I’ve spent many hours sifting though the different texts and web sources searching for tune transcriptions that maintain the ethics and protocols that help define Irish traditional music culture. Copyrighting traditional tunes that have been slightly altered in transcription in order to legally claim ownership is NOT a part of the tradition as I or my teachers learned it. Numerous textual sources, while legal, violate the principles of the commons. In my own assessment and judgement there are plenty of published texts that present transcriptions and recordings of tunes in a manner that allows the publishers and musicians to gain a means of income while still honoring the tradition and the ethics of the commons. The Ceolta Seisiúin na hÉireann books in Red, Orange, Blue, and Green acknowledge the tradition and respect the players and participants of the past, present, and future in this way. In my opinion, the integrity of the publications and the quality of musicianship are superior to many other similar types of publications. The musicians are seasoned, well respected, members of the world wide Irish traditional music community and their recordings deliver the lilt, drive and lift, and nuance that defines Irish traditional music. The different instruments and musicians per colored book are: Geraldine Cotter, tin whistle – Green Book; Sheila Garry, fiddle & Brid Cranitch, piano – Orange Book; Sheila Garry, fiddle & Brid Cranitch, piano – Blue Book; Matt Cranitch on fiddle, Dave Hennessy on melodeon, Eoin Ó Riabhaigh on uillean pipes, Brid Cranitch on piano, Mick Daly on guitar, Colm Murphy on bodhrán, and Tom Stephens on guitar - Red Book.
Note the forward to the Green book: “This book contains 100 tunes collected by Geraldine Cotter. She is from Ennis, Co. Clare, an area well known for its rich musical tradition. Her music has been learned first hand from well respected musicians of an older generation. She is carrying on this tradition in the time honoured way, by presenting the tunes as she learnt them.” This statement can be made of all the other musicians in this series of texts.
So, the tunes played are played with all the subtleties of Irish traditional music intact. This is important. If one is going to learn how to play this music or accompany this music, one simply must hear it with the nuance. Hearing a player play a tune that sounds like a series of notes strung together without the rhythmic drive and lift, without the embellishments, such as rolls, cuts, cranns, and strikes that define how the music is delivered and received does little justice to the medium and cultural integrity of the music. But even more importantly for the learner, hearing Irish music delivered without these attributes is not preparing the learner for a real experience nor is it offering the learner a true representation of Irish music’s musical identity. In short without these aspects the tunes are poor representations and therefore musically misleading. It’s akin to learning french without liaison or an accurate use of aural inflection. Thus the seemingly “conservative” methods of learning from well established players becomes that much more important when this is considered.
So, how aught one to use these book and CD sets? They’re fantastic for both tune learning AND bodhrán practice. If you’re a bodhrán player, like myself, who is interested in mastering the lilt and rhythmic subtlety of Irish traditional music these books with the CD’s are ideal. What does a bodhrán player need with musical notation? Every well establish bodhrán instructor I’ve met and have known suggests to her or his students to pick up a melody instrument. Usually the whistle is the most accessible. Even if you only learn a few tunes it will improve your understanding of how to better accompany Irish trad. And though you may not be interested in learning how to read music, studying the text with the guidance of someone who does read music can assist you in understanding the cycles, phrasing, and linear and horizontal ideas or musical pitches that make up the tunes – again enhancing your understanding and ability to support Irish trad as an accompanist.
The different players and different instruments provide the learner with differences one must become accustomed to if one is going to accompany or learn from real individuals in the future. Also the speeds at which some of the players in these texts approach the tunes vary. For the beginning intermediate bodhrán player, I suggest starting with the Orange, Blue, or Green books with their accompanying CD’s. The Red book would be suitable for a full fledged intermediate bodhrán player who is working on inside hand work rather than the accuracy of their tipper or rhythm hand work or is experimenting with subtle stick work.
Purchasing any of these books and applying yourself to using them will without fail assist you in improving your understanding of and execution in playing or accompanying Irish traditional music, all the while knowing that the publishers and players are approaching the production and sale of these texts and CD’s with the principles of the commons and thus the tradition in mind. These books and CD’s offer great material that works within the ethical boundaries of the tradition as folks have known it for centuries.
