B efore she was organizing her days around ukulele lessons and booking gigs with her band, Liz McNicholl was a temp at Memorial Sloane-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, having recently moved to the United States from County Meath, Ireland.
It’s a surprising detail if you know McNicholl, a familiar face—and voice—to children and adults alike in the New Haven arts scene. Music seems so ingrained in every aspect of her life that it’s hard to imagine her doing something else.
But all stories start somewhere. For McNicholl, leaving her beloved Ireland in 1985 and coming to America was the “once upon a time” introduction of what turned out to be something like a fairytale.
Her professional life in music began when she left the job at the medical center to spend more time with her young sons, scheduling shows at bars and other venues to earn a little extra money and quickly establishing herself as a respected musician. Given the surplus of aspiring singer-songwriters in this country, that’s impressive enough. Things, however, were about to get better—and way busier—for McNicholl.
She and her husband relocated their family to Connecticut where she took a job managing the Fairfield County office of Music Together, a program that offers musical education classes for young children all over the country. She attended a training session in order to better understand the organization’s philosophy, but it ended up affecting her much more deeply than that. Not only did she learn the benefits of teaching music to kids during early childhood, but she realized she wanted to do it herself.
“I called my husband and said, ‘Okay, this is what I’m going to do forever,’” she remembers. Easier said than done, as all those who have uttered those same words know, but McNicholl meant it.
She began teaching classes, eventually taking over the New Haven Music Together program, which she’s since expanded to nearly 25 classes in the area, including in Woodbridge, Madison, Branford and Hamden, where she lives today, and managing six teachers beside herself while owning two teaching studios. Along the way, she established an umbrella entity called “Musical Folk,” which encompasses an expansion into classes for older ages too.
The national Music Together program—now celebrating its 25th anniversary—proceeds from the simple premise that all children, even at very young ages, are musical; that they can learn to sing in tune and keep a beat, and Musical Folk carries that forward. But learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Adult participation is key at the mixed-age, weekly classes; moms and dads are encouraged to participate—singing in rounds or dramatically dancing with colorful scarves while their children do the same.
“Parents are the biggest role models,” says McNicholl. While some children take part readily, singing loud and banging a drum, others may simply observe, tucking away that knowledge for later.
Indeed, McNicholl believes introducing music to the newborn-to-five-year-old set has lifelong benefits, and that while people often talk of “talent,” music is truly a learned skill, applicable to the youngest among us. “It’s as much their birthright as walking and talking,” she says.
Her enthusiasm is undoubtedly one of the reasons Music Together classes in the New Haven area fill up so quickly, meaning McNicholl is looking for even more teachers to add to the roster.
True to her personality, she’s busy but looking to do even more. She already teaches ukulele and guitar, and excitedly discusses expanding those classes and diversifying the instruction offered, perhaps adding violin. Plans for a children’s dance class and Music Together for children with developmental delays are in the works with some of her teachers, who McNicholl constantly credits for the business’s success.
In terms of access (classes can run $220 per semester, complete with CDs, a music book and other materials, costing less for returning families and siblings), “I’d never turn away someone who wants to do this,” says McNicholl, who is considering starting a scholarship program.
Still, she makes time to return to her roots, playing solo and with her band, The Crickstones, at venues including The Playwright in Hamden and McLaughlin Vineyards in Sandy Hook. She’s released an album with the band and two on her own. She hasn’t written music for some time, but hopes that someday life will calm down enough for her to do it again.
“I never dreamed that I’d own my own business when I came to America,” she says, and then pauses, worried that she sounds overly sentimental. Which she doesn’t. “People here take it for granted,” she adds, “but if you put your mind to it, you can achieve it.”
Achieved it she has, although this fairytale is far from over. If life ever does calm down for McNicholl, it seems she’ll have plenty to sing about.
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Written and photographed by Cara McDonough.