CHEYENNE — Ciara Thompson’s life has been filled with music and serendipity.
She found the power of her voice at a young age and let her love of music lead her a number of places, but her journey from Cheyenne to Iowa to Australia to Ireland has also brought some impossible connections along with it.
When she was a student in Laramie County School District 1, Thompson performed an Irish lullaby called “Éiníní,” which was a favorite of her mom, Shauna McKusker. She first learned of the song in a book by Irish singer, songwriter and teacher Mary McLaughlin, and was drawn to that style of music, in part due to her family’s heritage.
“It was just absolutely beautiful,” McKusker said of her daughter’s performance.
What Thompson didn’t realize, however, is that McLaughlin would become her teacher and mentor years later at the Irish World Academy for Music and Dance, where she earned her Ph.D. in December.
“I think that speaks to being open to opportunities, following your curiosities and just going with serendipitous moments, as well,” Thompson said. “You just have to let yourself be changed and know that you’re going in the right direction.”
Reflecting on her life’s trajectory, she said no life plan would have taken her on so many adventures. But her story started right here in Cheyenne.
Thompson, now married and living in Limerick, was raised in a family that loves music. Her mom put Thompson in KinderMusik before she started kindergarten, where she played with instruments like the xylophone and glockenspiel.
“Both my husband and I really love music,” McKusker said. “I took several years of piano lessons early on as a child and wished I had continued them. I felt that music really helps to foster creativity and hand-eye coordination and memory. It’s just a wonderful outlet that you can do by yourself.”
And as Thompson learned the piano and dabbled in the flute, it became clear to her mom that Thompson’s true gift was singing. Laramie County School District 1 and Central High School offered ample opportunities for Thompson to curate her talents, and she jumped at every chance she got.
From the Wyoming Ambassadors of Music – where she performed with the choir in seven different countries across Europe – to the Summer Educational Experience for Kids (SEEK) program at Laramie County Community College, to the Cheyenne Little Theatre, to the Wyoming Congressional Awards program, Thompson squeezed every experience she could out of her upbringing in Cheyenne.
“The Laramie County School District 1 music programs really were wonderful. From A to Z, from elementary all the way to high school, they were just really enriching for me,” Thompson said.
Those experiences led her to the University of Iowa, where she focused on her vocal performance skills and earned a teaching certificate. During her undergraduate studies, Thompson studied abroad in Australia, where she was a student teacher in music class, and she’s maintained a love of teaching ever since.
As she questioned what her future might hold in the vocal performance realm, her uncle gave her a piece of advice that has stuck with her, inspiring her to keep an open heart about what opportunities could come next.
“There’s a lot to be said about following your nose,” he told her.
So she did just that and followed her heart to a summer program at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance. Her grandpa came to the U.S. from Belfast as a teenager, and throughout her childhood, her dad would play The Chieftains, a traditional Irish band formed in 1962.
Seeing that the Chieftains were one of the artists in residence at the Irish World Academy was yet another serendipitous sign for Thompson.
“Coming to Ireland was a natural fit for me,” she said.
Thompson moved to Limerick to pursue her master’s degree, then stayed at the school to earn her Ph.D. in ethnomusicology – the study of different cultures through music. Inspired by that Irish lullaby she learned in LCSD1 all those years ago, she interviewed parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, therapists and a range of Irish residents who interact with lullabies in her research.
Through that, she learned the role of lullabies in Irish music and culture.
“You can look at something through a musicological lens – looking at how the music is constructed, how it’s delivered, everything like that. And you can look at things through a sociological lens – looking at the people who make the music, the cultures that make it, what it represents,” Thompson said. “When you can take one lens from each of those glasses and put them together, that would be ethnomusicology.”
Now that she has a doctorate in her back pocket, Thompson is searching for postdoctoral fellowships or lecturer positions in academia. But she’s going about her job search the same way she’s gone through the rest of her life – with an open mind and an open heart, all the while teaching students music and pursuing her passions.
After all her global travels, earning a doctorate, getting married and settling in Ireland, Thompson said it’s become more clear how growing up in Wyoming has impacted her life and her view of the world.
“Cheyenne has this very strong sense of heritage and sense of tradition. That really ingrained an appreciation for where I come from – an appreciation for the smaller things and the things that have served me all the way through to where I am now,” Thompson said.
Her mother added, “I’m so proud of where she is, and I’m really excited to see what she does next. I think she has a wonderful future ahead of her.”