Irish Fiddle – Skill Sets
Which skill sets does an accomplished musician have and an novice need to learn?
Irish Fiddle Skill sets
Irish Fiddle Skill Sets No.1: Remembering:(musical memory)
Musical skills need to be developed through practice and repetition. Being creative during practice can ease the burden of repetition. Part of being a musician is to be able to remember music. When it is remembered it is internalised along with the muscle memory of playing. As it is an aural tradition, Irish music needs to be remembered. Many of the tunes I 1st learned were from recordings. This helped me remember sets of tunes and often when I remembered the name(s), the tune would come to me better because of the association. When you have some tunes to start off(say more than 10),you can then look at building a repetoire. It is a great way to keep track of how many tunes you have and it is enjoyable too. Irish Fiddle music is generally played in sets(groups or 2 or 3)so you can build up sets of jigs, reels etc.
Irish Fiddle Skill Sets No. 2 – A Good Ear:
Through listening and playing you will become more sensitive to music and build a better appreciation. You will be able to focus on specific aspects of the music rather and build up a level of concentration that will come second nature with regular practice.
Can you listen to a trio and just focus on one instrument all the way through? This will test your concentration and listening ability. This is all part of analysing the music. You will do this quickly and more naturally with practice. How does a player phrase the tune, how long are these phrases. Listen for how a fiddler might play more Sticatto(choppy – less slurs) or Legato (more slurring – smooth). Listen out for a style. What other players do they remind you of and who might be their influences. Some players get their style from other instruments. One of my favorite players master fiddle player Sean Keane(of Irish group ‘The Chieftains’) mimics the Uilleann Piping(Irish elbow pipes) style.
Listen for different ornamentation and how people play it. For example, different types of rolls or the same types played slightly different. Some players also play triplets differently also.
Irish Fiddle Skill Sets No. 3: Dexterity:
An accomplished musician needs to be dexterous. This is best formed when young as a natural part of growing. The fingers and posture grow and adapt into the playing position and posture. It can become so natural the musician may not know how to do otherwise. When this happens the muscle memory and the co-ordination is natural and habitual. Young people have supple muscles and this is an advantage in learning for sure. Simply put, the holding of the fiddle(and especially the bow) is not a natural position for the hands/arms to be in. If you feel pain or tension, leave playing and shake both hands and allow the circulation to flow. You can soon return to playing when the pain subsides. In traditional music circles a phrase often used is ‘command of the instrument ‘. This is the ease with which one plays. Top players are relaxed and at one with their instrument. With some musicians playing actually relaxes them.
Reading music is certainly not essential to playing Irish music but it is my belief that being able to read music is a huge bonus(even just the abc’s). Transcribing will do wonders for your ‘ear'(for music) in regard to what is being played and more importantly, how it is being played.
Many Irish musicians do not read music but they are at no disadvantage. Irish music is mainly an oral tradition and much more will be gained from the traditional handing down of music through personal connection with teachers, sessions and experience of traditional music gatherings than with sheet music books. With regard to reading, Irish music has an advantage over other types/genres of music e.g. Classical or jazz. It is a lot easier to read! Not saying that it is easy, that skill has to be developed. Because every nuance of Irish music is not written as it would be impractical and unwise to try to include all the subtleties. Irish music is often in a standard number of keys (though it has been popular to vary keys to suit particular instruments or add a freshness to a composition). Many Irish tunes often do not go beyond two octaves(though many fiddle tunes do) again convenient for readers.
It you get the opportunity to learn to read music, avail of it. It will be a help to your playing and much coveted music is available in collections such as ‘O Niells 1001’ (which has been a kind of Irish music bible for some)and ‘Ceol Rince na hEireann’ vol. 1-5 both collections important to the popularising of Irish music. A string to your bow as it were.
Tip: can you hear a tune in your head(or lilt it) as you read without having to play your instrument. This is a very useful skill.
Skill Set no.4: Interpretation:
The skill of interpretation of Irish traditional music. This is one of the most difficult aspects of development. Of course there are varying opinions as to what is truely traditional making it more difficult. Some musicians are great composers putting fresh ideas into the tradition. Others are great at interpretation. They have the skill of being able to mould a personal touch into a piece. This is often done by phrasing and ornamentation sympathetic to the music and the tradition. Their playing will often carry soul that evokes a reaction in the listener that takes them out of their present state and into the living, breathing tradition itself. If they are experienced players or listeners they will be even more absorbed by great traditional music. Listening and playing music will bring on your musical appreciation too.
‘A Complete Guide to the Irish Fiddle’(CD edition) by Paul McNevin. Link.
CD available seperately here.
Lessons in Dublin or online contact Paul McNevin
This post was originally post 2011 but edited in 2016.