Musicians without borders, training of the trainers, The Netherlands, 2016

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Still in the depths of breastfeeding my youngest child, Frankie, and full of inspiration post- CMA 2016 I applied to attend training of the trainers with MWBs 2 hours outside Amsterdam. My application was accepted, I had actually convinced myself it wouldn’t be! Haven given up all of my work, due to the said child not ever sleeping,  I could not afford the fees, around 1,200 euros but in all honesty, could not afford not to. For my sanity! My partner and I discussed taking a loan and just doing it, and so irrespective of whether the Arts Council supported the training or not, I was going. As it transpired the Arts Council liked my application, and it was on.

My aim was two-fold; to acquire a specific skill set to work with new communities arriving in Ireland who have experienced trauma through war, and from a personal point of view as a mother of 3 children under 4, to use this opportunity presented to springboard away from work that I was no longer passionate about. Since completing the training with ‘musicians without borders’, I have started a new project in Sixmilbridge, Co.Clare with 3 Syrian families. Every Saturday morning, we meet at the local GAA club and immerse ourselves in music making. Ages ranging from 1-13, family members are free to join the session or simply take time to enjoy headspace, and unwind. Supported by Clare Immigration Support Group and Music geration Clare.

The training has also reinforced my pedagogical and philosophical approaches. I have a new found bravery and confidence which I had left behind with a younger version of myself. There were times when I dismissed myself as an artist, but with the success of this application I am writing music, for myself, for the first time since becoming a mother 4.5 years ago. This will all benefit the people I work with, as well as myself.Overall, I am more confident, and braver and this will benefit not only my on musicianship, but also all the people and communities I encounter through my weekly projects.

The time spent with musicians from all over the world hungry to learn and play was timely for me. Worth all that pumping of milk, especially having to dump it all! A pain only women who have milked themselves 4 times a day for 10 days , only to dump it will understand! I look forward to reconnecting with fellow Musicians without Borders this summer on a family camping trip.



Categories: Community Music

The Willow Wood

Since 2011 I have giving early years music workshops in preschools throughout Clare and Limerick. It is joyful work, and I have learnt much during my time working with young children and experts in early childhood education. When I began in the area every minute was accounted for, I knew exactly what the sessions would look like and feel like. Full of songs, movement, perscussive instruments and fun, for sure. But, even though everyone was having a ‘nice’ time, that time was not creatively lead by the children in the room, this being a cornerstone of my engagement with any other group that I worked with. So why do things differently for the under 5s? For my own safety and control, in many ways, and this did not sit well with me. Where was my passion for Safety with Safety gone? In an attempt to let go of that safety I set about reading and chatting to others working the area, coming up with strands of working and engaging with young children. The ultimate goal being , that the facilitator creates rich and well informed parameters  for the children to place their expressive selves in, and once I let go and trusted the children in the room things changed , for the better. Sessions are now full of possibilities, listening to silences and breath is liberating, and in doing so the children take the lead finding a creative and critical voice.

Being excited about this ‘new’ way of engagement, at least for me, I organised a 3-day CPD with Music Generation Clare. This exciting opportunity focused on music for the under 5s offering both practical pedadgogical approaches as well as some philosophical underpinnings, allowing each tutor to identify their musical selves in the process. Indeed it was hoped that this ‘shot in the arm’ of learning would inform attendees practice not only for EY‘s but elsewhere too.Said tutors included myself, Fiona Kelleher and Paula Phelan, all of us bring  different approaches and massive combined experiences, but at the heart of all of our practices being a strong desire to listen to young creatives in a gentle and supporting way.

For me, Fiona Kelleher shifted my perspective even further than before. Chats over tea about how to approach creating a new piece for young audiences were enthralling and I revisited an interactive piece I had been working on, but had become stuck. My good friend Tembre, and I spend a few hours chatting and developing music for the piece and eventually 4 months later emerged, ‘The Willow Wood’ performed by Emer O’Flaherty and I for the end of year EY minimaster MGC programming, in Glor. A pleasure to work with the gifted and ever supporting, Emer. I look forward to pushing my boundaries in every area of my work.

Never too late to learn more….


