Zoë Conway is among the star instructors at the O’Flaherty Retreat from Oct. 18 through Nov. 8. PHOTO: ZOECONWAY.COM
By Daniel Neely
I want to lead this week by honoring the memory of Peter McKiernan, who passed away after a long illness last Tuesday. Known as “Mr. Catskills” for the special connection he had to that corner of Irish America, McKiernan was a singer and guitar player whose kind-heartedness and generosity touched the lives of many in the world of traditional music and beyond. He was universally loved and will long be missed. Go raibh maith agat, Peter!
A couple of weeks back I took my son to his outdoor fiddle lesson in Woodlawn, and while I waited on him I enjoyed a socially distanced pint on Katonah Avenue with banjo player John Morrow. Morrow, who hails from County Leitrim, was the Senior All-Ireland Banjo Champion in 1994 and in addition to being a great person, he’s an incredible player and teacher. As we chatted, he told me he was teaching at this year’s O’Flaherty Irish Music Retreat (www.oflahertyretreat.org) and went into some detail about how they were adapting to the COVID-19 situation. What he told me was absolutely astonishing and deserves to be shared with the Echo’s readers.
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For those who might not know, the O’Flaherty Retreat is a teaching week much like the Catskills, Swannanoa, or Augusta, and it takes place in Texas every October. Founded by multi-instrumentalist Ken Fleming in 2004, it was named after Jim O’Flaherty, a tin whistle, flute, concertina, fiddle, and uilleann pipe player from Listowel who settled in Texas and built up the traditional music community there. He passed away in 2001.
Fleming’s memory drew folks from the Lone Star state in the Retreat’s first year and they’ve built on that initial success each year since. The guests artists they attract are always incredible and through the production efforts of the Traditional Irish Music Education Society (TIMES; irishtradmusic.org), an all-volunteer organization whose mission is “to assist and encourage people in their learning and playing of traditional Irish music through educational programs and performance events,” it continues to cultivate the ever-growing community of trad aficionados who return year after year.
Normally spanning the course of three days, this year the Retreat will take place Oct. 18-Nov. 8, 2020, and due to COVID, it will be completely online. It’s a significant change, but what I find most remarkable here is what the week has done to adjust to the pandemic’s restrictions. As I learned from Morrow, it is unlike anything else out there.
“For instructors, the whole thing has been really well thought out,” Morrow explained. “You start by pre-recording nine video lessons, each about half an hour long. My first ended up being an hour, I just kept going on. And for the students, instead of it being just the weekend, they have access to the videos for three weeks.”
The level of service they appear to be providing instructors and students alike is was what struck me most. “They sent me two packages,” Morrow told me. “One was a 40lb box that contained flight cases that contained a hi-def Sony video camera, a Macbook, two lighting kits, a microphone stand, three mics, cables, and an audio interface. The second contained a ten foot long backdrop of a brick wall with wooden floorboards that I could play in front of.”
He told me how he used all this to take part in an online recording session (alone and with other staffers, overseen by a trio of sound engineers!) for the Retreat’s final concert through an online studio app called Soundtrap (www.soundtrap.com); he explained the high level technical support he got each step of the way, and then how he passed the rig onto the next instructor, who would do the same prep as Morrow for their students. “It’s definitely different to what I’m used to, but it’s interesting and cool to play around with this stuff, and I’m glad I did it.”
Cool, indeed. Later on, I spoke with Fleming, the Retreat’s director, about their COVID response. “We had a lot of time to work through the pandemic and convert. We made the decision to go fully online on May 1, but I had an exploratory committee together even before that. [With a plan in place], we went to great lengths to purchase great equipment and ship it all over Ireland and the U.S.”
Yes, Ireland. When you look at the instructor list, you’ll notice a generous number of Ireland-based instructors. Since the week is virtual, they were not subject to the draconian visa requirements that typically hamstring festivals, and they were able to provide their overseas staffers access to the same high-level gear as over here. The online lessons will be stunning.
At the heart of all this effort, though, is the idea of community. Fleming’s acutely aware that, like other weeks, people come not just for the music, but for the relationships they forge. “We’re going to great lengths to make this more than just lessons. We want to emphasize that this is a holistic experience. There will be lots of live content and lots of live engagement. And hopefully people will feel like they’re part of something. But I tell you what, it’s a big challenge.”
At this point, the questions I imagine are most on readers minds relate to the user experience. The idea of the Retreat running three weeks instead of three days is to ensure consistent engagement. Weeknight offerings (like concerts) will be fairly focused and limited in consideration of typical work schedules. Weekends, however, are a different story: as part of the base fee, instructors will release three lessons (available on-demand ) for the week each Sunday. For students interested in a deeper engagement, a weekly zoom call with their instructor is also available for an additional (and quite reasonable) fee. (Be advised, zoom enrollment is limited and is provided on a first-come basis.) Access to video lessons will continue until until Dec. 8, a month after the Retreat’s end.
Fleming reports that all content – lessons, sessions, etc – will be distributed via Google Classroom. Your portal will tell you what’s happening and will include links for where to go. Live events, like concerts and sessions, will take place through Google Meet, and group chats will use Slack, a communication platform for business. This approach was masterminded by the Retreat’s tech-minded staff, and each event will have an individual manager. It’s clear, Fleming and company have come to this rodeo completely prepared.
All that’s needed to access the Retreat’s various offerings is a computer, tablet, or smartphone and a decent internet connection. “If you can watch YouTube videos,” the Retreat’s website reports, “then your connection is probably good enough.”
This year, the Retreat’s remarkable group of core instructors will include Joey Abarta (pipes), Eimear Arkins (fiddle), Cormac Begley (concertina), Harry Bradley (flute), Chris Buckley (fiddle), Zoë Conway (fiddle), Liz Doherty (fiddle), Colm Gannon (button accordion), Kelly Gannon (concertina), Eileen Gannon (harp), Liz Hanley (singing), Paddy League (bodhrán), Joanie Madden (whistle), L.E. McCullough (flute & whistle), Brian McGillicuddy (mandolin), Manus McGuire (fiddle), Jeff Moore (guitar), John Morrow (banjo), Jim Murray (guitar), Mirella Murray (piano accordion), Gerry O’Connor (banjo), Eoin O’Neill (bouzouki), Jackie O’Riley (sean-nós dance), Haley Richardson (fiddle), and Cara Wildman (bodhrán). Many of these people (and some special guests, like James Keane) will serve as enrichment class and “informance” instructors. In addition, there will be online sessions led by other notables, including Randal Bays, Brian Conway, Dave Curley, Colin Farrell, Rose Flanagan, Ivan Goff, Shannon & Matt Heaton, and Jimmy Keane, as well as online concerts featuring the core staff.
In spite of COVID-19 restrictions, the 2020 O’Flaherty Irish Music Retreat promises to be incredible. The instructors are top notch, Fleming & company gone above and beyond to provide an unparalleled online experience. The whole really represents excellent value for the cost. If you’re a musician – regardless of age – this is definitely something you will want to consider. (And if you’re a banjo player, check out John’s class, he’s excellent and you’ll be glad you did!) For more information and to enroll, visit www.oflahertyretreat.org.