Harping on

On most Sunday evenings, Alex Reidinger can be found at Jack of the Wood pub along Asheville’s Patton Avenue, playing Irish music. It’s hard to miss her: she’s the teenager with the harp, a difficult instrument which she manages to play with uncommon skill and delicacy. In her best moments, she’s capable of making the normally boisterous pub hush up and listen. 

But Reidinger isn’t limited to the harp; she also plays fiddle, concertina, tin whistle and guitar. Four years ago, apparently feeling unchallenged, she began studying classical cello.

In the past two years, Reidinger’s talents have won her more than a dozen titles on her in regional and national championships. But her greatest distinction to date came last summer, when she traveled to Ireland to compete in the All-Ireland Championship competition or Fleadh (pronounced “flah”) and took third place on the harp (which just happens to be that country’s national symbol).

These are busy times for Reidinger, but not so busy that she wasn’t able to take a few moments to answer questions about her recent adventures in Irish music.

Mountain Xpress: Where and when was the competition held?
Alex Reidinger: The All-Ireland Fleadh, also called the Fleadh Cheoil Na hEireann, was held in Tullamore, County Offaly on the last weekend of August. The Fleadh moves around every two years or so; last year it was in Letterkenny, Donegal.

MX: Describe the competition.
AR: There are no rounds; you have one chance to prove yourself. The number of tunes you play depends on your age group. Since I’m in the under-18 group, I had to play three tunes. Most instruments have to play a jig, a hornpipe and a reel, but harps have the option of playing a slow air instead of a hornpipe, which is what I did. The atmosphere isn’t cutthroat competitive at all, but everyone is tense.The judges sit and listen to each tune then talk to each other and write comments between the tunes. It can all be pretty intimidating.

MX: What piece did you play that won you third place?
AR: My jig was “The Crabs in the Skillet,” the air was “An Binsín Luachra” (“The Bunch of Rushes”), and my reel was “Lad O’Beirne’s.”  I always put loads of thought into my tune choices and often change my mind a few times over the course of the year. You always want contrasting tunes, and all tunes have to be traditional and tasteful. It’s a bad idea to play a recently composed, modern tune if you want to place.

MX: Were you nervous?
AR: Of course not!  But yes, I was. I really wanted to just play and get it over with. Everyone was so amazing, I kept listening to people before and after me wondering how on earth the judges would be able to place them. I didn’t expect that I would place at all, but of course I hoped [I would].

MX: Is there any pro-Irish bias at these competitions?
No, but naturally the Irish kids have a reputation for being better. They’re around the music all the time and have much easier access to high quality instructors and more summer music schools than we have. I’m lucky to have the teachers I have (Gráinne Hambly for harp and concertina).  I’ve never felt any resentment from the adjudicators or competitors; it’s a very friendly, supportive environment. If you think about it, it is really amazing that any Americans place considering the advantages the Irish kids have—it is their culture, after all.

MX: Describe your favorite incident from the trip.
AR: When they called the placing for the harp, I was third and a good friend of mine was first (she’s also American). We were thrilled and spent so much time congratulating each other that we almost forgot our awards! Or maybe it was when we were driving and my mom turned into the wrong lane into oncoming traffic!

MX: How did you get involved in traditional Irish music?
AR: I had a fiddle teacher when I was very little who taught me a few Irish tunes. I never looked back.

MX: What about Irish music keeps you playing it?
AR: I can’t explain it. It’s just loads of fun. It’s all I listen to. So many people ask me what I listen to when I’m not playing Irish music. I say, “Irish music,” and they respond, “but when you’re not listening to Irish music.” And the answer to that is absolutely nothing. It’s all I want to hear. I love it. It just becomes part of you.

MX: Has the Asheville Irish music community helped your development as a musician?
AR: Yes. The sessions have definitely been important to me, especially when I was younger. I wouldn’t know the loads of the tunes I play if it weren’t for the sessions and the Swannanoa Gathering, which has been great for bringing in the quality instructors I’ve had the privilege to meet and play with over the years. I’m also very lucky that   Billy Jacksonwas here to get me started on harp and now Gráinne comes a few times a year and I pack in as many hours of lessons as I can when she is here. Plus, there are many local musicians and music-lovers who have encouraged and helped me in more ways than I could tell you.

MX: Anyone you’d like to thank?
AR: Ha! I’ve been coming up with a list since I’m starting to record a CD. If I started listing I’d forget somebody, there are so many … I just want to say I hope they all know who they are and I love them to bits. I do have to say a big thanks to Gráinne though, she’s helped me with all aspects of my music and performance/competing ability. Plus she loaned me a harp to compete with in Ireland twice. And of course thanks to Aisha Moughrabi for starting me on Irish fiddle in the first place. Without her I wouldn’t be the same person that I am today.

MX: Any long-term plans for your music?
AR: Well, there’s that CD I mentioned … I plan to attend Appalachian [State University] to earn a Bachelor of Arts in Music Performance on the cello. I’ll be attending a summer program at the University in Cork in Ireland plus do a semester abroad in Cork as well while I am studying at ASU. Then I’ll go to the University of Limerick in Ireland to earn a Masters in Traditional Irish Music Performance on the harp and concertina. After all that, I want to make my living in traditional music, performing, recording, etc. But my main passion is for teaching. 

Click here to visit Alex Reidinger’s website, or here to visit her MySpace page.

— Kent Priestley, staff writer


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