Sunday, November 3, 2013

Lesson Eleven:  An Hour with Kieran Hanrahan

The very first Irish tenor banjo CD I ever bought was entitled "Kieran Hanrahan Plays The Irish Tenor Banjo."  Since than I've always wanted to hear him in person and perhaps take a lesson from him.  It didn't hurt to have Gerry O'Connor, Brian McGrath, and Enda Scahill all tell me that he was a master on the four string "even though he played a different style."
That latter caution (if that is the word) intrigued me because as far as I was concerned Kieran's driving style was something I'd like to emulate.
Kieran rarely comes to the US since the days of Stockton's Wing tour in 1984 so when I heard that he would be at the O'Flaherty Irish Music Retreat, I couldn't wait to see and hear him teach.  The problem was that I was already signed up for Marla Fibish's mandolin class and I could not miss that either.
Fortunately the format of O'Flaherty's had changed this year and allowed for an advanced class in banjo with Kieran Hanrahan that did not interfere with the mandolin class.
Kieran plays with a driving style that is particularly strong on stage especially with others playing with him.  He uses alternating picking exclusively - a style he developed himself as he had no good models the way students do this way.  The result is a driving swinging style that I love and one that suits North American banjo players who come from other instruments and other musical styles.
Most of you are familiar with the "controversy" concerning the right hand style needed to play jigs.  In typical internet style there has been a long protracted discussion mostly consisting of persons advocating DUD DUD or DUDU pick strokes that mostly is people talking past one another.  Kieran Hanrahan often is featured in these dialogues as the poster boy for DUDU while others point to a variety of well known banjo players and teachers who insist that only DUD DUD should be played when jigs and slip jigs are involved.
For the most part, I advocate DUD DUD for beginners because that is one of the best ways to learn the feel of jigs and I try my hardest to do that when I play.  But I have to confess that I was brought up in bluegrass and old time music which has a long tradition of not playing jigs so my fall back position is almost always alternating picking (DUDU) when I get tense or unsure of the tune.  Kieran showed us that alternate picking can be successfully used with jigs but it did take both a paradigm shift and a lot of work to make it sound like music if you are using the DUD DUD method.
With this in mind, I took in his advanced class armed with a borrowed banjo (thank you Kenny Tweedy)  and an open mind.  It didn't take long to realize that this man is a genius on the banjo and that the reason all those other geniuses wanted me to see and hear him was that any banjo player would be incomplete without exposure to his methods.
Right away I realized that he was a consummate musician who had a full grasp on Irish traditional music, not that that is a surprise, but was also able to present the music in a fresh and appealing way.  I have known most of my classmates for several years having taken at least five banjo classes at the O'Flaherty.  They all said that this class was different and "made them think" (almost everyone said those exact words) about considering expanding the way they play the banjo.  Instead of the contrarian view often posed in the internet discussions, I found that his style is complementary to the more or less standard style taught these days.  Kieran, like most elite level musicians, developed an efficient and musical style that is fairly easy to explain but takes a lot of work to use in a seamless and accurate way.  Basically he shows that keeping a steady alternating beat with the right hand drives the music while the left hand can bring in stylistic elements with the occasional right hand triplet.  This simple idea has multiple variations when music is played and he showed us a few of them in the class.
Gerry O'Connor (who is a good friend of Kieran's) has a similar approach to playing the banjo.  He told my class at Milwaukee in 2012 that he has a simple approach that uses the triplet in a distinct way.  He said that he didn't use a lot of ornaments but he did vary the way the tune was played and continues to develop his style.  There is no question who is playing when you hear Gerry play, just as you can tell when Kieran plays.  The elements of their styles are distinct, but the format of their playing, simplicity that becomes infinitely variable within the style, is the same.  All good banjo players eventually decide how they want to play the banjo and sound like themselves.  Stylistically, Kieran is just different than the average banjo player.
So there is not a big difference and certainly not a heretical version of banjo playing with Kieran Hanrahan. He even has the proof - he wrote his Master's thesis on how the Irish tenor banjo is taught.  i was unable to look at the entire text of his paper but he does have some pretty good evidence that most teachers show students the same things he does and only at the higher levels do things change.
So what about the DUD DUD vs. DUDU?  It's a matter of style.  What you get is the strengths of both techniques when you hear an elite level musician play.  The same tune can sound quite different in different hands.  The differences between alternate picking and DUD DUD players are less different than those among DUD DUD users.  The important thing is that if you are going to pick a style, you have to learn it inside and out if you want to become creative with it.  In addition there is no rule that says you can't use both and in several interviews with well known players they all admit that they use alternate picking in jigs when it suits them.
Remember, that these musicians are the very best and that they began with one or the other technique and then developed style afterwards.  At an intermediate level it is possible to continue to add styles and then meld them as your progress.  It is in a beginning student's best interest to start with a standard style so there will be a base upon which more sophisticated methods can be built.  If you use a hodge-podge of unrelated methods starting out, then there will be no base to expand and no logic to your system that will allow you to analyze and improve.
Kieran's style is incredible and is one that I am drawn to because it is so similar to what I grew up with in the States.  My problem has been learning to play the music as Irish music and not an Americanized version of the tunes.  I found DUD DUD very helpful and will continue to use it but I also find that the expansion of my style will benefit by the use of alternating picking.
Kieran does not like his image to be on youtube.  You can see why if you look for him, there are a few poorly produced images that really don't show his full genius.  He let me video the tunes he taught in the class, but I won't show them.  Instead I'll try and show the things he taught us with a video of my own.

Kieran has graciously allowed me to show his video.  He pointed out some small errors that I made in the article:

"Thanks for the complimentary article on your blogspot. Much appreciated. There are one or two points to make . Early in the week of the O’Flaherty retreat I made the point that I don’t exclusively use the DUDU technique while playing but it is the point from where I start. You could say that I use it 95% of the time. There are times when, for effect or depending where there’s a single triplet, I change by doubling up on the downstroke. I showed some examples of this during the earlier classes. Even in the playing of the Rambling Pitchfork I made a couple of subtle changes in order to show the cross-picking effect. I think If you take a closer look at the clip you’ll see about four or five changes of stroke but at that point I was more focused on the effect of cross-picking. I’m not caught up in the rights or wrongs of technique but rather that a player should have a plan when playing and not, as happens a lot, have a random approach to picking."

Two things are shown on this tape: Alternating picking a jig allows you to get a very interesting syncopated effect  by hitting the drone string while playing a descending passage and the left hand plays a more important part in the music with this style.  What is not shown is the use of a triplet that starts on the upstroke - something I need to practice a lot if I want to do it properly - and a left hand triplet that he does by inserting a left hand pizzicato  with his ring finger in between the down and up stroke.  I wish I had the ability to do this left hand ornament, maybe later, but it is pretty nifty and he does it automatically with great style.
Kieran Hanrahan is a seminal player of the Irish tenor banjo who has to be heard in person for your pleasure and a class with him should be on your bucket list if you want to expand our style.  He is both a gentle man and a scholar of the instrument who developed a masterly way of playing.  I am so glad I was able to get this hour with him and I hope to be able to take a longer set of classes with him some day.

Mike Keyes

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