Seamless learning from the musical tailor

Joe McNamee meets an exceptional man whose use of technology and music is transforming exceptional people’s lives

THE tailor’s studio up several dark flights of narrow stairs in an old five-storey redbrick in the heart of Cork city, a ceiling so low, anyone over six foot instinctively ducks.

One third of the room is taken up with racks of clothing awaiting alteration or collection, the rest is cluttered with tables, benches, chairs, sewing machines, steam presses. Scissors, measuring tapes, needles, thread, blades, pins, tailor’s chalk are heaped in various little piles on worktops, always to hand.

Though a low, small, circular window provides little natural light, it funnels in an endless cacophony of noise and fumes from the streets outside. One might close it but that would be shutting off the only source of air to be had in the little room. The temperature outside is in the high teens, inside, a thermometer on the wall is hitting 30. Subtract some of the more obviously modern equipment and Charles Dickens could be a client.

Sitting facing a client, is the tailor, a slight neat man in his 50s. But there is no fitting or measuring taking place, both the tailor and his client cradle guitars. The tailor improvises a fluid jazzy run up the fretboard, the young client, faltering, attempts the same. The tailor gently corrects him, starts again. Aha, the tailor is giving a music lesson in his studio! How unusual, how quirky, you are charmed. But you haven’t heard the half of it — Tom ‘Tommy Tucker’ Mulcahy, is quite an exceptional man. Mind you, he believes all dyslexics are exceptional. They have to be, to survive and even prosper.

Tom was born in Tipperary town in 1955. “I learned to play the tin whistle at school, aged 11 or 12,” says Tom, “and I was good at it — it was the first time I was better at something than my friends. For once, I felt kind of equal because I struggled all the way, never passed an exam. My brothers were clever, I was classed as ‘lazy’. One Christian Brother used to call me up everyday to read, to make an example of me, knowing I couldn’t read. The sweat used to be pouring off me. I developed a stammer, I used to bite my tongue and the class used to be roaring laughing. That was nightmare stuff, you never get rid of that memory throughout your life.”

In sixth class, he failed the now-defunct Primary Cert. “It was very frustrating, I kicked doors, I broke a few windows, that was a huge thing, it stays with you.”

He was shunted from pillar to post, ending up in vocational school. “At that stage I was not being taught at all, other than by a very special teacher, a young Galway woman, Nora Kearney, who gave me a lifelong love of English literature and language.” But it was too little, too late — when offered an apprenticeship as a tailor with his uncle in the town, he accepted gratefully.

He thrived, picking up the trade in a flash. His uncle, also a musician, played the radio all day in the studio, the big bands, Glen Miller, Louis Armstrong. Tom got his first guitar at 15. He got into folk music, trad, Bob Dylan, and began playing with local bands.

“I latched onto the music pretty fast, started playing banjo. I was pretty good in a small town but then I went to America.”

Moving to Philadelphia in the early 70s, he easily picked up tailoring work, busking in his spare time and falling in with other musicians. He pulls down an old but very carefully preserved Chuck Mangione t-shirt from a shelf. “I went to a concert one night and this little guy came out with a flugelhorn and started playing and that was me hooked, the musicians were incredible, I just sat there, blown away. I bought this t-shirt that night.”

That first encounter with the jazz legend set him on a new path. “I taught an American guy Irish tunes and he taught me jazz.” He returned for a holiday in 1979 and never went back. “If I hadn’t, I’d probably still be there but it’s a different way of life here, the music, the camaraderie and I missed it.” After a year or so, he wound up in Cork where his fiancée worked. Was she another reason for his return from the US? “Could have been a bit of that too,” he grins. Though he still played with folk bands he now considered himself a jazz student preparing for a public audience, but the more he encountered musical notation, the more apparent his learning difficulties became. Eventually tested in 1997, he was diagnosed dyslexic.

“That was really emotional, it was hard to describe. I was angry. I was relieved that I wasn’t stupid. I felt resentful for a lot of the wasted years — it took a while to get over that until I just let go of it. Because I always knew I wasn’t stupid, I picked up tailoring, just like that, and music too.”

In 1997, Tom began formal studies in Dublin, travelling up and down from Cork. “I discovered a thing called a Slow Speed Transcriber which slows a passage of music without changing the key. That’s how I really started to learn, using technology.”

Then came the chance to parlay his studies into a place on Ireland’s first BA in Jazz, working four days in Cork, studying in Dublin for three days a week, for a full year. “It nearly killed me.” But he graduated with honours, following it with an honours MA and was offered a part-time teaching post in the UCC Jazz Department. “To go from a kid who never passed an exam to teaching in university — that’s when my life really started to change, the kick I got out of it. And I found I really loved teaching because I can sense when a guy doesn’t know something. I was just left in the class, just passed by and when I found someone who didn’t know something, I’d stay with him.”

While researching a possible PhD, Tom came across Interactive Metronome (IM). As a dyslexic and a musician (for whom timing is all important), he recognised its potential immediately. He put the doctorate on hold and travelled to the US to purchase the necessary equipment and do training.

Today, 23-year-old Mel is peering intently at a screen, clapping hands together in time with an audio signal coming over headphones. Schooldays were a constant struggle for Mel and those same difficulties are persisting at third-level and often in the world beyond. He is very excited by the possibilities IM offers and Tom’s response is a mixture of deep empathy and a very obvious delight at being able to offer the kind of help he would have loved at the same age. Mel, responding with incredulous enthusiasm, appears to be undergoing some sort of revelation. Tom likes to compare a brain to a filing cabinet. “When it’s working well, a person knows where to retrieve information but people with dyslexia often look for the information but just can’t remember where they’ve stored it.”

“I’d love to play in an orchestra, I can never do that. I’d have loved to have joined a brass band as a kid, I feel I missed out on something, from a community point of view. But I don’t feel bitter, I got rid of all that, bitterness about a lot of things. Now, I consider myself lucky.”

Moving to the rhythm

Interactive Metronome users perform a series of rhythmic exercises designed to improve internal synchronisation, attempting to keep time using various combinations of hands and feet responding to audio tones and visual displays. It is particularly successful in treating children with learning difficulties such as ADHD, dyslexia, speech deficits and auditory processing problems. The audio-visual interface gives instant feedback and progress is measured in milliseconds, recorded and charted. A printout enables therapist and student to evaluate progress. “This is especially rewarding for the student,” says Tom.

Mary Byrne’s 11-year-old son, Brian, was diagnosed with dyslexia and low auditory processing ability.

Apart from praising Tom’s personal abilities to interact with and reassure her son and the levels of empathy he shows, the icing on the cake came when test time rolled around.

“I told Brian to bring home the books for the specific subjects but he said there was no need as he can ‘hear the teacher now’ and that he no longer ‘drifted off’.”



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