BILL OCHS, 1946–2016
Bill Ochs, a scholar, performer, and teacher of Irish traditional music who was called a “central figure in the renaissance of the tin whistle” by National Public Radio's All Things Considered and “the leading tin whistle teacher in North America” by New York's Irish Voice newspaper, died on Wednesday, October 5, in Mt. Kisco, New York. Bill split his time between New York City, where he had lived since the 1970s, and the Hudson Valley, where he shared a home with his partner, Margaret Vetare.
Born William Francis Ochs on May 14, 1946, in Newark, New Jersey, he was the son of Herbert and Betsy Ochs, who raised Bill and his sister Sara in an atmosphere of progressive politics and a fierce concern for social justice that remained important to him throughout his life. Bill studied French and theater as an undergraduate at Wesleyan University and in 1971 earned his MFA at Sarah Lawrence College, where he explored political theater. Ultimately, though, he dedicated his life’s work to playing, teaching, and understanding the history of Irish wind instruments: the tin whistle, wooden flute, and uilleann pipes. Drawn irresistibly to the pipes, he sought out teachers in the United States and Ireland at a time when almost nobody in the U.S. was playing the instrument. His intense commitment to the uilleann pipes was furthered by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to study in Ireland for six months in 1976. During this period he was also involved in the education programs of the Irish Arts Center in Manhattan, where he taught for more than forty years from its founding in the early 1970s through 2015.
Throughout the nearly half a century of his career, Bill delved into many aspects of traditional music: performing; researching and writing; producing albums of other musicians; and creating meticulous and beautifully rendered transcriptions of tunes. He was especially inspired by the music of Micho Russell, producing two CDs and a video documentary of the County Clare whistle player. He was perhaps best known as the author of The Clarke Tin Whistle, a history and instructional tutor he published in 1988 that has since sold over 250,000 copies. But teaching was his passion, and it was as a generous and highly skilled teacher that he made the biggest impact. Most of his students were adults and whether they were advanced piping students or beginning tin whistle students who had never picked up a musical instrument before, he brought the same commitment to their success. Above all he wanted people to be moved by the music and to experience the happiness that comes with creating something beautiful.
Besides his immersion in Irish traditional music, Bill was a political activist who in the past decade devoted tremendous energy to the campaigns of Democratic candidates for U.S. Congress in New York’s 18th (and formerly 19th) district. He was also exhilarated by the outdoors and was an avid swimmer, hiker, cross-country skier, birdwatcher, and canoeist. On the trail or in the canoe, he always wanted to see what was around the next bend.
He leaves behind a sister, Sara Ochs, of Schenectady, New York; his beloved partner of fifteen years, Margaret Vetare, of Beacon, NY; Margaret’s large and loving family; and countless students and colleagues of Irish music across the country and internationally.
A memorial service is being planned for the spring. Donations in Bill’s honor may be made to Doctors Without Borders, one of the many organizations he believed in and contributed to during his lifetime.