Dancer and musician Becky Bollinger and musician Aja McCullough Beers, both of St. Paul, met while playing at the sessions at Merlins Rest – both being newbies to the session experience. Becky and Aja are using their IMDA Educational Grant to help with the cost to study song and accompaniment with Norah Rendell and Brian Miller. Their goal is to learn several traditional Irish songs and accompaniment techniques, working toward performance ready arrangements that they can perform together.
While they both have studied with the Center for Irish Music for several years and both play in ensembles there, they discovered that they shared and interest in singing – especially in harmonies. Their shared interest led to the idea of taking lessons together with the goal of performing together. Traveling together to the Catskills Irish Arts week in the summer of 2016 allowed them an Irish music immersion experience and then time together at Milwaukee Irish Fest further encouraged the idea of learning together.
Becky’s interest in Irish culture began with an introduction to Irish ceili dancing while still a college student. Becky has studied and taught Irish step dancing for several years, and dances with Knocknagow Irish Dancers and Mooncoin Ceili Dancers. Becky studies tin whistle, wire strung harp and guitar at the Center for Irish Music and plays with CIM’s Open Sky Ensemble.
Aja first became interested in Irish music while visiting Ireland. After returning home, she began attending local sessions as a listener. During a study abroad experience in Cork, she began her study of Irish music through song and whistle lessons. After college, Aja discovered the Center for Irish Music and has studied with several instructors there (bodhrán, voice, guitar and whistle), and plays with CIMs An Luan Ensemble. Two years ago, she began attending local sessions again, this time as a participant.
Both Becky and Aja are very involved as volunteers with the Center for Irish Music and Aja recently joined the staff of the Center as Events and Communications Coordinator. They plan to continue singing together after the grant project is complete, as they apply their new skills to expanding their repertoire.
The Irish Music and Dance Association is delighted to help these dedicated young musicians continue to expand their musical skills. We look forward to seeing where their varied interests will lead them.
Bagpiper Michael Breidenbach of St. Paul.
Dancer and dance teacher Beth Pitchford of St. Paul will be using her IMDA Educational Grant to help fund a six-week Irish céilí dance class for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Autism Spectrum Disorder is the name for a group of developmental disorders, including a wide range, “a spectrum,” of symptoms, skills, and levels of disability. People with ASD often have these characteristics:
Ongoing social problems that include difficulty communicating and interacting with others
Repetitive behaviors as well as limited interests or activities
Symptoms that hurt the individual’s ability to function socially, at school or work, or other areas of life
Some people are mildly impaired by their symptoms, while others are severely disabled.
Beth came to her love of Irish dance through contra dancing after finding that she enjoyed both the physical activity and opportunity to make friends and interact with others from different walks of life. Plus - she loves traditional Irish music! Beth began céilí dancing and later step dancing in her hometown of Athens, GA. Since coming to Minnesota, she has continued to study step dance with O’Shea Irish Dance and now directs North Star Irish Dance, with classes in both Eden Prairie and Northfield. North Star Irish Dance performs at IMDA’s Day of Irish Dance each year, at Irish Fair of Minnesota and at community events throughout the Twin Cities.
Beth holds a Master’s Degree in Adlerian Counseling and Psychotherapy. She serves as a mental health therapist with the Autism Society of Minnesota. This project is a joint venture between North Star Irish Dance and the Autism Society of Minnesota. Beth’s professional experience together with her love of Irish dance make her uniquely suited to create this program. Her Master’s project focused on a curriculum for developing the social life task by teaching and practicing social skills for individuals with a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder through the medium of dance, specifically Irish céilí dancing.
Beth’s class, Full Spectrum Céilí, was offered in the Fall of 2017 at the Celtic Junction. Beth hopes that the class will be a springboard past the social barriers that challenge people with Autism Spectrum Disorder and provide other benefits – joint attention, eye contact, proprioception, short term memory – all in a fun environment. The class will focus on the dance steps and patterns and will also include staff focused on social skills. The IMDA Educational grant will help to keep tuition costs low for participants with the goal of making it accessible. Beth also hopes to bring her love of Irish céilí dancing to more people and to help provide more connections to the Autism community.
The Irish Music and Dance Association is delighted to help this dedicated dancer share her love of Irish dance with the larger community. We look forward to seeing her students enjoying Irish dance – perhaps some will join us at one of those Third Saturday Céilís with the Twin Cities Céili Band!
