Staff Spotlight - Ron Cooney
Every Friday we feature a member of staff in our Staff Spotlight! This week, we spoke to music teacher Ron Cooney about his teaching career.
What was your first instrument, and why did you choose it?
Well, the first thing I ever played was the tin whistle. I started playing around 9 or 10; I had no particular interest in it at first but my mother said “off you go” and sure enough, I played happily away at jigs and reels for the rest of my childhood. I still have a tin whistle on me wherever I go, and I think of all the instruments, if I couldn’t play the tin whistle that’d be the one that’d probably upset me the most. I had a wonderful teacher, Eoghan McGuinness, and he was like a Paddy Kavanagh-figure, and he was a lovely man. He had very few fingers, as he’d lost them in a motorbike accident, but he still played the tin whistle either way. He was the first of a series of really generous, talented music teachers that I was very lucky just to fall into, one after the other.
What instruments do you play?
I teach flute, clarinet, saxophone, and the recorder here in Alex, and that’s about it. I sit at the piano, and I can play chord charts and things like that, but I’m not a piano player if you will. Flute and saxophone are really my main horns.
What’s one of your favourite performances you’ve done?
There’s been loads really, but in an Alex context, we did a gig in 2016 in the National Concert Hall which marked the 150th anniversary of the College. One of the numbers we played with the school orchestra we played with representatives from every aspect of the school like the Guild, the Parents, the Junior School, etc. and we played a couple of numbers and I remember thinking on the night we did it, I remember saying to Vanessa Sweeney, one of the music teachers who retired later that year, “Listen, I think we nailed that.” We got buy-in from everybody in the school, and because it was such a big undertaking and every child was singing, we had to get rehearsal time during school hours. I remember putting this to the staff in the staff room, and it was absolutely no problem - and of course, they joined in as well. We’ve had great concerts in the Concourse over the years, and the musicals, where we’ve hit the nail on the head but that one was the best one, I think.
Why did you begin teaching music?
I didn’t start out to teach music - I actually used to avoid it. There’s a music school here in Dublin called Newpark Music Centre, and I used to teach a few hours a week while I was still a student. That’s really where it started, but it wasn’t until I was about 30 years old that I was beginning to feel a bit guilty about not having a “proper job.” I could survive on the gigs I was playing, for jingles or whatever, and a bit of teaching but it wasn’t a proper job or anything. At that time not everyone went to university, so I’d run into some of my schoolmates and some of them had already been working for ten years! One day I was moaning to one of my friends and he said to me, “Well, how many people have rung you up to play the Mozart flute concerto in the last month?” and I said, “Well, strangely enough, none!” Meanwhile, our conversation had been interrupted a few times by the phone ringing with people asking me to do some teaching, and he pointed out that it was as obvious as that. That was the first time that I’d really considered it, and a few days later I got a call from an old friend who needed cover for a few months teaching in the Royal Irish Academy of Music outreach centre out in Leixlip. I went in to teach and it was really successful, and I looked at it in a different way and could really see teaching as something for me.
When it comes to classical and jazz music, teaching is where you hand things off to the next generation. I used to find teaching quite difficult when I was in my early twenties, but then I was still very close to being a student. It’s only as you get a bit older that you can see what’s what and how to make things happen. It all depends on how you look at teaching, you have to look at it as a positive, creative thing and learn what education is about. Education is the most important thing we can give a child, and not every child gets the best education. It can be because of an accident of birth, or geography, or many other things. In a school like Alex, kids tend to come from a background where education is valued, but that’s not the case for everyone.
When I’m not here, I run a programme out in Ballymun which is designated as a socially disadvantaged area, and there are a lot of kids who leave school too early, and they might leave school without any tools in their toolbox. Education works for different people at different levels, but fundamentally it’s got to give somebody the tools to make a living or be able to get trained to make a living and allow them to live in dignity. So working here at Alex and in Ballymun simultaneously has been a really great experience, and we’ve done lots of concerts and other projects together because children are children anywhere. The great thing about music is that you can bring together people who don’t even speak the same language, and they can work together immediately.
Why did you choose to teach at Alex?
I started teaching here in 1995, when the principal Gladys Ruddock and Brenda Wilkes, the head of music, came up with the idea of creating a music block and employing music teachers full time. There was always a really strong tradition of music in the College, as evidenced by the Culwick competition, but to that point music teachers were hired in more of a part-time capacity and not really part of the establishment, and so Gladys and Brenda really hit the nail on the head by bringing in teachers full time and creating a music block.
What has been the highlight of your teaching career so far?
About 10 years ago, I was involved in Ballymun in developing a piece of music called the Ballymun Lullaby, which was a suite of pieces for children’s choir and orchestra. We developed that with a composer called Daragh O’Toole, and he wrote the piece working with the kids and the teachers, and we performed it as a part of a community education thing in The Helix in DCU. And from the very start, there were Alex kids involved in the project, singing and playing; Liz Foster came out and selected all of the students for the children’s choir, and the orchestra was made up of kids from Alex and Ballymun, as well as a few musicians from the National Symphony Orchestra. It was originally supposed to finish with that concert in The Helix, but things kept moving from there. So we then made a professional recording with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra and Cór na nÓg, the national children’s choir, and someone made a movie about that whole process which then made its way around the world. All of this happened over the course of about two years, and to see how it all developed from an idea into this whole project really showed me the power of new music, and music that was accessible to the audience it was written for. The whole experience was the most illuminating of my career so far, and it’s a highlight because you never get that lucky twice.