Arts & Entertainment

Local Teacher & Irish Performer Builds Communities with Music

Maddy O’Neill-Dean makes music with two young performers. She teaches Music Together classes, instructing children from birth to 5 years in singing, dancing, and playing instruments. (Courtesy Photo)
Maddy O’Neill-Dean makes music with two young performers. She teaches Music Together classes, instructing children from birth to 5 years in singing, dancing, and playing instruments. (Courtesy Photo)

Maddy O’Neill-Dean considers herself a community builder. Locally she’s known for being a children’s music instructor and an Irish music performer, and she feels those roles involve bringing people joyfully together. (And it’s a special thing to O’Neill-Dean that March marks both Sing With Your Child month and the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day.)

She leads Music Together classes for young children and their caregivers at the Falls Church Community Center. She’s also given several Irish music performances in the City – in Celtic concerts at the Cherry Hill Farmhouse and for the City’s summer Concerts in the Park series – and she is chair of the D.C. area chapter of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireanne, which promotes Irish music, language, and culture.

“It’s about getting together. It’s about being together. It’s about making music together, and dancing together,” O’Neill-Dean says, “and just having fun together.”

She’ll be wearing both hats at her free live-music event this Sunday, March 30, at the Falls Church Community Center. From 1:30 – 2:30 p.m., she’ll lead a sing-along with dancing for young children and their families, and she plans to integrate Irish music into the program she’ll play.

Usually in her classes she sticks to the songs provided by Music Together, but the Irish music she grew up with still comes into her classroom. This semester her curriculum includes “Follow Me Down to Carlow,” based on an old Irish folk song; she’s pleased when the parents say it’s their child’s favorite. Last week she brought a bodhrán, a drum traditional to Irish music, into class.

Growing up in an Irish household, music was a significant part of her early development – from piano lessons to step-dancing classes, her early education included much musical instruction. She raised three children, and passed the music bug on to them. Her two sons have performed in bands with her; one is a musician and the other is a stand-up comic. Her daughter became a psychologist; O’Neill-Dean gave her daughter’s husband a guitar to welcome him into the family.

She knows that sharing music can be a bonding experience, which on a personal level makes the work she does important to her.

In her 14 years as a Music Together instructor, she’s shared music with thousands of children. The curriculum she teaches is based on scientific research into child development which shows that even young children are ready to learn music and can benefit from engaging in musical activities, she says. Babies in the class, just a few months old, stare unblinkingly at her and she knows they’re absorbing the music. In a couple of years, they’ll be able to sing all the songs. In a couple more years, they’ll be offering constructive ideas to the class. The students learn at their own pace, O’Neill-Dean says. There is no pressure to have practiced beforehand or to perform well; they are invited to have fun.

But she’s not just teaching the children, O’Neill-Dean says. She’s teaching the parents as well. Sometimes she’s reforming their ideas about making music. Some parents believe they need to have skill to sing with their child, and shouldn’t otherwise. But that’s not so, says O’Neill-Dean.

“Even though you think you can’t sing, it’s just you and the four walls at home, so sing with your children,” O’Neill-Dean says. “They’ll never forget it. And it will bring back your own memories of what you shared with your parents in your earliest years.”

Those musical memories and shared experiences, she says, will become all the more important as those small children grow.

“One of the things that we know about music is that it’s really a heartfelt experience between all of us, but particularly between parents and their children,” O’Neill-Dean says.