For many Irish musicians, it can be a tricky and essential game to stay active and find balance between artistic, intellectual, social, and physical pursuits. In this episode, Aubrey Atwater, Evangelos Stowell, and Pa Sheehan share tales from the trails, the barn, the pitch, and the gym to help “work out” some of the Irish music insights that can come to those who sweat.
Thank you to everybody for listening. And a special thank you to this month’s underwriters: Steve Wilson, Tom Frederick, Art Costa, Bob Suchor, Chris & the Murphy family, John Ploch, Susan Walsh, Ian Bittle, David Vaughan, Paul DeCamp, The Irish & Celtic Music Podcast, Suezen Brown, Brian Benscoter, Finian McCluskey, Jonathan Duvick, Joel DeLashmit, Gerry Corr, Chris Armstrong, Ken Doyle, and Rick Rubin.
Episode 56 – Born for Sport
The Long Game of Traditional Music
This Irish Music Stories episode aired October 12, 2021
>> Shannon Heaton: flute player, singer, composer, teacher, and host of Irish Music Stories
>> Pa Sheehan: Irish language and Celtic Studies scholar and currently assistant Professor at the University of St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto
>> Aubrey Atwater: Singer, dancer, multi-instrumentalist who performs and offers educational shows with duo partner Elwood Donnelly
>> Evangelos Stowell: NY-reared, Boston-based linguist, Irish musician, and Harvard grant manager
>> Nigel Heaton: young announcer for Irish Music Stories
>> Shannon [running in the woods]: I’m Shannon Heaton. And this is Irish Music Stories. The show about traditional music, and the bigger stories behind it.
[ Music: “I Was Born For Sport,” from Caitlin
Artist: Caitlin Nic Gabhann ]
Now I dream up most of these stories initially out here—on the running trails. I’ll come up with my initial ideas. I’ll talk to musicians or dancers around this topic. And then I weave it all together in my studio. But it’s here where a lot of the mental work happens
>> Shannon [in the studio]: And then it’s here, in my studio, that I stitch together those thoughts I came up with while running, with music and insights from my special guests.
Like Pa Sheehan. (Short for Patrick.) He’s working out ideas for an Irish & Scottish music course. And he’s training for a marathon.
[ Music: Travel Theme, from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]
>> Pa: I’m teaching at the university of St. Michael’s college at the University of Toronto. We’ve a Celtic studies program and I’m teaching Irish language, Celtic mythology and like an Irish literature course. And then next semester I’m teaching … a traditional music in Ireland and Scotland.
>> Shannon: That’s exciting. And you yourself are not an Irish musician.
>> Pa: No, I’d say my instrument is my hurley!
>> Shannon: Pa doesn’t know much about traditional music YET. He’s more of an expert in the ancient sport of hurling, which is kind of like Irish field hockey… dating back to 1200 BC. Growing up in Sixmilebridge in County Clare, he spent his evenings and weekends at hurling matches, not at Irish music sessions. He’s got some homework to do before teaching a traditional music course in the Spring.
But fortunately, he’s got hours of running ahead of him as he trains for a race in Savannah, Georgia. This will be his first formal marathon. He’s run the distance before, but he hasn’t done an official race. And he’s hoping to finish in three hours, so he can qualify for the 2022 Boston Marathon.
>> Shannon: So it seems like maybe you can do some teaching preparation while you’re running?
>> Pa: Yeah. That’s already happening listening to your podcast. There’s ideas coming in. And rather than listening to it with a pen and paper, I enjoy listening to it on the run. The parts that I definitely think that are appropriate, I will remember. And I come into work and I’ll write them down eventually. I’ll say, right, that’s something we’re going to put that into this class.
>> Shannon: It’s a colorful way to spend the mornings! Listening to podcasts and formulating lesson plans… and preparing for a qualifying marathon. And what’s more, learning some Irish music will be a way for Pa to approach an aspect of his own culture that he’s never really had a chance to tap into before.
Musician and dancer Aubrey Atwater also thinks about music on her long strolls around Rhode Island.
[ Music: “Will the Weaver,” from The World is Old Tonight
Artists: Atwater-Donnelly ]
>> Aubrey: I think walking is so wonderful for so many reasons and it, you know, when you’re walking, you’re walking in rhythm. So sometimes I I’m practicing my lyrics. Like right now, uh, in October I’m going to be conducting two ballad classes. And I have about 30 ballads. So I’ll practice the words when I’m walking.
>> Shannon: Walking while singing is no challenge for Aubrey. She can also sing and talk while dancing, too. For her 10-minute dance monologue, she clogs and tells stories. It’s really entertaining. It’s beautiful. And it’s a stunning display of fitness and discipline.
>> Aubrey from live performance: I learned how to dance just by watching people. Copying them and then just spending hours practicing. This is our old kitchen counter that I’m practicing on right now. [Audience laughs.] Her partner Elwood says from the stage “we’re not gonna use that again!”
>> Shannon: For Irish musician Evangelos Stowell, fitness and discipline are also big priorities.