These book & CD sets are not alone in their quality and respect for the commons. What’s missing from this series. Flute and other instruments. So, in a future article, I’ll cover a few other fine options including the tutorial books and CDs produced by John Skelton, one of the top teacher/performers of Irish flute.
2011 was the third year that Albuquerque hosted Zoukfest. The University of New Mexico’s Student Union Building provided classrooms for this premier wold music camp on it’s third floor once again. The Outpost performance space hosted the concerts, and some local businesses opened their doors to the students and staff for nightly music sessions. Given the economy what is it about this music camp that prompts people from all over the world to continue attending it, and why is it here in Albuquerque?
Well, one answer to the first question is the staff. The founder of the twelve year old music camp, Roger Landes, tenaciously holds onto the philosophy that if a week-long summer world music camp offers some of the world’s best teachers who also perform at a world class level people will find value in what Zoukfest has to offer. Having the camp based in Albuquerque means easy, quick, and safe access from the airport and to some of the best restaurants in the state. One might want to use a car to get around, but if you’re not local and you wanted to focus completely on the festival offerings you needed to walk to most of the activities, and there were enough locals who attended that if someone needs directions or a lift somewhere, they merely needed to ask one of their fellow students.
Zoukfest always features a guest instructor. Usually it’s a bouzouki player of high renown. 2011 featured Alec Finn. Mr. Finn was one of the few to first adopt the bouzouki for use in Irish traditional music – which was not a very traditional thing to do. However, such application, when executed with an understanding of Irish traditional music, has turned out quite exciting and appropriate. Mr. Finn never adopted the flat back “Irish” design of the bouzouki. He’s always used the greek three course (six strings) bouzouki. His style of accompaniment has always been quite unique to him as well. Alec has been to Zoukfest before, but it’s been a while. In addition to being one of the first proponents of the bouzouki applied to Irish trad, Mr. Finn was one of the original members of the great “trad” band De Dannan. Alec’s trademark style of accompaniment played a major role in the cutting edge sound of the group in the seventies and eighties. As a featured teaching artist Alec Finn brought to Zoukfest a chance for students to learn from one of the great elders of contemporary Irish trad.
For more experienced violinists and fiddlers receiving a tune and instruction from one of the finest fiddle teacher/performers in the world tends to be a bucket list item. Well? How about it? Randal Bays, was a returning staff member to Zoukfest, and offered an intermediate to advanced Irish fiddle class and a master class for those who wanted to learn the subtleties of the styles of playing Irish fiddle that are dominant in Counties Clare and Galway. Truly one of the masters, Randal’s teaching style is gentle, clear, and straightforward. Mr. Bays also taught a DADGAD guitar accompaniment class. He contributed to the recently published Masters of the Irish Guitar CD, and released his own guitar CD, Oyster Light.
Laura Flanagan. Flanagan is a long time student of Mr. Bays and has studied with Roger Landes, Chris Smith, and spent time in Co. Roscommon, Ireland studying with Brendan Larrissey. Ms. Flanagan works as a music teacher in the Lubbock, TX school system and has contributed to Zoukfest previously as a volunteer. Flanagan brings with her an understanding of the subtleties of Irish traditional music and an ability to communicate those subtleties to those early in their Irish trad music journey.
Blayne Chastain offered whistle and flute classes. Mr. Chastain earned his M.A. in Traditional Irish Flute at University Limerick. A returning staff member, Blayne Chastain’s attention to detail and patience is matched by his ability to encourage and inspire students in the classroom.
Eliot Grasso, after a one year hiatus from Zoukfest, returned with the long awaited Uilleann piping class. He also offered classes in flute and variation in Irish traditional music. Mr. Grasso is an award winning musician and is recognized as one of the finer young proponents of the Uilleann pipes. Grasso offers clarity, introspection, and exploration of ideas in the classroom. His ability to show something he’s just explained lives up to the Zoukfest pedagogical expectation.
