First month of summer played by Tommy McCarthy

A brief analysis by Steve Jones, 9 August 2002


This clip is taken from Sporting Nell, a 1997 recording by Tommy McCarthy (1929-2000), the famed uillean piper, tin whistler and concertina player from West Clare. Tommy, who was well-loved as a man and musician, is survived by his talented musical children, Jacqueline, Bernadette, Marion, and Tommy Jnr. For biographical notes, visit Maree Music.

Sporting Nell is a fine recording of traditional playing, and has the great merit of being totally unaccompanied, so you can hear the playing of an accomplished whistler, piper and concertina player in the Clare style without any distractions. The CD is widely available and is published by Maree Music, who kindly gave permission for me to post this clip from the album.

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The track from which this clip is taken is of two reels, The first month of summer and The blackberry blossom played on a Bb whistle. Tommy starts slowly but soon reaches cruising speed and plays the rest of the set at a fairly lively clip. (Please note that although Tommy is playing on a Bb whistle, I have transcribed it as if he were playing on a D whistle, following normal practice in Irish traditional music.)

I have used tie marks, staccato dots and the odd "t" above the staff to indicate some of the tonguing and articulation that strikes me. To try to notate every tongue and articulation would not only take a lot of time but probably produce an unreadable score. Besides, you the listener have to do some of the work!

Three pick-up notes lead into Bar 1, which starts with an off-beat roll on B. I had to listen very hard before deciding that it was in fact a roll - the final component, or "tap", is very light and barely discernible. This delicate ornamentation is a noticeable feature of Tommy's whistle playing - the ornaments do not intrude on the ear but do their vital rhythmic work at a very subtle level.

The next beat provides another illustration of this "softly softly" approach. Careful listening will reveal that there is a subtle "treble" on the quarter-note A. I hear this as analogous to a piper's tight triplet, a device that Tommy uses to great effect on the pipes, but it is so soft that I cannot be sure how he produces it. I take it to be a tongued ornament - I would imagine a soft "diddle" movement with the tongue at the start of the beat. A far cry from the explosive triple-tonguing of some younger players - yet the device makes its rhythmic mark.

Bar 2 begins with another subtle decoration. What sounds at first listen like a plain quarter-note D in fact has a cut in the middle of it - although it is very hard to discern on the first playing of the tune it is clearer on the repeats.

The third beat of bar 2 has one of those decorations whose name and notation I am not sure of - but I think my rendition gives you the idea. The note involved is a high g. Curiously, this is the only g in the entire tune, and still more curiously, it is in a stressed position. (This reminds me of Strike the gay harp, a tune that has an accented c# on the second beat of the first bar - and no further c#s in the entire three-part tune.)

Bar 3 is the same as Bar 1. In Bar 4, listen to the use of tonguing and the breath taken after the phrase ends on what would normally be a quarter-note e (shortened here to allow a breath.)

In Bar 5, Tommy pushes what we would normally expect to be a low F# up an octave, giving the tune a nice little kick along. Bar 6 starts with a nice long roll on A and a couple of slightly staccato notes in the run up to the high a. The next little passage is worthy of note.

The phrase begins with the last note of Bar 6, high a, and continues for a total of 6 eighth notes, three pairs of repeated notes separated by cuts to form a descending run: a{c}a, f{a}f, e{a}e. (The omission of g from the run is entirely logical given that, apart from the odd example in bar 2, the tune is built around a D scale in which the fourth degree, G, is missing.)

I say this passage is worthy of note because we might expect a different sequence of notes here - for example, a "stepped run" such as a|af ge fd ef, or possibly a series of descending triplets, such as a|(3agf (3gfe (3fed ef. Neither of these possibilities would respect the basically "g-less" scale of the tune, however, whereas Tommy's solution does. Not only that, but the sequence of three tied notes slurred across the beats gives a nice syncopated, very piperish effect.

The second part of the tune, beginning at Bar 9, is built around three phrases of two bars each, each beginning with high a, followed by a rest-cum-breathing space, followed by a short roll. Tommy might easily have played a standard "off-beat roll" here (af~f2) - and in fact he does in bars 10 and 14. However at the start of these phrases, he invariably chooses to snatch a breath and follow with a short roll. (This is what Jim Donaghue also does in a similar position in the B part of Miss McLeod's reel.)

In this second part of the tune, I am not sure I have noted every little cut and grace that Tommy plays, some of them being very delicate, as discussed above. However the main ones are there. There are a couple of staccato notes in Bar 12, providing a contrast to the very fluid feel of most of the second part.

Bar 15 features a couple of typical off-beat rolls - notice that, like the majority of traditional players, he does not tongue the quarter note in each case.

Bar 16 starts with a high b following the off-beat roll on the same note, so Tommy gives us a nice cut by way of articulation, and then finishes with a phrase to take us back to the starting point.

The clip takes us through another complete playing of the tune, which I haven't notated since it varies little from the first. I hope you enjoy Tommy's rendition of this tune as much as I do. Please feel free to point out any omissions or mistakes in my transcription and comments.

Steve Jones