Posts Tagged With: Yvonne Casey

Frank Custy. A Legend. “The best day of my trip”.

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Frank Custy is a legend in Clare music.

Never moving far from his birthplace at Dysart the man has nurtured and inspired hundreds to play and participate in Irish traditional music. A visionary who, as a schoolmaster at nearby Toonagh, integrated music into the teaching day and beyond.  Many came under his spell.  Sharon Shannon, Gary Shannon, Siobhan Peoples, Sean Conway, Yvonne Casey, Tola Custy and Mary Custy and hundreds who are not household names – all going on to make their own mark on Clare music. His work was recognised with the Mór glor award for his contributions in 2016.

But the thing is he is still doing it.

At Fleadh Nua held in Ennis in May Frank runs the Foinn Seisiún, held every afternoon during the Festival.

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Frank on the banjo and friends

This is a slow session aimed at developing musicians where they can get confidence in playing or singing in front of others in a supportive environment. It is always well attended. Anything could happen. Everyone gets a go to try out a new tune or a song.  No matter the age.  There are no barriers. You might even get an Australian singing the Clogher Road.

Or you could get a Connemara Set or a Seige of Ennis, with unsuspecting visitors being cajoled into it.

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The joy on the faces of Jo from Birmingham or Megan from Texas, new to Irish dancing,  as they are swept up onto the floor,  says it all.

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Jo from Birmingham in good hands

 

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Megan from Texas and Jo from Birmingham, learning the steps for the Siege of Ennis.

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All ages enjoy it.  

I met TJ,  travelling here with Megan from Texas.  They dropped into Ennis for a day.    As TJ said. “the best day of our trip”.

Who knows how many have gone on to play Irish music or learn to dance after having heard Frank and having the “best day of their trip”.

A big thank you to Frank Custy.

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Categories: Real Ireland, Sessions, Stories, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fleadh Cheoil na hÉirean. Ennis 2016

I usually don’t do diary-type blogs.  But for the Fleadh in Ennis I will make an exception. This is essentially a rehash of my daily posts on Facebook but many of my blog followers are not on Facebook so I am repeating it here for you. Apologies to those who have read it before.

August 13th 2016.  Day 1

Just the beginning…  The first night of the Fleadh for me was at PJ Kelly’s Pub.  Mental. Pub was packed by 9:30 for the regular Saturday session with room for only half a dozen musicians. Great craic but I can only guess what it will be like later in the week.

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August 14th, 2016.  Day 2

I’ve said this before, but what happens outside a festival can be as good as being there. This night was a completely different chilled out experience with songs and tunes at one of my favourite haunts, Cornerstone Bar Lahinch. With Eoin O’Neill, Brid O’Gorman, Willie Cummins, Noirin Lynch, Lorraine Battersby and Luka Bloom seeking respite from the mayhem.

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August 15th, 2016.  Day 3

There is a great buzz in Ennis and today I felt it for the first time. It was a glorious sunny day and the town looked a treat. Streets adorned with bollards. Ha. No seriously; shops were painted, there were window displays everywhere, some pop-up shops selling music stuff and there were people on the street. I went to a concert in glor with Christy McNamara, Yvonne Casey and Eoin O’Neill.  Great music. Narrowly missed Martin Hayes, doing a spot for FleadhTV, looked in at Knox’s, played some tunes at Cruises with Denis Liddy and family, Brid O’Gorman, Lorraine Battersby, Caoilfionn Mooorhead, Veronika von Ruden and Kathleen Bremer and listened to The Fiddle Case in the Sanctuary. In the process I wandered around town and caught a bit of the vibe. Like a street carnival.

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August 16th, 2016.  Day 4

The sun beckoned; so today I ended up on Lahinch Beach with my Fleadh houseguests from Czech Republic (Iva and Tereza) and from Germany (Katherina). It was a very high tide and the sea was rough and smashed against the rocks. The red flag was flying so there were just a few mad surfers in the water. I now see why Lahinch brings the surfers. We found a patch of sand near the river mouth and I ended up in the water for my second swim of the summer. Hardly the sun bronzed Aussie but it was a perfect tonic. Eventually we ended up in town for Supermacs and to catch the last of the evening light. Crowds are bigger today and the buskers have hatched. They are everywhere. Then the rain came around 930 and scattered them and the pubs filled. It was tunes at Cruises again and then we ended the night with Los Paddys de las Pampas. Thanks Lorraine for dragging me onto the dance floor. I hope the bruises have recovered. There’s no doubt about where this Fleadh is being held. Ennis is writ large. Thanks to Tereza for the photos with me.

 

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August 17th 2016, Day 5.

