MWVA student Soprano Helen Hancock performs for Heritage week


By Louise Harrison

Student of the Mid-West Vocal Academy (MWVA), Soprano Helen Hancock, will perform at ‘The Art of Song’ concert, in the Yeats Tower of Thoor Ballylee, Galway at 8pm on Saturday August 24, as part of Heritage Week. 

The Oranmore native, now in her fifth year of vocal studies with tenor Owen Gilhooly, has just returned from Abingdon Summer School for Solo Singers in the UK, and is looking forward to performing with her piano accompanist.

“I love singing with Mark Keane and Thoor Ballylee is a gorgeous intimate performance space. I always enjoy explaining the background to the songs and arias which brings them to life for the audience,” said Helen.

A teacher in Coole Music in Galway, director of recorder ensemble ‘The Whistleblowers’ and choir the ‘Marine Singers’, Helen originally qualified and worked as an engineer.  

Though she had studied singing in the Royal Irish Academy of Music (RIAM) and at Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) while studying in UCD, it wasn’t until she met Owen at a conducting summer school in Limerick that she returned to vocal studies.

MWVA student Soprano Helen Hancock

“What a fateful day, I had always wanted to resume solo singing but didn’t know there was anyone teaching at that level in the West of Ireland. I started with Owen in the MWVA and he believed in me, and pushed me from the start. In that time I have done grade 6, 8, ARSM and have just completed my DipABRSM,” added Helen.

Though used to public speaking, Helen said she was quite shy and nervous when she began singing as a soloist, but over time has learned to harness the adrenaline of performance and believes it now it makes her sing better. 

“Becoming a singer doesn’t happen overnight, I have plenty still to learn and my studies will never end but I think the Licentiate Diploma is next on the menu. I find exams give you a good target to aim for when you are outside the Conservatory system.

“The DipABRSM forced me do loads of reading on history of music which really enriched my understanding of what I am singing. I sing every single day, I have children so when they are at school that is my lesson and practice time.  I record all my lessons and work on the detail over and over again and with Owen there is always loads of detail,” Helen smiled.

Helen said solo singing involves a lot of time spent alone and you have to be a self starter with a lot of self belief. She has driven from Galway to Limerick for four years for her weekly lessons with Owen, which she said was a big commitment but she has found it to be incredibly rewarding. 

“Having a teacher who is also a performer is great, he, like any performer, is constantly working to improve his own voice and that knowledge and skill really comes into his teaching. I never dreamed when I started out how far I would get and I am really optimistic for bigger things in the future.  I owe Owen so much, becoming a singer has brought me home to myself and is the most significant thing I have ever done for myself,” added Helen.

Having a week of singing in the UK, Helen will attend another vocal course in France in September.

“Those weeks are magic and keep you going for months. In the normal world people don’t always understand the life of singer and it is amazing to be with people who think and feel like you do- your tribe,” said Helen.

Helen has had much experience of performance in multiple setting over the last number of years, but this year her ambition is to sing with an orchestra, “I have sung so much choral repertoire with orchestras in the past, but I always looked at the soloists with such envy. I didn’t know back then how much work would be involved to get to that level”.

Helen and Mark’s performance on August 24 will include a varied programme of Baroque, opera, art song and musical theatre.

Admission is €10 for adults and €5 for children and tickets are available on the door on the night. Refreshments will be available at the interval.

http://www.midwestvocalacademy.com/

Meaghan loves sharing the beauty that music brings to life with her students


By Louise Harrison

Meaghan Haughian from Canada, who has been teaching at the Mid-West Vocal Academy (MWVA) for two years loves teaching music for many reasons, “I love students’ excitement. I love helping them decode the puzzle, and seeing things finally come together—the classic “lightbulb” moment. I love seeing their pride when they can do something they couldn’t in the not-so-distant past. And I love learning along with them—new songs, new ways of thinking, and the chance to critically examine just how and why I do what I do in my own practice”.

Player of 19 instruments in total including the piano, flute, whistle and Irish flute. Meaghan also plays all the band instruments, which she said she can play well enough to teach beginners and direct a band, these include the oboe, clarinet, saxophone, bassoon, trumpet, French horn, trombone, euphonium/baritone, tuba, percussion, and then also the bodhrán, guitar, mandolin, uilleann pipes, and the most recent addition to her collection was a Highland bagpipes practice chanter.

Meaghan believes people should learn music for a number of reasons, “At the very least, so they can sing ‘Happy Birthday’ and the national anthem in tune, and can clap on the right beat at the right time.

“There are many cognitive advantages: a full-brain workout, improving connections across the corpus callosum, lowering the risk of dementia and generally protecting against age-related cognitive deterioration. 

