Updated: Jul 13, 2019
Katie Grennan has traveled the world as an Irish dancer and musician with top professional touring productions for years and will not be slowing down any time soon…she was just announced as the new fiddle player for the popular Irish band, Gaelic Storm!
Katie began training as a classical violinist at four, started dancing lessons at eight, went on to place as a top dance competitor, earned her TCRG after college, recorded a solo album two years ago, recently completed her her Masters in Arts Management at Carnegie Mellon University with a focus on the performing arts and education outreach, and now at 29, is hitting the road with Gaelic Storm.
Katie has found a way to channel her passions into professional endeavors that she truly enjoys. She shares her abilities, talents and spirit as a teacher both in Chicago and Pittsburgh and continues to be a sought after performer.
We spoke with Katie about her journey and how patience, hard work and a little bit of karma can totally pay off.
How did you know you were done competing? Was it an easy transition?
“When I graduated high school, I felt I was not ready to stop dancing so decided to continue competing throughout college because I knew I eventually wanted to get my TCRG and hopefully perform in some professional shows. Therefore, I thought the best way to stay in shape for both of these endeavors was to stay current with steps and keep my fitness levels up. It was not always easy to balance staying in competition-ready shape while still maintaining a full course load and enjoy campus life - but I think it was a great way to learn how to prioritize and manage my time.
Luckily, at Notre Dame, there was a group of dancers who were still competing, so it made it easier and more fun to practice throughout the week. Striking a balance was key - and I learned I had to be okay with not attending each major that I had previously competed in. Once I graduated college, I wanted to go out on a high note and give one more competition a fair go, so competed in the NANs one last time. I ended up placing in the top 10, which was a great way to go out and then knew I was ready to move on to study for my TC and start to teach classes.”
How and why did you become an Irish musician?
“I have always loved Irish music, but I was trained as a classical musician growing up and did not have access to Irish fiddle instruction growing up in Pittsburgh. Starting at a young age, I would pick up a lot of the dance tunes or Irish songs I heard on albums by ear, play them around the house, and sometimes even compete at the feises in the music competitions. I could hardly have called myself an ‘Irish Musician’ back then though because I had no idea what proper fiddle technique was. It would be like a ballet dancer learning a treble jig from a video and dancing everything on time with turnout, but not having any of the ‘Irish dance’ style that makes it seem authentic.
It was only once I moved to Chicago post-college, where I was exposed to so much incredible Irish music, that I realized I wanted to pursue it more seriously. I was inspired by playing in ‘sessions’ (groups of musicians at pubs or restaurants open to anyone who can play an instrument) right along side many of the musicians I listened to on albums for years growing up, which gave me motivation to learn proper technique and retrain my style to be able to sound like an Irish player. I did get some lessons here and there and found many musicians in the community to be incredibly helpful, but I think I applied a lot the practice approach to my music that I learned as a dancer - not letting any section go by until it was as good as it could possibly be, and then doing it over and over and over again. I ended up spending hours upon hours after I would get home from work or on the weekends, slowing down each measure of the tunes and really reworking everything about my playing in order to sound the way I wanted to. You might say I became obsessed. I now get a lot of joy out of playing music for dancers and having the music come out of me with ease compared to when I first started my fiddling journey, where I was often frustrated by the disconnect between how I heard the music in my head and what as coming out of my instrument. Whether it be for competitions or shows, as a dancer myself, I feel I understand what types of tunes are most fun to dance to and believe that all dancers deserve good, inspiring music in order to dance their best.”
What would you recommend to others looking to pursue playing professionally?
“Do not be afraid to ask for help! I found so many of the musicians I looked up to to be so wonderfully helpful. A few of the people I considered to be the ‘greats’ took me under their wings and gave me a lot of advice about my playing and career - and I would never be where I am today if it was not for them. Some ideas might be approaching a feis musician you admire to mentor you - such as sending you a list of music that they play so you can learn it too and then sit in with them at feises and play alongside them until you feel comfortable. I did this off and on for years until I felt ready to play a stage of my own. Also, many Irish musicians, wherever they live, are open to giving instruction through Skype or FaceTime - so you might reach out to them online or in person if you happen to meet them. And if you are lucky enough to live in a city where there is a healthy Irish music scene, such as Chicago, New York, St. Louis, etc, immerse yourself as much as you can by going to Irish music sessions and learning from those around you. Approach it with purpose.
Also, do not be afraid to put yourself out there and fail. For every professional gig or compliment that I have gotten, I have been turned down by something else or received less than positive feedback from someone - and initially, it was fairly difficult to get on the feis and professional show/gig circuit as a relatively new player on the scene. However, making sure that you do not give up while continuing to develop your craft is critical. I remember reading a quote a few years ago by Steve Martin that got me through periods of disappointment and frustration with either my own playing or being passed over for certain opportunities – ‘Be so good they cannot ignore you’ - in the end, if you do consistently put the work in and do not give up, eventually I believe that karma will eventually come around in your favor.
Finally, remember perception and the image you project is a huge factor in the ‘real world’. Make sure that once you are at the point that you are ready to pursue professional opportunities that you project a professional image and allow people to actually know how to reach you. This includes having a website that looks good and explains who you are and what you do, having a social media presence that is appropriate, and being responsive to emails. Gigs will often not just come to you, especially when you are starting out. If you want to make a living (part or full time) as a musician, you have to hustle and create opportunities for yourself and also make certain sacrifices in other areas of your life. As a free lancing artist, never cancel on something you said you would do unless extreme circumstances come up, because word does get around and at the end of the day, people want to know they are hiring someone who can be relied upon.”