>> Evan: I’ve been kind of a gym rat for 15 years at this point. So it’s just part of my day. And like music, maybe in a way, if I’m having a bad day and I go into the gym, then I’m feeling okay. And everything else feels better. There’s something about that endorphin rush, I think, that helps your brain kind of tackle problems, or technical issues, or something in a tune that you hadn’t noticed before. And it just kind of generally promotes a more of a feeling of wellbeing throughout my day.
>> Shannon: In this episode, Evangelos, Aubrey, and Pa share tales from the trails, the barn, and the gym to help “work out” some of the Irish music insights that can come to those who sweat.
When I’m not inventing podcast episodes or listening to the birds… when I’m running, I often learn tunes.
[ Music: “Migratory,” from tricolor BIGBAND
Artist: tricolor BIGBAND ]
Like sometimes a tune will just come to me. Maybe it’s the rhythm of my feet that makes me think of a reel that I’ve heard somewhere, but I’ve never really internalized. And I just sort of inhabit it right there, while running.
Other times I’ll be listening to a recording, and I’ll hear something that grabs my ear. Maybe it’s totally new to me. Maybe I’ve known it forever but I never really paid attention to it.
And then sometimes I’ll hear something that will just jog a memory. Like this tune was written by my friend Koji Nagao and performed here by the tricolor BIGBAND. Whenever I hear it I think of my time in Japan, traveling with these very fine musicians in the band tricolor.
Other times when I’m running I’ll listen to podcasts. Keeps my mind off of things when I’m feeling a little sluggish. And the few times that I’ve run formal races, I’ll do a combination of listening to podcasts, maybe I make a special playlist for the race. And then maybe I just kind of zone out and enjoy my own run.
In 2019 I ran this great half marathon in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The race itself was beautiful. But so was all the prep time. Just a few weeks before the race I was in Scotland, so my longer training runs ended up in the Louther Hills.
I was also working on an episode about supernatural ballads. So in the evenings I’d chat about these really dark songs and folk tales with singer Emily Smith. We even visited a few ghostly sites in Dumfries.
And then in the mornings all alone, I’d head out into the mist. I admit, I creeped myself out a few times. Early morning forests and crows look pretty macabre after a scary song bender the night before.
[ Music: “Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust 2016,” from Soundtrack
Artist: Rhodri McDonagh ]
Then there was the episode I produced about Irish music in Japan. I put that one together while running the streets of Tokyo, Kyoto, Ise, and Nagoya. It was really rewarding to work on that show in that setting.
And then for my episode about gender politics and the puzzle of inclusivity in traditional music, it was really helpful to just clear my mind on a path in the woods. Focus on my breathing. Take myself out of the story and let insights and new angles emerge.
Anyway, when producing a show—or when teaching a class—there’s always a lot to research, and learn, and digest, and prepare. Good thing Pa Sheehan has a lot of time on the track ahead of him.
>> Shannon: OK So let’s talk about this class that you’re getting ready to teach.
>> Pa: Um, so yeah, the title is traditional music in Ireland in Scotland. I definitely have friends who would be able to teach the class much better than me. But I I’d like to think that because of my, I suppose, lack of a background in it that there isn’t one assumption that I’m going to make in this class. I tend to prepare more for classes in which I’m not an expert, which maybe a lot of people do as well. Um, which is a good thing. And I’m looking forward to it. Because it’s about time that I started learning more about that aspect that is ingrained in my own DNA, but just hasn’t been tapped into yet. Or that switch hasn’t been turned on yet. But this is hopefully the trigger that will turn it on. And off we go then.
>> Shannon: Off he goes, on an Irish and Scottish music journey. But in Toronto, over 3,000 miles from his birthplace of Sixmilebridge in Clare.
>> Pa: County Clare, like, you know yourself is a massive stronghold for Irish music. But for some reason, just the family I live in, and even I would say the village I’m from, it’s kind of a small bit obsessed with hurling to a certain degree, maybe a bit too obsessed. There are strong musical families, mine just isn’t one of them. So I hesitate to say that the music world didn’t open up to me as a young child. I probably just neglected it in favor of playing hurling. So despite frequenting bars and frequenting sessions and things like that, I never managed to pick up an instrument and actually try it.
>> Shannon: Have you ever tried to play the bodhran on with a Hurley?
>> Pa: Um, going to Clare hurling matches, it’s kind of a tradition someone has a bodhran with them. So I’ve definitely had a go at the bodhran. I don’t know what kind of sound is coming off it.
[ Music: “Broken Clock,” from A Sweeter Place
Composer: Maeve Flanagan
Artist: Girsa ]
>> Shannon: I mean, the fact that Pa and his hurling team knows what a bodhran is already suggest how deep traditional music is for Irish people. Even the sports people know about the Irish frame drum and the pipes—the Irish uilleann pipes, and the Scottish Highland pipes, which are also played in Ireland. Where there’s traditional sport, there’s often traditional music.
