Music, Dance, and Great Craic

Jared Coller copyJared Coller is a music industry major at Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Indiana.  He is a percussionist, and has also studied piano, tuba, guitar, ukulele, Chinese cucurbit flute, harp, string methods, scoring and arranging, and composition.  This summer he attended the Blas Summer Music Intensive Program in Ireland.

When I found the Blas Summer Program through PAA, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity for me to study abroad while in college. It was two weeks over the summer, I was able to get credit for school, and I could travel to a new country and study the thing I love: music!

Not a terrible location either.

Not a terrible location either.

I had only recently become interested in Irish music, although I have always enjoyed it. I have background primarily in percussion, but I also play various other instruments and I compose and arrange music. One of the reasons I wanted to go to Ireland and study at Blas was to learn what made Irish music Irish. I figured I could learn the bodhrán and further my percussion knowledge as I learned about the music.

20160621_164212 copyWhen I arrived in Ireland, I realized I really did not know what I was expecting from the program. There were musicians and dancers from all around the world who have been studying Irish music and dance for years, while I had little to no knowledge of the culture. I discovered quickly that I had to throw out all previous notions of what I thought this program was going to be about and keep an open mind.

20160624_190212~2 copyI picked bodhrán as my primary instrument, being a classical percussionist, and because I have a love for folk instruments and music. My knowledge of the instrument was basically nothing. However, since “blas” means “taste” in Irish, I figured the tutors knew there would be beginners in their classes.

In the bodhrán classes, the tutors were incredibly helpful, being able to teach each person. Everyone in the class had different skill levels, but the tutors were able to work around this and give encouragement and advice. At the end of the second class, I had already learned enough to play at the sessions with the other musicians. By the end of the two-week program, I was able to perform with the rest of the musicians for our final performance and accompany the vocalists in their final performance.

1467410781853 copyHowever, bodhrán did not have a tutor everyday, which gave me the opportunity to take other classes. I was able to take classes in Irish song and guitar. In the song classes, I was able to learn traditional song from Ireland’s revolutions and modern traditional song. In guitar, I learned an Irish tune playing fingerpicking style, and how to play chords using drop D tuning, which is used a lot in Irish and folk music.

Overall, the experience I had in Ireland was phenomenal. I met and befriended people from all around the world, and shared experiences that I will never forget. I could continue on and on about my experience in Ireland, but instead, just go on the program. Experiencing it is the best way to know what it is like. Live life with no regrets!20160625_120514 copy

Five Friends You Make Studying Abroad

IRE - 1We at Performing Arts Abroad are incredibly proud of the Study Abroad programs we offer in Ireland, England, Italy, and New Zealand, as well as the participants who go on them. Students are applying now for Spring semester, and in honor of them and the $1,500 scholarships we’re offering (more info on that here), I wanted to take a look at the type of people you’re sure to run into while abroad.

For the purposes of this post, we’re sticking with people who are also international students like you. This way you can look in the mirror and ask, “Oh wow, which one am I?”

#1 The Homebody

Whether you’re in London or Barcelona, Limerick, Ireland or Dunedin, New Zealand, chances are you’re probably going to want to get out there and explore! There are new places to see, new streets to roam and new foods to eat, and most of your fellow international students will be right there with you.

Let’s hit the town!

Then there’s the Homebody. The Homebody rarely ventures out, and when they do, it’s not for long. You might ask why they came all this way to experience the thrills of a dorm room in a far off land, but who knows?

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Yes but it’s an ITALIAN twin size bed.

Maybe they’re pacing themselves. Maybe they’re like this at home. Maybe it’s their first time traveling on their own and it’s all a little overwhelming. Whatever the case, don’t write off the Homebody. They make hanging out at home more fun, and once they’re more comfortable being in this exciting new place, who knows, they may even evolve into…

#2 The FOMO

FOMO stands for Fear of Missing Out, and you couldn’t keep this person home if you tried.

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The FOMO only has X number of minutes in this amazing country, and by golly they are not going to waste a single one of them! Going hiking this weekend? The FOMO is there. Seeing a play tonight? The FOMO is there. Visiting the market, having a party, or taking a tour of the most haunted basements in London? You can always count on the FOMO.

