Inner View: Celtic Woman’s Tara McNeill Takes the Stage, and Takes the Audience, on a Journey of Gratitude

Inner View: Celtic Woman’s Tara McNeill Takes the Stage,
and Takes the Audience, on a Journey of Gratitude
By John O’Brien, Jr.

Tara McNeill is a violinist, singer and harpist from Antrim, Ireland. She is gifted, creative, and accomplished.  She is also really smart!

In August 2016, Tara became the newest member of the Celtic Woman.  She is only the second violinist to ever join the #1 World Music Artists and she will also be first multi-instrumentalist, as she brings her harp and voice to the group.

Tara graduated with First class honours in the BA in Music Performance (violin) at the Royal Irish Academy of Music under the tuition of Michael D’Arcy. She has toured China, Argentina, Chile and Mexico with Camerata Ireland and world-renowned pianist, Barry Douglas, performed with the RTE Concert Orchestra and Ulster Orchestra, led the Ulster Youth Orchestra and both the RIAM Chamber and Symphony Orchestras. Tara has toured Canada, China, Japan and Holland as both a singer and solo violinist with the vocal group Anúna. She is also the solo violinist on their album ‘Illumination’. In Celtic Woman’s 2015 TV special ‘Destiny’, Tara appears playing the harp.

Orchestral tours have taken Tara throughout Europe, China, Japan, Korea and America, performing in venues such as Carnegie Hall, New York, Oriental Arts Centre, Shanghai and the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Beijing.

When you are on stage, do you find it hard to stay in the moment? Are you tempted to lose yourself in the song that you are performing, or do you see the audience and see your Costars?
I can get completely lost in it and then other times, if I think too much, I can get in my own head and then, I’m like, oh my goodness, I don’t even know what what’s coming next! It’s pieces that I played hundreds of times.

There are these precious and magical moments where you don’t think about anything, and you just enjoy being up there with these incredible women, this incredible band; looking out and seeing these wonderful audiences; those are the magical moments that you look forward to.

Tell me about your journey to Celtic Woman; talk about the dream of it, what attracted you to it and then the steps that you took to get to where you are now.

I grew up watching Celtic Woman on YouTube. We don’t have PBS in Ireland, so I was watching all those amazing and specials over the years, and I just thought that it was the ideal job for me, that’s where I wanted to be. I wanted to be an ambassador for Irish music and to be an ambassador for Irish women across the world.

It’s funny, it was my dad more so than anybody that was watching these videos and saying how can we get you in there, this is where you’re supposed to be. So, I’ve always loved music. I was from a very musical family. I am the youngest of four; my sister plays violin, my brother cello, my brother Ryan plays piano and has little music school. Well, everyone plays piano, everyone sings. So definitely, I was going to be a musician as well.

So, you have good genes in the family?
What’s funny, is mom and dad actually never played anything themselves. I think they just didn’t have the opportunities growing up. There are musical genes there, but they just didn’t try them on. I had orchestras and choirs and projects growing up; I tried groups and things, but my heart went to the violin, it was my true calling. I studied it.

I always had Celtic Woman in my mind, even though I was still going down that classical and violin [road]. I had a classical performance degree in orchestral music that I was doing, but then the opportunity came to play the harp in the band for the Destiny special; I was just thrilled to be involved. I just jumped at the chance to be part of it because it was a group that I’ve always admired. I love the music, I love the arrangements, and it was just something different that no one else in Ireland was doing.

It was also representing women in such a way [that hadn’t been done before]. The year after, the position of the violinist came up. I jumped at that because that was the dream job, and luckily, I got it.

I auditioned with a number of other fiddlers and violinists, and they went for me! How often does that dream come true? I definitely have worked hard. [I strive] to be the best violinist I can be, but I also worked very hard to show off in that audition. I wanted to make sure that I went in and couldn’t give them an option. 

A lot of the movements and the choreography of everything that you’re doing, that’s important to an audience, because they can’t see. They might be back a fair few seats, so that’s all a big part of it.  I have a lot of dance I’m training; I did ballet, tap and jazz, the tiniest bit of Irish dancing when I was younger.  I did ballet up until I was like 16 or 17, so I think that has really stood by me.

At times you say the fiddle and at times the violin; do you consider yourself playing both?
It is exactly the same instrument. Sometimes I call it [playing with] violence. It is more so to do with the style of playing. If I am playing classical music on it, I call it violin, and if I’m playing trad Irish music, I’d call it a fiddle. But it is the same instrument.

How old were you when Celtic Woman first popped into your head?
I think I was about 15 when I really started to get serious about violin, to see where I wanted to go with the music. I love Orchestral music. Hopefully I will get to do more of that again in the future.  I just wanted to do something bigger, I wanted to get up on the stage and travel the world. I have always loved the Celtic Woman music, the arrangements, and the songs from my own country, these beautiful ballads. 

I felt like there is nothing else in this world like Celtic Woman; it is incredible. It is the most successful all-female Irish group ever; to be part of that legacy is incredible. It is such an honor.

You mentioned earlier that you worked really hard on your professional part of this being a gifted violinist and then also on the other parts what makes for you what were the things you really had to work on to make you a gifted violinist
I really focused on the classical side of things.  I have a wonderful teacher, Michael D’arcy, who you mentioned earlier. We really worked on my technique, getting technique, he went into such detail – you could spend an hour lesson on one bar of music, four notes, because there is so much that goes into to create the best side that you, musically, technically, everything. So, it was really about focusing and becoming the best player that I can.  

