Becoming an Irish traditional musician

Jessica Cawley and her new book

Developed out of a ten-year research project for a doctorate at University College, Cork, Becoming an Irish Traditional Musician: Learning and Embodying Musical Culture by Dr. Jessica Cawley combines the narratives of twenty-two Irish traditional musicians of varying ‘vintages’ with intensive field research to explore the rich and diverse ways traditional musicians hone their craft.

The musicians include Mick Daly, Matt Crannitch, Martin Hayes, Conal Ó Grada, Connie O’Connell, Lisa O’Sullivan, Michael O’Sullivan and Joanne Quirke, while the field research took place at a variety of venues including the Corner House and Sin É in Cork as well as a number of festivals.

Published by Taylor & Francis Group/Routledge, as part of the SOAS Studies in Music Series, the book considers the various factors that contribute to the making of a traditional musician. It details the educational benefits and challenges associated with each learning practice, outlining the motivations and obstacles learners experience during musical development.

By exploring learning from the point of view of the learners themselves, the author provides new insights into modern Irish traditional music culture and how people begin to embody a musical tradition. This book charts the journey of becoming an Irish traditional musician and explores how musicality is learned, developed, and embodied.

Based on a doctoral thesis supervised by Mel Mercier, Jessica Cawley’s book is pitched primarily at the academic market (and in particular, college libraries). Accordingly, the book is expensive – at around €100 for a 262-page hardback edition. However, cheaper e-book versions are available at prices in the €30-€40 range.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Exploring the Journey of Musical Enculturation

  • Irish Traditional Music as a Community of Practice
  • Constructing this Ethnography
  • The Transmission of Irish Traditional Music: Key Features

1 Passing it on: Connecting with a Community of Practitioners

  • Mentors
  • Peers
  • Family
  • Enthusiasts
  • Entering the Community of Practice

2 Transmission, Inspiration, and Social Tensions in Irish Traditional Music Sessions

  • Acquiring Repertoire
  • Developing Technique and Personal Style
  • Situated Learning
  • Troubleshooting: Challenges to Learning in Sessions
  • The Session: Who is it for?

3 Organized Informality: Teaching and Institutionalizing Irish Traditional Music

  • The Teaching of Irish Traditional Music
  • Schooling
  • Community Music Organizations
  • Gateways into the Community of Practice

4 Musicking at Festivals, Summer Schools, and Live Events

  • Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann
  • Scoil Éigse
  • Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy
  • Céilidhs, Sing-songs, and Concerts

5 Technology and Irish Traditional Music Culture
Part 1: Old Media

  • The Role of Literacy in an Oral Practice
  • The Phonographic Revolution
  • Film, Television, and Video Technology

Part 2: New Media

  • Traditional Music in a Digital Age: The Role of the Internet
  • The Dawning of the Postdigital Day

Conclusion: The Lifelong Process of Becoming an Irish Traditional Musician

  • Searching for Patterns of Musical Enculturation
  • The Job of Journeywork: Navigating Multiple Paths

Dr Jessica Cawley

Born and raised in New Hampshire, Dr Jessica Cawley trained as a music teacher at the University of New Hampshire, as a classical and jazz saxophone student. Her early years as a music educator focused on conducting, leading, composing, and arranging for wind bands. Her love for folk and traditional music led her to study Irish music and ethnomusicology at the University of Limerick (2008) as a postgraduate student. Over the past decade, she has learned the flute and fiddle, and is now an active performer in Cork’s vibrant traditional music session scene.

As a PhD student at University College Cork, her research explored the learning processes within Irish traditional music. In 2017, she was awarded the prestigious Irish Research Council’s Post-Doctoral Fellowship, which supported the publication of this book.

In addition to her academic scholarship, Jessica has performed and taught traditional, jazz and classical music for over 15 years. She has developed, taught and led music programmes in the United States and Ireland in numerous contexts, ranging from primary, secondary and third level formal education, to facilitating inclusive music-making in community settings. In 2013, she established the non-profit organisation, Creative Tradition, which currently leads school and community programmes, including two Club Ceoil centres in Knocknaheeny and Blarney. Jessica became a programme provider and music tutor at Music Generation Cork City in 2012, before taking up the role of Coordinator in 2018.

She currently serves on the executive board of Society of Music Education, Ireland, and Assistant Editor of MayDay Group’s Newsletter. Jessica is also the Secretary of FairPlé – an inclusive, grass-roots organisation, founded to address gender balance in Irish traditional and folk music performance.

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