Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Tunes: The Swallowtail Jig

In hindsight, this would have been a good tune to learn first. I like it as a listener, it's pretty simple, and the pitch never goes above high F. Brother Steve notes that a lot of people do learn it first and hence it's not unusual to hear it played badly!

Steve's discussion of the tune is especially apropos, because he also uses it as an example of something else I'm working on now: getting the jig rhythm right. Like a lot of beginners, I suspect, I've been playing them too close to a constant rhythm, without the swing which makes the tune a jig.

But the perceptible effect (to the listener) of stretching the first note in the bar is more than just the length of the note. My teacher pointed out that it makes the note sound louder — or at least more emphasized if not precisely louder — as well, which is an important consideration on an instrument like the whistle which has a limited dynamic range. You can compare the first two audio samples in Steve's discussion to hear this effect in isolation.

Steve's page includes to the version I'm starting with, but there are slightly different versions floating around the web as well. There's also a Swallowtail Reel, but that's a different tune.

Some other things I'll be practicing on this week:

Tonguing:I need to tongue a bit lighter than I have been. So that the effect is closer to a slur, but is still tonguing.

Ornamentation: I need to practice "double" cuts, where the note being cut is sounded for an instant before the cut, instead of starting with the cut itself (a "single" cut). And whatever the corresponding tap is called. And I'll continue to practice slides.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

WWW: A Great Session

Ever wonder what it would sound like if Joanie Madden, Mary Bergin, Eileen Ivers and others got together in a Galway pub for a session? I know it keeps me up nights.

Anyway, wonder no more. Don't miss this link; there are some really good tracks there.

Monday, July 18, 2005

WWW: Scottish Whistling

I've been a fan of the Tannahill Weavers for some time, but I've listened to their music with a fresh ear since taking up the whistle. So I set out to find some information on whistling in Scottish music.

The first stop was Nigel Gatherer's site, which features a short essay on the history of the whistle in Scotland and lots of Scottish tunes in ABC format.

Thanks to this Chiff and Fipple forums post I discovered the Folk Archive Resource North East (FARNE), "home of Northumbrian music online." Their music archive is like nothing I've seen online. ABC format? No way — fill in the search box and get back a scan of a historic manuscript! They have some interesting audio recordings as well. Read this article for a discussion of the history of flutes and whistles in Northumbrian music. Particularly interesting for me was the section on Billy Conroy:

A remarkable tin whistle player, Billy owned a small pet bird which would sit on the whistle, singing, whilst Billy played. His tin-whistles were always home-made, many from old bicycle pumps.

On this recording we hear whistle player Billy Conroy playing a seies of variations on one of Cumberland's most famous hunting songs - John Peel. Notice the way in which the melody becomes changed and increases in complexity with each repetion.

Update: I also found An Fhideag Airgid, a bilingual (English and Scots Gaelic) whistle tutorial for Highland music, which is the source of a tune by the same name recorded by the Tannahill Weavers.

Update 2: Since I wrote this post I have interviewed Colin Melville on this subject.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Seisiún: What to Do While You're Not Playing

I go to an intermediate session as we don't seem to have a slow session here in Columbus. As, by far, the least talented musician in my local session I have gained a certain degree of experience in not playing. This is less of a contradiction than it sounds as I've learned a lot this way.

You can do this with a CD, too, but I don't tend to be sitting down and focused on the music so much when I listen to the CDs, and I like live music and Guinness, so I find a session to be an ideal setting for this.

Here's a list of things you can practice while listening actively; none of them require much, if any, musical experience. I'm arranging the list in what I think is roughly the order of difficulty for someone just beginning to learn the whistle, from easiest to hardest:

  • Tap your foot to the beat of the tune.
  • Learn to distinguish simple and compound meter.
  • Count the tune. This just means being aware of the general structure of the tune and following along where you are within the tune. Since Irish tunes mostly have simple structure with two eight bar parts, each of which repeat before the whole tune repeats, you don't need to know the particular tune to follow along with most tunes. You can count beats or measure numbers, whatever works out for you. You'll know you're starting to do it right when you can predict the repeats as they happen.
  • Learn to distinguish different types of tunes. Tunes in simple meter will usually be reels, hornpipes, or polkas. Tunes in compound meter will be one of several different types of jigs.
  • If there is another whistle or flute player, listen for when they breathe.
  • Listen for ornamenets such as cuts, taps, slides, etc.
  • Learn the names of the tunes. This seems easy, but I'm putting it in the "harder" end of the list since folks don't always say (or know!) the names of the tunes they play at a session. But it's much easier if you're listening to CDs....
  • Listen to the tune and hum along with the repeats (quietly!). This is the first step to ear learning — you have to know what note is coming before you'll be able to play it. This also helps you learn to listen to both yourself and the rest of the session at the same time — an important skill for playing with other musicians.
  • Listen for variations in the tune, such as octave changes, ornamental triplets, combining a series of eighth notes into a single longer note, etc.
  • Try to figure out what key the tune is in. For those of us without perfect pitch this can be difficult. Look at other whistle or flute players, if there are any. Or quietly play a D or G on the whistle to see how it compares with the tune.

