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!

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.

March 2019 Video Tune Recap

Hello, hello! It’s the end of the month, which means it’s time for another tune recap! I will admit that I almost forgot to record this month, but fortunately I had a gig yesterday morning at the Boyne City Farmer’s Market, which proved to be an ideal time to record a few tunes. This month y’all get a bonus guest musician — John Warstler! John and I play gigs together frequently in the Petoskey, Michigan area, so it was great to get to feature him on a few of the sets this month.

If you’ve seen some of my earlier tune recordings on Instagram, you may remember that I get pretty creative with how I rig my phone to capture a good angle when I record myself playing. Think filing bins, kitchen clips, music stands, and blankets hung over doors for a backdrop. My behind the scenes are clearly very hi-tech. This time was no exception! While I did get a tripod for Christmas this year, I didn’t realize I would be needing it so I left it at home! So these videos are coming to you with the help of a pop socket, mic stand, and bright yellow duct tape… What can I say? I’m building this music business one step at a time, and if I have to be resourceful before I can budget out for “proper” equipment, then you bet I will!

This month I’m starting out with a tune that Chuck Boyer requested last month: Niel Gow’s Lament for his Second Wife. This is a beautiful Scottish waltz that I’ve been playing for years, but hadn’t pulled out of the tune repertoire since my undergraduate days. I’ve actually recorded this tune before, I believe in tribute to one of the (tragically) many school shootings that have occurred in the US. I’ve found music to be the best way to express some of my deeper emotions — I hope that whatever you may need to hear this lament for that it gives you some comfort and perhaps a few minutes of joy and peace.

Coming to you from the Boyne City Farmer’s Market — Niel Gow’s Lament. Send me your tune requests!

This next set focuses on a project that I actually started back in February, where I tried different methods to help me learn tunes more quickly. Part of the value of learning by ear is that it actively forces you to remember the phrasing and the notes at a quicker rate than reading off of sheet music. This may seem a little counterintuitive to anyone who knows how to read music. After years of practice, I am at the point where I could easily sight read a tune and play it in an Irish traditional style because I know what a jig or a reel is supposed to sound like. However, I can’t tell you how many times I have mindlessly sight read a tune, then been unable to recall how it goes later on in a session. It doesn’t stick that way.

So to combat this tendency, I forced myself to slow down. I picked five jigs that I wanted to learn in O’Neill’s Collection of over 1,000 tunes, and I drilled them. I started off reading them off the page, then played them through enough times so that I could play without looking at the music. Then I put the fiddle away and came back to it the next day starting out with playing from memory. I would only reference the sheet music if I got completely stuck. Adding or subtracting a passing note here and there only added to my version of the overall tune, so I didn’t worry about playing every single note the way it was written. By using that method, I taught myself ten new tunes in three days. Let that sink in… I slowed down so that I could speed up. I was patient so that I could reach my goal faster than the breakneck, unplanned pace I’ve been relying on before now. Needless to say, this is one of my new practice strategies!

Jigs: The Kinnegad Slashers/Fair Haired Boy/Black Donald the Piper feat. John Warstler

Lastly, I couldn’t help but add two of my favorite reels to this month’s recap! As you’ll hear in the video, there is a story to go along with the first tune, John Brosnan’s. So as promised, here it is! Some of you may know of the Irish band, We Banjo 3. Their fiddle player, Fergal Scahill, did a Tune A Day challenge back in 2017, and unfortunately I missed out on my opportunity to play a tune with him when they played at Blissfest that summer. Those were the days when you could barely pay me to be assertive, much less bug a famous person by reaching out more than once to try and meet them. When I saw Fergal was doing the tune challenge again this year, I knew this was my chance. We were already headed down to Ann Arbor to see their live album recording show at The Ark, so with fingers crossed and several messages back and forth on Instagram, we made it happen! The video is on his Facebook and Instagram pages, but if you’re having trouble finding it, I can send you the post on one of those platforms.