Offering guitar and bouzouki accompaniment classes was the returning staff member Stanely Greenthal. Mr. Greenthal is a world renown recording artist, performer, and teacher. He offers an intense familiarity with music of Celtic origins as well as Balkan and Greek cultures. Greenthal has proven to be one of those sincerely endearing instructors whose students repeatedly return to his classes year after year. He engenders exploration and a great sense of personal musical discovery in his students. Additionally, Greenthal taught a class on Feist Breizh: Breton Music Ensemble. Breton music originates from Brittany France.
Those who were interested in Irish tenor banjo were treated to spending time with the All Ireland winner Brian McGrath. Originally from County Femanagh, he is a former member of the popular bands Dervish, Four Men And A Dog, and De Dannan. He currently performs with At The Racket. McGrath also provided a class on Irish Piano Accompaniment.
Tasmania born Luke Plumb returned to teach Irish Bouzouki Accompaniment and Arranging for Celtic Band. Mr. Plumb’s ability to communicate his expertise and transfer his skills to students has brought students back to his classes repeatedly. His sense of humor and congeniality contribute greatly to his abilities.
The highly acclaimed performer and inspirational teacher Moira Smiley brought her own brand of skill and ability to prompt her students’ to explore their own vocal abilities. Ms. Smiley taught Anglo-Celtic Song and Balkan Voice. Many of us who had been singing for years as well as those just getting started benefited immensely from Smiley’s ability to quickly identify and assess strengths and weaknesses in our vocal abilities and then offer constructive solutions and approaches tailored to our individual needs.
Paddy League returned to ZoukFest to teach Balkan Ensemble and Balkan Fiddle Styles. Mr. League is a long time staff member who has in the past taught numerous other styles and instruments. His experiences and travels offer an approach that is informed by the musics of Turkey, Greece, and Macedonia.
Roger Landes, the founder and artistic director of ZoukFest, provided Jump Start Bouzouki and Irish Mandolin classes. Jump Start Bouzouki is designed for those new to or in need of a brush up on the basics of the Bouzouki. The Irish Mandolin class covers the rudiments of Irish music technique as it is applied to the Mandolin. In addition to being a master of the bouzouki and mandolin, Mr. Landes’ passion for quality teaching and the propagation of the bouzouki and it’s many musics is the driving force behind this week-long camp. In addition to his ability to bring together the worlds finest performer/teachers, he participates year round as a performer/teacher throughout North America. His humor and attention to the details both technical and cultural provide his students with everything they need to continue growing as musicians.
Teaching the rare and intriguing fiddle style known as West Virginia Long Bow Fiddling was Douglas Goodhart. This regional style uses techniques shared in classical and Irish traditions. Mr. Goodhart also offered classes in “Rhythmning”- a class designed to strengthen one’s rhythmic facilities, and French Traditional Music focusing on the musics of Limousin, Berry, le Bourbonais, and Auvergne. Instruments best suited to such a class are bagpipes, fiddle, flute, whistle, bouzouki, mandolin, guitar, accordian and hurdy-gurdy!
One of the finest representatives of American folk music, Steve Smith, taught Americana Mandolin, Americana Guitar, and Basic Music Theory for Traditional Music. Smith offers experience from a wide array of musical genres. From Bluegrass to chamber music and Old Time to contemporary New Acoustic, Mr. Smith exhibits a keen understanding of each student’s needs as those needs manifest in class. Smith tours and teaches across the country year round and ZoukFest greatly benefits again from his return this year.
A fascinating and exciting addition to the staff this year was Ana Renno dos Mares Guia. Ms. Guia is a traditonal yogatherapist and Ayurvedic medical practitioner. Guia offered a morning yoga class specifically designed for musicians. This class equipped the students with the knowledge needed for them to tailor their own routines at home for their specific needs.
