Monthly Archives: March 2016

The Music House Returns to Doolin

Though the pub session is now considered to be the customary gathering place for playing Irish traditional music it is actually a recent innovation.  Probably dating from the 50s and 60s when expatriate musicians gathered in London pubs to share the tunes they played back home.  Many returned home and the pub session took off in Ireland  and it became the centre of musical life.  Before this most music was played in the home.   Some houses would be well known as music houses and musicians, local and visitors, would gather there to share tunes or the kitchen table would be pushed aside and a set would be battered out on the slate floor.

Well known Doolin flute, whistle and spoons player, Christy Barry is trying to bring back this tradition by opening his house to guests to share his tunes and stories.  I was lucky enough to attend the one of these nights when Christy and his wife Sheila entertained 18 guests in his cosy living room and, with the help of some fiddler friends,  kept the crowd of mostly Americans enthralled for almost two hours and served some delicious local cheese, smoked salmon and a glass of wine.

Christy is a direct link to the Doolin of the 70s.  He personally knew and played  with all those whose portraits hung on his living room wall including Willie Clancy and the Russells.  And he spoke fondly of them.  Christy’s monologues between tunes could go anywhere and that is part of the charm of nights like this.  They are not scripted and you could go again on Monday and I am sure it would be very different.

The concept of the ‘house concert’ has become popular particularly in the States but also in Australia and I am sure elsewhere,  where a home owner brings an international performer into their home,  does all the organising  and the artist gets all the proceeds.  This is different.  This is Christy and Sheila sharing  their home with visitors  but the formula has all the signs of being a great success.  With initial recommendations through the B&B’s the numbers at this Good Friday event surprised Christy.  Perhaps the lack of alcohol anywhere else in Doolin (or the whole of Ireland for that matter) was a factor but I think the chance to hear Christy and friends play music and talk about his life, the people and the music was the main inducement and it will continue to draw people.

Christy was very generous in inviting people to join him for a song or dance and many stayed on afterwards to linger and chat.

It was a memorable night for those who were there and visitors to Doolin now have an alternative to packing into a noisy pub to hear Irish music. The intention is to do this three times a week, so if you are in Doolin during the Summer, check it out.

 

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Categories: Real Ireland, Sessions, Stories, Trad Irish Music, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

St Patrick’s Day, Miltown Malbay 2016

Last year I wrote about the St Patrick’s day parade in Ennis.  This year I decided to stay local and I’m glad I did.  This was the real St Patrick’s Day.  Not jam packed with ‘Irish-for -the-day’, green Guinness- hatted parodies that you see in Sydney or New York but this was the Irish celebrating their culture on their soil on their day.

OK, there were green beards and flags and the like but it was Irish men, women and children dressing up so that somehow seemed OK and less jingoistic than in Australia on Australia day when it is just an excuse to get drunk and carry on like a pork chop.

There was something real about it, perhaps it was the rural setting of Miltown Malbay closer to the ‘real’ Ireland than Dublin or even Ennis.  And boy did they go to a lot of trouble.  All the local schools had floats with the obvious theme of 1916. All were dressed in costumes of the day and re-enacting significant events.  There were farmers, soldiers, nurses, politicians and it was so good to see the kids and adults throw themselves into it with gusto. Oh and plenty of guns.   There were vintage cars and there was around a dozen bikes.  Now that’s something you wouldn’t see in Oz,  with the hysteria around bikie gangs, but they got a giant cheer as they roared their bikes in unison drowning out the tin whistles and mandolins.

A couple due to get married at the Armada, one hour after the start of the parade at 3pm, became part of the festivities.  It was great craic and I am sure gave plenty of memories to take back to the States.  I’ve included a few photos.  By the way I was told they flew over from New York with 100 friends for the weekend!

Did I mention there were guns?  And  tractors!  Many of the pubs had a float as did many of the local businesses, the GAA, and some of the community organisations.  And there was plenty of Irish trad accompanying them.  Most of the pubs had musicians, there was music on the ‘gig rig’,  there was the guitar school and the students from Brid O’Donoghue’s music school smartly dressed and proudly playing.  Brid herself leading a flock of youngsters ‘clothed-all -in-green-ho-ho’,   like a modern day Pied Piper.  There were set dances, a brush dance, two fabulous gymnasts and songs and recitations.  What more could you want?