“Music is also great for personal development, giving students a mode of expression, a chance to succeed if they happen to struggle academically, an outlet from other life pressures, a chance to meet other musicians.

“We are constantly surrounded by music, and having a good music education makes for better music consumers who have been exposed to a greater variety of artists and styles beyond what they would naturally listen to, who have a good appreciation for how much work that a musician has put into what he or she does, and who are more likely to support live music and the arts in general. 

“But mostly, I can’t even count the number of people who have said to me, ‘I wish I hadn’t quit music lessons’. Music is a life-long skill that can be enjoyed well into old age, which is good, because music-making is just plain fun—a rewarding activity in and of itself. I’ve been to fleadhs and Willie Clancy Week and other traditional music settings where people have been sitting in a corner playing tunes for an obscene amount of time, all week long, getting nothing from it but sheer enjoyment.

“I’ve experienced the marvel of sitting in a band and sight-reading a piece I’d never heard before, the music realising itself around us as if by magic. I’ve sung in choirs where I’ve slotted my voice into that exquisite hair-raising harmony, contributing to this fabric of sound that feels that much more profound coming from my own breath and body. I’ve played a flute-piano duet with an accompanist so sensitive to the music and to me that the notes seemed insignificant, the music rising beyond simple fingerings and rhythm and dots on a page to breathe a life of its own. 

“So, if you think music is nice to listen to, imagine how much nicer it would be to actually be part of that music-making yourself”.

Meaghan Haughian Musician and teacher at the Mid-West Vocal Academy

So, where did Meaghan’s passion for music come from? Her earliest memory of experiencing music at a young age was hearing her Dad singing and playing his guitar, Church choirs, listening to Disney soundtracks and her Dad’s rock albums and his classical-music stories like ‘Vivaldi’s Ring of Mystery’ and another one about Mozart’s The Magic Flute and getting a piano from her Grandpa.

“I sat in front of it and cautiously pressed the keys, marvelled at this big complicated contraption. I kind of figured out “Little April Showers” from Bambi, but when I tried to play it for our Kindergarten graduation, it didn’t go over so well, the kids laughed at me, and some of the other students who actually attended piano lessons played their pieces instead. It didn’t even bother me that much—I was completely aware that I didn’t know what I was doing, so I didn’t take it too personally,” Meaghan laughed.

At Meaghan’s first piano lesson when she was just seven years of age, she remembers feeling eager to unlock its secrets and then having to go home and practice, for her it was like setting out to solve a puzzle. At the age of eleven, Meaghan started to learn the flute.

When she was just fourteen, she attended the Saskatoon Youth Orchestra’s open day, where she got to play with the full orchestra.

“I was blown away—they were so good, and the strings sound was so lush and full. I was amazed when I was actually successful in my audition that autumn, and pretty much right from the first rehearsal I knew that I had to do music for the rest of my life”.

Towards the end of high school Meaghan became interested in Irish traditional music and learned the whistle and Irish flute. She studied music education at the University of Saskatchewan, and played with the Band of the Ceremonial Guard in Ottawa during her university summers, and During this time, started playing with a local Celtic trad band called The Residuals.

“My university graduation present to myself was a trip to Ireland, where I attended several workshops and played in sessions across the country and when I came back to Canada, I started teaching band, choir, guitar, and English in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. I continued teaching in Saskatchewan for five years, after which I did a Master’s degree in ethnomusicology at the University of Limerick, studying the uilleann pipes and writing a thesis about cóir Ghaelacha (Irish language choirs). After my degree, I decided to stay in Ireland, and now I teach a variety of instruments, as well as a cór Gaelach and music theory, at the Mid-West Vocal Academy”.

So, what has music brought to Meaghan’s life? 

“What hasn’t it brought to my life? It has brought a career, travel—culminating in a full-out relocation across the Atlantic—new friends, fluency in the Irish language, hours of enjoyment (frustration, too, but we’ll focus on the positives), and depleted bank accounts from money spent on instruments and workshops and lessons (totally worth it). Most of all, it has brought moments of incredible, indescribable, inimitable beauty,” smiled Meaghan. 

http://www.midwestvocalacademy.com/

Music is Helen’s bliss, both as a teacher and performer


By Louise Harrison

Busy soprano and vocal coach at the Mid-West Vocal Academy (MWVA) Helen Houlihan believes learning to sing encourages creativity, fosters discipline, improves aural skills, posture and confidence. 

“As the student’s voice develops and grows, they enjoy finding their expression through their voice. It is also believed that singing can lift the spirits if someone has a low mood,” said Helen. 