>> Pa: They’re always intertwined in some shape or fashion. Like for me, and I’m almost getting goosebumps talking about it, but the County Final day back at home, you associate things with your senses. You know, the smell of the grass or whatever it may be, because it always takes place at the same time a year. But for me, the main thing that sticks out is the noise: when you get out of the car and get out of the bus, if you’re playing and you just hear the bagpipes. Because whatever pipe band— in Clare it’d generally be the Tulla pipe band who’d play. We almost use it as a synonym if, if we’re preparing for the year ahead, it. Instead of saying, you know, do we want to get to the final? It’s, you know, do we want to march behind the band?
And you know, they parade you around the pitch and things like that. So I’ve always found them intertwined. But just haven’t had the courage, I suppose, the opportunity to, to go about it.
[ Music: “The Barren Rocks of Aden / Mairi’s Wedding” from Live at Celtic Colors
(Joan Harriss Cruise Pavilion in Sydney: Big Ceilidh at the Big Fiddle at, October 2018)
Artist: Cape Breton University Pipe Band ]
>> Shannon: Do you know Brian Valley’s beautiful paintings of Irish sports? He paints a lot of Irish musicians and a lot of Irish sport, as a cultural expression.
>> Pa: Excellent. I feel like that’s my future in some shape or fashion. Like if I fast forward 10 years, I’d like to see myself, um, at these sporting events provide providing much more of an insight rather than just my expertise in terms of sport. And being much more involved in the musical side of things as well.
>> Shannon: So you’re preparing for this class and you’re also getting ready for a race in Georgia.
>> Pa: Yeah. Savannah, Georgia six weeks tomorrow. So I’ve never ran a marathon before I ran the distance before. But I ran it during lockdown. Yeah. It got me into it two years ago. And I was very thankful for it during a lockdown, because it was nice to have that, just to have that escape every day. And now I don’t view it as an escape. I just view it as something that I enjoy doing. I can listen to your podcasts with the headphones on as I’m running around Toronto. And I’d love to qualify for Boston. And be able to run this in your city at some stage.
[ Music: Travel theme reprise ]
>> Shannon: I’ve never run a marathon. I’ve only done half a half. But I have found just the few races, the few formal, you know, longer races that I’ve done, definitely, the first time around it turned up the heat. And distracted me from my own game, I think. In probably a good way. But that’s sort of a challenge isn’t it? To just like, keep it your own game and just for fun and, and with your headphones. And also enjoy the kind of boost I think that running alongside other people gives.
Yeah, that’s what I’m hoping for. Is that with the increase in adrenaline that comes from other people and things like that, um, I’d like to stay more disciplined, focused on myself and run my own race.
So I’m running a 20 K race here in Toronto on Sunday, very, very small, low key race run by our club, the longboat Roadrunners; but that’d be my first experience of actually racing against other humans and not against the clock or my own head.
>> Shannon: Fingers crossed for our hurling musician-to-be. The future is unknowable. But sure, we’ve all had a lot of practice lately living in uncertainty.
[ Shannon on the trail: We are living in interesting times. I suppose all times can be interesting. But this has been a very unsettled time. But hey, at least I got a few podcast episodes out of it. ]
>> Shannon back in studio: Well, we’ll check in with Pa in a bit, to see how the 20K went. While you’re waiting, there are lots of ways to stay busy… and active. Aubrey Atwater makes a game out of keeping herself—and her music—in shape.
[ Music: “Mountain Grooves,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]
>> Aubrey: I walk, I sometimes jog, I ride a bike. I do 10 pound weights, upper body. I do this nutty thing for years where I just kind of run around the house and, um, pick up and do little chores while I’m jogging. Hahaha! I can’t believe I just admitted that!
I just turned 58. And a lot of this at my age is is to stay away from pain. Like if I don’t stay strong in my upper body, I’ll have pain in my shoulders. And I also use a weighted hula hoop.
>> Shannon: That is so exciting!
>> Aubrey: A weighted hula hoop, 10 minutes a day, and I am good as gold.
[ Music: “The Hula Hoop,” from Carrying the Tune
Composer/Artist: Kevin Crawford ]
>> Shannon: This is a happy tune of Kevin Crawford’s called The Hula Hoop.
>> Nigel: Hula hoop! hula hoop!
>> Shannon: And hula hooping feels like a joyous way to support your system. And having kind listeners kicking into this podcast—that’s also a practical and uplifting form of support. Here’s my kid Nigel to thank this month’s Irish Music Stories underwriters:
>> Nigel: Thank you to Steve Wilson, Tom Frederick, Art Costa, Bob Suchor, Chris & the Murphy family, John Ploch, Susan Walsh, Ian Bittle, David Vaughan, Paul DeCamp, The Irish & Celtic Music Podcast, Paul DeCamp, Suezen Brown, Brian Benscoter, Finian McCluskey, Jonathan Duvick, Joel DeLashmit, Gerry Corr, Chris Armstrong, Ken Doyle, Rick Rubin.
>> Shannon: hahahaha!
