Who wants to play music at work?

The Whistleblast Quartet bring jazz, trad and classical tuition to workplaces and schools

Part of the pleasure of music is that no formal knowledge is necessary to enjoy it. In spite of this, many of us are inclined to shy away from classical music or jazz believing them to be the more inaccessible forms. But perhaps this is down to the rigid way in which they have been presented to us from an early age: as something sombre and refined wrapped up in the word “culture”.

When I tentatively offer this opinion to Mary Curran of the Whistleblast Quartet, she looks so determined to prove otherwise that I fear she might produce her French horn there and then in the crowded room.

The Whistleblast Quartet are an eclectic group of musicians from differing backgrounds who aim to provide music education through joyful, energetic performance. Its members are Ken Edge on saxophone and clarinets, Síle Daly on oboe and cor anglais, Mary Curran on French horn and Conor Linehan on piano. They come from a variety of genres – jazz, classical and traditional – and they are on a mission to make classical music more accessible.

“This is the main thing we get across in communities.” says Curran. “We did a concert in a certain venue in Co Mayo and a man of about 55, a father, came up to me after the concert and said to me, ‘Well d’you know what, I thought I was going to hate your concert. Not only did I love it, but I’ll be back again.’ ”


The group was born out of Curran’s experience as musician in residence for Mayo County Council. “Classical music was really not ending up in schools in the west at all. There aren’t really professional classical musicians living in that part of the world,” she says.

About 10 years ago, she and Edge put together a group of professional musicians to work in schools and in the community. They have been working primarily with children in schools and youth orchestras, and they teach everything by ear.

"We have a big outreach programme in Mayo," says Curran. Local funding – from Mayo County Council, Ballina Beverages and Blackshell Farms – has been vital, "because of those funders we've been able to give free concerts and creative orchestra development and free public recitals around the west".

Mini orchestra The quartet consider themselves a “mini orchestra” and thanks to their

original music ("Conor and Ken are fantastic composers" says Curran), over the years they have developed "an enormous repertoire of challenging and accessible music". Indeed a little wander around their website and you can hear their versions of the Nutcracker Overture and Goldfinger. "Every single schools programme we've done has been a pleasure. It really does seem to have given a lot of joy and motivation in music." They recently ran a programme at a school in Cnoc Ruscaighe in Co Mayo, where there is an autistic unit. The group received a letter after their time there to say how the children had benefited: "They all showed emotion, they all expressed their enjoyment from having been part of something that was so uplifting. One of the unique things about our programme is that everyone is completely involved 100 per cent of the time."

The quartet are now branching into commercial office environments, with their Music in the Workplace. “We see it as a great benefit for companies, because by creating music and live performance and learning and bringing people together as a group, people’s minds are motivated.” Typically they develop a musical group within a company over the course of three months, within work hours.

Curran refers to Zoltán Kodály, the Hungarian composer and philosopher who “persuaded the government that there must be an hour of music every day in every school, and it was proven that the children developed in all other subjects and got higher marks after a year of his programme”. Not only did musical literacy improve, but also perceptual functioning, concept formation and motor skills.

But will they have to adapt their method significantly to teach adults, who, let’s face it, can often be a little reticent about this sort of workplace initiative?

Conor Linehan, who teaches in the Royal Irish Academy, has worked with hesitant adults in his jazz improvisation class. The challenge is to create a worthwhile experience for people of varying skills: “How can we make that a meaningful experience for everybody and not absolute chaos?”

So somebody will have the triangle? “Ha, yes somebody will. There will be singing in it as well. It’s really just about being smart and engaged with people and giving them confidence.”

The group will work with employees to build towards a performance at the end of their time together, and if people in the group can already play instruments, they will build upon that, with the quartet playing among them. “But the main thing is that is should just be really joyful.”

So do they believe that everyone has some inherent music ability? “I do, but I think it’s harder for adults,” Linehan says. “They tend to be very wary of exposing any vulnerabilities. But if you tell people the consequences of failure aren’t really that serious, then the chances of failure reduce.”

Curran sees the development of a musical group such as this within a workplace as a natural fit. “First of all, there’s group play. There’s a whole instant hierarchy in an orchestra: you’ve got leaders and sub-leaders, and that is a natural development within a work force and an orchestra. And also it gives people more confidence because they’re being creative. It also gives them a skill to think about and develop and it also needs incredible concentration and focus.”

No more regrets

Although children are more likely to surrender to the art of play than adults, the latter have an appreciation for the idea of developing a skill.

“It’s so different,” says Linehan. “A lot of adults miss musical expression. It’s such a cliche at this stage: ‘If there’s one thing I regret in life it’s giving up the piano.’ But adults are very enthusiastic.

“People become quite moved when they feel something has been unlocked inside them. I think what makes people sad as they grow older is that they can’t express themselves as much as they did when they were younger. People get very moved when they realise they can create something very simple and very beautiful. Music is just the opposite of so many of the demands of life. It’s everything that you’re supposed not to do as you get older.”

The quartet also run primary-school teacher-training courses every year. “These are teachers some of whom have never done music in their lives before,” says Curran, who shows me a beautifully presented booklet that the teachers receive on their course. “It just gives them confidence. They go back with this booklet and they can actually give a music workshop with their children.” The course is on in Mayo and in the National Concert Hall this year, and is fully booked.

Which brings us to the importance of good musical education, which Curran and Linehan both believe is not nurtured within our national curriculum.

“Every single child starts as an artist or a musician or something creative, and as they get older that is taken from them,” says Curran.

“There must be thousands upon thousands of brilliantly musical children just slipping through the system because they’re not being identified, and one-on-one tuition is too expensive for thousands of kids,” says Linehan. “It’s not fair and it’s entirely counterproductive to not channel these talents.”

If there’s one thing the Whistleblast Quartet is hell-bent on it is the communication of their own passion.

“Because teaching, more than anything else, I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s really just the transfer of energy,” says Linehan. “If I’m teaching and I’m tired or something, or someone isn’t very strong, what is the one thing I can say to this person to take away from this?

“I have a 17-year-old student, and he was trundling through stuff, and we were getting frustrated, and I said to him, ‘Music is the most brilliant thing in life. It’s the one thing that is not boring and dutiful, so for God’s sake don’t make music boring’.”