Many who have been playing Irish traditional music for some time are familiar with the three large week-long ITM Summer school programs: the Catskills Irish Arts Week in East Durham, New York; the Augusta Heritage Center Irish/Celtic week in Elkins, West Virginia; and the Swannanoa Gathering in Asheville, North Carolina. Attending one of these programs can be, if not a ritual, a pilgrimage. It was at one of these programs I first began to understand the music, what I wanted from it, and what responsibilities were involved in order to participate in the tradition as I wanted to. For many of my musical friends, attending one of these programs on a regular basis or periodically was something they considered important to their own development and this importance was communicated to me often. However, all these programs are in the east and some class sizes can become quite large. However, I’ve recently been invited to teach at a new and interesting week-long program that in addition to offering a student to teacher ratio one would rarely find back east, offers some differences in format and approach which I find intriguingly healthy.
No one would have expected a week-long Irish music camp to pop up in Portal, Arizona. But the location is not the only difference the Portal Irish Music Week has in store for its students. First, it’s not during the summer. It runs from October 13th through October 18th. It begins and ends in the middle of the week. This might seem strange until you note that often times airline prices are less expensive and there are fewer overbooked flights in the middle of the week. Second, the south east of Arizona is noted for its extraordinary beauty and its rare birds. While this doesn’t at first seem to have much to offer to the ITM student, the environment does provide a unique and healthy aspect to this camp. Third, for the Irish traditional music enthusiast, the class format offers a different approach to immersing ones self in the music and its culture. Instead of running numerous classes in a day, the organizers have chosen to offer one full-on class that is split into two sections before and after lunch. This program is clearly for those who want to dive deeply into the subtleties of their chosen instrument. But the organizers have also allowed free time in the schedule for those attending to go explore the surrounding country. You can get out of the confines of the classroom and go take in the environment. You can let your day’s class soak in while you cherish the sunset, or you can start your day with a morning hike. While the enthusiasts immerse themselves in the music their partners can partake of the numerous activities the countryside has to offer as a resort location. The partners’ can spend their evenings together, or for those with only the music in mind, they can enjoy one of the music sessions offered every evening. There are also small workshops in the afternoons, too. So if you’d like to dabble in something new, you can give it a go.
So, what’s so spectacularly beautiful about this landscape? In October the weather is quite accommodating, and the drive from Tucson offers some great scenery through grasslands, then thorn scrub, and then evergreen oaks and Arizona Sycamore. Portal is located in the middle of the Chiricahuas mountain range in the Coronado National Forest. The Chiricahuas National Monument is known for spectacular rock formations and for it’s rare birds such as the Elegant Trogon. For spectacular photos of this area visit the Portal Irish Week photo gallery.
The Portal Irish Week staff are a group of experienced performer-teachers both well-known and not so well-known, but all of them seasoned. There’s Brian Conway, the renown New York Sligo style fiddler; Paddy O’Brien of County Offaly, a tradition holder on the button accordion; Turlach Boylan from County Derry, an award winning immigrant flute player based in Kansas City; Matt Heaton, a guitar and bouzouki player from Boston; Marla Fibish, a long time San Franciscan mandolinist, fiddler Will Harmon from Montana who originally hails from Philadelphia; tenor banjo player, Pete Strickler from Erie, Colorado; and myself, Dain Forsythe, a bodhrán player from here in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The format reflects a specific musical focus: in-depth, intense learning. The location chosen reflects a specific approach to that focus: all intense yet healthy learning experiences require some down time for reflection and repose. Balance.
We might think of the example where people hear traditional music in Ireland from their own perspective, and wonder how musicians can sit and play what seems to them to be the same tune all night!
And this is what I mean then in my title — ‘Listening to Difference’. It usually takes some concentration and some learning to focus the ear — much as the eye can focus — and thus to start the process of noticing the little differences which make a big difference. Mind you, in the absence of the concentration and learning, it is heartening in my experience that a little bit of common sense, even on its own, goes quite a long way.”
- Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin’s opening to his lecture “Listening to Difference.
And there is the rub. Once we, as Irish traditional music accompanists, develop the skills to execute good rhythmic accompaniment we must then begin the work of accompanying the tunes that at first hearing seem to be the same tune over and over. The subtleties of this music need not seem daunting or confusing, actually. All one need do is begin listening. Do it now.