>> Shannon: When I was approaching this episode, you were the first person that I thought of, Aubrey. In particular, your one woman show (the dance and the talking).
>> Aubrey: You’re talking about what I call “Talking Clogging.” It’s like a 10 minute monologue where I talk through the history of the freestyle flatfoot clogging that I do. I talk through a brief history of the world of percussive dance and how I learned it. And with some funny stories. It’s really fun. And I demonstrate the steps. And at this point I love showing an older fit woman, you know. I love modeling that for people. That’s really cool.
>> Aubrey live: Clogging on the timeline is after Irish, before tap. And clogging is a little Irish, Scottish, English, German, French, Native American, and African. In many respects it’s the perfect American art form. But as you can see it’s much different from the Irish step dance [demonstrates steps]… it’s older than tap dance. Tap dance is much more showy, a bent upper body, expressive with the upper arms. [demonstrates] . Showy! [applause]
>> Shannon: For many months, through lockdown days, Aubrey wasn’t performing Talking Clogging. But she didn’t lose her base.
>> Aubrey: I can still do it. Like, no problem. One of the things that I have done throughout the pandemic that has to do with fitness is I didn’t for a minute miss a beat. And this, as far as keeping our repertoire healthy, vibrant, and alive—and the dancing healthy, vibrant, and alive—I was absolutely hell bent on making sure I didn’t lose that.
>> Shannon: Building and maintaining a deep musical base—keeping all the music that you’ve arranged and written in shape: that’s some holistic fitness right there. I’m inspired by the reverence Aubrey has for the songs and tune sets that she and her husband Elwood have created.
[ Music: “The Jamestown Homeward Bound,” from The World is Old Tonight
Artists: Atwater-Donnelly ]
>> Aubrey: When we think about the repertoire, it’s the core of our life’s work. Our instrumentation, our vocals, our knowledge and memory of lyrics and interpretation that the scholar end of things, the backstories of the songs.
>> Shannon: Indeed, when you play in a longtime duo, your music can reflect a really deep well of influences, and personal and shared history, and scholarship, and time in that little room. There’s history, and there are stories behind all of it . And nobody else has the same stories. No one else presents it the way you do.
>> Aubrey: It’s handy as you know, to be married to your musical partner in a pandemic. We had, we had gigs virtual and some live, but we just didn’t have the normal quantity of gigs we usually have.
[ Music: “Chimes,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]
So as it turns out, that was a thing that Elwood and I have done throughout where we would every other day or so, we meet in either my office or the dining room. And we run through some of the songs of our repertoire. Month after month after month.
So from the get go, I was like I cannot lose this. That is one of the things that really grounded me all these many months was making sure we cycle through our repertoire. And we’ve actually kept our repertoire more buoyant, you could say. And more fine tuned than usual. We just cycle through, it’s like a hundred active songs at any time. And then a bunch of tunes for dancing. And then a bunch of tunes for dancing. And then I know like a hundred children’s songs. I’ve been going into the children’s hospital in Providence, throughout the pandemic.
[ Music: “Little Bird Lullaby,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]
>> Shannon: Wow. I mean, that’s a lot of work. And that takes a lot of discipline. Especially when you don’t have a specific gig that you’re preparing for.
>> Aubrey: It was kind of fun in a way because it, it made us look at songs we’ve done for years and revive them, or refine them. Like One Morning in May is a song that I realized—when I just had my birthday—that I’ve been singing for 40 years. And isn’t that amazing to have been singing a song pretty regularly for 40 years. And how your relationship with the narrative changes or even the key that you sing it in.
[ Music: “One Morning in May,” from Culled from the Garden
Artists: Atwater-Donnelly ]
>> Shannon: Do you think the fitness discipline comes from your musical experiences and your musical discipline?
>> Aubrey: I was just thinking about how I have clung for dear life to my music. I had such a turbulent childhood, and I found this incredible thing that was so grounding, so cool, because it put me on the map socially. Like all of a sudden I had more friends. And people loved to just hang out and listen to me and my friends play songs. And I have just clung to my music in this beautiful way, like some kind of life raft.
Then I started dancing in my thirties and forties. Part of why I really got busy dancing is I decided I wanted to dance with Kevin Doyle.
>> Shannon: Kevin shared some of his own stories about growing up with Irish and tap dance in Irish Music Stories episode 14.
>> Aubrey: I had a lot of catching up to do because I didn’t do a lot of complicated steps yet.
>> Shannon: So Aubrey practiced. Really hard. In her show, she tells stories about about practicing and staying in shape and working things out in this old barn.
>> Aubrey: We lived on a 18th century farm for 15 years in foster Rhode Island. And I would practice across the street, the country road, in our barn
>> Aubrey live onstage: In our barn. Unheated, you know this time of year it would be like 3 degrees out. And believe me you’d get plenty warm after a while. And one time I was practicing. It was probably about February. Doors are closed to the barn. I’m in my own little world. Not a lot of cars go by. I’m seeing how fast I can go. And I stop. And outside behind the door I hear this out on the road: “You’re getting better!” [audience laughs]
>> Aubrey: I loved that barn. I loved the smell of it. I loved the light. And I had these different pieces of wood that I would dance on in the barn, because you couldn’t dance on the barn floor. It was too uneven. You’d break your neck.
