittany Haas, Jeremy Kittel, and Mark O’Connor. Some of the new, really young players coming up are unbelievable. I have started listening to the early Chieftains’ albums again. They were very influential to me growing up. I did like the Joe Burke, Sean Maguire, and Bobby Gardner albums when I was a kid. Anything and everything that was coming out then. I think it’s great for musicians to constantly check what’s coming out and add what they like to their playing.

Note: Liz Carroll’s newest album, On the Off Beat, is available for purchase here:

Don’t ask me which tune is my favorite—I love them all!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Interview with Liz Carroll: Part Two

Welcome to part two of the interview series with Liz Carroll. We'll talk about Liz's tune compositions, how she comes up with her masterful melodies, and a few more tune-related topics.

If you haven't already read Part One, here's the link!

This past Summer, Liz and I sat down to chat in an interview format. What follows is the first of three interview transcripts of our conversation adapted for print posting.  

What is your tune writing process like?
Sometimes tunes come all at once. Other times, it may be only half a part-- like an A or a B part. Then I’ll beat myself up about it for a year, trying to complete it. Sometimes I just say, “I wonder what I can make up today.” Then, I sit down with the accordion or the whistle or the fiddle and usually the piano and work it out. Sometimes I have to write for a job, and I force myself to sit down and write. I might have a thought in my head and write it down. It’s nice when somebody asks me to write something because then I focus on that and it puts a little push behind me to think of something. It is really nice when I just have a little thought of a few notes. One of my favorite moments writing was a few years ago when I did a little phrase, then a few years later thought of something to go with it. It’s really worth saving everything. Sometimes the answer is on the page in front of you, or just a few pages back.

What are your top 5 favorite tunes that you’ve written?
I never think of it as having favorites. Usually my most recent tune is my favorite. I like Lost in the Loop. My husband came home from work and I said, “I have a tune!” So, I recorded both the piano and fiddle, over-dubbed the two, and presented it to my husband. He said, “I think that’s the best tune you ever wrote.” I liked that response, and think it influenced how i feel about that particular tune. It crosses boundaries so old time musicians like it. Other people like it, too, not just Irish musicians. The Road to Recovery is a favorite. That’s Right, Too and The Leading Role, also. I was channeling Johnny McGreevy for those tunes so it puts me in this nice space of remembering Johnny.

I really like the slow pieces and I didn’t used to do those. I was always writing dance tunes. I was influenced by Johnny and Phil Cunningham who did some beautiful things with Silly Wizard. I was thinking Irish music, the slow stuff would be airs so there’s no real timing. I listened to Scottish players and learned that you can write nice melodies with timing. I liked doing Isle in the Woods and The Air Tune. In almost all of them, there’s a space to slow down. In some of the fast tunes, the notes go by so fast you don’t know they were nice notes and wonder if anyone gets it. The fast tunes can be a little convoluted with twists and turns so if the accompanist doesn’t know the tune it can die in a session. I love the twisty-turny ones that go fast but other musicians don’t get it if they don’t know it. With the slow pieces, people get it.

Top 5 favorite tunes to play at the moment?
I liked learning all the Altan stuff off their new album. I had a gas doing that--all of that stuff was really good. The East Pointers are great, and I’m starting to learn all their tunes from their first album. I was learning a couple of tunes from that album the other day. I’m open to almost anything, whatever’s latest. I think it might be a sickness. We want the newest thing. We want to know everything. 

Do you have other favorite genres besides Irish?
I do. I enjoy Cape Breton and French Canadian. With Cape Breton, I can listen to a lot of it, but then when I go back to something Irish I sigh . . . it’s my comfort zone. I have a friend who is a Cape Breton piano player who does the same thing the opposite way. There is real happiness with the Irish music. I can listen to a lot of French Canadian, and like the whole fantastic 40’s-50’s Stephane Grappelli jazz swing. There are so many great players like Stuff Smith and Joe Venuto. It is great, but when I put my fingers to play in their genre, I get nowhere.  I’m jealous of Jeremy Kittel, who can do it all. I listen to rock records and whatever is coming out on the radio. I like that a lot. You listen to a new song with either a great beat or you can sing to it, and become inspired to write a tune. It might be a nice chord you hear that starts you singing a tune. I really like the Texas Swing guys such as Benny Thomasson. He had a smooth style. Mark O’Connor learned a lot listening to him.

