Are we losing the tradition to academics and commercialism?
Irish Traditional Music was the music of ordinary, poorly educated working people, playing for their own pleasure and for dancing. Most of them learned either by simply picking up the instrument and experimenting or by ear. The traditional teaching method was for the master to play a phrase of a tune and the student memorised it, practised and came back several weeks later and played it to the teacher. When he had that phrase mastered he was given the next to learn. In other words, he learned by listening, and copying. Most of the old musicians didn’t know anything about musical theory. They didn’t know what key they were playing in. They didn’t write the music down.
The music came from within the musician – from the soul.
In the past I studied musical theory and when I started to play Irish music I tried to do it from ‘the dots’. But I learned the most important lesson one day when I was jotting down a phrase to help me to remember a new tune. P. Joe Hayes tore strips off me in the nicest possible way and told me that that was not the way to learn. The only way to learn is by ear – the music must come from the soul. I found this hard at first but now I am totally convinced that he was right.
As I said before, the majority of older Irish musicians didn’t know anything about theory. Some of these guys didn’t have perfect intonation or technique. Their music may have had a rough edge but it came from the heart and soul. It made people want to dance. Noel Hill once said “If the dancers’ feet are stuck to the floor [when you play] you can’t play”. A bit of a harsh comment but very true.
I accept that living music develops and moves on and that a lot of good music is now being played but is this at the risk of losing the true tradition to academics, technophiles and commercialism? As Peter Mackey says, traditional music is not accompanied/harmonised/arranged . Classical training may produce brilliant, polished performances which sound wonderful but anyone who thinks this is traditional music is fooling him/herself. Speed may ‘make it exciting’ but it isn’t necessarily authentically traditional. (Come back, Seamus Tansy – all is forgiven) Equally, the restrictions of copyright and licensing threaten the true tradition – how can we allow people to claim copyright for a tune we all know is hundreds of years old? Analysing the music to the nth degree isn’t what it’s about either and it certainly won’t help to produce soul. As Tommy Peoples said one time to a student at the Willy Clancy Summer School when he embarked on a technical explanation of the tune he was about to play “Look – just play the f***ing tune!”
Having read some of the comments on this board I would definitely be put off trying to join in a session outside Ireland since it appears that some contributors don’t see the music as something to be shared and enjoyed by everyone. I was encouraged by some of the most respected older musicians to learn a tune in the session by fingering it quietly and, when I’d got an idea of it, to put the bow to the fiddle and join in sensitively. (‘Sensitively’ being the key word). Siobhan Peoples was quite clear that the session was the place to learn and gain experience. I have played in some of the best sessions in Co. Clare and have always found the musicians encouraging, supportive, welcoming and accepting. I may not be a very good musician or even play authentically but I love the music and tradition dearly and had the good fortune to learn from players who were true bearers of the tradition. I would much rather help others to learn, improve and play from the soul than put people off by suggesting that they must have perfect technique and intonation and know all the tunes perfectly before they can join in.
Sessions are not about a few experts putting on a perfect performance and shutting everyone else out or even about entertaining an audience. Sessions are about exchanging tunes and enjoying playing the music. I accept that there are few real sessions left now in this area. They are being killed by commercialism and personal greed. A few dedicated people are striving to hang on to the tradition I have outlined above by organising gatherings for learners, improvers and more experienced players of all ages – but I fear that we are fighting a losing battle.