Interview: Siobhan Buckley (Tutor & Director of Harp)

Interview to Siobhan Buckley on 8 July 2020.
Siobhan is the tutor of harp and the director of three harp ensembles and a harp orchestra at Music Generation Laois.

➖ Could you tell us how you got into playing a harp, your career as a professional harper so far and what brought you to work at Music generation Laois?

I began learning the harp in my local secondary school in Kanturk, Co.Cork. In an effort to try and increase the number of harpists in the school, the harp teacher, Damhnait Nic Suibhne asked me to take up harp lessons and I never looked back since. Similar to the harp programme in Music Generation Laois, I received my lesson each week during the school day while also having to practice in school as I did not have my own harp at home for the first year of my harping career. When I decided to study music in University I was extremely lucky to have the opportunity to attend lessons with the renowned  harpists Anne-Marie O’Farrell and then Claire O’Donnell. Claire was the original harp tutor with Music Generation Laois but when she left to take up a different position elsewhere she asked if I would take over her lessons in Music Generation Laois and I’ve been there ever since. Being a tutor with Music Generation Laois has provided me with many musical opportunities that I will forever be grateful for.

➖ What is your position and role at Music Generation Laois?

I am the harp tutor with Music Generation Laois, teaching over 110 harp students each week, in the local primary schools and the Laois Music Centre in Portlaoise. I am also the director of three harp ensembles and a harp orchestra. One of the harp ensembles are excitedly waiting for a trip to Japan where they will get the opportunity to experience a different style of playing. Each year from August to November, we run a large scale project for the Harp Orchestra which allows the students to come together and play as part of a large group. Along with directing the harp programme, I also direct the Music Generation Laois Trad Orchestra.

➖ You spoke on the movie of the Irish Times as the following. “Students sometimes come to lessons to meet their friends and the lessons are very friendly. If they’re enjoying what they do is obviously they’re learning music as well.” How do you devise daily lessons for students to learn playing harps in a fun way and to improve their skills?

Due to the high number of students receiving harp lessons on a weekly basis, the classes are delivered in groups of three, resulting in most of the learning being done by ear. At the end of each lesson, I record the material covered in the lesson, while also providing them with the sheet music to aid their practice and learning at home. I don’t have a particular way or method of teaching, as I tailor each lesson delivery to suit the students who are sitting across from me. For me, ensuring that the students are enjoying their lesson is equally as important as learning the tune. If the students have an enjoyable experience at their lessons, they will be more inclined to practice and progress at a faster rate. Creativity plays a huge role in my harp lessons as it gives students the freedom to create their own arrangements of tunes which I find engages them in the lesson. This also applies in ensemble rehearsals, as I would teach them the melody of the tune before giving them the opportunity to pitch their own arrangement and harmony ideas. This gives the students a great sense of ownership in the music that they play while also allowing them to develop their own style of playing both as part of a group, and in their solo performances.

➖ The Music Development Officer, Rosa said in the last interview, “Creating new music with many notable musicians from around the world is a very important for young musicians”.  Please tell us endeavors between notable musicians and young musicians so far.

Both the students and tutors in Music Generation Laois are extremely fortunate to have Rosa as the Development Officer as she understands and appreciates the benefits of creating new music. The harp ensemble have had the privilege of working with a number of different professional harpers since the set up of the ensemble in September of 2015. Our first collaboration was with the Scottish Harpist, Catriona McKay in 2016, when the suite ‘Rising Of The Harps’ was written in collaboration with the young musicians. A year later, the ensemble was given an amazing opportunity to work with Irish harper and composer, Michael Rooney, to create another suite of music entitled ‘The Spirit Of Laois’. Most recently the US based, Scottish harper Maeve Gilchrist worked with the young musicians to create ‘White Horses’ in 2019. The process of creating all three of these suites of music was special for the students as these compositions were done in collaboration with the young harpers. The music that was written, included ideas and opinions from the young musicians which further engaged them with the music. For the first couple of rehearsals in each project, the composer comes to Laois and would have a discussion with the young harpers about the project, get their ideas and opinions on it and then compose the music based on what was discussed at these sessions.

➖ "The Spirit of Laois Suite” composed by the composer and harper Michael Rooney is also one of collaborations between the notable musician and young musicians, isn’t it? Could you tell us the episodes of the project of "The Spirit of Laois Suite”?

The Spirit of Laois Suite was composed by Michael Rooney in collaboration with the young harpers in County Laois. Michael came to Laois and had a discussion with the young musicians about some of the historic events that took place in Laois and the various landmarks in the county. The young musicians also gave him an insight into their favourite places to visit and why they are proud to be from County Laois. Michael then went away with all this information and that was the inspiration for the suite of music he composed. The fourth piece in the suite is called ‘An Cruitire’ – the Irish translation for the harper, which was written for me. It is a fantastic piece of music and a huge honour and for this, I am extremely grateful to Michael.

➖ Could you share the most memorable story with photo or movie at Music Generation Laois?

There are so many great memories that it is hard to pick just one! I suppose it would have to be the New Works Series in 2016 and the project we did with Catriona McKay. Catriona composed ‘Rising of the Harps’ in collaboration with the ensemble and it was a fantastic experience, and the start of a great friendship with Catriona. This musical journey has led to so many amazing experiences and performances since with Catriona and Chris Stout.

(The video below is a performance of ‘Rising of the Harps’ but not the premier.)

➖ The Music Development Officer, Rosa said in the last interview, “Music tutors, our young musicians, their families and the schools where we work have been really adaptable. We have continued our music programmes during the recent pandemic and lockdown.” You have kept lessons on zoom. Please tell us the details about it.

Since the beginning of lockdown on March 13th we were encouraged to continue our weekly lessons online. Each tutor chose a different method to deliver their lessons to suit their classes and style of teaching – be it a live class online or a prerecorded video. I chose to offer the harp lessons live through Zoom and 64 of the harp students opted in for the online lessons. Each young musician received an individual 15 minute lesson each week as opposed to the normal 30 minute group lesson. In each lesson I would teach each student the tune by ear as we would normally do. I think the fact that they learn by ear was a massive advantage as neither of us were looking at sheet music, meaning that we could both totally focus on what was happening. When the lesson was over I would send them a recording of myself playing the tune while also sending the sheet music to them by email so then they were able to access them when they were practicing.There was issues with poor internet connection in some cases but this didn’t impact their learning too much. Overall it was a fantastic experience for everyone and the practice levels the young musicians were extremely high.

➖ I hear that the Music Generation Laois has made a lot of epic virtual music videos as you have taken the initiatives under the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown. Could you tell us the details of the virtual music video projects?

As a musician, one of the many impacts of the lockdown was not being able to play music with other musicians. I was at home in Co. Cork for lockdown while our Tour of Japan had been postponed, as well as our collaboration with a Harp Ensemble from Brittany, France for the PanCeltic Festival had been cancelled. The Music Generation Laois annual Music at the Malt House Festival had also been cancelled so I decided we needed to come up with a way of playing music together but virtually from the safety of our homes. The first in what ended up being a series of virtual videos, included six of the young musicians who were supposed to be travelling to Japan to mark St. Patricks day. We then joined forces with the Music Generation Mayo harp ensemble (directed by Grainne Hambly & William Jackson) and the Music Generation Louth harp ensemble (directed by Deirdre Ni Bhuachalla) to create a virtual video with 52 harpers which we dedicated to all the front line workers around the world. We were delighted that Michael Rooney and June McCormack agreed to collaborate with our harp ensemble for a virtual video of Planxty Gandon from the Spirit of Laois Suite to mark what should have been our last concert as part of the tour of Japan. I think the most exciting virtual video was the Trad Orchestra video featuring many of our Friends from around the world. The tune was a composition of one of the Music Generation Laois tutors, Tommy Fitzharris and featured 60 musicians, including members of our Trad groups as well as over 20 professional musicians from around the world, including Raul Monge from Mexico, Catriona McKay & Chris Stout from Scotland, Nelson Echandia from Venezuela, Zoe Conway, John McIntyre, Ryan Molloy, and Michael Rooney to name a few from Ireland. We were absolutely delighted that Riko Matsuoka and Dai  Komatsu from Japan were able to join us for this collaboration and we look forward to performing with them in person during our rescheduled tour of Japan next year. The most recent video was one I put together to mark the end of the academic year featuring 64 of the harp students who received lessons online. The videos did take a bit of time to edit together but I think they were a great way of bringing everyone together and some of them have been viewed over 25,000 times.

