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.
“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.
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”.
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.
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.
“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.
On a recent trip to Turin, I happened upon a lovely restaurant called Boka, and became completely absorbed by the unusual artwork on display.
One of the owners noticed my interest and handed me a business card for the artist, Bisha art, the artists name is Pino Amato.
“I realized I wanted to be an artist when I was a kid, watching my dad create his collages, he had a great technique, I was hypnotized by that. I wanted to mix images in order to change the meaning of it and that’s what I do now.”
From Turin, Pino is a self-taught artist. By day he works at an IBM help desk, but he says he eats, sleeps and dreams about art, and at the moment has to balance work commitments with his passion for his art.
“Art is not always considered as important as new mobile or similar, that’s why a real artist is poor most of the time. I could live with art if I had the chance to build the studio I want, it’s a matter of time.”
Pino has had many exhibitions, such as the See-Me project in New York City (NYC) and the Louvre, he is currently a featured artist at MICA the Maryland Institute College of Art, and he has some personal exhibitions such as at Boka in Turin and at the Fifty House Hotel in Milan.
“See-me was really cool, their project is to celebrate creators of art, any art. In NYC they exhibit all the works on a skyscraper. At the Louvre was the fifth annual Exposure Award, there I was selected with a few other artists. They had a special area inside the Louvre, it was really cool. The MICA institute was really a surprise. They simply contacted me and asked if I was ok to be exhibited permanently on their online gallery, amazing.”
Pino loves to exhibit his works in public places, such hotels or restaurant, where there’s a lot of people moving. He is most creative at night and in the afternoon.
“I hate the rain, the dark winter but sometime can be useful. I can work everywhere there is a good mood, where I can find aesthetic elements I recognize. Some idea need to be ripe as a fruit, some is ready made as soon as it comes in my mind and I see it real.”
“My style is fed by the world, the news, the people, I take my inspiration from what I see around me, that is creating a perpetual motion.”
Pino can work on a new idea for months or just a few hours, it depends how he is inspired.
“I’m really the bohemian artist cliché, I’m thinking about crowd funding. I need to have a real stable studio. I’m fighting with my living monthly. The Fifty House hotel chain in Milan commissioned me a job for a couple of hotels they have, plus I’m selling some works to people randomly. It takes a lot of effort and thinking to create art, even if I love it.”
www.bishadesign.com to see more of his work
The Countess’ Salon, performed by new Limerick based group, The Opera Workshop, will take place in No 1 Pery Square Hotel on October 15, November 12 and December 10.
Founded, produced and directed by well known Limerick Lady, Shirley Keane, this premier performance has a cast of some of some of Limerick’s best known singers, including Sarah-Ellen Murphy, Jean Wallace, Eve Stafford, Kevin Neville and Catriona Walsh, with piano accompaniment by Irina Dernova.
The performances will comprise well-known songs and musical highlights, including those by Puccini, Bizet and Mozart and the December concert will also feature Christmas songs and carols.
‘It is a wonderful time to be trying something new in Limerick. I have come home to an energised city and county that is enthusiastic and excited by arts and culture. And though opera is not new, nor is Limerick’s love of opera new, I hope that the work of The Opera Workshop will be refreshing, challenging and entertaining for Limerick audiences and artists,’ said Shirley.
Having spent more than 20 years in the United Kingdom, Shirley, a professional actor, singer and teacher, believes that the possibilities for creating original cross-art and vocal work are endless. Her aim is to cultivate a company that develops high standard professional productions, while simultaneously encouraging younger, local musical talent.
“It was the room that actually inspired us with the idea of a grand opera salon, hosted by a charming, glamorous Countess. The audience should feel like her guests enjoying her party and are privy to the gossip and scandal that is brewing around them.
“We devised the story, characters emerged, we played with the relationships between the characters, and a script was devised and written which acts as a link for the songs but also creates a tangible story. There will be a mix of styles of songs and opera including light opera, folk, German lied, music theatre and opera performed in English, German, French and Italian,” added Shirley.
The cast have been rehearsing since early September and are hopeful for full houses as tickets are selling fast for this intimate venue which holds 50 people per performance.
Shirley’s hope for The Opera Workshop is to provide the focus for a collective of like-minded artists interested in testing their skills, developing new productions, seeking opportunities to experiment, develop and share innovative ideas in opera performance as there are many musicians from across the Mid-west who work on a professional and semi-professional basis in Ireland and internationally.
