Updated Feb 2, 2024
Augusta Heritage Center Irish Week Report, 1999
by Ryan Thomson
For over 20 years The Augusta Heritage Center at Davis Elkins College, in Elkins, West Virginia, has been offering a week long program which immerses participants in Irish culture, music, and dance. I've participated in this program many times, having studied Irish fiddle variously with Kevin Burke, Willie Kelly, and Brian Conway, piano with Brendan Dolan, and Irish dance with Jim Keenan and Mick Mulkerrin.
In addition to these specialties, the possible courses of instruction also include: pipes; accordion; Irish language and culture; step dancing; harp; singing; percussion; flute, whistle; concertina; and more; with well known performers and teachers from both Ireland and the USA. There are around 400 students.
Each day is filled with classes, workshops, lectures, concerts, and dances, and a sleep deficit develops for anyone who tries to take in even a little of every offered activity! Most people sign up for a particular class which continues through the week. Classes start at 10 am in the morning, go to lunch hour, and continue in the afternoon. For those who like to participate actively, there are informal groups of musicians and dancers of all skill levels that form spontaneously in various nooks and crannys on campus.
These sessions continue all day long and often don't end until 4 or 5 am. I played till 3 am for several nights. I was having such a good time playing fiddle at these sessions, that the time seemed to pass by at double speed. The music was so lively that it was hard to pack up my fiddle and flute and go to bed, but I felt a need to prepare for the 9 am breakfast deadline!
Last year I was on the general staff at the Augusta Heritage Center for 5 weeks. My official duties prevented me from playing as much music as I would have liked, but I did manage to attend a few hours of the piano class with Brendan Dolan, and learned quite a bit just from that limited exposure. I've always admired the tasteful Irish piano playing of Felix Dolan, his father, from whom he learned, and so I chose to enroll as a full time student in his piano class for the 1999 program.
I have many years of experience playing piano as accompaniment for dancers, but I'm always excited about the chance to learn more tricks of the trade. This class both met and exceeded my expectations. Brendan was very willing and able to show me many specific fingerings and playing techniques which best highlight Irish tunes.
At the end of the program was an afternoon "showcase" at which all students and classes did a demonstration or performance of what they had learned during the week. Since the piano class can't easily perform as a group, I was asked to play accompaniment for the group performance of the tin whistle class. What fun!
In addition, I enrolled in a late afternoon ceili dance band class as the band piano player. We practiced several hours a day, and performed as the official band at the end-of-the-week grand finale ceili dance. We had 20 musicians in the band: fiddles, flutes, accordions, etc, and had a blast. ("good crack," to use the Irish phrase). We played mostly high speed jigs and reels for a wildly enthusiastic and overflowing crowd of set dancers.
A highlight of the dance for me, was having master piano player Bob Mcquillen yell out my name during the middle of the ceili and then when he had my attention, gave me a thumbs up! Bob, who can hold his own or better with any dance piano player known, is also on the Augusta staff to help fill in whenever needed.
I highly recommend the Augusta program for anyone interested in Irish music, dance and culture. Courses range in content and style to cover the full gamut from those with no experience to folks with an advanced level of previous knowledge. For my own music making needs I found it easy to maintain 6 to 8 hours a day of playing in addition to classes and other activities. Another added bonus for players with eclectic interests is that there are also opportunities to jam with others in many other types of folk music, including the rich heritage of music and dance native to West Virginia itself.
Written by Ryan Thomson, 1999