Recorder player and record producer Laoise O’Brien has decided to become a crusader on behalf of her instrument. She probably couldn’t have chosen a better time to take up the cause. The day I spoke to her a survey by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) in Britain revealed that recorder playing has been in decline while the ukulele is gaining ground. The recorder is still ahead but the survey reports that “The data appears to suggest that ukuleles are replacing the recorder as a popular instrument for whole class ensemble teaching.” And, of course, class teaching of music everywhere has been badly affected by the pandemic.
Music, says O’Brien, has always been part of her life, and she took up the recorder at the age of five, studying with Rosemary Hill, Fergus Johnston and Jennie Robinson, playing mostly consort music. “I was just absorbed in music. My whole world was music. It was the only thing I ever thought about or wanted to do. When I started playing the flute at the age of 12 I got into youth orchestra territory and it just blew my mind — sitting in the middle of this extraordinary soundworld that I had been listening to on speakers for such a long time.”
At 15 she started studying under Willie Halpin at the DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama, where she did her performance degree as a flute player, deflecting any suggestions that she might be better off doing an arts degree. Her parents were always supportive at a time — the 1990s — when degrees in music performance were still a novelty in Ireland.
She knew where her real passion lay. It wasn’t about being a flautist in an orchestra. She loved early music, and was so besotted with Handel, Vivaldi and Bach that she even considered switching to the oboe at one point. But the ultimate move back to the recorder was a trick of fate.
She won a bursary at the Feis Ceoil and used the money to attend master classes in Nice. “I remember waking up one morning in the hotel in Nice and I could hear scales being played. I opened the shutters and looked out, and there were flute players everywhere in the building practising scales. I realised I wasn’t going to be a flute player at that moment. I didn’t have the g
rit in me to do that, practise scales at eight o’clock in the morning.”
A friend of the Robinsons was looking for an au pair in Amsterdam, so she went there for two months to look after a little boy. At a concert in the conservatory there, she ran into someone who given master classes in Dublin. He turned out to be the director of the conservatory. “This is the kind of stuff that happens to me all the time, Michael,” she says. “I was 21, I went, ‘Oh, hello. I met you in Dublin.’ The next day was the open day, and he suggested I should come in and have a look around.
“I remember finding the room with Recorder on the door, walking in and locking eyes with Paul Leenhouts. I just brazenly went up, started talking to him and signed up for the audition. After I’d played, Paul asked if I could play them something Irish. I played She Moved Through the Fair, the first thing that came into my head. I don’t know what they saw in me. The influence of that class was global. There were people there from South America, Asia and Australia. They took a chance on me and I studied there for four years and spent a total of six years in Holland.” She had never even looked at the requirements for the audition, and says that if she had, she wouldn’t have had the courage to turn up and play.
Back in Ireland, while she was still studying in Amsterdam, she got an opportunity to play a concerto with Christ Church Baroque (precursor to the Irish Baroque Orchestra) and, as a member of Leenhouts’s ensemble The Royal Wind Music, she toured around Europe and even managed the group’s Irish tour in 2000.
“What I loved about it, and no disrespect to my flute-playing colleagues, was the camaraderie of the recorder class, the consort feeling of it, that you were part of a team. When I was in the flute section of the youth orchestra, I loved it too, but there was a competitiveness about it. I think that’s why I liked to play the piccolo, because no one else wanted to play it. I wasn’t competing for the first chair.
“In the recorder class everybody would muck in together, the whole nature of consort playing is that you have to fit in to the ensemble, and blend with everybody else. I enjoyed the solo playing, too. But it was the sense of ensemble that I loved, and also the repertoire of the Renaissance and Baroque. New music was huge in Amsterdam, and I decided I didn’t really want to do that, though I did learn a bit of it, because I had to. And Paul let me away with that, because I was already getting work.”
She explains her next step by bundling a lot of information in a single sentence. “Then I met my husband out there and I got offered two jobs teaching at home, one in the DIT and the other in the Cork School of Music.” Her first instinct, she says, was to stay in the Netherlands. “But then my dear husband said to me, ‘You’re going to have to get a job sometime, you know.’” So she came home and “worked really hard at it for a long time, bringing people over, setting up activities. I’m always planning and coming up with ideas and projects that I want to do. And I was really on a mission with the instrument as well.”
Ten years ago, she made her first album, How Happy For the Little Birds, part of a multi-disciplinary project with the artist Lorna Donlon that ran during Kilkenny Arts Festival. "I got the bug then and did a few albums. I really enjoyed the process. But I dived into producing 'by an accident', as the children would say. I enjoyed the process of actually going in, recording something, taking it away, listening, editing. I learnt how to do all that. I never considered myself a producer until my engineer, Ben Rawlins, said, 'Well, you're the producer of this album.'"
She was delighted. “Because it marries a lot of my skills, the management work, the teaching work, the performance work. Lots of things I have done in my life fit into this.” And it allowed her “to retain my creativity, because you are shaping the music and shaping what musicians do”. She worked in different genres, learning along the way, and says “it has just grown and grown and grown over the last 10 years, and especially over the last year and a half”.
She took a career break in 2019. “I got physically tired, I was ill, I was travelling a lot, and I decided something had to give. Which meant giving up my secure salary for a year. But I wanted to see where the production work would go, and I wanted to give myself some challenges, one of which was my new concert programme. And then the pandemic hit. As my friend Michael O’Toole says, ‘The whole world took a career break with you.’”
But she had gained experience with graphic design and computers, and started getting phone calls from people wanting help with performances they were putting online. So much so that she even thought of giving up performing, “until I realised I would miss it too much. It’s a drug, being on a stage. I am addicted to it.”
Her new recorder programme, For The Record, uses all her skills. “The show, as well as me speaking and playing and performing to an audience, has a showreel running behind it, a video that’s continuous, and I interact with that. So my timing has to be absolutely perfect. I was proud of myself for having put it together, because I didn’t have to ask anyone for any help. And the next mission is to get it out there and convert everybody.”
If you don’t know what the recorder is capable of, its long history, the many instruments in its wider family, the pieces that great composers have written for it, and the extraordinary range of sounds it’s capable of, from the hauntingly angelic to the violently piercing, Laoise O’Brien’s For The Record may be just what you need.
Laoise O'Brien's For The Record is in the Hugh Lane Gallery's free Sundays at Noon series on Sunday, December 12th. See www.hughlane.ie