Recently conferred with an honours MA in Music Performance from the Cork School of Music, Helen’s earliest memory of music that made an impression on her, was a piece she heard on the radio when she was just 10 years of age. 

“Hearing Kathleen Ferrier for the first time on radio singing, ‘What is life to me without thee’, better known as ‘Che Faro senna Euridice’ from Gluck’s opera ‘Orfeo Ed Euridice’. 

“I was completely enraptured by her beautiful singing of a most beautiful aria with such heartfelt sorrow. My mother bought the recording for me which I played incessantly. It remains a favourite aria of mine to this day,” added Helen.

At Helen’s first vocal lesson she remembers singing through a song that she already knew and then learning a piece that the teacher recommended for her, concentration on vocal technique came at a later stage of her studies.

Helen Houlihan Soprano and teacher at the MWVA

“Music is my bliss and being involved as a performer or as a teacher is when I’m most happy in life,” smiled Helen.

Having taught voice for eight years in total and six years at the MWVA Helen said, “I have had the privilege of working with great vocal coaches and language coaches and it’s wonderful to be in a position to pass on that knowledge to students.

“Finding ways to work with students in growing and developing their voices and their particular sets of vocal issues is a challenge that I enjoy.  

“It also informs my own vocal technique as I am constantly thinking of various ways of approaching technical challenges.

“I love when students reach the stage where they are not having to think constantly about vocal technique, and when they can engage with the text and focus more on communicating the story and finding the underlying emotion. I love seeing how the vocal technical development leads to a growing confidence and a freedom of expression that it brings,” added Helen. 

Helen trained with Jean Holmes in Limerick and in London with James Lockhart, David Harper and Paul Hamburger. She has performed on many occasions at the National Concert Hall, the Galway Festival, the Wexford Festival Opera, with Opera Ireland, Wexford Opera, Opera Theatre Company, Anna Livia Opera, and in London at the Fortune Theatre, Eaton House,  St. John Smith Square and at the Holland Park Festival.

Helen has also been a guest soloist with the RTE Concert Orchestra, both in live performance and in studio broadcast and a guest soloist on several live television shows.

http://www.midwestvocalacademy.com/

Violin teacher Patricia loves sharing the world of music with her students


By Louise Harrison

Violin teacher at the Mid-West Vocal Academy (MWVA) Patricia Vaughan loves teaching, and passing on her knowledge and love of music that began at a very early age.

“My earliest memory of music was when I was very small and hearing my father sing. He loved music and singing. He used to sing songs from the shows every day.

“When I was in primary school the pupils were taken to The Savoy Theatre in Limerick and I heard our National Orchestra play Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. I thought I had died and gone to heaven,” laughed Patricia.

Patricia Vaughan Violin teacher at the Mid-West Vocal Academy

According to Patricia, children and adults should learn music for the pleasure of being able to play a piece, perfect it and enjoy it, and to be able to enter the world of music where they can go to a concert and hear all the instruments in an orchestra working together to make beautiful and wonderful sounds.

“To be able to sit down at home in the evening, close one’s eyes and let magnificent music wash over them and maybe calm them. I also have an article ‘Early Music Lessons Boosts Brain Power’ . Shortly after starting lessons parents have often told me that their child has improved in maths and spellings. In my opinion this is because they have learned how to concentrate through music lessons,” said Patricia.                                                                       

Now in her third year of teaching at the MWVA, Patricia has taught for many years in various schools in Ennis and Limerick, a career path that began with her first lesson at nine years of age.  

“I don’t remember much about my first lesson, just going up Crescent Avenue with my mother and into the house where Mr Hasset lived, he was the organist in the Jesuit Church in Limerick. I remember he got me to pluck the violin strings.

“I play two instruments, violin and piano. Mr. Hasset also taught me the basics of the organ but I have forgotten that now,” added Patricia.

While in secondary school Patricia completed her Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) grades while studying with John McKenzy then she went to Cork to study the Suzuki method with Philipp Lees and Trudy-Byron Fahy for five years.

“I love everything about teaching music, the children especially, they are very entertaining and I have so many funny stories I could tell you about what they said and did during lessons.

“The greatest pleasure is in seeing them develop their musical skills. I also like teaching adults when they are starting to learn as they can be so apologetic, wondering if they are too old, then they are so happy when they can play a tune.                                                                                              

“Teaching in MWVA has been nothing but a most enjoyable experience. I must say all the teachers I’ve met there are so friendly and kind but especially Owen Gilhooly,” added Patricia.

http://www.midwestvocalacademy.com/

‘Wheatless’ brothers bring full flavour


Aidan and Ben Doherty the ‘Wheatless’ brothers

It’s the savoury aromas that first draw you towards the ‘Wheatless’ marquee. As a Coeliac, it’s difficult to describe the excitement I felt when I first saw it, and on tasting the food, I can only describe the experience as Coeliac food heaven.

