Zoom orchestras and WhatsApp quizzes: Dublin charity St Agnes CCMA have had to innovate to bring music to their community writes Ruadhán Jones
The lockdown may be coming to an end for many, but for those with underlying conditions caution will continue to be the order of the day. Pauline McHugh is 75 and suffers from breast cancer. Only recently diagnosed, she has had to wait for treatment due to the pandemic and lockdown.
“I’m taking a tablet to slow its growth,” she says. “I had open heart surgery a numbers of years back and that is complicating things. I have this hanging over me now, but I’m optimistic – I had cancer before, 20 years ago, and got through it.
“I’m working at getting mentally and physically well for any operations and trying to be positive.”
The lockdown has been difficult for Pauline, but one of the ways she has been able to maintain her good spirits is through the virtual efforts of Dublin charity St Agnes’ Community Centre for Music and the Arts (CCMA).
Before lockdown, Pauline was an active member of St Agnes’ Parents Orchestra and the community choir. During lockdown, their sing along sessions have been a wonderful connection for her.
“I love music and I’m sorry I didn’t learn to play something years ago,” she says. “The practices give me a routine, which is very important.
“To have this technology at a time like this is brilliant… to be able go on the internet and look things up and for people to get in touch with me.”
Lockdown was a big shock to St Agnes’ CCMA. Only a couple of weeks before it began, St Agnes’ Parents’ String Orchestra celebrated 10 years since its founding by performing before President Michael D. Higgins.
It was a testimony to the hard work put in by the orchestra and the charity that backed them, St Agnes CCMA. The concert brought together musicians from around the world, including America, Singapore, Holland and more.
But had the concert been held the next month, it’s quite likely it wouldn’t have taken place, and this was one of the last occasions the 112-strong orchestra met before lockdown.
Speaking to The Irish Catholic Denise Divers, part of the team that runs the charity, explains that “we had to move quickly to get our services online”.
“We don’t know what the effect of this extreme isolation will be on people,” she says, “no doubt we’ll see the impact of that in the coming months.
“We wanted to help reduce the effects of isolation by keeping the community together and improving mental wellbeing and musical skills.”
The community St Agnes’ typically serves is made up of “a substantial number of families living in poverty, living on low incomes [and] many elderly people living alone”, explained Denise.
This made it all the more important to move online quickly in order to help people cope with these “very, very tough times”.
“We had to keep our various choirs together, so the first thing we did was organise a table quiz on WhatsApp. That began Thursday March 18 and is still going.”
“We get over 60 people actively forming teams and taking part. Many more, not involved in any team, watch questions come in and out on Zoom – noticeable from the WhatsApp interjections!”
Since then, St Agnes’ CCMA have worked hard to move their many other services online. The charity seeks to improve the lives and wellbeing of its historically low-income community through music and the arts.
Before lockdown, they ran a number of different services, such as the ScoilÚnaNaofa violin and orchestra project, Crumlin Community Choir and the Memory Lane Choir.
“We’ve reoriented everything online,” said Denise. “For example, there’s children preparing for RIA exams, so we got them immediately onto student classes.
“We are providing private Zoom lessons for 22 primary and secondary level students, a number of whom are preparing for exams in the Royal Irish Academy (RIA).
“It’s a great opportunity for them. One girl from the area, Kelly O’Neill, with no family tradition of third level education, is now pursuing a Bachelor of Music and Performance at the Royal Irish Academy of Music.
“There are other people who’ve gone through the project who are in third level level education, not all in music,” Denise explains. “Research shows that this project has contributed to building their confidence and self-esteem, helping them to move into an environment they’re not used to, that being third level level.
Technical difficulties and the need for isolation make it difficult to provide all their services, Denise says, but that hasn’t stopped them, Denis says.
“We have conducted Zoom orchestral sectionals sessions since April 22, with 90 people participating since then.
“The tutors, instead of playing the piece as would be normal at a live orchestra practice, use the Zoom session to instruct on technique and rhythm providing tuition for up to one hundred learners.
“You can’t play together because of time lag, so it’s about keeping people together. We meet every day to keep them focused on something with the hope that we’ll be back playing together sooner rather than later.”
While this might prove an impossible obstacle for some orchestras, the focus of the charity is always “people first, music second”, explains Denise.
“It’s all about the people,” Denise says. “It’s about people from different aspects like age, nationality, ethnic groups, who are coming and meeting each other, learning about each other and contributing to the cohesiveness of community.
“We want to be a vehicle of community contact for people during lockdown.
The most popular online program they run is their ‘Sing a Song at Home’ campaign led by Jennifer Grundulis, a member of the musical society and a “wonderful singer”.
“She sings a song once a week and we overlay the words on it,” Denise explains. “We send it out to everybody in the community, absolutely everybody we have contact details for, and ask them to sing it at home, even by themselves.
“Singing is so good for mental wellbeing, particularly in this lockdown. It is well recognised that singing cheers people up and makes you feel better.
“We’ve also kept the Memory Lane Choir going, which is very close to the heart of Sr Bernadette Sweeney, St Agnes’ founder. It’s for those with dementia and Alzheimer’s and takes place once a week,” Denise says.
“They come with their carers and their family members and take a trip down memory lane with different songs. It’s a fantastic morning of music, you can see it in their faces that they just love it.”