Passing through the willow tunnel, many thanks to Rhonwen Hayes for the photo 

Categories: Community Music

CMA, Edinburgh 2016

‘Couch Session’

Explainer – The notion of a ‘couch session’ is to discuss in an open and informal manner the chosen topic. Although it is hoped that a casual and organic conversation can emerge, the panel do intend on outlining the topic for discussion, and explaining the collective journey to the ‘couch’.

Remember When?

Karen Smyth, Yolande Carter and Julie Tiernan are community musicians whose working lives have changed drastically, indeed has hurtled them down an unintended path, since becoming mothers. Three careers that span over thirty years on the island of Ireland, conversations surrounding the on-going barriers and obstacles faced by mothering community musicians are at play and the commission is invited to join the discussion.

‘The Road Not Taken’, by Robert Frost is a poem that in many ways poetically expresses the challenges but ultimate joy of working in fields such as community music, Frost describes being faced with 2 roads, one less travelled and the other with a paved way. The way of the community musician strikes us as one less trodden upon, if indeed the intent of said community musician is true, and this has become ever the more apparent upon becoming a mother and attempting to return to the field and remaining on that road.  The days of driving 3 hours for a 2 hour workshop or weekly project can no more be justified, time is too precious and bills all of a sudden have to be paid regularly.

Julie Tiernan keeps an irregular blog about her work as a community musician; it was an entry entitled ‘Remember when?’ that sparked conversations about the chosen topic between her and Karen Smyth who had not connected beyond a ‘happy birthday’ on Facebook, in many years. What followed was a copious amount of emails between the two, with a curious sense of empathetic excitement, and a promise to meet and discuss said challenges, ‘soon’.  Twelve months on, Karen, Julie and Yolande have stayed true to their promise, reconnecting in the Moy, Co.Tyrone. Children banished with fathers, discussions alight. The empathy is thrilling, but of course is more than just relating to the challenges of being mothering community musicians, we hold close to our hearts the same underpinning ethical practice in all we do. Remember when? We certainly do.



University of Limerick graduates and presenters

As it turned out, Yolande and Karen could not make the conference due to family commitments, so I hooked up with two brilliant women, Brydie – Leigh Bartleet and Alicia Banffy and we sat on the couch and held a discussion about the unintended pathways of the mothering community musician. I gave a short presentation to a packed room comprising of men and women, mostly women who listened intently and bit by bit shared their own stories. We heard from mothers at different points in the their careers, all listening, responding and supporting one another. It was an emotional and important session, where women spoke about the challenges of motherhood, academia and community music. It was a safe space to share stories and feelings to listening, non-judgmental ears. Going in, I felt that my identity as a community musician had been rattled, never to return, but I left full of hope for future possibilities. It all comes around, and it all comes back…Oh, and overall, what an incredible commission!

Categories: Community Music

New Beginnings, Hard Farewells…

Where to start? For 15 years my work has been rooted on the heart of the community arts and music education scene in Limerick City, a city that as a Clare woman I am proud to call my own. From my days at Spotlight Stage School, getting the bus into town and hanging out with my buddies before class, my secondary and 3rd level education and subsequently carving out a career for myself in Community Music, and in many ways leading the way in the area in terms of quality and standards. I am proud to say. My work took me to Liverpool, Belfast, Michigan, Sydney and Galway and I brought all that experience and love back with me to the city I love so much, the people I connect with.

After the birth of my first child, I returned to work when he was 6 months old, pregnant with my second. I took on new work and returned to old to earn enough to take a longer maternity with my expectant number 2. The ongoing relationship with Corpus Christi PS grew stronger and we took on Community Music MA students for learning and mentor-ship throughout. A strong hand is what you must have as a female in this game. You need plenty of work to return to, and in particular in my case, having 2 kids back to back, finding myself turning down word. People do not ring again.

With promises of new work upon the lips of a new project, I let long standing projects go. This was a mistake, as the promises did not transpire. The knock on effect has been immense; financially, professionally and personally.