[ Music: Mountain Grooves reprise ]
And so I would be concentrating, and studying, and practicing, getting my stamina up. I mean, I got to a different level of fitness during those years. Even my doctor noticed it, I went for a physical and my doctor was like, what are you, what have you been doing? Because I basically became an athlete. I was always athletic, but I upped my athletic level.
[ Music: “Meaning of Life,” from Irish Music Stories Production music
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]
>> Shannon: So you’re really talking about honing a craft in isolation, from other people (from Kevin in your case). And then you’re also talking about the scholastic space. Seems like music, endurance, and improvement, staying in shape, staying active—kind of really similar threads.
>> Aubrey: Yeah. Self care it’s it sounds kind of sappy, but um, self care. And I love the age I am. The idea is to stay as healthy as possible. And I’m lucky I love to exercise because that’s, I think, gonna really benefit me throughout my life. Um, but self care: like, seeing what’s going on, on any given day, or in a social setting, or a work setting with other people. I can see what’s happening. And I can do this sort of self witness thing where I’m like, okay, how are you feeling right now? Is whatever’s happening right now, are you getting exhausted by this? Is something about this thing, this interaction with a person or… I can see what’s going on, right then and there. When I was younger, I was very befuddled. And it took me a long time to sort things out. Now I don’t need as much time. It sorts itself out in real time.
I think there’s, self-care involved in, in me being able to maintain stamina. And I’m interested in what energizes and what exhausts me. Like, talking to you is energizing. And this is fun for me. I’m very aware of what energizes me. So that’s, um, part of the whole self-care thing with the stamina. Is what are the things that feed us. And what are the things that we need to politely decline?
>> Shannon: I like it. So improve improvement with music projects and with fitness is really about self care and staying active and aware.
>> Aubrey: Yeah. And just doing the things we love. Because we’re doing all these different things. And finding a way to narrate and weave all those things together. And that kind of thing is a daily practice. Because every day you’re, you’re met with new ideas or new requests or new challenges.
>> Shannon: Yeah. Good discernment. That’s good.
>> Aubrey: The pandemic is a great example of living very day to day. We…we wake up—all of us, we wake up everyday lately, and we’re like, I don’t know what I’m doing. What am I doing? What’s everybody doing?
>> Shannon: What’s happening? What’s going to happen?
>> Shannon running outside: So back out here on my morning run, I’m wondering how the 20K race went for Pa. I’m gonna send him a note.
[ Music: “Yellow Tinker / Ríl Mhór Bhaile An Chalaidh,” from Cormac Begley
Artist: Cormac Begley ]
>> Shannon (back in studio): And I’m back home. Pa wrote back to say the 20K was a great success. Apparently it was perfect running weather, and our hero ran it in 78 minutes with a bit left in the tank at the end! Seems like a good position to be, with just five weeks to go til Savannah. Happy training to Pa Sheehan.
Irish musician and fellow Bostonian Evangelos Stowell is also no stranger to training… and practicing. He’s logged a lot of time with free weights and jigs and reels.
>> Shannon: You’ve been building a base for some time at the gym. And you know, at home learning the concertina.
>> Evangelos: Yep
>> Shannon: When I first met you, of course we were both playing flutes next to each other
>> Evangelos: Good times
>> Shannon: And then things changed. So let’s talk about that. Let’s get into that?
>> Evangelos: Sure. Basically I developed a condition called focal dystonia. I noticed it basically when there would be a bit of a delay. Basically one of the fingers wouldn’t lift when I wanted it to. It would lift, but on a delay. So I wound up actually kind of retooling a lot of tunes to work with that. And I kind of got it to a manageable point. Some tunes are obviously harder than others. But yeah, I think about maybe 12 years ago I had another bout of it and it was a different finger. And it was definitely more difficult to accommodate that particular one. So at that point I stopped playing for about five years, music entirely.
>> Shannon: Mmm. That sounds really tough.
>> Evangelos: Yeah, it sucked. Especially since basically my whole social life was centered around music. I would still obviously be able to hang out with people and get together with people, make dinner, have drinks, all that kind of thing. But there was definitely something missing in terms of like how we communicated.
[ Music: “D Mutey Big Build,” from Production Music for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]
>> Shannon: Mm. Yeah. And during that time, um, what were you doing?
>> Evangelos: I guess I was maybe focusing more on working out. Maybe that was kind of a distraction. And just another place to put my energy. I guess I was probably doing more language study at that point also getting, getting my Japanese up to snuff, and focusing on the other things in my life that it kind of makes me happy.
>> Shannon: Yeah. And then you began learning the concertina.
