May Tune Recap

There is no one I know who can execute a tighter bow treble than Kevin Burke. Say what now? Okay, so a bow treble is a type of ornamentation — or technical decoration — that fiddle players can add to their tunes. It’s where we move the bow in a quick down-up-down motion to add a bit of “spice” to the tune. When Kevin Burke plays a bow treble, it is so quick and crisp that it sounds more like added percussion than a repeated melodic note.

To give y’all some context as to why I’m waxing poetic about this master fiddler, I attended Kevin Burke’s house concert a couple weeks ago at the home of some of my musician friends, Mo and Dale Scott. It was incredible to say the least. I have seen Kevin perform before at the Swannanoa Gathering, but what I didn’t realize then was how much of an effect he has had on my own playing. Growing up, my dad played a lot of William Coulter CDs in our house, and I only found out this year that the fiddle player I listened to all the time as a kid was Kevin Burke! I must have subconsciously absorbed his phrasing and choices of ornamentation, because when I started playing fiddle music myself, that was the role model I had in my mind. Nowadays, whenever I ask my musician friends who are familiar with this type of music who I sound like stylistically, they almost always say Kevin Burke! Now I know why.

One of my favorite tunes from this house concert is one that I decided to record for y’all this month called “S’iomadh Rud A Chunnaic Mi.” In English, this translates to “Many a Thing I Saw.” Sounds like a good story already, right?

Coincidentally, I posted a blog earlier this month focusing on my favorite artists from my February travels to the Folk Alliance Conference, where I also heard this tune from Adam Agee and Jon Sousa. These guys are based in Colorado, but like me have traveled and studied abroad overseas to immerse themselves in the tunes and songs of Ireland and Scotland! Kindred spirits…

While the tune is listed as a reel in thesession.org, this tune is primarily an example of Scottish Gaelic mouth music, or puirt-a-beul. This came about when there would be a dance but no musicians were around to play for it. So, as a perfect example of “the Thrifty Scot,” the people improvised and made up words to the well-known tunes. These were meant to be more light hearted or silly, so they didn’t tell a story like a ballad would. In fact, they are probably most similar to Irish lilting in that the tune is sung — but whereas lilting is just syllables strung together, puirt-a-beul uses words. It’s actually quite a skill to develop, requiring breath control and a good knowledge of the Scots Gaelic language/pronunciation at a rapid fire pace. I learned one puirt-a-beul set with Mary Jane Lamond at the Gaelic College in Cape Breton back in 2015 and am woefully out of practice. Heather Sparling has a great book called, Reeling Roosters and Dancing Ducks: Celtic Mouth Music, which goes way more into depth about the tradition of puirt-a-beul. So if you want to learn more about this, I highly recommend the read!

For my second set of tunes, I decided to go back to my memories of studying in Cork. I left Ireland in May 2017 after an eight month period of intense study at University College of Cork for my Masters Degree. I still get very nostalgic for that time of my life, especially for the people I was fortunate enough to meet and connect with. If anyone from Cork is reading this I miss y’all SO much, and am planning a 2020 trip back to visit! These tunes are dedicated to you.

When people ask me what my musical focus is, I usually just say Irish traditional music. But if I were to get really specific, I would say that I hone in on the Sliabh Luachra region of Ireland (parts of Counties Cork, Kerry, and Limerick) with nods to my Appalachian North Carolina roots. I think the mountains are becoming more and more a part of my soul. “Sliabh Luachra” translates roughly to “The Mountain of Rushes,” which gives you an idea of what the landscape looks like in this region (thank you Kevin Burke for pointing this out in your concert)!

The beautiful “Sliabh Luachra” rush mountains of West Cork and Kerry! Taken from the Ring of Kerry at Ladies’ View near Killarney in 2017.

This area is known for its polkas and slides, almost but not quite replacing reels and jigs in session repertoire. Today I’m going to play you two slides that I learned in my fiddle lessons with Connie O’Connell at the college, called “Barrack Hill” and “Paddy Cronin’s Slide.” These lessons were unlike any others I’d ever taken. Two or three other fiddlers and I sat around in a circle in a narrow room of the music building with Connie for 45 minutes every Tuesday afternoon and absorbed 1-3 lesser known tunes (they had to be in order to pick one all of us didn’t already know). It was done entirely by ear, but we were allowed to record the tunes on our phones to practice for the next week. I absolutely love this learning approach, and have continued to incorporate into how I learn new tunes to this day. It’s a great brain exercise, and really instills the music deeper into the musician.

So with my Barry’s Gold Blend of tea within arm’s reach and two Sliabh Luachra slides on my mind, here is my May tribute to my time spent in Cork!

