Monday, May 13, 2013

Musings from the Side of the Stage

Regular readers know that one of the most important, and cherished, elements of my life is my involvement with Irish music and dancing. If I'm not mistaken, I've now been playing Irish music for twenty-five years (starting on the tin whistle and progressing to the accordion a few years later). When I returned from studying abroad in 2000, I became very involved in playing for Irish dancing competitions (feiseanna) all over the country.

A feis is an Irish dancing competition where dancers compete with one another, dancing to live music in front of a certified adjudicator. In this it's like figure skating, gymnastics, or the Westminster Kennel Club: there's a unique subculture governed by its own rules with its own personalities.

So my "role" within the world of Irish dancing is to be one of the musicians who provides live music at the events. Sometimes I play for what we call the "grades" - these are the newer and less-experienced dancers. Very often one musician will provide music for multiple stages at once and the dancers come out, perform, and are judged relative to the other competitors. My job is to make sure that the dancers have the music they need to do their dances: when it's a "reel" competition, I play reels; when it's time for "jigs," I play jigs. At other times I am privileged to play for championship-level dancers. These dancers have larger stages on which to perform, do more technically demanding dances, and there tends to be a bit more formality involved. These competitions are judged by three adjudicators and one competition involves either two or three rounds of dancing.

This weekend, I had a wonderful time playing at the Queen City Feis (Cincinnati) and the Bluegrass Feis (Lexington). It was such a nice way to end my academic semester and enter into summer: I enjoyed playing for the dancers and had the opportunity to work with very fine adjudicators and musicians. These events are as much social as they are profesional: in addition to working together all day at the event, we socialize together in the evenings at various bars and restaurants.

Yesterday, while I was playing, it slowly dawned on me one of the major reasons I love playing for Irish dancers. It is not because I like the synthetic hair, the spray tan, the tendency to put rhinestones on any available surface, or the overabundance of body glitter that, no doubt, I have been inhaling for years and will almost certainly prove as carcinogenic as asbestos. No, I love playing because as I disappear, as I lose myself and dissolve into the background, it helps other to be their best selves. It's like that like in John's Gospel, where John the Baptist acknowledges "I must decrease" in order that Jesus "may increase." John set the stage and got the ball rolling for Jesus...he started the music, it fell to Jesus to perform the dance of salvation.

Being up on a stage, playing in front of a lot of people, can tempt toward egocentric behavior. Teachers, physicians, lawyers, musicians, clergy: any public professional be tempted to think oneself the center of attention. We can become so self-focused, so egocentric, that we forget that we entered into our professions to help others be who they are. We are at our best when we're totally heterocentric, when we do our best to get out of the way to let others be who they are able to be.

One special thing I saw yesterday, on Mother's Day, was how the various dancers related to their moms. While there were a few pouty kids, it really struck me how many dancers get off the stage and run to their mothers. The moms give hugs, give commendations or consolations as needed, and support the kid. Many of these moms have made great sacrifices on behalf of these dancers - hours of travel, financial support, inherent stresses associated with competing - but many of them were so happy and so proud to see their dancers on the stage. Good or bad, a future champion or someone who hasn't much future in the dancing, the parents were proud that their child got up on the stage.

The crowd shouldn't notice the musician, really. We need to dissolve in order that the dancer can find himself or herself caught up in the music and perform. My practice meets their practice in order that they effort to conceal myself in the music lets the dancer take the stage totally.

I write this and cannot help but think that this is my notion of priesthood. Just two years from my ordination, it's not about me putting on a show, about making something happen. My Jesuit training and my musical training converge: I think I'll be my best when I am noticed least, when I can get out of the way so that those who approach the Lord's Table are treated, not to a dose of Duns, but to an encounter with the Risen One, the Lord of the Dance.

My image of the Kingdom of God as, for years, been a huge Irish dancing party (a ceili) where I get to be a member of the band. I'm not the star musician by any stretch, but my music joins with others who are conducted by the leader of the band who makes even our sour notes to sound pure. As our music interweaves, it flows onto the floor and draws even the wallflowers into the dance. The pure music doesn't force anyone to dance....but its life and joy are hard to resist. Even the cynical and fearful hearts melt in its presence, surrendering old inhibitions and entering a dance they did not start but one in which they find themselves increasing in joy and laughter. Tune follows tune follows tune and no one tires of playing and no one considers stopping the dance for, in this moment, we have tasted the abundance of life and celebrate it totally and eternally.

My shoulders are a bit sore this morning - two days of playing is rough! - but I woke up with a joyful heart. This is going to be a busy summer and a lot of music is yet to be played. Not every feis will prove easy or ideal but, with grace and patience, each one can be an opportunity to decrease that others may increase, to learn how to put my practice to the service of others. 


Anonymous said...

Yes! Yes! A resounding YES! You played at my son's stage and he SO enjoyed your playing! My son has aspired to be at the "championship" level and finally achieved it this Spring... NOT just because of trophies and podiums, but because he always wanted the "best" musicians!

Since my son first began to dance, I always bless him before he begins a feis and remind him that he is there to showcase the gifts that God gave him. Some days its to show the love of the dance, the sharpest clicks or the highest kicks, but always he is there on that stage to honor what God has given him. I encourage him and remind him that some days we might get a medal or trophy or maybe some days its just to remind an adjudicator or a musician why they are there! Because we LOVE the music and the dancing!

I so deeply appreciate your comments here and wish you all the best in your continued journey! We also hope you play our stage again soon! You were wonderful!

Anonymous said...

It was a great weekend! Thank you for being a part of it...

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your dedication. Without our fabulous musicians our dancers would have no music to perform their hard work to. We are new to the Irish Dance scene; just a couple of feisianna under our belts and the one thing that stands out the most to our family is the sense of camaraderie. It truly is a great sense of family at these events. I especially enjoyed the singing of the national anthems and morning devotion prior to the Bluegrass Feis - country and God should be present in what we do everyday and what a great showing for our young dancers! Thanks again for your commitment, dedication and passion for music and the Lord (we certainly could use more of it today!).

Nan said...

What a wonderful post Ryan! A reminder to all of us, and a gracious example. Thanks for your blessings by 1)playing, and 2) sharing that experience through your writing.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. Quite lovely sentiment

Unknown said...

Ryan, Many thanks for this post. It is excellent. It also inspired my post on the Blog "Views From the Choir Loft" with Corpus Christi Watershed (

I quote part of your post here and linked to your blog as well.

Here's a link:

God bless!
Richard Clark

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame