Monday, June 27, 2005

Technique: Blowing C Natural

On the recommendation of a Chiff and Fipple forum post I bought a Korg CA-30 tuner. It immediately helped me fix a problem I've had getting C natural to sound right. I've tried alternate fingerings, but they didn't help at all. With the tuner as feedback, it was very simple to figure out the correct breath pressure.

I suppose I should be able to do this entirely by ear, but it hadn't occurred to me that the correct pressure for C natural would be lower than for B (on my whistle, anyway), or that the variation in pitch for C natural would be so much greater than for other notes. That alone was worth the $20 I spent.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Shows: Gaelic Storm

I don't go to shows as much as I used to. The ideal show for me is unamplified or at least not uncomfortably loud, and promoters of live shows don't seem to share my taste. It's unfortunate to pay $15 for a show and have to listen through earplugs.

But with my family out of town for a week I found my way out to see Gaelic Storm a few days ago, and I'm glad I did. The band put on a first-class show, both in terms of music and engaging the audience. It threatened to descend unrecoverably into silliness as they covered their own song Johnny Tarr in the styles of Eminem and Led Zepplin, but let's just say that the crowd was sufficiently lubricated to appreciate the antics at that point. And when they returned to Irish sounds they proved they had lost none of their momentum in the intermission.

Pete Purvis, who started the show playing tin whistle, ran into a series of technical issues at first. The sound man had him way too low in the mix, and it was very difficult to hear him playing. He then tried to switch to electronic pipes, which didn't work at all. Moving on to the uilleann pipes, he again was shortchanged in the mix. Finally, he switched to the GHBs.

That took care of the volume problem...

And at that point everyone else on the stage could have just stopped playing and I don't think I would have noticed. He just blew me away! The man is the best highlands piper I have ever seen perform live (though I reserve the right to change this opinion after I see the Tannahill Weavers at the Dublin Irish Festival in August). It was an amazing performance, and I wish he had played the pipes on more than two songs.

Another standout performer was Ohioan fiddler Ellery Klein. During the show I was chatting with Deborah Clark Colón from the local duo Changeling, a high school friend of Ms. Klein's who told me that she (Ms. Klein) had polished her fiddling while finishing a masters in Irish music performance at the University of Limerick.

Opening band the Bogtrodders, a self-described "plague on sobriety," played a set consisting mainly of songs relating to their favorite pastime.

Miscellaneous links of somewhat related interest:

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Practice: Cut Slow

Another interesting piece of feedback I got in reference to my earlier post on learning to play tunes simply before adding ornamentation was this comment from "Sam_T" who noted that beginning pipers must use at least some ornamentation since they don't have the option of tonguing:

In practice, this means that you have to learn to use cuts and rolls from the beginning to get through virtually any tune. This might sound terrifying, but in fact just leads to different emphasis on learning. For example, the first tunes I was taught on the pipes were the Rambling Pitchfork, the Kesh and Garrett Barry's, all of which feature prominent rolls - this is precisely why they were chosen. Of course I played them VERY SLOWLY INDEED.

And this is just the point. None of the ornaments used in whistle playing are "difficult", in the sense of requiring any particularly complex motor skills to perform (although I might leave crans as an exception); it's not usually the movements themselves that cause the problem, but coordinating them at speed. Most people can play a perfectly good cut or tap in isolation, from the first time they pick up a whistle. The struggle comes in stringing them together. So the solution is to play slowly.

Another benefit of learning ornamentation from the beginning is that it gets you quickly out of the habit of gripping the whistle/chanter too hard. It's virtually impossible to play a good cut when you're hanging on to the instrument as if your life depended on it.

There's more good stuff in this post, so read the whole thing.

I'm practicing cuts on a couple of airs now, so it's natural to play them slowly. I think I might start the Kesh/Kerrigan's jig next, since L.E. McCullough has a number of variations of this one in his tutuorial, both simple and complex.

Shows: Fire the Sound Man

I saw Gaelic Storm here in Columbus a few nights ago. I really liked the show and I'll say more about it in a later post, but there's something that I've got to get off my chest, and I decided to post it separately since it's not really fair to the bands to knock them for something which they often can't control.

In short, there is a lot of room in the world for talented FOH mixers, because way too many folks in this line don't have the first clue as to what they are doing. This is especially true in smaller clubs. It's no minor problem, either. A bad sound man can easily ruin a show, no matter how well the band does.

Gaelic Storm brought their own mixer, I think, and he did OK. The fiddle was too loud and the whistle was too low for most of the show, but he was able to keep the overall level consistent, if a bit too loud, and the rest of the instruments were well-balanced. The electronic pipes didn't work at all, but that might have just been a fluke rather than being unprepared.

