Play With an Irish Accent


Happy day to you all! I hope you all had a good St. Paddy’s day and drank responsibly while you showed off how, um, amazing you all look in green. You really go look maahvelous in green. It’s definitely your color.

Right, so.

I was thinking the other day (as I often do) and one thought sort of stuck in my head a bit longer than thoughts usually do (5 or 6 seconds at least) which was enough to give birth to another thought (a truly once-a-year sort of occurrence.)

And the thought was–when I first started learning the Irish language (an Gaeilge) it was with a teacher by the name of Tom O’Rourke. He was quite a character, sort of half leprechaun, if you ask me, or maybe a bit more than half. Very lively middle aged man with a real twinkle in his eye. I know it sounds kind of stereotypical, but he really was like that! He had a real passion for the language and the culture, and it really came through in his teaching style. He had a way of going off on tangents to the actual teaching, telling us little anecdotes about this and that. One day we must have been talking about pronunciation or something of the sort when he said

When you speak Irish, speak it with an Irish accent.

Well now. That made so much sense to me it kinda took me by surprise. It struck me as one of those brilliant statements that points out the utterly obvious in a way that makes you wonder where you were looking, because you obviously weren’t looking “right under your nose,” which is where all that obvious stuff lives.

I mean, that’s kinda what you do when you learn a new language–you try to imitate the sounds, but quite often you know the sounds already–if you’ve ever tried to imitate an Irish accent speaking English, you know them to some degree. If you could tap into that knowledge you already have it should make it a lot easier, I think.

This brings to mind another technique in language learning that is popular these days too–Language Shadowing. You listen to a sample of the language being spoken, and say the words along with it, trying to imitate the pronunciation and sound exactly, using the recording as a guide. It’s been shown to greatly improve pronunciation and fluency.

So then I wondered if one could apply these same ideas to learning Irish music. If you’re learning to play the jigs-and-reels-type of dance music that the LVISS is all about, you most likely listen to a fair amount of the music already, so you have a sense of what it sounds like. Maybe it would be possible to play the music while really concentrating on what it is that makes it sound Irish–the accent, if you like. Writing this now I realize it’ll be easier said than done. Most things are I suppose. How would I go about this? well, let’s try to work this out:

Pick a tune you’re working on. I’m currently working on a lovely Kevin Burke tune called “Across the Black River.” (I posted a video of this in the last post.) I think it’s important to listen to the tune carefully first, paying attention to what the musician is doing to give it the rhythm and lift that makes it sound like Irish music. Find the pulse of the tune–is the emphasis on the upbeat or the downbeat? What sort of ornaments and embellishments is the musician using? Then, isolate a phrase or two from the tune–the music player on my Android phone has A-B repeat and slow-down features. (Jet Audio is the name of the app.) Once you isolate the phrase, play it on repeat, and play along, trying to imitate the accents, phrasing and ornaments until you think you have it exactly like the recording. This could take some time, but if you’re aiming for perfection, it’s going to sink in eventually. And, you’re training your brain to know what the right sound is. We learn to speak this way too–through repetition and imitation. Eventually you learn what sounds right and avoid what doesn’t.

I hope you’ll try this, and I hope it does you some good. If you do, please share your thoughts and experience in the comments below!



3 thoughts on “Play With an Irish Accent

  1. Good suggestions. I find that the most effective practice session for me is to listen to a tune using my phone and ear buds and play along with it. I use the Amazing Slower Downer app on my phone to slow down the recording and adjust the volume so that I can hear the recording and my pipes (uilleann). This seems to be the best way for me to pick up a particular style of playing.

    • Yes, pretty much what I mean here. I do the same thing, different app. I think the key is to really, really listen, and apply your knowledge of what irish music sounds like to your efforts. Good luck, and thanks!

  2. Yes! I think this is such an important thing to stress. The idea that we need to learn more than just the sequence of notes. It’s kind of elusive, but at the same time, people who are aware of it can teach how to get that sound through things that go beyond the sequence of notes. They’re subtle things that are for me often kind of difficult, but they’re so so worth it. I also practice a lot by playing along with recordings. I use Audacity on my desktop computer and slow down tracks from recordings I like. I must have about 60 tracks in my “Slowed Down Tunes” folder. I also think this kind of practicing strengthens the important session skill of listening to a couple of different things at once while playing. Listening to my own playing and at the same time listening to and matching the playing of others. With recordings, I’m playing along with great players, which adds to the fun for me. I often really enjoy this work. And of course if prepares us for going out and playing with others in “real life.”

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