Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Tunes: Sí bheag Sí mhor

So Jerry Freeman posted this request for folks to play a tune or lift a glass for his mum, who passed away recently. I have a Jerry-tweaked Clarke Sweetone, so I chose that whistle and played Sí bheag Sí mhor. I've been practicing other stuff, so I hadn't played the tune in a while, but I ended up playing it really well. Almost eerily well, considering what a terrible whistler I am. Certainly better than I had personally ever played it before. Maybe the somber occasion helped me focus on the tune? It was the best I could have done to fulfill Jerry's request, and I was happy about that.

At any rate, I played the tune again later that day to make sure I could still play it with the same feeling (I could) and thought some about what I was doing differently. Mentally the difference is easy to explain: As I played, I was thinking about the recordings of the song that I've heard instead of thinking about how to count the notes. This is how it should be done, but it was hard for me to do in the past before I had really learned it. It really does confirm the value of listening to recordings of tunes that you're learning repeatedly, however; sooner or later they get stamped into your mind and will surface to help your playing when you least expect it! But that has to translate into some kind of physical change in my playing, and I was curious what it was.

I discussed this with my teacher and played the tune both ways for him. He pointed out that I was tonguing a bit less and playing it faster. Both of these are true, but I think there's something more. I think I'm swinging the beat a little and modulating how much air I put into each note as it progresses. The physical changes are incredibly subtle, but the net effect is like night and day to me.

I also found that I was ornamenting it a bit less, in spite of the fact that, in skilled hands, the tune sounds better with ornamentation. But my focus was on getting the feel right. In the end, the thing that I wanted most was to do something very subtle with the five-count high-Ds in the middle and at the end of the tune. Brian, my teacher, suggested two possibilities: A quick tongue at the very end of the note and vibrato. Vibrato, I think, works really well in the case of really long notes at the end of the tune, though it's not something I'd typically want to use elsewhere. It's just right for these Ds, though. I have to use diaphragmatic vibrato in this case because, well, I'm not sure how else you could do it on a high D. On the Sweetone, a cylindrical whistle, I can get a nice, really subtle vibrato on the high D by covering and uncovering the top hole, but I find that doesn't really change the pitch perceptably (though it does change the timbre) on a cylindrical whistle. [Update: Joanie Madden says diaphragmatic vibrato is the way to go for a D, and that's good enough for me.]

I can do the diaphragmatic vibrato OK when I do it really slowly, but that doesn't fit when I play the tune at normal speed. That's like learning any other ornamentation; I have to start slow.

The "quick tongue at the end of the note" idea sounds good when I play the note straight, but with vibrato it's too much stuff in one note, I think.

The song itself, which I have vowed to spell differently every time I mention it, is said to be the first composition of 17th century Irish harper Turlough O'Carolan. Many people seem surprised to learn that it's a song. When I was first learning the melody I thought that it would help to learn the words, even though they're in Irish, to help me remember the notes. But I've never been able to find a vocal recording.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Shows: The Kells [DIF]

The Kells performing at the 2005 Dublin Irish Festival. That's Brian McCoy, who taught the festival whistle workshops on the right. I only got to see about half of their performance since it was getting close to the end of the day and my three-year-old daughter was ready to leave. The Kells play energetic, traditional music; you can hear it here.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Interviews: Colin Melville

Colin Melville has played Highland pipes, Scottish smallpipes, and whistles for the Tannahill Weavers for five years. I spoke to Colin after their Saturday evening show at the 2005 Dublin Irish Festival.

The tape of the interview is quite noisy, so any errors in transcription are of course mine.

Learning to Whistle: Do you think there's any such thing as a "Scottish whistling style" (as opposed to repertoire), or is whistling pretty much wistling?
Colin Melville: I think the actual method of playing is pretty much the same for everybody. I think when you talk about Irish style or Scottish style or whatever else it's more with the material you're playing, and playing style is probably more down to the individual than the country you're from, I guess.

