When we have babies, we don’t disappear!

On a serious note, when community musicians begin a family it does not mean we stop being community musicians! in fact this is when we need to be kept in the loop more. Thank you!!!


Taken last year at the Hub’s Band Incubation performance. Only 8 weeks old here, young Tiernan is now walking and chatting 12 months on…JOY!

Categories: magical, motherhood

The end of another wonderful year

I blogged last month about getting back into work after becoming a mother and how difficult that has been, both professionally and personally.  Preparing to welcome another child into the world any day now I find myself looking back on the last semester. I have been involved in so many wonderful projects, some new and some ongoing, all of which brought new and interesting challenges. Lucky me! I have to remind myself that I am lucky, as difficult as it is at times. I am lucky.

The Learning Hub in particular takes care of its staff and volunteers, we are very much appreciated and it is said often. Not only is it said it is backed up with gestures and reminders of deadlines which leads me to believe that I am a valued member of the wider team and that, is an honour. As a freelancer this is rarely the case, and for me this is one of the main reasons why the Hub is as special as it is. 4 new groups and projects and 1 renewed at the Hub, I feel right at home.

One of the newer projects was with Focus Ireland –

Focus Ireland is a registered charity that works to prevent people becoming, remaining or returning to homelessness. The organisation was founded in 1985  by Sr. Stanislaus Kennedy, in response to the needs of a group of homeless women.  Focus Ireland’s vision is that ‘everyone has a right to a place they can call home’ and the organisation works to make this vision a reality for thousands of people every year.

http://www.focusireland.ie/index.php/who-we-are, 2013

A new venture for both myself and the local Focus Ireland office we set about tentatively laying out what our hopes were for the project. I really hoped people would turn up and continue with the programme each week, and you know what?? They did. All men, with an interest in music none of whom wanted to sing or song-write on the first day, ended up composing a tremendous song together and recording it at the Music Hub Studios. I particularly enjoyed the company of the group, working with adult men isn’t something I often get a chance to do. Men don’t tend to join the groups I have run now or in the past, they inspired me and most of all made me smile every week. The track is being mixed at the moment, but once it is available it will be posted here. I want to keep this kind of work up, being heavily involved in early years projects it is important to sing about things other than ducks and jungle trails..

Another group close to my heart is the Voice Club made up of Parkinson’s suffers and their partners/carers. This term we have been practicing a range of Sea Shanties! As I type they are up in Sligo singing away, I am so proud! Being so close to becoming a mother again I couldn’t run the risk of giving birth in Sligo, or worse again Mayo! So Ed Rice, Billy’s son has joined the group with his guitar to accompany the rowdy Sea Worshipers! Billy is the founder of the Voice Club and is passionate about the positive affects and music and movement in terms of the disease.


The ‘Voice Club’ perform at the Rosses Point Sea Shanty Festival, 2013

One more thing before I go! When we started our ‘Pre-School to Big School’ music programme 3 years ago a young girl would sit beside me every Wednesday. I adored her, a real favourite of mine – I know we aren’t meant to have favourites but if you don’t, you lie! I actually taught her mother years ago in Céim ar Chéim, another story for another day. Anyway, I got the chance to work with her again this year in her ‘Big School’ . We invited parents into the school for an informal show and tell, in a circle I led the kids in song and action. In an attempt to get everyone going I said something like; ‘come on lads!’.  To which this young girl stood up in a heartbreakingly honest and vulnerable manner, said –

I know Julie, but ya see we are really nervous this morning and we are just getting going. OK? We are really nervous, but we will do our best, won’t we lads!!

Just one of the hundreds of reasons why I will keep doing what I do, as tough as it can be, much of the time.


Categories: Community Music

Harry Bird and co at the Music Hub

As a facilitator it is always a joy to attend a workshop and not have to lead, especially when the leader is the frontman for one of  my favourite bands – Harry Bird and the Rubber Wellies. We first heard Harry play at the Flat Lakes Festival in Monaghan 2 years ago, I went for a dander to check out other sounds and was halted in my tracks by that beautiful music. Since then we have seen the lads a handful of times, and each time it has been a real treat. On that first evening of hearing the lads play I bought 5 CDs for people  I thought might enjoy their style, one of whom is my good friend and excellent colleague, James Blake at the Learning Hub, Limerick. He seemed to enjoy the music as much as I did and set about getting them to the Hub and true to his word he did so, just yesterday.


