Augusta has many great teachable moments

The craic was mighty last week in the West Virginia mountains! As I wrote back in April, this year is the 30th anniversary of the Augusta Irish/Celtic Week, the first program to celebrate traditional Irish music and heritage in the United States. As the week’s new artistic director and coordinator, I am happy to report that this year’s event went off with a bang. It was a pleasure getting to know the people and the culture of the Augusta Irish Week for the first time, and I look forward to building on its great energy, next year and beyond.

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This year we featured a crew of outstanding performers, all of whom are also known as brilliant teachers. We had Patrick Ourceau, Mick Conneely & Troy MacGillivray for fiddle; Ivan Goff & Brian Holleran for flute; Dennis Cahill on guitar; Pauline Conneely on banjo; Cillian Vallely on uilleann pipes; Máirtín de Cógáin on bodhran; Donna Long for piano; Brían Ó hAirt & Jimmy Crowley for the song classes and; the great Mick Mulkerrin (who brought along his partner Deirdre Tobin) running the set dance class.

Being an intense but intimate teaching week is Augusta’s hallmark, so it was great to see the student-teacher relationships develop first hand. Eve Corbiere, a young fiddle student who was at Augusta for the first time, had a great experience with Patrick Ourceau, calling him “such an adept teacher!” (I know Ourceau’s teaching style as being both respectful and insightful – I’ve learned a great deal over the years, so I was pleased to see Corbiere and I have a shared enthusiasm.) Sally Burnell, who has been coming to Augusta for 23 years, took Jimmy Crowley’s singing class and called it “the best.” She told me that “as a singer you’re looking for those songs that you can take home to your session – the ones that nobody’s heard before – to sing and share with people. Lots of times you hope you get just one, but with Jimmy we got a ton of them.”

This year was Liam Synan’s fourth at Augusta. A member of Brían Ó hAirt’s singing class, he remarked on the week’s “great creative energy.” Part of this, I think, had to do with the great staff chemistry – everyone was at ease with each other, so it made things very comfortable between students and teachers.

Mandolin student Dave Golub, for example found the “instructors really approachable” while flute student Irwin Weinberger told me that he’d met ”a lot of wonderful people who have reached out. It’s such a welcoming place.”

Two of the week’s great successes were the concerts on Tuesday and Thursday night. Large audiences were treated to music and dance from the staff in various configurations. De Dannan’s Mick Conneely was a particular crowd-pleaser. Ultimately, we maintained (and dare I say built upon?) the high presentational standard Augusta has long been known for. Nightly ceilis were well attended, and called by Jim Keenan, Mick Mulkerrin and the brilliant Máirtín de Cógáin (who kept the dancers in stitches all night as he shepherded people through the sets).

The one crucial change was to the lunchtime gathering. Instead of presenting an afternoon concert (as has been the recent trend), I reverted to the older Augusta convention of selecting small groups of staff members each day to participate in a moderated conversation/demonstration on a musical topic. There, students got to better know the staff and the traditions from which they came. (Troy MacGillivray, Dennis Cahill, Donna Long and Brían Ó hAirt’s contributions in their talks were especially outstanding.)

Finally, there were the tunes – singing and tune sessions were in abundance. Fiddler Abbygael Cancian told me that one of the things she liked about the week was “how wherever you walk there’s a session just around the corner.” The big Wednesday night gathering (which featured almost the entire staff) went into the wee hours. It was “the best session I’ve ever heard” said banjo student Randy Powell, who said this before he saw the big Thursday night to-do, which was every bit Wednesday’s equal. By late Thursday night (or was it Friday morning?) Powell only looked a little worse for the wear, which is more than I could say for myself!

The spirit of goodwill and camaraderie is very much alive at Augusta. This was perhaps said best by Molly Cancian, who wrote the following to de Cógáin, her storytelling teacher: "I enjoyed your class so much! I wish it was longer. I really like the stories that you tell and I am glad that I was in your class. Thank you.” (A picture of her letter made the Facebook rounds, and was perhaps the most “liked” photo from the entire week.)

So there you have it – a grand time among grand times. I can’t wait for next year!