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Learning to Play Trad

Julie Maisel | March 2019

    In January 2005 I moved from Florida to Dublin, Ireland to take a position lecturing in flute at the Conservatory of Music and Drama at Technological University Dublin. The position began as a temporary one as I was teaching for a flute lecturer who was on a two-year sabbatical. As it turned out, fourteen years later, I have remained in Dublin, am happily married to an amazing traditional Irish musician, and am still lecturing in flute at TU Dublin. 

    In the early days of my time in Ireland, and with no idea that it would become permanent, I wanted to soak up the rich culture and music of the country. With what little knowledge I had of Irish traditional music (the Chieftains and James Galway mostly) and a real appetite to learn as much as I could, I began going to the Saturday night sessions in my local pub, Grace’s in Rathmines, to hear the music firsthand. This is where my journey into the wonderful world of traditional Irish music began and where I met my husband who plays guitar, banjo, bouzouki and mandolin and can be caught playing in sessions regularly. 
    Very few traditional Irish players have any sort of formal training and instead have learned by listening and watching other players. There is no systematic teaching regarding tone production. In the aural tradition of Irish flute playing, the sound achieved on the instrument is more important than the manner in which it is produced, and articulation is often achieved through fingering and ornamentation as opposed to the tongue. In a session, music is most often played in unison, so the flute player strives for a biting, crisp, piercing, edgy sound and will often compensate by turning the headjoint in to cover more of the embouchure hole and overblowing to achieve greater volume, especially in the low register. The concept of tone is based on the ability to project and be heard. 
    It is common to see Irish flutists playing on a simple-system wooden flute or keyed versions, but many more are play on the Boehm system as well and explore all of the possibilities that are available to flutists now. While thousands of Irish melodies are available in printed collections, the tradition remains primarily an oral and aural one. Tunes are passed from generation to generation both within individual families and in the broader community. 
    Listening to historical and modern recordings of Irish music is not only crucial but vital to understanding how to play traditional Irish music. As I delved into learning this language, I attended workshops for flute where everyone sat around in a circle while the instructor played parts of tunes which we then in turn imitate. It is all taught aurally and through imitation and repetition. Rarely do you see traditional musicians playing from printed music; most often the music is all memorized. 
    A basic starting point to become familiar with the traditional style is to listen critically to a range of performers and types of tunes. These can be divided into two main categories: slow airs and dance music. The majority of Irish tunes were to be danced to and the most popular forms are jigs of the single (68 or 128 meter), double (68 meter) and slip variety (98 meter); reels (in 22 or 44); hornpipes (22) which are slower than a reel; polkas; and the slide.  
    Mere familiarity with the structural outline of Irish tunes does not allow an untrained player to render a tune satisfactorily. Listening to good traditional players either on flute or on other instruments such as fiddle, uilleann pipes, concertina, accordion, whistles, or Irish singers provides a useful reference point for understanding traditional performance style, including ornamentation, phrasing, breathing, tempos, process of variation, interpretation of rhythm, and the styles of different regions of Ireland such as Galway, Clare, Sligo, and so forth. 
    It is through understanding how stylistic elements are applied to Irish music that one can approximate a more traditional approach to playing it. Phrasing is generally across the bar line and is used to place emphasis on certain notes or to add rhythmic interest to a tune. Listening to various players and groups also gives ideas of what tunes fit together because most often you hear jigs, reels, and hornpipes in sets of two, three, or more tunes together. 
    Typically, if a classical player purchases an Irish flute tutor, the songs in the book are not written in the way in which they will be played. The nuances of ornamentation, interpretation of the rhythm, breathing and tempos, which are crucial for an authentic performance, are learned through imitation. Due to the vast number of brilliant Irish flute players and flute players of other nationalities who have mastered the Irish tradition of flute playing, and the ease of access to recordings, it is very easy to listen to an array of individual and regional styles.   
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Common Irish Dance Tunes

    Ornamentation is essential to understanding how to play traditional Irish music on the flute but each individual player and region have specific ways of playing and how they treat ornamentation. I would suggest the following as a starting place for learning ornamentation: Mel Bay’s Complete Irish Flute Book by Mizzy McCaskill and Dona Gilliam (which is specifically for the Boehm system flute) and Timber, The Flute Tutor For Beginners and Learners on the Wooden, Simple-System Flutes written and compiled by Fintan Vallely.