Folk Alliance 2019 Part Two: Who I Discovered

Hello again! As promised, here is part two of my Folk Alliance posts. This one focuses on the my favorite FA artists who I either met in person for the first time or reconnected with from previous travels. If you missed my first post, which tells you what Folk Alliance is and focuses on my main takeaways from the week, you can click here to catch up! One of those takeaways had to do with what type of artist I resonate with the most. I realized that I connect best with performers who not only play well, but also have a unique persona that shines through in their music. I highly encourage you to look these artists up, listen to their music, and if possible see them perform live.

So many talented artists all gathered together in this building!

Old Friends:

I was thrilled when I saw that both Andrew Finn Magill and Emerald Rae were performing at Folk Alliance this year (click on their names to check out their websites)! Finn was my first “real” fiddle teacher when I started attending the Swannanoa Gathering Celtic Week at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. I know him the best for his Irish music, but in the past few years he has been focusing on Brazilian styles — which also sound amazing. He played several sets with his friend and bandmate, Cesar Garabini, who is an absolute wizard at the seven string guitar. I credit Finn for giving me the necessary tips I needed to shift my sound from classical violinist to Irish fiddler. He’s also great at providing disciplined practice tips, which is an area I’m always looking to improve!

Emerald Rae was another one of my fiddle teachers from Swannanoa, this time focusing on Cape Breton music. To this day, I still love to play the tunes she taught in that class — she’s got a real knack for picking some great repertoire! Like Finn, Emerald has retained her traditional music background, but has also transitioned into a new style: singer-songwriter. Her latest self-titled album is full of her own compositions written for fiddle accompanying voice. Let me tell you, it is not easy to sing and play at the same time, but Emerald is absolutely brilliant at it. She is exploring and pushing boundaries of what the fiddle and voice can do to create a one-woman show. She also experiments with cross tuning and medieval music, which gives her a unique vibe and really showcases her powerhouse fiddling. Can you tell she’s one of my role models?

From Andrew Finn Magill and Emerald Rae’s Instagram pages. Reproduced with permission.

New Friends (thank you, Instagram!):

There were also some familiar faces at Folk Alliance thanks to the virtual world of the internet — mostly due to Instagram and the Celtic Colours Festival Livestream from Cape Breton. Tristan Henderson of Vermont trio, Pete’s Posse, was one such Instagram connection. He has been really supportive of me ever since I started to market my music more online, so it was wonderful to meet him and hear him play in person! He’s one of the friendliest musicians I’ve ever met and also quite possibly the owner of the biggest jaw harp collection that I know.

Another Celtic Colour/Instagram discovery was April Verch. April is an amazing virtuosic Canadian fiddler from the Ottawa Valley region, but also knowledgeable of other Canadian regional styles. She was performing with her trio at Folk Alliance, and I must have dropped in to listen to almost all of her showcases. She fiddles, sings, and step dances — sometimes at the same time! I ended up taking a master class with her during the week to learn about the stylistic differences among the Canadian regional fiddle traditions, which was really fascinating to compare to what I’ve learned about Irish regional styles. She taught the class a Métis (French, Irish and Native American influenced) version of The Arkansas Traveler as well as an Ottawa Valley (in Ontario) style jig. I could definitely hear similarities between the Ottawa Valley and Appalachian fiddling, both of which have ancestral root meanings to me! April has just released a new album, “Once a Day,” where she’s exploring more 50’s Canadian country repertoire — absolutely adore her and her music!

Album cover from April Verch's latest release, "Once a Day."
Reproduced with April’s permission. Check out her new album!

While I didn’t end up speaking to any of these guys, I also got to see Le Vent du Nord in person. WOW. I barely have any other words. Despite my minimal knowledge of the French language, they were one of the most engaging groups of musicians I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch perform. Also one of the guys plays a hurdy-gurdy, which is just awesome in and of itself. Another string instrument for me to try…

Other Favorite Musical Acts:

Rising Appalachia: I was introduced to this wonderful band by a fellow American student and friend of mine in Cork, who shares my deep love for my homeland in the southeastern United States. She and I even worked up their version of “Across the Blue Ridge Mountains” to sing in the weekly sessions we attended at the Blarney Castle Hotel. However, I was in no way prepared for their performance at Folk Alliance. Jam packed into a small hotel room with thirty to forty other people, I experienced the most soul-fulfilling music I have felt in a long time. Their beautiful harmonies and arrangements of classic Old Time tunes brought me right back home to the Piedmont/Mountain region of North Carolina, and really reached my core. To me, they represent true “Roots” music: they bring everything back to the lay of the land, how we occupy it, and how we use it to serve one another. They share an idea of how to manifest all of our gifts on this earth, and it really sunk in with me… also they have the classiest hats! Lastly, they just released a new album called Leylines, which focuses on the musical alignment of traditions from the southeastern US, Ireland, and Africa. Y’all, it’s a true work of art!!