>> Evangelos: Yeah. So that was about six years ago. Like I always loved the playing of people like Michael O’Riley, even when I was playing flute. So it seemed at least an attractive option in that there wasn’t a need to like learn tonality on a fiddle or something. Or… I love the pipes, but I have no interest in dealing with that. So the concertina seemed like a good choice.
[ Music: “Rathcroghan,” from As it Happened
Artists: Mícheál Ó Raghallaigh & Danny O Mahony ]
The causes for focal dystonia are pretty, they’re not really known. There are genetic factors. Apparently it can be due to stress. It can be due to some kind of trauma. When I think back to learning flute, starting to play in sessions when I was 16 in New York and the amount of stress, and having to figure out a lot by yourself. Whereas now I have the wherewithal to ask questions, to think logically about what I’m hearing, and ask questions of the teachers I’ve had. Yeah, in a way it’s kind of nice, because there’s a lot less baggage. There’s a lot less emotional baggage than there was with flute. It’s like I’m confident that I’m at least doing my best and I’m doing what I’m fairly sure works.
>> Shannon: So working out and learning an instrument—both require discipline, regular practice and time.
>> Evangelos: Yep. Basically I think of them as very similar kind of endeavors. I kind of said it in my head that if I was going to learn another instrument, I was going to do it right. Especially the fact that all my friends are… remained extremely accomplished players. So I wanted to make the the social aspect of me learning an instrument along with them as painless as possible for other people. And what’s always worked for me at the gym has been consistency. Just doing it four or five days a week. Just take an hour out of those days and do it. And basically that’s been my approach with concertina is every morning pretty much one or two hours of practice for the past six years. Unless I’m on vacation or there’s some extenuating circumstances.
>> Shannon: When you practice (mindfully and properly) , you gain fluency. Here’s Evangelos playing in his little practice room. It’s just lovely playing here. Sounds like a good concertina player, playing this nice jig called the Chapel Bell.
[ Music: “Chapel Bell,” from Live in the Living Room
Composer: Frank McCollum
Artist: Evangelos Stowell ]
>> Shannon: Yeah, I’m really inspired and a little jealous of the notion of doing it right the first time around,
>> Evangelos: It was a different experience from my first instrument where I was a kid and I kind of didn’t have these concepts in my head yet. And you also approach learning an instrument in a different way when you’re a child anyway. As an adult you kind of have different strengths. And it’s great to figure out what those are. And bring those to whatever you’re doing.
>> Shannon: if I could bring some of the perspective that I have today about working efficiently. And maybe being kinder to myself. If only I were starting the flute right now, I think that I might go a little easier on myself and on the world. It’s hard to unlearn some of those deeply seated beliefs.
[ Music: “ E Chimes,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]
>> Evangelos: Yeah. That’s actually something I’ve really enjoyed getting out of your podcast, is people like open up to each other a bit. You actually ask these questions and kind of have like more of an open dialog.
>> Shannon: Oh, good! I was working on a project with a player who I just admire. And I guess it was a great sadness and also a relief when I encountered him talking about how insecure and hard on himself he is about like, well, do you think this take is okay. And why do you think. And I thought, what?? You, too???!
>> Evangelos: I love that. Honestly.
>> Shannon: It’s Okay! So trust is maybe a bit of an inner game. Wheras mirrors can be helpful because we can then see if there’s in our teeth.
>> Evangelos: Sure.
>> Shannon: But also a mirror can really distort. And I think it can be so helpful to record yourself once in a while, and also to have a record of that so that you can go back in eight months time and listen and say, oh, great success from eight months ago. But to continue to stare into the mirror or to continue to record yourself over and over, perhaps detracts from listening from the inside.
[ Music: “Triumph Theme,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]
>> Evangelos: Exactly. I guess it’s I guess it’s trusting that if you are consistent, despite what you may perceive that you’re going to get better. Like, my experience with dysmorphia, basically going from someone who was very small to someone who people would perceive as like large and in shape. But I mean, as a 39 year old man, I have no idea what I actually look like.
And the same thing, kind of in terms of thinking about improvement and your perception of it, like recording yourself playing is usually a pretty depressing exercise. You only hear the mistakes. You only hear the struggle. And then you can listen to the same thing couple of years later, and, and think to yourself, oh, it wasn’t terrible. And that was certainly better than the recording that I made a month before that. So basically, I mean, my approach to endurance and improving is just to kind of, to a certain extent, trust that what I’m doing is going to keep providing results. And try and be kind to myself in terms of my expectations, for what, for how what I see in the mirror or how what I hear when I record myself is gonna seem like to me.
>> Shannon: So we got this little room scene going on, where we’re working on our instruments in isolation, and then we’ve got this bigger session this bigger community that can kind of distract us that can make it more fun. And that could also propel us. Think we have the same thing when it comes to fitness too, right?
>> Evangelos: Yeah I have had workout buddies before and it’s definitely a different experience. It’s a little bit more fun. It’s a little bit more interactive. You can learn from your workout buddy. You’re exchanging ideas in definitely much the same way that you would in a social context with music.