Harry and Christophe leading the group in a songwriting workshop.

What a magical afternoon we all had! A very mixed bag of people attended, including experienced community musicians, young musicians, school goers and young songwriters. Harry, Christophe and and Jamie have a warm and generous presence, treating everyone with the same respect and attention. I learned so much in terms of approach and attitude, what a gift to receive on the afternoon I officially began my maternity leave. We wrote a song together and everyone contributed – Harry was a natural leader, no amount of training, pedagogical or philosophical ‘insight’ can afford somebody such skill. You either have it, or you don’t! It is clear that lovely Harry has it in spades.

Thanks to the Hub for a wonderful afternoon.

Oh Blog, how I have missed you!

The guilt! I haven’t blogged in over a year,and thus have stopped reflecting on my work and that is not good. I have tried but time is precious since having our son, Tiernan, who turned 1 last week. I am completely and utter in love with him, you have no idea.

As any practicing community musician knows, it is a tough area to work in at the best of times; grant applications, justification of work, staying fresh, keeping groups on board, being truly creative, staying close to our philosophical roots, invoicing, balancing the books, hours consistently being challenged and cut – irrespective of good or bad financial times. It is tough, but since becoming a mother it is even tougher! I suppose the fact that I am 7 months pregnant with our second child adds to the challenge. I haven’t finished work and already I am planning on my return, I have given up my research ‘for the moment’. My list of priorities has changed, and as a result a large part of what I held dear as a community musician is gone. There simply is not any time, and that is ok, more than ok but I do miss it. My work is as interesting as ever, spanning from 3-78 year olds! All requiring an age appropriate approach, all with different and specific needs which call for a certain approach. Now in the past I most certainly would have been using labels such as ‘pedagogical characteristics’ and ‘environmental restraints’  but my head isn’t there. My reading list has somewhat shifted! Perhaps if this game gets too tough I might take a course in early childhood developmental studies, I have acquired quite the collection. Also, the office is now a nursery!

There isn’t much else to say, really. I do want to talk about the individual groups we’ve been working with since September and the impact of the banking crisis on the community musician, as experienced by myself and I promise MYSELF to do it soon.

Over and out, it is way past my bedtime…Julie

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 Parkinson’s Society ‘Voice Club’ for 3 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 Parkinson’s 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-Parkinson’s’ 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.

The Society for Music Education in Ireland – 1st Annual Conference, UCC

Cork people are a proud and passionate bunch in all departments; sport, music, culture, education, lilting tones and of course they are the funniest people in Ireland – well, so they would lead you to believe. I remember playing a gig in Bunratty around 10 years ago and a group of Corkonians from Mallow were on a company night out, they really missed home, they were lonesome for Cork! Soldiers, no doubt, of the People’s Republic of Cork! http://www.peoplesrepublicofcork.com/ In many ways I can understand this overt pride in all things ‘Cork’, the city is warm and friendly with cafes and music venues lining  the side streets of the centre. Cork city centre has not lost its heart, like so many other Irish cities whose business and soul have succumb  to large shopping malls that sprung up in the suburbs,  during those ‘good years’. West County Cork rivals the most beautiful of views around the Irish coastline, but overall Cork seems to offer a blazing welcome to those who visit, in my experience the people go out of their way to help you and are typically, good ‘craic’. Cork city remains vibrant, home to UCC and CIT, both hosting wonderfully diverse and open music programmes. So, where better to have SMEI’s 1st annual conference?

SMEI’s conference organising committee made an excellent early decision in choosing Phil Mullen  as the conference keynote speaker. Phil, a UK based Community Musician and trainer. He has worked for 25 years with vulnerable young people including those with mental health issues and special educational needs and those at risk of offending. He has also worked with homeless people and in prisons and with seniors. For seven years he worked in Northern Ireland promoting cross-cultural understanding through music. Phil also works extensively with schools in the primary and secondary sectors. He has long standing working relationships with Goldsmiths College, London University, The University of Limerick, London Philharmonic Orchestra and Music Leader. He also acts as an advisor to ‘Sing Up‘, the UK national singing programme for primary age children on its inclusion strand “Beyond the Mainstream”. Phil is a former com- missioner and chair of ISME’s Community Music Activity Commission and is a serving board member and is also part of the Membership focus group. For me, in a time that community music in Ireland is in danger of being a passing fad, an extra line to add to a CV without a respect or deeper understanding of the practice, Phil’s presence and centrality to the conference was key.His name drew people far beyond the Music Education circles in Ireland and North America. A keynote full of energy, creativity and respect for the people who we as community musicians work with on a daily basis. It also highlighted how music education in Ireland has moved on since the days of the ‘Deaf Ears’ and ‘MEND’ reports, the willingness to be more inclusive and welcoming reflect how the success community music has perhaps been a predominant voice for change, whether music education realises it or not. Those who sat and really listened to Phil Mullen might find it hard to argue.