I wrote the above in 2014, and didn’t get round to finishing it not to mind publishing it. All of this and further set backs have been a blessing in disguise, I have had the chance to reevaluate what it is I do, and why. Placing myself and my work back int he land of freelancing and feeding off the creative forces of friends in theatre for young audiences, I continue to read academically and reflect every day. It is not easy, it never is, but I do love it and I probably couldn’t do anything else.

Categories: Community Music

The road not taken

November 21, 2015 2 comments

As a community musician, I have always prided myself on taking ‘the road less traveled’, and it making all the difference. As the great poet Robert Frost reminds me, it is those fallen trees and undergrowth impeding my view of the next gig that helps the practice stand out, it encourages natural growth. Perhaps to those looking in from the outside, it may appear; wild, un-trodden upon, dangerous and lonesome! They might be right, but it also creates intrigue, excitement and ventures new, pathways that have not been stepped on time and time again. Community music, true community music is challenging on so many levels, but the results are exciting, they are exciting because we take risks and because it is always new. In responding the needs of the people and communities that we encounter, if we truly respond to their expressive needs musically then it should forever be new. I recall as a young community musician having a box of tricks, knowing the outcome of a session, knowing what would work, then I read Lee Higgins’ freshly published papers. The philosophical underpinnings, echoing Derrida and Freire awakened something in that young community musician that I knew was there but was too frightened to touch. It made me brave, and beckoned me to stride down that road less traveled everyday in my work as a community musician, and I am forever grateful for it. It remains a very challenging and often times a lonesome road, and of late I am surrounded by others working in the field but that does not quell the feeling of isolation. For me, it is a matter of work ethic that has been with me since those early days, and it is a feeling and an intent that draws me to others who understand. Whilst philosophical underpinnings help in grounding feelings and intentions,for me, it is not always the case with the ‘true’ community musicians I have worked with and from time to time encounter. Recently, 2 such community musicians and I caught up over tea, cake, baby gifts, tears and hugs. What brought us together 15 years ago was community music, but more than that it was those unspoken but resonating ‘feelings and intentions’ that kept us connected and eventually saw me moving to Belfast to be closer to like minded people. 15 years later none of that has changed, our now common ground as mothering community musicians has added to the challenges of practice and has seen us ‘taking the soup’, in our own individual ways but, we long to return to road less traveled and away from the path with ‘better claim’. At my very core I am a community musician, using music as a vehicle of communication, expression, intervention as well as so many other things…whatever is needed on the day for those involved, including myself. Although my practice has been compromised in so many ways by those who hold the purse strings, what can never be changed is that intent and pedagogical approach that makes everything OK! ISME 2016, lets be having ya!



Frost, R (1946). Robert Frost’s Poems. 2nd ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 219.

Higgins, L. (2012). One-to-One Encounters: Facilitators, Participants, and Friendship.Theory into Practice, 51(3), 159-166.


Categories: Community Music

The Haiku and artistic composition


A dear friend and wonderful community musician, Aisling O’Gorman, moved to Dublin to run The Ark’s music programme last September. In leaving she asked me if I would have the time to take on some of her groups, in reality I didn’t but I had worked with one of the groups in the past and wanted to at least do my best to offer some kind of transitional period. Aisling had worked with the Parkinsons Society’s ‘Voice Club’ for 7 years and the group was very fond of her, they had developed a large repertoire and performed each year for family and friends at their annual Christmas ‘do’.

So, I gladly took on the big boots of Miss O’Gorman and went about trying to find a place and time that would suit the majority of members and I. In the end it was decided that the Learning Hub each Tuesday morning would serve well for all involved. A beautiful, state of the art, accessible recording studio with a large practice room was offered to the club free of charge. Wonderful, and we began.

Although little research has been done regarding the clear cut benefits of music, specifically singing and Parkinsons it is clear to me that these sessions have been of and will continue to be of benefit to those involved. Not just in terms of musical development and social interaction but also in terms of the individuals overall health.

