Thursday, August 04, 2005

Tunes: Kerrigan's Jig

Some days I can't seem to get a tune right at all, even tunes I've been playing for months. Other days everything comes easily, and sounds great. Being a navel-gazing sort of person, I've spent some time thinking about the "bad days," and I've noticed that I have more of them when I'm learning a new tune.

My working theory at the moment is that the information in my brain about the new tune temporarily "crowds out" information about how to play the tunes I already know. Of course I can't play the new tune very well, either, having just learned it, and so everything sounds bad, even though I've actually learned more than I previously knew.

With practice, I improve on the new tune and also reinforce the skills for playing the "older" tunes. Re-learning the information makes the memory stronger.

The same thing happens when I'm trying to improve my performance of a tune I already know, like working on getting the jig rhythm correct or alternate ways of tonguing (or not) a group of notes. I find that when I've been working on these variations it's harder to play the tune, even without them, as I have to make a conscious effort to play the tune in the "old way."

But playing the tune mindfully is, I think, more important than playing it "correctly." Being able to precisely imitate the intonations and style of players like Mary Bergin and Seamus Egan is not something I aspire to, even though I love listening to their recordings (well, most of them, anyway). What I admire most about their performances is not the finished product per se but rather their ability to play the tune consciously, in the moment.

When I am first learning a tune, I don't play it very well at all. I have to think about every note, so I get the rhythm wrong and make lots of mistakes. Later on, I know the basic pattern of notes, and I can play it from end to end, on time and without playing a wrong note; I tend to start playing it a bit faster. But there's a real danger here; playing the tune can become a mindless exercise of muscles rather than a mindful rendition of the tune.

That brings me to Kerrigan's Jig. Most people know this as the Kesh Jig, but L.E. McCullough, in his Complete Irish Tinwhistle Tutor, includes a slightly different version which I'm currently practicing, and uses the "Kerrigan's" title. The thing that I like most about this book is that is that he has, for a few of the included tunes, notation and recordings of four different ways of playing the tune.

Now this tune isn't easy to play to begin with. Many people complain about the high notes in the second part of the tune, but I find the last few measures easier than most of the rest of the tune. What throws me more are the complicated changes in fingering, such as going from high D to low B and back to high D again (here's one tip for this) and the repeats that aren't quite repeats. Also, it's more than passingly similar to the Blackthorn Stick, the first dance tune I ever learned; I avoided the Kesh for some time since playing it confused me pretty badly! So I plan to spend some more time getting the basic tune down before trying the variations.

Nevertheless, I chose to learn the tune now not because of its ubiquity but because of its featured place McCullough's book; I do intend to move on to the variations at some point. This (multiple variations of a tune with notation and recordings of each) is something I wish tutorials did more often, mostly because it's harder to find in other places: Non-tutorial CDs might include multiple variations (in repeats), but are usually played very fast and don't come with notation. For a tutorial, as opposed to a tune book, I'd rather have lots of variations of a few tunes than lots of tunes with few variations.

As I noted at the top of this post, however, learning these variations is going to confuse me. As I play, I'll have to deal with the fact that there's more than one way I can play each measure, and make a conscious determination of which I'm going to use. It's going to sound pretty bad at first. But I hope that in the end it will help me retain the mindfulness that I had to practice when I first learned the tune.

Endnote: I wrote that I liked "most of" the recordings by Mary Bergin and Seamus Egan. Actually, I like everything I've heard from Mary, and I think Seamus Egan's work with and without Solas has produced some of my favorite CDs. I'm particularly fond of The Words That Remain. But Egan is less interesting to me the further he gets from Irish traditional music. I found When Juniper Sleeps to be almost unlistenable for me in a "new age lite jazz" kind of way. The Hour Before Dawn was OK, but it isn't Solas in their prime, either. I don't mind non-traditional music — I like the Pogues, the AfroCelts and Loreena McKinnitt, for example — but I've come to believe that traditional-contemporary hybrid music is just a completely different skill than traditional music, and folks who are brilliant at the latter don't necessarily do well at the former. Nevertheless, Egan's best recordings are some of my favorite CDs at the moment, so the great more than outweighs the less impressive in his case!

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