Thursday, November 03, 2005


Okay, so it's time for me to stroke the ego. I'm including in this post the (rather lengthy) story that was written about mein the Midwest Irish Focus. It was written by Mary Lewis who works at Rockhurst University.


Jesuit Finds Calling in Irish Accordian

This month we introduce you to Ryan Duns. We first became aware of Ryan when we read a short paragraph in the Jesuit Magazine Company, which lists new seminarians each year. Ryan is in his second year of seminary, preparing towards professing his first vows in the Society of Jesus. The fact that Ryan plays the Irish accordion professionally caught our eye. Through a bit of research, we caught up with Ryan via email, and he shared some wonderful stories from his life.

Ryan stated he had a pretty traditional Catholic upbringing; his mother is Irish Catholic, he had two great-aunts who were nuns, and his grandmother was always encouraging him to be a priest. “In fact, it was my astute observation as a child that if I were to respond to "Ryan, what do you want to be when you grow up?" with a wry smile and an innocent "I want to be a priest" that I earned not only favorable looks, but a couple of quarters from my grandfather.”

When he went to college, he knew that he wanted to teach in some capacity. He loved chemistry, so he pursued that as a major until he “realized that as much fun as it was and as well as I did in it as a course of study, phosphoric acid did not fire me up. Reading the course catalogs one night, I found myself drawn to courses in Religious Studies and, when I decided to change my major, I informed my father whose only caveat was "just don't become a priest!" Well, I guess I met him half way in joining the Jesuits.”

When Ryan was a little boy, his little sister was heavily involved in Irish dancing.
Seeing the fun she was having, Ryan asked his parents if he couldn't be a dancer.
“Being too young to understand that I was a terrific klutz, my parents made an eminently sensible decision: they told me that all dancers needed music, and promptly signed me up for tin whistle lessons.”

Ryan took to the whistle pretty quickly, and after a few years felt ready to move on. He says that when he was in the fourth grade, “my parents made yet another great decision for my musical life: while other kids got drums and guitars and saxophones, I received a dusty mother-of-pearl accordion. Yeah, I was the envy of every kid on the block!”

This was the beginning of lessons. Ryan says “To be honest, I pretty much hated playing the darned thing until I was in college when, in the glow of interest generated by Riverdance, I found it both fun and lucrative to be a professional accordion player.” Ryan spent hours in the bathroom (according to him, “it's the best room for acoustics in most houses”) practicing on the rim of the bathtub and, after several months, he was playing pretty regularly. “Luckily I made friends with a number of influential people and I will admit to working very hard so, in the course of three years, I went from playing *maybe* 14 feiseanna each year to playing almost 40 out of 52 weekends in 2003!”

I asked Ryan if he had entertained dreams of being a professional musician. He responded he never had much of a desire to live full time the rock-star life of a professional accordion player. “I'm actually much more of a home body and love to make dinner for friends or spend time reading and listening to music. Weekends away, delayed flights, carrying an accordion on my back...they are part of my passion, and it paid the bills, and it allowed me to share my culture with others....but it would not be my vocation to play professionally. I rather enjoy teaching, though, and have had great success with my music students at various competitions.” I asked Ryan if he taught lessons regularly. He said he seldom teaches the accordion, and that is has been hard, particularly since joining the Society, to meet with students on a regular basis.

He does teach, however, the tin whistle and he has at present two what he describes as BRILLIANT students, Michael and Brian English. “They came to me last summer (2004) wanting lessons and, sad to say, they were in pretty sorry shape. Loving a challenge, I took them as students and made them commit to practice. After several weeks of teaching them, Mike and Brian came in one day. Looking dejected, Brian gave me a forlorn stare and said, "Ryan, nobody knows me. I've got to be out there, man! I've got to be living the life." This out of the mouth of a then ten-year old. Almost one year later, Michael won the 15-18 Tin Whistle competition at the Fleadh in St Louis and his little brother, Brian, took 2nd place in the under-12 competition! They've made great strides both as musicians and as young men and it has been my great honor and joy to teach them.”

Ryan has taught for a number of years, but says it is hard to maintain close contact with all of his students - changing schedules, college, sports, etc., made it difficult. With Mike and Brian, however, Ryan does "phone lessons" every week so that they keep up on their material and, whenever possible, he has lessons with them in Cleveland or they come up to Detroit to see him. Sounds like they are true fans of their teacher!

I asked Ryan what it was that attracted him to this particular instrument and to Irish music. “What I loved about music - celebrating my heritage and helping to free people to dance - is the same thing I loved about my faith. So it came as little surprise to many when I announced in 2004 that I'd be entering the Society of Jesus. On August 21st I celebrated my one-year anniversary and I can't say that I've ever been happier.

Ryan also shared a bit of Jesuit irony. When he was in the 8th grade, he began to play with a local Irish band called "Tap the Bow." This band had been started two years earlier by Brother Jim Boynton, SJ, then a young teacher at St Ignatius High School. Ryan’s first year in the band coincided with his last year teaching there, and Ryan says “for all intents and purposes, he was the first Jesuit I'd met. I saw Jim once while in Detroit in about 1999. In 2003, I decided to apply to the Jesuits and, when I went to inquire, learned to my great delight that Brother Jim was now the vocation director and was in his first year as such. Well, long story made short, I became one of the members of his first class of recruits; now, on most weekends, you can find us on the porch of the house playing Irish music accompanied by several singers, drum players, guitarists, and spoons!

“I play Irish music on the piano accordion -- making me, in some sense, a version of Steve Erkle from the 90's sitcom "Family Matters" except that I'm white and play Irish music! I asked Ryan to talk with me about the differences between the Irish accordion and any other accordion. He replied “The piano accordion is preferred by Irish dancers because of its full sound and the fact that the right and left hands (treble and bass) are easily synched. The Irish accordion, or button-box, operates on a different system than the piano accordion. Most are known as "diatonic" meaning that each button plays two different notes depending on how you are squeezing the accordion. Such coordination is beyond me, and my parents wisely opted for the piano accordion, for which such problems as "two notes" seldom arises.”

“In terms of music, I think Irish music is so phenomenal because it is a living tradition, one that changes and grows and evolves over time. It's immigrant music, notes written long ago that traveled across the Atlantic to find new soil here in America; notes that became smudged with coal dust and soapy water and ground down with poverty and oppression; notes that remembered fondly the home and family in Ireland and, though with longing for the past, cast eyes forward to the home and family newly started in this new land; notes that carry joy and sadness, hopes and fears, the life and death and struggles and triumphs of a people. It is the music of my grandfathers and grandmothers, the music of my students, the music and story of my heart. Then Ryan added, “Forgive me if I wax and wane somewhat poetic -- it's a topic I feel strongly about!”

It is this passion for his music that is so endearing.


Anonymous said...

Mind if I quote you on your music comment?

Unknown said...

By all Means

Photography said...

nice one

Anonymous said...

Great story! Well written and very interesting.