Establishing a Lasting Connection Between Children and their Instruments.

Growing up with music is an experience many children take for granted. I started playing the harp when I was four, mostly because I was jealous that my older brother, Connor, started playing the fiddle, and could only name one or two other instruments at the time…but that’s another story.

How I got started as a musician:

I started playing music because I was constantly immersed in cultural events and experiences showcasing different types of musicians. I wasn’t forced into seeing or watching music, but simply exposed. While other kids were listening to auto-tuned N*SYNC tracks, I was mesmerized by live multi-talented musicians, which I grew to become.

Music was presented to me in a way that was fun and cool, not forced down my throat to make future Sharlys look better on a college application, although I’m sure it helped.

I grew up thinking everyone played an instrument, whether it was the one assigned by the elementary school band teacher, or piano lessons, which I distinctly remember my friends complaining about constantly.

But I soon realized that most children didn’t play an instrument and that I was unique. I grew up to learn that even fewer children stick with their instruments, making my musical journey even more special!

My harp, tin whistle, Irish step dancing and singing was what set me apart from my friends and classmates. When I brought my harp into school, it made my teachers cry and it made the boys in my class chase me around during recess.

Music enriched my childhood in ways that have directly impacted my life, not only as a musician but as a person, too. It gave me an emotional outlet, helped me discover the person I am today and allowed me to challenge myself in unique ways.

But the secret behind my love for music and my continuation of the art on my own time was that I made the conscious decision to play an instrument – it wasn’t forced upon me. Here are some of the most memorable cultural experiences of my childhood that fueled my love for playing music.

Madison, NJ

I grew up in Madison, NJ – a catalyst for almost all the opportunities and success I had as a young musician. When we moved to Madison in 2001 (I was going into second grade), we became neighbors with Dr. Anne Matlack, director of Harmonium Choral Society and the Madison’s Grace Church choir.

We moved to Madison for its distinguished music and arts programs. My parents invested in my and my brother’s futures in the arts and it paid off. We were surrounded by a community of musicians and audiophiles dedicated to enriching music programs in the school system, which had an incredible impact on the community as well.

My career started with my family band, Dugan’s Hooligans, with which I had the opportunity to perform for school assemblies, libraries, weddings, community events, private parties, church services, feature concerts, workshops, festivals and more. Without the support of the Madison, NJ community, our journey as musicians would have been entirely different.

The New York Renaissance Faire

Sharlys Dugan Child

Skip Disney World and take your kids to a Renaissance Faire. In hindsight, my classmates always bragged about their summer vacations to Disney World. I will admit, I was jealous. However, I’ve been to Disney World once and the only thing I remember is Pluto licking my dad’s head during breakfast with the characters.


The Renaissance Fair was a highlight of the summer for me and my family. Memories of this place bring me back every summer to relive the nostalgia of dressing up and running around as a kid with a stomach filled with half-sour pickles, orange ice and smoked turkey legs.

The Renaissance Fair is like Disney World for nerds…there are characters, vendors, magicians, knife throwers, jugglers, performers and even jousters. Plus, everyone dresses up…at least the cool people do.

But amidst all that, there is music everywhere. People busking along the dirt paths with their instrument cases out to make an extra buck, Renaissance-era musicians playing to standing-only crowds and even lovely harpists escorting guests across the “Kissing Bridge.” In the early days, I admired these musicians. Once I started playing, I became one.

First Night

First Night celebrations take place all over the U.S. Growing up in Madison, our family went to First Night in Morristown. Another event full of “typical kid” activities; but also with a ton of musical entertainment for audiences of all ages.

I will admit that I was more excited about temporary tattoos, sword-swallowing and juggling (another hobby I took up in my spare time); but I also saw some incredible musicians and bands that did more than just play music. They told jokes, shared stories, sang and danced. I was mesmerized…

After just a few years, I became one of those musicians as well. I sang, danced and played the tin whistle and harp to large crowds that were just as mesmerized and excited to be there as I was as a kid…and I LOVED it.

My Goal Going Forward

When I perform, it warms my heart to see children and young adults in the audience. I design programs to engage and inspire them in hopes of having a similar impact on them as a number of musicians had on me.

In my programs, both for adults and children, I sing and play traditional Irish songs and tunes on the harp and tin whistle. I invite the audience to sing and dance along with audience volunteers and teach valuable lessons about friendship, love and kindness through Irish stories. My goal is to captivate my audience members’ hearts and minds, entertain and most importantly, inspire.

For booking information, visit or email

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