An evolution of Thought, Instruction, & Style

From Mark Gowman: From 2001-2012 this program at East Rochester High School was known as Celtic Music Society. The first Celtic Music Society was created in 1999 at Franklin Middle School in Reisterstown, Maryland, and co-directed by Lee Budar-Danoff. Celtic Music Society was born out of the idea that school band musicians, trained in the classical style, could quickly learn to play as traditional Irish musicians as well. What started almost as an experiment of my own educational theories has become a passion for me and for the students.

The story of this band begins not in East Rochester, but in Baltimore, Maryland, where the first Celtic Music Society was formed. In 1999, I was in my first year at Franklin Middle, a large school that was part of the Baltimore County School District. In my fourth year of teaching, I was burned out. I was not only overwhelmed by the job, I had ceased to make music away from it. But at this point a friend gave me a CD by a new Irish band called Lunasa. I was mesmerized by the sound, and wanted to duplicate it. I finally picked up the antique Irish flute I had bought for my wife several years before, listened to those recordings, and discovered a love of Irish music. I soon began going to local Irish music sessions at J. Patrick's Pub and throughout the Baltimore/Washington area. It was a very exciting time for me, as I realized that the true musician in me had become stagnant; it was not just Irish music that was new for me, but all music that became new again. I wanted to share this excitement with my students, and invited my band and orchestra students to a new after-school club, one where we would experience the joys of playing this wonderful music: a Celtic music society. There was not actually any thought of performing; rather, the goal was just to expose students to the music. With the assistance of my colleague and co-director Lee Budar-Danoff and encouragement from fellow BCPS music teachers Cathy Maglaras and Elizabeth, my wife, this group began with two dozen students playing violin, guitar, bass, cello, percussion, flute, and an army of whistles. For the next year and a half, we played after school a few times each week, and even had a couple of performances at other schools. Our greatest performance was a collaboration with Cathy Maglaras' fiddle group from Cockeysville Middle, the orchestra from Franklin High School, and a local Irish band named O'Malley's March. On the evening of this event we were joined by most of the members of this band except their guitarist and singer, Martin O'Malley. He had a municipal crisis that evening, as he was mayor of the city of Baltimore; since then he has been governor of Maryland and a candidate for President of the United States.

Franklin's Celtic Music Society was loosely organized, and the numbers of students playing fluctuated between a handful and more than thirty. Students played specific written arrangements of Irish music. Bowings, grace notes, etc. were written in, and the idea was that we would learn "the notes" and then add all of that other stuff in to make the music more “Irish”. But, of course, we never really got to that point. All the while, as I attended some of the outstanding Baltimore Irish music seisúns, I continued to learn the Irish style and realize how I could better teach the music and style to the students.

I came to realize, with some regret, that I had not prepared the students to be Irish musicians. They were still band and orchestra musicians playing arrangements of Irish music.

In November of 2000, my wife gave birth to our first child, and we soon felt the tugging of family and moved north to Rochester. I was hired at East Rochester High School, where I tried to impress my new superintendent with my large binder of Irish music arrangements and my ideas for a new and unique performing group. His initial response: “People here really like their jazz; perhaps you should focus on that.” As I focused on the curricular ensembles, I also worked at organizing this new band of folk musicians. (He soon became a huge supporter of this program, and had us perform at his retirement party.) Creating the group was much different than it had been in Baltimore, as the challenge this time was to find enough students to fill the roster. Rather than the 650 band and orchestra musicians at Franklin, there were less than 40 band students and no string players in grades 7-12 at ER. We had our first meeting during the week of September 17, 2001, and the plan was better this time: Rather than give the students notated parts with the style written in, I would teach these classically-trained band students how to play and think like Irish musicians. We would also set the group up as a performing ensemble. At our first meeting we had two violins—one player who had taken long-forgotten Suzuki lessons, and another who had just started on his own. We also had two guitars, two flutes, a clarinet who would soon become our whistle player, and a beginning guitarist who would reluctantly pick up my old mandolin. To our own amazement, only three weeks later we played three tunes at the ERHS Coffeehouse, an after-school acoustic music showcase for students, and then played a few nights later at the October 2001 school board meeting. We were up and running. That first year, we performed 40 times, an average of one performance every four school days throughout the year. We soon realized it was impossible to maintain that schedule, and only performed 30 times in our second year.


Over the course of the next few years, this program would continue to evolve, with students taking a much greater role in the creation of our sound. For more on that, visit the Instruction page.