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Have accordion, been to Ireland

Dan Gurney and his accordion. PHOTO: Danny Diamond

A Music concentrator who lived in Cabot House, accordionist Dan Gurney ’09 received a 2006-07 Artist Development Fellowship sponsored by the Office for the Arts and Office of Career Services, which helped support an apprenticeship with Irish accordion master Joe Derrane. A three-time U.S. National Champion for accordion (2002, 2004 and 2006), Dan has appeared on Public Radio International, at the International Accordion Festival, and has won nine medals at various Fleadh Cheoil music competitions. Harvard Arts Beat asked Dan to check in about his music career, which just got a boost with the release of his first CD, “Traditional Irish Music on the Button Accordion,” featuring Brian McGrath on piano.

When I was a senior at Harvard, my job prospects were not looking good. As an aspiring accordion player and entrepreneur, I knew that I would probably end up making my own career. But where to start? How to get some initial momentum?

Luckily, just a few short months before graduation, I was bailed out by receiving the Henry Russell Shaw Summer Fellowship. My project was to travel to Ireland and expand my knowledge of traditional Irish music. I had been playing Irish music for my whole life, but still I was missing some essential “spark” — the nyah as it’s termed in Irish. I needed a bit of wildness and unpredictability. The Shaw Fellowship gave me the chance to find it.

So after a sunny graduation ceremony at Cabot House, I set off for Europe with a backpack and an accordion case. By August I had settled in Galway, technically Ireland’s fourth-largest city—although it more resembles a medieval fishing town—and I began to meet the small army of musicians there.

Through a serendipitous turn of events, I got a part-time job at a music shop, right in the center of town. This was one of Ireland’s last traditional music shops and it had been in the same family for generations. As it happens, one of my co-workers was a fantastic musician, and as we worked behind the counter, we listened to album after album on the threadbare speaker system. Other musicians came through frequently, and I soon was acquainted with most of the local scene.

For the entire year, when I wasn’t eating (bacon and cabbage), breathing (salty sea air) or drinking (well…it’s Ireland), I was playing accordion. Galway had traditional music sessions—informal gatherings of musicians—every day of the week, and I went to all of them. At first I had to prove that I wasn’t just another clueless American making mincemeat out of the music; but soon enough I was being asked to lead the sessions alongside some of Ireland’s most famous musicians.

The combination of environment and people I found in Ireland prompted significant changes in both my worldview and my music, giving me some much-needed context for my own decisions. I have to thank Harvard and the Shaw Fellowship for making it happen.

And that year led directly to my two current projects: a live streaming concert startup called Concert Window, and my debut album of accordion music. I suppose you could say that I almost have a job.

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