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Ronan Guilfoyle

Ronan Guilfoyle on new ‘Excellence in Ensemble Performance Award’ and pursuing a life in jazz

  • Interviews / Q&As

Ronan Guilfoyle is a bass player, composer and educator who has played professionally for 45 years. He is the director of the Centre for Jazz Performance Studies in Dublin City University.

The ‘Excellence in Ensemble Performance Award’ is a partnership between Dublin City University’s Jazz & Contemporary Music BA program, Improvised Music Company and Magy’s Farm. IMC's Louis Scully spoke with Ronan over Zoom.

LS Hi Ronan. So, how did you get involved in jazz?

Well, my father was mad about it and we were raised listening to it, whether we wanted to or not. That and classical music. Ireland in the late 1960s, early ‘70s was a very conservative country. There was a jazz scene here and there but it wasn’t something that you encountered unless you were lucky enough to have somebody like my father. So we heard it growing up and it just seemed to soundtrack to our childhood. My brother Conor is a jazz drummer as well, and that's not a chance thing either, because we were both pretty close in age and we were both raised listening to this music.

LS Can you tell me about the BA programme at DCU?

Its origins are in Newpark Music Centre, where we had the first full-time programme in non-classical music. The title of the programme is the Bachelor of Arts in Jazz and Contemporary Music Performance, so it is first and foremost a performance programme. There are a lot of music programmes around these days now in third levels, but there's still not that many which set out their stall to be performance programmes. And I guess that's a definite point of difference with us. We are training performers. They’re learning jazz. They're learning improvising.

And can you tell me a little bit about this new award?

Yeah. There are different elements to the final year, and one of them is a final performance, which, as you can imagine, an important part of the final year of a performance programme is the actual performance itself. So each student has to put on a 40-minute concert that includes at least two original compositions. They are the bandleaders for that 40 minutes and they have to programme it, rehearse it and present it. It's done in the National Concert Hall. And the award itself is given to the person who gets the highest marks in that aspect of the final year, the performance itself. The idea came from Linley Hamilton in Magy's Farm.

And Matthew O’Connell was the inaugural winner.

Yeah. I remember teaching him an ensemble class online, which was a very difficult thing to do. Myself and Tommy Halferty were co-teaching it. And we both remarked, even over Zoom, his playing stood out. He has a natural affinity for jazz improvisation. That's how I would put it. You do meet people like that. I mean, people are talented, but they can be talented in different ways. You can have somebody who's very good at composition. You could have somebody who's very good at arranging. You could have somebody who's very good rhythmically. You could have somebody who really understands harmony incredibly well. You know, there's different ways to be talented in music. It's not just a monolithic thing. And then, you get these people who have a genuine affinity for the jazz tradition. And Matthew is definitely one of those. His playing from the very beginning had a sort of maturity about it.

"The feel he had from the very beginning was exceptional. It's one of those things where, discussing amongst ourselves, we would say, “he's a natural, he's an absolute natural”. There's something unteachable about that."

It's hard to explain that maybe to a non-musician, but it's a sense of the way the music is phrased, it has a naturalness and an organic nature to it. It has a very good rhythmic feeling, which is something that's forgotten about. The feel he had from the very beginning was exceptional. It's one of those things where, discussing amongst ourselves, we would say, “he's a natural, he's an absolute natural”. There's something unteachable about that.

It's DNA in my opinion, also love for the music. You have to love that kind of music too, because you don't learn that phrasing just thinking, well, I'd like to learn some good phrasing. You learn it by listening a lot and taking it in by osmosis. Matthew has a real sense of history about his playing that is not given to every student, especially at that age. He was remarkable when he came to us, 18, 19, probably 18. So for an 18 year old to be phrasing like that at the very beginning over Zoom was really remarkable actually. He's got a lovely sound, he had a great sound from the very beginning. That's another kind of, I won't say unteachable thing, but it's a thing that you need to help people make. In fact, a lot of the time, people are often just so worried about what notes they're playing that they don't really think about what effect is my sound having on the music I'm playing. He had a very good sound from the very beginning. That's a natural kind of thing. He was exceptional in that regard.

LS Wow, you've really hyped up the gig now for May 30th!

RG He's got a great head on his shoulders. There's an awful lot of elements that go into becoming a really good musician. You can't be flaky. You can't be on one day and off the next day. You need to be consistent. You need to get out of bed and do it every day. You know, do it again. Next day, do it again. And the person who drives you is yourself. Somebody else can only take you so far. But you need to be the person who's determined to do the work. Because there's an awful lot of rigor involved in being really good in anything. But especially in something that's physical. Because there's a repetitive element to playing an instrument that's a bit like sports in a way. It's training. You get up every day and you do it again. It's very boring and very repetitive. But you will not be able to be at the top of your game unless you do it. You have to do all the hard yards in your bedroom. Working hard, practicing, thinking and just being enthused. And I think that's a great thing about Matthew. He's always been enthused about music. I wish everybody had it to the same extent that he has. But that's why there are elites, I guess, in music. In anything. There are people who just have a desire, a psychology, a talent and an ability to work hard. And when those things all come together, you get somebody like Matthew.

LS Amazing. You've kinda answered this question already but I was going to ask what advice would you give to young musicians and graduates like Matthew?

RG You need to be patient. You need to be consistent. And you need to do it every day. That's the thing. You also need to take responsibility. One of the difficulties sometimes for people coming out of institutional learning is that they've not really developed an ability to take responsibility for their own learning. The job of a student is to get information from the teachers. The teacher's job is to give that information to the students. So they've got to constantly take responsibility for their own development. That's challenging. It's easy to be excited when you're 20. What about when you're 30 and when you're 40? Are you still going to be as excited? Because that's what you need to sustain a career in music. You need to be just as excited when you're 40 as when you're 20. I was totally excited when I was 20, but I'm still totally excited by music. I love hearing great music. I love working with great young musicians and great older musicians. Anything to do with music excites me. And that's after 45 years. So be enthused by music and persist. You've got to persist. You chip away and then suddenly you find yourself in middle age working as a musician. What's not to like?

LS Absolutely.

RG I say to my students in class, look at us, 11 o'clock on a Wednesday morning. We're playing music by Thelonious Monk! I mean, how many other people have the chance to do that on a Wednesday morning?

Matthew O'Connell plays The Cooler this May 30th and Magy's Farm June 1st.
Ronan Guilfoyle is currently writing music for a new project called 'Earwicker's Dream', based on Finnegan's Wake, which will be performed with Nguyen Le, actor Janet Moran, and Michael Buckley. The premiere will be in the Mermaid Arts Centre on October 24th 2024.

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