Engaging in the sessions helps with; posture, maintaining muscle strength in the diaphragm, speech fluency (because it works the mouth muscles), preventing drooling, maintaining swallow and by engaging in something they enjoy.(Dunne, 2011)

30 minutes are dedicated to vocal warm-ups helping to strengthen muscles in the diaphragm etc. Exercises include musical statues, breath holding and vocalizing,  dedicated facial warming, scales, rounds amongst other tricks I have accumulated over the years. Songs are then shared, I will usually teach a song and ask members to do the same. For some members of the group music had been a big part of their lives ‘pre-Parkinsons’ and this is a safe space for them to play and sing, I personally cherish this time and I’d imagine, although I have not asked, the said members do too. This said, there are members who have just come to music through the Society and clearly do not share the same grá for this part of the session. With this in mind I decided to cut back the time we spend on this ‘show and tell’ period and concentrate on composition. Composition with such a group is very challenging, grown men and women who come together once a week due to a shared disease does not necessarily mean that they have similar interests beyond music. So, I decided to use Haikus as a starting point for group lyric writing and thereafter individuals to think about when they went home for the week. Lee Higgins used Japanese sonnet composition when he taught me at the University of Limerick and has since published a book of events and workshops with Patricia Sheehan Campbell. ‘The Badge of Identity’ uses the Haiku in part, enabling the artist to work within structures and in many ways forcing them to think and compose within attainable boundaries.  Free To Be Musical 

The Haiku is a Japanese sonnet that follows a 5,7,5 syllable format. Over the years I have used the sonnet as a lyrical starting point  where groups are not gelling well, it has proved successul to date. Indeed my favourite and most indulgent event is the aforementioned ‘Badge of Identity’ by Lee Higgins, it allows for free expression if a non-judgmental and free space. I would only use this event when working with a group who has known one-another for sometime through the musical project in question. 

At first the change in our typical workshop format was met with some resistance and indeed some fear. Sensing this resistance I parked the notion of dedicating the full session to Haiku led composition and returned to our usual routine but I did invite people to compose their own Haiku and share it with the group the following week or anytime in the future. To my delight and surprise one gentleman, a piano player, returned a fortnight later with 3 Haikus written in the Irish language each sonnet with a character and a reference to the weather. The group applauded and celebrated the efforts of their colleague, as did I. We spent the rest of the session putting the words to music in range that suits all members.  Since then the composition has taken on the form of macaronic rhyme with another member offering an interpretation of the piece in the English language. The piece is beginning to come to life in the different shapes and forms that have emerged and come together seamlessly. The month of January will be set aside to work on the piece and record it, the Learning Hub as ever has offered support in the shape of recording time and production, instrumentalists, time and space. What a lovely way to begin 2012.

Categories: Community Music

Bread and Roses

Like many other things, the Limerick City of Culture, seemed to pass me by over the last 2 years. I will resist referring to my lack of engagement on the ground yet again and talk about a great few weeks, gently bringing my head back into the ‘game’. My good friend and colleague, Jennifer Moroney Ward, secured funding from the LCC to run a political festival! The Limerick Spring – great name, great festival. Jen with a committee of 11 worked tirelessly to get the event off the ground, and I penciled in dates well for every evening. This did prove ambitious but we did attend the majority of gatherings, with pleasure. We met new faces and genuinely made new friends, like minded people, who seem to love this country but have had enough of being pushed around. A mid week gig organised by one such like minded soul, Ciara Delaney, was invigorating.  ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Spotified’, featured singer songwriters from around Limerick performing both original and covered material, all protest songs of sorts. Very Woody Guthrie like, calm but true, not in a shouty way but in a way that made you listen, nevertheless. My lovely husband and I played a couple of songs for the first time, in a while. So nice to sit down and play music in the evenings, a pleasure.  12 wonderful women and I also met to sing a song called, ‘Bread and Roses’Image


Categories: Community Music

Remember when?