The feedback that they have received has been “fantastic”, Denise says, because “people love to be able to link in with people they know and it gives a certain amount of structure”.
“They know they’ve got violin on Monday which means they need to do a bit of practice. It gives structure to the week and to the day and allows them to look forward to meeting people again.”
Mary Dowd, who is cocooning at home having recovered from Covid-19, has found the online gatherings particularly helpful to her.
She joined the orchestra two years after her husband Larry passed away. Her wish to learn to play the violin pushed her in the direction of St. Agnes.
Having joined, she finds that there is great camaraderie in the orchestra, and it is one of the things that helped her fill the huge gap left by her husband’s death, giving her a great ‘lift’.
“It helped a lot, even just getting out of the bed in the morning especially in the first year.”
After starting in the orchestra, she quickly applied her skills in finance and accounting on a voluntary basis, assisting the St Agnes’ CCMA charity and soon found herself on the Board of Management.
This keeps her so busy now that she hardly finds the time to practice the violin, but the violin sectional was her first time on Zoom.
“I polished my violin and prepared for the Zoom class but once I saw myself, I realised I hadn’t even brushed my hair. I’ll do something about that this week!”
“Since then my family had quiz night on Zoom for my granddaughter’s 21st because we weren’t able to have a party. My birthday was last week, and the family arrived outside the front garden with a big banner to wish me a happy birthday.”
Mary participates in the WhatsApp groups and quiz nights and is making the most of the situation. She wonders what God’s plan in this is, saying “I think he is telling us to slow down and clean the world”.
Another beneficiary of St Agnes’ CCMA community’s support is Gertie O’Brien, another cocooner. Gertie used to play accordion in St Agnes’, but an accident hurt her right hand and she had to stop.
She promised to start again, however, and has since joined some of the viola sectional classes via Zoom.
“I was able to get half the class this week on Zoom but I will get the whole class next week. The link came in on the phone and I’m not very good with a phone but with help from Margaret (a volunteer with the project) I managed to get half the class on Zoom.”
“I contacted my desk partner, Ester, and she is going to practice with me during the week. One of the girls in beginner violas lives across the road from me and she dropped a note in asking if I needed anything because I’m in my seventies and I can’t really be out.”
“So now she gets my groceries and drops me in the newspaper every day. And the only thing I could do for her was, she needed to tune the instrument and I gave her my spare tuner, that’s all I could do for her in return at the moment, she is a lovely girl.”
Denise believes that lockdown has highlighted the importance of music as a way to create unity and strengthen communities.
“Music really nourishes people – it’s a different language, a way we can communicate together,” explains Denise. “If someone comes from Nigeria or Russia or the Ukraine and their English is not that good, conversation can be quite difficult.
“But you sit down and play together, you feel a kind of spiritual wellbeing, a communal thing knowing that you’re experiencing the same sensation.
“That’s a different language, not often nurtured but one which we are nurturing in our own community.
“We can smile and laugh and have a cup of tea, reflecting on the experience we shared by playing together without conversation.”
Although the arts industry in Ireland has struggled as a result of the lockdown, Denise is hopeful that the positive role music in particular has played will be recognized by the government.
“In one way, this negative time has highlighted the importance of art and music. It’s always been something at the bottom of government agendas.
“Hopefully, media focus on the arts in the Covid crisis will help filter through to policy makers that the arts are very important. Not just for mental health, but to enrich people’s lives.
“St Agnes’ work under lockdown is an extension of the work they have been doing for nearly 15 years”, says Denise.
The genesis for the charity was St Agnes’ Violin Project, founded by Sr Bernadette Sweeney, then principal at St Agnes’ Primary School. Her desire was that every child get a chance to express their inner creativity, combined with a passion for music.
In 2006, she received a grant of €1,000 for violins, which she purchased for the school. The next year, a school orchestra was formed. On the back of its success came the parent’s orchestra, the musical society and in 2012, St Agnes’ CCMA was formed.
The central work of the St. Agnes’ CCMA enables people from a historically low-income and disadvantaged community, to engage with music and the arts and that this engagement will potentially enhance their lives and wellbeing by providing scope for personal development, engagement and empowerment.
“It develops not just musicianship skills, but teamwork and commitment, practising ¬– those disciplines that are so important to the workplace. It contributes to wellbeing in the sense that it gives structure to the day, gives confidence and relieves stress.
“It adds to their skills, which hopefully adds to ability to secure jobs and have better quality of life through their lives.”
Denise says that they will have to be cautious in returning because of the nature of their community, waiting until it is absolutely safe to do so.
“We don’t feel that a lot of these group things can start until we’re sure that there are no possibilities of contamination.
“If we have to, we’ll keep on going with this as a way of keeping community together. Not everybody can be involved as they would like because of tech difficulties, but we hope to iron those things out over the next couple months.
However, Denise is hopeful that St Agnes’ will be able to “hit the ground running once lockdown is over”.
“This project started in 2006 and has expanded. We have the committed volunteers that will keep up and running. They’re doing absolutely amazing work, with Sr Bernadette right at the helm.
“Keeping this very positive project alive for the next 10, 15, 20 years is very important for the community and surrounding areas. We hope it’s also a beacon for other communities to learn from.
“We’re always cognisant that we’re in a low-income, disadvantaged community and we want to be a catalyst for providing opportunities to people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to avail of this kind of service.”