Update: I added additional items to the list based on feedback on the Chiff and Fipple forums.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Practice: Private Lessons

I've found a whistle teacher in the Columbus area: Brian McCoy. So after teaching myself for four months I'm finally getting formal instruction. We spent a lot of time in our first meeting trying to figure out where I was and what I need to work on. He seemed pretty happy with what I'd learned by myself and my ability to hear the mistakes I make. There were a few specific things he suggested I practice:

  • An alternate way of tonguing the repreated notes in the Blackthorn Stick. I had been playing it sort of like Brother Steve's method 3. I say "sort of" because I sometimes tongue the first note in the triplet as well. Of this, Steve says, "Let's immediately rule out the idea of tonguing every note. (There are traditional players who make a jig sound good this way, but we'll make it easier on ourselves!)" Brian wants me to try Steve's method 2. Not Steve's favorite, that, but then again Steve is using a different tune. I think it's important to not get married to a single method — I should be able to use the best variation for a particular passage as I play rather than getting muscle memory for a single method ingrained.
  • Regarding cuts, Brian agreed it's important to learn to play the tune in time before trying ornamentation. But that's becoming much easier for me as I practice; I don't have to think about fingerings for individual notes as much as I used to. Still, learning a tune with cuts is in a sense like learning a new tune, and necessitates additional attention to staying in time. Brian suggested that I try playing scales up and down with cuts and taps. It's a way of practicing the movements without having to think about a tune while doing it. Hopefully I'll get it down well enough that I won't have to do that very long, since tunes are more interesting than scales.
  • Brian also suggested I try slides. That may be because I played Sheebeg and Sheemore (just for fun, I'll spell the title of that tune differently every time I mention it), and slides sound really good in that one....

Update: I forgot to plug Brian's upcoming shows with The Kells (not to be confused with "The-less" Kells). They'll be playing Saturday 30 July at Byrne's Pub in Grandview, OH, and at a house concert in Columbus on Sunday 31 July.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Recordings: "SuR" by Kells


SuR album cover Title: SuR
Artist: Kells
Label: Celtaqs en Coche Records, Buenos Aires
How acquired: Gift from the band
How to buy a copy: This site sells it (search for "Kells"). Or you could try emailing the band. You can also find it for sale on eBay.


A great collection of Irish tunes and songs played at an easygoing pace form the core of the record, with the occasional interesting non-Irish-traditional influence as seasoning.


I recently received email from Sergio González, a guy I know from my other life. He had noticed that I've taken up the tin whistle and told me that he played flute and bouzouki in Kells, an Irish band in Argentina (not to be confused with The Kells). Later, he offered to send me a copy of their second CD.

Of course I was only two happy to accept, but in the week or so it took to arrive I wondered what it would sound like. Would they blend the music of South America and Ireland? When the CD arrived the question was soon answered.


"Sur" is Spanish for "south," and of the title the liner notes say:

The South. The North. Argentina, Ireland. Northern music made in the south. The extremes touch, the same spirit, similar landscapes, shared landscapes, music of the forests, roads, of the people who gather around the fire... Together in the mountains of our south we learned to love the music of other mountains. And years later, walking the old paths of Finn, we recognized the same wind, the same voice of the southern cold magician that always embraces us. All landscapes brim with music. The trees dictate their melodies to us... we obey

Acá, en el SuR.

[The last line means, "Here, in the south." But because of the funky capitalization it doesn't really translate directly, so I elected to leave it as written. Note that I've translated the quotes from the liner notes and interviews cited in this review; all of them were originally written in Spanish.]

Now my knowledge of Argentine music begins and ends with Astor Piazzolla, but I don't hear Argentine melodies on the recording. Most of the tunes and instruments are traditional, and the songs are sung in English. In short, this is Irish music. The liner notes are in Spanish, but anyone who didn't see them would be hard pressed to guess the origin of the disc. (I later learned this is not completely accurate; see below.)

Speaking of origins, folks who read Spanish will probably enjoy this article on the history of the band. I'll translate a little of it:

Every trip, even a vacation, implies the search of something, whether it's a new home, hope, different spaces, spiritual tranquility. In the end it can be affirmed that are innumerable motives for which man has left toward the unknown and the novel thing, and always an experience results that changes the traveler who chose the journey. Thus it happened to Sergio González and Guillermo Gómez 15 years ago, when taking some holidays decided to backpacker through Patagonia, the cold and imposing south of Argentina.