Check...check, check, checkcheckcheckcheck.

Check…check, check, checkcheckcheckcheckcheckcheck

Remember though, it’s not a good idea to try to keep up with the FOMO the whole time. You can drive yourself into the ground having so much fun, and if you burn out early you can unwittingly turn into a Homebody. Whoa, we came full circle there, didn’t we?

#3 The Insta-Local

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Nobody wants to look like a tourist (especially when we are one) but the fact is, no matter how hard we try, we’re going to stick out in a new place.

Sometimes it's best just to lean into it.

Sometimes it’s best just to lean into it.

Whether it’s because of a language barrier or our unfamiliarity with the local transit system, it takes time to get your bearings and feel comfortable in a foreign city.

That is, unless you are the Insta-Local. The Insta-Local immediately blends in seamlessly, either through instinct or a concerted effort. Within hours they can navigate the local transit system blindfolded. Within days they’ve got the local sports team’s jersey, know all the cheers, and can tell you everything about league standings. Within two weeks they’ve developed an accent that will stay with them the rest of their lives.

Wha--? How? I didn't even know there was a beach here!

Wha–? How–? I didn’t even know there was a beach here!

The best part about being friends with the Insta-Local is that they’ll know the coolest hotspots in town that only the locals know about. We don’t know how they know, but they do. It’s like a 6th sense.

Like the pub where you have to bring your own instrument.

Like the pub where you have to bring your own instrument.

The polar-opposite of the Insta-Local is the “Everything is Better Back Home” friend. We were going to give this person their own number, but they’re super annoying. Don’t be the EIBBH friend.

"I like the pizza back home better" "I swear I will stab you with this pizza cutter."

“I like the pizza back home better than here in Italy.”
“I swear I will stab you with this pizza cutter.”

#4 The Party Animal

4th7 copyWe all go abroad for different reasons. For some it’s the adventure, for some it’s curiosity, and for some it’s a chance to get away from home. For the Party Animal, it’s the lower legal drinking age.

There’s no doubt about it, there are exciting clubs all over the world and the Party Animal will find them.  You won’t see them much, and the “study” part of study abroad may or may not happen.  (These are rarely the PAA participants.  We’ve found that performing artists have a drive and intensity about them that precludes debauchery.  Mostly.  Obviously we’re very proud.)

#5 The Best Friend

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This is an exciting time in your life, and you’re doing something that will stay with you forever. I love hearing my mom’s stories from her semester in Spain in the 60’s. (For some reason their housing was in a convent. The old Spanish nuns and the precocious American college girls weren’t a great mix. But I digress.)

You’re on an adventure, and chances are you’ll find that one buddy to be adventurous with.   You’ll wonder where they’ve been all your life, and be grateful they have just the right amount of goofiness in them to match yours.

They’ll give you the courage to do things you might be to scared to try otherwise, and won’t make you feel guilty on those weekends you’re just tired and want to stay home. Keep an eye out for the Best Friend.Eymundson 7 copy

On Cows, Castles, Cliffs and Celtic Music


Hannah Harris Participated in the BLAS Summer Music Intensive in Ireland in the Summer of 2015Harris 9There’s something to be said about finding yourself in a foreign country with your internal clock telling you it’s 5am… but it’s actually late morning, and there are rolling green hills, wide open fields and a herd of cows right outside your apartment window. This was probably when it hit me that I was actually in Ireland about to spend two weeks studying traditional Irish music and experiencing Irish culture. The cows not only made the University of Limerick even more authentic, they also provided a bonding subject for the people I shared an apartment with–particularly the Americans who are used to the suburban life where the only cows you see are on road trips through Virginia.

