An Fonn is Déanaí-The Drunken Landlady

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Here’s  another amazing ear worm toe tapper! I have a recording from a recent session that I’ve been listening to obsessively and finally got this one under my fingers on the concertina.


Everyone’s favorite melodeon player, Guilles Poutoux:

And a nice mando version (for you, Jan!)

And of course the requisite Bothy Band version-it’s the third tune (@ 1:21):

Don’t Forget to Practice

keep-calm-and-practice-your-instrument-3What does it mean to practice? If you’re like me, you are happy just to have time to pick up your instrument and get a sound out of it. More often than not I’ll just play a bunch of tunes. And that’s not a bad thing at all, I suppose, but if you’re just playing aimlessly and not really paying attention to what you’re doing, is it really worth it? If you’re playing tunes incorrectly the whole time, or executing ornaments sloppily, is it really beneficial to you, or does it just make things worse?

Practice, on the other hand, is performing a skill repeatedly to perfect it, right? But you have to know what your goal is. If you have no clue what “perfect” means in your particular field, you’re shooting spitballs in the dark. And I doubt you’ll like what you see once the light is turned on. Neither will your mother, so clean that mess up!

Wow, I’m the analogy master.

But really, you need goals. Short, medium, and long-term goals. It’s kinda like life. If you’re not aiming for something you’ll be lucky to hit it. So take a few minutes to sit down with a pencil, paper, computer, whatever you have to write with, and jot down what you want to accomplish with your playing.

For example, and hypothetically speaking, let’s say I want to play fiddle at regular, full speed sessions. (This is actually true.) That would be my long-term goal. Now I have to decide what I need to do to get there.

There’s a lot involved in playing Irish music, like rolls, cuts, and intonation. Also, string crossing and figure-eight bowing patterns that happen in so many Irish tunes. As short term goals, I can set a little time aside at each practice session to work on those things.

Another short-term goal might be to work on my speed–playing regularly with a metronome, and increasing the speed gradually over multiple practice sessions.

My medium-term goal might be to learn 3 tunes that I can put together as a set, so that when I get to try my new skills out I am prepared. So I can devote a little time at each practice session to that as well.

Both the short-term and medium-term goals serve the long-term goal, obviously. It’s up to you to decide what is important to you in terms of reaching your long-term goals. You might not think that snappy rolls and cuts really matter all that much for session playing, or that you want to defer working on them so you can work with a metronome to increase your speed. Don’t set intonation practice aside though, please–no one will want to play with you if your intonation is bad.

So let’s say I get an hour to practice every day. I might break down my session like this:

INTONATION–10 minutes scales along with a recording or drone note.

ORNAMENTATION–5 minutes each rolls, cuts, trebles, slowly (15 minutes total)

BOWING–10 minutes play part of a tune that uses the figure eight bowing pattern, slowly.

TUNES–25 minutes learn/practice playing a tune, slowly (at least half-speed) focusing on the notes and intonation. Use a metronome for consistency, and increase speed regularly.

As I get better at the skills, I can change my goals. Eventually I’ll want to play the tunes adding some ornamentation, but I’ll save that for later.

Anyway, I hope this helps. I know it’s difficult to be disciplined about practice when you just want to PLAY. But there’s a difference between playing and practicing. Practice at home, play at the session. And may your practice be focused and productive–you’d be surprised how much your playing improves if you devote a little time each day to the basic skills. And furthermore, there’s already a ton of info and opinion about effective practice online and in published form, so do your own googlin’ and see what else is out there. Most of what I have written here is based on what I’ve learned online, but al ot of it is just common sense.

Happy practicing!

P.S. I recommend recording yourself as well–this can give you valuable feedback on your progress. DO IT! I do: ME ON YOUTUBE

Fonn Seisiúin is Déanaí–The Old Flail

Here are two great examples of the tune we learned this past session–The Old Flail jig. Ted also introduced us to a tune that often appears before it called The Whistler at the Wake. Both tunes were written by Vincent Broderick, a Galway man, musician and composer who passed away in 2008.. (You can find recordings of both tunes in the TUNES section of the website.)

This first is Caitlín Nic Gabhann and Ciarán Ó Mhaonaigh–I saw these two at a house concert once, by the way–amazing! The old Flail is the second tune.

Next up is one of my top three favorite fiddlers, MacDara Ó Raghallaigh, playing a set including The Haunted House, Whistler at the Wake, and The old Flail. Amazing variations going on here. All three tunes are Vincent Broderick tunes! Thanks, Mr. B!

Extra little bit of reading on Vincent Broderick here.


The Kesh Jig-an Old Standard Brought to Life

Ok this is a bit of a teaser. It’s a video of Kevin Burke doing a tutorial video for an online service called fiddlevideos dot com. But, it is the abridged version of the lesson. They hope to leave you wanting more. I’m sure they have some great content, but this isn’t about them, it’s about the Kesh jig! Check them out, though, if you’re so inclined.

This video shows Mr. Burke playing the kesh jig right off the bat. I wanted to share this to show how this simple, perhaps overplayed tune can sound really amazing if its strong points are emphasized. It’s got a lot going on, lots of variety in melody and texture, so to speak, all of which can be emphasized to great effect. Here, have a listen:

More Airs–What About O’Carolan?



In Music

a. A melody or tune, especially in the soprano or tenor range.
b. A solo with or without accompaniment.

