Local Faces: Neal Christopher
After being handed over the reigns by former Director of Clondalkin Youth Band, Vincent Dolan, at the Clondalkin St Patrick’s Day parade last week, Neal Christopher says it is “bittersweet” as he steps into his new role.
“I am looking forward to the opportunities that are ahead,” says Neal. “I have been involved with the band since 1998, so it means an awful lot and myself and Vincent have become very good friends over that period of time, so it is bittersweet in a way that he is retiring, but there are new opportunities, and I will still honour what Vincent has done with the band over the last 37 years.”
Neal initially joined the Clondalkin Youth Band 24 years ago to teach drums after being approached by Vincent, which proved to be a more special night than he could have imagined, as it was the night that he met his wife, Tara.
“The night I started a girl had started teaching the colour guard flags,” says Neal. “I knew who she was and I had met her before about ten or fifteen years beforehand and we met again through the band. We are now married, and we have three kids who are all in the band as well.
“The band has been a huge part of our lives and now it is a big part of our family life and the bigger family that we have in Clondalkin.”
Neal, who is originally from Newbawn Park in Tallaght, began marching in the Tallaght Youth Band with his family when he was ten years old, which formed his long-term love and passion for music.
Neal’s extended family were also musically gifted, with his cousin being American-born Irish singer songwriter, Mic Christopher, who was in the well-known band The Mary Janes and sadly passed away in 2001.
“When I was growing up my whole family was involved in the Tallaght Youth Band,” says Neal. “My mam and dad would have been on the committee and all of my brothers and sisters were in it as well, so music was always a big part of the family.”
Neal went on to teach music when he was just 18 as he was studying in the Royal Academy of Music and the College of Music and was playing freelance for various bands and orchestras before joining the Clondalkin Youth Band in 1998.
“I started off as a percussionist and just went on from there and enjoyed the teaching side of things and I have been doing it ever since,” says Neal.
“One of the nicest things I have seen whilst being in the band is a few years ago we were at a wedding of one of the kids that we had taught, and he had grown up and was getting married.
“The best man was also an ex-member of the band, and I hadn’t seen him in years and in his best man speech he said, ‘there’s a man here who shaped my life, and I want to thank him’ and I was gobsmacked. You really don’t realise the effect you have on young children.
“You start teaching kids usually when they are ten years old and they might be in the band until their mid-twenties, and you form a huge part of their life without realising it, so it was nice to hear that gratitude back from them.”
Speaking about what children learn from being in the band, Neal explains that it gives “a great grounding for life”.
“It doesn’t matter what you’re doing in life, if you have studied music for any period of time it gives a great discipline and grounding in life, without a doubt and you can take that on through adulthood.
“We brought the band all over the world and music is just the language of the world, you can bring it anywhere. I remember we were in Holland at the world championships, and we were in this room with loads of other bands and there was a band from Malaysia there.
“They didn’t have any English and we didn’t speak any Malay, but a couple of the kids got their instruments out and twenty minutes later there’s a full-on session going on with people dancing and singing. We would play a beat and they would play a beat – you can get on with anybody around the world with just music.”
When asked if there is one-stand out moment with the band over the last 24 years, Neal says although there has been many, playing the New York City St Patrick’s Day parade in 2003 holds a special place in his heart.
“That was a highlight for me – it was just magic,” he says. “I just had so much pride seeing the kids that I had been teaching on a world stage like that, it was incredible.”
Stepping into his new position as Director of Clondalkin Youth Band, Neal says he is “looking forward” to starting a new chapter as the band moves to a new premises as well.
“We had some issues with finding a new premises, but we have since found a new home in Coláiste Chilliain which is being finalised. Since we are moving on, it is like a whole new chapter.
“Packing up the band room last weekend it was very sad looking at the old pictures that we had and different memories, but we are moving forward now. One thing I found when we were reaching out to the people of Clondalkin and contacting local councillors and TDs was that everybody has such a high regard for the band and we never really realised it before, and that has been brilliant and the people of Clondalkin have been wonderful with all the help they have given us.
“I just want to thank Vincent for the friendship that we have, which is most important, and just for what he has done for Clondalkin and for the band. Thousands of kids have come through the doors over the years and he has affected the lives of every one of those children in a positive way and I hope to carry on that tradtition.”