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

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.

“It’s amazing how many people come in for a lesson every week, then go home and practise – and never listen to anything. It’s like a guy training to do GAA every week who refuses to turn the television on, on a Saturday afternoon, to actually look at a match.”

Some children – such as Roisin Walters, now 25 and studying for a Master’s in music at the RIAM – appear to be born with the desire to pursue a particular instrument. “It’s mad,” says her mother Moira, “but when she was 14 months old she had two drumsticks and she made a violin out of them. She used to say ‘Leo-Leen’. I didn’t even know what it was, in the beginning.”

At the age of two, Roisin asked for a violin for Christmas. When she was coming up to four, her parents finally caved in and she began lessons with Maria Kelemen’s Young European Strings. Now she teaches her younger sister Aoile (13) violin and singing.

Aoile’s main instrument is the piano and she, too, is a competitor at this year’s Feis. Unlike her older sister, Aoile never expressed any interest in studying music. “We just said, ‘Darling, you’re going to music lessons’,” laughs Moira. “But she loves it. This morning, for instance – Saturday – she’s going to orchestra. She doesn’t need to, but she’ll see her friends and have a laugh.”

Would Moira Walters see herself as a pushy parent? “Oh, I don’t believe in the tiger-mother thing,” she says. “I think, let them enjoy it. It is music, after all.”

Wilma Doyle agrees. “I think a lot of the musical ability is probably inherited but you have to nurture it. I still practise with the twins, who are 13, every day for about an hour on the violin – less on the piano. We’ll have the odd little battle. But then they’ll say, ‘Come back – we can’t do it without you’.”

There are, as Ingrid Van Dijk points out, many life lessons to be learned from musical training: physical agility, mental ability, patience, stamina and an appetite for hard work. Competitions such as the Feis Ceoil offer youngsters the chance both to socialise with and pit themselves against their peers. But, says Tom Janssons, there are lessons for parents too – not least of which is knowing when to call it a day.

“Music is a skill that has to be learned, and it takes a colossal amount of grind in terms of technical work if you want to get good at it,” he says. “But you do need a certain aptitude as well. There are some students whose parents are laying everything out for them – instruments, lessons, practice, the whole bit. But if there isn’t an innate ability there, it just doesn’t work out.

“When it comes to a final chorus on the old nature-nurture debate, it seems the fat lady has yet to sing.”

The Electric Ireland Feis Ceoil is at the RDS until Friday. Prizewinners will perform at a gala concert at the National Concert Hall on Saturday at 7.30pm