Bill Ochs continues the Irish tradition

Bill Ochs with Irish Arts Center Founder Brian Heron.

In the dazzling atmosphere that surrounds the Irish Arts Center in Manhattan these days with their seemingly uninterrupted lineup and the excitement of their new Clinton headquarters, it doesn’t hurt to look back on their more humble beginnings that have helped establish a foundation.

We were reminded of this in a recent interview with Bill Ochs, one of the early music teachers at the nascent Irish cultural center known as An Claidheamh Soluis founded by Brian Heron in 1972.

Some 40 years later, Ochs still resides and teaches in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood after a chance encounter in Greenwich Village that first year with Heron, who was seeking to initiate an educational component of his innovative movement.

And over those four decades he amassed a significant collection of music history published in books, manuscripts and recordings, as well as a reputation as one of the most knowledgeable Irish music teachers in New York who have greatly contributed to its development in the Big Apple.

Like so many people in the days of the revival of folk music, the music of the Clancy brothers appealed to him and he played along with the songs on a whistle he had just acquired from a friend. It was the start of a long and interesting career for the young man of Jewish faith from Essex County, New Jersey, who had a penchant for and academic interest in the performing arts.

Shortly after, he attended a concert by folk singer Pat Sky, now known as one of America’s best uilleann bagpipers who had a first solo act named Liam O’Flynn. O’Flynn was in full bloom as one of the Irish bagpipe masters, sparking a revival and interest in the native Irish instrument and soon deified as a founding member of the supergroup Planxty.

Ochs was fascinated with mastering O’Flynn’s pipes and wanted to learn how to play them. He searched for one of the only people to teach in the greater New York area, Tom Standeven in southern Jersey, closer to Philadelphia.

Like Ochs, Standeven had no Irish heritage to draw upon, but they shared a determination to gain as much information, experience and expertise as possible. Ochs traveled to Ireland to get closer to the source, and with introductory letters from Standeven, he easily found willing flute teachers in Ireland like Seamus Ennis and Willie Clancy, where an enthusiastic American student made a impression on older players who often faced indifference in their own localities to traditional Irish music until the 1970s.

Ochs quickly made contact with Pat Mitchell of Na Piobairi Uilleann who took him under his wing. Ochs would reciprocate NPU over the years as a teacher and speaker in various tionols.

In the summer of 1972 he was fortunate enough to spend time with Clancy in Miltown Malbay, Co. Clare because the legendary piper died at a young age in January 1973. Ochs’ own progress on pipes was both recognized and advanced by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to study in Ireland for six months in 1976, which led to a tour with one of Mick Moloney’s first tours in the United States

Ochs mixed a bit of entrepreneurship with his educational goals when he arranged to create an instruction book to accompany the England-made Clarke C Tin Whistle, and to this day the Clarke Tin Whistle Guardians collection counts. more than 250,000 copies.

This provided him with funding to pursue one of his other goals by filming iconic North Clare musician Micho Russell whom he had met in previous years in Clare and also during the Smithsonian’s bicentennial celebration in 1976.

The resulting video titled “Ireland’s Whistling Ambassador” captured the tall, shy but mischievous musician in all his colorful glory on the whistle, flute, song and stories that made him one of the folk heroes of Pure Drop until ‘to his untimely death in February 1994.

On Sunday November 10th from 2pm to 5pm at the Irish Arts Center (553 West 51st Street) Ochs will host a special masterclass called “Beyond Jigs and Reels” for all intermediate and advanced level instruments.

Drawing on his extensive personal collections comprising of written music from over 300 years and 100 years of recorded material, the focus will be on teaching rarely heard music in Irish canon in music sessions.

Students can learn planxties, highlands, mazurkas, barn dances, clan marches and harp tunes to enrich their own repertoire. To reserve call Ovationtix at 866-811-4111 and for any questions call Ochs at 212-247-3231 or visit www.pennywhistlepress.com. Ochs is also available for private lessons via Skype.


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