Stayed away from Ennis today but not away from the music. My cottage was filled during the afternoon with the fiddle and pipes of house guests Haley Richardson  and Keegan Loesel from New Jersey in the States practicing for their Competition spots. Keegan had entered eight! JC Talty would have been very pleased. And in the evening a very special session at Duggan’s at Spancil Hill where Haley and Keegan and I joined in with Yvonne Casey, John Weir, Christy McNamara and a few other lucky people. There were some some gorgeous songs and a sean nos dance from Kristen, another visitor from Boston. Back into the mayhem tomorrow.

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August 18th, 2016.  Day 6

Every day is different, Today started with threatening weather and a battle with the Fleadh traffic. Eventually I found a park miraculously two minutes walk from town but it still took half an hour to get through the throng at 3.30 to the Tune Challenge organised byBoston-based Tommy McCarthy. We were supposed to play Humours of Tulla but we played some reels and barn dances and listened to some songs and then just as we were all ready to launch into it the  rain came. Ten minutes later it was fine again. Oh well. This is Ireland. Then I had the most fabulous time dressing up in ridiculous clothes and rehearsing for the Chapel Gates Wren Boys gig (All Ireland Champions you know) and then on to the Gig Rig at 9pm for the absolute highlight for me, of the Festival. What a thrill playing in front of the jam packed street. Many thanks to all the wonderful people who allowed me to participate. Too many to thank but in particular Grainne Fennell and Joan Hanrahan.  Thanks also tomy friend from Boston, Kristen, for grabbing my camera and taking some amazing shots. The street party continued until late in the night as the rain held off. Even the security guards were getting into the silent disco!

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August 19th, 2016.  Day 7.

At the heart of the Fleadh is the All Ireland Competition. It’s why Comhaltas started the whole thing back in the 1950s. Today I went to the Fiddle Competition. I watched extraordinarily talented kids perform with aplomb in the Under 15s, with my house guest from South Jersey in the US, Haley Richardson coming in second. And then second again in the Slow Air. Congratulations Haley. Amazing playing. There were sessions everywhere like at Nora Culligan’s with Claire Egan, Jack Talty and Paraic Mac Donnchadhna and  Friends but try finding a seat! Dodging the showers I settled in for the night at PJ Kelly’s with Eileen O’Brien and Deirdre Mc Sherry etc. Great tunes in a great pub. The picture of the lad with the massive trophy is of William who had just won the U15 Mouth Organ!

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August 20th, 2016.  Day 8.

No tunes for me today. Just caught the end of the Under 15 Ceili Band Competition. Absolutely jam packed tent. Congratulations to winners Tulóg Ceili Band from Tulla. Up the Banner! Another showery day but the music continued in the pubs and on the street, in tents, in a caravan at the back of the Old Ground Hotel and even in the shops where I stumbled on the Toyota Ceili Band from Japan. The ferrets were captivated. The crowds were a real challenge and by 9pm many pubs had closed their doors and just weren’t letting anyone else in. So I settled into a corner of Cruises with some new friends and enjoyed the party until the small hours. A quiet day tomorrow? Maybe!

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August 21st, 2016.  Day 9.

Wet, wet, wet. So not a lot of time on the streets today. I spent the afternoon checking out the merchandise tent (been there, done that, got the t-shirt) and catching some of the sean nos dance competition. Class. The evening I headed to Miltown Malbay in the pouring rain for a concert by the Tulla Ceili Band. Except it wasn’t a concert it was a mini-ceili. With a few guest acts. This was such a wonderful contrast to the streets of Ennis and very few of the Fleadh visitors made the trek. This was real. No need for the whoop-whoop of FleadhTV. I even got up and danced the Siege of Ennis (appropriate?) A first for me. Then a mighty session at Friels Lynch’s with Joanie Madden and couple of the other Cherished Ladies and Haley Richardson.  I like to think of this Fleadh as a Plum Pudding. A great big blob of delicious sweetness but with explosive surprises dotted through it. This was one of those plump little raisins……..

Thanks to Kristen and an anonymous punter for the last two photos.

 

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August 22nd, 2016.  Day 10

The Final Fling!

Monday was such a glorious day of sunshine I didn’t make it in to Ennis until 6.00pm. After saying goodbye to my Fleadh houseguests, Donn and Haley and Lynette and   and Keegan, the afternoon was spent on the shoreline at Caherush but I needed just one final fling. So I headed to town. It was quieter on the streets but the pubs were still doing a roaring trade until the rain returned and Ennis regained some semblance of normality. I played a bit in Nora Culligan’s before doing a final wander and returning home well sated.

Some final words. There is something different about a Fleadh in your own home town. I enjoyed it so much more than Sligo. This was a truly unique week. OK I didnt play much and I went to very few concerts but just being part of something like this was enough. Despite the occasional cold and wet there was warmth and welcomes everywhere. It didn’t matter that you couldn’t move in the pubs or get a seat. Everyone was here to enjoy themselves and they did.  This is the natural home of the Fleadh.

See you next year. And 2018?