My lovely friend and mother of 3 gorgeous children recently said to me, ‘Julie, I can smell my old life’. I get a whiff every now and again but no strong sense, just yet. I had prepared myself for the imminent return to work, with a heavy heart it has to be said. Nevertheless I was, very well prepared for the earmarked 4 projects, but with 3 out of the 4 being cut for relating to funding and over spending the return was not to be. A hard hit on so many levels; professionally, financially and personally. Preparing to leave my 2 very small children required a lot of work. Having recently moved home and county, new child-minders had to be tested. Months of drip feeding in our new and wonderful nanny, felt as though it was in vain.  I have been in this game for 15 years but this hit hardest. I have somehow managed to secure other projects locally and further afield, and am looking forward to the new challenges ahead. Since these series of stressful events, I have found myself asking how I, and others like me, have managed to survive in ‘the game’ for so long? How can we, as community musicians and freelancing music educators, earn a living to justify our chosen career path? This has happened in the past, and often I would have followed the funding, just up and left; Liverpool, Belfast, Sydney, North America, Newcastle,Dublin, Galway…Limerick. So, challenges anew, and that is ok in many ways has encouraged me to look at my work from an other perspective, rethink what it is I do and why.

My husband and I got out to a gig in UCH this week, our good friends, The Henry Girls,  were opening for Clannad. We were late and Lorna spotted is. She proceeded to talk about the projects that she and I had done together over the years in Limerick and Belfast, I had almost forgotten. It was good to be reminded, my heart and confidence lifted in that moment. She then went on to tell the following story, which is true, had Lorna not been with me that day nobody would believe me! On a stunning summer’s day in 2009 Lorna and I had some community music work in Limerick city with probation services and NOMAD. That morning we went to Moyross and recorded some songs my music students had written and then onto UL where we were to collect drums for a NOMAD workshop close by. We were lucky to get parking in the Concert Hall(Foundation Building) car park.

concert hall

Not a bad place for a dip, if you can fork out the 100euro fine. Perhaps he had pull!

As we passed the gorgeous water feature, we noticed that a rather happy looking man with an excellent beard had stripped off and hopped into the far end. We had lunch keeping an eye on this guy splashing away outside! As we passed again, there was a very officious looking woman speaking to our new, free spirited friend, we guessed he was in trouble and off we went. Upon our return from the said workshop, samba drums in hand, we kept an eye out for himself and sure enough there he was but who had joined him and washing his beard for him, only the officious looking lady herself! The pair them chatting away and their arms round one another. Remember when? I do indeed, it is time to remember some more and get going on the Clare Music Generation’s Early Year’s pilot project starting next week. Hup ya boya ya!

Categories: Community Music

Back, again

Baby Maggie Mai has turned 1 and I took time off this summer to move house and get us all settled in. We have moved to Clare, things of dreams for me even though our hurlers were knocked out early this year it is more than good to be home.

Coming back to a community music scene that has been boosted by Music Generation funding is both wonderful and over whelming. For years I have battled for community groups to understand and appreciate what it is we as community musicians do, so to be faced with a multitude of projects run by new faces is, again, both wonderful and over whelming.


Maggie Mai and Tiernan, keeping this community musician busy!

In my experience of working in Limerick City over the years, at community and academic circles I feel the approach adopted by MGLC is interesting, and one that is needed. Groups are being encouraged to play and perform, just do it! And they are! Now, there are certainly levels of community engagement that consider socio conditions and relationships, for example the early year’s pilot project I had a hand in rolling out. Relationships with adults, carers, schools, pre-schools, music, one another and a local educational charity are all considered and this is well placed, in the earliest point of their ‘formal’ learning. I have seen this confidence last because the tone is set early. I am very excited about this perhaps, inadvertent, but fresh no nonsense approach. That said, I have to re-imagine how I go about my business in these areas, consider the appropriate intent when working with the new music education diaspora. Looking forward to the year ahead, and attempting to get the early year’s label that has been placed on my head, shifted, to make room for my other areas of expertise! Watch this space, before I go back and do something silly like a HDip or a B.Ed! Heaven forbid…..

I was there!

Just coming up for air now, 4 months after the birth of our stunning baby girl, Maggie Mai, I think my brain needs a bit of a workout. I happily get the odd email from MA students about projects and experiences. It is so nice because I had almost forgotten who I am outside of being a mother, which I could do forever but it won’t always be so consuming and in an area such as community music you have to be in the loop and loose the work. Anyway, I have been chatting to the lovely and talented Ruti Lachs about bits and bobs when I was reminded  of a  methodology that, I feel, suits the community musician struggling to apply their own knowledge and experience, ‘legitimately’. Do approach with caution though!

