Back from Ireland - My Impressions

Back from Ireland - My Impressions

[I cross-posted this to the Slowsession list, but thought it might be appreciated here as well. My apologies if you’ve read this already.]

I just thought I would check in and let everyone know that I’m back from Ireland. I did a lot of stuff while I was there, but insofar as the music is concerned I attended two events that were incredible.

Starting on Friday, Oct. 19, I attended a three-day Comhaltas workshop for beginner/intermediates in Dublin. My flute teacher was a wonderful player by the name of June McCormack (she plays in a Dublin based band called Siona). June was a great teacher and the 20 punts I paid for the classes was well worth it, as I was one of 2-3 students in her class. So, I got a lot of one-on-one attention. There were a lot of young kids in attendance, but there were also a number of adult beginners as well.

The Comhaltas folk pretty much adopted me while I was there. They drove me around, fed me, and kept me going in the right direction. I can’t say enough nice things about them and Sarah-Jane Woods, who organized the workshops.

I also attended the Cooley-Collins Festival in Gort, Galway, on Sat., Oct. 27th. Though it’s an accordion-centric festival, Gort was pretty much taken over by trad musicians of all sorts and each pub had anywhere from 1-3 sessions going on at once. I also got to see the Tulla Ceili Band in action, which was a lot of fun. All the musicians I met in Gort were great folks and I didn’t encounter any elitism regarding my being a beginner or a Yank.

Which brings me to a lesson I learned that might be valuable to folk on the this list, and might stir a hornet’s nest as well. Many moons ago and on another list, there was a protracted and sometimes contentious discussion on ear-learning versus reading music. As I remember, I came down squarely on the side of it being okay to learn from notation. Now that I’ve been to Ireland and participated in Irish sessions while there, I think I need to modify my stance slightly.

I _still_ think learning from notation isn’t a bad thing when you have no other options, but not being able to pick up tunes by ear was my biggest and most frustrating disadvantage while in Ireland. In my workshops in Dublin, my two classmates were probably about 12-13 years old. June would play a couple of measures, and the kids could play it back slowly almost note-for-note. In one hour, the kids picked up two basic jigs by ear. On the other hand, I may as well have been missing several fingers. At the end of the class, June gave the students the notation to allow us to make sure we kept playing the tune right.

Both in Dublin and at the Gort sessions, I was approached by talented musicians who saw that I was a courteous beginner and wanted to teach me a tune or two. The fact that I couldn’t pick up tunes by ear was frustrating for both me and them…because they _really_ wanted to help me out (and these folk don’t walk around with pages of notation in their pockets). As a consolation, I was able to record tunes on a mini-disc recorder (which worked perfectly, by the way) I had purchased for the trip, but it wasn’t the same…and it still means that I have to learn those tunes by ear.

As I said, I don’t think notation is evil. In many cases, being able to read music is a great advantage. But in retrospect, I have to admit that ear training is not just a luxury when learning traditional Irish music. It’s almost a necessity, especially if you go to Ireland and hope to fully participate and appreciate the scene. Quite simply, that is how the majority of players in Ireland learn and exchange music.

I hope this post doesn’t stir up too many tempers. I know that many players in more remote locations don’t have access to the music except by notation, and I’m sensitive to that.

I can only report the facts. The fact is that I had a wonderful time in both Gort and Dublin despite my disadvantage. It is also a fact that I’m going to work hard on ear training before I go back next year so I don’t have to sit there twiddling my thumbs while everyone around me exchanges tunes with relative ease. It’s gonna suck. It’s gonna be hard. But it’s just part of the Irtrad package, as far as I can tell.

Take care,
John Harvey
http://www.rhodeirish.net

Re: Back from Ireland - My Impressions

Hmmm…I just noticed that there’s another thread further down the list that also deals with this topic. Sorry for the rehash. I hope my post is still useful somehow.

Take care,
John Harvey
http://www.rhodeirish.net

Re: Back from Ireland - My Impressions

Welcome back, John. Ear training doesn’t have to be a nightmare. Maybe you can audit an ear training class at a college near you. If you relax and remind yourself that you’re doing it for the music, you might even have fun! 😉

Jeff

Re: Back from Ireland - Ear training

Thanks John for the detailed report–Ireland is not in my budget for years ahead (as far as I can see, in fact), so it’s great to hear about your experiences there.

I think you’re right about ear training, and it doesn’t apply only to Ireland. I learned tunes by ear for 10-15 years here in the states, from live players and from recordings, and that practice now allows me to pick up tunes by ear at sessions. I do rely on sheet music as a memory aid, and sometimes a transcription pops up on a web site or in a book before I’ve learned a tune by ear, which speeds the learning process for that tune. But learning by ear is crucial for sounding “authentic” and for taking advantage of all those great aural sources out there.