Caroline Priore of Kenyon, MN began her musical journey studying classical violin. She fell under the spell of Irish music when she met with a fellow violin player to simply “jam.” The difficulty was that her friend played Irish music, while Caroline played classical. Fortunately, her friend’s enthusiasm and knowledge of the music was infectious and she agreed to teach Caroline a simple reel. Caroline tells us that “Although the tune she then shared with me was brief and rather underwhelming, its impact was staggering.”
Caroline continued to learn from her friend and eventually found her way to the traditional Irish music session in Northfield. Meeting and playing with flutist and singer Laura MacKenzie and fiddler Mary Vanorny encouraged and influenced Caroline’s music making. Caroline made use of a recording device and the online Irish music database to build a repertoire of tunes that would allow her to participate in sessions. She grew from knowing a single tune to leading multiple sets in a night. She continued her study of classical violin music, and found playing her instrument “as a fiddle was far more entertaining and quite absorbing.” She continued to learn lots more jigs, reels and began to commit songs and ballads to memory. Her curiosity about song lyrics led her to study Irish history and fostered her interest in visiting Ireland.
Caroline had been a somewhat reluctant player of classical music. Learning Irish music changed all that. She tells us that “Since my Irish music ‘breakthrough,’ I have played my fiddle at every sort of venue from art shows to fish fries to sing-alongs, and even began to perform as a member of a local band.” Caroline even founded a campus Irish music session at St. Olaf, where she is a student, introducing many of her peers to traditional music and encouraging them to come along to the Northfield session.
Caroline’s love affair with Ireland has continued to grow and she was longing for the opportunity to travel there. So she enrolled in St. Olaf’s study abroad program in the Fall of 2017, planning to spend a semester at the National University of Ireland at Galway, with coursework in Ireland’s history, dance and music. Caroline used her IMDA Educational Grant to help with airfare for Ireland. In addition to her coursework, she planned to learn songs and tunes at sessions in Galway and the surrounding area and hoped to take fiddle lessons at the University. And she plans “to return to the local music sessions with a new collection of tunes and a better understanding of the culture behind the music.” And to pass along her love of Ireland and the music, as it has been shared with her.
The Irish Music and Dance Association is delighted to help this dedicated young musician take the next steps in her musical journey.
Ava Sackaroff of St. Anthony Park in St. Paul loves to play Irish music. People tell her that they can tell that she loves the music - whether she’s playing tin whistle, flute or, more recently bodhrán! She tells us that “now she plays three instruments and loves them all!” She wonders “what will be next?”
Ava used her IMDA Educational Grant to help with the purchase of a keyed Irish flute. Ava studies at the Center for Irish Music, studying flute with Norah Rendell and bodhrán with Todd Menton. Norah recommended Ava for the grant, telling us that she is “an absolute joy to work with – independent, hard-working, skilled and industrious.”
Ava started her musical journey playing the tin whistle, watching her mom play and trying the instrument herself. Within a year, Ava had her eye on the flute. When she first started flute, she tells us that her hands were so small that her thumbs hurt and she struggled to stretch her fingers to cover the holes. Her playing has matured - she was ready to move up to a keyed flute and she hoped to be able to purchase a keyed flute from Eamon Cotter from County Clare, in Ireland. With a keyed flute, Ava would be able to play additional tunes – and the sound would be much richer than the sound of the rental plastic flute that she was playing. With help from her grant, Ava was able to get her flute in time for her trip to the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann in Ennis in August. (Ava had qualified to participate based on her performance at the Midwest Fleadh Cheoil.)
Ava tells us that many people have influenced her love of Irish music, including Joannie Madden, who is “a very funny, light-hearted person and a fabulous whistle and flute player.” Ava’s love of Irish music has also grown through her relationship with Norah Rendell, who’s “love of Irish music is very contagious.” And Ava says that she has been influenced by the other young musicians in the CIM Advanced Youth Ensemble who “are very enthusiastic about Irish music and they make playing together really fun.”
Ava has performed at IMDA’s St. Patrick’s Day Irish Celebration at Landmark Center as well as in youth sessions in pubs, hospitals, local cafes, at family camping gatherings up North and with her friends. And she’s shared her love of Irish music by teaching her friends to play tin whistle. She also leads a music class as a volunteer at an area day care center.
Ava hopes to travel to Ireland when she’s older – and play music. Ava would like to teach at the Center for Irish Music someday – maybe she will tour with her own group one day or start a music school of her own!
The Irish Music and Dance Association is delighted to help this dedicated young musician take the next step in her musical journey.