LTW: It does seem to be fairly common that a lot of Scottish whistlers are also pipers. How does piping affect your whistling?
CM: Well, obviously you use your fingers, so that's similar, but you know the scale is completely different. Obviously, with the bagpipes you've only got nine notes to deal with (obviously have a lot more on the whistle) and you have to learn a lot of new decorations. That's probably the toughest part, for a piper to change their decorations. When you first pick [the whistle] up you try and do the same things, but you have to start using tonguing and stuff like that. It's a different discipline.

LTW: How do you rehearse a tune where you use pipes and whistle at the same time? ...There's such a difference in volume...
CM: When we practice with the band — well, most practices — I usually use the [Scottish] smallpipes, in place of the Highland pipes just for that reason, in spite of the fact that it makes for a color difference acoustically. Other people can hear what they're practicing as well!

LTW: I've read that when you play the whistle and the Highland pipes together you use an E♭ whistle, but it looked like Phil was playing an A whistle tonight?
CM: No, everything we use in the band is all — well, because of the pipes being in B♭ — is tuned around that. There are capos on the guitar and the bouzouki, and the fiddle is tuned up. All the whistles and flutes are E♭ or B♭. The one which looked like A, that'd be a B♭, and then you've got the high E♭ and the low E♭s.
LTW: Right, because [the Highland pipes, which play a tone closer to B♭ when an A is fingered] are not concert pitch....
CM: Yeah.

LTW: In terms of playing the whistle, who are your favorite artists to listen to for performance ideas?
CM: I'd have to say Brian Finnegan. He's a star. I can't get my head around some of the stuff he does with it sometimes. With Flook, his band; they're great. You know, there's so many up-and-coming guys that play, a lot of them pipers... they're getting into different instruments. Findlay Napier (of Back of the Moon), I heard him recently playing the flute... absolutely fantastic. Finlay MacDonald, a great piper, he's also really good on the whistle especially.

LTW: Let's say you like to listen to Scottish music and you want to learn to play it; is there a "short list" of "core tunes" you might want to start with...? I'm not saying you need to list the tunes, but where would you look to begin with?
CM: It's kind of funny, when you go around Scotland, to different parts of the country, if you go down to sessions or if you play with local musicians, you do find that small regions have a set, "core tunes," but when you go to different regions there are different "core tunes." There are obviously some that transcend, but everybody has a set of tunes that they can easily play together. But it's funny, when you go to a different side of the country it's a different set of tunes. And that's the way that you find them. Most people, to find them, go to sessions, play with other guys, and you hear them all the time. I wouldn't say there are specific books or recordings that have got just these tunes in them....
LTW: ...because I look at the Tannahill Weavers and there are a lot of tunes which interest me, but you guys have [14] CDs, and...
CM: Yeah, where do you start? Funny enough, a lot of tunes that the Tannahills recorded way, way back, they're now very popular tunes, whereas when they recorded them they were unheard of.

LTW: I was trying to learn Tranent Muir by ear from your recording and play it on the whistle and I kept needing to go into the third octave....
CM: Very often you just make something up which sounds OK. The songs do tend to go way out, further than a whistle can, definately further than the pipes can. So you very often find yourself trying to stick as much as you can to the melody line but when it goes way above or below you just have to make something up!

LTW: You do [onstage] some fairly impressive feats of instrument changes [e.g., going from the whistle to the smallpipes to the Highland pipes, which requires strapping and unstrapping the smallpipe bellows]....
CM: [Laughs.] Not for the first time I've been caught out a few times — everyone's staring at me, and I'm... "What's wrong?" I'm supposed to be playing the smallpipes or something and I'm just standing there.

LTW: I know you guys recorded a tune from a Scottish whistle tutor. But I haven't seen that book in the U.S. Have you ever seen a whistle tutorial with Scottish music that you liked?
CM: To be honest, I kind of learned through sessions, and bands playing along. When I started playing folk music I was a piper, and I thought, I've only got a few sets [for the pipes]; I'd be sitting there the rest of the night, and I thought, I'm going to have to do something here. So that's how I started playing the whistle. Kind of unconventional roots. I have come across a few tutorial books over the years and they're varied in quality. You know, everyone has at least something that teaches you something new, so it may just be best to go out and buy a few of them, if you can find a few kind of cheap ones, then you pick up lots of little bits and pieces....