I watched as the owner of the business Aidan Doherty and his brother Ben cheerfully chatted with customers, while wearing their specially printed aprons which display their slogan ‘trust me I’m a Coeliac’. They listened to and shared stories about Coeliac experiences with their customers, forming almost, a support group atmosphere. As a Coeliac I found it extremely comforting that the person cooking my food, understands the disease, and knows from experience exactly what can go wrong if glutened. 

Aidan started his business ‘Wheatless’ in August 2018,  and it is a 100 per cent Gluten Free fast food business which serves fresh handmade, gourmet pancakes and burgers. He operates in farmers markets across Munster and also caters for all occasions including weddings and birthdays. In Limerick they are at the Crescent Shopping Centre Market every Friday from 10am until 4pm and the Milk Market on Saturdays from 8am until 2pm. 

“The biggest motivating factor in creating the business for me was the complete lack of high quality, gourmet Gluten Free (GF) and Wheat Free (WF) food available in the marketplace. 

“For Coeliacs, convenience is not a word we use in abundance when looking for food while out on a daily basis. I wanted to prove that GF and WF food can be delicious and that having Coeliac disease and intolerance doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice quality,” said Aidan.

Having being diagnosed six years ago by complete accident in the UK, Aidan said he had suffered symptoms for many years prior to this and it was completely missed in Ireland, now knowing the signs and symptoms, he and his family have realised that Coeliac disease and Gluten intolerance is prevalent in his family. 

“I believe it is similar for most other families but they have not been diagnosed yet. Once diagnosed, I hadn’t heard of the disease before or knew anyone with it. It was a difficult dietary adjustment but it really got me into cooking which was a good thing. The gluten free market has come a long way since then in supermarkets at least, but has a long way to go to offer high quality, convenient food for us,” added Aidan. 

Aidan said it baffles him as to why it is so difficult to get a Coeliac diagnosis in Ireland, “Ireland has one of the highest propensities to Coeliac disease in the world. The medical community is not as aware nor have the conviction of testing people to identify these issues. A lack of training might point to it, but it has to be a government led testing programme as a simple screening process for this disease may save a lot of money in investigating other avenues that may be simply fixed by a GF diet”.

‘Wheatless’ brothers at the Crescent Shopping Centre Farmers Market


As well as the clever slogans on their aprons, their other slogan is “No Grain, No Pain” which they use because it’s catchy and fun.

“Coeliacs have to be so careful when eating out and trust is a pertinent issue for us. There is a high level of confidence and comfort knowing you are being served by a fellow Coeliac,” said Aidan. 

When Coeliacs first come to their stall, Aidan said their reaction is Surprise. They cannot believe that everything on the menu is gluten and wheat free and that there is so much choice of things that they couldn’t ordinarily have, “Once the shock subsides and they realise they can have everything, everybody is filled with excitement.  

“The Coeliac community is very open and share their stories in a frank manner. Every customer I meet, whether a direct sufferer or not, tells me about their experience or family members’ experience living with Coeliac disease or intolerances. 

“All of these people suffer a myriad of symptoms and no two cases are the same. It can affect sufferers in many different ways. We are living in a society now where people, for the most part, are more in tune with what they eat and how it may affect their health”.

‘Wheatless’ is going from strength to strength, and Aidan said his food is being enjoyed not just by Coeliacs but by everybody, “That was the key for me when starting the business. Serve high quality gourmet food that just so happened to be gluten and wheat free that nobody could tell the difference and to date it has worked. My food appeals to everybody, not just a niche section of the population”.

Aidan’s ambitions for the business are to operate in more farmers markets, then to go on and establish a brick and mortar restaurant and eventually to franchise the business to cover a nationwide market. Ultimately, he would like to see ‘Wheatless’ as being the GF and WF McDonalds of the world.

“Eating Gluten and Wheat free does not have to mean a lack of flavour or quality. I am doing my best to prove this to people and it is working thus far. A lot more needs to be done in offering high quality, not just an option, which can often mean salad without the croutons,” added Aidan. 

https://www.facebook.com/wheatlesscravings/

Busy Summer for Owen Gilhooly


It’s been a busy summer for Director of the Mid West Vocal Academy, Tenor Owen Gilhooly.

When most people are unwinding in the summer sun, or rushing to the beach at every available opportunity, Owen relishes his free time so he can concentrate on his solo career.

