The meditations of Brother Steve: on learning Irish music

What is it that you are trying to learn?

If you're learning the tin whistle to play Irish music, chances are you are learning two things at once: one is the tin whistle, the other is Irish music.

The good news is that the tin whistle part is easy (there can hardly be an easier melody instrument, in fact). So rest assured that with sufficient application, and maybe a little help from teachers, tutor books and other players, you can master this simple instrument.

The other news is that learning involves as much listening as playing - actually much more listening than playing. Read on!

Why all this insistence on listening?

As a beginning tin whistler, you'll find that teachers and experienced players will recommend that you spend a lot of time listening to good players. Most of you ignore this advice. So why is it given?

Each musical genre has its own conventions, its own stylistic rules. To take an example: for better or worse, you've probably heard a fair bit of country music in your lifetime. If you heard a classical violinist playing the fiddle break in a country song, or an operatic soprano singing "Stand by your man" to a Nashville backing band, you'd immediately know something was wrong. This is because you are familiar with the stylistic conventions of country music, and you can tell that the violinist and the soprano don't know them.

Irish music has stylistic features that do not occur in the types of music that most of us have grown up with. If you don't listen carefully to discover these features, and work to copy them, you could easily have the same effect on discerning listeners as the operatic soprano singing in place of Tammy Wynette - or worse, as the late Johnny Cash trying to sing opera.

That's why you have to listen, to learn the conventions.

Unfortunately, it takes time. I know you're impatient to play. You're in a hurry to learn 50 tunes or 500 tunes or 5,000 tunes so that you can sit in in the local sessions. But please, besides learning tunes, make sure you set aside time to listen to good players and absorb the "rules of the language" (see the next topic, Speaking the lingo), and hear the subtle things that are going on.

If you are lucky enough to have good players in the area where you live, listen carefully to them, learn what you can. Watch and observe. Make sure you have recordings that feature good traditional whistle playing, preferably solo. Listen actively, notice, compare.

Don't stick with the first player you are exposed to or whom you saw in concert and whose playing you have fallen in love with. Listen to different styles, different approaches. Don't just stick with whistle players. But also listen to fiddlers, fluters, pipers. They all have things to teach you. (Even accordionists.)

Speaking the lingo

I live in Quebec, and I often think it's a shame to hear French-speakers who express themselves very well in English but totally spoil the effect because they don't pay attention to the rules of English pronunciation. (The same is of course true of English-speakers speaking French.)

For example, French-speakers tend to say things like "I 'ave to do dis and dat". Why? Simply because the sounds "h" and "th" don't exist in their language. So they've never learned to make these sounds. Also, in many cases they will not even hear these sounds, because their ear is not attuned to them. So it's natural that they never think to make them.

In the same way, you can listen to Irish music but not hear things that are blindingly obvious to "native speakers" of Irish music.

Here's an example from my own experience. I had been playing fiddle enthusiastically for some time and thought I was doing pretty well thank you very much, when a top-class fiddler from Donegal, after hearing me play a jig, kindly took me aside and gently let me know that I had the rhythm all wrong. At first I was mortified, and couldn't understand what he meant, but eventually, by listening hard, and after a couple more hints, I began to get the picture. But it took me months before I started to play jigs in a more acceptable fashion. With the right accent, if you like.

Now when I hear enthusiastic beginner fiddlers playing jigs exactly the way I used to, I give a prayer of thanks to that kindly fiddle player. And with my students, I ram home the importance of learning to hear these subtle rhythms in a jig by constant, conscious listening. Because until you hear them, you won't be able to reproduce them in your playing.

On learning from sheet music

As far as Irish music is concerned, I think that learning to play through reading music is rather like teaching a baby to read before it can talk, and then expecting it to learn to speak by reading the newspaper.

OK, I'm exaggerating slightly. I do use sheet music in my classes at Siamsa, because some students -- mostly those who have played a classical instrument -- can't seem to get on without it. But it's like learning Spanish from a book: at some point, you have to lay down the book, get out into the street, and start listening and talking. There's so much stuff that's not on the page that you can't afford to miss. And as long as you're staring hard at the paper, part of you isn't listening to the sound you're making.

If you can only learn from sheet music, do yourself a favour. Start learning to develop your ear now. Throw away your crutches! Yes, you'll be hobbling for a bit, but soon you'll be walking and then running.

Your best teacher

I know a prominent fiddler who gives lessons but actually believes that teaching is a waste of time. He is self-taught, and thinks that those who are unable to teach themselves never really get anywhere.

I agree and disagree. I think that teachers can be useful: a good teacher can help you along, save you time, tell you when you're on the wrong track. But I also believe that you must become self-motivated, and not depend on a teacher. (This means becoming a True Believer.) Ultimately we all teach ourselves to play an instrument, and how do we do this? By using our ears.

Learn to trust your ears. They're your best teacher. You may read about a certain technique in a book, or have someone explain it to you. But you'll never make it sound right unless you hear it right. If you can hear the sound or the effect you want in your mind, sooner or later your fingers will find a way to do it.