LTW: Can you tell me about the whistles you play; who makes them and what do you like about them?
CM: The low whistle I play is a Chieftan. I've been playing a low D Chieftan for a long, long time, and when I joined the band I just naturally got an E♭, because I'm just so comfortable with it. I recently ordered a set of high whistles from a guy called Chris Abell, from North Carolina. So you get the same head with the E♭, the D, and C bodies, and I just think they're wonderful. I just got them a couple months ago, and you can really hear them coming in now; they're starting to get "played in." They're just a joy to play. I definately recommend them. We also use the cheap ones; the B♭ one we use is just the Generation. You have to go through a box of them; you have to find a "good one," to spend time going through them.

LTW: How do you orchestrate a tune, decide which instruments you're going to put to it? Is it trial and error or...?
CM: Trial and error to a certain extent. There's a format we use very often on stage. You know, you're not going to put the bagpipes in at the start and play the small whistle at the end because of the power of the bagpipes. You should put them at the end if you're going to put them in a song; you get that blast. As far as choosing my instruments, trying to decide whether to play the whistle with the smallpipes, or the high whistle with the smallpipes, that part usually depends on what Phil is doing, if he's playing the flute and whistle as well. Two whistles together sound lovely; you can throw lovely harmonies in. But if I'm playing smallpipes and he's playing whistle it gives you more freedoms; you can mess up and get away with it! With the same instrument you notice every little — if somebody does something slightly different you can hear it. When playing different instruments it gives you a little bit more of a free reign with what you're doing. So that's something to barter.

LTW: What's it like to join a band that has three decades of history behind it before you came on?
CM: Yeah, it's pretty weird. It's pretty weird. It's great, you know. I was just handed this opportunity... Do you want to join the Tannahill Weavers? "Hmmm... Let me think about that..." [Laughs] Well now I've put in five years and I'm quite comfortable with it. At the start it was quite, quite daunting.
LTW: Did you have to study all their old material, to pick up the tunes?
CM: Yeah, yeah. I knew the piper who was before me in the band; he was very helpful with it. It made things a lot easier because he spent a lot of time going through the material with me. In the first gig — actually, I just remembered that — the first gig I did with them was in Germany, and I only met Roy the afternoon of that gig; it was the first time I'd met him. [Ed. note: Roy lives in the Netherlands.] Up until then we'd just been practicing to tapes and things. That was pretty weird. I was pretty nervous about it, but it all went well I think. I'm still with them so I must be doing something OK.
LTW: It seems like you're doing quite a lot. You're not just piping; you're involved in the production and [writing] the music....
CM: Yeah; that's a really good opportunity for me because the band records — well, we usually do it on our own — so we do a lot of the recording and then there's a sound engineer who comes in and helps us with it. Because if you're in a commercial studio you're really pushed for time; it's all money, money, money. But because we have our own little place we can sit and take our time, follow our ideas and mess about with things.

LTW: Roy told me that you guys never perform The Great Ships live, and I'm curious: Are there songs that just can't be done live, or...?
CM: Yeah, there are some songs that are more difficult to come up with a live arrangement. Just for an example there are a lot of songs and tunes that John plays cello and viola — all sorts of "stringy things!" — and he can't do that live and some things that there'll be a kind of technical part in the arrangment and that becomes a lot more difficult. You have to come up with a new arrangement basically to do that live. We like to do things live pretty much the way they are on the CD.

LTW: Do you have any good stories from your tour?
CM: [Laughs] Uhhh.....
LTW: ...any you're willing to repeat?
CM: Yeah, exactly! Here's a funny one: Coming through customs, coming into the country, just last weekend. John the fiddler, he came up to the guy; you know, you get a little interview. The guy says, "What are you doing here?"
"I play in a band."
[The customs inspector asked] what kind of band, what kind of music do you play, what instrument, and all that, and they're chattin' away, and [the inspector] is writing on this form, and he looked at John, and said, "So, your occupation would be...?"
John said, "Musician."
[The inspector] went to write it and he looked up at John and said, "Umm... I'll just write fiddle player; it's easier to spell."
It's true! Incredible, but true.
That will get me in trouble; I'll get pulled aside on my way out of the country!