[ Music: “The Blackbird,” from Life Is All Checkered
Artists: Nathan Gourley & Laura Feddersen ]
One of the things that really helped me a lot when I was starting concertina was my friend Laura Fedderson, who’s a great fiddle player—we’ve been friends since college. She decided that she was going to kind of take up banjo at the same time as I was taking up concertina. So while I was definitely putting in the hours by myself, the whole shedding process, I was also able to get together with her and kind of sound crappy together for a little bit. And actually remembering what the point of this music is—or at least is for me. Basically because I enjoy the social aspect, I want to get together with my friends. It’s how we communicate most of the time. It’s often how we communicate the best.
Those kinds of second instrument sessions we were doing regularly definitely help put that in perspective. And same thing with having like a workout buddy at the gym, she would bring tunes that she had just learned or had just transferred over from fiddle. I would do the same with concertina.
>> Shannon: That’s awesome.
>> Evangelos: Yeah.
>> Shannon: That’s really, really nice.
>> Evangelos: Yeah.
>> Shannon: When do you work out in the mornings or the evenings or?
>> Evangelos: LunchtimeI guess lunchtime on time is what works for me. Especially working from home, but even when I was in the office, like, I’d be able to just go get a quick workout done at my lunch break and come back. Yeah, it’s a great pick me up and kind of gets me ready for the rest of the day.
>> Shannon: That’s cool.
[ Music: Chimes reprise ]
>> Pa: I run in the mornings. It’s nice when you’re out there here in Toronto, like, I’m not the only one running in the mornings. And you meet people. And I’m always kind of curious, I wonder what that person’s goal is, you know, are they running for the craic? Is this their first time running in months because they were sick of sitting down and watching TV? Or are they running every single day? Like, everyone has something individually going on in their head. Um, we’re all like little hamsters on the wheel, just running around just for something to do. So, yeah, it’s enjoyable.
>> Shannon: You know, Irish music is a social tradition for sure. There’s a great incentive to learn these tunes because then you have tunes in common. And when you meet, you can have more fun playing them together. So there’s definitely a big social payoff for putting in the work. And still there’s a lot of time logged in the little room by yourself.
>> Pa: There’s something about watching a session (and I say watching, because I’ve never participated in one), but you can obviously tell the people who are beginners. And they might step out of some tunes and step into others. But you can see them trying to, use their ear or use their eyes or whatever they can to try and involve themselves in the session and learn part of the tune that they’re just not able to play at the moment. And you can almost see the excitement on their face when they do figure it out and they do start using it. But that in-the-flow moment—and there aren’t many things in life where you’re doing it, and the only thing you’re doing is thinking about it.
[ Music: “Spórt,” from The Nervous Man
Composer: Peadar Ó Riada
Artist: Mícheál Ó Raghallaigh ]
Like even running. Like I’ve ran runs and forgot that I was running because I was thinking about something else, which I love. But maybe that’s why I love hurling. You’re in it. And you’re not thinking about anything else. Um, and I think music is probably going to offer me that as well.
>> Shannon: Yeah! Is there an instrument that calls up to you to learn?
>> Pa: To be honest, you know like everyone always says, you know, you start with the tin whistle. And you could surely jump into a session and play the tin whistle. I go, look, the tin whistle is the same as any other instrument. Like if I don’t know how to play it, I don’t know how to play it.
Um, I don’t even know if this is going down the right route, but because of that nostalgic feeling of the County Final day, like I’d love to be able to play the bagpipes as well. The fiddle is so enticing. But there’s something in the back of me knows that it’s, you know, apparently incredibly difficult and all that.
>> Shannon: I mean it’s hard to run a marathon. You know, you have to plan and you have to train, right?
>> Pa: Yeah. Literally I said that to people already that I’m hoping to qualify for Boston. And a lot of people kind of scoff at it and say, what if you’re a first merit, then you probably want. And I’m like, yeah, I’ll ask if I’m over ambitious, I’m over ambitious. I better do that. Then realize at the end of the marathon that I probably could have ran it faster. You know, if I try something and I fail, then I figure out something else to do or I’ll succeed eventually.
[ Music: “Medium Man,” from Happy Daze
Composer: John McCusker
Artist: Battlefield Band ]
Maybe I get to an age where I want to play in any County Finals. But I can still get onto the pitch in some way.
>> Shannon: Nice! Well I can’t wait to see where and hear where this all goes
>> Pa: Yeah Looking forward to it. Hopefully I’ll see you in April, sure!
>> Shannon: Yeah. Best of luck with the race and best of luck with, um, learning about Irish music. I hope it is fun!
>> Pa: Yeah. Yeah. It should be, it should be. Any time I get to learn new stuff. It’s always entertaining. So looking forward to it.
>> Shannon: I probably play flute better from being in good cardio shape. But I think running affects my music because of its effect on my mood, and my energy, and my belief in myself. When I push myself to run farther or faster, or when I push myself to just run at all even when I don’t feel like it (or when I think I think I don’t have enough time for it); well, it always makes me feel less anxious. I rinse away a little brain fog. I’m probably a better parent and partner, for a few moments anyway. And I’m way better at facing and solving problems—whether I’m learning a squirrelly new tune, or internalizing a long ballad, or figuring out some computer program, or writing podcast scripts. Plus, running can be very enjoyable, especially when you’re traveling around. It’s a great way to see a new place.
