Gemma meet Sarah…Sarah meet Gemma

Gemma & Sarah backstage after the Student Concert with their scratch band, Sweet Music Monkeys; left to right: John Peoples; Sarah Parsons; Cliff Bayliss; Gemma Irving; Garry Neale; Clare Newton; and Tom Sweeney. Photo: GREG CAIN


At Sore Fingers over Easter 2018, I interrupted co-organiser John Wirtz trying to persuade Gemma Irving & Sarah Parsons to continue their musical collaboration after a triumphant performance in the Student Concert. We talked about it for a little while, but, it being late and the music was roaring in the bar, we agreed that we would continue the conversation via the SF website. And here we are…

I couldn’t readily get them together physically, so chose what I hope has proved to be the next best thing…a joint email interview.

With their agreement, I drafted a set of questions, which it was understood they could answer or ignore…and this is the result.



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  • How did you first start playing music?

SARAH: I first got into music age 5 through learning to play the piano, my parents’ choice. Age 8, one of my friends started learning the violin, and, wanting to be like her, I begged my parents for violin lessons too. My friend later quit the instrument but I have her to thank - and my parents of course! As for singing, when I was little one of my friends laughed at me and my brother complained, so I barely sang in front of anyone until my later teens!

GEMMA: I’ve always been interested in singing, probably because my parents had sing-songs at family gatherings when I was young and I wanted to stay up late! I learnt to play the guitar after university, being inspired by singer/guitarists like Eva Cassidy, Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell. I’ve played the cello since being in school. I inherited a violin from my great uncle a few years ago, which I am still grappling with but would love to do some bluegrass fiddling!

  • What was your first public performance?

SARAH: One of my piano teacher’s annual student concerts.

GEMMA: A youth rotary music competition on the cello when I was about 8!

  • And what was your first regular band?

SARAH: Despite my lack of confidence in singing, when I started sixth form, I set up and ran a gospel choir at my school, does that count? I had discovered gospel music through the film Sister Act 2 and fell in love with the style! When I asked my school music teacher if we could have a gospel choir, she said “if you run it”, so I surprised her (and everyone else) and did! The excitement and passion for gospel music took over the fear of singing in front of people! I had learnt to sing harmonies at church because a lot of the songs were uncomfortably high, but the choir was very much a case of learning on the job!

Aside from that, I have played in church bands over the years and in a piano duet at university, but no gigging band in my adult life. I got as far as performing at a few open mic nights with a friend in Southampton but then I moved cities. I have played with friends who are musicians in Bristol but not regularly.

GEMMA: School orchestra

  • And what was your longest running band stint and your best gig plus the performance you are/were most proud of?

SARAH: I’ve been running my current gospel choir for four years, but still not a band…

Best gig: Probably my gospel choir’s gig last June, we packed out the (small) venue and we had loads of great feedback. Gig most proud of: Any of the community gigs my choir have done, at a prison, children’s hospice, refugee event, they mean a lot. Most nerve-wracking gig?  Either one of my uni recitals or the Sore Fingers student concerts!

GEMMA: On the cello, I was in the youth orchestra of Northern Sinfonia for a few years. The best concert we did was Beethoven’s Eroica, which we played on tour across Europe. Its probably one of my favourite pieces of music - full of struggle, persistence and spirit, written at the time when Beethoven first found out his hearing was going. The gig I am most proud of is probably the first one I did with my friend Ian on fiddle. We had been friends for a while, but had never played together and thought we would give it a try! It was great that we enjoyed it so much and all our friends turned up to hear us - it was really special and we then decided to form our band, Bernica.

  • How did you hear about Sore Fingers?

SARAH: I went to uni with John Breese and got to know Charlotte and Laura Carrivick through him. The three of them introduced me to the world of bluegrass and to Sore Fingers, and I am so thankful!

GEMMA: From a session at The Grove Pub in Leeds.

  • And what do you think of the whole Sore Fingers experience?

SARAH: I have been to Sore Fingers three times now, and each year I have been so nervous about going because it’s outside of my comfort zone in quite a few ways, but each year I have had the best time and the week always far exceeds my expectations! Everyone is so lovely and I’ve met some great friends, I’ve learnt loads and had musical breakthroughs. I always come away re-inspired, encouraged, motivated and excited for new opportunities.