Tunes: Tranent Muir

Tranent Muir is the lesser known of two ballads by Adam Skirving about the Battle of Prestonpans; Johnny Cope is the other. The Tannahill Weavers have recorded both of them, although their version of Tranent Muir includes only six out of fifteen verses of this long and graphically violent song.

Both songs are discussed in Michael Brander's Scottish and Border Battles and Ballads, an interesting book which examines battle songs in the context of history. This book was my main source for the historical comments in this post, although I also consulted some documents online [1, 2, 3].

In the summer of 1745, Prince Charles Edward Stuart, commonly known as "Bonnie Prince Charlie," mounted a campaign to take Scotland with an eye towards reclaiming what he considered to be his throne. Against long odds, and aided by the early support of Donald Cameron of Lochiel, chief of Clan Cameron, his party of ten raised an army which eventually numbered over 2000 Scots as they marched to Glenfinnan and then to Edinburgh.

Sir John Cope, the general commanding government forces in Scotland, was commanded to raise forces to stop the rising. He did so, but the vast majority of his recruits had no experience whatsoever, and he was hampered by a variety of other issues including the sickeness of his principal cavalry officer. Despite this, the officers apparently believed that the rebels would never attack a single force including both infantry and cavalry. They assured locals during their march that there would be no battle. In this they were almost right, but they incorrectly identified which side would back down! Skirving references this claim in verse three:

The bluff dragoons swore, blood and oons!
They'd make the rebels run, man:
And yet they flee when them they see,
And winna fire a gun, man.

Charles's army took Edinburgh with little or no fighting on the 16th of September; Cope, travelling by ship from Aberdeen, arrived too late to challenge them.

On 20 September Cope's forces encountered Charles's advance guard. Cope decided to stand his ground and engage the Jacobite army. Cope kept fires burning and moved his forces during the night as the Highlanders advanced under cover of darkeness. At the crack of dawn on 21 September 1745, Cope's dragoons beheld the spectacle of 1400 charging Highlanders accompanied, according to Brander, "by wild Highland war cries and the bloodcurdling skirl of the pipes...."

Cope's inexperienced army fled, despite Cope and his officers attempting to force them to charge at pistol point. The "battle" was over in five minutes with close to 1000 government troops killed or wounded and 1500 held prisoner. The Highlanders suffered only around 100 troops killed or wounded.

Despite the overwhelming defeat and the fact that Cope had to report it personally to the garrison commander at Berwick, 50 miles away, Skirving's lyrical accusations that Cope himself fled the battlefield appear to be incorrect. Cope and his officers were exonerated at court-martial. Martin B. Margulies, writing in History Scotland, notes:

The Report of the board's proceeding was published in 1749. Anyone who scrutinizes it closely can only conclude that the board was correct. What emerges from the pages is not, perhaps, the portrait of a military genius, but one of an able, energetic and conscientious officer, who weighed his options carefully, and who anticipated - with almost obsessive attention to detail - every eventuality except the one which he could not have provided for in any case: that his men would panic and flee.

It seems, then, that the two songs tell us as much, if not more, about Skirving himself as they do the battle. Brander writes that Skirving visited the battlefield in the afternoon, long after the conclusion of the battle itself. In the midst of that garish scene, he was by his own account mugged by the victors.

Verse nine features one Lieutenant Smith:

Lieutenant Smith of Irish birth,
Frae whom he call'd for aid, man,
But full of dread, lap o'er his head,
And wadna be gainsaid, man.

Bender writes:

Lieutenant Smith... incensed by the publication of the comments on his behaviour visited Haddington subsequently and sent Skirving a challenge to a duel. The latter pawkily replied that he was too busy on his farm. "Gang awa back," he said, "and tell Mr. Smith I havena the leisure to come to Haddington; but tell him to come here and I'll tak a look o' him and if I think I'm fit to fecht him, I'll fecht him; and if no, I'll do as he did — I'll rin awa."

