This Blog will allow my orchestra students (and anyone else) to follow me as I study Irish traditional music at the Blas Festival at the University of Limerick thanks to a Chicago Foundation for Education fellowship.

I also hope that this site can be a resource for my students as I will include links to songs that I am working on, performances, and other multimedia fun.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Recordings of lots of tunes

So here is a link to a bunch of recordings that I made while I was in class at Blas. The teachers included Martin Hayes, John Carty, Eileen O Brien and Siobhan Peoples.

I have more recordings of the class working through the tunes slowly if anyone wants to try to learn some of them. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

So this is what we'll be learning first

So, if you're currently in the Mather Orchestra and would like to play some Irish Music with me when school starts up again in August, this is what we will learn first. This is the Connaughtman's Rambles (from an earlier post) in action in a Pub in Limerick. You might spot me on the left. If you look and listen you'll see guitars, concertina, fiddles, flutes and bodrahn. Near the end of the clip you can see the guy in the middle with glasses on turn around and call the next tune to the folks around him. This was his "set", he started it off with a different tune and was leading.

By the way, I'm sorry for the abrupt edit. I don't know why my camera did this. The jig comes in at the 17 second mark. I spend the first 16 seconds filming the feet of a dancer who was sitting next to me. There are a couple of different types of Irish dancing. The one that most everyone associates with Ireland is set dancing or step dancing. This is similar to what you might see in Riverdance. Everything is highly choreographed  and is often performed with multiple people. There is also Ceili dancing. I spoke of this in an earlier post. You might think of Ceili dancing as similar to square dancing. It is group dancing, often very complex, that is performed at social events.

My favorite type of dancing is Sean-nós dancing. Sean-nos means "old style" in Gaelic and reminds me of tap dancing. You can see sean-nos dancers with hard or soft shoes, but it is a much more improvised form with free arm movements. It is just as rhythmic as the other styles but much more individualized. This is what the girl sitting next to me was practicing. 

Monday, July 8, 2013

Irish sung at pub

So, even if you are a Mather student and have never been to a bar, you can imagine the scene at a crowded bar on a Friday night. People laughing, talking, drinking, having a good time. Maybe there's a jukebox playing. In the US, there is undoubtedly a TV going with a sporting event on. Well at this bar during a trad music session, it was much the same way. Until, as I mentioned in a previous post, someone stands up to sing. Everyone in the bar listens.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Give me a song

So this is a lovely part of the Irish vernacular that I have noticed. And, when I think of it, it is certainly indicative of the aural folk tradition.

While listening back to one of my fiddle lessons today, I noticed that Eileen O Brien kept saying, "Let me give you this one..." when referring to a song that we were about to learn. When the other, more experienced students in the class would play things she would often say, who gave you that or where did you get that. More often people would answer I got it from so and so in such and such a place. It was never where did you learn that it was always who gave it to you or who showed you how to play that. Not only does this harken to the times when the transmission of folk tunes was purely aural, there were no recordings and most people didn’t know how to read music, but it recognizes the fact that the tunes have a million different variations. A certain player in a certain region might play a song in a certain way with a specific embellishment or turn of phrase. I actually already saw this in practice during my limited experience. Eileen taught us a couple of polkas that she referred to as two Begley polkas after Seamus Begley (who played here in a concert on the final Thursday of the sesison). I played them at a session later in the week and the guitar player recognized one of them and said is this such and such a piece? I said no, it is Begley's polka. He kind of laughed and said that Begley was still alive (he’s coming to this program to play next week) and the polka actually had a name. Eileen had gotten the polka from Begley, but just couldn't place the name.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Something that I wish for everyone

It  goes withòut saying that I like music. I like to play music, listen to music, talk about music, listen to people play music and listen to people talk about muisc.

Most times when I go out to see my friends or some other social gathering, I find myself,  at some point wishing we could play some music- but it's just not socially acceptable. Many times I have found myself at a party huddlled in the corner with someone playing the guitar or out on the balcony or porch. There was a time when I was younger when people that I knew would just say, "You can't just start playing music at a party because it takes over everything- It's actually impolite." I agree with this and am well aware of this.