Phil Mullen

The conference committee was inundated with papers, workshops and posters hoping to be seen and heard in UCC on the 12th and 13th November 2011, so much so that parallel  sessions were a must in order for all voices to be heard. Presenters such as Randall Allsup, Evelyn Grant and Daithí Kearney highlight the span of interests and passions represented at the conference. Conference Programme  

Overall the gathering felt like a very welcoming and open event and one that should have been in its 8th year, not first. This, I feel is not only testament to the local organising committee, but also the glaring passion and commitment of those attending, performing and presenting, or maybe it was just ‘Cork’!


A BIG grant application, with some perks

October 14, 2011 1 comment

I am so tired these days, exhausted and on the verge of letting work go – but no how can I? I am a community musician and we must work where and when we can. Although the work is very interesting and in isolation each project is wonderful, I am tired! Oh how she moaned!  I work in 4-5 different places on Tuesdays all around Limerick city and county, you can just imagine the form upon my arrival home to my poor unsuspecting husband, not pretty. When I graduated from UL 11 years ago my week was not as busy as my current Tuesday and I felt I had enough on my plate, keep the standards high and all that.

One of the projects I am heavily involved with at the moment is a grant application on behalf of Limerick City Music Education Partnership, a wonderful opportunity for the city but a mammoth task which haunts every waking moment in my mind. There are lots of boring grant application tasks associated with the process but one of the big perks and pleasures of the gig has been interviewing local musicians and community musicians. I contacted Noel Hogan of the Cranberries expecting a polite reply along the lines of ‘who are you? go away and don’t be bothering us’. To my delight Noel rocked up to the Learning Hub and stayed all morning ! He gave a great interview and stayed on for a while chatting and signed a guitar. Now the first piece I worked out on my Vintage acoustic  was ‘Linger’ so when Noel said this was one of the first songs he wrote just in the road in Limerick I had to contain myself. I remember one of my first paid gigs, Orla Jones was on the harp and I was on the guitar, we were both wearing docks and flowing skirts with mirrors and army jackets – stunning. I was dying to playing that opening riff from ‘Linger’, to my horror Orla blasted it out on the harp. Disgusted. Off she went with the American audience supping on their free Irish coffees clapping, I think one of them asked if it was a ‘Clare toon’?!

Since then we have chatted to the Brad Pitt Light Orchestra(LOVED them), Jean McGlynn, Mick Hanly, Niamh and Brid Dunne, Andy from the Boherboy Band,Niall Quinn of the Hitchers, Dave O’Connell from the Limerick School of Music, Jen from the Hub, Kat Turner of the ICO, Suzanne Murphy and of course local kids and parents. What an experience, we have stuck to the same basic questions and the responses have been so different. These interviews have ignited conversations across the city, connecting genres and practice on the ground, even if we are not successful so much progress has been made through these conversations alone. Thank you to all who took the time to come and talk to us about our common love and passion that is mussssicccc….

Categories: Community Music

Music in immigration detention, part 2





Music in immigration detention, part 2.

Read and enjoy Gillian Howell’s report and reflection on her recent workshop with a group of refugees in Australia. Wonderful read, framed by the conditions that these men and others endure on their journey to the ‘greener pastures’ of Australia. Thank you Gill.

‘I was there’

Considering an autoethnographic methodological approach:

Last year 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 this student was only too delighted to find a space in the room that they 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 here. 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 they 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. 

The Learning Hub opens in ‘pop up’ style: You are what you learn.

