If you’re ever lucky enough to find yourself in Miltown Malbay, County Clare, Ireland, around the early part of July each year you will find a most wonderful musical and learning event taking place: the Willie Clancy Summer School. Sadly, one of its founders Muiris Ó Rócháin passed away this year. Many years ago I made a TV documentary called Up Sráid Eoin about the wren boys of Dingle and Muiris featured prominantly in the film. Ar dheis De go raibh a anam usual (trans: May he be honoured at the right hand of God) .
Now let me tell you about this school. It uses a form of cascade to facilitate musicians of all levels (and ages) to improve their playing of traditional music. The development of Irish set dancing skills is also an integral part of the week long programme. So experts teach the proficient, the proficient teach the novices etc.. In addition, there is a very strong social aspect to playing traditional music, its fullest expression is through group playing with a mixture of fiddle, flute, tin whistle, uilleann pipes, accordion, guitars, banjo and bodhráns.
Throughout the week there is a mix of structured classes and spontaneous sessions usually in the local pubs. These sessions embrace young and old, expert and novice – what we get is one continuous, joyous expression of music – all the while people are learning new tunes and developing their skills.
There is no assessment, no barriers to ‘giving it a go’, no penalties for mistakes and great learning takes place.
This entire approach is completely at variance with our institutionalised version of education. We often take for granted the assumption that all learning must be assessed and we see learning as an individual and often lonely process. The Willie Clancy Summer School gives us a different perspective on this.