After completing her undergraduate degree in classical violin performance at Brandon University in Manitoba, Rainy River District native Shannon Darby decided to go to Ireland.
Not just to travel, though she has toured a number of European countries, but to complete her Master’s program in Community Music at the University of Limerick.
“The CM degree at UL is set up to accommodate students from a huge variety of backgrounds,” Darby explained.
“In my class alone, we had a flute player from Texas, Chinese traditional vocalist, blues guitarist/drummer, traditional Irish singer/songwriter, a vocalist/synthesizer player, and a pianist with a music education degree,” she noted.
“We had full days of class-time on Monday and Tuesday, and half-days on Wednesday,” Darby added.
“This scheduling is more convenient for students who are commuting long distances, or have a job or family.”
Darby said CM is a diverse field, comprising all ages, ethnicities, music genres, and settings.
“My course reflects this diversity in its structure,” she remarked. “Each week, we receive a different lecturer, many of whom are professors, acting community musicians, and/or previous graduates of the course.
“In this manner, we as students observe a variety of teaching styles from which we can build our own individual ‘tool box’ of workshop skills.”
In Darby’s first term last fall, much time was “dedicated to acquiring and practising creative workshop techniques.”
“We had lectures on workshop activities for all ages, children’s songs, presentation skills, group composing, and improvisation,” she explained.
“Over the rest of term, we explored song-writing, Tribal drumming, Gamelan (Indonesian percussion), Samba drumming, and Kodaly method [solfege].”
After studying classical violin for years, Darby was excited to take fiddling as an elective.
“Our assignments for the term included a research paper, case study on a real-life CM program, in-class workshops, and an group ensemble performance,” she said.
“Every Wednesday, we had three hours dedicated to rehearsal for our term-end performance, in which we could compose, improvise, play, and experiment as a group.
“The performance was supposed to showcase our own interpretation of CM, and the rehearsals help teach us how to work more effectively in a group setting.”
Darby said her second school term focused more on the business aspects of CM, and included a placement with a program in Limerick.
“What I love most about my program is that it fosters creativity and encourages participation,” she enthused.
“The program has inspired me musically; I find myself humming more often and am more interested in world musics,” she added.
“In class, I was less nervous to ‘get creative’ in front of my peers because we have established a safe environment where musical risks are encouraged.
“Most importantly, I am learning how to create similar settings for others so that they can experience music in the same appreciative way,” Darby said.
One of her projects was on the Borderland Community Orchestra, which is based locally.
“My ‘Insight into Borderland Community Orchestra’ survey is tied to my final research paper for my Masters in Community Music program,” Darby explained.
“Although it was not compulsory, our professor gave us the opportunity to pursue field research if we so desired.
“To gain some research experience, I chose to design two online surveys to learn about the Borderland Community Orchestra; the first for current orchestra members and the second for community residents of the Rainy River District, Koochiching County, or Lake of the Woods County.
“This project is quite small-scale and meant to supplement my literary research into the impacts of community ensembles in rural areas,” she noted.
“The survey investigates the various roles the [Borderland Community Orchestra] plays in the community, how the orchestra is perceived by its audience, and its beneficial influences on participating musicians.
“The research should also provide insight into how groups like the BCO can more effectively connect with the greater community,” Darby added.
“It is one step towards a better understanding of the importance of community music in rural communities.”
Darby grew up participating in the Borderland Community Orchestra and always has had a keen interest in the local musical culture of small areas such as in the Rainy River District.
“It was these grass-roots experiences which inspired me to pursue music as a career, and I have continued to play in community orchestras to this day,” she remarked.
“I feel that many of these small ensembles are overlooked in research,” she noted. “And although a fair amount of literature exists on the social benefits of community orchestras for musicians, there is little available about the spin-off effects in the surrounding community.
“My survey only brushes the surface of this expansive topic, but perhaps that leaves me the opportunity to revisit it in the future.”
While Darby’s survey is now closed, the results have not yet been complied for her paper, which isn’t due until late August.
Meanwhile, she described her university as contemporary as her classes were.
“As soon as I got off the bus at the university, I fell in love with campus,” Darby recalled. “The main road leading into the university is sheltered by a tree canopy of draping branches.
“The peacefulness of it appealed to my country up-bringing.”
Darby noted the 2012/13 school year marked the university’s 40th anniversary, so it is still relatively young. There is a population of roughly 12,000 students, many of whom are housed in the five student accommodation villages.
There also are more than 900 international students, which includes Eramus exchange students, part-time students, and 470 full-time students.
The University of Limerick also has a reputation for being a sporting campus, which is exemplified in its state-of-art facilities, including an Olympic-size swimming pool, indoor running track and courts, outdoor sports fields, and tennis courts.
Darby did not spend all her time on campus, however. She took advantage of living in Europe and travelled to Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic before Christmas, then visited her family and friends throughout the United Kingdom after the break.
Then after completing her Master’s program this spring, she went to Rome.
“It is true that time whips by when you are having fun,” Darby said.
“My last assessments went well, but I cannot celebrate for too long as I need to jump into planning trips and completing job applications,” she stressed.
Darby said she loved her program in Ireland over the past year.
“Looking back, I know that it was the best thing I could have done this year, both in terms of life and career experience,” she enthused.
“My courses were practically-based, so I have had wonderful experiences learning a variety of world music, developing song-writing and improvisation skills, observing teaching styles, and facilitating workshops,” she noted.
“I feel full of creativity and enthusiasm, and am eager to implement my new musical ideas in Canada.”
Darby said she does plan to return home in August, and has been completing some job applications.
“I am hoping to be employed in arts administration or community string education programs, but may also privately teach and lead freelance community music projects,” she remarked.
“After I acquire some work experience, I am interested in returning to school to pursue doctoral studies,” added Darby.
“But that idea is patiently waiting in the back of my mind for now.”