Set in Kileely, Limerick City looking out onto the River Shannon, lovely on the greyest of days but glorious when the sun shines, and so it did. It is hard to believe that just 5 short years ago director Jennifer Moroney Ward rattled around St.Martin’s House on her own with a hope of creating the team that she did, the results speak for themselves and this brief reflection does not attempt to represent the depth of hard work, educational sharing, artistic creativity and overall highly positive spirit that weave the tapestry and essence of the Learning Hub. You Are What You Learn. In my opinion, The Hub is, potentially Limerick’s answer to Dublin’s ‘The Ark’ or Newcastle’s ‘Sage’ programmes.

3 years ago I stumbled upon team members from the Learning Hub at a stuffy, routine presentation of work to satisfy funders. Not anticipating anything ‘new’ from the same faces and slides, I brought a good book with me and tucked myself away at the back, like the unruly student that I always longed to be. There seemed to be a few new faces, SIF 2. I was instantly taken by the smiles and enthusiasm of the Hub presenters, distracting me from the previously mentioned book. I wanted to talk to them and hopefully collaborate somehow, and so the link began. Students from the BA Irish Music and Dance, UL spent two, five week sessions in the Hub working with young people from the area through music and dance, the benefits to the BA students far out weighing those of the youngsters involved, we had to rethink the relationship. It was unfair on the young people involved in terms of pedagogical friendships to tease them with the presence of the BA students for 2 weeks just to be introduced to new faces the following week. Thereafter, I kept in touch with the Hub through MA and BA long term placements, this engagement meant greater impact for all involved, a 50/50 deal, as it should be.

In January 2011 The Hub in association with The Limerick School of Music opened it’s doors to children aged between 8-15 from the area for a music programme, a community music programme. The hours were advertised as such and the interview panel asked all kinds of questions about community music, I was shocked! The VEC were quizzing me about my community music experience when only 8 years previously they were asking to clarify, with the aid of a powerpoint presentation, as to what community music was. (Dear Community Music Ireland – Please do not become a cool and new thing , do your best now, stay true and be strong, don’t forget who you are, don’t sell out). Luckily I was included along with the very talented James Blake to run the Hub’s music programme, 3 evenings a week. Happy days, with my contract in UL recently finished this was perfect timing and a big challenge to get back into the work that I am so fond of.

On the evening that families were due to come to The Hub to sign up for the programme, the elements were against us. Hail, some snow, wind and of course that obligatory ‘Angela’s Ashes’ type rain that is a constant in Limerick(that is a joke, just in case any Limerick advocates are googling, ‘Limerick, rain’ to try and start a row. A very wet place though, it has to be said). The damp and cold conditions did not seem to deter families from making their way to Kileely, 70 kids signed up and 45 performed at the opening last month. They performed original and covered materials and even sang a layered and harmonized song with the steady guiding hand of James all the way. The results were wonderful, high praise form dignitaries, families and friends on the day and since. One song called ‘Recession Shoes’ has proved popular with all age groups, all songs will be recorded in the hub’s new studio this month.

This music programme seems to have lit something in the children, young people and families that we have worked with since January, it has created a hunger to learn more about music and to continue to perform. The positive and creative attitude of those who run The Hub is infectious and this permeates through each session we share. Requests of formal instrumental lessons from so many of the children involved have been heart-warming.I suppose they see the teenagers in the group who are taking instrumental lessons and they want to be like the older dudes and dudettes, but also on the day of the opening one young lady played a pink, daisy shaped electric guitar to the Undertones’ ‘My Perfect Cousin’. It doesn’t get much more inspirational then that!

So, we hope the music programme will continue and that those who have engaged with the initial part of the course will continue and receive the long awaited instrumental lessons. The performance,technology and compositional workshops will continue for all but a new group of children will be invited to avail of what has been and will continue to be a terrific project. I’m going say it, skip on now if you must – ‘I would have loved something like this when I was their age’. Please feel free to judge me, but know that I have never said this to any children or young people that I have worked with in my role as a community musician.

The Hub is the most professional and involved place I have worked as a community musician. They value your opinion and if you work hard and be apart of their creative energy, you will receive an ongoing, unconditional welcome. All this said, it is hard work; high energy, reflective, vocational, ‘for the kids’, many hours beyond your contract hard work. The trick is, I found, to know when to say ‘no’, to know when you are, as a leader, being stretched and indeed to recognise when others are being stretched too. All too often this is difficult to do, but ultimately the project suffers if a balance between input and output is not struck. There is a very thin line between high energy, all consuming work and cynicism.   When that tired, sensitive cynic comes to work, no matter how nice the workplace is – Kids, beware!