In the tranquility that only a majestic landscape can give, they began a friendship with a mysterious stranger — also a backpacker — who studied anthropology and was also named Guillermo. At one moment he approached them with a Walkman and told them, "Listen, this is Celtic music".

"We both liked it a lot", remembers Sergio. "15 years ago Guillermo played the guitar, and I knew some chords. Always, since we have known each other, we played and listened to music, but we hadn't heard Celtic and Irish music. We were listening to Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, a lot of symphonic rock. Later we learned that all that music was influenced by the English and Irish folk tradition. In the end, it was a music which by its characteristic sound brings images of forests, lush green fields, cliffs, a Tolkien-esque aesthetic, which we like. Coincidentally that music introduced us to a group that, in my opinion, is the best exponent of Celtic music of our time, Planxty. For me they are gods; I am absolutely devout."

The article also has several audio files from the band, though they're unfortunately in Real format.

The album alternates songs and sets of tunes, with vocals — all, again, in English — on seven of the fourteen tracks. Nearly all are Irish traditional music, with the exception of a single psychedelic folk song ("Guinevere," by Donovan Lynch) and "The Braes of Balquhidder," a Scottish song by Robert Tannahill. Only one tune, "The Slaughtering of John Flats," was written by the band, and of that the liner notes say, " honor of a great 'friend.'" Make what you will of the title!

Flutes, Whistles, and... Quena!

The wind instrument performances are without question my favorite part of this disc. Of course, I'm biased, but they really are well-used on this record.

One example is "The Galtee Hunt/Cronin's Hornpipe." Kells's rendition starts with an easygoing solo flute passage which reminds us that the Irish flute has a beautiful sound which is interesting in its own right, with or without fancy finger tricks. Other instruments join in gradually, and the second tune in the set is led by the Uillean pipes. It's probably my favorite track on the album.

About half of the tracks feature tin whistle or low whistle, and again it's a nicely reserved performance which fits well into the overall Kells sound. There isn't a track on the album which is completely dominated by a single instrument, although they sometimes step to the forefront in individual tunes within a set. The tin whistle is most prominent in two adjacent tracks on the CD: "Blackwaterside / The Humors of Clough" and "Interminable Set (Flogging Reel / Shepherd's Daughter)." The latter is the only track on the CD which uses piano chords as a rhythm / bass accompaniment. The piano sounds a little out of place, but I wouldn't call it distracting.

Andi Grimsditch, a university professor of Argentine folk music, also plays an instrument which, while I've never heard it used in Irish music before, fits the genre extremely well. The quena is an Andean flute with a sound somewhere in between an Irish flute and a tin whistle. He uses it most dramatically in the instrumental bridge of the ballad "Month of January," sung by Al Atkinson, an English friend of the band. Because its sound is fairly close to a high-pitched flute or a very windy whistle I don't expect the quena to explode in the Irish music community in the way the bouzouki did, but this track really demonstrates how effective it can be as a way to expand the tonal options of a talented wind player. Any whistler looking for a change of pace might want to consider it.

Other Non-Irish-Traditional Influences

With one exception, the non-traditional instruments on this album are used with careful subtlety. The exception is the electric bass, which, though well-played and a good complement to the overall sound, is really too loud in the mix in my opinion, making it overwhelm rather than reinforce the other instruments in the few tracks where it is used. This is my only significant criticism of the record.

The other non-traditional instruments are all used with considerable success, however. Most of the percussion on the album is played on the bodhrán, but Kells also use the bombo, an Andean drum, and the cajón peruano, a wooden box drum, on a couple of tracks. One tune, "Tom Busby's," is described in the liner notes as a "'SuR' jig (chacarera-jig)." I wasn't sure what that meant — the tune itself is just a double jig — so I asked Sergio, and he replied:

Chacarera is a typical rhytm of Argentine folklore. It's in 6/8 so it blends very well with the jig. In that track the tune is, as you say, a regular double jig, but the background (Spanish guitar and bombo) is a regular chacarera!!

The instrumental air "Mr. O'Connor," described by the liner notes as "A tune by the celebrated 18th century Irish harpist recorded in the '80s by the Irish group De Dannan" weaves a melody played on bouzouki and melodica over a background drone played on an instrument referred to as the "bámbolo." I haven't heard of this before, but the liner notes describe it as a "pastiche of organ and keyed oboe sound." The overall sound of the three instruments together is lovely and really works with the tune. Andi Grimsditch also plays drones on the harmonium on a couple of tracks.

Celtic Music al SuR

This is the second and last album from Kells. Sergio and his family will be moving to Patagonia, and the music will continue its southern migration.

Sergio, a computer programmer by day, has been active in bringing Celtic music to Argentina; he recently helped Andy Irvine organize a South American tour, with a very successful stop in Buenos Aires.

There are of course other Celtic bands in South America; has a comprehensive list (most of the site is in Spanish).