Put on your favorite Irish traditional music CD. Just let it get in you. For me my first clear breakthroughs for better understanding of how the tunes worked was when I realized that at some point most melodies moved upward in pitch and then they dropped down to the original pitch where they started. Eventually, I realized that I was hearing the differences between the “A” part of the tunes and the “B” part of the tunes. Not all tunes rise in pitch in the “B” part, but most do. Read the rest of this entry »
“Because of “distance and today’s availability of personal recording devices, the culture of recording has permeated traditional Irish music. Musicians have, however, incorporated technology while respecting the tradition. Recording without permission at informal settings is frowned upon, and those recording will usually defer to those musicians being recorded.” - Scott Spencer.
Scott Spencer’s quote above from his essay “Traditional Irish Music in the Twenty-first Century: Networks, Technology, and the Negotiation of Authenticity,” is immediately applicable to just about everyone’s experience with traditional music today. Technology changes the way we engage and interact socially. However, rarely does technology entirely supplant or replace our already existing methods of social interaction. More often, they augment or add to the list of methods already in place. For example, I spend less time using the phone and some time using facebook and e-mail these days. Before e-mail, facebook, and multi-use handheld computers, I spent much more time on the phone exclusively. Musically, it has become easier to refer to an audio recording of a tune before referring to written forms. Mr. Spencer is writing about how culture dictates how technology is used in today’s world of Irish traditional music. But why record at all? Before we question the etiquette of using recording technology let’s explore why it’s so widely preferred as a means for learning tunes.
I learn from recordings more often than “dots” or written musical transcripts. Because of this, I actually feel closer to the aural tradition. Written musical literacy has not been the norm for folk musicians and methods of learning reflect that. I still prefer to get my tunes from an individual in real time, but if that’s not possible, one should note that getting a tune from someone’s recording of the tune captures several things that a written transcript cannot:
- the name of the person who is giving the tune – they need not say their name in the recording, I know who the player is.
- the rhythmic imprint that is both Irish and individual to the Irish musician giving the tune
- the choice of articulations, variations, personal instrumental style – tone, timbre, pulse, tempo
- the story that comes with the tune, if there is one, and if the giver chooses to include it
- and sometimes the name of the person from whom the giver received the tune – the pedigree
Some of this information can be included in written forms but not all of it. With so much information available within a single method of transfer, audio recordings can be the most efficient and comprehensive forms of transferring or “giving” a tune, when one cannot obtain it from someone personally.
So, while such a method of “taking” or “receiving” a tune is preferable to learning from the “dots,” how one goes about recording makes a difference. Spencer includes an example of how cultural etiquette dictates how one is expected to obtain such a recording. It’s “frowned upon” to simply whip out a recording device and begin recording without first gaining the consent of the player(s) being recorded. Few people like having their conversations recorded, and given that much of the music played is done so as a means of social interaction, recording the tunes shared at a session can easily be considered extremely rude, if carried out without prior consent. Spencer quotes Tim Collins, a well known concertina player, who explains:
“Normally, you’d just ask and listen. Especially younger people would come in and say, ‘Listen, I heard you playing a lovely tune recently. I’d love to learn it. Could you record it for me?’ With etiquette, you wouldn’t really accept them coming in and trying to covertly record anything.”
Spencer goes on to say that:
the recordings gleaned from such formal and informal settings are then coveted, learned, and passed from person to person throughout the irish music scene. . . [and tend] to follow established paths between friends, often through mutual interests such as regional repertoire, shared instrumental tradition, or through admiration for the music of particular players.
Spencer’s point here is that recording is perfectly acceptable, but how one goes about recording makes a huge difference socially and culturally. I agree. My reasons stem from my own personal experience. My musical seniors, peers, and teachers have taught me that giving a tune to someone has a high socio-cultural and personal value. It’s a gift, and in some cases combined with other social behaviors and interactions it can even function as a rite of passage. It can become extremely intimate and highly personal. To take a tune from someone is a privilege and a sign of acknowledgment from the giver. In a mass-media culture bereft of such important and humanly significant acts such as passing on a tune, such an exchange, for me, warrants my respect and I cherish and cultivate it.
