Pittsgrove 10-Year-Old Considered Musical Prodigy
She performs in New York tonight.
Winding between barstools scattered along the slate gray floor, the golden-haired, fair-skinned girl takes a seat alongside three middle-aged men. Unshaven and bleary-eyed, the musicians begin to play as 10-year-old Haley Richardson perches her fiddle beneath her chin.
Philadelphia Councilman Jim Kenney noticed “this little angel” immediately, he said. After watching Haley play at the Plough & the Stars in Old City, Kenny invited the fifth grader to be a part of a March city council meeting, where local government recognizes Philadelphia’s Irish heritage for the 22nd consecutive year.
“She is savant-like,” Kenney said of the Pittsgrove Township girl.
And the at-large councilmember is right.
When Haley was three years old, she taught herself how to read with a copy of “The Little House on the Prairie,” said Donna Richardson, mother of Haley and her two brothers, 15-year-old Dylan and 17-year-old Newt. Her daughter began speaking at four-months.
Neither Donna nor Haley’s father, Stewart, play instruments, although all three of their kids do. Dylan is an accomplished guitarist and also plays the mandolin and banjo. Newt is a percussionist. Both teenagers often join their sister in talent shows and music festivals.
Even more impressive, Haley has accompanied six-time Grammy Award winners, The Chieftans, in concert.
“She is on track to be one of the world renowned traditional fiddle players,” said Brian Conway, Haley’s teacher and a former all-Ireland Fleadh Cheoil fiddle champion.
In 2009, at only six years old, Haley placed first in the under-12 solo fiddle category of the MidAtlantic Fleadh Cheoil, beating out more than 30 other child musicians from around the U.S. and qualifying to compete in the all-Ireland Fleadh Cheoil—the Olympic Games of Irish music. The four-time Mid-Atlantic under-12 fiddle champ returned to Ireland to compete the following three years.
“Going to Ireland has been my birthday present for the past four years,” she said. “It’s the best present I could get.”
Last August, the South Jersey Native was awarded second in the all-Ireland under-12 solo fiddle.
Conway credits Haley’s parents for recognizing their daughter’s natural ability and passion. “[Donna] is very selfless in the pursuit of letting her daughter get the most out of her talent,” he said.
Twice a month, Richardson drives two and a half hours to White Plains, NY for Haley’s lessons with Conway. Plus Richardson has traveled with her daughter to five different states and Ireland for competitions. This summer, Haley will travel to Canada to perform with the John Whelan Band.
Despite performing alongside award winning artists, no gig is too small for the pint sized fiddle player. On Sunday she played at a Brave themed children’s birthday party.
At three years old and just 31 inches tall, Haley began her lessons with a 13-inch violin, the smallest available.
“I was always listening to baby Mozart CDs,” she said. “And I wanted to play the violin because I was always fascinated by it.”
Today the four-foot two-inch pixie plays on a nearly full-size instrument. A member of PRYSM, the string ensemble of the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, she is trained in both classical and Celtic music. But her interest in the Emerald Isle’s tunes was unintentional.
Richardson, who refers to her family’s heritage as “mutt,” noticed a flyer at the local library advertising a concert by Irish fiddler Kevin Burke. The mother of three decided to bring her burgeoning musician, who was just 4-years-old at the time.
“She begged me to get the ‘How to Play Celtic Fiddle’ DVD,” Richardson said.
And just as the precocious child taught herself to read, she began to teach herself Celtic music.
Haley can’t pin down what drew her to Irish folk music, but her commitment is unwavering.
“It is just a part of me now,” said Haley, who enjoys Maroon 5, Allison Krause and Carrie Underwood, along with traditional Irish and classical music.
She voluntarily practices up to four hours a day and hopes to one day attend the Berklee School of Music, The Julliard School, or the Curtis Institute of Music before beginning a career as an Irish music performer.
Haley regularly participates in traditional Irish music sessions throughout the region. Four years ago, she joined a group of mostly adult men in the improvised concerts on Sundays at Plough & the Stars at 123 Chestnut St.
“We’ve had a trad session here for nearly 16 years,” Marion Ryder, restaurant co-owner said. “Now everyone talks about Haley. …She keeps the old fogsters playing in the session on their toes."
Along with the Plough, the youngster often plays on Saturdays at Fergie’s Pub at 1214 Sansom St.
Comparing St. Patrick’s Day to Christmas, Haley looks forward to the month of March all year. “It’s when I get all my fun gigs,” she said.
Tonight, March 16, Haley will perform in the second annual Sober St. Patrick’s Day in New York City. For more information, visit www.towheads.org.
--Submitted by Allison Burdo