On rhythm and ornamentation: the good cake theory

One of the first things you'll notice about Irish traditional music is the infectious dance rhythms. Another thing you'll probably notice is the unusual quality of the melodies, which is often the result of their "modal" nature (the scales they use, if you like).

But when you start playing the whistle you will surely start to notice the intricate ornamentation that most good players use. And in tutors, and workshops, and talking to other players, you'll soon hear terms like "cuts" and "rolls" and "crans" being tossed about. You'll quickly form the idea that these devices are an essential part of playing Irish music. And so they are.

But -- and this is a very big but -- rhythm is far, far more important than ornamentation. Make no mistake about this. By and large, ornamentation should serve to enhance rhythm. But it is no substitute for rhythm. It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing!

Put time into mastering all the ornaments, by all means. But make sure your rhythm is good. And that means, one: make sure your rhythm is steady (you keep a constant beat, without speeding up or slowing down), and two: make sure your rhythm is acceptable for the type of tune you are trying to play.

You can play great Irish music with next to no ornamentation. There are many fine players who do. But you cannot play good, or even mediocre, Irish music without good rhythm. If your rhythm is good, everyone will enjoy listening and tapping their foot, even if they know nothing about Irish music. If your rhythm is not good, nobody, but nobody, will enjoy listening to you.

I often compare the situation to a cake. Your rhythm is the basic cake, your ornamentation is the icing. A good cake can be delicious without any icing at all. But putting icing on a bad cake won't hide the fact that it tastes awful.

So make sure your cake is good. How can you be sure? If you've done enough years of listening, you'll know. If you haven't been listening for years, politely ask good players to give you feedback. Ask them in private, so they'll feel free to give you an honest opinion. ("So, Joanie, how is the rhythm of my jigs coming along?")

The apparent-speed paradox

Have you ever listened to a recording of top Irish musicians playing a dance tune at a nice speed and decided to play along, only to discover that they are playing much faster than you thought? The music is fast, and yet it doesn't sound hurried, which lulled you into thinking you could keep up with it.

At other times you might be listening to less experienced or less skilful players, and notice that their playing sounds rushed, hurried. They may not be playing especially fast, and yet the tune seems to be tripping over itself. This is not very enjoyable to listen to.

Part of the art of playing Irish music -- and most types of music, in fact -- lies in creating a feeling of space inside the tune, so that the notes fall in just the right place, no matter what speed you're playing at, and nothing is hurried. Largely this is a matter of being very sure of the rhythm you want to create, and feeling confidence in your ability to do so. Of course you need appropriate technique, too.

Strive for this feeling. When it comes, you'll really start to enjoy the music you're playing, and so will others. You won't sound hurried. In the meantime, and afterwards, resist the temptation to play too fast for yourself.

Are you a True Believer?

When you start playing Irish music late in life (say over the age of twelve!), you're taking on a tough assignment. You can start slowly and gently, but sooner or later, if you want to break through to a higher level, you're going to have to become a little obsessed. There'll be a period of at least two years, and maybe much longer, when you start acting a little strangely. You'll be found listening to Irish music all the time (when you're washing dishes, walking the dog, driving your car). You may lock yourself in your room and practise the whistle the rest of the time, with an intensity that your friends and family just cannot fathom.

You will probably take to attending sessions with devout regularity, and sooner or later, festivals. You'll start coming home with obscure recordings of people with names like Willie, Miko and Tommy. Pretty soon you'll be making pilgrimages to Doolin and Miltown Malbay and other holy sites in the west of Ireland. You have become a True Believer.

There are two types of people who take up Irish music. Those who become True Believers, and those who imagine that they will crack this music without going through a period of obsession. In my experience, it is very hard for the latter to reach the promised land. Camels going through needle's eyes have an easier time of it.

For the classically trained

Here's a note for anyone who has played an instrument in another style of music, and particularly for those who are reasonably accomplished classical musicians. My thoughts are based on my own experience -- I learned classical violin as a child before taking up Irish music on the fiddle -- and on observing a number of players who were already proficient or highly skilled classical players before they came to traditional music. Some of these players have been students of mine.

Classical players usually have an excellent command of their instrument and can easily rattle off any traditional tune they put on the music stand. Many traditional players, particularly fiddle or flute players, may have what classical musicians may see as faulty technique, and many read music slowly or not at all.

Seeing this, many trained players, as I did myself, fall into a simply enormous trap, which is this: they imagine that since reading traditional tunes is easy for them, and that since they have excellent technique, they will automatically play traditional music well. In other words, apart from memorizing tunes, they have nothing much to learn. Folk music is simple, and classical is sophisticated, right?

The truth is that there is a huge amount to learn, and also a lot to unlearn. Folk music may be relatively simple, but it has its own rules and subtleties. You will have to learn to hear rhythms that don't exist in classical or rock music, and then to find a way of reproducing them on your instrument. You will have to realize that the written music is only the barest guide to a tune, and makes no attempt to notate rhythmic subtleties. You will have to understand that the tune on the page is only one example of how this tune can be played -- an "instantiation", if you like. And so on and so on.

