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For the love of Irish music
Claudia Waters, a lecturer and staff member, connects to her roots through reels, jigs, and traditional tunes

| 02 February 2005


Claudia Waters, a staffer at the School of Social Welfare who plays accordion, fiddle, mandolin, and penny whistle, finds that "music has added a whole new dimension to life." (Wendy Edelstein photo)
Since 1973, Berkeley has been a constant in Claudia Waters’ life. She has earned three degrees from the university: a master’s degree in biostatistics and epidemiology, her first master’s in Slavic languages and literature, and a B.A. in English and Russian literature.

For the past 18 years, Waters has worked in Haviland Hall as the computer manager for the School of Social Welfare. She is, in addition, a lecturer in statistics and statistical computing.

Traditional Irish music is another touchstone in Waters’ life, though its roots date back much further than her connection to the university. When Waters first made her way to Berkeley from rural Illinois, she left behind the crowded farmhouse she’d shared with eight sisters and brothers. Though relieved to be no longer living with so many people, she also found herself seeking a way to, as she puts it, “hold on to a sense of family.”

To fill the void, she gravitated toward traditional Irish music, finding that those old songs reminded her of days when her grandfather had crooned similar tunes to her and her siblings back in the Midwest. Singing to her young son and daughter during the time they all spent living in student housing, she was all the while planting a seed, one that would grow into a deeper relationship with the music for both her and her family.

Fiddles and a Flower

Waters’ son, Sean, began taking violin lessons in fourth grade. Though his public school’s music programs focused primarily on classical, orchestral, and band music, Waters helped him find several Irish fiddle tunes to play at a school talent show. A warm reception there motivated him to delve further into Celtic music — the first step on that road being a visit to Lark in the Morning, a San Francisco store that specializes in traditional and ethnic instruments.

Over the course of several visits, they bought an Irish flute and were referred to a teacher, Robin Flower, who has made a number of recordings in a genre she calls “California Celtic Americana.” Waters was inspired by the music Sean was learning and, soon afterward, signed up for piano lessons with Flower’s partner and musical collaborator, Libby McLaren. That was six years ago.

Since then, Waters has taken up the accordion, the fiddle, the mandolin (which shares the same tuning as the fiddle), and the penny whistle. “When I went to Ireland, it seemed everyone played the penny whistle there,” she says. “Kids learn it in school, because it’s easier to play than anything else.”

Waters shrugs off the assertion that the number of instruments she plays is impressive. “It’s just like learning a lot of different languages: If English is your only language, you learn it faster. If you tackle a number of different instruments, you’re slower to learn them.”

The family that plays together

In the half-dozen years that Waters has been studying Irish music, she has been active in Robin Flower’s Once a Month Stringband, a group of Irish-music enthusiasts that practices and performs together (logically enough) monthly. She also sings with a chorus that performs songs in the centuries-old, traditional sean-nos style, characterized by an absence of both vibrato and loud/soft dynamics, a lack of accompaniment, and a free, non-metronomic rhythm. She has taken writing courses to help her explore and articulate her attraction to the music, and she studies the Irish language. In addition to playing Irish music, she is also a member of Libby McLaren’s Linwood Community Chorus, where she sings in styles ranging from gospel to French classical to Macedonian to Zulu.

When Waters began learning the piano, her daughter, Catherine, was going through the usual difficulties of adolescence, so Waters signed her up for fiddle lessons with Flower. During one of the annual performances by Flower and McLaren’s students at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage Coffee House, Waters and her daughter played an Irish waltz together.

Waters recalls a moment during their performance when a look passed between the two of them: “We both felt the overwhelming beauty and power of this ancient melody.” Playing music together, says Waters, gave them a new way to connect, and to transcend the tensions so common between mothers and teenage daughters. She attributes a certain force to the music, an ability “to bring peace and calm in times of stress.”

The past two summers Waters and her son have traveled to Ireland to study traditional Irish music at the University of Limerick in a school called Blas, which means “taste” in Irish. The 30 students there represent a diverse cross-section of countries, with participants from Australia, Japan, Canada, Denmark, England, Ireland, Scotland, and the Netherlands. “We even had a whole band from Sweden,” says Waters.

Last summer Waters ventured into a Limerick pub where she heard one of Blas’s teachers singing an old Irish song. “I experienced the same emotions, the same pull I felt as a kid,” she says. “I was trying to figure out what is it about the music that speaks to me. It reaches back to something basic and leaves me feeling emotionally tied to something very ancient that is beyond countries and families.”

Waters recalls an Irish singer, Elizabeth Cronin, who collected the songs that had been amassed by her parents and the generations that preceded them. The songs, she says, are “a way to carry on the stories of their people’s lives,” since, after conquering Ireland in the 17th century, the English had forbidden the Irish to speak, write, or use Irish and “their language was dying.”

In Ireland the state is trying to shore up the Irish language, Waters explains, by requiring that it be taught in the schools for 12 years. The effort hasn’t been a success, since, in spite of the language requirement, many Irish “can’t speak a word of the language.” As Waters sees it, “When a people’s language or tradition dies, a part of their culture dies with them.”

To her credit, Waters is fighting the good fight. “I’m in a different time and a different place,” she says, “but I’m carrying on the tradition, too, by passing it on to my kids.”