What I Learned at Celtic College
August 14, 2013
Celtic College. Sounds like a quaint little school nestled away somewhere in the green rolling hills of Scotland, doesn’t it? A peaceful little institution comprised of low stone buildings capped with thatched roofs and surrounded by fields of heather. The kind of place where ruddy-cheeked, red-haired students would study medieval weaving, poetry, lute playing, or maybe even dead languages. But it isn’t. Or at least the Celtic College I’m writing about isn’t.
Celtic College (pronounced keltic, not seltic like the Boston basketball team) is a week-long music extravaganza held each year in early August in the picturesque lakeside town of Goderich, Ontario located on the eastern shores of Lake Huron.
Each year Celtic College (CC) offers dozens of music & crafts classes ranging from beginner-level to advanced fiddle, harp, bodhran, guitar, flute, whistle, step dance, vocal harmony, and much more, all taught by world-renowned Celtic & folk musicians and skilled artisans to appreciative, if not always overly-talented students.
At the end of each 6-hour day of classes, a few teachers put on stage performances in the town’s historic Livery Theatre for the students and fellow teachers. Four days of classes and concerts are then followed by a weekend-long Celtic Roots Festival which is open to the public and where those same talented musicians (plus a few who weren’t available to teach) put on a 3-day outdoor music festival of top-notch Celtic and folk performances, on stages set up in a pretty meadow with a view of the lake. There are crafts, arts, and instrument vendors of all sorts, food and refreshment booths, comfort stations, even a masseuse. Together, Celtic College and the Celtics Roots Festival make for an exhausting yet glorious week-long musical experience.
I’ve just returned from this year’s CC and would like to share with you some of what I learned. No, not just what I studied, but what I learned.
Of course, like everyone else I attended classes. This year I decided to learn to play the fiddle – or at least our lovely and patient instructor Ivonne Hernandez (of the west coast string ensemble The Fretless) attempted to teach me to play the fiddle. I fared about as well with the bodhran under the tutelage of charming Irishman Dominique Keogh (of the Celtic group Niamh Ni Charra). A mason by day, he’s also an expert on the bodhran, a circular, goatskin-covered drum that my neigbours are simply going to love me for when I start practicing at home. And from Belgium’s Philip Masure (energetic guitarist for the international folk-ensemble Comas) I studied DADGAD guitar – an alternate tuning style popular with folk musicians. I figured since I already know how to play the guitar in standard tuning, at least this would be easy. Right? I’d have thought so anyway. But I won’t burden you with any of that here. What I want to write about instead is what happened outside of the classroom. You see, for me, Celtic College was much more than the music lessons.
Lesson 1: You’re never too old to learn
This year I accompanied my eldest son and wife to Celtic College. My son is 22, and attending university. So his learning reflexes are still sharp and finely tuned. My wife and I, on the other hand, aren’t so young. Our learning reflexes (well, at least mine) have atrophied somewhat from years of being out of school and, as teachers, from standing at the other end of the chalk. Not that we haven’t learned new things over the years… of course we have – as teachers we must constantly be keeping up-to-date with new ideas, methods, and technologies. But we usually learn these things on our own from books or online, not in a formal classroom setting with other students, some younger and some older than us.
I can’t speak for my wife, but I was a little nervous about what it would be like returning to the classroom as a student. But you know what? It was a hoot! Sure it was a bit like being back in school, but this time it was less formal and certainly less stressful. All my teachers were quite laid-back and patient. If you learned, you learned. If not, well, at least you tried. Judging by the smiles on the faces of my fellow students they likewise enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere. It made learning a pleasure. And trust me, we challenged our teachers with our broad range of learning abilities. But they were all up to the task.
Almost every class I took had at least one young student (why do I have the urge to call them whipper-snappers?) who was able to grasp each new skill with almost superhuman ability. On the other hand, there was almost always another student for whom the ideas flew over their head like a bird darting for the woods. Yet, by the end of the week, although not experts, I do believe that almost all of us had learned something and were better off than when we came in.
And that’s the essence of learning, isn’t it – to be better off for having tried than you were when you started. So it would appear that you can teach old dogs (and young whipper-snappers) new tricks.
Now, if I could just learn to channel some of that relaxed, laid-back patience into my own classroom, how much better a learning experience my students would have.
Lesson 2: You can’t keep a good town down
Goderich, you may recall, was hit by a fierce and merciless F3 tornado back in late August of 2011. The twister swept in unexpectedly from a storm that developed over the lake one hot afternoon while the town basked in the beauty of the summer’s day. Canada’s prettiest town was hit dead on as if targeted. The winds tore past the Sifto Salt silos down by the shore killing one worker, Normand Laberge. Then it ripped its way up the tree-lined hill twisting and tearing out trees indiscriminately, barely missing the historic Park House Tavern as it passed. From there it headed straight through the scenic town square where it snapped mature trees, tossed vehicles around like toys, levelled stone and brick hotels and businesses, and gutted generational churches.
It then continued its path of destruction through the residential part of town leaving houses torn-apart and the shattered debris of shade trees scattered in its wake. By the time it was over, hundreds of homes, business, and lives had been uprooted, reduced to rubble, or displaced. It was one of the worst natural disasters Ontario has ever witnessed.
Needless to say, the people of Goderich, not to mention anyone who has ever visited that pretty little town, were devastated and heartbroken. The storm hit only one week after the 2011 Celtic College, so the beauty of the place was still fresh in every visitor’s mind while talk of the joyful, festive event was still on every resident’s lips. So the contrast of such unexpected and senseless horror caught everyone by surprise. The pain and loss has taken years to deal with and overcome.
But overcome it has been. In the rebuilding years, a massive community cleanup removed most of the scars and debris left by the storm. Generously donated trees have been planted. Businesses have been rebuilt or relocated. Most damaged houses have been patched and repaired. Destroyed properties have been, or are in the process of being, reconstructed. And Celtic College has continued each year since. In other words, the people of Goderich have done what they have always done best. They have endured, and they have risen to the challenge with faith, hard work, and cooperation and have restored much of what once was. Such perseverance has been uplifting and encouraging to all who have witnessed it. Like that stirring Cape Breton song says “We rise again.” Goderich certainly has.
Lesson 3: You get out of it what you put into it
One thing a live audience often fails to understand is that the quality of the performance they experience is, in large part, directly related to the amount of positive feedback shown to the performers. An enthusiastic audience will get an enthusiastic show. A “sit back and judge it” audience will often get a reserved and cautious show, largely devoid of spirit.
This point was repeated several times during the week. Before each performance given by teachers or students, the show’s MC would remind the audience that they would get out of it what they put into it. And, of course, CC audiences are nothing if not enthusiastic and appreciative. So they obliged and returned the energy by cheering, applauding and singing along enthusiastically to the songs they knew… and even to some they didn’t. And the performers likewise returned this appreciation in-kind with high-spirited introductions, stories, songs, and tunes that shook the floors and rattled the rafters.
This sentiment also applied to the classes, as well as to the impromptu sessions at the Park House Tavern at the end of each day, and to the week-long CC itself. Each attendee was largely responsible for whatever good time they had. If they sat back and waited for someone to make their experience a rewarding one, they probably had a good time. But if they gave their classes their best efforts, attended and participated in the after-hours music sessions (all I can say is, wow! – the talent both professional and amateur at these informal sessions was phenomenal), and mingled and mixed socially with other attendees, they no doubt had an amazing time, one they will be telling stories about well into next year.
I could go on about all the other featured performers like incredibly talented Cape Breton fiddler Kimberly Fraser, veteran Scottish troubadour Archie Fisher, the amazing Irish singer and whistle player Sean Keane, Newfoundland’s Celtic folk sisters Ennis, Canadian folk legend James Keelaghan, award-winning fiddler extraordinaire Shane Cook accompanied by talented pianist Jake Charron (who also accompanied many other acts that week), delightfully perky concertina player Caroline Keane and Tom Delaney from Ireland, quirky Té from the Netherlands, and popular Nova Scotian sisters Cassie and Maggie MacDonald who fiddled and step-danced their way into everyone’s hearts.
And one simply can’t say enough about the vision and efforts of Warren and Eleanor Robinson, founders and still the main driving force behind Celtic College and the Celtic Roots Festival. Talk about getting out of it what you put into it – and then some! Each year, along with a dedicated volunteer staff and crew (Katy, Travis, Cassandra, Deb and so many others this year alone) they have been staging this world-class event since 1992. And we folk enthusiasts are all the better off for it.
Anyone who attended Celtic College this year no doubt left with an armload of stories to tell about what they learned, about all the great people they met and friends they made, about the wonderful songs and tunes they heard, and the amazingly talented musicians from all over the world whom they had a chance to rub shoulders with on a daily basis.
Lesson 4: If you think you know the banjo, think again
Probably one of the most surprising things I learned at Celtic College is that the banjo can actually be a fine and respectable musical instrument. Now don’t get me wrong. I like the banjo – in its place. I like banjos in some folk music and country music. It gives life and country bounce to bluegrass and Appalachian music. Heck, even the British invasion group The Hollies used a banjo in some of their greatest hits back in the 60s. Remember “Stop, Stop, Stop all the Dancing”? But I never thought I would ever hear, and truly enjoy, the banjo played as the lead instrument in a classical concerto. Seriously!
This year we were treated to the talents of one of the most amazing folk & bluegrass groups I’ve ever heard – The Kruger Brothers. Three men from North Carolina. Chatty, incredibly talented Jens on Banjo, his reserved and good-natured brother Uwe on flat-pick guitar, and their low-key friend Joel Landsberg on bass guitar. Together they brought a mix of styles and cultures to Celtic College. Jens and Uwe are Swiss born, but moved to North Carolina in the 80s to follow their passion for bluegrass music. Now here they were performing their original “Appalachian Concerto”, a three-movement, bach-like classical orchestral piece arranged for banjo and guitar and accompanied by string quartet (The Fretless). Can you say eclectic?
And it was superb! They brought the house down and the audience to its feet when they performed this beautiful piece on the first night of the Celtic Roots Festival. Most people were stunned (in a good way) by what they had just heard. If you ever get a chance to hear this amazing performance it will forever change your opinion of the banjo. In the hands of a gifted player like Jens Kruger* the banjo can indeed be played as a classical instrument. Go figure.
* Since posting this blog, Jens Kruger won the 2013 Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass and was recently featured on Late Night with David Letterman.
Lesson 5: The joy of live music brings people together
Probably my fondest memories of Celtic College this year are not of the fun classes or the entertaining performances, as great as they were. They are of the after-hours sessions at the Park House Tavern. At the end of each day teachers, students, and festival organizers would gather at the PHT for a few pints, animated regaling of the day’s events, and lots of energetic music & song… and oh, such music & song!
In the ground floor fireside room, musicians would start gathering at about 10:30 PM. Slowly, tentatively, someone would start a tune and others would join in. Within an hour, the place was packed with bodies and awash in lively, foot-stomping music, mostly tunes from Quebec and Cape Breton. No singing, just energetic fiddle tunes. At one point I counted 14 fiddlers, 2 guitarist, 5 bodhran players, one banjo, one tin whistle, one Celtic flute, and one harmonica all playing along to the same tune… and doing a wonderful job of it. I told my son to take note of what he was witnessing – real music being played the way it was meant to be played – live, unplugged, and from the heart.
Meanwhile, out in the main room a different group gathered. These were the singers and Irish musicians. By 11:30 PM the room was shoulder-to-shoulder with laughter and song all accompanied on fiddles, uillean pipes (pronounced eelian) which are essentially Irish bagpipes but with a sweeter, less aggressive sound than their Scottish cousins, plus the always present bodhrans driving a thumping backbeat. And, of course, lots of guitars. The din in this room was incredible what with the music, plus people talking, laughing and singing. I’m sure this is what it must be like in an Irish pub right after the local team has won the national Hurling championship. Unbridled joy! On one of these occasions the Kruger Brothers and The Fretless gathered in a corner to treat us all to an impromptu debut of the third movement of Jens Kruger’s “Appalachian Concerto”. Hearing something that impressive played in a pub setting was unforgettable to say the least.
The third collection of people assembled upstairs. These were the singers. Only the rare instrument was found in this room. The intent here was to sing in harmony. So the songs chosen were either a Capella or accompanied songs that most people could be counted on to know and sing along with. In previous years, these have included a lot of old English traditional songs about John Barleycorn or about medieval lovers who die in battle, at sea, or at the hands of some old hag who disguises herself as a young maiden in order to lure a randy and handsome young man to his doom. But this year we broke with that tradition and got out the more popular and modern songs. I admit we had a bit of a time remembering all the lyrics, let alone harmonizing to them. But as the pints were downed, additional songs came to mind and the room became increasingly filled with raucous, if not always pitch-perfect, harmonious vocal music. That said, there were the occasional moments of sweet, tuneful harmony that stirred the spirit.
And age had nothing to do with it. I sang a couple of duets, including my original Timmy’s Anthem, with my son, and harmonized along with the songs he chose to lead. I even found myself greatly enjoying the singing talents of a delightfully spirited young woman, Angela Keeley, who’s not much older than my son and who seemed to know the lyrics to almost every song we sang. She was a confident singer and a real pleasure to sing with.
With all this talent packed into the PHT each night, it was understandably hard to pick just one room. So we often found ourselves moving between rooms as the musical energies rose and fell. This old timer even found himself staying up into the wee hours of the morning pumped from all the music, energy, and happiness. I will be forever grateful to all the organizers, crew, and staff of Celtic College and the Celtic Roots Festival who made that week in Goderich one of my most memorable in years.
It’s this after-glow that lasts long after Celtic College is over and that lures people back year after year. It’s a rare pleasure to attend, and one that is not to be missed should you ever get the chance.