Sunday, November 9, 2014

 The O'Flaherty Retreat

I go to two Irish music schools a year, the Irishfest Summer School in Milwaukee and the O'Flaherty IrishMusic Retreat near Dallas. I also go to the St. Louis Toinol when I can and between the three of them I get to meet a lot of Irish trad players. But my favorite of these is the O'Flaherty because it is on one campus, the food is good and the instructors outstanding. This year was no exception.
I took two classes: Seamus Egan on banjo and Roger Landes on mandolin.
My main class was six lessons from Seamus Egan. For those of you who don't know, he is one of the founders of the band Solas (two other band members were teaching at the O'Flaherty) and he is a creative genius among other things. His classes focused on learning variations and developing style. One of the things he emphasized is that we (a group of intermediate and advanced students, there was a beginner's class taught by RickCunningham) needed to take ideas from the class and use them to develop our own style. He expected that in a year we would be playing the tunes and techniques he taught in a completely different way that suited our styles.
I video all of my lessons but I have a strict rule that these videos are not publicly available unless the teacher allows it. Seamus did not want his image on the net, and I honor that, but he suggested that I could video myself doing what he taught. This is a good compromise, especially since what he taught was not supposed to be gospel but inspiration.
But before we get to that, here is a sample of the instructor concerts at the O'Flaherty. Somewhere in the mix Seamus is playing the banjo:

Seamus' main message was that there are many variations that can be played on the banjo and that putting them together makes the music more interesting. While this may sound simple, his style is a result of a lot of woodshedding and living with the music most of his life. He doesn't expect us to sound like Seamus Egan. This is important because the goal of playing the banjo is to make music, just like any other instrument. (Seamus won four All-Ireland titles by the time he was sixteen, on four different instruments. For all I know he plays the Irish ukulele too.) But each instrument has strengths and weaknesses and these should be taken into account.
One of the interesting exercises he had us do was to play as softly as possible. “The banjo is naturally a loud instrument”, he said, “but it has dynamic range. The problem is that few players realize this enough to use it.” He had us play a tune as softly as we could which not only made the next door class happy, but allowed us to realize how the banjo sounds at that dynamic level and how it allows us to listen to the music differently.
Another point he brought up is the role of the right hand. He showed me a method of right hand placement that is similar to those of many others, but I finally understood it. “The right hand only does a few things”, he said “ emphasizing the downbeat and triplets. Once you relax into the right hand and are smooth, the rest is easy and you can do anything with it.”
Here is my interpretation of what Seamus taught:

Roger Landes has been a friend of mine for years but I don't get to see him very much. Since he was teaching the mandolin class at the Retreat I had to take one class from him. We spent most of our time together at Herb Taylor's booth playing the wonderful instruments that Herb makes including three of his tenor guitars. Roger had Herb build a unique bouzouki that had a detachable body – the neck could be strung up without the body with this design – that had it all. I'm so glad I didn't bring money with me to the Retreat otherwise I'd have spent it all at Herb's booth.
Roger gave an “informance” which is a question and answer period in which Roger performed and then commented on how he played and the history of the music. One of the main points he brought up was that a key to improvement was playing as lightly as possible. By this he meant that left hand fretting and right hand relaxation (much like Seamus) techniques become less and less a matter of power and more of finesse. He showed how you could fret an instrument just by the weight of your left arm and that a minimal amount of force was needed to get a good tone.
Roger gave us an exercise that he learned from his classical guitar instructor: fret the note and then let off until it starts to buzz. Try and hold that (very small) pressure point and in the process learn exactly how much it really took to play a clear note. It's not much but if you don't practice it, you will revert back to a gorilla grip, especially when things get tense or exciting. Lighter means faster and smoother, both good qualities to have if you play a fretted instrument.

All in all it was well worth the money and time to go to the O'Flaherty Retreat. This year it was held in Midlothian, TX atCamp Hoblitzelle, a gorgeous campus that boasts a lake, great food and wonderful facilities. It will be held there next year as well. Everything is provided for (bring your own instruments, however) and it is 24/7 sessioning if you want..

Mike Keyes
9 November 2014