(Disclaimer–there are many opinions on the definition of the meaning of “air.” Please take the following as the ramblings of a moderately intelligent monkey.)

In my limited understanding of the Irish musical tradition so far, airs are most often sean nós songs stripped of their words and played solo on a melody instrument, slowly and with no set rhythm. There are also jigs and reels and that sort of thing that were originally songs, were stripped of their lyrics, and turned into fine dance tunes. Sean nós airs, by contrast, owe no allegiance to meter or tempo, as even these are flexible and used as part of the expressive potential of the song or tune. This lack of rhythmic structure carries over to the instrumental playing of airs as well.

It came up in the last LVISS session that O’Carolan’s tunes might be considered airs. Well, I think they are, but most of the musicians I know that play this music call airs airs, and O’Carolon tunes O’Carolan tunes. You can tell the difference between them right away–they just have such a different feel from each other.There are a couple of important ways in which they differ. (Be sure to see the link below for an interesting discussion of what an air is and isn’t.)

For one thing, O’Carolan composed his tunes first, and added words later. Other airs are derived from a song that would have been composed with words and melody at the same time. Here I quote

His practice was to compose the tune first and then write the words. This was opposite of the traditional Irish practice. Although music was always important, prior to Carolan, poetry always took precedence.

Secondly, all the O’Carolan tunes I have heard have a definite rhythm. Sean nós songs are not traditionally sung with a set rhythm, nor are airs derived from them played that way, though they can be. Usually the rhythm is slow, not regular, and very flexible.

Sung solo, with little rhythm, sounds like this:

With a bit more rhythm next. This is probably because to get everyone playing together you need at least a bit of predictability!

This one has ALL the rhythm:

O’Carolan’s tunes are played the way most other session tunes are–all together as a group. Everyone in unison. Sean nós airs are played solo at sessions, if at all, and as I said in my last post, I have now heard that done exactly once! I am in the States, though.

Finally, O’Carolan’s tunes were influenced by and incorporated other European music styles of his time, notably the Baroque style. Not that Irish sean nós wasn’t influenced by the “outside world” throughout its history, but the influences really stand out, and are in fact highlighted in O’Carolan’s work. Again, from

There were three musical traditions in Ireland, art music, folk music and the harper tradition. The harper tradition served as a bridge between art and folk music and was the primary conduit for the oral tradition. Carolan created a unique style by not only combining the two art forms but by adding elements then-contemporary composers, including Vivaldi and Corelli. He greatly admired Geminiani, whom he probably met in Dublin.

Obviously O’Carolan would have been influenced by the sean nós traditions of his time, but it may be that his primary concern was making a living, and he was offering what would best serve that mission. His wealthy patrons would probably have been looking for something they felt was slightly different from the folk music of the time, so O’Carolan’s Baroque infused compositions would have suited their tastes well. But that’s just me speculating.

In any case, he managed to fuse the two traditions of Irish and classical music very effectively, creating something entirely unique from the traditions of the time. As unique as the sean nós tradition? Hmmm….

Carolan “bridge [sic] the gap between continental art music on the one hand, and the Gaelic harp and folk music on the other.” “At his best he wrote music that is distinctively Irish, yet has an international flavor as well. It is this achievement that suggests that Turlough Carolan does indeed deserve the title of Ireland’s “National Composer”

Look, I’m not an expert, so let me know if you think I’ve mucked something up here. What do you think? Leave a comment below!

For more on O’Carolan see Wikipedia. Also see THIS page.

For more on the sean nós style of singing, see Wikipedia.

Discussion about airs, on

Ó Amhrán go Fonn — From Song to Tune

I went to the NcNeill’s session in Brattleboro this week, and a fella there played an air on his flute. Honestly I don’t remember ever hearing an air played at a session before. I’ve heard lots of them sung, along with other song types (this is common at the McNeill’s session) but never done instrumentally.

Fast forward to today–I’m listening to Macdara Ó Raghallaigh’s album “Ego Trip”–which is absolutely brilliant, by the way–and on comes an air called Bruach na Carraige Báine, or “The Edge of the White Rock.” It’s a lovely sad tune, slow and kinda painful, and a bit unresolved melodically, leaving you with a bit of an empty space inside, to good effect, I think.

For awhile I’ve been thinking about how airs generally come from songs that are sung, and I have wondered  do musicians take liberties with the melodies of songs to make them more palatable as airs? Well I’m sure it varies by musician. I have heard some liberties taken in the more modern arrangements. These songs were originally sung solo, as part of a tradition called “Sean Nós,” or old style singing, literally. The singer, or amhráiní, would use various embellishments in the melody for mood and effect, much as we do when adding ornamentation to jigs, reels and the like. However quite often nowadays you hear amhráin (songs) accompanied by guitar, or harp, or even arranged with more complexity–think of the big name “Celtic” super groups, like Altan and the like, I suppose.

So of course, I turned to good-old YouTube, and I did manage to find a nice, unaccompanied version of Bruach na Carraige Báine, and luckily, Macdara’s version is also on the Tube for comparason. In the first video, the tune in question begins shortly after the beginning, but the video goes on with other songs and stuff, so watch it through after you make your comparisons.

For the curious–the lyrics can be found HERE.

(I have not vetted the lyrics, so, here’s a grain of salt for ya’s.)