>> Shannon: All right, so what does fitness and wellness mean for you?
>> Evangelos: Just kind of maintaining some kind of balance between your physical self, your artistic/intellectual pursuits, and making sure that things are in some kind of balance that you’re not neglecting one in favor of the other. I’m sure I’m certainly neglecting certain aspects of my health.
But you know, Irish music, there’s kind of maybe an idea—maybe it’s a cultural thing that’s actually true—but just that it’s often focused around drinking, around late nights, around a social scene that can be maybe physically detrimental.
[ Music: Triumph reprise ]
I’ve definitely noticed though that more recently people are kind of trying to look for that balance. All of my friends are involved in yoga, lifting, some kind of a physical pursuit that keeps them healthy. It’s definitely… it seems like a priority for people. And and it’s great that people can be healthy and still like have a good time.
>> Pa: Realistically I’m probably fitter now than I was two years ago. But there’s a part of me that believes that that fitness was always there somewhere. I just needed to turn it on and turn the tap on, I suppose, and get it flowing. And I’m not saying everyone is capable of running two hours in a marathon. But I definitely think that we all have, I suppose, depths to our skill sets, or to our knowledge, or whatever it might be that just needs to be turned on. And it doesn’t matter the particular area or topic is. I have friends who try to learn the guitar. They’re not trying to be Jimi Hendrix, like. They’re just trying to play the guitar as well as they can possibly play it that’s pleasurable to them. I suppose I’m on a journey of how fit can I get at the moment that’s healthy. And eventually, hopefully, how good can I become at a particular instrument or set of instruments.
[ Music: Little Bird Lullaby Reprise ]
Right now it’s how much knowledge can I potentially give to the students? Or how much discussion can I have with the students? Or what experience can I give to the students in this particular course to the best of my ability. So that’s… I don’t know if that makes any sense, but it makes sense to me.
[ Music: “Silver,” from Silver
Composer/Artist: Hanneke Cassel ]
>> Shannon: Professor Pa has a few months to go before the Irish and Scottish music course begins. Who knows? This might be the start of a long and illustrious journey for him on the Irish uilleann pipes, or the Scottish Highland pipes, or the fiddle. In the short term, three and a half weeks to go til Savannah. Lots to look forward to.
I remember reading an article about a few centenarians, on how they lived long, active, joyful lives. One of the people featured was Julia Hawkins. She was biking at the time. She had a bike accident, and so she moved onto running. And just two months ago, she congratulated Diane Friedman after Diane beat her at the 100-meter dash in Michigan. Both Julia and Diane plan to compete again in Florida in May. Julia will be 106 years old by then.
A big theme for people who’ve stay in the game for many decades is staying active: active in sports, actively pursuing passions, actively learning new things. Instant gratification doesn’t seem to be a big theme for the hundred year olds. It’s doing things for themselves. And having things to practice for, and look forward to. Whether that’s a marathon in Savannah, or learning just one jig well enough on the concertina that you can play it beautifully in your little room and with your friends.
[ Music: “The Beehive,” from Rubai
Composer: Sarah Allen
Artist: Flook ]
There are no guarantees. Making plans and dreaming big doesn’t always pan out. But little AND big projects are usually just one step… and then the next. So I’m gonna put on my shoes and run a few miles. But not as many as Pa will have to run this week. I wonder how Savannah will go for him! I wonder what’s gonna happen!
>> Shannon to Aubrey: What’s happening? What’s going to happen?
>> Aubrey: What are we doing? [Laughter ]
>> Pa: It’s a very individual journey that’s extremely enjoyable and rewarding. I think like, hypothetically, if I don’t qualify for Boston in Savannah, it’s almost irrelevant in a way. Because the journey at the moment is so enjoyable. Then anything that might happen at the end, But like the goal has already been met.
>> Shannon: Irish Music Stories is produced by me, Shannon Heaton. For playlists, transcripts, links to videos, companion essays, and to contribute to this project, please head to IrishMusicStories.org. Thank you to all the donors this month. Thank you, Nigel, for acknowledging our sponsors. To Matt Heaton for the script editing and production music. And thank you to my fine guests, Aubrey Atwater, Evangelos Stowell, and Pa Sheehan. Break a leg in Savannah!
>> Aubrey: I don’t know what I’m doing. What am I doing? What’s everybody doing? Hahaha
>> Nigel: Goblin.
>> Shannon: hahaha!
Episode guests in order of appearance
Irish language and Celtic Studies scholar and currently assistant Professor at the University of St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto
Singer, dancer, multi-instrumentalist who performs and offers educational shows with duo partner Elwood Donnelly
NY-reared, Boston-based linguist, Irish musician, and Harvard grant manager