When the pandemic hit the D.C. region just over a year ago, a band of young Irish musicians’ hearts were broken as they were unable to perform for St. Patrick’s Day. But through chaos they created new ways of playing, performing and learning about Irish culture.
The “season” to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day 2020 was all set up for the Bog Band, which had performances lined up at the Smithsonian Discovery Center, a Virginia vineyard, the St. Patrick’s Day parade and at retirement communities in town that welcomed the 15-person ensemble known for their fast fingers on the fiddle and the flute, and the kids’ high spirits.
But then it all changed. What started as a few closings for health concerns turned into county leaders issuing mandated closures and cancellations. Director Mitch Fanning admits he was nearly at a loss for what to do.
“We kind of took a look at each other … and thought of the kids. We have to use this time for the kids to continue to improve,” Fanning said. So he and creative director Alex Boatright embarked on a bold undertaking.
They founded the Baltimore-Washington Academy of Irish Culture, a nonprofit school connecting students to Irish musicians and teaching them the Irish language and music theory. Practices became virtual, and when the weather got warmer, they would practice in groups.
“So on Saturday, we had harp club, and all the kids with harps came over. I’ve got this nice field and kind of roped-off parking lot area. And we sat out there, played harps for an hour, and then those kids left and all the kids with accordions and concertinas came, and we sat out there and played for the hour,” Boatright said.
Along with the curriculum, there were virtual game nights that started with the shift to online practice.
“We had to start thinking about what is it that the kids are missing at its core, not just on the surface level? … Why do kids like to play in sessions? And what are they missing for not going? And it is a social thing. So we created these game nights for them. It is nothing to do with Irish music, you know, but they play games together, they get on Zoom,” Boatright said, of maintaining the social element of the group for the kids.
This St. Patrick’s Day, the kids are going door-to-door for mini home concerts and are performing virtually. They’ve also taken to making their own music.
“They actually have been taking, themselves, melodies that they like, Yeats poems that they like, setting the poems to the music so they can sing it, creating their own harmonies, their own accompaniment, and then recording that … a cappella,” Boatright said.
In taking care of the kids and creating a new program for their musical maturation, Fanning said it got him through the personal challenges COVID-19 presented.
“It’s just been a hugely, you know, it’s been really the best thing for my own self-care, my own development as a teacher to collaborate with Alex in this way because it’s in taking care of the kids. It’s taken care of me,” Fanning said.
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