Fergus Brown-O'Byrne is a local musician, private music teacher and member of the band The Freels. He completed his undergraduate degree in 2008 and his masters in 2011 through the philosophy department at Memorial University. After being involved with a few album projects, including a family project in Ireland, Fergus and the Freels released their self-titled album “The Freels” at the end of 2014.
How and why did you decide to attend Memorial for your undergraduate degree?
Memorial offered a number of great program opportunities. Staying in my home province allowed me continue to be a part of the local music scene which was certainly a motivating factor
What drew you to study philosophy? What is the connection, if any, to your work as a traditional musician?
I was drawn to the people in the department. Of all the classes I was taking in my first year, the philosophy professors showed the most passion for the material they were teaching and were committed to engaging their students. It was largely unrelated to my interest in music.
Do any particular memories stand out from your time here as an undergraduate student?
The numerous interesting conversations that I had with different people. Philosophy students are often imagined sitting in a room by themselves with their nose in a book. While there was no shortage of that they also love to debate and argue over just about anything. Sometimes it was fascinating and other times hilarious.
What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Do everything in moderation, including moderation.
You are one of the foremost traditional instrumentalists around St. John’s and have worked as a soloist and as a member of a band. Your father (Fergus O’Bryne) must have been a huge influence but what is it about traditional music that appeals to you so much? Did you have an “aha” moment with music that made you want to do it for a living?
I don't think most people make the conscious decision for music to become a career. When it is important enough to someone they put in the work and the time hoping they can stay busy enough for it to be a full time job. That said, teaching music privately is an incredibly rewarding experience. It is exciting to see students go from following directions to getting creative and applying what they've learned.
You’re now a member of The Freels, playing accordion and concertina – how did you end up joining that band? Can you tell us about the new album?
I was hosting a regular session with Danny Mills, the flute player with The Freels. I had the opportunity to see the band play and quite enjoyed it. A couple of years ago the band was doing a show and Danny asked if I was interested in joining the band for a few tunes. I happily accepted the offer. The show was a big success. Playing with the band felt good and the addition of the concertina added a unique dynamic to the group. Talking about the set after the show, we decided on the spot I would be a permanent addition.
The decision to record an album was influenced by the career plans of some of the band members. With two people going off to school for a year in Europe, we had a narrow window to capture the sound and the energy of the band at that moment in time. We had been performing more often and were comfortable with our overall sound. Not wanting to lose that energy after a year apart, we chose material that would be a good representation of the band at the time of recording while also chronicling the evolution of the band. The project was a great success.
What’s the most difficult thing about being a full time musician? And the best?
The hardest thing is actually being a full time musician. Staying busy enough to earn a solid income is certainly a challenge. The best thing for me is actually playing music. The logistics of a concert, CD project and rehearsals is typically a lot of work. The actual performance, while also demanding in its own way, is a good release of energy.
You teach music as well – what sort of people come to you for lessons? Are they young, old – do they have something in common? Do you have a teaching philosophy?
I have students as young as 6 or 7, into their 70s and everything in between. No two students are alike but they do share a curiosity about music. I find people go into lessons looking to learn a particular song or skill and pick up many others throughout the process.
My approach to teaching music is to treat it like a collection of skills instead of a single skill. People claiming to have no natural musical talent often have a number of skills that are very important in learning to play an instrument. I find the strengths of an individual and use those as a foundation to develop other skills.
What advice would you give a student starting out who is unsure of what to study?
Explore a variety of subjects early on to figure out what inspires you while assessing your strengths. Making good education and career decisions is much easier with that information available to you.
Did a concern over money or future job opportunities ever conflict with your interest in music as a career?
It is less of a conflict than a constant consideration. I love music but maintain a number of other interests. It is possible to have a dual career with music of course. Many people work and also perform and teach.
What would people be most surprised to learn about you?
Most people are surprised when they find out I studied philosophy and not music at university.
What are you reading and listening to these days?
Lately I have had the good fortune to listen to a lot of great live session music. Nothing beats the energy of good live music. I'm usually reading articles on a number of topics. Having just put out a CD and knowing the work that went into it I have to mention a book by a former classmate I've been working through: Ontological Catastrophe: Žižek and the Paradoxical Metaphysics of German Idealism by Joseph Carew
What are you most looking forward to in 2015?
Another year with my students is always something to look forward to. With the successful completion of the album last year, which took considerable time and work, I'm excited about getting back into some other projects that were put on hold last year.