It is very fun for me to be in an environment where everyone is a musician or a dancer. We had the most amazing house session today. It is Saturday, so there are no classes or concerts at the summer school. After a day of sightseeing with some of my colleagues (more on that later) we decided no to go to the session at the local pub, but rather to get some food and play in the common room in our dorm.

There were about 8-10 people. Dancers, Irish flute, fiddle, mandolin and singers. People were from US, Dublin, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Wales and Scotland.    We spent a while going around the circle calling tunes. Most of the tunes were Irish Trad tunes. A couple of people sung some ballads.   Then, everyone started to sing a folk song from their country. A couple of people had never sung in front of others, but the atmosphere was so supportive that literally everyone had a song. The songs were beautiful. There were songs in Swedish, Gaelic English and German. I sung a Steve Earle song and a John Prine song with a girl from California who, like me knew many American folk tunes. We all learned a couple of dance steps from some different places as well.

I have heard that anthropologists have not yet found a culture that has not had music, and music is the perfect medium through which to understand other people and cultures.

I hope that everyone would be able to find something that they like to do and someone with whom they like doing it.

Our session lasted 6 hours....

Friday, June 28, 2013

So now, apparently I introduce super-famous Irish traditional musicians in Gaelic

Dia yeev a harche. Chris is ainem dom. Is fiddler me. Is as mericaw me. Shah ee Katherine Foley. Is rinkoree ee, agas is Magella Bartley. Is fluteedor ee. (pause) Bool hay boss moor.

That's right. I'm a joiner. I also raise my hand for things and sit in front (I am getting blinder by the day). So after my first 45 minutes of taking Irish (Gaelic) when Ian, our lecturer, asked who would like to volunteer to join someone from the advanced Irish class to introduce the performers for the lunchtime concert, I volunteered. The moment is captured somewhere on digital media, but, as of yet, I am unsure as to how to flip over the video from me appearing upside down to me appearing right side up. It went great. I think that I should retire from Irish right now because I really can't learn anything else.

....seriously, I really don't think that I can learn anything else. I'm no language expert, but Irish makes absolutely no sense. As far as I can tell there are no rules as far as pronunciation, syntax or spelling. I'm not sure what it is based on, but there is something about the Romans never making it to Ireland (they stopped in England) that screws the whole thing up. We did watch a video in class- see it's not just in CPS where you go to class and watch movies- it's kinda cute. It's in the margin off to the right. I know that it doesn't work if you are on a phone, so here is a link.

Anyhow. I'm super sad because I literally do not have enough time to write this blog. I know that is really a good thing because I am having very full days that are full of activity, but I keep wanting to get things down.

My day starts with a lecture on some Irish subject. The lectures have included Changing trends in Irish Traditional Muisc, Diversity in Irish Step Dance Practices, Place, Meaning and Function in Sean-Nos Singing and Irish Balladry and Balladeers. I  know that they may sound super boring or that I'm stuck at some obscure music conference or locked in a room and forced to read a pile of arcane dissertations but the lectureshave actually been fairly enjoyable
? Really it's the same phenomenon that you might get when you watch a nature show, a VH1 Behind the Music on Grand Funk Railroad or a This Old House  episode. You really might not have any interest in this person's desire to install track lighting in the third floor bathroom of the victorian, but it's oddly interesting to see how someone would do it.

Although I suppose that what I really like is one of the things that I miss from being in collection;  Its just nice to listen to someone who is a scholar in a subject share their knowledge with others.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

So now, apparently, I dance....

Let's just say that when I saw "Ice breaker céilí" on the schedule for this afternoon, I was not necessarily looking forward to it. Now, I don't know what a céilí is, but I do know what an icebreaker activity is and, after years of working with teenagers and less-than-motivated teacher teams, I was expecting something that involved a name game, post it notes, balloons, string and possibly an obstacle course.

