Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Tips for Learning Irish Traditional Music

"The beginner, and strangers coming to this music, should not, initially, bother with the forms of ornamentation. It will be time enough to begin decorating the music when one has impressed the rhythm on the ear and by practice acquired a certain agility with the fingers. It is his rhythm which distinguishes the performer who plays as to the manner born. When beginning to learn this music one should aim to play in that manner. There is no difficulty in doing this, in becoming a native, provided one listens only to genuine players and one has chosen an instrument on which no other form of training had been received."

– from Breandán Breathnach's "Introduction," CRE 2, xiv. Bold emphasis added by me.

That valuable and carefully phrased thought reminds us all at once of the four most important tips:

Tip 1: Use Your Ear, Not Your Eye

Amazingly enough – as I know from my own youth, when I was totally dependent on printed music – school and mainstream music pedagogy emphasizes visual reading skills, even though the art form we are trying to master is aural and physical, not visual or intellectual. Many of you are in the same boat as I was. That's why most newcomers to Irish (or any other culture's) traditional music must first overcome this fundamental misunderstanding about how to learn to play music well. I urge you strongly to never learn a tune from notation, whether from sheet music or abc code. But see the tip below about Transcribing!

So, of What Use Are Tune Books for Musicians?

Here's another beautifully succinct quotation, from Breathnach's preface to Pat Mitchell's valuable book of transcriptions, The Dance Music of Willie Clancy:

"By aiding ear and memory it will help the already proficient piper to add with ease to his repertoire."

Think about that. First you spend time hearing and absorbing music, played by a musician, before you engage your mind with symbols on paper which are supposed to offer some technique-related information about that piece of music. Otherwise your result will be quite unmusical.

Never learn a tune from notation alone, especially if you are not already a proficient Irish musician. You may not learn tunes fast enough to satisfy your otherwise healthy eagerness, but you will learn them right. This is the only way to learn the "nyah," the "draoicht," "lift," "swing," or whatever you want to call beauty. Many Irish music teachers can hear a student (even when the student is a "professional" musician) and instantly pick out every single tune that the student learned from paper or in some other short-cut manner. How do they do it and what was the student missing? – See the next tips.

The next three tips are like the first laws of real estate: "location, location, location."

Tip 2: Rhythm

. . . is so complex and detailed in Irish music that even its most important, absolutely essential aspects cannot be notated using traditional classical notation. Instead it can only be learned and recognized after intensive and lovingly careful listening. For everytune, even if it's your five-hundredth tune.

Tip 3: Rhythm

. . . is the primary distinguishing characteristic between music that sounds Irish and music that does not sound Irish.

Tip 4: Rhythm

. . . is vastly more important than notes, pitches, and ornaments in Irish traditional music. Don't forget that reels, jigs, hornpipes, polkas, slides, mazurkas, etc. are dance music.

Tip 5: Articulation

All that talk about rhythm and no practical advice? Well, to get the rhythm right, after you've done lots of careful listening, you need to figure out the particular physical tricks on your instrument that give you all the same kinds of articulation that you're hearing.


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