The weather was kind as we basked in one of those rare sun-waves (four days in a row!), though chilly, at the end of it there was welcome warmth in Friel’s Pub where I joined in the session with the music of Aiden McMahon and Frances Cunningam playing to a packed throng.

The pub was already getting noisy and chaotic by the time I left after 7 so that was it for me.  Rather than join the festivities , which I have no doubt would stretch to the small hours I headed home, well satisfied, for an early night!

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Miltown Malbay waits for the parade to start

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Entertainment from the gig rig

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A bridal party stops the parade.  A couple of those groomsmen are a little nervous.

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It’s a long way from there (New York) to Clare

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This has to be better than the parade in New York

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Miltown’s Marvels?

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Guns, whistles and shamrock.

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Guns and guitars

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Rineen school brings the whole class, desks and all.

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Legs and shamrocks

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What would a St Patricks Day parade be without tractors?

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The Pied Piper

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Poor Willie

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Categories: Real Ireland, Sessions | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Immersion Therapy, Part 1.

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Part 1: The path to being a better fiddler?

OK so this is my 100th blog.  It’s hard to believe that I have pressed that Publish button 100 times since I’ve come to Ireland.

I wondered what I should write about for this centennial event and really the answer was pretty obvious.  I came here specifically to immerse myself in Irish music and to learn to play the fiddle ‘properly’.  To catch up on all the lost years when near enough was good enough for Aussie Bush Music and to learn from players steeped in the tradition. I realise that this may not be of great interest to many of my blog readers, so sorry about that, but I know there are many musician friends who would love to do what I have done and might be interested in the results.

So has it worked?  Am I a ‘better’ fiddler?

This is hard for me to write because there is no absolute here.  I can only talk about how I feel.  For me ‘better’ is ‘am I sounding more like I want to sound?’, not ‘am I technically better?’.  So I thought I would approach it first by talking about the process.  It has been fascinating for me learning how to learn; learning how to listen and the whole process of getting inside the music.

I’m not the first to do this of course and there is a school of thought that adult foreigners can never really learn to play Irish music because they didn’t grow up with it.  It’s not in them.  Well there are plenty of top-notch musicians based all around the world who play Irish music at a high level so the jury’s out on that one.

Despite playing on and off for forty years I came here as a beginner.  Since my arrival I have wrapped myself in the music.  I have been to dozens of Festivals and concerts and I have attended hundreds of sessions.  I have done workshops, private lessons and seen and played with so many musicians of quality.  Something should have rubbed off.

I know it’s a cliché but this is truly a journey. As I progressed there have been some clear stages in the process.  While this is obviously just based on my own experience and it may or may not apply to others setting out on the same voyage, I, nevertheless, think there are some fundamentals here worth sharing with those who have learnt their Irish music elsewhere but are serious about improving their understanding of the music and lifting their playing to another level.

I have recognised six stages in this Immersion process.  The process is naturally a continuum but it is helpful to think of it in stages.  Maybe all stages are not applicable to all however, especially if they may have been lucky enough to have had lessons from, or played with class trad players.   If not then they have picked up their music from books, CDs and local sessions, like me.

This is not rigid.   The stages can overlap and you may go back occasionally but I think each stage is a fundamental precursor to the next.  You can’t jump ahead.  If nothing else it will put some context around the difficulties adults have in learning Irish Music.

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Stage 1.  Delusion

Many when they arrive here are deluded that they can actually play Irish music.  This is soon put into stark reality anywhere in Ireland, but particularly here in Clare, where the standard of musicianship is so high. You come to Ireland with your packet of tunes and firstly no one plays them or you are playing with the wrong rhythm, and when you start one you find yourself often without support.  Undaunted you play on and wonder why the session comes to a halt.  Or you come into the session with your pile of tune books and turn to page 11 and play the set to a largely disinterested pub (I have seen this on a number of occasions!).  Most people realise pretty quickly that there is a problem here and back off but unfortunately some don’t.  They don’t read the signs and plough on regardless getting nothing out of being there.  Hopefully one moves out of the Delusion stage quickly.  In fairness some people may skip this stage either because they realise they can’t play and that’s why they’re here or they are truly advanced players.