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Categories: Festivals, Sessions, Stories, Trad Irish Music | 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

Irish Sessions and the Hungarian Connection

As those who follow my blog, or keep up with me on Facebook, would know I go out to listen to or play Irish music every night.  I have missed a couple of nights in the past 18 months.  To some that might sound dull and one dimensional but so be it.  I have my regulars and favourite haunts and musicians I just love playing with and I try and get there every week.  Why, you ask?  Surely it would just be the same and get boring.  Well I’m here to tell you that that is what is so wonderful about sessions in Ireland.  Same musicians, same venue yes but totally different night each time.  The tunes are never the same, the session dynamics are different with different visiting musicians, and the  ambience is different with a different crowd.

An example.  Last night at the Cornerstone in Lahinch. The session was led by Yvonne Casey and Brid O’Gorman two local Clare musicians.  That is normally enough for me as I love the combination of fiddle and flute.  Eoin O’Neill on bouzouki was missing so immediately it was different.  Tonight there was no backing the tunes had to stand on their own.  On a personal note these kinds of sessions bring out the best in my playing.  There’s nowhere to hide. No offence meant Eoin!.  Brid’s sister (fiddle) and her son (concertina) joined us for a while and that was great.  Unfortunately another regular Severin had jammed her fingers and couldn’t play.  The boy sung a lovely song about a set of leaky bagpipes which brought the house down.  I sung a few songs to an attentive and appreciative audience. It was just a lovely session and normally that would have been enough. But you just never know what is around the corner in an Irish pub.

Sitting across from us and riveted all night were two couples.  After initially refusing an invitation from Yvonne to sing, during a pause in the proceedings, two of them suddenly burst into song in a strangely familiar language.  The man had a gorgeous trained baritone voice and the song was full of life and humour even though we didn’t understand a word,   It was fantastic.

We got chatting. It was in Hungarian.

I should say here that I am of Hungarian descent!  Judit and Gyula have been living in Dublin for seven years and were taking Hungarian friends Aliz and Tamas on a quick visit to the Cliffs of Moher.   We got on like a house on fire.  It was like meeting family.  Maybe we were.  Long distant cousins, who knows?  I’m sure I will meet them again.

Anyway that’s what Irish music does.  I see it all the time.  It brings the most unlikely people together.

Can’t wait for tomorrow night.

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Categories: Real Ireland, Sessions, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Ennis Trad Fest 2015 – The Last Three Days

I have been remiss. Immersed as I have been in the Ennis Trad Festival I have just not found the time to sort photos and write my thoughts. Now it’s over and I have repaid some of my sleep debt I can give it some attention.  Where do I start?

Facebook has been flooded with praise for the Ennis Trad Fest so there is probably little that I can add but as many of my blog followers are not on Facebook I will record my impressions here in my blog.   And if you’re bored hearing how good the Festival was then just adopt the Playboy philosophy and skip these words and just look at the pictures.  I think you will agree they tell a story just on their own.

As someone who has been to all the major schools and festivals over the last 18 months (and a lot of the minor ones) I am often asked what is my favourite Festival.  I have avoided an answer.  Really because I have found it almost impossible to answer.  I have discussed this before in other blogs.  but every Festival gives me something to take away.  Indeed I have a love-hate relationship with many Festivals.  I can’t stay away yet the session experience is often unsatisfying.

I am reminded of Sydney in 2000 when we staged the Olympic Games .  The now disgraced Juan Samaranch proclaimed during the Closing Ceremony  “I am proud and happy, to proclaim that you have presented to the world the best Olympic Games ever.”  Well for what it’s worth, “Ennis – You have presented the Best Festival I have been to in Ireland”

There I have done it.  I’ve said it.  The Best Festival in Ireland!

I suppose I should give my reasons.  Firstly it is the best location.  Ennis in the heart of Clare is the spiritual capital of Irish Traditional music.  Ah sure, there’s Donegal and Sligo and Galway and Kerry and I know not everyone will agree but nowhere have I seen music, song and dance so deeply ingrained as part of the culture.  It bursts out everywhere, in young and old, in pubs and cafes, among visitors and locals and in players and listeners.  So if ever a festival was going to work it was in Ennis.  There are heaps of venues.  Many of the pubs are widely recognised ‘music pubs’ outside festivals such as Faffa’s, Kelly’s, Brogan’s, Cruises etc and many are large enough to accommodate the inevitable giant festival session.  There are hundreds of musicians resident in Ennis and the surrounding villages.  While tourists go to Doolin, ‘real’ musicians come to Ennis.  It is a mecca for many from overseas,  some making it their home.

You can hear all kinds of music in this town.  The classic ‘Clare-style’, whatever that is, to the fast, furious and wild.  So much choice. In fact why not hold the Fleadh Cheoil here?

Ok so it has everything going for it but of course that’s not enough.. ..

This Festival is a special experience.  It delivers on so many levels where the larger Summer Schools and Festivals and the small local ones can’t –  It is a musicians festival!  Whereas if you go to a Fleadh Cheoil the streets are packed with massive throngs of people.  Many families and tourists.  And that’s great but walk the streets of Ennis during Trad Fest and you will see crowds, but the great majority of people carry an instrument on their back.

The sessions here are at a different level.  The core of each session is usually four musicians but up to 30 may join in.  Virtually without exception the music is of the highest quality.  Something that cannot be said of Willie week or the Fleadh or Drumshanbo.  Yes there are ‘session wreckers’ of course  but somehow they don’t seem to destroy the ambience.  And you can always move on as there are so many sessions at the same time; scheduled and unscheduled.  Just have a look at the pictures and you will see the quality of musicians you can hear.

And my pet hate… pubs so noisy you can’t hear yourself or the fiddler sitting next to you and patrons so disrespectful it becomes unpleasant.  Just not a problem here.  I love to watch people while I play and there are so often smiles; or listeners with their eyes closed and those chatting do so without disturbing.  Yes there is sometimes tension as many don’t understand the unwritten rules around sessions but somehow it works itself out.

I reread my blog from last year and I’m going to repeat what I said then,  Not because I am lazy but because what I observed then is confirmed this year and I can’t really add to it.

For me the fact that this was a ‘special’ festival was apparent from the very first session on Thursday to the last note played on Monday night. In my short time here in Ireland I have made many musical friends and this Festival made me realise how important that is to enjoying the musical experience to the fullest. A music festival is not just about the music you hear or make but how you fill the spaces between the music. There was such a sense of goodwill and around the place that it was so easy to make new friends and there was not the negative influence of the, shall we say, over-excited crowds of visitors seeking a different kind of craic, that was a feature of Miltown.

I made heaps of new friends again ,  John and Maureen from the States, Isabelle from Quebec, a contingent of 25 young musicians from Sweden, Etha from Bali, probably the only fiddle player in Indonesia, Ben from UK, Angela from Germany.  And of course renewed contact with many in the real, rather than virtual, world such as Veronika, Steve, Sarah, Clare, John, Jim and Barbara, Tony and the rest of the Festival Family.

I didn’t get to many concerts this time because I wanted to play but I did see Beoga which inspired some of the most creative dancing I have ever seen, and I saw Dermot Byrne and Flo Blancke; beyone sweet! And there were some great music in CD launches – including the wonderful Claire Egan’s first CD.

But for me it was about the sessions.  Of course I can only talk about the ones I was at.  And you can’t be everywhere.  But I have to mention the first with the Lahawns (Andrew MacNamara and Friends) in Ciarans and the last in the front bar of Queens with those still on their feet at 3am on Tuesday morning.  In between my musical buttons were pushed by Yvonne Casey and Brid O’Gorman in Cruises,  Yvonne and Eoin O’Neill and Damien Werner  in Suas.  Martin Connolly, Eileen O’Brien and Geraldine Cotter in The Old Ground.  Blackie etc in the Diamond, the Clancy sisters in Copper Jug,  and some sessions not in the programme such as Monday morning at Queens with a host of international visitors and in the Rowan Tree at 4am on the Saturday morning.  And then there was time to let the hair down literally with the legendary Trad Disco and Paddy de los Pamas in Cruises.

It was the right move to get accommodation in Ennis and I really want to thank all those who made this possible for me with my current travelling limitations.  Particularly Yvonne and Steve for the lifts in and out, Lorraine for her couch, when all the hotels were full, and the organisers for delivering the Best Festival in Ireland.  You have something special here.

I particularly enjoyed photographing this event and I am very happy with some of my images despite my camera playing up and the really high ISO I needed for flashless photography.  So here goes…

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Farewell and Thanks to Ennis TradFest 2015

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The final session at Queens

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All too much for some

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It starts here.

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The Ennis Bard

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Part of the International Brigade

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Relaxing at Suas Cafe

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Kieron, do you really think you can show the master?

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Sweet

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I love this photo

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Part of the Swedish invasion

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Tara Howley CD launch

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Some running repairs

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Bliss

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When Quebec meets Ireland

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Interpretive Dance 1

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Interpretive dance 2

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Beyond sweet

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there you are Alistair. A serious shot

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Categories: Concerts, Festivals, Sessions, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Eoin O’Neill and the Mórglór Award

Every now and then something comes along that, for me, reaffirms my raison d’etre for being here in Ireland.  Something that underscores and reinforces the creative core of Irish music and gives a window into the Irish psyche.   Such an event was the Mórglór concert held on 10th October in the glor Theatre.  The Mórglór award is relatively new and the brainchild of Tim Collins, leader of the Kilfenora Ceili Band among other things, and is presented to an individual or group who have made an outstanding contribution to culture in Clare.  It is not so much the concert (and it was fantastic by the way but I will have more to say on that) which made this event outstanding  but it was the way it embraced and fired up the local and international community of traditional music followers.

