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A screenshot of a Zoom music class at the Riley School of Irish Music

Resilient Ohio: Riley School of Irish Music Takes a Technological Approach to Teaching Traditional Arts

Launched during the pandemic, the Riley School’s community subscription program allowed community members to take part in activities and performances put on by the school. Subscriptions were available to any non-students interested in taking part in school events like Friday-night virtual concerts and Saturday workshops. Photo courtesy of the Riley School of Irish Music.The ancient custom of teaching traditional Irish music aurally goes back hundreds of years.

But a brand-new custom has a much shorter history. Just over the past year, teaching traditional Irish music aurally and virtually has been practiced and perfected in Cincinnati, Ohio, at the Riley School of Irish Music.

In the 25 years since its founding, the Riley School of Irish Music has become much more than just an educational institution. It’s a center of rich traditions, beautiful music, and tight-knit community. A recipient of a 2017 Ohio Heritage Fellowship for Community Leadership, the Riley School plays an important role in teaching Irish music to  students in the Greater Cincinnati region.

Due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Riley School educators and board members had to get creative in order to keep the rich traditions and community thriving. Virtual classes and a new community subscription service allowed for students to continue their studies.

“At Riley it’s not just about teaching the music, but building a community as well. That certainly was a theme for us during the pandemic, so we did a lot of things that were keeping our community connected, together, and safe,” said Nancy Keyser, a flute and whistle student and board chair at the Riley School.

In pre-COVID times, a typical Saturday morning at the Riley School consisted of students of all ages and their families coming together as a group before participating in their various lessons taught completely by ear. The harp, flute, tin whistle, and Irish drum (known as the bodhrán) are among the many instruments taught at the Riley School. The day is broken up by a mid-day meal served and enjoyed by all students and family members before they return to afternoon lessons and performances.

“Many other music schools have lessons throughout the week with the students not really seeing or interacting with each other,” said Dan Curtin, a 23-year community member at the Riley School. “But at our school we are focused on getting that time together. We were worried that the pandemic would really damage that sense of community.”

In Spring 2020, classes at the Riley School were cancelled as the board began meeting virtually to discuss how the next school year would unfold. Virtual classes began in Fall 2020.

The Riley’s community subscriptions also became an opportunity for the school to hire teachers and musicians for virtual concerts and workshops that it would not traditionally be able to do. Photo courtesy of the Riley School of Irish Music.“We would start in a Zoom meeting with all students and teachers. Everyone would join the big Zoom room meeting to gather and greet one another,” Keyser said. “Then at the top of the hour, we would use Zoom breakout rooms for lessons, then we’d rejoin when lessons had ended.”

While a remote music class seems like it might be loud and chaotic, faculty at the Riley School were pleasantly surprised with how the virtual classes went. There were several unexpected positive outcomes from teaching and learning virtually.

“A lot of adults are intimidated by playing around other people, so the virtual classes made that part easier,” Keyser said. “You could make mistakes and other people wouldn’t hear you; it was a much more comfortable scenario for a lot of people, particularly our adult beginner students.”

Virtual classes also allowed for inclusion of students who weren’t geographically close to the Riley School.

“Our clientele base expanded to a lot of students outside of Cincinnati because now they could participate,” Keyser said. 

In addition to virtual lessons, a community subscription program was introduced. This subscription allowed community members to take part in activities and performances put on by the Riley School. Community subscriptions were available to any non-students interested in taking part in the school’s events like Friday-night virtual concerts and Saturday workshops. These subscriptions also gave people the ability to come to Riley’s Saturday virtual Zoom meetings.

“We were able to attract people with these subscriptions to the Riley School,” Keyser said. “People who wanted to be learning and part of the community but weren’t necessarily interested in taking lessons. Community subscriptions also gave people the opportunity to join the Saturday virtual room meeting and interact with fellow students, families, and faculty.”

During the pandemic, the Riley School's clientele base expanded to students outside of Cincinnati who took advantage of the opportunity to learn remotely. Photo courtesy of the Riley School of Irish Music.Community subscriptions also became a way for the Riley School to support musicians who were seeing a loss of income due to an inability to do live performances during the pandemic, Keyser said.

“Because everything was virtual, we were able to hire some really amazing teachers and musicians for our virtual concerts and workshops that we would not traditionally be able to do,” she said. “It was a really nice way for our community to be exposed to a lot of talented musicians and educators who they would otherwise not get to see.”

While the pandemic encouraged students and staff to expand their technological reach into the classroom, the Riley School is no stranger to online accessibility. The school’s website already features audio tracks as a primary learning tool, with a robust catalog of traditional Irish music that is uploaded and available for students, as well as anyone from the public to listen. The school does this in order to keep with the ancient tradition of teaching and learning music by ear, rather than by reading sheet music.

“We have found if we don't insist on the ear training, the student typically doesn’t pick up on the Irish ‘accent.' Irish music, just like speech, has an accent,” Curtin said. “Adults who have grown up and learned to read music often find it very unsettling and uncomfortable to have to rely on ear training until they realize how much fun it is.”

Now that the world seems to be emerging from the pandemic, faculty at the Riley School are hoping that classes will be back in-person come Fall 2021, just in time for its 25th anniversary.

 “We want people to be there in person,” Keyser said. “We will give teachers some flexibility if they’re interested in continuing to teach virtually, but we are hoping that Saturday is an in-person gathering, because that’s what we love.”

To learn more about the Riley School of Irish Music and its online programming, visit rileyirishmusic.com.

Resilient Ohio is an ongoing series highlighting the innovative solutions developed by Ohio arts organizations as they navigate the effects of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The impact of COVID-19 has created incredible financial obstacles for the arts across the country. According to Americans for the Arts, the negative economic impact of the coronavirus on the arts and cultural sector totals $15.2 billion across the nation—and counting. If you have a story to share about creative perseverance within Ohio’s arts community, please email it to communications@oac.ohio.gov.

ABOUT THE OHIO ARTS COUNCIL
The Ohio Arts Council is a state agency that funds and supports quality arts experiences to strengthen Ohio communities culturally, educationally, and economically. Connect with the OAC on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or visit our website at oac.ohio.gov.

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Article by Cassie Rea, 2021 Ohio Arts Council Arts Administration Fellow
Featured photo: A screenshot of a Zoom music class at the Riley School of Irish Music. Photo courtesy of the Riley School of Irish Music.



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