Stage 2.  Confusion

Delusion transitions into Confusion.  You have realised you can’t cut it but you are unsure of the way forward.  There are hundreds of tunes you have never heard, you can’t even recognise the ones you know and when you do you can’t play along because the rhythm is different or it’s too fast.  You realise that the countless hours you spent learning tunes back in Australia is pretty much irrelevant.  You sit endlessly waiting for a tune you know and trying to join in, keep up.   It is hard not to avoid being a bit star-struck when you realise who you are playing with and you freeze when asked to play a tune.  In fact after a while you are grateful just not being asked to leave.   You hear a tune you like and if you are lucky enough to get someone who knows a name you look it up on The Session or Tunepal and learn it. Weeks later you find you have a different version or it sounds nothing like you thought it did.  At this point you feel sometimes like opting out. The danger here is that Confusion can lead to Disillusion and then it’s all over.  Unfortunately for many short-term visitors, this is where it ends. They go home, not really having learnt anything and confused about the way forward and then fall back into the comfort of playing with their musician friends back home and contented in their mediocrity.

If they are lucky this process ends soon enough; but for me it was at least six months.  But the fiddle has that pull and you can’t stop.  You keep going to sessions.  Gradually you are starting to recognise tunes even if you can’t play them.  You are now entering the next Stage.

Stage 3.   Absorption

It is hard to know when you have passed out of Confusion to Absorption but one of the fundamental triggers is a realisation that it is actually OK if you don’t play on every tune.  That it is OK to just sit and listen.  And it is also accompanied by a change in the way you listen.  I’ve been listening to Irish music since I was in my 20s but I was never really ‘listening’.  I was hearing it yes.  Listening involves feeling it and catching little nuances, all the different layers and the way the sound works. It means hearing the structure of the tune, recognising the patterns in the tune and how they are put together rather than just focusing on the notes.   And then listening to it again and again.  I remember some wise words at a lesson from Siobhan Peoples, telling me to lie out on the grass (when it wasn’t raining) and just listen, eyes shut, to the sounds: dogs, birds, cattle, tractors, insects, wind, cars in the distance.  It is amazing how much the brain automatically filters out and we have to retrain it.

With this listening skill, comes recognition of tunes and gradually an understanding of the structure of the tunes: chords, arpeggios, links, turnarounds, ornamentation and dynamics and this then flows on to improved bowing, tone and intonation.  Along with this comes the ability to pick up tunes by ear, something I was never very good at, needing the music in front of me.  And then you find yourself playing tunes that you don’t actually remember learning.  This is a wonderful time.  It’s when the music starts to grow inside you and your whole body becomes at one with the tune and the conscious and the subconscious start to work together as your fingers automatically find the notes. The breakaway from the dots and the skill of picking up the music by ear is absolutely essential and there is the realisation that until you can do this you won’t be able to play.

Stage 4.  Consolidation

Then comes the Consolidation.  You can now listen and truth is you are starting to play along with maybe 60, 70, 80% of tunes in a session.  But you still don’t ‘know’ them.  You can’t play most of them alone if asked.  This is the exciting stage but you are still not a musician.  You can’t start a tune for the life of you but you play along with hundreds.  Don’t be fooled that you can play Irish music because you still can’t.  But what’s also happening parallel with this is you are developing a style.  Whether you consciously have chosen to play in a certain way or not your own style is developing.  This comes from listening and remembering the bits you liked; subconsciously.  And soon your fingers are doing it automatically.  And all those hours you spent on bowing patterns and ornamentation is paying off, you are doing it without thinking.  Development of your style also comes from the choices we make of which sessions to go to.  If you like the ‘East Clare’ style (whatever that is) then you will be drawn to those players and will make intuitive stylistic choices on that basis.  Maybe you’ve found that nyaah you’ve been searching for.

Practice at this time becomes a joy.  You play along with CD’s or recordings and eschew the printed versions.  This helps reinforce the learning process.  It is a feeling like no other when you play a tune that a couple of months ago would have been impossible.  But you can’t get carried away with yourself and who knows how long this Consolidation phase will last.  I have spent the majority of my time at this stage and but I think I am still quite a way from entering  the next Stage.  At least I know what I have to do to get there.

Stage 5 Explosion and Stage 6 Exploration

The last two stages Explosion and Exploration are theoretical at this point as I haven’t reached them yet.  To me they seem the logical extension of the first four stages.  Arguably when you reach the Explosion stage you are a fiddler. I use this term because by this time you have hundreds of tunes in your head bursting to get out.  You are listening to new tunes all the time outside the session situation and learning them off CDs and taking them back to sessions.  You are rapidly picking up new tunes at sessions.  Maybe playing them after hearing them a couple of times and remembering them next time they are played.  You are starting sets you haven’t planned and effortlessly  launching into tunes because it seems right not because this one always follows that.   If asked you could lead a session.