Do you sing tunes?
Sometimes I tell the class to put the fiddles down to sing. Sometimes they seem to get it better once they get it with their voice. I do it myself when I am in the car. When I come up with a phrase for a new tune, I get my phone and record myself singing it when the fiddle isn’t handy. When I get an idea of a phrase, I try to think out of the box of Irish music and write any tune I want.

This is part two of a three part series on Liz Carroll. Stay tuned for the last installment of the trio, coming next week.


Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Interview with Liz Carroll: Part One

Liz Carroll, a phenomenal Chicago born fiddle player, grew up immersed in Irish music. Her father, an accordion player, influenced her to start playing the accordion and whistle around the age of four. She learned fiddle from a nun at school named Sister Francine, transposing tunes she already knew on the other instruments to her fiddle. She has been one of my favorite fiddlers since I first met her at The Philadelphia Ceili Group Festival, when I was about seven or eight years old, where she headlined with Dáithí Sproule. I have been taking workshops from her over the past several years at the Swannanoa Gathering near Asheville, North Carolina.

Liz Carroll and Haley Richardson
At the Philadelphia Ceili Group Festival.

Liz and I sat down to chat in an interview format recently. What follows is the first of three interview transcripts of our conversation adapted for print posting.  

Who were your mentors growing up?
My dad and mom. Neither of them were critical of anything I tried, and put up with any scratchy sounds I was making when starting out. They never took me to a meeting of the Irish Musicians Association when I played the accordion or the tin whistle, but they took me when I started the fiddle. So I don’t know if they were saying, “Oh she’s pretty good at that.” The flip side being, “Oh she’s not very good at the other ones.” But they used to take me to hear the music. On Sunday nights there was a radio show with really good musicians. Before I hardly knew who I was watching, I saw Joe Cooley and Kevin Keegan, both very famous accordion players. I also watched Johnny McGreevey play the fiddle. He really stood out for me. As for mentors there were a whole cast of characters when we went to the Irish Musicians’ meetings like Tom O’Malley, president of the Association and Tom Masterson, a Leitrim flute player. They were all really great mentors happy to have a young girl there. Hugh Gallagher was a nice fiddle player from Donegal but living in Chicago. A very clean player. There was also a nice man, Mr. Duffy, who gave me copies of old tunes out of an O’Neill’s book for me to learn. There was another old man, Mr. Shanley, who all he ever said was “Slow down.” But I liked him, too.  Mary McDonnough mostly played piano, but she also played fiddle. Eleanor Neary was another great piano player. I saw her early on, then again as a late teenager. If a mentor is someone who just really encourages you, then I had a pack of them. They were all great, especially Johnny McGreevy.

Liz Carroll, Kevin Carroll, Tom Cahill
Liz with her father, Kevin Carroll, and her grandfather, Tom Cahill.
Who were some of your favorite musicians to listen to growing up?
Besides the people I already mentioned, I listened to the music in my Irish dance class. They played a lot of Sean Maguire albums, so I got some of my own and loved the classy, unbelievable tone and verve in his playing. Sean Ryan came to Chicago on tour and I loved his playing. Beautiful. I played at the tip of my bow for a long time after that because I was influenced by his beautiful playing at the top of his bow. I think I only stopped it when I went to New York for one of the Oireachtas (annual dance championship competition) with my dance school and met Brendan Mulvihill for the first time. I played and he said, “Oh, you like Sean Ryan,” noticing the tip of my bow. I heard a recording one time of Seamus Connelly and loved it, very sweet playing. Then everybody. Liz likes everybody. Dennis Murphy and that whole Kerry vibe is nice too. So I found something I liked about everybody.
Did you play in a lot of sessions growing up?
We didn’t have sessions very often, only one Sunday a month. Once I was a teenager, I was playing and doing more traveling, especially with Irish dancing. I hopped on my bike or on the bus as soon as Jimmy Keane started playing, and would go over to his house. We would slow albums down (to learn tunes) and play together. Later on there was Marty Fahey’s sessions. Michael Flatley was early on too. We were all about the same age. There was Tommy Masterson, the son of Tom Masterson the Leitrim flute player. They understood why you were playing the music because they were dancing to it.

When and why did you start competing?
I first competed a couple of times at a Feis. There was nobody else competing, so I won and I liked it. I competed in my first Fleadh in 1966 and won. I still have the trophy. I went back to the Fleadh in the 1970‘s. My folks are from Ireland and we were going there to visit family as the Comhaltas tours were going out. There was a really great guy named Paddy Gavin who played the accordion and went to the All Ireland Fleadh. He was telling me I should go as well while I’m already over there. He told me I was very good, but I was very nervous about it. I went as a 16 year old. There was no such thing as qualifying back then. Besides, I wasn’t into competition. Once, I competed in Chicago and got second. The girl who won played Danny Boy with her sheet music on a music stand and I thought “This is not fair. I’m playing Christmas Eve Reel by memory.” (laughing). 

