Cleveland Comhrá (Conversation): Brian Bigley
by Bob Carney
Brian Bigley is a musician, craftsman, dancer and, along with his wife Kristen, producer of “Tomáseen Foley’s A Celtic Christmas.” We had a chance to talk with Brian about the upcoming production of “A Celtic Christmas” and his music.
OhioIANews: How did you become involved in Irish music and dance?
Brian: I grew up in Lakewood, across the street from the Sheridan Family, they would have sessions in their home once in a while. I remember being very young and being at their house with everyone playing music, there was a great sense of comradery and community that went on there. My mother took us to a production of “Finian’s Rainbow” that my neighbors danced in during the show and they got a great response. It was a really cool moment and became very formative for me. To be part of something like that is what I’ve tried to do since then.
OhioIANews: Where did you study dance?
Brian: With Kathy Leneghan in my later years. I started out with Bobby Masterson. I went to Nationals a couple of times and did okay, I’m really grateful to them. To bring things full circle, my son started with Kathy this summer, he’s five, my daughter who’s three started ballet, it’s become a family affair!
OhioIANews: Kristen is a musician as well.
Brian: She is a classically trained violinist, but also plays Irish and Scottish, she was into the Cape Breton style when she was in college. That’s how we met, I was in a band with Jim Stamper and we were looking for a fiddle player. Jim and Tom Harris invited her to The Plank Road Tavern so we could check her out. Little did I know it was a set up, I gave her my card and when I didn’t hear from her after a week or so, I reached out to her and the rest is history as they say!
OhioIANews: What interested you in the Uilleann Pipes? There are much more accessible traditional Irish instruments that you could have studied.
Brian: I’ve always loved seeing the Scottish Pipes at the parades and festivals, I don’t know why it didn’t cross my mind to learn them. In the back of my mind, there was a different kind of pipes I could hear, maybe from a recording or something. I was at a function at the WSIA and Michael Kilbane was on stage with his wife and a few other musicians, he was playing the pipes and I told my mother that’s what I wanted to play. I was six or seven then. My mother is great, she’s always been very supportive of us playing music or dancing. After the show she asked Michael if he would be willing to teach me. He said he’d be happy to, turned out he lived just north of us in Lakewood. I also remember hearing a recording by Paddy Keenan and Arty McGlynn, I was entranced by the sound coming from the speakers. I had to figure out how to play these things professionally.
OhioIANews: You build pipes, how did that start?
Brian: I started playing out at places like The Harp and O’Neills, I realized shortly after I would have to be able to maintain the pipes myself to play in any professional capacity. I learned how to make reeds from Michael Brennan, I was sixteen or so at the time. That was important, because when I was twenty, I got a call from a guy named Tomáseen Foley, who’s an Irish storyteller. He was looking for a piper for his Christmas show, “A Celtic Christmas”. In my conversation with him, I told him I’d been playing since I was seven and was also working with a pipe maker named Seth Gallagher. He’d worked with enough pipers to know the difficulties in keeping pipes tuned, especially when traveling with humidity and so forth. I think that helped me get the position and twelve years since then I’ve been touring with him.
OhioIANews: How did you and Kristen become invoved in producing the show?
Brian: Kris and I started producing the show here in Medina three years ago in order to bring the show here. Our first venue was a place called The Skyview Lodge, it was a good experience, we had never done anything like that before. It was a bigger investment with a lot more risk going on. We were hoping for 100-150 people and ended up with 250. After that show we moved to The Medina Performing Arts and the audience has been growing, we had 950 attend last year and are looking to sell out this year. In addition to A Celtic Christmas, we will have a new show called The Rambling House that will premier in March at the same location featuring many of the performers from A Celtic Christmas. We hope to bring that same intimacy and sense of community to that production as well. Since I became involved in Tom’s Christmas show, which is now a big part of our family’s Christmas tradition, that intimacy and community, that’s what I really want to be a part of.
OhioIANews: Where else does the tour take you?
Brian: We start off in Florida, then back here to Medina, out to the west coast and finish at the Met Museum in New York City. I also have a couple of gigs with Apollo’s Fire here in between dates with the Christmas show. The pipes lend themselves to more of a fine arts setting and Apollo’s Fire is a truly great group to work with.
OhioIANews: Tell us about Bigley Music Workshop.
Brian: That is the company Kristen and I established which includes the production co., the pipe making business, currently the customer list is a year long, Kristen’s teaching violin and our playing as well. We’re very excited about that and the direction we going in.
Tomáseen Foley’s A Celtic Christmas has become a tradition in my family as well. Tomáseen is a master storyteller, his tales of life in rural Ireland transports you to a different time and place, all while delivering the meaning of Christmas to those of us present. Add to that, brilliant performances by truly gifted dancers and musicians, and you have a memorable and magical night. See you there!
*Bob Carney is a student of Iirsh history and language and teaches the Speak Irish Cleveland class held every Tuesday @Pj McIntyre’s. He is also active in the Irish Wolfhounds and Irish dogs organizations in and around Cleveland. Wife Mary and hounds Moragon and Keegan and terrier Doolin keep the house jumping. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.