Irish Music Archives Visits an After-School Club in Somerville

Guest Musicians Gather at Celtic Fusion Club 

A couple of months ago, in the time before social distancing, music educator Kendall Driscoll invited a few Boston-area musicians to give a live, in-person presentation to East Somerville Community School’s Celtic Fusion Club. Fiddle and bow in hand, I was delighted to be part of this event, along with Tommy Sheridan (button accordion), Tony Keegan (bodhrán and button accordion), club leader Kendall Driscoll (tin whistle), and Somerville Public Schools music director Rick Saunders (guitar and vocals). We shared some of our favorite tunes, described our musical journeys, and answered questions from the students.

Guest Performers at the East Somerville Community School Celtic Fusion Club. From left: Elizabeth Sweeney (fiddle), Kendall Driscoll (tin whistle), Tony Keegan (bodhrán and button accordion), Tommy Sheridan (button accordion), and Somerville Public Schools music director Rick Saunders (guitar and vocals).

Guest Performers at the East Somerville Community School Celtic Fusion Club. From left: Elizabeth Sweeney (fiddle), Kendall Driscoll (tin whistle), Tony Keegan (bodhrán and button accordion), Tommy Sheridan (button accordion), and Somerville Public Schools music director Rick Saunders (guitar and vocals).

Our roles were reversed when the club members played their own instrumental arrangement of the Scottish song, “Loch Lomond” for us. They used a variety of instruments, and Ms. Driscoll played piano. Their moving performance made me want to learn more about how the club had come to be. An interview with Ms. Driscoll soon followed, the text of which is below. We hope that you enjoy learning about this exciting initiative taking place in Somerville.

Interview with Kendall Driscoll (Somerville Public Schools) conducted by Elizabeth Sweeney (Irish Music Archives, Burns Library, Boston College)

It was lovely to hear you and your students play a couple of weeks ago. What is your role in the East Somerville Community School and in the Celtic Fusion Club?

I work for Somerville Public Schools and am the general music teacher at two Somerville schools (Albert F. Argenziano School and the East Somerville Community School). I currently teach grades K-4. I also run an after-school club at East Somerville Community School called the Celtic Fusion Club. My colleague, Adam McLean, also helps to run the club with me. 

My role in the club is very broad and includes teaching students to play non-Celtic and Celtic instruments, creating musical arrangements for the students to play, leading students in singing traditional Irish and Scottish songs, sharing Celtic culture with the students, involving students in traditional dance, and organizing events that provide students with enriching experiences and music-making opportunities. I do a lot of jobs for this after-school club. 

How and when did you first have the idea for a Celtic Fusion Club?

I first proposed this idea to my colleague, Adam McLean, a week before school started in August in the fall of 2019. I was (and still am) a first-year teacher and so I was meeting with him to get a feel of the music program at one of the schools where I would be working. When I spoke to him, I asked him if the music department ran any after-school music activities; he mentioned that last year he had run a “music club” which was essentially an established meeting time afterschool where students could come into his music room and make music or learn something musical. 

I shared that I was deeply invested in Irish music, having done my graduate research on music-making in an Irish community. I proposed what I called a “crazy” idea and suggested making a club with Celtic music where students could learn about another culture, learn another instrument, and find an inclusive and participatory space for music-making. We called it Celtic Fusion because we imagined that this club could involve all the different fusions of Celtic music with other cultures and with non-standard instruments. (This is an idea that I originally got from listening to the Irish and Celtic Music Podcast run by Marc Gunn.) Adam thought it was a great idea and mentioned that he had Scottish heritage and we began brainstorming.

East Somerville Community School’s Celtic Fusion Club

East Somerville Community School’s Celtic Fusion Club Flyer

What are your goals and vision for the club?

My goal for the club is for students to have access to a music-making opportunity that is unlike what is offered in most public schools (especially K-8 or elementary schools) and for them to enjoy the community and the freedom that this music so naturally brings about. Inclusivity, community, a genuine love for music, and creativity are values that I stress in the club. This being the first year I have ever run a club (much less a Celtic music club), my original goal was just to plant the seeds of these values so the opportunities and experiences for the students could expand in the future. For the future, I hope to keep bringing in more guest artists, host workshops, and have the students go out and give back to the community through music-making.

