Members of Tíolacadh, the UA's traditional Irish music ensemble, learn tunes from each other by ear. (Photo: Bob Demers/UANews)
Members of Tíolacadh, the UA's traditional Irish music ensemble, learn tunes from each other by ear. (Photo: Bob Demers/UANews)

Ensemble Brings Sounds of Ireland to UA

For the UA's Irish music ensemble, rehearsals are about more than just the tunes.
March 12, 2019

On a Tuesday afternoon, it's hard to walk by Room 147 at the University of Arizona Fred Fox School of Music without getting a little extra spring in your step. The pulsing drumbeats, fervent fiddling and trill of an Irish whistle behind the door just make a person want to dance.

And that's part of the goal of Tíolacadh, the UA's traditional Irish music ensemble: to get people up and moving.

Tíolacadh, which is Irish Gaelic for "gift," started in 2017 and now has anywhere between four and a dozen members, depending on who's available to play on a given day. The structure of the ensemble is somewhat informal, and that's by design.

"We don't do performances," said Dawn Corso, founding director of the ensemble and coordinator of the School of Music's music education area.

"Music education in the U.S. tends to be about performance, but that's not how music is practiced around the world, for the most part," said Corso, assistant professor of music education and ethnomusicology. "Music for everyday people happens in the house, in restaurants and bars, and in parades and processions. Part of our goal is to be very inclusive; we want people to realize everybody is musical and can participate."

Members of the ensemble, which is open to UA students and employees as well as community members, gather in Corso's office for rehearsal once a week. They sit in a circle on benches, stools and assorted chairs, surrounded by eclectic tapestries and instruments collected by Corso on her international travels.

Many of the ensemble's members are taking up instruments that are relatively new to them – the mandolin, accordion, Irish bouzouki or bodhrán – a traditional Irish frame drum.

They play without sheet music.

"Don't look at the music!" Corso is quick to shout if someone tries to sneak a peek.

In this ensemble, a member brings in a tune – perhaps a recording they found online or something they picked up from a local Irish music session. The group then figures it out together, by ear, like musicians in a traditional Irish pub might do.

"The idea is that if we're going to study a musical culture, we try to do it in a manner in which historically it has been done," Corso said. "Not only will you learn different skills, musically, but it's a different mode of learning, and often the mode of learning is also the transmission of culture. It tells you something about how things operate between people in those different cultural settings, which is critical."

Olman Alfaro, a music doctoral student who plays guitar in the ensemble, says it's a welcome opportunity for classically trained musicians to step out of their normal realm and to experience another culture.

"We're not really used to just listening and trying to play without reading the music, which is a skill that's very useful, even for classically trained musicians," he said.

For the second half of their weekly rehearsal, the ensemble members move into a larger space where they continue to play, dance and converse.

"Half the fun is that the music is not the only part that is central to the gathering," Corso said. "When you gather you want to have what's called good craic. Good craic means the conversation is good and the atmosphere is good. We want to connect, and the music is there to connect everybody. It's that connectedness that's really central to Irish music wherever you go."

Although Tíolacadh doesn't stage formal performances, the group does play and give demonstrations at schools and community events.

The ensemble is one of three cultural music groups led by Corso, whose interest in Irish music is rooted in her own heritage and experience Irish step dancing.

Corso also directs a Latin American music ensemble called Son Arizona, which is Spanish for "they are Arizona" and a Zimbabwe music ensemble called Chipo, which means "gift" in the shona language. Chipo members play the mbira, an African instrument consisting of a wooden board with metal keys played by plucking. 

All three ensembles are part of a "Music Education Without Borders" course Corso is developing. She said she was inspired to create the class after years of teaching music in a K-12 setting.

"Music education in schools tends to be mostly Western classical," she said. "The more I taught, the more I thought we need to do more, so that not only students but teachers can broaden their experiences."