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One of the best parts about this program was the diversity of people who gathered together to learn about Celtic music whether it was a passing interest or a deep love for the style. There were about thirty students throughout the program and at least eleven different countries were represented! That was fascinating to me–I knew Celtic music had a widespread influence but it’s one thing to hear about it and another to see it for yourself. Some people came to expand their repertoire, others to take a break from the stress of everyday life and still others to get a taste of a new style of music and dance: hence the name “Blas Music Intensive.” Blas means “taste” in Irish Gaelic. In addition to taking master classes and attending lectures, we also took a Gaelic language class. It was fun to incorporate what we were learning into everyday conversation: we even counted ourselves in Gaelic when we were exploring downtown Limerick to make sure no one was left behind! At the end of the program, there was a student showcase where most of us got to perform some of what we had learned or put together individually, and it was incredible to see how far we all came from where we’d started the week before.

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The two weeks spent in the program were completely filled with activities either planned through the program or spur of the moment ideas that we students had. My normally introverted self completely turned to the other side of the spectrum while I was in Ireland: I was eager to see and do as much as I could in the short time that I had to be in the culture. There were nightly music sessions in the campus pub which were different every night but always had a good social scene! Some of us explored downtown Limerick on our day off and visited sites such as St. Mary’s Cathedral and King John’s Castle–complete with opportunities to shoot fake cannonballs at the walls and dress up in period clothing. On our excursion day, we got to go further and see natural wonders like the Cliffs of Moher (personal favorite!) and the Ailwee Caves. Even little things such as a set of musician and dancer statues in downtown Lisdoonvarna contributed to the cultural experience and made the program so wonderful!

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To wrap this up, here are some pointers for anyone considering the program that my new friends and I discovered. If you want your Irish coffee to be sweet, make sure to order it with Baileys otherwise you’ll get a bit of a surprise when you get the bitter but very warming taste of whiskey in your coffee instead. Make sure you have the right bus stop for getting a ride from downtown back to the university on your day off unless you like chasing the right bus up a couple blocks to its actual stop in the rain with all of your shopping bags! TV commercials are always funnier when you’re not in your own country–and the shows can be entertaining too. If you feel the urge to do a cartwheel on the Living Bridge or roll down the hill outside the President’s house on campus, you should follow your instincts. Bonus points for video evidence. But most importantly, embrace the chance to get to know people you wouldn’t normally hang out with and live in the moment and the music!

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Hidden Gems in the Emerald Isle

By Elizabeth Graber and Mac Sinise

Luncheon is essentially a feminine meal.

Luncheon is essentially a feminine meal.

You learn a lot of strange facts in Ireland, especially when you discover a book called Etiquette for Girls by Lucie Heaton Armstrong while searching through an antique shop.  That’s where this gem came from.  Fortunately, it’s no longer relevant, but it makes for a good laugh.

There are tons of hidden gems like this, mostly “unwritten laws” (that’s another line from Etiquette for Girls) and more benign.  The world of traditional music (trad—yes, people actually call it that) is layered with meaning.  First of all, the so-called traditional music we know and love is a relatively recent phenomenon: the iconic recordings that sparked a worldwide obsession with all things Irish happened in America in the 1920s.  Riverdance premiered in 1994.  While some songs, tunes and dances may be centuries old, others are decades old, and more are being composed as you read this.

Blas is the Irish word for taste.  The program is designed to offer a taste of the trad world, by introducing students to tutors for one or two days at a time, offering concerts and nightly sessions, and including lectures on various topics of interest to traditional music in Ireland.

Mac’s idea of coming here out of college was to relax and absorb as much music as possible, free from academic requirements.  Being new to Irish music, the Blas program was a perfect way to ease into a somewhat unfamiliar style. The guitar is actually very new to Irish music, and is still finding its place.  Even though he’s a beginner, everywhere he goes he’s welcomed into the musical community.  In addition to musical revelation and experience, he learned how not to pack, how to say “Hello” in Irish, and came away from the program with more questions than answers—what Irish World Academy founder Míchéal Ó Súilleabháin predicted would happen.  This is only the beginning of Mac’s relationship to Irish Traditional music.

"free from academic requirements"

“free from academic requirements”

Pink on the Right: Mac’s suitcases for a month   Black on the Left: Elizabeth’s suitcases for 2 months

Pink on the Right: Mac’s suitcases for a month
Black on the Left: Elizabeth’s suitcases for 2 months

Elizabeth’s goal for the Blas program was much more academic.  She’s taught herself most of what she knows about trad and came to Ireland for the summer to study and do research.  Since her background is more institutional, she’s spent this program learning to get out from behind the desk, dive into unfamiliar situations and make the most of them, and have fun doing it.  She’s finding so many exciting insights and questions, and meeting truly incredible people.

Blas catered to both of us.  Days started at 9:45 Irish time, which meant getting up at 9-ish and showing up to the morning lecture somewhere around 9:50 and still being there before the dancers finished their warm-up, and with about 5-10 minutes to spare before the lecture actually started.  After the morning lecture, we headed to masterclasses for an hour and 45 minutes, where we learned from such masters in the world of trad as Louise Mulcahy, Matt Molloy, Steve Cooney, Alan Colfer, Jim Higgins, et al.  The tutors were featured in concerts at lunchtime, giving us really no time to eat lunch, but that’s okay because nothing starts on time.  After the concert, we spent an hour learning key terms in Irish, like is ceoltóir mé and go raibh míle maith agat.  Look them up.  Another hour and 15 minutes of masterclasses took up the afternoon, and a final lecture finished out the day.

Lectures included such topics as Irish-Indian musical connections, Irish religious song.  We had 30 minutes of free-wandering time before dinner, which constituted an enormous pile of food: chips (fries), veg (vegetables—yes, they call it that too), some sort of meat or vegetarian option, and dessert.  Everything but the dessert was shoveled onto the same plate.  It was delicious, especially when you missed lunch for the lunchtime concert.

The only time for practicing was between dinner and the session—a gathering of musicians in a pub to play tunes together—but only some people actually practiced.  The rest of us got on the computer or napped or took a walk along the River Shannon, which runs right through campus.

The River Shannon

The River Shannon

Sessions varied a lot from day to day.  Blas students came from wildly different places: countries from China to America to Poland, ages from 15 to 50s.  People came from all different cultural and musical backgrounds, with the commonality of sharing in Irish music, playing and learning together in the social environment of the session.  We sat in a circle and played tunes, many of which were unnamed because we couldn’t remember the names, except for “I Buried My Wife and Danced On Her Grave,” a personal favorite of Mac’s.

Irish music is community.  It’s welcoming and inviting.  It’s relaxing to be in a musical environment free of competition or the idea of “being good enough,” where you can just be at a basic level and join in the craic.  If you walk into a pub where a session is happening and you’re holding an instrument, everyone there will tell you to sit down in the circle and start a tune.

On arrival, grab a pint, sit down and pick up your instrument.  Play along, if you know the tune.  Disappoint a lot of people if you don’t know the tune.  If you sit with an instrument and don’t play for too long, someone will get concerned and ask if you know a particular tune, or just make you start one to make sure you’re participating (Elizabeth is speaking from experience).

Because the guitar is a relatively new instrument that hangs back and accompanies, occasionally session participants will ask the guitar player to sing a song.  Mac did this a few times, bursting into such iconic Irish ballads as “All Apologies” by Nirvana and “Let Down” by Radiohead.  Luckily, when they say “sing us a song” they don’t necessarily expect an Irish one; they just want to hear music, and they’ve enjoyed Mac’s insistence on sticking to the traditional.  (They actually did enjoy it, though.)

Neat bit of irony to Irish music: all Irish songs are sad, even the happy ones (“The Wee Weaver,” about the man who didn’t get to marry Mary, even though Mary and Willie lived happily ever after), and almost all Irish tunes are happy, even the sad ones (“The Cow on the Bonnet,” about when a cow ended up on the roof of the composer’s car).

To conclude, we’d like to reflect once more on the infallible writings of Ms. Armstrong:

A girl should not waste much time on useless letter-writing, but she should remember to write to people to whom a letter is always welcome, such as to relatives at a distance, to invalids, or people who lead lonely, monotonous lives.

We hope this letter was welcome to someone.  If you have any disagreements, please take them up with Lucie Heaton Armstrong.  Here’s to non-monotonous lives.




Written by Elizabeth Graber and Mac Sinise

Performing Arts Abroad Music Students in Ireland

For more information about our Blas Summer Music Program in Ireland, go here.