When young people ask me what’s the best course of study for an aspiring writer, I tell them two things.
First: “Live a life.” By this, I mean that stories come from our experiences, and to write those stories, we need to know what it means to be human. What it’s like to fall in love, fall out of love, have a child, hold down a job, lose a loved one.
Second: “Cultivate your interests.” Because you never know where those interests will lead you. My fascination with Egyptology led to my book The Keepsake. My interest in the space program led me to write Gravity. Every time you immerse yourself in another world or another hobby, you are feeding that well of future plot ideas.
But sometimes, a hobby is just something you do because you love it.
When I moved to Maine over two decades ago, I heard traditional Irish music for the first time. Maine has a strong tradition of Celtic fiddling, and every weekend, you’ll find a jam session going on somewhere, in some pub. As a child, I’d been taught a bit of classical violin, but I didn’t really enjoy it. Suddenly I heard this lively, addicting music and I pulled out my violin for the first time in twenty years. I was pretty rusty, but I just had to learn this music. I’ve been playing ever since. I’m only a rank amateur, but I know enough tunes to get by in a jam session. What eluded me, though, was the Irish style. I’d listen to recordings of my favorite fiddler, Kevin Burke, and I couldn’t figure out how he made a tune so special. There was a lilt to his playing, a sweetness and delicacy. What was I doing wrong?
Ten years ago, I went to see Kevin in concert. It was a small auditorium in Rockland, and he walked onstage with his violin case and sat down. Opened the case, took out his violin. Told a few stories, and began to play. That was the performance, just Kevin, a chair, and his violin. I took my mother with me, someone who was usually a very harsh critic. No matter who the artist might be, she’d always complain about something. But after two hours of listening to Kevin Burke, she’d fallen in love and all she could talk about was “that sweet man on the violin.”
Earlier this year, I heard about a week-long program sponsored by the Acadia School of Traditional Music and Arts. It’s only two hours from where I live, and — wow — one of the teachers was Kevin Burke! Within ten minutes of that email hitting my in-box, I signed up.
What a week it was! I rubbed shoulders with some of the greats in traditional music: fiddler Pat O’Connor, piper Cillian Vallely, guitarist/composer Cal Scott, Old Time fiddler Bruce Molsky, and — yes — Kevin Burke. Classes were small enough so that sometimes it would be just two of us students with Kevin for an hour. He has a splendid gift of gab, and every lesson would involve a story or two. I found out I’ve been bowing wrong all these years, that a background in classical violin is sometimes a hindrance to playing the lilting, delicate Irish style.
The music went on from dawn to late into the night. Classes were taught completely by ear, without any sheet music. It really forces you to listen to the tune. Luckily, most of us had audio record features on our cell phones, so we can go home and listen again.
And of course, there were lunches together:
… followed by jam sessions into the night. Total immersion.
One of the highlights was playing onstage in a student concert alongside Kevin and Cillian. For Irish music fans, it’s a bit like getting a chance to play alongside the Beatles!
So if you have an interest in learning Irish, Old-Time, or French-Canadian traditional music, this is the place to be next year.
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