    The reel is probably the most popular genre of Irish dance/session tunes and is often played at a fast tempo (quarter note = 150-200). It is typically in binary (AB) form but can also be found in ternary (ABA) form or in ABC (each of the sections would be repeated in all these forms). It consists generally of repeated eighth-note patterns, but it is common practice to perform these as either a dotted eighth and sixteenth note pattern or as quarter note plus eighth-note triplets. 

What to listen for in a reel: 
    •    Rhythmic patterns and how the rhythm is interpreted 
    •    Phrasing and how players choose places to breathe
    •    How players use ornamentation
    •    How breath is used to accentuate certain notes in the melodic line and also to emphasize the beat

Listening Examples on Youtube:
    1.    Steph Geremia, Come Up to the Room I Want Ye, Ebb Tide, Benbulben’s Shadow
    2.    Danú (Tom Doorley, flute), The PowerOut, The Dublin Reel
    3.    Matt Molloy and Donal Lunny, Bucks of Oranmore
    4.    Matt Molloy, Reels from the album Stony Steps
    5.    Kevin Crawford, Dylan Foley, Josh Dukes, The Broken Windshield Medley

    Jigs of the single (6/8 or 12/8 time), double (6/8 time) and slip variety (9/8 time) are also very popular and are often found in binary (AB) form with each section, typically 8 bars in length, repeated. The tempo for jigs can range from dotted quarter = 100-116.

Playing with my husband Raphy Doyle in the Angler’s Rest in the Strawberry Beds, Knockmaroon.

What to listen for in jigs:
Rhythmic patterns:
    •    In a single jig the predominate rhythm is the quarter-note, eighth-note pattern
    •    In a double jig the predominate rhythm is the repeated eighth-note pattern which is often performed as dotted eighth note, sixteenth note, eighth note
    •    The slip jig uses combinations of all of the above patterns plus the dotted quarter-note pattern

    As with the reels, it is important to listen for how ornaments are used, phrasing, and how the breath is used for emphasizing the beat.
Listening Examples on Youtube:
    1.    Steph Geremia, Trip to Ireland, John Joe Gardner’s, Gurney’s
    2.    Matt Molloy, The Gold Ring
    3.    Michael McGoldrick, Kevin Burke, Seamie O’Dowd, The Last Train from Loughrea, Across the Black River
    4.    Julie Fowlis, Eamon Doorley, Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, Tom Doorley (Geantrai 2003) The Swaggering Jig (Slip Jig), Aye Surely
  5.    Harry Bradley, Gradam Ceoil 2014

    Hornpipes are slower than reels (generally half note =70-80) and are played in a heavily accented fashion. The predominate rhythm in a hornpipe is the dotted eighth-note, sixteenth-note pattern. Forms used include: AB, AABA, ABC, ABCD with each section being repeated.

What to listen for in a reel: 
    •    Rhythmic patterns
    •    Use of ornamentation
    •    Phrasing and breathing

Listening Examples on Youtube:
    1.    Matt Molloy, The Independence Hornpipe, Jim Donoghue’s, The Gravel Walk

Artists to Explore
    This following are just a few players, both modern and historical, of traditional Irish music (this is in no way a complete list): Matt Molloy, Tom Doorley, Alan Doherty, Harry Bradley, Steph Geremia, Peter Horan, Kevin Crawford, Michael McGoldrick, Patsy Hanley, Paul Roche, Emer Mayock, Garry Shannon, Eamonn de Barra, Vincent Broderick and Paddy Carty.