Teacher Spotlight - Barry Rycraft
Every Friday we feature a member of our staff in our Teacher Spotlight! This week, we spoke to Head of Music Barry Rycraft about his career as a musician and a teacher.
What was your first instrument, and why did you choose it?
My first instrument was trumpet when I was six years old, and I was one of the original members of the Clondalkin Youth Band. They chose all of us from a hearing test, and then we played the recorder for a year. Then we were brought into this big hall with all of the instruments for the marching band, and everyone was going for the saxophone. So I got in the saxophone queue and you had to pass by the trumpets, so I was kind of curious and decided to give it a go. I played a note straight up and they were like “Ok that’s it, you have to play trumpet!” I never made it to the saxophone.
As I got older I tried to get into some rock bands, but it was a bit tough as a trumpet player - they all wanted a trumpet player, but they didn’t know what to do with it! I picked up the guitar instead, played in loads of bands and recorded albums and eventually branched off into jazz music, which brought me then to the double bass. That’s now my main instrument, and I’ve studied double bass for the last 15 years or so.
What’s one of your favorite performances you’ve done?
Sometimes with jazz music, it’s less about the audience and more about the people you’re playing with. It’s the smoky dark pubs where nobody’s really watching that are some of the best - I once played a gig with three people and a dog in the audience and that was a great gig because I was playing with really good friends. You really just want to play the music that makes you feel good.
I’ve also gotten the chance to play in amazing venues all around the world, and sometimes it’s not the actual gig itself that’s memorable - it’s the meal you had before, or the travel. We played in Egypt last year and that was incredible. The bit I remember most is going to the Great Pyramids on camels and wondering how that six year old in the saxophone queue ended up riding a camel in Egypt.
Why did you begin teaching music?
I’ve been teaching over 20 years, and it really started out a bit by accident. I was playing on the scene and doing a bit of studio work and someone gave me a call out of the blue who had been teaching in a school on the Southside and asked if I could teach. I said “Of course!” so I went out and completely made it up as I went along, and it was great fun. I never would’ve thought about being a teacher of anything, but it just turned out to be loads of fun so I kept doing it.
I started Rockjam later, and that really came from my own personality. For me, music was never about doing exams but about playing with friends. That’s how I learned a lot of my most important lessons, really. So I was teaching a lot of students who weren’t getting that experience of playing with other people and in groups, you know just starting a band, and they thought it was a great idea but they never did it. In the end I hired a rehearsal studio and kept asking a few students to come along to start, and more and more people became interested and it’s really taken off.
Why is teaching your subject exciting?
You know, I think people’s perception of why music is exciting might be different from the reality of it. Like I said, sometimes it’s not the performance but the meal you have with your friends that’s actually the standout moment. In the Music Department it’s a bit like that as well, it’s hanging out with all these great musicians and that’s your tribe. You speak the same language, the same shorthand, and you have a lot of similar views of life. All of our teachers are also working musicians, and you’ve all had similar experiences so with that kind of positivity, all of our lessons end up fueled by that as well. It’s just a fun place to be, and the learning always takes place because of that fun.
What has been the highlight of your teaching career so far?
To be honest, and this is a typical musician’s answer, it’s always the next thing. Every week is different here, and you might do something incredible on a Tuesday. It’s the biggest thing you’ve ever done and you put everything into it, and as soon as it’s over it’s all about what’s next. There’s always something exciting to work towards, whether it’s the biggest choir ever or the next Funky Friday and figuring out a new song, or figuring out the new technology behind your next project, so it’s always the next thing that’s the best thing.
How have you adapted your teaching for Covid-19?
In March I think we all realised immediately that this was different. I like to move around during my lessons, but when you’re on Zoom it’s literally just someone’s head. You almost feel like you can’t move away from that. We had to take away some of the intensity of connecting Zoom with a couple different techniques. Now we’re back in the school again, and we’ve put up the barriers and adapt the way we do our lessons and ensembles with public health guidelines, but everything we do is creative. We just look for creative ways of dealing with Covid-19 and the changes we’ve had to make, and if all those barriers we’ve put up become invisible then we’ve done our job.
Why did you choose to teach at Alex?
My wife Clodagh was teaching here a few years before I came, and it really comes down to lifestyle. We have a young family, and having a flexible timetable means that I can bring the kids to school in the morning and she can collect them. It’s really important to us that we’re teaching in a place that allows us that flexibility.
Beyond that, we’ve been able to be really creative here in Alex and come up with amazing ideas. Alex has a history of innovation and creativity in music and has always been ahead of its time. Every one of these great ideas that the Music Department has come up with has been taken on by other schools and these things become normal now. It’s a really exciting place to work and innovate.