Grassroots musicians give us all hope


Paddy Callaghan

MANY industries and sectors have been absolutely decimated as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and, in general, many consider the arts to be one sector that has suffered more than most. For the professional arts industry this is true, with many artists going from touring virtually full-time, to having a completely empty working schedule and many seeking employment in other areas—something that is not readily available at the present time. The grassroots cultural arts sector has, however, found a way to adapt to the current climate and has certainly made the very most of the current situation.

Back in March when Scotland entered in to the first lockdown, virtually all activities from teaching music, to concerts and other gatherings were immediately shelved for what at the time was considered to be a ‘short, sharp, break.’ However, as time progressed, the realisation that this was going to be a longer-term issue meant that alternative arrangements would have to be made.

Teaching music and song online via Skype or Zoom or various other platforms is a concept that has been around for quite a while, though in truth I’d be able to count in one hand the number of musicians I knew who had offered online teaching prior to 2020. ‘It doesn’t work due to a time delay’ and ‘it’s really difficult to put across your teaching via a computer’ were lines I often heard in the discussions with those who dismissed the concept.

Are these opinions correct though? Having been teaching online for the past nine months, I’m not entirely sure they are.

In June 2020, the Irish Minstrels branch of Comhaltas decided to take the bold step of commencing an online teaching trial where they grouped younger musicians into three ability groups—beginner, intermediate and advanced—and using various tutors on rotation continued for a number of weeks until the traditional summer holiday break. Having learned through experience of what works and what does not, the branch were ready to start teaching online (above) for the year from September and from the first week they haven’t looked back, with multiple classes available for each instrument.

Two more branches of CCE in Scotland; St James the Great and St Patrick’s quickly followed suit and we are now in the position where activities within the Comhaltas organisation are almost running at what capacity was prior to Covid-19.

Even greater still, the Friday afternoon class which operated by St Roch’s Ceili band founder Frank McArdle has found its way online, and due to Covid-19 there are now even online tin whistle classes specifically for those in their twilight years, opening up opportunities to new audiences.

In January each year the Irish Minstrels host their famous ‘Winter School’ series of workshops and a concert and once again this will take place virtually given the restrictions in place. A whole host of talented musicians are ready to teach one-hour classes online and have recorded performances for the concert, not to mention the branch’s own pupils who are taking part in virtual collaborative performances.

This step-change in approach to moving virtually all activity online hasn’t happened by accident or indeed overnight, it has occurred due to a raft of volunteers lending their time and experience and working together to make sure that, in particular, the children involved have something to occupy them at such a difficult time and to keep the sense of normality in their lives.

Is online teaching a good substitute for in person learning? I have to say I don’t know any teacher who says it’s perfect, there are certainly advantages in being face- to-face with a student as it is much easier to accurately assess their progress in person than via a conferencing platform, but I guess when it’s considered against the alternative of no tuition, it is a no brainer. Music is a social activity and there is no greater joy in sharing it with others, doing so via computer screens isn’t a natural way to do so, but it beats not sharing it at all.

The one glimmer of hope for many professional musicians in the current climate is that they have managed to get by solely due to teaching online as it has been their only outlet to monetise their skills. In turn, this has led to many pupils having access to teachers who are often otherwise too busy to pass on their skills.

With vaccines being rolled out against the backdrop of further restrictions, the end of the pandemic is in sight, whilst still feeling very far away. When the time comes, there will be hundreds of young, enthusiastic musicians desperate to showcase the new tunes, technique and appreciation they have of their music and share it with others once again. n

Paddy Callaghan is the Scottish Region Development Officer for Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann