INSIDE STORY: This September will see the first youths in County Cavan benefit from the Music Generation project. MAIREAD DUFFY, the person charged with making the ambitious project a reality in Cavan and Monaghan, tells DAMIAN MCCARNEY about her plans to roll it out. It’s music to our ears!
“Oh I love them actually,” professes Mairéad Duffy of U2.
“You don’t,” a sceptical Celt grumbles.
“I do,” insists Mairéad in a soft Tyrone accent, that after two decades of living on Coalisland’s hinterland has displaced her inherited Tuam lilt.
She backs up her insistence by declaring Achtung Baby her favourite album, a sentimental choice given it was the soundtrack to her university years in Belfast when studying for her music degree. Mairéad’s views on the Dublin fourpiece don’t actually matter a hate. Now that she’s the frontwoman of Music Generation, a project financed in no small part by U2, the singular point of interest is that she can deliver on nurturing the musical talent in Counties Cavan and Monaghan.
The project sees the two county councils and Cavan Monaghan Education and Training Board (CMETB) rummage through their pockets to come up with matching funds of €456,000 over three years to unlock the same sum of money from the Music Generation pot.
Last month’s appointment of Mairéad as development officer marks the beginning of the planning phase, which will build towards the roll-out of what promises to be “a full and comprehensive programme” of vocal and instrumental tuition.
Some people may be surprised that there’s any need for Music Generation to lavish their cash on Cavan and Monaghan – is there not already a wealth of musical talent in south Ulster? In the post-Fleadhanna years the Celt’s local news section has had Comhaltas events as a permanent feature across numerous villages.
Mairead agrees there’s a “rich Comhaltas scene” in both counties, “which is fantastic”.
“While I would say that trad is alive and well, and certainly it is really alive and well according to the research and framework plan I’m looking at, that’s not going to excite every child in these two counties. There’s a huge amount that’s untapped at the moment.”
Traditionally the other pathway into music is through private tuition. It’s the path that served Mairéad well as a child in Tuam, launching her on a lifetime of musical reward. However this route too has its limits.
“It’s a certain socio-economic bracket who are willing and able to invest in that.
"The whole thing about Music Generation is that everybody can access so that it’s affordable - it’s not free - high quality instrumentation and vocal tuition.”
She has faith that Music Generation is a game changer in this regard – according to the project’s website it currently creates 48,500 opportunities each year for children and young people to access tuition in their local communities, as well as creating more than 400 employment opportunities.
“That’s why it’s really exciting,” said Mairéad, “to open up music making so that it is accessible, because it hasn’t been, and it isn’t - that is the reality of it.”
Mairéad has the desire, and most importantly funds to try to machete some new trails for kids to find their way into musical expression. The project has four aspects to it: early years; primary school; a community strand (aimed at teenagers); and an inclusive strand for those with special needs. She anticipates that primarily she will be dipping into her considerable musical war-chest to fund musicians to provide tuition. She differentiates between musicians and music teachers – both are welcome, and there will be training provided if they need to adjust from their experience of teaching one-to-one to a classroom environment.
“Certainly I’m not going to be going out buying 100 guitars or anything like that.
"The biggest part in this expenditure in my mind isn’t going to be in instruments, it’s going to be in recruiting musicians to deliver these programmes,” says Mairéad, who has been head of music in St Patrick’s Academy, Dungannon for 23 years.
“I’m busy looking at maps of County Cavan and County Monaghan, and obviously when we have these musicians on board, well then we’re looking at: okay where is it not happening? Where will Music Generation really benefit? So we’re thinking of primary schools where no music is happening.”
So is there musical blackspots – the Celt’s phrase, not Mairéad’s – in Cavan?
“I think I could say West Cavan safely, in terms of being really under served. There’s quite a few black spots where it’s not happening in an inclusive and accessible way – they may well have the Comhaltas groups or the private piano or violin teacher but all those other children don’t have access, or the entire school may only come together musically for Holy Communion and Confirmation. I’m talking generally but that’s the sense that I’m getting in some areas.
“And a lot of the good stuff that is happening is maybe dependent on funding – like Arts Council funding or one-off funding projects. We’re more about establishing the programmes so that we have progression in the musical development of our children, and also sustainability in delivering these programmes so that the secondary schools will reap the benefits of these children. And then we are driving the need for music to be part of the curriculum in the secondary school.”
She brands the current case of music being a “choice subject” in most secondary schools as “desperate”.
Teaching in the North, Mairéad is used to children in secondary school having three years of music as part of their compulsory lessons, before they have to decide whether they are going to take it for GCSE, the equivalent of the Junior Cert.
“It’s a choice from day one in a lot of schools. I was shocked when I heard that – because that was the system I grew up in many many years ago. I had to choose Music over Art or German – it was a no brainer for me because I was into music, but I didn’t get the chance to learn German,” she says with a laugh of disbelief.
“I understand budgets and all, but I just think that’s dreadful that you’re ruling it out at 11, basically. And you’re probably ruling it out based on little or no prior experience in primary school, unless you’ve had the benefit of piano tuition or whatever.”
The Celt voices the idea that many teens may roll their eyes at the prospect of learning conventional musical instruments – violins, clarinet, piano, guitar - and have much more desire to explore sampling and DJ-ing.
Music Generation aims to enage teenagers through the community strand.
“We’re looking to set up hubs across the two counties... where we want to cater for that desire, of let’s say, to learn to play bass, or drums, or the DJ sampling – absolutely.
“The community strand is to open the provision up and to excite and attract young people to be the bands of the future, to be the DJs of the future and come together
and make music and perform music.”
In undertaking the role Mairéad brings an impressive résumé having recorded and toured with The Chieftains as part of the Belfast Harp Orchestra. She was the featured vocalist in many of these concerts, even performing in Carnegie Hall. Amongst the highlights on Mairéad’s CV festooned with awards, includes releasing a debut album ‘Silver Tin House’ as a singer songwriter in 2016. Is it not a waste to have such an accomplished musical talent undertaking what is essentially an admin role?
“Yeah, obviously I had to consider that when I took this position,” she admits, but adds that she will have a support who will look after the “day to day admin” freeing her up to give for aspects which better chime with her musical passions.
“I have got the lovely creative and curatorial part of the job, so I’m the person who is looking at creating these programmes, and working with these musicians and using all of the music education experience I have accrued over my career in enabling musicians.”
“It is very exciting for me – I have had an impact on I don’t know how many children - quite a lot in my career. This is an opportunity to impact even more. I know that sounds possibly utopian but if you look at Cavan and Monaghan, and you are looking at the reach we can actually have with this project and the reach with this project and the reach that is happening across the country – it’s huge! It’s a wonderful opportunity for me as well – a different opportunity.
“There is an opporunity for me to be that musician as well, and my gosh you couldn’t keep me out of that – but I am mindful that’s not my primary role.”
Bearing in mind that there’s over 70-odd national schools in Cavan alone, how long does Mairéad think it will take before every child in the two counties will have access to affordable music?
“Realistically it will depend upon the number of musicians we recruit – it’s all about logistics. We can’t have someone in Dowra in the morning and in the afternoon in Mullagh,” she says, revealing that she has studied those maps of Cavan pretty well.
She notes that some national schools will already have opportunities thanks to a teacher with a grá for music. “I suppose we will want to go to the schools that really want us first, because they are going to support us, and they are going to be ambassadors for Music Generation – and then I would like to think that the school down the road sees how successful this is and then they will want a piece. So I can see a lot of it building that way. It would be foolish to say we’re going to be in 70 schools in September – it ain’t going to happen that way, but we are certainly going to try to be geographically across both counties, so we can say, ‘Yeah we have a centre here, here and here and our tutors are there on those days’, and build this up gradually, because we have to get it right.”
Cavan-Monaghan are amongst the nine areas benefiting from the second phase of the project – it was originally piloted with much success in 11 areas. She plans to take on board the lessons of those in phase one.
“We’re able to learn from what the first phase counties did well, and maybe if they had the chance to do it again, what they would do differently,” she explained.
In judging the project’s success she will seek feedback from principals, teachers, parents and children, but also “please God the increasing number of participants”.
“After three years, please God all going well, the philantropic money ceases and then that money passes over to the Department of Education and Skills. So it’s very important that we have a sustainable model here.”