If you're a violinist, you'll have to learn to bypass, suppress or unlearn ingrained bowing instincts, and learn new and counter-intuitive bowing patterns.  If you're a recorder or flute player, your tonguing, phrasing and breathing instincts will require similar reevaluation. And so on and so on.

The sooner a classical player realizes all this and -- forgive me for being blunt -- learns to eat humble pie, the better. Sadly, some never seem to get the point, even after many years. (If you're in any doubt, a trip to the Holy Land and a conversion to True Believer status is in order.)

Here are a few examples to make you smile and illustrate my point:

  1. Long before I came across genuine traditional music, I heard the folk-rock popularized by bands such as Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span. In the early 1970s my brother gave me a Steeleye Span record for Christmas containing a set of reels beginning with Dowd's favourite played on fiddle by Peter Knight. I bought a Steeleye Span music book and found Dowd's favourite and, with the sheet music and the record, set about trying to play the tune. (Some beginner reel, I hear you saying.) I remember thinking to myself, "If I work at this, in six months I should be as good as this Knight fellow!" Twenty years of fiddle playing later I put that record on again and realized I would probably never be able to equal that performance of that tune. A humbling experience! But it had taken all those years of learning and listening for me to understand just how well "that Knight fellow" had mastered the style.
  2. A few years ago a conservatory-trained violinist started appearing at sessions in our city. Seeing that, despite his enormous command of the violin, he hadn't really understood what traditional music was all about, someone suggested he consider taking classes at the Willie Clancy summer school in Co. Clare, which he was planning to visit with friends. After attending an opening concert at which many of the fiddle teachers performed, he reportedly announced that he hadn't signed up for classes because he "couldn't find a teacher who could play in tune."
  3. Yesterday (18 February 2001) I heard a young violinist aged about 19 busking in my local métro (subway or underground) station. Since I had to wait for a connecting bus, I could listen to him for about 10 minutes. Among other things, he played The teetotaller's fancy at a quite incredible speed -- like Nomos on steroids. Of course, his rendition had zero swing, no ornamentation, and varied not one iota in repetitions, etc. He then proceeded to play a piece of Bach, languidly and quite beautifully. No doubt he imagined his performance of The teetotaller's was masterful. I considered whether to tell him that though his Bach was lovely, his travesty of Irish music was actually offensive to my ears. But then the bus came...

Put some croutons in the soup!

Nearly a quarter of a century ago I was consorting with an accomplished classical flautist in London. Seeking to impress, I took her along to see "The Mulligan Roadshow", a concert in Fulham or somewhere featuring Matt Molloy and other artists of the Mulligan label on a promotional tour. To my consternation, she stayed resolutely unimpressed, snooty almost, with the playing of the king of the wooden flute. But when Kevin Burke came on and started to play fiddle, accompanied by Micheal O Domhnaill, playing sultry cuts from "Promenade", she was utterly captivated.

If the cap fits A week or so later, hurtling down the Bayswater Road in her car (she was an insane driver) listening to a cassette of "If the Cap Fits", she exclaimed, "I love this violin playing. It's so wonderfully smooth and flowing, and then all of a sudden there's these little crunchy bits that are just delicious!" Now I was pretty big into that album at the time, but I hadn't thought of Kevin Burke's playing in quite that way. Somehow her description brought to mind a thick velvety soup, with crusty croutons floating in it...

The "crunchy bits", of course, were the explosive ornaments in the fiddle playing - short, rapid-fire "trebles", rolls, cuts and so on. Ever since then I think I've associated shaping tunes with the art of cooking. Without wishing to flog the analogy to death, a tune is something like a recipe. You need to try it and practise it and see how much savour you can put into it, flavour it to suit your own taste. The techniques of traditional playing that you acquire become like so many jars of spices and flavourings that you can stir in whenever you want to give the tune the flavour you want. This is what I mean when I sometimes refer to your "ornamentation spice-rack".

The best recipes are always slightly improvised. Who wants to serve up exactly the same dish every time? When you first learn tunes, you'll be keen to "get them down pat", to learn them exactly as you heard them on a record, or from a tune book, or from another musician. This is good! But as you develop, and are exposed to the playing of more and more players, you'll start to realize that....

...A tune is quite a fluid thing

The tune is present, is represented, in any performance of it, in any written version of it. But the tune is generally much more than any one performance. Especially the old, well-worn traditional tunes that generations of musicians have loved and shaped and made their own. I always enjoy listening to master players of an older generation, like Séamus Ennis and Bobby Casey. Very often you'll find the same tunes on several different recordings by such a player, and the various performances will be surprisingly different. Listening to musicians like these taught me to see that any playing of a tune as what you might call an "instantiation" - an example, an incarnation, a rendering, of something that could be very different played by a different player, or by the same player on another occasion, and yet remain unquestionably the same tune.

So, as you develop, use all your croutons, spices, flavourings, all your understanding of a tune, to play it with a certain freedom, with the joy in creating a new dish every time, never quite the same, even if it always bears your signature.

The flow paradox

--- Coming soon ---------------------.

Page content updated 16 May 2001