Monday, July 17, 2006

Recordings: Séamus Ennis in the Alan Lomax Collection

Here are two recordings and a photo of Séamus Ennis, courtesy of Alan Lomax and the Library of Congress.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Seisiún: How to Ruin a Session

No, that's not a typo in the title. I'm going to propose a unified theory of session suckage.

Let's consider a list of things people complain about / forbid / write guides to discourage doing at sessions:

  • Use of sheet music
  • "Noodling," and other efforts to play an unfamiliar tune during the session
  • Guitars, recorders, and other "non-traditional" instruments
  • People who start too many tunes
  • People who play over other people when they are trying to start a tune
  • Bodhrán owners (as opposed to bodhrán players)
  • Multiple bodhrán owners
  • etc.

Now none of the above strikes me as intrinsically evil. If you're a good musician, looking at sheet music isn't necessarily going to turn you into a bad one. There are some truly great guitarists, such as Arty McGlynn and Mícheál Ó Domhnaill.1 But what they have in common is that they're devices which seem to facilitate people playing along with tunes which are not the best in their personal repertoire or which maybe they don't know at all. Guitarists with no background in traditional music may show up wanting to "jam." People frustrated at how long it takes to learn to play the music may buy a bodhrán because they think it's "easier." Folks who are good sight readers might try and play along with tunes they've never heard before. Etc.

At both of the sessions I go to, people tend to play along with every tune they know, and sometimes a few that they don't. Granted, one is a learning session, and one started life as a beginning session and is still very beginner-friendly. So that sort of thing isn't completely against the rules. But one of the things I really like about, for example, the CD Music at Matt Molloy's is how frequently there will only be one or two musicians playing. Here you have a group of some the finest musicians in the world spending much of their time with their instruments on the table listening to a couple guys play a tune together.

Since I spend a lot of time listening at sessions, people seem to go out of their way to tell me that I "have as much right to play as anyone else" and ask me if I'd like to start tunes. That's really nice, and I appreciate the fáilte, but I consider time spent actively listening at a session to be productive time.

To be clear, I'm not saying that people who are terrible musicians shouldn't play at all; I'm a beginner myself! I just think that if something like sheet music can allow me to play when I should be listening, it's doing me — and the other folks in the session — no favors.

1 Sadly, Mícheál Ó Domhnaill died this week. I started a Wikipedia article about him as a small contribution to his memory.

Monday, July 10, 2006

WWW: Some Links of Note

Here are some things which caught my attention this past week:

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Technique: Not Lifting a Finger

I was at a session a few weeks ago and noticed another whistle player playing the first part of Morrison's Jig by just lifting fingers two and three of his top hand, while keeping the first two fingers of his bottom hand down nearly all the time (except for the A-F#-E or G). I tried it, and it made the tune really easy to play.

I've been experimenting with Brother Steve's suggestions on "not lifting a finger" lately with good results. In addition to Morrison's, I'm finding his advice really useful in The Atholl Highlanders, the Kesh, The Sally Gardens reel, and others. It also reduces the need for stabilizing the whistle with the bottom hand pinkie in some, but not all cases — I still find the pinkie useful in cases like the second part of "Drowsy Maggie" where you alternate between C# and high E.

This is one of many cases where I read something (in this case, Steve's page on this topic) long ago, tried it, and found it not terribly helpful, and then tried it again much later with completely different results. When I first tried leaving bottom hand fingers down for notes like B and A I wasn't playing very quickly, so leaving the fingers down didn't really gain me much, and I didn't like the change in timbre. But I'm playing the tunes much more quickly now, so the timbre change is much less noticable whereas the fingering is correspondingly harder!

It's probably generally true that some advice from experienced players requires a certain level of ability to be helpful — not necessarily a lot, but stuff which seemed backwards to me as a rank beginner is making a bit more sense to me now.