What age were you when you won your first All Ireland title?
When I competed at 16, I got second to Frankie Gavin. I didn’t know who Frankie Gavin was at the time, but we were right around the same age. I didn’t know what I was doing so I played really slow. People were telling me, “You are going to be nervous and you’re going to go too fast.” So I just didn’t go too fast. Sean Keane from the Chieftains gave me second. I got first the next year, then I went the year after that when I was 18 and got first in the senior division. It was pretty cool. I got kinda swaggery and full of myself--until I got back to Chicago.

What made you decide to become a professional musician?
I taught one year of school--seventh and eighth grade homeroom. The last day I closed my door thinking, “Uh, no.” Mick Moloney had gotten in touch with me and said “There’s a tour in West Africa. Can you do it? It’s in September.” I had been having the year from hell. They should have had me start in second grade. So I had a choice: “do this again” or “go to Africa for six weeks.” I chose “go to Africa.” I went there, came back, got an apartment with friends, and started teaching fiddle. 

Who made your violin and bow?
They are both new-ish in that they were made in the last 10 years. The fiddle is made by Raymond Schryer (Canadian fiddle maker). The bow is made by Ole Kanestrom. If you had asked me two years ago, I would have told you I was still playing with the bow I started with. But, a couple years ago I finally bought a new bow.

Where have you played your most memorable gigs?
Endless and probably about half of them I am going to forget right now. Speaking of Africa there was one really great, wacky night in 1982. It was really a dance thing. Native American Pueblo Indians, tap dancers, Donny and Eileen Golden doing Irish dancing, flat footers, cloggers--so a mix of things. One night in Liberia, the electricity went out. They had candles along the front of the stage. The sound is now acoustic (without any power) and the Native Americans had costumes on. The candles threw their light on the back of the curtains (shadow play with the costumes) and it was magic. This was one of the very early “this is magic” moments; “this is great to be part of a concert kind of magic” moment. It usually happens when things go wrong. John Doyle and I got to play for the President. That was nice. I liked that. It stood out. There are many great moments of being on stage with great musicians when you really lock in to the flow of playing. That is great. I have gotten to play so many times when things went right. Hopping on stage with Seamus Tansey in Sligo and playing with him was a really good moment. I could keep pointing to moments and people . . . lots of these things (Swannanoa) moments have been nice. Playing with Jerry Holland, sipping his plum brandy, whatever he was bringing. These nights of hilarity.

What’s your favorite thing about Swannanoa Gathering?
Oh, it’s perfect isn’t it? I think they really know not to overwork the staff. (laughing) Let me just say that is important. This is a happy staff. It’s a really happy staff. No one is sitting down at night and griping about anything. There is no target like, this is going wrong. We all agree and have a fun week. It’s just completely happy. For instance, if your class is at 9:00am and you are teaching that class with a free afternoon, then you stay out until 3:00am, or 4:00am, or 5:00am, then you are still happy. You know there is time for a nap in the afternoon and you can do whatever you need to do. I really appreciate that. I don’t know if the students would have wanted more time with us or not, but we are happy as a result of the way things are organized. At least for the afternoon gang you can go out in the evening and you are happy to do so. There are some camps where you teach for three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon then it’s hard to go out at night. You do anyway but you are not happy.
Playing tunes with Dylan Richardson, Alan Murray, and Liz.
Photo credit: Arlin Geyer -
Photo credit: Arlin Geyer

Selfie of Liz and me after class.

If you could play with one musician already passed or still alive who would it be and why?I think if I could have sat down with Michael Coleman, I would do it. I would like to watch him. I also really liked James Morrison’s playing. 

Do either of your children (Pat and Alison) play music?
Alison still likes to play the piano. She gravitated to playing classical music. She learned a few tunes on the whistle and took some lessons from Johnny Harvey in Chicago, who was my buddy growing up as well. 

If you could pick any instrument to learn (besides fiddle, accordion, or tin whistle) what would it be?
I think it would be really good to play the piano.

To be continued . . . stay tuned for parts two and three of this interview, where we will learn about Liz Carroll's recording and tune writing process. Visit her website at