“I actually love the summer as when I’m not teaching four to five days a week, I can really focus on my own practice and learning, and I try and fit in as much performance as possible and really challenge myself,” Owen smiled.

Director of the Mid West Vocal Academy and Tenor Owen Gilhooly

So far this summer Owen has  given performances in Dublin including ‘Waltz of my Heart’ at the DLR LexLcon, an Opera Gala at the Liberties Festival and was guest Tenor at Léran Festival of Music in France.

Owens next big performance will be the title role in Faust for Opera in the Open in Dublin on August 22,  and on September 25, he will join the RTÉ Concert Orchestra at the National Concert Hall along with other guest soloists which include Celine Byrne and Claudia Boyle, to celebrate Cara O Sullivan in ‘Cara: A Celebration’.

Does Owen ever take a complete break from music or singing to completely switch off?

“Yes, I do, it’s really easy to get burned out from all the demands, so I do take the odd weekend off and I make sure to have some short breaks over the summer too.  Vitamin D is essential.

“ Being self employed it’s also sometimes very hard to switch off, so there has to be discipline to rest as well.

“I’m also trying to finish my doctoral thesis,  so watch this space, next year I’m hoping to be Dr Gilhooly,” added Owen.

http://www.owengilhooly.com/

http://www.midwestvocalacademy.com/

 

a walk in my shoes, or runners or hiking boots…hikes and trails


While gazing at Instagram during that lazy week between Christmas day and New Year’s day when time seems to stand still, bleary eyed from late nights of endless games of Monopoly, and watching films at 3am , I came across a friends Instagram story that stopped me in my scrolling.

He had posted snow filled photos with drifts that were as high as his chest. Intrigued I messaged “Where are you? The North Pole?” To my surprise he replied that the arctic photos had been taken while he was trekking at Keeper Hill.

This exchange reminded me, as I sat wrapped in a fleece blanket in a warm house, that I had always wanted to try hill walking, and with the New Year resolutions looming, I quietly made a promise to myself that I would follow up on this long held ambition.

My experienced hiking friend suggested I join the Ballyhoura Bears club, which I had looked into many years ago, but just never got around to joining.

Mud filled, squelchy runners

So my first hike was up the Castlegale Loop near Kilfinnane. I met with the club members at the base of the trail. They were all kitted out for their trek, with hiking boots, trekking poles, fleece headbands to keep their ears warm and back packs filled with bottles of water, nibbles and warm drinks. I decided to try out my new venture to see if I enjoyed it, before I committed to buying the T-shirt, or equipment.

As we climbed the first part of the trail, my runners did not stand me well as my feet kept slipping in the squelchy mud, and they were soon filled with water. We climbed a stony slope, ducking under fallen trees, through sludgy pools, slipping and sliding, laughing like children as we tried to stay upright.

Eventually we reached the summit and the views and beautiful scenery made the climb worthwhile. As the wind howled and swirled around us, I was amazed at the sense of achievement that swept over me, a little bit of that Everest feeling that mountain climbers must feel, from conquering the elements.

Me windswept at the summit of Castlegale

Runners alright on the Greenway

At this point I decided to join the club as I had enjoyed the last hike so much.

My membership card

 

The next outing was a 13K charity walk on the Greenway which started at the back of Rathkeale Hotel and goes to Newcastle West.

Like many of these Greenways around Ireland, it used to be the old railway track, and is now a great trail for both cyclists and walkers.

The countryside scenery was lovely, a different angle on an area I have known most of my life. This time my freshly cleaned runners were the right footwear for this walk, that was more of a test of endurance than skill. I found my pace and reached my destination, where a welcome cup of tea awaited us, it mostly spilt all over me as I struggled to hold the mug in my numb hands, but the drop of tea I managed to sip never tasted so good.

Hiking boots first outing in Ballinaboola

My new hiking boots were christened in the Ballinaboola Forest, they weren’t really necessary, runners would have sufficed, as there was a good roadway through the forest. This also seems to be an ideal track for mountain bikers, as we passed many of them on the way.

Physically I found this the most challenging hike so far, as it was a continuous upward incline, and the way back down was tricky too.

Good for the mind, body, spirit

I have enjoyed my adventures with the Ballyhoura Bears so far and look forward to discovering more tracks and trails in our beautiful countryside. Is Everest calling? You never know. For me nothing can beat the outdoors, being active and being in the heart of nature.

It’s both physically and mentally stimulating, and in a time when we are constantly being reminded to mind our mental health, it’s a pastime that ticks all the boxes. Maybe I’ll try mountain biking next.

I would like to take my dog, but since she finds a fifteen minute walk around the block challenging, I think I would probably end up carrying her most of the way.