Technically, you have sorted your problems of tone and intonation.  You play with feeling.  You have your own style and tempo that works for you but you can readily adapt to a session that is fast or slow if required.  You can change key if required or if someone starts the tune in G minor instead of E minor.  Many will be happy to rest here.

The last stage I imagine is when you explore the boundaries of your fiddle playing.  Try different things, maybe reinterpret tunes your way.  Play music from different traditions. This is not to say you have to become a virtuoso but it is about exploring your own capabilities and that of the instrument.

Hopefully you hover between Exploration and Explosion for the rest of your playing days.

I look forward with eagerness to these last two stages.

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Anyway that’s it.  I stress again that this is how it seems to be working for me.  Maybe it’s not the same for everyone but the sooner you realise you can’t just jump from Beginner to Player by attending a few session the better

The problem for many is that most can’t do what I have done.  They can’t give up two or more years of their lives.  So they learn in tiny increments.  I’m not saying you can’t become an Irish Fiddler but immersion with loads of practice can shortcut a process that would otherwise take many, many years.

So where am I now as a player?

I have already said that I feel I am still in the Consolidation Stage but striving  to enter the Explosion phase.  Initially I was obsessed with not knowing the tunes and trying to build up a repertoire, but I wasn’t improving as a fiddler so of late I have been practicing tunes I know and playing them over and over until they sound how I want them to sound.  Of great value to me were the words of Yvonne Casey, “Love every note; feel every note”.  And that has become my mantra.  Caoimhin O’Raghallaigh was also inspirational in showing me how many choices are available when we play a note and not to be afraid to experiment in terms of dynamics and bowing.  And how could I forget Martin Hayes who spoke with so much wisdom about being clear on the sound we want to make even singing it out.

The greatest buzz I get from playing Irish music is with others and creating a sound together.  That means listening to them and listening to yourself and ensuring your playing is both sympathetic and empathetic. Often this can’t be achieved in a large session.

So here’s the bottom line. For the first time in my playing life, I like the sound I make.  I am getting closer to how I want to sound.  So at the risk of sounding immodest, Yes I think I am a ‘better’ fiddler.

Part 2 will look at some specific things that I have found over the last two years that have helped my playing.I will address this in a future blog.

Categories: My Journey, Stories, The Fiddle, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Monday, Monday. Corofin Trad Fest 2016

I spent last weekend at the Corofin Trad Fest.

This is one of those Festivals that after fifteen years, the organisers have got absolutely right.  Corofin is twenty minutes from Ennis in County Clare and like all the good Irish music festivals attracts a loyal band of followers from all around the world .  And why do they come.  It’s not for the concerts, even though they are of a high standard (the venue only holds around 100 people so they sell out very quickly);  it’s not for the workshops, though they have top notch tutors;  it’s not for the dancing (because there is none);  it’s not for the singing (though the odd song crept into a couple of sessions).

It’s all about the tunes.  That’s why the musicians flock here and that’s why the pubs are packed.

The organisers Damien and Padraic O’Reilly very cleverly select musicians to ensure a uniformly high standard.  Not the same-old-same-old that you get in many festivals but if you want to hear new musicians this is the place.  There are also some really interesting pairings.  Musicians that have never met, let alone played together. And sometimes the results are electric.  I still cherish the memory from last year’s festival when Claire Egan was paired up with Derek Hickey.  Wow.  All the pubs are close by and this year there was an extra venue with the reopening of Daly’s.

I didn’t go to any of the concerts so I can’t report on those but I attended sessions on Friday night and all day Saturday and Sunday.  I won’t go into detail.  There’s no real point.  I can only think of one session where I was disappointed but I won’t dwell on that.  The music everywhere was sensational and the crowded pubs were testament to this.

So I ask you to look at the photos and if you strain your ears you might even hear  some of that wonderful music filtering through the ether.  If not then book now for the first week in March of 2017.

But actually I wasn’t going to talk about any of this at all.    Nevertheless I was totally exhausted by the time Sunday night came around.  I had been playing for nearly 12 hours each day and I was suffering with a cracked rib and the last vestiges of a cold.  I was more than ready to head home first thing Monday, with the rest of the throng.