Maybe the following will help anyone trying to learn by ear.

In my experience, ear training boils down to four key aspects of the music.
1. Rhythm (if you’re having a hard time hearing the difference between a jig and a reel, you’d better find a teacher for a while).
2. Hearing intervals. The melody line is built on changing intervals between notes. With practice, you can learn to hear what size the intervals are–half step, whole step, or on up. A good practice drill is to play intervals on your instrument: |dDdE dFdG|dAdB dcdd| and back down again. Do this for the common major keys in all octave ranges on your instrument, and after a few weeks, you’ll be able to hear these intervals more easily in tunes.
3. Hearing major/minor/modal changes. When you’re listening to the intervals of the melody, also listen for what shord would sound good behind it. When a tune goes from major to minor or dorian, you’ll know to play the key notes from the matching scale. So in D major, for example, you’ll likely be hitting some F#‘s or E’s and B’s. For me, it’s more productive to listen for these overall mode shifts than it is to practice the interval drills in minor and dorian modes.
4. Hearing the notes and knowing where to find them ON YOUR INSTRUMENT. It’s amazing how easy it is to play an instrument without actually ever listening to the sounds it makes. But if you haven’t paid attention to the difference between an open A string on fiddle and a fourth finger A on the third string, or just the basic tonal differences between all the different notes, you can’t expect to know where to find those sounds on your instrument when you hear someone else play them. Listen to each note…is it a vowel sound or a consonant sound? Breathy or nasally or guttural or….

The fourth point there is kind of a clincher. Play your instrument a lot. Really listen to it. Learn to make all the typical Trad Irish sounds on it. Your ear will develop along with your playing.

Another good exercise, if you’ve got a willing friend, is to play tunes one bar at a time in an answer-and-response manner. Start with a tune you both already know. Have the other person play the first bar. Play it back. Move to the next bar, play it back, and so on. When you’re comfortable with this, try a tune your friend knows but you don’t. Again, with practice, this will become easier, and you can bump the tempo up a bit as you go.

Thanks again John for the update from Galway and beyond!

Will

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Re: Back from Ireland - My Impressions

Sounds like a lot of fun, John! Thanks for that, it was very interesting.

One more thing to add to all the tips and encouragement above: it gets easier the more you do it! Really. Good luck!

Zina

Re: Back from Ireland - My Impressions

Hi all! Thanks John for the report on your trip. Man, I hope to make it there someday! My whistle teacher, Aelred Gannon, his wife and two kids came from Sligo town. I love those folks so much. They treated me like I was one of the family. After I had the basics down on the whistle, Aelred taught me to learn tunes by ear. Not easy at first. I thought I’d never get it! After time, and many,many Guinness’s and Heineken’s, it started to happen. Aelred and his wife and kids moved on to Delefield Wi. where he now runs the ‘Carpenter’s Pub’, but those nights at their home…….something I’ll always remember fondly. Learning by ear has paid off real big for me. I’ve gained a great sense of confidence and learning new tunes comes so much easier.
whistledon

Re: Back from Ireland - My Impressions

On playing by ear …
The great jazz pianist Errol Garner, who couldn’t read a note, was once asked by an interviewer how he could play so well, considering he couldn’t read a note of music. His answer was, man, nobody can hear you read! That says it all, in my opinion!

Jonathan

Re: Back from Ireland - My Impressions

So true Jonathan, but with one exception. You _can_ hear yourself read, with practice. Which makes reading music a very useful complement to playing by ear. I sometimes read O’Neill’s or Breathnach’s volumes without an instrument just looking for tunes. I can hear the tunes in my head just as much as I can hear words in my head when I read prose.

It is possible to be a great player without being able to read music. And it’s probably impossible to be a great player if you can’t play by ear. But playing by ear doesn’t have to preclude the ability to read music, and it’s not really that difficult to read, especially the single melody line stuff we use to ink Irish dance music. Music is like a different country, with it’s own aural and written language. If you want to converse with the inhabitants, and read their newspapers, you’ll need to become fluent _and_ literate.

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Playing by ear

Here is a little passage from one of my favourite novels, a recent version of the saga about King Arthur, and at the moment I can

Playing by ear

Here is a little passage from one of my favourite novels, a recent version of the saga about King Arthur, and at the moment I can

Oops!

My PC told me in its usual cryptic way it hadn

Re: Back from Ireland - My Impressions

PCs don’t follow the rule of the Druids..they often write things TWICE!