I've experimented with playing the song on the whistle — at least, the tune as the Tannahill weavers play it; I presume that they are playing a traditional melody rather than one they wrote themselves. I haven't yet managed to find notation for Tranent Muir, but I've tried to play it by ear and find that I keep needing to go up into the third octave on the whistle. When I saw them perform at the 2005 Dublin Irish Festival, Phil did play the whistle but stopped playing during the highest part. But if the tune can be adapted for Scottish smallpipes, with their much more limited range, then I'm sure there's a way to do it on the whistle; I just haven't figured it out yet.

There is an ironic musical postscript to Tranent Muir: In spite of his decisive victory at Prestonpans, the tables were soon turned on Bonnie Prince Charlie and his half-starved army was defeated at the Battle of Culloden. He escaped Scotland, spending the remainder of his life in exile. His flight is commemorated in the Skye Boat Song.

Shows: Tannahill Weavers [DIF]

I've been a fan of the Tannahill Weavers since first hearing their "Lucy Cassidy" set on a RykoDisc sampler back in the late '80s, but I've been listening to their recordings with a bit of a new ear since taking up the tin whistle. But I'd never had the opportunity to see them perform live.

So I was delighted when I learned that they would be coming to the Dublin Irish Festival. I also requested an interview with the band, and Colin Melville soon agreed to spend some time discussing whistling in Scottish music; I've posted the interview separately. The band played three sets at the festival; I caught them on Saturday and Sunday.

The musicians in the Tannahill Weavers have changed over the band's 37 year history, but Roy Gullane (guitar, vocals) and Phil Smillie (simple system flute, whistle, bodhrán, vocals). Colin Melville (Highland bagpipes, Scottish smallpipes, whistles) is the most recent addition; he's been in the band for five years. Leslie Wilson (bouzouki, keyboards, vocals) and John Martin (fiddle, vocals) have both been in the band for over 15 years.

I was wondering what a band with 14 full albums (not counting compilations) to its credit would play in concert, and it turns out that their taste is pretty similar to mine, as they played most of my favorite tracks! They played music from across the history of the band, including several spectacular sets of dance tunes like The Geese in the Bog / The Jig of Slurs and the Arnish Light set. I really like their new version of Cam' Ye By Athol; they first recorded it on Are Ye Sleeping Maggie, but rearranged it on Arnish Light to include a Highland bagpipes bridge. They played two songs by Adam Skirving about the Battle of Prestonpans: Tranent Muir and Johnny Cope. Of the battle itself, Roy quipped, "...the most famous battle in Scottish history, because we won it."

Roy's inter-song chats were very much in the spirit of the Tannahill Weavers's frequently amusing liner notes (all of which you can read online). Here's one of the stories he told:

Two men were out fishing in the middle of a lake when a bottle floated up to the boat. One of the men leaned over and opened it and a genie floated out of the bottle. "I'll grant you one wish," said the genie.
"Don't I get three?" asked the man.
"No, only one," replied the genie.
"OK," said the man. "I'd like you to turn entire lake into whisky." There was a poof, his wish was granted, and the genie disappeared.
"You idiot!" screamed his companion. Now we're going to have to wee in the boat!"

The Tannahill Weavers were the first successful Scottish folk band to use the Highland bagpipes in a band setting, and their unusual tuning poses certain difficulties for whistle players. When Colin is playing the pipes the rest of the band has to adapt to this, especially when playing a diatonic instrument such as the whistle. Phil plays an E♭ flute with keys, and a B♭ whistle. When Colin is playing the whistle he is of course not piping and plays high and low E♭ whistles.

At one point I was watching Phil whistle when I saw him repeatedly lift his right hand and start tapping it on top of his left hand as he played. I couldn't tell what he was doing, but I overheard another whistler ask him about this after the show and leaned in to hear the answer. "It's just a trick," he said. He plays a very fast fingered vibrato by running the first three fingers of his right hand, with a little space in between them, across the second or third finger of his left hand, which has the effect of quickly drumming the left-hand finger against the whistle hole.