When did the club begin? What grade levels are participating?

The club officially had its first meeting at the end of September in 2019. Since then, we’ve been meeting once a week on Tuesday afternoons from 2:45-3:45. We currently have about 25 active members in our club. Originally, the club was aimed at students from grades 4-8 at East Somerville Community School, but increased interest from younger grades (particularly, some of the students that I teach in my general music classes) has opened our club to grades as young as 1st grade. At the guest artist presentation, we even had a kindergartner who was the younger sibling of someone in the club come and experience Celtic Fusion Club and even get involved in the Scottish dance that we attempted to coordinate to live music. 

What does a typical club meeting involve?

Learning a new tune/song and creating a “roadmap” of the song, sometimes dividing into smaller groups where older students can mentor the younger students to learn to play the tunes/songs, a few run-throughs of the music as a whole group, recording a piece of music and then listening back to the recording to either propose different ideas or to propose what we could do better next time

When I say we create a roadmap, we first learn the basic song/tune and together as a group, we make decisions together about how many verses to do, which instruments should play on which verse, what should an accompaniment sound like, how many drums should be playing, who will be playing what instrument, who wants to sing a solo, do we have an intro or an outro.

What musical instruments do the club members play? 

Traditional instruments include tin whistle, fiddle, bodhrán, concertina, button accordion, piano, voice, Celtic harp, and guitar. Non-trad instruments include silver flute, clarinet, marimba, hand drums, cajon, tambourine, hand bells, viola, cello, trombone. 

What are the students’ goals for the club?

Students want to get more instruments and have someone teach them in workshops. They want the club to meet more frequently because they look forward to the club. Some students have expressed that they wish the meeting time was longer. They want to “go on tour” and perform at some schools in Somerville and in other places around the community. Students have proposed that if we go on tour that we should be called “Next Generation Celtic.” They all really enjoy the music that we’ve been learning (“Loch Lomond,” “Molly Malone,” “Auld Lang Syne,” and “Blooming Heather”) as well as the arrangements of the music that we’ve created together in the club. 

What are your sources of support and collaboration? 

In January, a DonorsChoose project that I had created for the Celtic Fusion Club was fully funded and our club received funding to purchase a 31-button accordion, a concertina, two bodhráns, and three Irish whistles. Thanks to anonymous donors all over the state and the country, we were able to reach our fundraising goal of $1000. We have also received generous donations of instruments from the Burns Library at Boston College, Tommy Sheridan, and Tony Keegan. We were very fortunate to have Tommy Sheridan, Beth Sweeney, Tony Keegan, and Richard Saunders join for our guest musician presentation. We have had the support from our school administrators, Obed Morales and Laura Bonnell, as well as our director of music in Somerville Public Schools, Richard Saunders. 

What else would you like us to know about the Celtic Fusion Club?

Our club seeks to unite, connect, and create community amongst diverse people. Reaching out to the community allows us to connect to those who can share knowledge with us and join us in music making. We reach out to parents and invite them to our big events because parents should feel welcomed into this music-making community as well and have the opportunity to see children perform. Another thing I stress in the club is that we accept music-makers of any level: students who read music, students who don’t read music, students who have never played an instrument, students from various cultures, and students of varying ages. 

Recap of the visit

Hearing Celtic music being taught, performed, and enjoyed in a greater Boston elementary school was an uplifting experience. These young musicians are the practitioners of the future, and our Irish Music Archives was thrilled to donate a few tin whistles, etc. from our Doug Ecker collection to the school, where they will be put to good use.

The Irish Music Archives at Burns Library is a resource that is available to the public, and therefore the after-school visit was a good fit with our outreach goals. If you have an outreach inquiry please feel free to contact us. If you are a teacher looking for enrichment resources for your students, you can find a wealth of free audio, music notation, and stories at The Séamus Connolly Collection of Irish Music, a resource co-published by Boston College Libraries. 

  • Elizabeth Sweeney, Irish Music Librarian, Burns Library


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