Music Is Always In My Head

Mairéad Hickey – winner of the Catherine Judge Memorial Award 2015

Mairéad Hickey – winner of the Catherine Judge Memorial Award 2015

Do you come from a musical family?

Well my dad plays Irish music. He plays the banjo, the guitar and a few other instruments. His mother, my grandmother, she was a fiddle player from Arklow. Her name was Marie Hickey and she took up the fiddle at the age of six and learned from Pat Mulhall. I used to listen to her playing when I was young. My Dad wanted me to play music and I chose the violin because she played it – it’s a nice instrument any way!

When did you start playing?

Just before I turned three years old, I started playing. I started on a 16th size which is the second-smallest size you can get. It was a friend of the family who gave it to me. Then there was a teacher – Jyrki Pietila, originally from Finland – who was brilliant and who specialised in working with really young children so everything fell into place. From the age of three, I performed with my father in hospitals and care homes. I also played in concerts and on local television.

Click here to hear Mairéad perform

You’re from Cork by way of Bermuda – how did that happen?

Well I lived in Bermuda until I was seven when we moved back to Cork. Bermuda is a British Overseas Territory in the North Atlantic Ocean located 640 miles of the east coast of the United States. My parents were working there. My Mum was a lawyer and my Dad was working in maintenance at a local hotel. Both my parents grew up in England but my Dad’s parents were Irish and he always wanted to move back to Ireland.

What do you remember of your childhood in Bermuda?

I remember the sun and the sand! The island is very small and the music scene is even smaller but there was a good Suzuki school of music there. My dad taught me Irish music as nobody was teaching it over there.

So what happened when you came to Cork?

I was 7 years old when we moved. I went to St Catherine’s National School and became a pupil of Adrian Petcu at CIT Cork School of Music. I won my first big international competition in May 2012 at the 19th Jeunesses International Violin Competition, Bucharest, Romania.

How much time and effort do you put into practising?

I usually practise around 5 hours a day, sometimes more. It’s a full-time job but you can’t leave it at the office. Music is always in my head.

What kind of sacrifices did you have to make?

I realised when I was young that if there were a birthday party at the same time as a lesson I had to choose the lesson. Later, I couldn’t always go out with my friends if I had to practise. Playing an instrument requires a lot of time and dedication. I just decided that it was worth the sacrifices and I ended up meeting lots of new friends all over the world through music.

Mairéad Hickey receiving the Catherine Judge Memorial Award 2015

You’re now in Kronberg Academy (near Frankfurt) in Germany?

In 2013 I participated in Kronberg Academy’s Violin Masterclasses. Since October 2014, I’ve been studying as a Young Soloist there with my teacher Mihaela Martin. My studies are sponsored by the Hilmar Kopper-Stipendium.

Tell me about how you got to Carnegie Hall

I auditioned in the Academy in Dublin for Dr Julie Jordan from the New York Concerti Sinfonietta. I played a movement from the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto for her and she invited me to play with her orchestra in Carnegie Hall.

What kind of a career would you like to have?

I don’t really know yet. I enjoy performing as a soloist and I really love to play chamber music so I’ll have to see how everything goes.

I believe it is important to share music with as many people as possible. Some people say that classical music is under threat. As musicians we can play our part in keeping classical music alive, but we need more support from governments and others. I am organising the Ortús Chamber Music Festival with another Cork musicians Sinéad O’Halloran in February 2016. With four other young Irish musicians will perform and do educational and outreach work. Details of the festival can be found on

What is the best thing about having music as your life?

I get so much enjoyment out of playing fantastic masterpieces and discovering new works. I especially enjoy meeting people from all over the world and experiencing different cultures. I have met so many wonderful friends through music. We can all understand the music even if we don’t speak the same language.

And the worst thing?

It can be very lonely as you are often on your own in a room practising for most of the day. So, yes, it can be tough. You never know what’s going to happen next. It’s not a secure job and it can be quite stressful.

How competitive is music?

It’s very competitive, especially for young musicians because there are so many top quality musicians all over the world competing for few places. You have to push yourself because nobody else can do it for you.

Trad versus classical music – which do you prefer?

I can’t choose. Trad is a lot more laid back and I love going to festivals and playing in sessions with my friends. It’s not as competitive as classical music and people play to have a good time and to keep the tradition alive. Classical is a different type of enjoyment. Preparation for performances can be very serious and intense but you can get great satisfaction when you perform in the end.

How aware are you of the audience when you play?

I know they’re there! They wouldn’t put me off. I usually play a lot better in front of an audience because you have this adrenalin which a lot of people mistake for nerves but it gives you more energy and concentration which helps with the performance.

Is there anyone you want to particularly thank?

Yes. My traditional fiddle teacher Connie O’Connell, a wonderful player from Co. Cork. I’d also like to say a huge thank you to CIT Cork School of Music for the constant support they have given me and especially to my teacher Adrian Petcu

The 2016 Catherine Judge competition is now open. The winner will receive a bursary of £5000/€6800 towards their studies and the school or society they come from will receive £1000/€1400 for the purchase of a musical instrument. See for more details.