It's not all about the free merch - UUM Trad Soc Interview
Being excited about a £1 pizza, branded bottle opener and a goodie bag consisting of a can of deodorant and tube of spot treatment gel is only socially acceptable at one time of year. That infamous event where you can waltz around campus wearing so many lanyards, that you look like you should be attending Mardi Gras. Where you sign up to any and every society that has a bowl of sweets on display, to then receive emails about the first meeting of the ‘Paul Rudd Appreciation Society’ a week later. Which you go to by the way. Because, well, it’s Paul Rudd.
Of course, it’s not all about the free merch. Joining a society at university can be a great way to meet like-minded individuals who share your interests, which is definitely the case with the Irish Traditional Music Society at Ulster University Magee. I caught up with Anna Kearney, Saoirse Duggan, Damian McCabe and Oliver Havlin to discuss the impacts of Covid-19 restrictions on university societies and young musicians today.
Like many of us, the notion of staying creatively energised was difficult over the lockdown period. “I didn’t touch the banjo or bouzouki once over lockdown” remarked Damian, who said that with the cancellation of the Fleadh Cheoil competitions, he lacked motivation to practise. As regards to the social interaction, I know I’m not alone in saying that I have met the majority of my friends during a session. One minute you’re playing tunes with a group of total strangers, the next you’re bonding over Lucy Campbell’s and why it should only be played in G major. “The whole aspect of playing Irish traditional music is meeting up with people and sharing tunes, so it’s been hard” explained Saoirse, “the thing with Irish music is that no matter what age someone is, you could be a 60 year-old playing music with a 15 year-old, it’s the music that connects you”.
Many concert venues and festivals have adapted to continue their events virtually, and this society is no different. The committee chairperson, Anna Kearney, outlined her plans for the coming months to keep morale high. “I’m planning to get in touch with members, past and present, to submit a performance for our Facebook page. We’re also going to have a series of posts from members where they outline how the society has helped them over the years.” An online festival is also in the works, with fundraising events and workshops, so watch this space (or their space I suppose, watch other spaces).
Being young musicians and arts students, the recent actions of HM Government have caused upset, and rightly so. Oliver commented “It feels like a slap in the face. People don’t realise that there’s a lot of work that goes into being employed or self-employed in this industry, they think that we are the guys who sing our songs and dance our dance.” This attitude was shared massively in the group, with a plea to the public that they need to consider music and jobs in the arts as another way of income, just like any other employment opportunity. When discussing the Cyber First campaign, Oliver added “It just feels like the government doesn’t care about people in the arts when you see these adverts. It’s like they’re telling us ‘we don’t have respect for what you do, so do something else.’”
University students have definitely drawn the short straw in their return to study. From being confined to their university accommodation (I imagine The Shawshank Redemption with less institutionalisation and more Netflix) to being denied a Freshers’ week worthy of the almighty flu you soldier through afterwards. We’re martyrs to the cause, really. The main concern among students is the notion of this altered university experience being charged at the regular fee. With less on-campus lectures and opportunities to avail of facilities, many have raised the question “can these fees be slashed to compensate for what we aren’t getting?” Being a music student and attending virtual performance lecturers doesn’t feel entirely natural, especially with an audience of avatars. There’s only so much audience interaction you can attempt before accepting that no one is going to shout ‘yeo’ in the tune change.
Finally, we discussed the numerous events and festivals that Irish traditional musicians have missed the most. “Definitely Milltown!” laughed Anna, saying that without these festivals throughout the summer months, it’s difficult to see friends as they are scattered across the country and further afield. For Oliver, this summer would have been “a dream come true”. “I was meant to be going to Florida to play in Disneyland. That was a huge bummer because it’s such a massive place, I couldn’t tell you if it would be open next year”. But the most common thread was something that cannot be replicated through a Facebook livestream, “actual in-person music”. This is something I can agree on, sitting in my pyjamas during a ‘trisco’ isn’t exactly the rock and roll experience I was hoping for this summer.
We are constantly assured that your years at university are ‘the best years of your life’. These are not essentially defined by your degree classification or how many lectures you miss, but the people you meet and the societies you interact with. For musicians, having an external group where you can meet up for a few tunes is invaluable, with the Irish Traditional Music Society at Magee being a prime example of this community. Aptly described as “a home away from home”.