Others have blessed me with many gifts of tunes and musical opportunities. Having had such experiences, I feel deeply that it is my duty to carry such methods of interaction forward. Indeed in many cases it was clear that my sense of this duty and my behavior that communicated it was often times the very reason I received further opportunities. This is not to say that it need be highly formalized. It rarely is. But when one behaves with respect according to the values inherent in a culture, one’s culturally valued behavior is acknowledged over time.
For those who follow etiquette as a matter of course it is rarely discussed or made mention of. Often times it is explained or exemplified in one’s early life by elders. But this is not the case when one doesn’t grow up in the culture. Etiquette is so often elusive because it’s boundaries and rules shift and bend according to the immediate social environment. Strangely, it becomes strikingly noticeable only to those who don’t quite understand it or didn’t grow up with it. A session full of young people may seem to be a free-for-all until a senior steps in and suddenly the session changes into a slightly more formal affair. To an outsider this shift may seem abrupt. But it would be a matter of course to the sessioners. Deferring to the senior community musician would be a normal shift in behavior for the younger players. But that would be likely only if the senior musician is from their immediate community or is widely known as a teacher and/or player of note. If a stranger enters, the stranger may be ignored entirely, or treated as a possible peer rather than a senior musician, regardless of apparent age or experience.
Etiquette is never quite so rigid or as clear as most of us would like. Which is why it is always wise to listen and watch intently and carefully whenever we ‘visit’ a session or group of players outside our immediate close-knit communities. Every session is different and every community’s needs are different and they both change over time: as we grow as individuals, so do our communities. Paying respect to those who taught us and to those in a community to which we don’t specifically belong is rarely considered poor taste.
Recording tunes at a session where it is openly acknowledged to be a common practice poses no problems. The established etiquette in this case would be ‘open recording with no need for permission.’ But again, would a visiting musician automatically know this? So, the visiting musician may feel compelled to ask prior to any recording – even if others are obviously recording tunes. The polite visitor may likely assume that those who are recording have obtained permission and/or are students of the musician being recorded. So, the visitor would feel the need to ask for consent. It’s different wherever we go.
Keep in mind that people have fun when everyone knows what’s going on. Trying to play softball at a baseball game is going to ruin it for everyone. When everyone understands the rules we all feel comfortable playing together, even bending the rules a bit – knowingly. So, if you’re going to record tunes, make sure that everyone being recorded is comfortable with it. Once comfort is established, let the tune trading begin!
*Spencer, Scott. “Traditional Irish Music in the Twenty-first Century: Networks, Technology, and the Negotiation of Authenticity.” pp. 58-70. Crossroads: Performance Studies and Irish Culture. Sara Brady and Fintan Walsh, eds. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009.
Tune trading, discussion of melodic variations, different settings, differences of style using articulations (rhythmic embellishments), pulse, tone, double stops and bowing techniques (on fiddles), open vs. closed fingering or reed manipulation (on pipes), tonguing and chiff, embrasure positions (on whistle and flute), breath pushing, glottal stops,
and “dirty playing” (on flute) are just a small smattering of subjects that anyone might participate in or overhear before, during, or after any given Irish session. For the obsessed, these subjects are never ending ones that bring pleasure and entertainment to those who have a penchant for such discussions. A major part of the craic for such people, these subjects abound with argument, opinion, legends of the impossible feat achieved and the names of the heroes involved. So, what of such discussion among bodhrán players? Do we have subjects like these? The answer is yes. Yes indeed.
Much discussion between bodhrán players is about the physical aspects of the drums, different approaches to execution, variations on rhythm, pitch variation, tone that is directly effected by hand positions, tipper angles, tipper impact placement on a particular area of the skin, etc. These subjects offer exploration for discussions between bodhrán players. Sharing experiences leads to one’s own exploration of new ideas on how to play the instrument and finding out what different techniques can offer to widen the range of sounds you can obtain from your drum. So if you’ve been wondering, then follow through with questioning, too. You need not be an expert to ask questions and discuss your own experiences. Reflection is a large part of any learning process and experience, so get in the discussion and try out something new on your drum that maybe you’d never considered.