Diary of an Encore Tour Manager, April 2015 – Featuring the Saratoga Springs HS Fiddle Club


Saratoga Springs High School Fiddle Club at St. Stephens Green Dublin

Arrival Day on an Encore Tour

Easter Sunday morning, Shannon Airport, Ireland, waiting for The Saratoga Springs High School Fiddle Club. Due at 7:00am but, as usual, a tail-wind has made them early – 6.30. Quiet at this time of day so they are out fairly quickly. Small group, 7 adults and 14 students. All keen and ready to go but we are due at Bunratty Folk Park just down the road and it doesn’t open until 9.30, so I invite them to have breakfast in the spacious café and I take the opportunity to do my introductory chat, mainly outlining our program. There’s no problem in making this sound exciting – because it is! I’m looking forward to it as much as they obviously are.

The Fiddle Club was formed by its Director on this trip, Jessica Labello, 8 years ago with just 1 member but now they have 30. Jess tells me “We learn everything by ear….our motto is ‘If it sounds good, it is good.’ The students say we are ‘one big family’ and we really are.” The truth of this becomes obvious to me very early on.

We have a morning exploring Bunratty Castle and the quaint historical buildings of the Folk Park, then on towards our destination of the typically Irish town of Ennistymon in County Clare. Still too early to check into our hotel, and very important I keep everyone awake today so they can recover from jetlag with a good sleep tonight, so we head for the seaside at Lahinch. A popular stop it turns out as it is a glorious day and the beach and fish and chips are inviting. Then off to our wonderful hotel, The Falls, which has a magnificent view of Ennistymon’s famous Cascades and has donkeys grazing in the neighboring park. A chance to unpack, freshen up, maybe grab a quick nap, then an excellent dinner at the hotel and an early night.


Day 2

Tonight is our first performance, but first a day’s sightseeing. We couldn’t order a better day. The sun continues to dazzle in an all-blue sky and we are first at the neighboring Cliffs of Moher, so we have this spectacular place to ourselves. A rare treat, it must be said. After morning coffee we head for Galway travelling on the coast road through the extraordinary karst landscape of the Burren. The Aran Islands are wonderfully clear today. The students enjoy their scamper over the limestone rocks, stretching out to Galway Bay, before we continue our journey to one of my favorite cities in Ireland.

The Burren


Galway is particularly busy today as Easter Monday is a public holiday. Bustling, vibrant, buzzing, but I give them a short introductory walking tour then the group disperses to buy fish and chips (again?) at McDonough’s famous haunt in Quay St. or to investigate the seemingly endless jewelry stores for the perfect Claddagh ring. On our return journey to our hotel I introduce them to the popular Irish song The Fields of Athenry as we pass the fields of Athenry, then they doze till we are back in Ennistymon.

After dinner the Fiddle Club collect their instruments and we have a short walk through town to a church converted into an arts venue where we meet with our hosts for the night, the members of Comhaltas, Teach Cheoil. Mary Cuddihy gives us the warmest of welcomes and tells us how much they are all looking forward to the evening. Comhaltas, we learn, is the organization set up in 1951 to promote all things Irish – music, dance, song, etc. There are branches all over the country and we are to meet with others on this trip.

Our group play and immediately you can see Comhaltas members are impressed with Saratoga Springs High School’s versatility, ability and verve. Their musicians join in. Already the evening is warming up nicely. Comhaltas’s local chairman encourages music from both groups, individually and together, and invites some of his members to sing solos for us. A young teenage girl blows us away with her pure singing of a plaintive Irish folk song. More and more people arrive, join in or just sit back and enjoy the craic. The chairman asks me if we have a time limit. No, I say, and the scheduled one and a half hours turns into 3. He calls upon one of his colleagues to teach the group an Irish dance. They pick it up very quickly and all the young people join together and execute it remarkably.

Sadly, the evening has to come to an end but this is an evening that none of us is ever likely to forget. An Irish failte to be cherished.


Day 3

We head for Limerick. I set a challenge for the best limerick they can come up with, giving them a poor example of my own. We arrive at the Limerick School of Music. It’s quiet as it is still school holidays but we are welcomed by Anna Jane Ryan, a prize-winning violinist who spends the morning giving our Fiddle Club a workshop. She loves them and is delighted how quickly the students pick up what she demonstrates. This is music by ear of course – no sheet of music in sight. “Can you come every week?” she says. Then we explore the remains of King John’s Castle, the great edifice of Limerick on an island in the middle of the mighty Shannon River, then on to our next hotel, the majestic Imperial right in the middle of Cork, Ireland’s second city.

I ask the manager if the Club can play a few pieces in the lobby. He is very happy to agree and after their first piece says “They deserve a bigger audience” and moves them immediately into the bar.


Day 4

A double performance day, starting with a group session with a local Comhaltas group in a hotel conference room. The Irish group are surprisingly young and equally surprisingly talented, many playing a variety of instruments, or singing, with equal skill. Once again our Fiddle Club impress too and all these young people make wonderful music together.

Dublin Comhaltas Session with Saratoga Springs High School Fiddle Club

The afternoon is spent at Blarney so almost everyone now has ‘the gift of the gab’ after kissing the famous stone. Also a chance to catch up on some serious shopping. Then back to Cork for dinner in nearby Clancy’s Bar where the group are scheduled to play with the local musicians tonight. The latter arrive, tell me they will play for 10 minutes then invite the Fiddle Club to perform. The welcome is warm as usual but I note a hint of condescension in the guitarist’s voice. After 20 minutes he still hasn’t asked them to play; time is ticking on and we have to leave before the time watershed. I stand nearby and give him ‘the stare’. He takes the hint and invites them to play. By now, I know what the reaction of the Irish musicians will be when they hear the group play and once again their faces light up in astonishment. The rest of the evening is made up with them all playing together. A great Irish gig for our group. Back at the hotel we have our limerick competition. Some great efforts; lots of laughs, Mitch wins.


Day 5

Off to Dublin today, learning to sing Molly Malone on the way. First up a visit to the Book of Kells and the exquisitely beautiful and impressive Trinity Library with a chance to photograph Carolan’s harp, the symbol of Ireland – the only country to have a musical instrument as one.

After dinner at our hotel, we’re off again, this time to the Headquarters of Comhaltas. They have organised an hour’s concert just for us with 9 musicians and 2 dancers. The latter get our group up for a simple routine at one point which they join in with alacrity. After the concert they all gather together in a neighboring room, and once again the magic moment happens when the locals hear our group play. And here they are all making music together!

Jess Labello summed up the week they have had: “I realized early on that this tour was going to be a sort of experiment since there has never been a fiddle club that has gone through Encore. We had 5 performance experiences and each one has reinforced what I and the students love about this style of music. It’s all about community and sharing music. We never really know what is going to happen…but that’s OK. Going with the flow is just part of the game”.

Throughout the week, the local musicians have been intrigued and amused by the way the fiddle group give their cues to either come to an end of the piece or to change key. This is done by what they call ‘The Foot’. At the appropriate moment a member will raise her leg horizontally and we know too that something is about to change. I asked Lily, the senior student, to demonstrate it for me.

Saratoga Springs High School fiddle player


Day 6

Last day and a well-deserved day off from performing. We walk to St. Stephen’s Green and the Fiddle Club members pose by the spring flowers.

Saratoga Springs High School Fiddle Club at St. Stephens Green Dublin

Then we explore Dublin’s wonderful (and free!) Archaeological Museum with its amazingly preserved bog bodies and its beautiful collection of Celtic gold among many other excellent exhibits. We have an introductory walking tour to get our bearings then its free time – for last minute souvenir shopping, visiting the art gallery, enjoying a boxty (Irish potato pancake) lunch, or whatever they want to do. A final look at parts of the town we haven’t seen by coach, although we could have done without Dublin’s heavy Friday peak-hour traffic. After dinner, the students hold a rap competition. They’re terrific! Is there no end to their talent?


Day 7

Early start to the airport and time to say farewell. What a tour! How lucky am I to be an Encore Tour Manager. And a fiddle club coming to Ireland to make music with local musicians? – It’s a marriage made in heaven!

Thank you Encore and thank you Saratoga Springs High School Fiddle Club!

The post Diary of an Encore Tour Manager, April 2015 – Featuring the Saratoga Springs HS Fiddle Club appeared first on Backstage at Encore Tours.


About the Author

Stan Pretty

Stan Pretty has been an ACIS/Encore tour manager for over 15 years. As an actor, he has performed at the Royal Shakespeare Company, in the West End, throughout the UK and abroad. He has also directed a number of large-scale community plays and even received an MBE from the Queen at Buckingham Palace for his work in 2004.

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