It wasn't the only unusual technique observed that evening, either; at one point Roy played his guitar with a violin bow. It was also interesting when Roy stopped playing his guitar or when Les played the keyboards. This allowed me to hear the guitar and bouzouki in isolation, which normally intermingle. The Tannahill Weavers are so tight as a band and their performances are so well-arranged that it's interesting for me to try and pick them apart and identify the individual elements which make up the overall sound.

The Tannahill Weavers played for just over an hour and a half on Saturday night. The set list was substantially similar to Saturday's but reduced as the band had a shorter time slot. Sunday afternoon I brought my three-year-old daughter, also a fan of the band, to see their third show. We were a little disappointed that they didn't perform "The Great Ships" — which my daughter has memorized and likes to sing along to — but Roy told me after Saturday's show that it's one of the songs they don't ever play live. [Colin later told me why.] Nevertheless my daughter really enjoyed the show; in spite of the volume and having a three-year-old's attention span she wanted to stay for the entire show.

Monday, August 15, 2005

WWW: Introduction to Flute Acoustics

Perhaps you're a sensual artist who has little interest in science or instrument-building. In that case, feel free to ignore this post. But if you're a geek like me, if you're interested in making your own whistles, or just curious, here's a good Introduction to Flute Acoustics. The whole site is really well done; there are MP3 audio examples, hyperlinks to research papers and related articles, and he even uses a Terry McGee classical flute as an example for the "simple system" shared by the Irish flute and the tin whistle.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Seisiún: Sessions at the 2005 Dublin Irish Festival

The photo above is my daughter dancing in the session tent. She loves Celtic music. She walked into the middle of the session and was leaning in close to the musicians to get a good look. Stuart, the fiddler with the green shirt, said to her, "You know, this is dance music. You could dance..." She did, and for the rest of the festival she was asking me, "Let's find more dance music!"

For the most part my whistling skills were too weak to keep up with the session. But I made a point of sitting down and playing when the session tent was empty or when there were only one or two people there, to keep things going.

Bardic Circle session playing at the Emerald Isle stage. I sat in for one tune, but I had my daughter with me on Sunday and it was kind of difficult to play with her crawling all over me!

The session tent again.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Shows: Dulahan [DIF]

Dayton, OH-based Dulahan, with Leo Butler playing the tin whistle, performs at the 2005 Dublin Irish Festival.

By the way, you can click on the pictures on all of my recent posts to enlarge them.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Shows: Cherish the Ladies [DIF]

I saw Cherish the Ladies on Saturday afternoon at the 2005 Dublin Irish Festival. Chiff and Fipple forums favorite Joanie Madden was excellent as always. She stomped to the beat so hard while she played I feared for the structural integrity of the stage!

But as good as Joanie is, it was hard to pay attention to her playing when the bodhran player started singing. Her name is Heidi Talbot and wow does she have a gorgeous voice! I hadn't heard her before as I've only heard CTL's older recordings, but I guess I'm going to have to get up-to-date.... Heidi also seems to have a solo record I might need to check out.

Update: CTL's new album Woman of the House, released a couple months after this show, is in my opinion their best record to date.

One of the things I've always liked about CTL is that step dancing has been a part of their sound — even on audio-only releases — from the beginning, and although I wasn't in a position to get a good photo, it was true of this show as well.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Shows: Oisre [DIF]

Oisre is a new band which includes Charlene Adzima of the Columbus-based band Aisling (Aisling also played the festival, but I couldn't make their sets). Oisre played on Saturday for at least two hours!

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Shows: Whistle Workshop [DIF]

This is the first of a series of posts about the 2005 Dublin Irish Festival. They were expecting 85,000 people, and judging by the crowds and great weather I think there were at least that many.

You can look forward to lots of photos and comments on shows by Cherish the Ladies, Eileen Ivers, and the Tannahill Weavers (plus an interview on the subject of whistling in Scottish music), but it will take me a while to write all of that. So I'll start out with the first thing I saw when I entered the festival, which was my whistle teacher giving an introductory level ("introductory" in the "which end do I blow into" sense of the word) seminar on playing the whistle to a standing room only crowd of over 100 people. Brian did a great job keeping the crowd engaged and laughing.

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!