GEMMA: Whenever I go to Sore Fingers it is like a complete re-switch. It somehow always seems to pause whatever else is going on; spin me round a few times; and then refocus me off in a new direction. Not just with music, but in life too. It’s difficult to figure out how it does that! It’s a rare mix of shared experiences with inspirational people, and music - plus a bit of Hogwirtzmagic.

  • How did you end up playing together?

SARAH: Gemma and I happen to have been to the same three years of Sore Fingers, and first met through sharing a dorm. I first heard Gemma sing one evening at last year’s Sore Fingers and I love her voice! To be in a band and sing with Gemma this year was such a treat! I had no idea my voice would fit with hers but I so enjoyed singing with her. We all got along very well as a band in general and I enjoyed rehearsing with them. I had been looking forward to performing our set, but as soon as I started singing I got the shakes and struggled to control them with my fiddle playing, and the nerves made me sing sharp at points, which was really frustrating and disappointing. I’m not used to playing large crowds, or in front of peers, and while I can be cool, calm and collected before going on stage, it’s a different story once up there! I could do with a bit more practice I think!

GEMMA: I have been to Sore Fingers three times: 2012, 2017 & 2018. Coincidentally Sarah has been the exact same three times as me! It seems fated that Sarah and I would be friends and one day sing together! I loved the song Sweet Music Man from hearing The Haley Sisters play it a couple of months ago. I had written it in my songbook of pieces to learn, but had always shied away from singing it - it is quite difficult! However when Sarah and I were going over potential songs, Sarah’s encouragement gave me the nerve! Sarah heard those harmonies in her head from the beginning - she had the vision of how it could all be pulled together. Playing with the other Sweet Music Monkeys (the scratch band they put together)was really uplifting and inspiring. When you play with great musicians it really anchors you to raise your game and perform better! It was my first scratch band experience, but hopefully not my last!

  • Does that mean you will continue playing together?

SARAH: I really hope so! Gemma and I really bonded through playing and singing together and were already coming up with ideas of how we could make it work before the week was over! We can send each other recordings of ourselves to practise along to, attempt using Skype, and take it in turns to travel to each other to rehearse. As long as we’re both up for investing a little time and money in rehearsing then I think it can work. John Wirtz approached us twice to tell us we should try to make it work despite the distance. He said that opportunities like this don’t come around very often so we should make the most of it while we can. I don’t think I would have thought it possible with the distance if it hadn’t been for his encouragement.

GEMMA: Bristol and Leeds are unfortunately quite a long haul! I occasionally had to visit Bristol with work and it was easier to drive to Newcastle and get a flight (which just goes to show how extreme getting around the UK is sometimes!). We will obviously keep in touch and it would be great to co-ordinate somehow using Skype or meeting up at future bluegrass events. (Until I convince Sarah to move to Leeds...haha).

  • What next?

SARAH: The plan is to stay motivated to practise and play more, to work on my singing and playing, learn more songs, and practise performing in front of others too! I am hoping to play more regularly with other musicians in Bristol, and hopefully Gemma and I will be able to collaborate somehow too, but we’ll have to see!

GEMMA: After Sore Fingers I am really keen and inspired to get practicing (as well as just playing, which is the trap I often fall into!). I spent quite a lot of last year writing songs. I am trying to do a few home recordings and also put on a show about Catherine Cookson, which will be performed in the autumn in Leeds. I now miss Sarah’s voice in my head when I sing, so hopefully it will not be too long before our duo can be reunited!!



The story you’ve just read is typical of the Sore Fingers Experience – read more about that on the “Experience” page of the website.

Over the years, I don’t think enough working bands have come out of the student concert. One or two have and certainly, some students have formed local bands based on their participation in the Student Concert.

As Trevor correctly noted, I was trying to encourage Gemma and Sarah to continue working together after S.F.Week, which could only reinforce their appreciation of the effects of such an event.

If you are under the misxapprehension that all Pro bands are formed from members living close together, think again. I know some bands who have members in different countries! The deciding factor is how the individuals fit together musically and, with singers in particular, when you meet someone you click with, you have struck gold! It doesn’t happen that often.

So, relegate the distance to the background and try and make things work. It’s a little easier these days - you can send sound files over the internet, try ideas out via Skype, etc. But, there is little substitute for getting together and singing your hearts out, live, together. Just do it, you only live once!







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