Rising Appalachia joined by Finn Magill — seriously the most magical showcase, y’all!

Adam Agee and Jon Sousa: I accidentally stumbled upon these two Colorado-based musicians as I was wandering down the hotel corridor. There was some beautiful fiddle/guitar music trailing out of a room that stopped me in my tracks, made me turn around and make a beeline for its source. Jon spent some time at University of Limerick, where he developed his knowledge of singing in the Irish language, and it was an absolute pleasure to speak to them both after their set! I’m always glad to meet fellow musicians who have had similar Irish experiences to my own — and I really hope to catch these two for some tunes one of these days!

The East Pointers: These guys actually came to Petoskey a little over a year ago, and played at Red Sky Stage — love their energy, their banter in between sets, and their songs! They’ve definitely got a traditional sound at their roots, but they use it to tell their own story of their travels and upbringing. Both of my favorite songs of theirs, “82 Fires” and “Two Weeks,” shed light on different hardships: wildfire threats in Tanzania and the economically challenging work environment in the Canadian Maritimes. Even though their songs focus on specific events or geographical areas, the themes are relatable worldwide and really have the ability to reach a variety of audience members. On top of that, they are genuinely nice people, which is always a plus in my book!

Additional Acts I Enjoyed:

Riviere Rouge – April Verch recommended this Canadian Métis trio — wonderfully friendly guys who, like Le Vent du Nord, have the ability to connect through their music with both their French and English speaking audiences. I thoroughly enjoyed my first major introduction to Metis music thanks to them!

Nava – These guys are an Irish/Persian quartet using instruments and repertoire from both traditions. Often times I shy away from groups that blend a bunch of different styles because I think they lose that traditionally rooted approach — not the case with these guys! They honor both Irish and Persian culture and put together a truly enjoyable set!

The Lumber Jills – If my best friends from childhood and I had ever played music together, it would be like this quartet of young girls from Cape Breton. They clearly enjoy playing music together, and I hope to go to the Celtic Colours Festival one of these years to hear them play again!

The Fretless – Classical string quartet meets fiddling repertoire. I didn’t get to see them live, but Chris did and got them on video for me. Recently, I’ve started to get more involved in my local classical music scene, so I think I have a new project in the works…

Gus La Casse – Gus is a fantastic Acadian fiddler, and really throws himself into the music! His energy immediately transforms his surrounding environment. He played a few showcases with Tristan Henderson, and between the two of them I felt as though I’d dropped into a concert environment flow that only masters of tradition can pull off! Seriously amazing musicianship!!

Pumpkin Bread Band – One of my roommates from the Swannanoa Gathering, Maura Scanlin, is the fiddle player from this band. Having heard her play before, I knew I’d have to see them in showcase — Maura puts such heart and soul into her fiddling and she’s a pleasure to listen to! Her band was great too — they just released their debut CD, and I look forward to hearing more of their work!

There were many more artists that I didn’t get around to listen to at Folk Alliance due to the sheer volume of simultaneous showcases, but the artists listed above all stood out to me for their own reasons. It was truly an honor to meet such wonderful musicians and reconnect with others who I consider as mentors. The beauty of these conferences are the connections made and the chance to experience some fantastic musical moments. I highly encourage y’all to surround yourself with music that lifts you, inspires you, challenges you, and makes you feel a deep connection to this world and your life in it. Comment below if any of these artists resonate with you, and better yet reach out and tell them how much their music means to you!

Special thanks to this guy for making the trip to Folk Alliance possible! Here’s to many more music travels in the future! PC: Tin Can Photography

April Tune Recap

Does anyone know where April went? Between moving, starting to transition jobs, future house hunting and wedding planning, by the end of the month I was finding it extremely hard to prioritize time with my fiddle. Fortunately my latest project is both specific and motivating for me, so most days I was still able to get the instruments out for a little while!

Ever since mid-late March, I’ve selected one fiddle player each month to focus on studying. For April I chose David Doocey, an Irish fiddler/multi-instrumentalist, who released an album in 2013 called “Changing Time.” My self-imposed challenge was to learn every single tune on the album. The goal was not to sound exactly like David Doocey — although he is a great fiddle player and I really do admire his style! Rather, I wanted to absorb a few influences of his while expanding my tune repertoire. Whenever I am over in Ireland or at an advanced Irish session in the states, I like to be able to pick up new tunes quickly from master musicians. So this exercise was meant to help me train my ear to absorb phrasing, tune structure, and variations all within a limited amount of time.

