Pushy parents or musical mammies: Does talent run in the family?
Is there more to musical success than practice? We put the question to some of the children taking part in the Feis Ceoil
14/03/2013 FEATURES, Doyle,family story. A WallaceThe Doyle family at home in Rathgar from left William, Harriet, Isabel Wilma ( mum with dog susie) and Emily Jane Photograph: Cyril Byrne / THE IRISH TIMES
FROM the Nolan Sisters to the Clancy Brothers, Kíla to the Kings of Leon, famous musical families seem to transcend time, place and musical genre. In Germany, the Bachs produced some 50 musicians and a fistful of notable composers over a period of 200 years; in 20th-century New Orleans, the Marsalis family had a huge impact on the development of jazz. Bob Dylan’s grandson Pablo is a rapper.
Recent studies from Finland reinforce the idea that musical talent is largely inherited – but it’s not as simple as putting tab A into slot B and coming up with a kid who can play guitar like Jimi Hendrix. Rather, researchers have found that musical ability is related to a gene associated with “social, emotional and behavioural traits, including pair bonding and parenting”.
Any musical Irish mammy could have told you that much. There’s a lot more to musical success than the legendary instruction “lady, you gotta practise”; as the Electric Ireland Feis Ceoil gets into top gear at the RDS this week, many Irish families will be eating, sleeping and breathing music, as two or more siblings are ferried to and from the RDS, sheet music is lost and found again, rehearsals go wonky, tempers fray, and meals are fitted in around lessons, concerts and the all-important competitions.
On a freezing March afternoon, Wilma Doyle is sitting in her car in south Dublin, waiting for her son William to emerge from a school quintet rehearsal. Neither she nor her husband plays an instrument, but four young Doyles will compete in the Feis this year: William (16) in violin and singing; Harriet (15) in viola and singing; twins Isobel and Emily (13) in violin, vocals and piano duet. All began their studies at the age of four. “Yesterday there was a pre-Feis concert in the Royal Irish Academy of Music – and they had a singing lesson as well – and tonight they’re going to the pianist to go over their pieces,” Wilma says.
The Van Dijks from Dundalk, Co Louth, meanwhile, are the very model of a musical family. “My grandparents were both professional musicians,” says mother Ingrid. “My mother, a talented pianist, will be 80 next month. Her last appearance in the Feis was 10 years ago, when we entered and won the Family Ensemble prize with a septet which spanned three generations with an age range of seven to 70.” Two Van Dijk daughters will compete in piano and cello this year: Lucy (18) and Poppy (15).
Parental influence in music doesn’t always stop at the level of genes, as Tom Janssons explains. Both he and his wife teach at the Cork School of Music. Their children Ellen (16), Kevin (12) and Anna (9) will be entering piano and violin competitions at the Feis this year, as they have done since 2007.
“My mum had a certain facility for playing the piano,” Tom says. “But it was really my dad – who couldn’t sing a note, and couldn’t play anything on any instrument – who had the biggest impact on me. He listened to music non-stop, and took me to concerts all the time. Listening to music is a huge part of the learning process; it’s not just about what happens in a half hour with a teacher.