February 8, 2022


A gathering place for nearly two decades of music sessions and craic, Keegan’s Irish Pub on University Avenue was one of the first restaurant casualties of the pandemic, closing its doors in June 2020. Fortunately, the dedicated crew of traditional Irish music lovers and Center for Irish Music students who met there every Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m. for the Keegan’s Learners Session has hardly missed a beat.

While the pub has closed permanently, its musical legacy is living on through the “Virtually Unstoppable Keegan’s Learners Session,” a Sunday afternoon Zoom meeting that started early last year. Players would take turns leading tune sets while the rest of the group turned their mics off to play along.

“Playing in this way is more like performing, but people quickly saw that it was not about playing perfectly at all,” says Pat Lyles, the fiddle player and Center for Irish Music alum who facilitates the session. “It made us all more vulnerable to each other as learners, and it was fun to see how a lot of people just went for it, musically. It made us like each other all the more.”

Since COVID-19 vaccines became available, a group of about 15 to 20 players has been meeting at parks and restaurant patios, happy to be playing in person once again. “While the world is still figuring out how to do this, and to keep everyone safe, I think we’ve all seen how important it is to play music and to keep learning, in whatever way we can,” says Lyles.

Norah Rendell, CIM’s executive artistic director, couldn’t agree more. “In spite of the pandemic—or perhaps because of it—the Center for Irish Music recorded its biggest year of growth yet,” she says. Not only did enrollment increase by nearly 120 students—a 35 percent jump from the previous year—many new students have come from unexpected locales, including Florida, California and Canada. “We’d always wondered how we could make our programs more accessible to students outside the Twin Cities, and the shift to remote learning made it possible to offer that in ways we couldn’t have imagined before.”

The influx of new students helped to support the work of CIM’s 24 teaching artists, many with performing careers that were sidelined by the pandemic. Expanding programs to include virtual learning also made it possible to take advantage of the teaching skills of far-flung friends including banjo teacher Randy Gosa, who lives in Milwaukee, former flute and pipes instructor Se n Gavin, now back in his hometown of Detroit, and harper Hannah Flowers, who continued to teach students in Minnesota while she spent the year in Ireland on a Fulbright Study Award.

Virtual learning also made it possible for Ireland-based master artists like Mary Bergin, often hailed as one of the greatest tin whistle players of all time, to perform and teach at CIM’s annual Minnesota Irish Music Weekend, all without having to hop a plane or apply for a visa. “I was just delighted because I was able to get into the meaty stuff, like ornamentation and digging deep into things that make a difference, and they understood,” says Bergin. Unlike other music festivals that offered more lecture-style virtual teaching, Bergin adds that

MIM’s break-out style format also allowed for more personalized instruction. “My students probably learned I’m a hard taskmaster,” she laughs. “If I see that someone can do something, and they’re not getting it immediately, I stick at it. It’s the way I do it myself—if something’s not sitting right, isolate it, don’t give up straight away, keep at it. It’s about perseverance.” Perseverance is a quality many CIM instructors say they observed in their own students this year, as the social distancing constraints of the pandemic inspired many to practice with more intention, and to progress at a new pace. While the school published a fresh set of Common Repertoire tunes in April 2020 that helped many CIM students stay busy during the statewide quarantine, Rendell says, “We quickly realized that students were soaking up these new tunes so fast that we’d have to make another tune list right away.”

Creating the Common Repertoire tune list for 2021 provided some new challenges, particularly before instructors Norah Rendell, Brian Miller and Mary Vanorny could play in the same room. But by using the same collaborative music apps that CIM’s ensemble students have grown familiar with over the last year, the trio created a series of 25 videos on YouTube that have already been viewed more than 3,500 times. “Building up the Common Repertoire has become a really important part of our mission,” says Rendell. “It’s free to everyone, it’s inclusive for students at many different levels of play, whether you need sheet music or prefer to learn by ear, and it creates this incredibly fun way for people around the CIM community to connect through the music.” The CIM also offered a free online Zoom session with Vanorny, focused on helping students acquire the new Common Repertoire tunes.

The free class was just one of dozens of online programs offered at CIM over the last year, from virtual student recitals and open mic nights, to the first-ever online Éigse event, which featured a mix of recorded performances, a real-time fund-a-need auction hosted by Máirtín de Cógáin live from San Diego, and streaming studio performances hosted by Rendell and Miller in St. Paul. “As everyone got more comfortable with technology, we could take advantage of the possibilities and new partnerships it opened up,” says Miller.

For instance, students from CIM’s Advanced Youth Ensemble collaborated with music students from Ireland’s Traditional Arts Partnership, sharing tunes from St. Paul and South Armagh. CIM partnered with the Celtic Junction Arts Center to host Trad Nation, a webinar panel exploring gender, sexuality and race in Irish traditional music. During Minnesota Irish Music Weekend at Home, the CIM expanded the Master Artist Concert experience, hosting a series of professionally-produced streaming concerts from master artists in Ireland, and staging a more traditional live concert featuring Martin McHugh, the renowned accordion player who’s been instrumental to Minnesota’s Irish music scene.

“One of the hardest parts of this period has been not being able to travel to the fleadh, especially for some of our most advanced students who have been competing and playing regularly in Ireland,” says Rendell. To fill the void, CIM created the Taking Flight Collective, a pilot mentorship program to help students Adrienne O’Shea, Ian McKenna and Joe De Georgeo make the transition from award-winning student players to fully-fledged young musicians. The year-long honors program included weekly classes, a recording project, and two live-streaming concert performances.

“Moving from learning the music to thinking about it in the context of a wider Irish music community definitely took it to the next level for all of us,” says De Georgeo. While students and instructors are looking forward to a more typical school year at CIM, with in-person learning, ensemble gatherings and live performances, the last 20 months have offered some important lessons. “Our connection to Irish music is powerful even when we can’t play together, and that expanding to new platforms and learning to be more tech-savvy has helped to expand our reach in whole new ways,” says Rendell. “We’re thrilled to be teaching in person again, but we’ve also seen that if there are new challenges ahead, the connections we have to each other through Irish music won’t stop.”

This article is from the Center for Irish Music's 2020-21 Annual Report, available here