We recorded the video at the very end of February, so I decided to wait until this month to incorporate the story in to my recap. I’m posting it this month as a reminder to myself that I can be assertive, and that I don’t need to be afraid to ask if I want something badly enough. Both of the tunes in this video are some favorites that I heard played on my trips back to Cork last year in sessions at the Bodega. Thank you Michael, Hughie, Shane, and Tomas for your influence there! And thank you, of course, to John for playing on these videos this month. Here’s John Brosnan’s/The Sailor’s Bonnet — thanks for following along, and stay tuned for April!

Closing out with John Brosnan’s/The Sailor’s Bonnet

February 2019 Video Tune Recap

February flew by! You’d think a couple less days wouldn’t make such a big difference, but they do. This month has been jam packed with fun music events. I started off with being one of the closing acts in Little Traverse Youth Choir’s variety show called “A Time to Shine,” which showcased local musicians of all ages and genres at The Great Lakes Center for the Arts. It was the first time I’d played in an auditorium since graduating from Furman University in 2016, and I must say it was delightful to experience a bigger stage again!

The following week, Chris and I headed up with some other Blissfest members to Folk Alliance in Montreal. The Bliss crowd were scouting for acts to invite to the festival in 2020, while I was tagging along to do some scouting and networking of my own. I reconnected with several friends and past instructors from the Swannanoa Gathering, including Emerald Rae and Andrew Finn Magill, who have both had huge influences on my fiddling journey! I also met some great new musician friends, either over tunes on the 3rd floor of the hotel or throughout the night at all the artist showcases. It was three days of musical intensity and awesomeness!

You may have seen last month that I started recording videos for my YouTube channel again in the form of “end of month tune recaps.” Anytime you want to request a tune for an upcoming month, please feel free to contact me! For this month’s videos, I did something a little different from my original plan — I recapped on tunes that I’ve been playing for years rather than ones I focused on this month. The reason for that is, today is my dad’s birthday! One of the best ways that my dad and I were able to connect while I was growing up was through playing music together. He’d be on guitar, and I’d try and race him to see who could play “Old Joe Clark” the fastest… I think fiddle players have an advantage over fingerstyle guitar!

So in honor of my dad celebrating another year around the sun, and because I can’t be there in person with him today I want to dedicate this month’s round of tunes to him by focusing on a few of our old favorites to play together! The first video is a set of two jigs that we got from an arrangement off of William Coulter’s album, Celtic Crossing, featuring Kevin Burke on the fiddle.

Video 1 of 3: Jigs!

The first tune in this next set is another one of Daddy’s favorites called “The Lads of Laois.” This is another William Coulter and Kevin Burke influence for us, but for the longest time I couldn’t play this tune up to speed. It’s an absolutely gorgeous tune, and yet my fingers were not able to figure out the roll patterns for many years! I finally started playing it again a little over a year ago, and was thrilled to hear the progress that had come out of a ten year hiatus from the tune! That is one of my favorite things about being a musician — often you don’t realize how far you’ve come until you easily play a tune that you struggled with years before. I wanted to do more than one tune for this recording, despite the fact that we always played it as a solo set! So I’ve added on “The Bells of Tipperary” although it’s not one we’ve played together. Taking you through two counties on the way from Dublin to Cork!

Video 2 of 3: Reels!

I warned my listeners back in January that I’d probably be singing a bit in these videos, so I went ahead and threw a song in for this last one! This is another favorite, which I learned initially from John Doyle at the Swannanoa Gathering, and have subsequently heard in quite a few song circles, workshop and recordings since. Here is my version of “A Stor Mo Chroi.”

Video 3 of 3: Song!

Hope you all enjoyed the videos! If you are not already following me on Youtube, I’d love if you subscribed to my channel so you can keep up with my latest posts! You can also find full versions of these tunes on my Facebook business page, Hannah Harris Music, or on my IGTV channel through my Instagram! Thank you all for reading and for your support in my musical journey! Head on over to my “Upcoming Gigs” page to see if I’m playing a show near you in the future!