Shirley intends that The Opera Workshop will have a strong community and outreach ethos and welcomes opportunities to work with schools and community groups interested in developing projects that serve their needs while exploring a vibrant, joyous and beautiful art form
Having begun her vocal training with Olive Cowpar in Limerick and worked for a couple of seasons at Bunratty Castle as an entertainer, Shirley then went on to study a Bachelor of Arts degree in acting at the Rose Bruford College of Drama, London, and voice and opera at both The Guildhall School of Music and the Royal Academy of Music London.
Her successful career saw her including Opera Theatre Company, Basingstoke Haymarket, Opera Holland Park, with concert and oratorio performances across Europe and in venues such as The Royal Festival Hall, Royal Albert Hall, Old Trafford football stadium and Dublin’s National Concert Hall.
And teaching through community and outreach work in particular, through her own community opera company in East London, East End Opera and with companies such as Live Music Now, Glyndbourne Opera, The Half Moon Young People’s Theatre and more lately as a director and acting teacher at The Guildhall School of Music, London where she is a member of the vocal faculty.
The No 1 Pery Square Hotel are offering a pre-opera 3 course special menu at €35 pp. Dinner reservations can be booked directly with the hotel – 061 402402/ firstname.lastname@example.org
The show tickets are booked via email@example.com. We take bookings, reserve tickets which must be paid for on the night. Box office available from 7.30
“The dinner is a separate offer made by the hotel and not part of the performance. If people want to avail of this special rate for a meal at No 1 Pery Square they book directly with the hotel and would probably need to consider an earlier booking as the show must start at 8pm. But guests can bring drinks into the performance. Tickets for the show can be booked independently without having to book for the dinner,” added Shirley.
Tickets for performances of The Countess’ Salon must be pre-booked on firstname.lastname@example.org
Tickets cost €20 and €15 concession.
Stage Stars is the new group performance programme for children at the Mid-West Vocal Academy and Music School. Devised by accomplished professionals Jessica Bray and Shirley Keane, the fast paced, energetic and child focused course aims to give children training in the areas of singing, drama and dance.
Limerick ladies Jessica and Shirley co-lead the hour long classes that cater for children aging from four to sixteen years of age. Their primary aim is to build the confidence of the children and allow them to explore theatre in a safe, supportive, fun environment, where the children’s ideas are the driving force of the creative work.
“The classes are energetic, physical and busy. Jess and I have put together a flexible structure, we include technical elements, such as vocal warm-ups, practical stage awareness, and dance routines built on a strong foundation of fundamental acting work including devising, improvising and lots of imaginative play.
“We always begin with an energetic warm-up followed by vocal warm-ups using rehearsal and theatre games. We constantly return to a circle to begin exercises or share ideas within the group, always emphasising that we take turns, we listen to each other and that everyone’s input is valuable giving opportunities to all the participants to be seen, heard and to participate,” said Shirley.
Shirley trained in theatre and opera studies at the Rose Bruford College of Drama, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the Royal Academy of Music in the UK, and has worked as a singer, actress, director and teacher with many varied groups and festivals across the UK and Ireland.
Also a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy in the UK, Shirley is currently on the teaching staff of The Guildhall School of Music, where she works with undergraduate and post-graduate singers, musicians and conductors, directing opera scenes and productions and running performance workshops.
“As teachers we work to develop routine, structure and technique and it is our job to encourage them all, always, to do their personal best. It is my job is to listen to the participants, to be open to their ideas, and by having their ideas accepted by adult facilitators and a group of their peers, the children learn to value their own talents, abilities and self-worth.
“I love to perform, that is what I have trained to do and I love being a facilitator. I would encourage and support any child who wanted to perform professionally. I hope that some of our children feel capable and confident enough to audition for external music and theatre productions, but I would never push children to seek fame or to seek adulation. Drama and theatre work is not about encouraging children to show off but through nurturing talent, the work should encourage an openness of mind, an ability to work with other people, the courage to offer and to accept ideas, and the confidence to express themselves through the disciplines of the theatre,” said Shirley.
Jessica Bray studied Musical Theatre Performance at The Guildford School of Acting in the UK where she received the Sir Michael Redgrave Scholarship and the Sir John Gielgud award for Musical Theatre.
