Monday, July 30, 2012

Augusta Irish Week – There's No Turning Back Now!

Laura and I just returned from our first ever Augusta Irish Week!  Now I am definitely hooked on traditional Irish music.  I took Pauline Conneely's tenor banjo class and Laura took Mairtin de Cogain's bodhran class.  Read on for a synopsis.
Late night outdoor session behind the Icehouse pub.
Small, intimate classes meant the teacher-to-student ratio was very good, sometimes 1:1!  This was a transition year for the event (out with the old, in with the new) and that along with the economy and competition could have contributed to the lower than normal attendance.  While perhaps not what Augusta would have wanted, for students this meant more personal attention. 

Quality of the instructors.  New coordinator Dan Neely did a fine job assembling the team of Patrick Ourceau, Mick Conneely, Pauline Conneely, Cillian Vallely, Ivan Goff, Mairtin de Cogain, Brian Holleran, Dennis Cahill, Dan Gurney, Dylan Foley, Donna Long, Troy MacGillivray, Jimmy Crowley, and Brian O hAirt.  These are not just top notch players but great teachers as well.  All that was missing was a bouzouki class from what I could tell.

Sessions in the Icehouse pub.  The Icehouse is a really cool, three-story dive bar smack dab in the middle of campus.  It was a fun place to hang each evening and socialize with the other students.  On most nights a mighty, advanced-level session would develop there.

Daily open sessions:  9:00-9:45am slow sessions at Gribble Hall and 4:30-5:30pm instructor led moderate sessions on the Halliehurst Porch.  It was nice to have these two times each day set aside for open sessions, although it was sometimes tough to make the 9am one when you had been up until 3am the night before!  It was a thrill getting to lead on the tunes Road to Lisdoonvarna and Star Above the Garter on the first day with Dennis Cahill providing the guitar backup!

Accessibility of the instructors.  The majority of the teachers could be found each late evening playing in sessions in the Icehouse pub.  Not only that, but the small, condensed campus size meant that you were bound to run into and interact with the teachers many times throughout the day.  For the most part, these superstars are just regular folks ready to share their expertise or just have a chat.

The lunch-time interviews/discussions between Dan Neely and the instructors on various topics such as the singing tradition, East Galway music, Uillieann Pipes and playing backup were very interesting and informative.  I enjoyed every one.

The evening concerts on Tuesday and Thursday were a good opportunity for the instructors to strut their stuff in front of the general public.

Pickin’ in the Park.  On Wednesdays there are bluegrass and old-time jams in the Elkins City Park adjacent to campus.  I went over there and got in about 5 or 6 “D” tunes during an old-time jam.  I believe the tunes were Mississippi Sawyer, Grasshopper Sitting on a Sweet Potato Vine, St. Anne’s Reel, Arkansas Traveler, Angeline the Baker and Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss.  Not too bad for an Irish tenor banjo player!

Setting and Facilities – Davis and Elkins is a beautiful, hilly, walkable campus set in the mountains of West Virginia (one of my favorite states to visit).  The view from the Halliehurst porch is awesome!

Dining – It’s worth mentioning that the campus cafeteria offered fairly decent food.  However, we didn’t purchase the meal plan which gave us the opportunity to explore some off-campus dining in the town itself.  I especially like the Venezuelan restaurant ElGran Sabor, CJ Maggie’s and the Graceland Inn Restaurant.

Student Showcase.  On Friday each class got to demonstrate what they learned by playing a set of tunes or a song.  My banjo class played two reels: Wind that Shakes the Barley > Mountain Road.  We were joined by the bodhran class and the impressive Troy MacGillivray on piano!

Other Comments
The light attendance this year compared to years past, while conducive to small class sizes, meant that some things that should happen naturally – such as impromptu sessions – never really materialized, unless I just missed them.  I was expecting lots of opportunities to jam, but besides the twice daily scheduled open sessions at 9am and 4:30pm there really weren’t any other beginner/intermediate friendly sessions that a student of my ability could participate in.  I really hope they fix this for next year.  If not, I may take it upon myself to organize something.

Contra dances and Ceilis every night.  Dancing is a big part of the tradition at Augusta and it’s a way to engage the dance students and appeal to the local population.  However, I’m not really into step dancing and although I liked listening to the musicians playing for these events it would have been cool to have other options during those points in the evening.  Or maybe I should just learn how to dance next time.  It does look like fun.

I signed up for an evening mini-course on Irish-Appalachian fiddle tunes that I only ended up going to twice out of the four times it met.  The class was pretty advanced for me and I found that I preferred to use the time between 6:30 and 7:45pm for other purposes like decompressing or napping.  I may try the Ceili Band mini-course next year though!

We didn’t stay in the dorms or conference center so I can’t comment on those accommodations.  We brought our two 14 year old dogs for the week so we stayed off campus at the nearby Elkins Motor Lodge since it allowed pets.  I would stay there again if need be.  It was cheap and a good place to stay with dogs.

All in all it was a great week.  It went by like a blink.  The fastest 6 days I’ve ever spent.  I can’t wait to go back!
Afternoon session on the Halliehurst porch
Laura (bodhran) and me (lefty banjo, middle) in the student showcase. Joined by instructors Troy MacGillivray (piano) and Pauline Conneely (banjo), and fellow students Gene Thorn (bodhran), Randy Powell (banjo) and Dave (mandolin/right). Photo by Rosemarie Vincent.

Lunchtime Uillieann Pipes Extravaganza with Cillian Vallely (L) and Ivan Goff. Photo by Dan Neely.

1 comment:

  1. All of your commentary is 'spot on' as the Irish say. This was also my first year and I am already making plans to return next summer if this same caliber of instructors holds. Dan Neely did a great job as coordinator and the Ice House seisún that went to the wee hours were nothing short of phenomenal!