June 14, 2024

This interview is part of the Center for Irish Music's story-sharing project, "Many Paths to Handing Down a Tradition." Click here to learn more!
Claire Vanorny performing at Éigse CIM, a Gaela Event in 2023. 

An important part of CIM’s mission is to connect the younger generation with the Irish music tradition. Many young musicians have spent many hours in the classrooms of CIM in private and group lessons, building friendships with each other, and a deep appreciation for the culture of this artform. Claire Vanorny has a deep connection to these spaces as a talented fiddle player and emerging composer. We are delighted to bring her story to you.

Sook Jin: Claire, such a joy to spend time with you today. Tell me what is your earliest memory of Irish music. 

Claire: I did Irish dance when I was young, and my mom would play Irish music for us. The first time I listened to Irish fiddle music that I was interested in was when Brian Conway came to Minnesota Irish Music Weekend in 2016. During the concert, I heard him play, thought it was so cool, and told my mom (Mary Vanorny) I wanted to learn some tunes. She taught me some of the tunes. 

I started playing the violin when I was three or four. I got into playing the violin because of my mom. I began taking lessons with other teachers, mostly in the Suzuki method. I tend to keep my practice for the Suzuki method and Irish music separate. I had this memory of a time when I was learning a tune that has a jig rhythm in it, and did not realize I was playing it like a jig. My Suzuki teacher was not having it! So I try to keep them separate. But as I have gotten more advanced, I realize they go side-by-side. I am able to play a lot faster, my fingers feel a lot more flexible because of Irish music. My classical Suzuki training helped with my intonation. At this year’s Fleadh, I did a piece with a lot of shifting in it. It’s not something traditionally done by many Irish musicians, but I am able to do it because of my classical background.

Sook Jin: What a great way to lean into both music traditions! How did your love for (Irish) music lead you to the Center for Irish Music?

Claire: I joined the Rince na Chroi Irish dance when I was young, and then I became part of the Swallowtail Ensemble at the Center for Irish Music. It was really cool - so many people my age, playing like me, and I learned a lot from them. I am still with the ensemble program, through the Advanced Youth Ensemble. 

Sook Jin: Who has been a part of this music journey of yours? 

Claire: It started with my mom, and the ensemble experience here in CIM. During COVID, I started taking private lessons with Katie Grennan in Chicago, and still do. We’ve met eight or nine times now. She’s a big part of my journey, and she brought so much love for the music. I think going to Ireland and meeting musicians like Tara Breen, MacDara Ó Raghallaigh, the Kane Sisters (who came here for Minnesota Irish Music Weekend), Bríd Harper, Laura Mackenzie, Norah Rendell, so many key players in my journey to learn tunes. It is great to see these amazing musicians play in person! 

2023 All Ireland Fleadh Hanging out at concert Brandts, Nev, Ally, Beth, Claire
Claire with fellow students at the 2023 All Ireland Fleadh 

Sook Jin: How has Irish music shaped/impacted the way you think of yourself? 

Claire: Irish music brought me a lot of my closest friends. This tradition has also made me think of myself as a multi-genre instrumentalist. I used to think of myself only as a classical music player. Now, I see how they both go hand-in-hand. I write music, too. The dance group Rince na Chroi commissioned me to write a tune in honor of their long-time dance teacher, and that was a lot of fun.

I started writing tunes after one of my lessons with Katie (Grennan). She gave me a prompt, and encouraged me when I did not know what to do. She writes many tunes, too, so that has been an inspiration. I see a future in music for myself - whether it is a major or minor in college.

Sook Jin: How have your identities and life experiences shaped your Irish music journey?

Claire: It is great connecting with other musicians who are of my own age. I was lucky to have gone to Ireland and competed in the Fleadh several times, and in the process, met many young musicians who share my interests, and now become part of my community. We stay connected online, and look forward to playing together when we are in the same place. Now, I have friends from all around the world like Japan and Scotland. I think that's just the beauty of playing Irish music. All these connections emerge.

Every time I spent time in Ireland, I learned more about Irish music, how it is traditionally played, the experience of going to sessions - these taught me a lot. I noticed similarities too. There are more sessions going on here in Minnesota that reminds me of what it is like in Ireland - people coming together, playing and enjoying music. 

The sessions in Ireland felt more organic. I have a story about Liz Carroll. We ran into each other, and she told me she was on her way to this session that took place in a hotel. It was so packed. People were trying to get in but security closed the doors. Liz said, “We are going into that session! I will climb through that window if I have to!” Liz Carroll, like the boss woman she is, walked through the crowd, banged on the door, and told the security guard, “We are going in!”. She brought myself and my friend in. 

When we got in, this huge session was happening. Liz sat down on a corner table and said, “We are not going to join that”, and started playing by herself. We joined in, played along with her, and a few others came along too. I just love her so much! 

2019-St-Patricks-Day-1934 Claire Vanorny
Claire performing with her youth ensemble at the 2019 IAM St. Patrick's Day celebration at the Landmark Center in St. Paul. 

Sook Jin: I love that story and all the connections you gained from playing Irish music. With where you are in your journey, how would you describe what you bring to the Irish music community?

Claire: I bring focused passion! I love playing Irish music. I play in bands with friends. We do gigs. I write Irish tunes. I spend my time immersed in not just playing the music, but being interested in the tradition and keeping it going in sessions, as a community. 

My specific thing right now is slow airs. Slow airs are not for everyone - they are so different in nature, coming from songs. There are no definite beats, held for however long you want. I love learning them from Katie Grennan. We would listen to them as songs, then I would mimic the singing on my instrument. I love the six airs I prepared for Fleadh! 

Sook Jin: What excites you about your Irish music journey?

Claire: I love the lessons I take, and learning tunes - from my teacher, from friends, expanding my repertoire. I especially love learning tunes from friends who play other instruments! I also love developing my own style. When I first competed at the Fleadh, a judge commented that I need to develop my own style, settle into something that is truly my own. Over the years, I learned from professionals I admire like Tara Breen, Bríd Harper, Katie Grennan, and adapt it to make it my own. Katie is great at helping me with that - I play a tune for her, and we work on adding something that’s my own - a triple here, a flick there.

I am also really excited about the opportunities and places we have here. The Irish Fair of Minnesota is important. The CIM ensembles play there, and it gives a wide variety of people an opportunity to experience the music, not just those of us who celebrate Irish culture, but also others who are curious to learn about a culture that is not their own.

CIM is very important to this end. It is easy to forget how lucky we are to have a place like CIM. My friends in Ireland remind me of this. In Ireland, there is no one school with world-class teachers teaching various instruments. I feel lucky to join this at a young age. Norah (Rendell) made the ensemble a welcoming place for young musicians like me, and taught me many tunes. I admire the older students like Carmen (Pasquerella) and Morien (McBurnie), like Ava (Sackaroff), and many others whose stories impacted me when I was younger. It is important to be able to look at their journeys as something I can follow.