Last year the award was deservedly won by the organisers of the Corofin Festival.  The recipient this year was Eoin O’Neill.  Eoin is a giant on the Clare music scene.  His contribution to music in this county is deep and profound.  He has been playing trad,  particularly in Doolin and Ennis, since he arrived here from Dublin 35 years ago, playing with many of the greats.  He has recorded dozens of CDs both his own collaborations or as a session musician with many of the big names, adding his sometimes subtle, sometimes driving, bouzouki always in tune with the music and always with soul.  He has mentored many younger musicians encouraging them to play in public and to record and he has also identified many older musicians ensuring their legacy is preserved. To watch him work a room during a session and bring everyone along with him for the ride is to watch a master communicator and someone who really understands the pull of Irish Music and why people come here. Through his contribution to the ClareFM programme West Wind he has built an enormous international following.  It would be difficult to overstate the contribution this has made to Clare’s reputation as the go-to place for Irish Music.  This is evidenced by the response to this concert.  As soon as it was announced tickets flew out the door even before the line-up was announced.  Many of these bookings came from Eoin’s followers all round the world.  People came for this concert from Netherlands, Belgium, UK, France, Germany, the US and who knows where else.  Many of these are regular attendees of festivals in Clare and many have their strong connection to Clare music through Eoin.

As I say it wasn’t just the concert.  What was remarkable was that this award triggered a Festival-like celebration and an almost continuous weekend of traditional music.

On Friday night was a session at PJ Kelly’s with Eoin, Joan Hanrahan and Brid O’Gorman and many visitors.  It was hard to get a seat at the table.  Kelly’s is one of the great pubs in Clare to listen to and play Irish music and I have written about this before but this night had something extra.  Particularly of note was the singing, which soared, with contributions from Noirin Lynch, Willie Cummins, Steve Brown, Job Cornelissen and singers from the bar.  A particular highlight for me was when the whole pub joined in with the singing of Red is the Rose.

I might digress here to mention briefly Eoin’s influence on me.  I play with Eoin regularly.  Musicians that Eoin plays with are the kind of musicians that I enjoy playing with.  So he has become a friend.  With a dry sense of humour, his mastery of the Irish tradition of slagging, his deep knowledge of music and his strong opinions, which he is only too willing to share, it is a pleasure to spend time in his company.  He has tolerated my musical inadequacies with good grace and always made me feel welcome.  And recently he has encouraged me to sing more and play guitar even suggesting songs, one of which was Red is the Rose.  That night at Kelly’s I understood why.

Saturday afternoon saw visiting musicians gather at Cruises from 2pm to share tunes and stories.  I love playing in the afternoon.  The pubs are quieter the music somehow seems cleaner and everyone is more relaxed.  This turned out to be the case here.

But all this was a precursor to the main event which kicked off at 8pm.  The programme had Eoin’s stamp all over it.  Mainly a reflection of where he is at now musically, but with clear reference to where he has come from.  Ever generous with his time and his words, he paid tribute to Tony Dalton who he acknowledged as his greatest influence on his arrival in Doolin and who broke a 30 year playing hiatus to join Eoin on stage.  There were also some of his old sparring partners such as Kevin Griffin, Terry Bingham and Kevin Crawford and among his current collaborators were Yvonne Casey, Joan Hanrahan, Brid O’Gorman, Luka Bloom, Quentin Cooper, Adam Shapiro, Dermot Byrne, Noirin Lynch and Willie Cummins.   And surprise packets (though not to me as I was well aware of their talents) were some of his protégés such as concertina player Aiobheann Queally and the sweet, sweet voice of Clara Buetler.  It was a complete concert with various combinations of the who’s who of Clare music weaving their tunes and songs through a packed glor theatre.  The common thread was Eoin’s ever-present bouzouki and his ever-present sense of humour.  The obvious friendship with all of the musicians and, in particular, his long-time colleague Quentin Cooper, binding it all together.  The music reached great heights.  Luka Bloom put in an excellent set with his more driving contemporary sound being a strong counterpoint to the class traditional music that we had most of the night. This was a gentle reminder that Eoin is not just about trad but has wide musical tastes as evidenced by his eclectic radio show on Sundays where, as was pointed out during the night, you can have Purple Rain followed by Micho Russell. There were many highlights for the night.  But for me the biggest buzz is what happens when you put class musicians together who understand each other and enjoy playing together.  This was no more in evidence than in the last set where everyone joined in and took the roof off.  Ever humble Eoin was somewhat bewildered by the standing ovation which he so clearly deserved.

As is often the way in this town, the concert was only the beginning of the night and many adjourned to the Old Ground where the Guinness flowed along with the music until well after 4am.  To his credit Eoin was there until the very end, when I departed, stumbling back to my bed in the Rowan Tree to grab some fitful sleep.