Mary Vanorny of Farmington has been playing Irish music for a long time. Mary’s lifelong interest in traditional music developed in to an interest in Irish music, leading to her joining a series of Irish bands (currently Brass Lassie, Two Tap Trio, Twin Cities Céili Band and Common Reel), attending concerts, playing in sessions, and traveling to Ireland. A request from one of her classical music students for some Irish tunes made her realize that she wanted to know more about Irish music, especially the subtleties of the different Irish styles.
Mary became very interested in learning Sligo-style fiddling (made famous by dancer and fiddler Michael Coleman when he emigrated to New York in the 1920s). Following the trail of one of Coleman’s students led Mary to All-Ireland champion Brian Conway, well known in the Irish music world as a leading exponent of Sligo-style fiddling and a skilled teacher. Mary began taking classes with Brian via Skype.
Mary tells us that she feels that her playing and her approach to the music took a dramatic shift while studying with Brian. She felt more confident in leading sessions and performing for dancers and took 3rd place in the Solo Fiddle Senior division at the Midwest FleadhCheoil this past year, recommended to compete in the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann(All-Ireland Fleadh.)
Mary teaches at the Center for Irish Music and a happy convergence brought Brian Conway to the Center’s Minnesota Irish Music Weekend last summer, giving Mary a chance to work with Brian with many teens in our community – and giving Mary the opportunity for several private lessons with Brian. The experience helped Mary realize that “while the Skype lessons were helpful, there are subtleties in learning Irish music that can only be conveyed by sitting next to the person and playing together.” (Skype only allows one direction at a time.)
Mary wanted an immersive experience. Fortunately, Brian Conway teaches at a traditional music camp each year in Portal, AZ. Portal Irish Music Week would give Mary and the other students expert mentoring on technique, style and musical expression and “the chance to play as much music as your fingers can stand.” This was just the kind of experience that Mary was seeking. Mary’s IMDA Educational Grant helped with the tuition for the program, which she attended in October of 2017.
Brian’s letter of recommendation for Mary commented “I am truly impressed with the progress Mary has made as a student.” He went on to recognize “the pivotal role Mary plays in the promotion of Irish fiddle music in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.” IMDA also notes that Mary played an important role in recommending Caroline Priore for an IMDA Educational Grant this year.
The Irish Music and Dance Association is delighted to help this dedicated musician and teacher continue to expand her musical skills.
Annie Wier of Inver Grove Heights has been studying Irish dance since she was five. (She received her IMDA Decade of Dance Award in 2017.) Actually, she began her study before that – by watching her older sister’s dance class from the hallway and practicing at home. Most recently, Annie has been studying with the Mulhern School of Irish Dance. Annie is devoted to her study of Irish dance – estimating that she’s devoted about seven thousand hours in classes, private classes and workshops. At age 11, Annie put together her own personal dance practice area – using old boards from previous shows, mirrors cadged from Craig’s List and a ballet barre made of old pipes. (Her dad was her partner for that project.)
The thrill of Irish dance is very much alive in this young dancer. She tells us that “every time I lace up my shoes, it feels as blissful and new as the first time. The joy I get from dancing … can be matched by no other feeling in this world.” Annie’s dance teacher speaks very warmly about Annie: “Annie is a brilliant example of everything Irish dance and culture represents. Her motivation and discipline drive her personal success, but her affinity for tradition and service has led her to spread her love for Irish dance to all around her.”
Annie was delighted when she first heard about the World Championships and set her sights on participating. Her hard work and discipline have helped her reach that goal – she competed in the World Championships in Dublin, Ireland in the Fall of 2017.
While she enjoys competing, Annie also enjoys performing at the many community events that welcome Irish dancers – nursing homes, schools, hospitals and community centers. She especially enjoys the nursing home audiences – who love to clap along and smile during the performances – and visiting with the audiences after the shows. Annie contributes to the community as a volunteer for Irish dance events, including managing the beginner stages at competitions.
Like many young dancers, Annie was “blown away” when she first saw Riverdance: The Show and she “knew right away that she wanted to be on stage with them one day.” Annie was accepted into the Riverdance Academy in Boston this past Summer. The school is led by Riverdance professionals; it teaches the iconic choreography, along with the training and nutritional guidance for professional dancers. Her IMDA Educational Grant helped with the travel and tuition costs for the program. Annie’s mom tells us that Annie said “it was one of the best weeks of her life!” The program included the opportunity to meet Ciara Sexton, a dancer who has inspired Annie for many years.
The Irish Music and Dance Association is delighted to help this dedicated young dancer continue to pursue her dreams.
The Irish Music and Dance Association is a 501(c)(3) organization.