I spent the last month listening to David’s album over and over again, while attempting to play along with him. Each time got a little better, and I gradually caught on to each of the tracks one by one. I kept a checklist handy of all the tunes I didn’t know yet, and after the first couple of days I was able to start crossing them off. In this month’s tune recap, I dive into three of my favorite tracks from this album — each of which required a different learning approach!

An old favorite and a new favorite! Also I am WAY too excited that I made my first video edit with these! Baby steps…

When I first recorded this video with the intro, my fiddle was reacting to the new environment and was slightly out of tune. It wasn’t terrible, but it was enough to bother me, and I didn’t want to put that kind of musical content that I’m not completely satisfied with out there. So my “brilliant” plan was to record the tunes on their own once I adjusted my strings, and then put both the intro and video clips into iMovie on my phone! At first I thought I needed the computer, which would have been a problem due to my full iCloud storage, but fortunately I thought to check out the apps I never use on my phone — and voila! Some of you with experience in video editing may be shaking your heads at me for this incredibly basic skill I just acquired, but y’all this is a HUGE step for me! I don’t like to video edit at all! I just want to focus on playing tunes, not fine tuning the format that I share them in… but I will say it’s a useful skill to have and maybe once I learn more and get better at it, I will find it more enjoyable!

Dipping into my classical background to crank out these unusual tunes! 3-4 flats with no alternate tuning!

This next set of tunes posed a different kind of challenge. A top resource for many Irish traditional musician is The Session, which provides sheet music for a multitude of tunes. Another nice feature is that you can research a particular artist, and the search engine comes up with a list of all of the tunes on their albums. However, not every single tune is transcribed into the database, so sometimes you only get a name with no link attached! This was the case for David Doocey’s track “Up Braid/Tory Fort Lane.” Maybe some day I will sit down and submit a transcription for these tunes, but that wasn’t the focus of this month’s project. Instead, I saw it as an opportunity to learn these two tunes entirely by ear — a preferred traditional learning method anyway!

The fun thing for me with these tunes is that they’re in unusual keys: c minor and f minor where the key signature contains three and four flats! Definitely an advanced key to play in on the fiddle as you can’t use three of your four open strings. As I mentioned in the video, some fiddlers get around this obstacle by using alternate tunings on their instrument. In this case, you would tune the strings down by a half step, so that the A would become A flat, and so on. Occasionally, I do like to experiment with alternate tunings because they create a whole new open and resonant tone that my ear is not adjusted to! You can imagine it opens a whole new world of musical possibilities. However there is value in both methods, and this month I chose to stay in standard tuning while adjusting my fingers into a trickier pattern — I believe David does the same thing. It was a good review from my classical music days and reminded me how much I love playing in both of these keys!

A beautiful jig that I’ve only ever heard at a faster tempo prior to David Doocey! Love that this gave me an opportunity to slow it down and challenge myself in new ways!

Lastly, I chose to record this beautiful slow jig called Inis Bearachain. I have heard some of my friends in Cork play this tune before, but at a regular jig tempo, which is much faster. So the challenge with this tune was to slow it down and explore the possibilities of playing it at a completely different tempo! It may seem odd, but playing slow is much harder than playing fast. When we play fast, we are speeding through the notes, not paying as much attention to precision and intonation, and getting ourselves in this mindset of rushing ahead and thinking more about what is next than what is at hand. Trust me, this is me in so many ways… so using this practice time to slow down and be present in a more mellow tempo turned out to be a great mindset exercise for me too! Learning how to be present yet proactive, centered yet conscious of what’s coming next… it’s not just a music skill, y’all, it’s a life skill!

One of many reasons I love playing music is that I can tie my practicing into life skills and lessons. Patience with learning new tunes in a repetitive aural method, revisiting old lessons as needed to make progress, and slowing down to appreciate the moment… these are all things I can apply to my life beyond my music. It’s why playing an instrument is so much more than entertaining an audience. The reason why I have gone down this musical path in my education is not just for acquiring technical skills in performance and teaching — it is for the mindset that learning an instrument teaches us. It’s more than learning how to be a good musician. It’s also learning how to be a good person. How to be fully present, centered and connected to our lives and how we interact with others. Music is a conduit through which we as human beings can learn to enter into that flow that makes our lives worth living. Be present, my friends. Be connected. Be musical.