Facebook to the rescue.  A post from Eoin O’Neill, well known Clare bouzouki player and broadcaster, saying he would be at Daly’s for a session from 1:30.  OK I’ll stay.  So I had three hours to fill in.  A stroll along Bridge Street looking for breakfast was interrupted by the sound of my name echoing down the empty street.  It was Eoin O’Neill himself sitting in the entrance of the local supermarket at a laminex table with a cup of black coffee.  I joined him.  And as so often happens we were then joined by one of those characters that make Ireland the treasure that it is.

Mrs O’Brien from the Burren came in and instead of walking past us to pick up the milk and despite having her son sitting in the car outside, she stopped and chatted and stayed for nearly half an hour.  We learnt a lot about Mrs O’Brien but it was one of the most delightful half hours I have spent in Ireland.  She was 82 and sharp as a tac.  She had ten children, she has tinnitus and her husband had died many years ago.  We talked about the music.  Eoin is a master at engaging people and there was an instant rapport, especially when he said she only looked 76.  Touching Eoin’s arm she leaned over and quietly told us there were three things that she loved in life: “music, a bowl of porridge and the hurling and football”.  So we talked about the football.  Full of wisdom, meeting Mrs O’Brien set me up for the day.

And then I had the biggest breakfast ever at Bofey Quinns.

The three hours magically disappeared and I found myself in Daly’s Pub at 1:30 tuning the fiddle.  Just me and Eoin.  And did I mention Brian O’Loughlin and Siobhann Peoples and Blackie O’Connell?  And 22 very lucky people. I counted them.   It was fast.  It was tight and it was brilliant to be part of.  As if that wasn’t enough there was another session after this at Mack’s with Blackie joined by Cyril O’Donghue and and Hugh Healy.  I did a lot more listening than playing.  None of this was in the programme.  When I asked about that, the response was:  “Oh it happens every year”.  I could so easily have missed it.

That was the end of the Corofin Festival but it wasn’t the end of my Monday.  On then to a packed Fitz’s Bar in Doolin for the regular Wild Atlantic Session with the satisfying sound this night of a half a dozen fiddles.

Who said Mondays were a drag?

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Categories: Festivals, Sessions, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

There is a God and He was in Doolin last weekend

The Devil went down to Georgia apparently but God was in Doolin last weekend. And I don’t mean Frankie Gavin, though he was there too!

It was the Russell Memorial Weekend, an event held in honour of members  of the Russell family since the untimely and tragic death of Micho Russell in 1994.

There are concerts and there are workshops but it’s about the sessions.  They go all day and night from around 2pm and all four pubs are buzzing.  The opening concert is a showcase of young local talent and always impresses and there is a headline concert this time featuring Frankie  and DeDannan, which I didn’t get to.

Nevertheless there were plenty of highlights for me.  A quiet session with Dermot Byrne and Eoin O’Neill and Quentin Cooper in Fitz’s,  with Dermot again and Floriane Blanke  in McGann’s, a mighty session with Frankie Gavin, James Cullinan and a host of others at O’Connors that lifted the roof off,  playing with Blackie O’Connell and Cyril O’Donoghue, singing a couple of songs myself and watching  a future star – young Seannai McMahon work the audience at McGanns, with his infectious songs.

Not much more to say really.  Here are a few photographs which I think tell the story. Thnks to Melanie Nolley for the ones of me and Frankie.

Oh, one more thing.  Let me tell you why I think God was in Doolin; and that He/She must be a lover of Irish trad music.   It was Saturday night I had been playing music all day and was suffering with a cold and a cracked rib (long story).  It was 9ish and the pubs were packed and you could hardly move and I had had enough.  So I was ready to go home via a few quiet tunes at the Roadside in Lisdoonvarna.  When I got in the car however I discovered I had no petrol.  Warning lights were flashing and the trip computer said 0 km remaining! I couldn’t risk the 30km home.  So I looked for an hostel room which I eventually found.  Stuck in Doolin now with no transport I called in to O’Connor’s and lucked in to a session with a fired up Frankie Gavin, Noel O’Donoghue,  James Cullinan, Michael Queally, Seanie Vaughan and many more. To sit next to Frankie and play a few tunes was a real buzz.

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Categories: Festivals, Sessions, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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