A couple of years ago I was invited to give a lecture on Community Music and deliver some basic skills that performance students could use when touring. No problem at all I responded and went about putting together a lecture based in the development of community music in the UK as an introduction, no better place to start I thought to myself, with all this fresh published material to back me up, what could go wrong. Based on perspectives offered by Lee Higgins, Tim Joss, Anthony Everitt and George McKay as well as being a member of Sound Sense whose quarterly journals reports on community music activity in the UK, I felt I was well positioned to offer somewhat of a historical perspective on community music in the UK. So, off I went and I began to notice that the more I say the more a mature student from England seems to becoming increasingly irate and visibly red. Foolishly, and naively, in typical all inclusive community music lets include everyone fashion, I ask, ‘Is there anything anyone would like to add or say at this point? The student in question dismisses my solid scholarly references in one swoop saying, ‘thats not what happened, I was a playing all over the UK during the 70s and that is not what happened, I know because I was there and community musicians were just crap musicians who needed to make money somehow.’  I was silenced, what could I say? Not only was I being accused of giving a false rendition of past events I was also being told in one way or another that I was a failed performing musician. The student was there and knew what their experience had been and the class listened the the back and forth comments between us. It was getting heated, an adamant, disgruntled student; what did I know? A 30 year old whipper snapper tutor, claiming to know what happened in their country during their time as a struggling musician seeing all these ‘crap musicians’ getting money from the Arts Council that they wanted, the student was furious and it seemed to be all my fault. The second half of the class was skills based and as you can imagine they were only too delighted to find a space in the room that he felt comfortable in and let their voice be heard, mingling with the voices of those around the area. I can honestly say that this student threw me dagger looks for the next 9 months of their time in UL. A simple slide caused all this distress and upset, I had not meant to and smiled widely every time our paths crossed thereafter, I think it made things worse. A lesson learned for me, in future a quick  scan around the room before including such historical perspectives, which at the best of times can be, as Benedict (2009) cautioned; hierarchical, one-dimensional and misconstrued.

I remembered this class while reading through papers suggested to me by my supervisor, a referenced paper by Andy Medhurst caught my attention who gives the following account –

 When you teach, as I do, university courses which look at the history of popular

culture, there is one kind of student you learn to dread. This is the student who

knows exactly what it was like during a particular aspect of a particular period of that

history because they took part in it, because ‘I was there’. Such a claim is a pre-

emptive strike that seeks to dismiss all the claims of retrospective thinking, all the

writers and theorists who have subsequently put forward interpretations of cultural

events, in favour of the apparently unchallengeable testimony of first-hand

experience. ‘I was there’ is a badge proclaiming the authoritativeness of 

autobiographical authenticity, and it’s a difficult badge to dislodge. Eventually,

however, the student-who-was-there can usually be persuaded to recognise that

critical hindsight may have some value, that simply inhabiting a moment is no

guarantee of fully comprehending it, and that personal recollection is but one

discourse among many. Knowing this as well as I do, it is very disconcerting when

I read academic accounts of 1970s punk, because all of my intellectual convictions

shrivel and wither under the onslaught of more emotive and irrational imperatives.

Reason and distance arc subsumed by the urge to shout—no, I know more about this

than you, because I was there.’ (Sabin, 1999, p. 219)

In a 3-hour session that attempted to cover the history of community music in the UK and to learn some workshop skills it was not possible for me to ‘dislodge’ the ‘authoritativeness of autobiographical authenticity’ that I so clearly did not have and that the aforementioned student did. All the smiles and ‘how you doings’ in the world could not remove the self-righteousness of the person who knew it all, because that person was there. Now I begin to see myself in this student in terms of community music and what it is, those who are not community musicians do not understand this pathway. How could they? They simply do not get it. This attitude must be removed and put aside during any research because it will, as it did with the all-knowing student, taint and cloud any autoethnographic narrative that I offer.

So it is with these cautionary tales and reminders that I set about looking deeper into the notion of using this widely criticized and celebrated method, sometime in the future, maybe after Maggie does ‘the Leaving’!