Turns out... céilí (pronounced KAY-lee) is a Gaelic social gathering which usually includes dancing. Up until now, my dancing experience has been limited to weddings where I have had too many White Russians, the Mather Teacher Talent Show and the occasional Grateful Dead cover band concert. But, always the team player, I pressed on determined not to be the worst one out there. I’m not sure that happened, but I did have a super fun afternoon learning some Irish set dances. While Michael Flatley certainly doesn’t have anything to worry about, suffice to say if someone stopped me on the street and demanded that I show them the Waltz of Limerick, the Siege of Ennis  and Shoe the Donkey I could do it! I hope that happens before tomorrow though because I am afraid that there is a small chance that I may forget them.

I actually did learn something musical during my fit of physical activity. Much folk music,  certainly Irish traditional music, was written for some purpose. Much “art music” is written for its own sake and is designed to be heard primarily in a concert setting. Other music was written for religious services, weddings, funerals, songs to be played while working and, in this case, for social dances. It is actually very important to keep that in mind when learning and playing this type of music. Someone will be moving to your music. This should inform the rhythm and certainly the tempo. filddle players are notorious for speeding though things. It’s fun to see a hot-shot filddle player play something that is 100 miles per hour, when in reality many things should be slowed down so that they are at a reasonable tempo to dance to.

My experience here will afford me the opportunity to hear and work with many famous Irish musicians. While many of the names are unfamiliar to me as a non-Irish player, I can certainly appreciate the accomplishments and abilities of these folks. The lecture that I listened to today was by Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin who spoke on a historically famous collection of Irish tunes. He is a professor, musicologist, recording artist and many other things. He is a phenomenal pianist. I could have listened to him play for hours. Most of his subject matter is far too specific to note here, but one of the themes that he kept touching on was the idea that the traditional tunes are actually a living thing. The collection of tunes that were notated in this, the first, famous collection were only a snapshot of a tune and how it might have been played in the 18th century.  The tradition was constantly changing, songs were being added, forgotten and then reintroduced. He even talked about different instruments and how they came to be known as Irish “traditional” instruments. I thought that he was extremely open minded for someone of his position. Often people who are academics or traditional “purists” seem very inflexible towards things and avow that certain things have to be done the “right” way. If you’re not doing something a particular way, then that is “wrong”. It is not part of the style, tradition or genre. He was very cognizant of the fact that the tradition was always changing and adapting and music can move in and out of the tradition.

That was all a precursor to the couple of sessions that I went to later in the day and into the evening. A session is basically vernacular for a group getting together to play music. House sessions are often more informal and then, of course there are sessions at pubs which can be fast and furious. A nice feature of this school is that the students can immediately put into practice the material they learn in a real-world setting, or in this case, a real pub setting.Folk music is music of the people and while there is traditional music played in concert settings, it is meant to be played in social groups and in public by amateur and professional musicians. 

I got together with some of my fellow students for a house session that was very lovely. We played 10-15 songs, some of which I knew and could play along. It was moving along at a moderate pace, people were calling songs and asking if people knew them. There was plenty of opportunity to know what was being played (I was actually taking notes).

This all changed when the session at the pub started. I don't know if it was a typical session for a pub in Ireland, I think that it was probably larger than normal since there were so many music students nearby. Anyhow, I found it very exhilarating. There were fiddles, Irish flutes,, Irish flutesbodhrán, a concertinawhistles, guitar and button accordions which they refer to as a "box". There isn't really any calling of songs, people just start to play and then everyone who knows the song jumps in. Oh... and they play songs in groups of 3 called sets so, often they will seamlessly transition from one song to the next because certain songs are customarily played in sets with certain other songs. The songs go zipping along. I found that, more often than not, if you ask someone who just finished a song what that song was called, they don't know the title- even though they just got finished playing it. I stopped trying to take notes at this point.  

So that was going well until someone moved a table and people would come up one at a time and dance along with the music. That was quite something to see as everyone is smushed together in the corner of the bar. Needless to say, I imagined that I was having an authentic Irish experience at that point until, after one of the sets, one woman started to sing. She sang a capella, a long, lamenting ballad during which the entire bar was silent. The next time it happened, a different woman did the same thing, only she sang in Gaelic. That was about the time that I thought I should put my fiddle away and stop pretending.

I'll try again tomorrow.