Jessica who currently works in Limerick and Cork as a teacher and director, has performed with the Cecilian Musical Society, Limerick Musical Society and Shannon Musical Society, and believes that being a regular performer makes her a better teacher.
“I’m excited about working with new and current students. I’m looking forward to sharing my knowledge and experience. Our hope is that we can introduce our students to the world of theatre and performing and make them fall in love the way we did from a young age. Performance skills are useful in many walks of life.
“Whether it’s job interviews or college presentations. At stage stars we are preparing our students for all these challenges and building strong, confident kids and teenagers. We hope they enjoy it. We hope they learn something new every week and build friendships and confidence,” added Jessica.
I wound my way around the narrow streets of Tralee, getting lost, asking passers-by, do you know Jane Hilliard, the artist? To which they would reply, “Oh, the artist, yes. Walk through the large pedestrian area…” eventually I found the shopping centre, where the numerous empty shop units gave an atmosphere of an Egyptian tomb. I turned a corner and found the treasure, vibrant paintings gave life to empty units. Paintings of Irish countryside, woodlands, the sea, heavenly, calming scenes which, when studied for any length of time, absorb you into their world of nature and beauty.
I followed the paintings and they led me to Jane Hilliard’s Gallery, where numerous framed canvases adorned the walls, some leaning two and three deep on the floor against the wall. At the back of the Gallery, Jane, wearing a multi-colour paint speckled denim shirt over her clothes, sitting with head bowed as if in prayer, was working on a painting.
I first met Jane four years ago in Draíocht Gallery in Adare, Co Limerick. The lasting impression of her paintings, along with her detailed, interesting way of describing her work made an indelible impression on me. Little did I know then what she had endured and overcome while all the time her artistic spirit drove her on through health and economic challenges, to become the stunning, self-taught artist that she is now.
Though well established in Kerry and known throughout the country and indeed internationally, Jane will soon be spreading her wings, with offers to show her work throughout Ireland. However, it hasn’t been an easy path.
Born in Britain, her family moved to Kerry when she was ten. At twelve, she had to leave school to mind her mother who became terminally ill and died when Jane was just 15. Shortly after that her father returned to Britain and the family home broke up. Two years later she married, went on to have three children and now delights in her grandchildren.
Jane’s natural artistic ability was nurtured by her father who taught her how to draw, but it wasn’t until her late thirties, that she took a few art classes in Tralee and at the end of term exhibition, her paintings sold which led to her getting commissions from local businesses.
Jane feels she has developed her style through trial and error. She paints from her own photographs, “When I start a painting, I really don’t know what way it’s going to end up. I have developed skills, ways of throwing in a bit of light or splashing on a bit of sparkle.”
Indeed it is Jane’s magical use of light that makes her paintings utopian scenes, places you would like to be, and stay, serene and calming. This may be a reflection of what painting is to Jane, a type of meditative state, when she tunes into a higher energy. Many times she has felt her work comes from something that has been channelled through her, instead of something she has created.
Jane describes herself as a commercial artist because she was the main bread winner in her house, she has had her gallery in Tralee shopping centre for14 years. During the boom she couldn’t paint fast enough, mainly popular tourist scenes of Ballyheigue and Killarney for which she has received criticism from people who prefer more abstract types of art, “When you have an exhibition, it’s very different from most other jobs because it’s almost like putting your children up for criticism.”
From the time Jane began painting full time, she painted for nine hours a day, only taking Sunday off to do housework. She continued this routine until she got cancer ten years ago, only then did she take another day off in the week.
Painting to Jane is, “a thirst, that need to drink. It’s like a meditation, a therapy, people pay hundreds of Euros to get to that place in their head, where there’s no worry no stress. It relaxes me. Just put me in a corner and let me paint. That to me would be heaven.”
The dream for Jane would be for somebody to walk into her gallery and say she is exactly what they are looking for, take her on as a client, promote her, take over the business side and set up her exhibitions internationally.
“It is a dream. But coming from a very poor background, I never forget where I’m from and that I’m just so lucky. When my mother died I was given my mothers purse, empty, to run the house. I have worked very hard, always. And it’s like, I’ve built this now and I have to keep minding it. So it’s part of me and yet it’s a separate entity that I have to mind and take care of, and I have to see it do well because, I feel I have been given a gift and an opportunity so I owe that the very best I can do,” smiled Jane.
The Jane Hilliard Gallery, Tralee Shopping Centre, Tralee, Co. Kerry.
Jane in her gallery