I've been singing since I was a toddler (not continuously of course!) and for the past 14 years music-making has become my path in life - singing, writing songs, composing and arranging, running singing circles, workshops and hosting singers' sessions ...
For the past 11 years I have been the musical director of a community choir, Voices of Lecale which grew out of the Singers' Circle, a night-class I teach at Down Arts Centre in Downpatrick, now in its 14th year. I have another Thursday circle too - The Thursday Singers - which started out as a U3A group but is now run independently.
I love most types of music from classical to bluegrass, but in folk and traditional music I am truly home, whether in song or tune. I also play traditional music and recorded an album of my own songs, tunes and traditional music with The Pluckin' Squeezers 'This corner of Lecale: a jouney round St Patrick's country', and more recently an album of (mostly) my own songs entitled 'Blink'. I have also produced and recorded 4 CDs with Voices of Lecale.
My first instrument was the piano. My parents both loved music - I remember my dad singing songs from the charts - he liked the crooners, the odd operatic aria and a bit of Mario Lanza; my mum took piano lessons as a young girl and could still play 'Over the waves' many years after she no longer had a piano but neither had had the opportunity to really study music. They could see I enjoyed singing and listening to music and sent me to a cross wee woman to learn piano at age 10 (a good bit later than most kids start today) and it was almost all classical music, piano and theory exams and competing in festivals.
The best thing about primary school for me was 'Singing Together' - a half hourly radio programme on the BBC each week which every class listened to on these big, wooden school radios. It didn't matter if your teacher could sing - you just listened to the avuncular Yorkshire tones of William Appleby, a schools music organiser from Doncaster and sang along with him, not just with the words, but with simple basic scores in the little books which accompanied the series. This was pure bliss for me and I still meet people at my singing groups who remember Marianina ('Come oh come and turn us into foam') and break into song!
At grammar school we had the wonderful music teacher who broadened our musical horizons. I joined the school choir, took an O-level in music appreciation and my father bought me my first guitar. There was a big folk music revival still going on and everyone seemed to know a few chords and fancy their chances as Ireland's answer to Joan Baez. I was still going to piano lessons, but had escaped from the cross wee woman and was studying with Patrick Murray - a small, mild-mannered man who could make a whole room shake when he played Beethoven. But I didn't get to do A-level music - there just weren't enough of us interested to make a class feasible at that time.
So instead I studied English language and literature at university (which I also loved as a voracious reader) and after completing a post-graduate course in Library & Information Studies went on to have a career in public libraries for many years (some of which I enjoyed) progressing into a senior management post with the now defunct SEELB.
When we moved to Downpatrick in 1989 (to get our 2 young sons away from the sectarian atmosphere of Belfast) I joined the town's Folk Club. As well as getting the opportunity to hear some of the best singers and musicians around, some very big names among them, the club gave me a chance as a rather shy singer to get a bit of experience singing to a crowd and introduced me to a bunch of local musicians.
Meanwhile Stephen and I were working hard and raising our 2 boys and music was no more than one of a few precious pastimes. At the ripe old age of 46 I took up the concertina - I'd always loved the sound of the littlest of the box family. It was the very divil to learn - every button makes 2 different pitch sounds depending on whether it is being being pushed or pulled - but in spite, or maybe because of this, it was oddly addictive. I took some lessons at the Crescent Arts Centre organised by the Belfast Traditional Music Society and still enjoy playing it. I'll probably never get beyond intermediate level but that's ok. More recently I have added the autoharp and bouzouki to my arsenal - Jack of all trades and master of none!!
The musician in me finally got liberated when I took a career break in 2004 ... I never went back to my old job. I started the Singers' Circle class at Down Arts Centre with 18 people on the first night and 12 years later we usually have between 40+ people enrolled in any term. I also started to write my own songs and tunes and with musical friends Willie and Adele formed a little trad. group - The Pluckin' Squeezers (all the instruments we played were either plucked or squeezed). I made my first CD 'This corner of Lecale: a journey round St Patrick's country' in 2008 and went on to produce and record 4 CDs with Voices of Lecale.
The biggest group I ever worked with was a massed choir of @ 230 singers in Melbourne at the Newport Folk Festival which I conducted singing one of my own compositions 'Celtic Blessing' - an emotional moment!
Now I get to make music every day - what I feel I was really born to do.
I believe that singing is everyone's birthright and that making music together renews and heals us individually and collectively. It's a wonderful, joyful and sometimes mystical experience available to us all, not just the preserve of specialists or professionals. I am an Associate Member of the Natural Voice Network (NVN) because their philosophy chimes with my own instincts about singing.
In the words of the Abba song -'Thank you for the music, for giving it to me'.