Winifred Horan: Classical Fiddling

Interview with Winnie Horan
By Candace Horgan

It wouldn't be stretching matters to say that Solas is one of the leading bands of the recent Celtic music resurgence. The band will be releasing their fifth record in 2002, titled The Edge of Silence. Solas has grown to include seven members, among them All-Ireland multi-instrumental champion Seamus Egan, accordion player Mick McAuley, singer Deirdre Scanlan, and guitarist Donal Clancy. Bassist Chico Huff and percussionist Steve Holloway also toured with the band in 2000 and play on the new CD. Classically-trained fiddler Winifred Horan is a big part of Solas' success; Horan mixes in classical touches with traditional styles to great effect on traditional tunes like the "Granny Quinn's" set on Solas's last CD, The Hour Before Dawn. Besides her contributions to Solas' latest CD, fans will get to hear another side to Horan's playing on her forthcoming solo CD, tentatively set for a Summer 2002 release. In December, 2001, Horan talked at length about her classical background, her playing with Solas, and her solo project.

When did you start playing the violin, and what got you started on it?

I started playing piano first when I was little. My dad was a trumpeter in a jazz band and played piano. He was born in New York but raised in Ireland. Mom was born in Ireland. When they emigrated to New York, he played in the Blue Notes, and when they started having kids he didn't have the time to indulge. He was a carpenter by trade. He got me started; the family was pretty musical through the years. I started on piano when I was six and he was my first teacher. I remember learning from him when I was really little. Then when I got a bit older, I might have said, "I want to play the violin." He may have found one in a hock shop; he may have picked up an old violin and being a carpenter he was really into rebuilding things, so rebuilding old instruments became a hobby for him. I remember loads of fiddles around the house, so he took me for fiddle lessons, which is when I started playing Irish music. We were also involved in Irish dance at the time and there was always Irish music in the house. Dad exposed us to all types of music. He only got into traditional music when he moved to New York. My first fiddle teacher was Maureen Glynn, and she lived in Brooklyn. At the time, there were a few people who had quite a lot of students, like Martin Mulvihill, who taught kids in the Bronx like Eileen Ivers. We went once a week for fiddle lessons and played in Ceili bands, and at the same time learned Irish dance from Donny Golden. He is still teaching.

When I was about eleven or twelve, there was a German woman in our neighborhood of Rockaway Beach who took private students in her home and taught classical piano and violin. She was sort of my first teacher on the classical side of things. She had all the neighborhood kids. When I got to high school age, about twelve, thirteen, there was a competition for the Mannes School of Music in Manhattan to get into the preparatory school and I auditioned and got in. That was weekends for the rest of my high school years, going into Manhattan for private lessons in orchestral music and chamber music. I really loved it, and when it came time to take the SAT's and go to college, my parents and the Mannes School introduced me to various conservatory options, like Manhattan School of Music, and I ended up choosing the New England Conservatory of Music.

When I got out of college, I started auditioning for orchestras, but I realized I didn't have the nerves of steel you need to go through that. I worked in local string quartets to stay in touch with the classical side of things. Some of the auditions for the symphonies were in places I didn't want to live, and they weren't big orchestras.

Who were some of your early influences?

I'd have to say as a little girl in the house, it was just music. Dad played everything, so I didn't know what I was listening to. Influences include everything I listened to. As I got older, my first major influence playing Irish music was Seamus. Sharon Shannon was also an influence, and so was Liz Carroll. Those three are my top influences. And there are many others. I really love listening to singers, too, so I can't pinpoint anything. I love listening to the background singers. On the classical side, I really love this Russian violinist called David Oistrak; my dad had a record of his. His son Igor was also a violinist. Dad had a copy of a recording the two did playing the Bach double violin concerto, and I remember being blown away by the massive sounds they got.

You attended the New England Conservatory of Music. Did you have any difficulties with people there regarding your pursuit of traditional music?

I wasn't playing trad music at the time, and my friends at the Conservatory wanted to see me dance and play the fiddle at parties, but I had got so far away from it that it felt foreign. I had told them about that background, but it was something I left for a while, and when I got back into it I was blown away by the amount of tunes there are to learn. I had gotten so accustomed to reading music. Your memory isn't tested by being in an orchestra and reading the music in front of you. I think it would take years to learn every tune. I am amazed by bluegrass and Irish musicians who have this vast repertory. Not that I gave up trying to learn all the tunes, but it is a long battle. This relates back to the classical training; some of the really common tunes people were playing were so beautiful to me because they were new to me again; Seamus thought that was really funny, because those tunes were being played constantly in sessions.

When did you start to enter competitions, and how did they help your playing?

They didn't help my playing because I was a nervous wreck. I won one when I was young; my nerves still get the better of me sometimes. For some reason, I didn't have the same problem with the dancing competitions. I did a couple of fiddle competitions in New York, and also some classical ones. When it came to playing by myself, I completely freaked out. I must have entered my first one when I was around nine. It was good in that I got to mix with other people from Ireland. I went to Ireland once and that was it; I didn't really get involved in the competition, but Seamus did. He fared pretty well in them, but also had the same sort of dislike for them. I don't know how beneficial they are if you get so nervous. It took me a long time to get over stage fright; I think I got more paranoid as I got older. I don't like musicians to be completely fearless; I am jealous of that. I think there is something charming about going to a gig but you know the musicians aren't completely full of confidence.

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Candace Horgan, of Denver, Colorado, covers music for the Denver Post, Relix, and other publications, as well as