➖ The Music Development Officer, Rosa said that the Music Generation Laois Trad Orchestra are now creating new music collaborating with accordionist and composer Martin Tourish. About 50 young musicians among 70 orchestra members in total have joined during the pandemic and lockdown and they met other members only online. The new project is very challenging. Please tell us the details of the project.

I’m really excited about this new project ‘The Impossible Dream’  with Martin Tourish. Due to the fact that this project has been switched to online we have been able to open it up to young musicians across the country and we had huge interest in it which was fantastic. The aim of this project is to compose a new suite of music in collaboration with Martin Tourish that will tell the story of Colonel James Fitzmaurice who was originally from Portlaoise, and was the first person to successfully fly East – West across the Atlantic Ocean. Each week we rehearse on Zoom for two hours. Currently, we are at the key word and ideas stage where Martin has a powerpoint prepared on the various aspects of Fitzmaurice’s life which he shows and explains to the young musicians. We then use the breakout function on Zoom where we divide them into smaller groups and they can discuss what they have just seen and come up with ideas and key words on how they think the music should be shaped to portray the story they have just seen. As well as this, Martin has also been teaching them some Gypsy Jazz, just so they can virtually experience the music Fitzmaurice would have been listening to so they get a better understanding of it. My role is to facilitate the discussion in the breakout rooms and once the music is composed I will be helping the musicians to learn it. They young musicians are really enjoying the experience as they are experiencing this type of ensemble learning for the first time and were really excited to see how it all will come together and perform it, be it in person or virtually depending on Government restrictions at the time.

➖ You sometimes go abroad with young musicians, such as New York, Spain, Monaco, Edinburgh and so on. Could you tell us details of overseas performances so far? I think that overseas performances are different from daily projects in Laois and Ireland in terms of aim and contents. How do you think about it?

I am incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to travel abroad with many groups for various performances. These are fantastic opportunities for the young musicians as it gives them something to aim for and prepare towards. It also teaches them performance etiquette and gives them an insight into what it’s like being a professional musician. While having some notable performances here in Ireland such as at the US Ambassador to Ireland’s Residence, Trinity College Dublin and Powerscourt Hotel, members of the Trad Orchestra have performed in New York (2016) and Monaco (2018) for the Ireland Funds Gala Dinner and in Spain at the Creative Connexions Festival in 2017 & 2019. Guests at these events have included Prince Albert of Monaco, Adam Clayton (U2), Michael Flatley (Riverdance), John Fitzpatrick (Fitzpatrick Hotel Group New York), Justin Trudeau (Canadian Prime minister) and Joe Biden (Former US Vice President). Members of the harp ensemble have traveled to the Edinburgh International Harp Festival on three occasions – 2017, 2018 & 2019 with the highlight being asked to play support to Catriona McKay & Chris Stout in 2018. In 2020, the harp ensemble were supposed to travel to Japan and perform at the World Harp Congress in Cardiff, both now have been rescheduled for 2021 and are very much looking forward to them.

➖ Would you mind sharing your expectation to Japan tour and message to Japanese audience?

I am really excited to be performing with the Music Generation Laois Harp Ensemble, Michael Rooney and June McCormack in Japan. It’s an honour to perform our music for you and I’m really looking forward to performing and collaborating with our Japanese friends as well as experiencing the Japanese culture. I hope you enjoy our music.

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