Luck of the Irish-instrument players

Friday, September 10, 2004

Hearing Hannah Gathman play the tin whistle transports listeners to the green, rainy countryside or the dark, cozy pubs of Ireland.

Ireland, however, is far from Pocahontas, where 17-year-old Gathman lives. But this hasn't kept her from becoming accomplished at playing the tin whistle and the bodhran -- an Irish drum-- thanks to weekly trips to St. Louis Irish Arts since 1997.

Gathman's talent and dedication has gotten her to Ireland twice to compete in the international Irish music festival and competition, "Fleadh Cheoil na h'Eireann." In August, members of St. Louis Irish Arts, including Gathman, won first place in the group competition, making it only the second U.S. group to do so in the 53 years the event has been held.

A senior at Jackson High School, Gathman has long been involved in the world of music.

She started playing the piano around the age of 5 and also plays the oboe, an instrument she performs on for school orchestra and in the Southeast Missouri State University Orchestra.

Gathman's older sister, Sophie, now at college in Minnesota, is also a musician. When Sophie Gathman became interested in playing the Irish harp, her teacher recommended she look into St. Louis Irish Arts, which is the Missouri branch of Comhaltas Ceoltori Eireann, an international organization for the preservation of Irish culture.

Aware of St. Louis Irish Arts because of her sister, Gathman attended a workshop the organization held at Southeast Missouri State University about seven years ago. From there she was hooked, not only on Irish music, but Irish dance as well, and started making weekly treks to the organization's headquarters in Maplewood, Mo., for dance and music lessons.

"Since I started in sixth grade, I don't even think of it being a pain," Gathman said of traveling so far to take lessons. "But everybody up there says 'I can't believe you do this.'"

All the traveling has paid off.

Gathman and 18 musicians from St. Louis Irish Arts qualified for the international competition by placing second in the senior group division at the regional competition held in Cincinnati in May. There are two regional competitions in America, four in Ireland and one in Australia and Britain.

The group from St. Louis Irish Arts left for the international competition on Aug. 15 and, according to Gathman, spent the first week just being tourists. While the competition was held in Clonmel, County Tipperary, Gathman and the others traveled to Tipperary and Dublin and spent time looking at castles and churches as well as shopping.

The second week in Ireland involved workshops, recitals and lectures in the days leading up to the competition that was held Aug. 28 and 29.

The town of Clonmel was packed for the festival.

"People set up tents everywhere because the bed and breakfasts were full," Gathman said.

The big group competition took place Aug. 29, when Gathman and the rest of the musicians from St. Louis Irish Arts were up against 10 other groups from Ireland, Australia, England and the United States.

Although Gathman said she knew her group played a strong set, she was not expecting a first-place finish.

"I thought we might have a chance of placing second or third," Gathman said. "Even the worst groups were really good."

In addition to the talent of the other groups, their ages were also intimidating. Gathman said the musicians in the other groups were "full-fledged adults," while only four of the St. Louis musicians were over 18.

The St. Louis musicians were the second-to-last group to perform. Gathman remembers waiting about 10 minutes after the final group performed before the judges announced the results.

"I don't remember them even announcing first place, all I heard was St. Louis and then screaming and crying. Lots of crying," Gathman said. "For 15 minutes everyone was in complete shock."

The win was a breakthrough for St. Louis Arts, which had reached international group competition five times, but never won first place.

The group was awarded a trophy, which will remain at the St. Louis Arts headquarters until next year's international competition. Each musician will get to keep a medal, as well as the memories.

Gathman, who missed the first two weeks of school because of the competition, is back in the classroom and already thinking ahead to college, either at Webster University in St. Louis or Boston University, places where she can be sure to keep active in Irish music.

335-6611, extension 182

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