As if that wasn’t enough the Sunday saw the remnants gather at Brogan’s at 1pm for what one would have thought would have been a nice quiet recovery session.  But no.  The tiredness was evident but the music did not suffer.   It was a bit of the old Brogans and it felt good to be part of it.

A wonderful and fitting weekend of celebration for a great man of the music.  Comhghairdeas ó chroí le Eoin.

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

Feakle Matters

Since I last posted on Willie Week I have been to schools and festivals at Tubbercurry, Drumshanbo, Achill and Feakle.  So I have a bit of catching up to do. I will start with Feakle and post on the other festivals as I have time.

As I write this, the sun is shining and the Quilty coastline looks stunningly gorgeous outside my study window. I should be out there and I will but first I need to say a few words about Feakle before it becomes too distant a memory. Does Feakle matter? (well I thought it was funny at the time – last year in a Guinness-fuelled creative frenzy the idea of a local newspaper with the name Feakle Matters popped up so it seemed logical as the heading for this blog) The answer: yes.

Feakle is an otherwise sleepy village with the four pubs and a fifth, the famous Peppers, about half a mile down the road. It is legendary as the home of PJ Hayes and his illustrious son Martin, and the surrounding villages are the home of many musicians, now and in the past, some of them icons of Irish music. On this weekend it is a one lane street choked with musical pilgrims visiting the spiritual home of East Clare music and the Tulla Ceili Band.

Feakle markets itself as an International Festival. That ‘international’ flavour comes from the hoards of overseas visitors who come specially, though there was one international act ‘The London Lasses’. The music however is pure Irish. I won’t say pure Clare, because visitors from Kerry and Sligo and Galway and elsewhere see to that, but the influence of Mary MacNamara, Martin Hayes and the legacy of Paddy Canny and PJ Hayes shines through everywhere.

There are many highlights and I can’t begin to list them. You could have done a lot worse than to just grab a seat in Peppers and stay there for the full four days. You would have heard Seamus Begley, Martin Hayes, Cliare Egan Paraig Mac Donagh, Derek Hickey Gerry Harrington, Conal O’Grada, Benny Macarthy, Andrew MacNamara, The London Lasses, Pat O’Connor, Mark Donnelan, Cormac Begley, Anne-Marie McCormack, Eileen O’Brien, Dave Sheridan, Charlie Harris, Joan Hanrahan, Brid O’Gorman, Conor Keane, Joe Fitzgerald and the rest.  What separates Feakle from the other summer schools and festivals is that people here come for the music. Yes they come for the craic and the Guinness but there is a reverence here that I didn’t find everywhere and often the music was so good that the pub was stunned into silence without the need for a chorus of ssshhhsshh’s. Peppers is one of the best places to listen to Irish music. It is intimate but there is room for both the listener and the player and there is room for the occasional set dance. Sessions at Festivals can be a mixed bag and there are always some that disappoint (I will talk about this in another blog) but here at Feakle the quality is so high that whether you play or listen you can’t fail to be satisfied.

For me. Two days of workshops with Martin Hayes and a day from an equally impressive Yvonne Casey was a major highlight. Martin spoke at length of his approach to playing and there was much wisdom. We were also treated during his class to an impromptu concert from Martin and Mary MacNamara.  Wow.  Yvonne’s workshop complemented this beautifully and I came away inspired just as a School should.  Best of all there was a tutor’s session where a privileged few of us had the opportunity to play for two hours in PJ’s Corner with Martin and his nieces Aiofe and Ciara. It was 4pm so the pub was quiet and it was sublime, respectful and not just a highlight of the festival but of my stay in Ireland.

I was also very lucky to catch up with Joe Fitzgerald. Joe lives in Melbourne with his brothers and is at the centre of the session scene there. He was making a rare visit back to his home near Feakle and I was surprised with the reverence he was held in here. We had a great chat and it turned out he was a sometime prospector and had worked the area around Kookynie in the WA goldfields where I cut my gold exploration teeth in the early 80s.  TG4 were filming him for a documentary and afterwards he joined in a session in Peppers. This session was memorable as it had Aiofe and Ciara Hayes and Amy and Sarah Donnelan and other young Feakle/Tulla musicians and amply demonstrated the continuity of the musical tradition in this part of the world. Almost like a handing over of the baton from Joe to the new custodians of this great tradition.

While on the young players, there was a tremendous opening concert with groups of local young musicians, many of whom are County and Provincial champions and will no doubt come home from Sligo as All Ireland champions. Mary MacNamara and Eileen O’Brien and all the others who put so much time into ensuring the young inherit the strong local tradition of quality dance music, with the characteristic bounce and ensure that it is played with honesty, passion and heart are to be commended and thanked.

Feakle is a great meeting place and if the weather is good there is no better place to spend time than on the benches outside Peppers. May this continue well into the future.

