Just in case you have any doubt what Mary Kay Mann’s musical interests might be, your first clue might be the tiny wooden figure of Mann playing a Celtic harp on the mailbox outside her home, down a narrow tree-lined street in Media.
Step inside the house and you’re greeted by Celtic harps in the living room, which she uses for teaching.
You’re also greeted by her cats, Muffin and Bob. Muffin isn’t allowed on the table, but she leaps up to greet me, anyway.
Mann teaches Celtic harp, but she also teaches tin whistle and Irish flute, both traditional instruments. She also sings. And hailing back to her musical origins, she also teaches classical flute. Mann also performs.
“I always wanted to play music since I was 2 years old or something,” says Mann. “When we moved to the public school district, I was around 10 and they had classical flute lessons for free so I started with that.”
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Mary Kay Mann
If an 11-year-old could compete in the world championships of Irish traditional music, harpist Mary Kay Mann reasoned, then so could she.
In this case, the then-fifth grader was Keegan Loesel, who took up the tin whistle at about 5 years old, and Mann was his teacher. Keegan is one of a small posse of incredibly talented local kids who have competed at the Fleadh Cheoil (pronounced flah KEE-ohl) on one or more occasions. Keegan put his skills to the test last year in County Cavan, Ireland, where the Fleadh was held.
Keegan played well but didn’t place in the under-12 whistle event, but it takes incredible talent, discipline and determination to get even that far. Inspired by her student, Mann decided to give it a shot.
Give it a shot she did … and even better than that: She came in third in over-18 slow airs.
It wasn’t easy. Unlike the local Fleadh kids, Mann, who lives in Media, has grown-up responsibilities.
“I have a day job, and students, and gigs, and a lot of things going on,” she says. In order to compete and have a snowball’s chance in Ireland, Mann knew she would have to choose the event best suited to her talents.
“I chose slow airs. I would have to really work to compete with 16-year-olds on jigs. I thought that, as a person who is not exactly young, slow airs might be something I could do. Slow airs don’t take speed; they take maturity. They’re slow and emotional and not rhythmic, and they are ornamented. I could probably study them for the rest of my life. I like challenges like that.”
Even then, Mann says, it was tough going. In order to compete in Ireland, Mann needed to know eight slow airs, and her playing of those eight airs needed to be bulletproof. “It takes a lot of time,” Mann says. “Once you get there, you have to play three of them … except that you don’t know which three, so you have to prepare all of them.”
Unlike other Fleadh contests, which can attract large numbers of contestants, over-18 slow airs for harp drew only six contestants. Mann thinks that might have improved her odds, but all the same—all six players were world-class.
“I think I was the only American … and these girls were incredible. Really young and really good. They’re driven, they’re self-driven, they practice all the time, and they love it.”
To her surprise, Mann more than held her own. But that’s not to suggest her third place medal was some kind of fluke. Mann, who took up Celtic harp in the mid-1990s, has always been a deeply committed performer and teacher, with a bachelor’s degree in instrumental music education. She already played classical flute and piano before she added the Celtic harp to her repertoire. (She also plays tin whistle.)
As for how Mann got her start, she blames another well-known local harpist, Ellen Tepper. “”I was playing flute in a duo with her, and at one point she just handed me the harp and said, ‘Try this, it’s easy.'”
It wasn’t all that easy, but it wasn’t all that hard, either. Celtic harp is often taught “by ear,” without aid of sheet music.
For Mann, that was just fine.
“I already played piano by ear,” Mann says. “I had already learned how to do that before I transitioned to the harp. It’s fun without all the little dots on the page. And it really is nice to start when you are older because you sound decent right away. If you started on fiddle, you’d probably sound pretty bad, but a lot of people start learning harp in midlife because it’s gratifying right away.”
After years of learning and trying to perfect her craft, competing and placing at the Fleadh is icing on the cake. For now, Mann is content to return to her teaching and performing life. She’s not sure the Fleadh experience she will repeat any time soon. “It costs a lot of money. I didn’t do benefit concerts; I had to pay for it. It’s a lot of money and time … and it’s exhausting.”