Monday, November 2, 2015

Enda Scahill's Irish Banjo Tutor, Part 3

Volume One of Enda Schahill's banjo tutor is as rich a resource as you can find on the subject and even a third look at it only covers part of the considerable and dense amount of knowledge that it contains.  So far I have touched on picking patterns, ornamentation, relaxation and learning how to develop a style.  Enda uses a number of tunes to demonstrate these issues (and leaves them for you to practice along with the CD) and gives good and sophisticated information about how to play the tunes.  Now it is time to talk about jigs.
Enda's plan is to have the student learn up/down picking for reels, hornpipes, etc. first before he delves into jigs.  He asks that you "firmly establish" this pattern before going on to jigs because he wants the student to be able to distinguish the down/up (DUDU) pattern from the down/up/down (DUD) pattern. 
Interestingly, he is not hidebound when it comes to jig patterns.  On the first page of the jig section he mentions that down/up/down "will achieve a strong rhythmical effect" while the alternating pattern is more lyrical.  In turn he asks the student to learn the down/up/down pattern when learning jigs and to use it exclusively for a while before becoming more lyrical. 
The main reason for this is practical.  DUD establishes the jig rhythm - something that most beginners just don't get initially - and it helps with the traps that a DUDU pattern can get you in when you count in threes.  This is especially true when you try to add ornamentation to a jig. 
Enda doesn't go into a long explanation as to why DUD should be learned for jigs.  In a sense, this is a failing of the book because the reasons are crucial if you want to learn how to play jigs.  For most of us who have not been brought up in the tradition, jigs are fun to listen to but are not native to our rhythmic sense.  Jigs are a type of dance that moves in threes with the first an fourth beat emphasized.  While this sounds relatively simple, it is foreign to the standard 4/4 time that we are used to.  If we start out playing DUDU, our heads will continue to think 4/4 and the jig pulse will not come through.  By learning DUD we are automatically in the  jig mode.
DUD is one of the basics of Irish Tenor Banjo which means that we have to learn it until it is automatic - this takes some time, I might add - so that you don't have to think about pick direction when you play.  This automation of pick control is the key to learning jigs just as it is for the 4/4 modes in Irish music.  It sets a base from which you can develop a style of playing, a style that may not include DUD, by the way, but sets the rhythm in your brain to draw on without having to think about it.
The "secret" to learning how to play an instrument in a folk style is hard work, repetition, listening to the music and having good basic technical skills to draw upon.  If you want to improve, you have to have a good base and DUD is part of that base. 
If you skip over the DUD part, you will find that you are limited in how you play jigs.  DUD DUD with each measure is hard to do at first because you have to constantly think about what you are doing.  One of the best ways to deal with this is to just play one note until you have it down and then go one to tunes.  When you start with tunes, play them slowly - a lot of jigs are beautiful when played slowly - and gradually increase the tempo.  After a while DUD DUD comes naturally and then you can play around with different patterns.  This took me at least three months to achieve, so be warned.


I might add that Enda does not teach DUD DUD as an exclusive method, he just thinks that the use of alternate picking for jigs is an advanced technique and that the basic technique is DUD DUD.   I agree for the reasons mentioned above and the fact that you are missing out on a lot of the music if you limit yourself to DUDU. 
Just to show that alternate picking can be done well, here is a video of Keiran Hanrahan playing a jig.  Note how it is more lyrical and how different left hand techniques are needed to make it work.

I have not covered everything that is in Volume One of the Irish Banjo Tutor but I hope there is enough in these three columns to make you curious about the work.   If you want to learn how to play the Irish tenor banjo, this is the best book on the subject.  If you combine this book with a teacher, or at least regular workshops, you can't go wrong.  It is pricey, but the set of books is also a great value because they contain precise and rich information that will only make you a better player.
Next: Volume Two

Mike Keyes

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