There’s plenty more I could say and should but I’ll just put a few pics up. I was so busy playing that I left the camera behind on a number of occasions so I haven’t caught everyone or every great moment but I think you’ll get the picture.

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

Super Sunday

What a Sunday.

After a very late night at the Cuckoo Fleadh in Kinvara in Galway I was slow to get started but discovered the perfect antidote at Byrnes Restaurant in Ennistymon. Yvonne Casey and Jon O’Connell.  This was as close to pure as you could hope for.  It was a sublime combination of music and place. Outside after the night’s heavy rain the Ennistymon falls were gushing.  Inside a fiddle and guitar melted together in the hands of two world class players. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t all Irish. At times the small but appreciative audience were mesmerised. I came away enervated but and itching to play.

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So off to Kinvara again for the Cuckoo Fleadh. There were sessions everywhere by the time I arrived. The highlight for the day was a session with Brid Harper and eight fiddles. At least until the noise from the local lads became too much. Hope I dont offend anyone but I am a fiddler, and for a change to hear eight of them with only a whistle, flute and concertina was heaven.  Great to catch up for tunes with with Moya and Sandra in the back bar of Connollys and with Bridge and Siofra.  On top of 11 hours of music the previous day (including a madcap session with Andrew MacNamara and Eileen O’Brien and meeting and playing with Eilish O’Connor again, after 33 years!) I was well satisfied

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Then off for a session at the Blacksticks Pub at O’Callaghan’s Mills. It lies somewhere between Feakle and Tulla and is one of those rare gems of pubs. It only has music on holiday Sundays and the session in the kitchen, led by Pat O’Connor and John Canny and attended by locals from Feakle and Tulla was a real little window into East Clare. I will talk more about this in another place but I got home at 3.30am, after pretty much circumnavigating Clare, tired and satisfied.

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Categories: Festivals, Sessions, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Burren Backroom Series Concert Ennis

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A concert of traditional Irish music was held in Ennis on Thursday 26th February at the Queens Hotel, not a usual venue for this style of music but those who braved the cold February night were well rewarded.

The concert was staged by Tommy McCarthy, from Galway and Boston, in aid of the Walk in my Shoes campaign to support the St Patrick’s Mental Health Foundation. This Foundation helps vulnerable young adults with a need for mental health services. This is one of a series of concerts which Tommy has staged under the banner ‘Burren Backdoor Series’ and it follows on from an earlier successful Facebook campaign involving traditional musicians in Ireland and the US.

Tommy gathered together an extraordinary array of talent mostly from Clare but with a few welcome blow-ins from places such as Donegal, Galway and Tipperary, all who generously gave their services to the cause. What a night.

The evening was very ably hosted by Paula Carroll, one of the presenters on Clare FM’s West Wind programme (which by the way is unquestionably the best nightly Irish traditional music show in the world and a showcase for music from Clare and elsewhere). The show began with the Tulla Junior Ceili Band, all aged between 11 and 14 and displaying a maturity way beyond this. They certainly captured that Tulla sound and this augurs well for the senior band in years to come. Their act had plenty of variety with a shortened brush dance and a delightful recitation from young seanchaí (shanachie), Naois O’Sullivan entitled ‘The Restaurant’. Great to see this fading tradition being handed down from her grandfather, who is also a shanachie. This well and truly set the scene.

There were too many acts and too many wonderful musicians to describe individually. So what were the highlights? A good mix of songs from Mullagh’s own PJ Murrihy and, the internationally renowned Sean Tyrell singing of his native Galway and at the end of the evening a beautiful rendition of Beeswing, but the night belonged to traditional instrumental music. There was a group of local musicians led by Siobhan Peoples who called themselves simply “The Ennis Trad Musicians”, with that energetic sound that regulars at Faffas or Dan O’Connell’s would be very familiar with and there were delicious counterpoints from groups such as the Boruma Trio (Andrew MacNamara, Eileen O’Brien and Geraldine Cotter) with their self-deprecating description of the band as the ‘RTE Light Orchestra’ (though they showed they could pump it out too with a rousing rendition of the Bucks, Rakish Paddy and the High Reel to finish their set!) and the sweet combination of the harp and concertina of Eimear Coughlan and Francis Cunningham.   In between we had the McCarthy family Tommy, Louise, daughter Rose and from Miltown, Tommy’s sister Bernadette, a group from Lissycasey, who call themselves ‘In Tune’ (and they were!), which spanned the generation gap, and I have to say my favourite of the night, some gorgeous fiddle playing from Yvonne Casey with tasteful bouzouki from Eoin O’Neill. There was a group called Moher (another ensemble of Clare musicians), some strong representation from Miltown Malbay with regulars from Friel’s Pub and the incomparable Frankie Gavin for good measure. Frankie was worth the 20 euros alone and it was great to see him with just Geraldine Cotter’s piano and without the distraction of other instruments. His effortless bowing and vivacious playing, though definitely not “Clare-style”, was undeniably music from the top drawer and the product of a musician who has been at the top of his game for over forty years.

