Saturday, September 7, 2013

Lesson Eight: The Most Important Thing To Know About Learning the Irish Tenor Banjo

The most important thing about learning the Irish tenor banjo (or any other instrument) is listening to the music before you try to play it.

OK, I am a little over the top with the title of this blog, but I think I am correct about this.  You can't learn Irish music without listening to it and by listening I mean making the music part of you.
There are very good neurophysiological reasons for this. The process of learning takes time and exposure to the information needed to learn.  But more importantly, there has to be more than just a logical process if you really want to learn a tune, or in this case, how the music is played.
Irish traditional music is a foreign entity to most of us who play it, even for some from Ireland who found it after they became adults.  This is not an argument for "you have to be born in Ireland to play Irish music", but it is a bit of reality we all have to deal with.
The same thing can be said about many American roots styles: it takes work to be able to incorporate the music so you can interpret it in a way that honors the music and have an emotional relationship to it.
Irish music is something of a fuzzy concept.  If you listen to Martin Hayes and Tommy Peoples play the same tune you could not say that they were identical.  Part of this is a reflection of regional variation but even that concept is questionable ever since Michael Coleman started to send records back to Ireland from the United States.  There are clearly regional tendencies, of course, but most of the music we hear these days is more related to the genius and style of the various expert players.
Today's players use a differently tempered scale, have better technique, and have explored the music far more than a lot of the players from the first half of the last century.  More of these players are professionals and they have learned from teachers and records while developing their own styles.
One thing all of these musicians have in common is that they have listened to the music.
Seamus Connolly, Artist-In-Residence at the Boston College Irish studies program, pointed out in a lecture (at the O'Flaherty Retreat) that beginners should attend master classes in fiddle because they would always come out of the class with something of value.  His thesis was that by listening to the best teachers and musicians you get a feel for the music that you don't get in beginner classes because the beginner classes focus on teaching tunes and technique while the music is secondary.
There is no question that you have to have good technique if you want to advance in the music but technique is not the whole picture.  Even knowing a lot of tunes is not the be-all and end-all of the music.  You need to learn the "lift" if you want to play the music and really enjoy it.
Martin Howley alluded to this in his lecture on learning by ear at the Milwaukee Irishfest Summer School. There are skills you can learn to reproduce a tune and there are plenty of apps and aids to help with this process.  But in order to really learn the tune you have to make it your own.  To make it your own you have to have an emotional relationship with the music and then it really comes alive.
The process of learning music is one that has been studied extensively in medical schools and universities. (The perfect storm, highly trained poor musicians attending school offered a lot of money to put their heads in an MR machine while they play - all at the same university.)  What has been learned is that the brains of musicians, especially skilled musicians, are different from non-musicians and this difference is a result of years of hard work both in technique plus being  immersed in the music that they play.  Highly skilled musicians have a section of their brains that light up when they see other musicians play called the mirror neurons.  In order for this to happen, the brain has to change a lot and brain growth actually occurs.
Music is not a logical endeavor.  In order to learn a style or type of music you have to work very hard at it and in the case of Irish banjo playing, listen to a lot of music played well
This doesn't mean you have to listen to banjo exclusively.  In fact that would only limit you.  You should try and listen to as much Irish music as you can, take in all the styles in the genera, and enjoy the experience.  This is especially true in the beginning as you are learning technique.  For one thing knowing the music will give that technique some context and as you start to sing the music in your head, you will add the little diddleys automatically.  At some point it will come together, but you have to work.

Here is a video of Enda Scahill playing The Doon Reel.  This is a popular session tune in many areas and well worth learning.  But first listen to how Enda plays it.  He is adding a number of variations (which he explains) and points out how they work.  You may not like what he does or even understand it on a logical level, but try and learn the feel of the music too.  At some point you will hear this tune and will be able to anticipate the lift and rhythm as you harken back to this video:

Here are the ABCs, you can plug them into the Concertina converter and get a PDF printout:

X: 1
T:Doon Reel (6) (The)
T:Leather Buttons
(3Bcd ec dBAB||d2fd Adfd|d2fd BABc|d2fd Adfa|
afeg fddc|d2fd Adfd|d2fd ~e3f|gfec dcBA|(3Bcd ec dBAF||
 Mike Keyes

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