Musical Vocation

I'm in a bit of a writing mood this evening, so I thought I'd put down something of my musical vocation story. Since I started posting videos on YouTube and on here as well, my site has seen an ENORMOUS surge in traffic, much of it due to people's interest in Irish music.


Since I do not have children of my own, I often wonder what it would be like to hold my own son or daughter. I wonder what kind of dreams I would have for him. I've never asked him this, but I have taken to wondering what my own father and mother dreamt for me when I was a baby. Did they want me to be a baseball player? A doctor? A teacher? Rich? It's just so amazing to think that a parent holds a lifetime of potential is her arms, a potential that will be so shaped and molded by the parents' love and care.

So when I was little I did the things most kids did, I guess. I played 'hot stove' baseball, softball with the parish, and flag football. By the time I was in the second grade, my sister Torrey had already begun taking Irish dancing classes and I saw how much fun she was having. My mother, wise as she is, probably saw that I had little to no physical coordination and signed me and my brother Colin up for tin whistle lessons with a local music teacher.

Interestingly, neither of my parents play music. Nor did my grandparents. But both of my great-grandfathers were great musician - Grandpa Hagan played the piano throughout Cleveland and my Grandpa Kilbane was a fine fiddle player. His sister, Sister Margaret Anne Kilbane, was an Ursuline sister who was a nice button accordion player in her own right. Some traits skip generations, but the musical trait skipped two in my case!

It may come as a shock to readers, but I really wasn't a very good music student. It took years for me to attain any level of proficiency on the whistle. I liked playing it, to be sure, but I probably was about eleven or twelve before I started to show forth some promise as a musician. Perhaps I exaggerate - I might have actually been pretty good, but it seems now so long ago that it's hard to recall. I do remember, however, struggling a lot to learn tunes and having a hard time learning by ear.

During this time I also picked up the accordion. For those youngsters reading, the accordion is not, contrary to popular belief, the way to go if you want to make a lot of friends. I think most of my past self-esteem problems stem directly from having learned to play the accordion (which I have taken to calling "the box" as it sounds better than saying accordion).

By the time I was in the eighth grade, I had begun to find my voice in the Irish musical tradition. I began playing in a band called "Tap the Bow" with a Jesuit regent, Brother Jim Boynton. Jim was the first Jesuit I'd ever met, so it seems fitting now that he was in his first year as vocation director the year I applied.

I started teaching music relatively young - I was sixteen, I believe. So I've been a music teacher now for ten years. As I write this, I chuckle: I've gone from learning the whistle from Tom Hastings in a musty second bedroom in his house to teaching out of my kitchen for six-dollars a lesson (when I started) to now teaching a college course at Fordham University. That's a lot of mileage on one $10.00 instrument!

I began playing for feiseanna (Irish dancing competitions) as I moved through college. My two years of graduate school seem a blur now, as I went to school during the week and played nearly every weekend. There is a part of me that misses that life, the friends I made and the various places I would travel. Some of my best friends are the result of being a part of the Irish dancing circuit.

After spending a whole day trying to isolate the Trinitarian dimension of Karl Rahner's anthropology, what I write here seems to lack a cohesive bond. I'm not much for narrating history, so let me offer a few thoughts on the career of Irish music.

I chose quite deliberately not to make Irish music my life. My vocation has obviously led me into the Society of Jesus, but that does not mean that I was not called to be a musician. I would like to think that my musical vocation has called and will continue to call me out of myself and into a world where I can express my deep love for my Irish heritage through music and song and dance. You see, I do not see music and priesthood as opposed to one another. In a real sense, both try to free others. For so many, our hearts are so burdened that we seek out a healing word that will free us from the doubt and anger and sadness that weighs on us; so many of us are scared to step out onto the dance floor that it takes a compelling rhythm to summon us into the dance. Had I made music my job, I fear I would have begun to concern myself with "performing" the music than encountering others in the music.

Music can be a movement of hospitality, a making space for another person. Words can be bulky, but a tune or a song is often able to squeeze its way into even the narrowest of hearts. We don't recite epic poems or read Rahner to napping infants; we do, however, sing soft lullabies that sooth and reassure them of our presence.

I began by wondering about parental desires for children. I doubt sincerely that my parents ever dreamed that I would be an Irish music playing Jesuit. But through their love and support, I have been able to claim my place in my religious and cultural heritage.
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