Openers the Bogtrodders unfortunately, had to make do with another guy who I've seen at Little Brothers before. The first and most reliable sign that the sound guy doesn't know what he's doing is that the overall level starts too loud and gets steadily louder as the show progresses.

Here's what I think must happen: Sound guy notices that the guitar isn't loud enough, so he turns it up a little. Later, he notices that the fiddle isn't prominent enough so he turns that up, too. And so on and so forth. It starts out loud and becomes deafening. It's made worse by the fact that having done this at so many shows he's probably partially deaf himself and getting deafer as the show goes on.

So although I wanted to watch the opening act, I kept moving further and further from the stage as the volume got steadily higher, and was finally driven right out the front door. I like the music, but my hearing is more valuable to me.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Tunes: Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring

It isn't remotely Irish, but Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, by J.S. Bach sounds really nice on the whistle. Granted, it's such a lovely melody that it sounds nice on a kazoo, but in addition to being a good tune it's usually scored in G and fits almost entirely in the whistle's range with little modification, so it's a good pick if you're looking for something different to play.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Seisiún: An Air is Still an Air, Even If Whistled

Here's an entry in the list of "Things which seem obvious in retrospect, but which hadn't occurred to me before."

After someone at Bardic Circle commented that it was refreshing to play slower tunes I started Sheebeg Sheemore, which is quite slow and has the added benefit of being one of about two tunes I have down well enough to play in public. Folks listened long enough to figure out what I was attempting to play, and then started to join in. But everyone was playing it differently, in part because it's an air and in part because the room we were in was noisy and it was hard to hear what others were doing. I found this quite confusing and ended up losing my place in the tune; I pulled the whistle out of my mouth to listen for a spot where I could jump back in.

At this point a visiting musician — a talented fiddler — spoke up and noted that:

  • Whoever starts the tune sets the tempo, and...
  • For an air, you can pretty much forget following someone's tempo well unless you've practiced it with them.

So when someone plays an air, you should just sit and listen. This is exactly the same etiquette recommended when someone sings an air.

This is not at all what I had in mind when I started the tune! I wasn't expecting to do it solo. But I started over from the top and played it to the best of my abilities, even managing to play a couple of cuts without losing my place in the tune.

I was happy that I managed to play it OK in the end, but I don't think I'll be doing it on a regular basis at Bardic Circle, as I prefer to play along with others. Time to learn more jigs and reels....

Earlier that evening someone started The Blackthorn Stick, so I jumped in and tried to keep up. This was the first time I have tried to play along with a tune which someone else had started at full speed. Wow, that was really fast! I did manage to keep up for a few measures, which was fun, and the whistle sounded nice amongst all the fiddles.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Tunes: Lullaby of London

As a regular part of my daily whistle practice, I pick a tune at random (one I can hum) and try to play it. This is a method of practicing ear learning. Last night I tried The Pogues's Lullaby of London, a song I sometimes sing to my daughter at bedtime.

Wow, that sounds really nice on the whistle! It was very easy to learn, too. Thus far I'm just following the vocal melody, but I'm going to keep fiddling with it.

This is fun, because it's taken a fair amount of work to pick up the other tunes I have memorized now, since I didn't know the tunes well at the outset. But since I've had this song memorized for years and it's fairly slow, I was able to pick it up in about ten minutes. This is a dramatic demonstration of the often-repeated point that the best that the best method of memorizing ITM is to put a CD on auto-repeat for a few days and not even bother with a score.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Technique: When and How to Breathe

I mentioned earlier that breathing in mid-measure, and skipping a note in the process, has been hard for me as I tend to lose time when I try it. But I know it's important so I did a little research and was a bit more surprised by what I didn't find than what I did...

The best discussion of when to breathe that I found is Brother Steve's article on the subject. L.E. McCullough also has a couple of pages on when to breathe in his tutorial, although for some reason it's one of the last items in the book and one of the only lessons for which there is no audio demonstration on the accompanying CD. But that's at least better than my other tutorial book which doesn't seem to mention breathing at all!

But none of these tutorials have any practical advice for how to breathe and skip a note without losing time in the piece. So here's something which may seem obvious to folks who have played for a while, but took me a bit to realize: You can continue to finger the note as usual even though you don't blow it while you breathe. This way you're not disrupting the normal movement of your fingers during the breath.

This is much easier for me to do than my first attempts, where I didn't finger the note at all. I still lose time when doing this at a fast tempo, but much less so than before, and I think it's only a matter of practice before I have this mastered.

Update (21 September 2005): In hindsight, I think the suggestion above is profoundly wrong.