For those lucky enough to attend, despite the cold inside and out, which even with numerous layers left me with cold knees and toes throughout (God knows how they could play in t-shirts!!), it was a memorable evening with well over four hours of class music.

Another reminder why so many of us call Clare home!

Well done Tommy.

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Categories: Concerts, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Am I playing fiddle better?

Those following me on Facebook know that I was unable to find a session to play at on January 2nd 2015, while I was in Glencolmcille in Donegal. This meant my run of continuous nights of music came to an end. I thought I would be disappointed but after 231 nights I gave it a good run. And in any case I started again the next night so I have only missed the one night in the last 244!

But it’s not about setting records. It gives me an opportunity to look back on my time here in Ireland and see whether my immersion in in the music has led to an accelerated improvement. Logic says that it should have. I started thinking about this after a friend commented on my six month post asking just that – whether I thought I had improved.

An extremely difficult question for me to answer. Perhaps I need to put it in context. I started playing guitar when I was 15. My dad agreed to this so long as I had classical guitar lessons. So I did that for nearly two years. While I enjoyed the classical repertoire my real interest was ‘folk music’, as it was understood back in the 60s, and I played and sung Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, Peter Paul and Mary and acoustic artists such as Cat Stevens and the Mamas and Papas. I also used to sing Dubliners and Clancy Brothers songs but I really ‘discovered’ Irish music when I heard the Chieftains in 1974. I was at Uni and this was the start of a love affair with the fiddle. I got hold of one and started teaching myself tunes from ‘Begged, Borrowed and Stolen” a beginners tune book popular in Australia then and now. It was a slow and painful process but by the end of the 70s I could scratch out Drowsy Maggie and King of the Fairies. As a young geologist my early years were spent in mining towns such as Cobar and Kalgoorlie in outback Australia. In each of these places I formed Bush Bands which were generally a four or five part acoustic band which used folk instruments along with Australian innovations such as the bush bass and the lagerphone. We held bush dances (equivalent of a ceili) and sang Australian and Irish songs but the tunes were pretty basic. I got stuck in this groove for many years and though we were moderately successful in our remote locations I never advanced my tune playing beyond beginner level.   Then when kids came along the fiddle hardly got touched. It had always been my dream to play well. Ok that was then, this is now.

Now I am in Ireland I have that opportunity. But I soon realised coming here how much I had to fix before I could really go forward. Both my intonation and tone were woeful and although I had been listening to recordings for many years and thought I had an understanding of the music this ‘feel’ did not translate to my playing.   Recognising the things that needed fixing was the first step.

So what has changed since I came to Ireland? I have been to hundreds of sessions, workshops and lessons. Playing in sessions is a double edged sword. I have picked up many new tunes. I can play faster, if that’s a virtue, and I have hugely increased my ability to learn by ear. Previously I learned new tunes from the dots and it took ages; and I never really learnt them properly. Now I find myself playing along with tunes that I don’t ever remember learning. This is a great feeling. However in a large session I have trouble hearing myself and can’t really tell if I am playing in tune or not let alone whether I am playing the right notes. Also there is a temptation to fudge bits you don’t know. Hence I record many. I have hundreds of hours of session recordings and am gradually going through these to identify the commonly played tunes and sets in Clare and try and learn them.

This partial learning becomes exaggerated when I try and play the tune on my own. My problems are obvious so I have been working hard on a few rather than the many. On the advice of a couple of tutors I am also concentrating on scales in the basic keys and I can really feel this making a difference.

So am I playing better? Let me put it this way. I think I am. I am playing in tune better. I have slowed down. I am listening better. I am listening to a lot of the old fiddlers on cd and the newer ones as I try and expose myself to as many different ways of playing as possible. I ‘know’ more tunes but still get flustered when asked to start one. A consequence of accumulated hours of listening is that there is a resetting of the brain from thinking about the music as a collection of notes to a series of phrases linked by short runs. A retuning of the learning process from the eyes to the ears. I am playing with a much lighter bow. I am feeling the rhythm and while I know I am still not sounding how I want to, I am happier with the sound I am making. It has been frustrating but at the same time it drives me to practice harder. Constantly in my mind are the words of Lahinch fiddler Yvonne Casey who told me to ‘feel every note; to love every note’. I think I have laid the groundwork and I expect exponential improvement over the next six months. That’s when I am hoping the immersion will pay off.

My goal in all this is to play the best I possibly can.

As a post script I was playing in a session the other day with Jackie Daly and Maurice Lennon among others at Friels in Miltown Malbay.  Jackie launched into Mason’s Apron (the two part version) and as I joined in the realisation suddenly hit me that here I was in a session in Ireland with legends of the box and the fiddle and it was sounding pretty darn good. A year ago I was struggling with this tune. These are the moments that make it all worthwhile.

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