I definitely still need to be actively thinking about things in in the performance because if you don’t, if there is a tricky passage or something and you lose concentration, things can go wrong.  My teacher always said to me that you have to be prepared to 120%, because in a performance, you lose 20% of accuracy, so you need to be at 120% to have 100% performance. I didn’t know that if you want to get it up to 100%, then it leads to only be 80%, so no one sees less than 100% from you.

Besides the musical people we have talked about, who are other mega influencers in your life?
I love like Martin Hayes from the traditional world. I have lots of violinist influencers, but then I am also a big fan of so many genres. One of my biggest loves is film music; I love John Williams, sure there’s so many. I love film scores, so I’d love to get into that world.

Do you have to put the personal career aspirations aside while you are on tour, or as you’re preparing for it?
Definitely.  Celtic Woman is my full-time career. Maybe I could bring more solo work into the future, but I feel like with the year ahead in 2022, there’s no time for it. Definitely it is something that I will do more off when I leave Celtic Woman, but honestly, I just want to, and have always wanted to, just completely throw myself into the Celtic Woman experience, just taking in every moment. We are away so much when we’re touring, time at home is precious.

We are touring from mid-February until June, so I’ll have July – at that time, I just want to be with family.  I wouldn’t want to be starting off on my own tour somewhere else back-to-back.

So, for three and a half months we are in the States, but my husband actually works in America, so he’s so leaving at the end of this week, so that means we will have another month apart before I even start touring; so time together is precious. He is a piano professor in the Shenandoah Conservatory in Virginia

Do you guys have like mad jam sessions at home?
No, we really don’t!  I’ve been like trying to get him to play with me a lot recently, but we just end up doing other things, like watching Netflix or going for nice walks, which I also love, but it’s funny, you would think that we’d always be playing together.

We definitely have plans for the future. We want to release an album together at some point, and we’ve tried composing some music together, so that’s in the pipeline for the future.

You can see the feedback energizes you, the give and take with your audience.  
I just I love it. Every show is different because every audience is different; they have different favorites in the show. We just never know how they’re going to react.

What is the memory that endures, those moments where you really said, wow, that is something that has shaped me, or that I will always remember?
Definitely the Red Rock shows have always stayed with me. A lot of Celtic Woman shows would be indoors, in theaters, but there, having the wind blowing our dresses back, blowing the hair back, and me actually trying to remember, having to push down my bow onto the strings because the wind was trying to blow my bow away!  Three years ago, there was even a lightning storm happening behind us in the sky; some of the fans took photos, videos; we didn’t even know it was happening. I was running across the stage and then there was lightning strikes everywhere; it was incredible.  

In this journey of six years or seven years now, what are some of the most surprising things to you?
I suppose it’s the thing that’s really important is the friendships that I’ve made through Celtic Woman, like these women who have become my sisters, my family.  You are with them sometimes more than your own family. You are out on the road six months of the year or more, and especially that four month period in the states in spring. 

You really get to know these people; I’ve been so lucky to make friends that I know I will have for the rest of my life; I know will always be there for me no matter what. Even the newest member, Muirgen O’Mahoney, she is just the sweetest and most beautiful woman in the world, I cannot wait to get on tour with her because I just know we’re going to get on so well; we’re going to have such great times.  

It is tough; it’s hard work, but having these women around you is a life-saver, they understand your experience more than say the guitar player.

I have definitely traveled the world more with Celtic Woman than I ever would have with anybody else. I got to see places that I wouldn’t have; I have travelled to six continents.  
I adore travel, I adore seeing the world. A lot of the time, we don’t quite get to see as much as we would like because we’re on to the next city after the show, but I’ve had some amazing times: Australia, got to climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge, got to see the Opera House. I am going to see China, Japan, amazing places.

My very first show ever with Celtic Woman was in Johannesburg, South Africa; that was quite a debut. I have gotten to see more of the States than my own American husband.  The experiences of just being around the world, I am very grateful to Celtic Woman for that.  I encourage people to do that as much as possible when you’re younger because later, your family, all those kinds of things, it gets harder.

For someone that has the same dream, of being in Celtic Women, what advice would you give?
My advice for a future Celtic Woman would be to try and take in as much as you possibly can.  It is an incredible time, but it can’t last forever.  Take in every moment, appreciate every day, be filled with gratitude for being able to make music for your career, to bring music to people all over the world, especially people from your own homeland.

Be filled with gratitude for being an ambassador for Irish women and Irish musicians; I feel strongly that to be proud of being a woman performing on stage with these other incredibly talented women [is important].

What I think is amazing about Irish music is that people connect to it no matter where we are in the world.  Definitely in America people really relate to it because there are so many with an Irish heritage, but then we go somewhere like China and I think, how are these people feeling this music like we do?

The thing is, Irish music is all about love, and loss, like leaving home, losing the family and losing loved ones. So much of Irish music is just melody, and these melodies carry much weight and history, and they tell the story without words, so in that way, the universal language is music. People feel that no matter where they are. I think that is why people love our music, no matter where they are.  

Postcards from Ireland Tour has eighty-four shows in North America. Check for more info, CD’s, DVD’s, music and merch.
*John is the Publisher and Editor of  iIrish, a spokesman, emcee and author of five books. He can be reached at [email protected] or @Jobjr

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