Playin' An Irish Tune: Family and Community at Blue Ridge Irish Music School

M. Maggiore

It's a busy Wedsnesday. A bodhran lesson with Pat, a fiddle lesson with Tes, then on to Rockfish Valley Community Center in Nelson. The center is a flurry of activity this wet spring evening. There's a board meeting going on, a teen theatre group meeting down the hall, and a double session of Irish stepdance with LIVE fiddle music convening in a classroom right near the main entrance. My three children are here for the stepdance class, of course. These dance classes have been a staple in our family life for a while now, and Tes regulates the tempo of her fiddling to match the children's feet as they practice. It's another fun-filled night at the Blue Ridge Irish Music School (BRIMS).

The Blue Ridge Irish Music School is not a place, but a group of performers, teachers and students (sometimes all of the above) who play and dance in many locations in and around Charlottesville. Co-founders Tes Slominski and Sara Read met in 1996, eventually forming part of the popular local group, Roaring Mary. The idea to form the school came about in 1999, since there was a growing local community of great musicians. Originally called the Central Virginia School of Irish Traditional Music and the Arts (CVSITMA), BRIMS isn't your typical music school. As Tes noted, "It was an outgrowth of the idea that the students learning the technical aspects of playing Irish traditional music should have the opportunity to participate in music as part of a community...that the interactions around actual music-making are as important as the sounds produced."

In 1999, Tes and Sara took a group of students to Ireland. The group raised the money for the trip by appearing at schools, libraries, and even by 'busking'. Upon their return, they achieved 501C3 non-profit designation, and BRIMS has grown ever since. Today, there are classes regularly available in fiddle, stepdance, pennywhistle, bodhran , flute, and an Irish Music Appreciation class to be added this spring. In addition, BRIMS puts on ceilis (pronounced "kay-lee") the first Sunday of every month at 7 pm at the Greenwood Community Center in Crozet. The ceilis feature live music, a dance caller, helpful instruction, and social dancing. They are geared toward all ages and skill levels, and are a great introduction to BRIMS.

Our family's first encounter with the school's musical merriment was with the traditional Ensemble Group, at Greenwood Community Center in Crozet. It was springtime, in the green, green mountains, and our local homeschooling group had assembled to see them perform. What our group had requested was essentially a demonstration of what the school had to offer, which ended up being a lot. So many gifted young people playing fiddles, harps, pennywhistle, flute, bodhran (the Irish frame drum), as well as singing and dancing! And while there was no doubt a ton of talent there, the group seemed to be more about having fun than about being "performers".

My kids and their friends who had come to watch were thoroughly mesmerized. After watching siblings Cody, Becca and Phoebe Shaw and Meg and Marina Madden dance, the younger children were clearly impressed, trying to imitate their moves. Some of the older children moved to the front to touch the musicians' instruments and ask questions. After that day, my girls were begging to join the next possible stepdance class for kids, and then one of their grandmothers fanned the flames by giving them her copy of "Riverdance".

After what probably seemed an eternity to my childrens' anxious feet, classes began again in September, and there we were, spending many Wednesday nights in the Community Center. From time to time, I have joined in, practicing my "spring-two-threes" after being egged on by my better-coordinated offspring.

BRIMS teacher/publicist/parent Lori Madden relates that Charlottesville's "Appalachian setting is perfect" (for teaching Irish traditions). In addition to this area's not-so-distant Irish influences, she says, "There was a lot of relatively recent arrivals playing great Irish music, unusual for a non-urban area like Charlottesville". But Lori's daughter Meg Madden first interested her in stepdance, which Meg began practicing at age 11. As Meg progressed further with dancing, she realized she wanted to play fiddle, too. "I had a good head for the music because of the dancing," she says. A past member of the traditional Ensemble, Meg has taught stepdance and is currently interested in Cape Breton style stepdancing (from Nova Scotia, Canada), and leads classes in Charlottesville.

Meg's interest in picking up the fiddle to go with the footwork is a reflection of the musical progression for several students. My oldest daughter Ajah has recently had her interest in fiddling piqued as well, mainly due to her dance experience. The funny thing to me is that I know my children have taken music classes before, as well as ballet, creative dance and even rhythmic gymnastics. But for them, the interest never stuck, and there was a notable lack of passion for the classes that every parent sometimes recognizes, usually only after they've shelled out good money for it. Not so for us with BRIMS!

I think this is due to the nature of the lessons, which are based on Irish music traditions. In Ireland, dancing and playing music are integral to community life. Farmers, attorneys, housewives....most if not all Irish people interact within the context of music, as a level and social "playing field". Part of the reason for this far-reaching social pastime might be the way it is conferred from one person to another: the tunes are passed down orally. In other words, they play "by ear", as opposed to the more rigid classical teaching method of reading music. In this way, the teaching is direct, and players learn what sounds right, so they can play with others or by themselves sooner. BRIMS teachers instruct in the traditional method too. This is an important distinction, and a refreshing change for those bored with scales and such, although those methods can always be learned as one's interest in the music progresses. Since almost everyone is involved with music in one way or another, just as in Ireland, the music has not become just another spectator event. It is a community.

Get Involved! If you enjoy great music, you are in the right place. Having this school here in the Piedmont of Virginia means internationally known acts regularly visit. In addition, top-notch performers are coming out of our region as well. Locals Cleek Schrey, Miriam Vidaver have both competed in the prestigious All-Ireland Fleadh Cheoil (a flute competition), and gone on to pursue music in college. Aran Olwell, and Tes Slominski also placed in the All-Ireland competitions. Additionally, the BRIMS Traditional Ensemble regularly entertains at schools and festivals both near and far, helping to establish our area as a force in the Irish music scene.

While the Blue Ridge Irish Music School does receive most of its publicity for its children-oriented programs, they want you to know: "it's not just for kids!" Tes underscores this by emphasizing, "It's a lifestyle...BRIMS members have a variety of ways of engaging with the music, from casual listener to the dedicated student. While Irish music is definitely a lifestyle for co-founders Tes and Sara (they regularly switch and share leadership responsibilities related to BRIMS, such as leading the Traditional Ensemble and grant writing), it is truly a passion for every BRIMS member I have met. "I enjoy and really believe in BRIMS, so I like talking about it," says Lori Madden, whose other two children Patrick and Marina Madden teach and play bodhran and perform in the Traditional Ensemble, respectively.

It's on this point that BRIMS continually achieves their stated objective: "to teach that music is part of the fabric of everyday life, family and community." By offering opportunities to people of virtually all ages and all levels of expertise to share their love of Irish music, the school has helped build a community, musical and otherwise.

So, I think of all this as I'm driving home, mostly on the old Irish Road, ironically enough. I think the appeal for our family is the music, the methods, and people... the threads that have woven our family into the fabric that is BRIMS. And that fabric is not quite plaid, perhaps more tweed, and definitely joyful. I make a mental note to try to make it to the next ceili, and maybe try stepdance again, now that spring is here. To quote Sara Read, "It's something that everybody can do, and it's a great thing for families to do together....so look for BRIMS events in the near future as they get ready for their next trip to Ireland!"

You can find out more about BRIMS events and classes or buy copies of their fabulous CD "The Viginia Reel" by logging onto www.brimstunes.org

Michelle Maggiore is a freelance writer who particularly enjoys permaculture and homeschooling and has been getting an Irish music education lately in Scottsville, VA!

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