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Sean Shannon with Tatiana Timofeeva during a lesson at her home in Ennis. Picture: Arthur Ellis.

Key change can’t stop the music in Ennis

Music teacher Tatiana Timofeeva and student Sean Shannon speak to Jessica Quinn about music, the pandemic and moving on when a vital cultural outlet was closed

THE closure of the acclaimed Maoin Cheoil an Chláir music school after 25 years in existence sent shockwaves across the county’s musical community in 2019.

Among those affected by the loss of the Ennis-based school was piano teacher Tatiana Timofeeva. However the Russian native was determined to continue bringing music into the lives of others, and has now set up her very own music school in the Ennis home she shares with her husband, musician Bill McNamara.

Among her students is 16-year-old Ennis pianist Sean Shannon who is set to showcase his talents in an upcoming episode of RTÉ’S Nationwide. Sean first began playing when he picked up a toy piano for fun, and just a few short years later he was wowing the glór audience.

While preparing for Sean’s audition to the Royal Irish Academy of Music both Tatiana and Sean spoke to us about the new school, Sean’s upcoming television appearance, and the impact of Covid-19 on them both.

A love of traditional music first brought Tatiana from Russia to County Clare, but it was a love of a different kind that resulted in her staying.

The acclaimed piano teacher arrived in Clare in 2003 to take part in an international music school set up in Doonbeg by well known flute player Bill McNamara. Little did she realise then, but her life was about to change forever. She began teaching in Maoin Cheoil an Chláir and in 2010 she and Bill were married in Russia before settling down in Ennis.

When Tatiana first arrived in Ireland she was struck by the “gentleness and friendliness” of the people and also, of course, their love of music. She was thrilled to be able to share her skills as a music teacher here and she enjoyed working with her students.

She taught in Maoin Cheoil in Ennis for a number of years until the renowned music school, founded by social activist Fr Harry Bohan and the late Professor Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, announced its closure.

Tatiana describes the closure as “very hard”. “It wasn’t only where I went to teach, it was its people, it was my colleagues. I was able to share things with them. It was hard. But that is life and what can we do?” she says.

Rather than dwelling on the closure she decided to take matters into her own hands and open up her own studio at the home she and Bill share on the Gort Road.

“I have some very, very good students and they have a good time and enjoy the work. Being at home has pluses and minuses.

“On the plus side there is flexibility. If for some reason a student can’t come, I can just go in my kitchen and have a cup of tea or sit and work with my computer. But the minuses are I am here on my own. I have my students so there is that interaction, but I miss my colleagues. Being able to share things, asking for advice or if you can help somebody. That is very important.”

Classes have begun again with full Covid-19 measures in place, including Tatiana wearing mask and gloves. “I’m like a space woman”, she laughs.

Before re-opening, earlier this year she had to carry out classes on the internet.

“That is much harder than doing classes one-on-one. When you teach something like playing piano, it is about interaction, it’s physical. You have to be able to show, you have to touch the hand, the arms, you have to show how to touch the piano. You can’t do that through the internet. It has been hard, but we managed and we did the theory through Zoom and so on, but it is still not the same.

“I would say tuition should not be through the internet, it is good when you don’t have other options and in addition to normal tuition, but my experience is you need classes to be in person.”

She is welcoming students of all ages to her studio, telling us, “I really love teaching and I try and put some fun and enjoyment into tuition.”

Tatiana began teaching Sean in 2018 when he had just finished a grade five with distinction from the ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music).

By the end of his first year with Tatiana, he had jumped to grade eight with distinction.

She describes Sean as “born to be a musician” and is among those who will feature in an episode of Nationwide focusing on Sean’s talents which will be broadcast in the coming weeks.

The segment of the popular RTÉ show will be presented by Ennis journalist Colm Flynn. Sean tells us he has “no idea” why he was chosen to feature on the show, though he certainly has a tale to tell.

Sean came to the attention of glór at just 13 years of age when an open invitation was issued to people to play the baby grand piano in the venue’s foyer. After amazing those who heard him, glór asked him to give a full solo recital at 14 and since then his playing has gone from strength to strength.

Recalling how he began on his musical path, Sean says, “I was almost nine and my sister had a toy piano with five multi-coloured keys. I just picked it up one day, and it was around Christmas time so I started playing Christmas carols and different songs by ear.

“So my mam decided to buy me a keyboard, which was basically just another toy. I was kind of learning by myself, playing by ear and looking up stuff online but I wasn’t really too interested, I thought it was just fun. But when I was around ten I started to practice a bit more and got more into it.

“I still had no teacher, music education is very expensive, but I would just look up everything I could find on the internet, learning to read music notation, all of that.”

At 12 he got his first piano lessons at Maoin Cheoil an Chláir through Music Generation Clare. Later he received scholarship funding from Maoin Cheoil and the Limerick School of Music to continue his studies and in 2018 he began working with Tatiana. Since then he has received supports from the Mary Keohane Bursary run by the Ennis Lions Club.

Like many in the music business Sean has had a difficult 18 months with performances and competitions cancelled due to Covid-19.

“It was hard, I think the hardest part was the uncertainty, like we never knew when it would end. Especially in the beginning it seemed like we just didn’t have any way out of it and we’d be stuck like this forever. At least now with all the vaccinations and things like that it seems like we have a way out and there is some hope again.”

While restrictions are now being lifted, Sean is critical of how long live performance venues were left in the dark. “I don’t understand how they could pack 1000s of people into a football stadium to watch a match, but then we couldn’t have an indoor concert. So many musicians rely on this for a living and they were left with nothing, it was so unfair, the government neglected the artists of this country.”

Filming for Nationwide took place in glór, Tatiana’s music school and Sean’s home, alongside interviews with staff of the venue, Tatiana, Sean himself and his family.

While an official date for the broadcast has yet to be announced, it is expected sometime in October or November.

He describes the filming as “fun” adding his family are looking forward to seeing it on screen. “Seeing our sitting room where we watch the Six One on the television screen is going to be kind of strange,” he smiles.

Tatiana’s music school operates from Gort na Rí in Ennis and she can be contacted at tarina717156@yahoo.com, phone 086 2691601.

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