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Brian Conway: Honoring His Elders
Caoimhin Mac Aoidh
2014-05-25
Born in the Bronx, New York City, in 1961, Brian is a leading exponent of the highly-ornamented Sligo fiddle style popularized by the late Michael Coleman. Both of his parents came from the Plumbridge area of County Tyrone, Northern Ireland. His father, Jim, began playing fiddle while growing up in Ireland and continued to pursue his love of fiddle playing after emigrating to New York. His mother had taken formal lessons on the violin in her youth.
 
Beginning his fiddle studies with his father and popular New York teacher Martin Mulvihill, Brian went on to learn from Sligo fiddle master Martin Wynne while also exploring the playing of Andy McGann. By his early teens, Brian had already won two All-Ireland junior titles (1973 and 1974) and added the All-Ireland senior title in 1986.
 
Brian has released a number of highly respected albums, including Consider the Source, A Tribute to Andy McGann (with accordionist Joe Burke and pianist Felix Dolan), First Through the Gate, and The Apple in Winter (with fellow New York fiddler Tony DeMarco). He has also appeared on numerous compilations, including the acclaimed My Love is in America, recorded at the Boston College Irish Fiddle Festival.
 
In addition to recording and performing, Brian keeps a busy teaching schedule, both privately and at various music camps, and leads regular sessions in New York. This interview took place in February 2014.
 
When did you first remember hearing Irish music and being aware that it was “Irish” music?
 
I’ve been hearing the music for as long as I can remember because my father played the fiddle. I can remember keenly listening to him play. It was more out of respect for my father than for the love of the music at that point. I was six or seven years of age. He played in a very northern Irish style. He actually held the fiddle down on his chest, almost reminiscent of Appalachian-style fiddle players. He played tunes like “The Soldier’s Joy.” Those are my earliest memories of my father playing.
 
Did your father mostly learn to play at home in Tyrone or did his learning in earnest begin in New York?
 
He learned in Tyrone and when he came to America he happened to live in the same rooming house in the south Bronx as the great Sligo fiddle player Martin Wynne, and they became good friends. When my father was living in Tyrone he would listen to the music of Michael Coleman and James Morrison on the radio and he fell in love with the Sligo style. He would always talk of the Sligo style in glowing terms. He also spoke very highly of John Doherty from Donegal, whom he knew personally. My father was Irish to the core. He came from a very mixed area, Plumbridge. Everybody co-existed well. What your background was, was irrelevant. It truly was a melting pot.
 
When he ended up living in America, he couldn’t believe his good fortune when he met and became friends with Martin Wynne, whose style was very similar to Coleman’s. That fortune was no coincidence because Martin was taught by Coleman’s teacher, Philip O’Beirne. So my father did continue to learn a bit after that but he was already very much set in his musical ways. Martin did try to teach him some more refined Sligo elements. Martin got my father thinking a lot about bowing. So my father became very attuned to that. My father also spoke about another guy named Muldoon who talked a lot about slurring patterns. My father was very much a student of that, even if he could not do it himself. So when I started playing, he was aware of those deficiencies in my playing.
 
Did you identify that music as being of your local geographical or neighborhood community or did you see it as being of a cultural community or the “Irish” community?
 
I first knew there was a style called “the Sligo style” when I was ten or eleven. I didn’t even know where Sligo was. So I didn’t identify it as anything other than music that was played by these certain great players such as Andy McGann and Martin Wynne. They were “Sligo style” players and my father thought that was a very high art form amongst the styles of Irish music. It didn’t occur to me that it related to a specific county in Ireland until I was playing for more than a year. I can’t relate it to a particular local community in New York. It was played in New York by people like Andy McGann as well as Lad O’Beirne, whom I met in my late teens, of course Martin Wynne, who was my second teacher, as well as Paddy Reynolds. I just understood it to be the music that was played in New York City. My parents settled in an area that was very mixed ethnically. It was a very Catholic neighborhood. It was more Italian-American than Irish-American. Ten minutes up the road was a neighborhood called Woodlawn that was ninety-five percent Irish. No one in my class at school played Irish music. But had we moved to Woodlawn, everyone in my class would have played Irish music or would be dancing.     
 

 
Who were your first lessons with and what were they like?
 
My first teacher was Martin Mulvihill. He was a wonderful man from the Kerry/Limerick border. He had a huge school. He would be very well known among my generation in New York because he taught so many people. He was a beloved man. His first few lessons were private and after that it was group classes. My father didn’t like how my playing was progressing, so after playing there for about four or five months, he looked up his old friend Martin Wynne. My first lesson with Martin Wynne was not even in person. Martin was such a shy man that his first lesson was sending me sheet music with cross-bowing patterns in it. Shortly after that correspondence, we went to visit him in his apartment in Jerome Avenue. Dave Collins drove my father, my brother Seán, and I to meet Martin and we had a little bit of a lesson. Every time after that…we would go and pick him up [and] take him to our house on a Friday night or sometimes on a Sunday. He’d stay for three, four, or five hours and we would just talk and play. He’d teach me some tunes and he would talk and I would listen. It was very informal but very, very enriching. 
 
The teaching method Martin used was playing by ear and on a one-to-one basis, helping you with the things you needed to correct. They weren’t rigidly-structured, formulaic lessons.
 
That’s right. They weren’t. He wasn’t a “teacher.” I was his first and only student. I was very inquisitive. First of all, Martin wasn’t looking to teach anyone. But he loved the fact that I was peppering him with questions and very, very eager to learn. He loved that dynamic and it drew him out of himself.   
 
He was getting a reward from you.
 
He was. He became a member of the family. He’d spend every Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, and every holiday with us at our house for dinner.   
 
The lessons were not about him imposing a particular way of playing. He truly was without ego. Once in a blue moon he would take credit for something he did. But it was always, “This is the way Coleman played it.” We talked a lot about Seán McGuire and other players. He loved Andy McGann. He really admired him and thought a lot of him. Of course he talked a lot about Lad O’Beirne. If he was ever going to be dogmatic it would be, “Don’t do it that way. That’s not how Coleman did it.” It wouldn’t be, “Don’t do it that way. That’s not how I want you to do it.”
 
Outside of Martin Wynne, who were your early influences and who were you listening to?
 
Michael Coleman and Andy McGann were my two biggest influences. I would listen to Coleman all the time. I had a recording of Coleman playing “Farrell O’Gara” and “Good Morning to Your Nightcap.” and I listened to that every morning without fail while I was eating my breakfast. I could not get enough of that recording. Andy McGann’s playing also moved me. I just wanted to sound exactly like Andy at one point in my development. Martin encouraged me to figure out exactly what Andy was doing. I didn’t have any lessons with Andy, but Martin and I would figure out what Andy was doing. That was another example of how ego-less Martin was.   
 

 
[For much more of this interview, as well as transcriptions of “Martin Wynne’s Number 3” and “Martin Wynne’s Number 4,” subscribe to Fiddler Magazine or purchase the Summer 2014 issue.]
 
[Caoimhín Mac Aoidh is the author of Between the Jigs and Reels: The Donegal Fiddle Tradition,” “The Scribe, The Life and Works of James O’Neill,” and an upcoming book on mazurkas. He was featured in the Summer 2006 issue of Fiddler Magazine and is a founding member of Cairdeas na bhFidleiri. He is the founder of World Fiddle Day (www.worldfiddleday.com).]

[Second photo: Deborah Putman. A session in 1990. Left to right: V. Harrison, Jimmy Divine, Martin Wynne, Brian Conway, Jack Coen.]