March workshop roundup: A look at John McKenna and the North Connaught flute style

This month’s workshop fell on St Patrick’s Day weekend and it seemed a good opportunity to explore influential flute player John McKenna, his style and repertoire. We learned just one of the many tunes that he popularised, but spent a good deal of time exploring pulse and ornamentation. A few of us then joined Bev Whelan for a session, where we played some of McKenna’s music.

John McKenna’s legacy

John McKenna, from Musical Traditions web siteJohn McKenna was one of a number of Irish musicians who made their name by recording on the early cylinders and 78s in America in the early-mid 20th Century. You can find out more about him on Wikipedia and Musical Traditions, there are recordings on YouTube, a society in his honour and much more if you wish to Google him.

From County Leitrim, his style energetic with a strong pulse, which typifies the Sligo-Leitrim-Roscommon style. I have written more about different styles on The Flow website. Do also check out Josie McDermott, Catherine McEvoy (lots of other interviews on Brad Hurley’s excellent site) and John Wynne. I also mentioned Conal O Grada (here is the introduction to The Raw Bar Collective) I encourage everyone to use these links as a springboard for further exploring — YouTube has a wealth of footage, many from archives.

Packie Duignan was one of many who followed in John McKenna’s footsteps and it is possible to speculate that he may have been an inspiration for the punchy Belfast or wider Northern Irish style after he visited the city with Cathal McConnell. Harry Bradley and Michael Clarkson are just two exponents of this Northern style, but there are many others. These two recorded together on The Pleasures of Hope.

For a short introduction to Northern Irish flute traditions, this video has some notable voices.

Repertoire

John McKenna not only influenced people in his playing style, but also in his repertoire. Many of the sets of tunes he recorded are still played today and often referred to as McKenna’s Reels or McKenna’s Polkas despite recording a good number of different ones.

We looked at just one tune, Colonel Rodger’s Favourite, the first of a pair of reels known as McKenna’s No. 1 and McKenna’s No. 2, or simply, McKenna’s. We exploring it in some depth, taking the time to look at ornaments, revisit  and . The other tunes I had prepared were the second of these reels, The Happy Days of Youth and two of the polkas he is associated with — Farewell to Whiskey (a polka version of Niel Gow’s air Farewell to Whisky) and The Dark Girl Dressed in Blue.

Such widely played tunes naturally have a number of settings and mine have been added to the current repertoire playlist and I have uploaded the notation too.

Technique

As well as exploring the ideas behind Sylvain Barou‘s method for learning cuts, strikes and rolls (see previous posts), we had a look at creating a pulse using glottal stops supported by the diaphragm. The pulse, like decoration, occurs on the beat and is useful when playing with others or for dancers in order to emphasise the rhythm and keep everyone together musically.

This is the basis of the older style of traditional flute playing in Ireland and there is much to suggest that it is also applicable to at least parts of the Scottish repertoire. Some Irish polkas are linked to Scottish marches, for example, and strathspeys also require a pronounced rhythm.

Calum Stewart uses this as part of a wide range of techniques that includes tonguing to produce a distinctive and dynamic performance.

Like Tom Oakes, who also has a broad palette of tonal colour, Calum Stewart uses the “Dirty D”, mentioned in this interview with John Skelton, which takes us right back to Packie Duignan, John McKenna and the Leitrim/ Northern Irish sound.

We tried this out by playing a low D and then overblowing to the point where it begins to break into the next octave, but doesn’t quite. Like the spluttering candle flame exercise, it requires some control, not the lack of it as it may appear. Some flutes will do this more readily than others but the exploration of these tonal boundaries on a foundation note of the flute will promote better tone and volume over the instrument as a whole.

Forthcoming dates

The monthly workshops will take a break in April and return in May (tickets on sale soon). The June one will be given over to the 4th annual FluteFling weekend. Monthly workshops may continue in July if there is enough interest.

January workshop roundup: cuts, strikes and rolls

The FluteFling January workshop explored some of the issues around decoration, looking at cuts and strikes, their combining into rolls and the construction of crans. Techniques for finger decoration are the same on flutes and whistles alike.

We focused on Irish music as this generally lends itself to decoration more readily than the Scottish repertoire, there are more examples and anything gleaned can then be applied to a Scottish context.

A method for cuts, strikes and rolls

We began by familiarising ourselves with Breton flute player Sylvain Barou and his method for practicing cuts, strikes and rolls that he demonstrated at a flute weekend at Wiston Lodge a good few years back now. While this isn’t a hard and fast rule (more on that below), this serves as a useful foundation and hopefully allows people to experiment with confidence.

The method is based on scales, applying initially a single cut to each note of the scale as it is played. A cut is a very quick decoration from above, played by momentarily raising a single finger to sound the decorating note; other fingers remain in position, so making the note imperfect. This is because the point is a quick interruption of the note being decorated, not to play a separate note.

The best way to work with these is to think of them as finger actions or movements. For the bottom hand notes, cut using the G finger (sounding a notional A); for upper hand notes, cut using the B finger (sounding a notional C).

A parallel exercise is to try this with strikes as grace notes. A single grace note, the finger below the played note is struck, or bounced quickly to sound the note below. A strikes is also referred to as a tap, pat or bounce. Of course you can’t do this on D, although it could be possible if using keys, however I have never seen it done.

Rolls consist of a cut followed by a strike, so the next exercise is to combine these elements following the methods already explored. By doing so, a five note combination is created. For example, with grace notes in brackets, a roll on A would become:

A-(cut)-A-(strike)-A

OR

A-(c)-A-(G)-A

A roll on D or d is not possible, but a cran is. Borrowed from uilleann piping, the cran consists of three cuts from above. There is more than one way of playing these:

D-(A)-D-(G)-D-(F#)-D (standard)

OR

D-(A)-D-(F#)-D-(G)-D (my version, also June McCormack)

We looked at working in the lower register, but of course you can try this out using the full scale and octave jumps too. Arpeggios and other note combinations are possible ways of extending and building upon these exercises. When working on these, try them slowly at first and then build up speed as your fingers get used to the actions.

When learning tunes, consider applying cuts as grace notes as a way of building up to rolls. You can add the strikes at a later point.

Some thoughts

Rolls and decoration should be used as appropriate. It’s a matter of taste and it is also possible to lose the tune or timing in a flurry of notes. Micho Russell, Conal O Grada and Harry Bradley (see below) are examples of flute players who don’t use very much decoration or if so, simpler decoration.

Taste too, dictates which notes are used to perform these decorations. I learned with a note above and a note below, for example. However a greater contrast (and thereby definition) can be found using high cuts and low strikes. Most people will use a variety.

Double cut, casadh, condensed rolls, shortened condensed rolls, shortened crans and others are all variations on these techniques and worthy of some time in forthcoming workshops.

You probably also need to check out Roger Millington’s excellent Brother Steve’s Tin Whistle Pages, in particular the “dah-blah-blah” method. Be sure to explore the site, including the recordings of various recitals and sessions.

Repertoire

I suggested that the Irish repertoire is a better place to pick up many of the rudiments than Scottish music. Flutes have a friend in the uillean pipes and share a common decoration language. Of course such spaces do exist in Scottish music, but they are less abundant.

The tunes we explored are below. A PDF of the written music is here:

The Golden Stud: a reel that rolls

I find that this is a good tune for getting the fingers going. There are a few ways of playing it, but at some point you will play ascending rolls. It’s the middle tune here:

Rolls – the long, short and middle of it

As promised, here is a link to Niall Keegan’s paper on The Parameters of Style in Irish Music, which has a particular lean towards flutes. Published in Inbhear, The Journal of Irish Music and Dance, it’s a long read with plenty of clips of Niall illustrating the points he makes.

As emerged at the workshop, there is more than one way of playing and writing out rolls and part of it is to do with their duration: are they long or short? If so, where does the emphasis lie? For my money, a long roll tends to have a lead-in or lead-out note, which a short roll does not. I suspect that short rolls may feature more than long rolls in the Scottish repertoire.

Niall Keegan’s take on decoration is on this page.

If you really wish to explore this further in reading, parts of Gray Larson’s book can be found in this link.

An old new jig: Jane Craggs

The second tune we learned was one of my own, named for a friend on her birthday in 1987 and so 30 years old this year as was pointed out. I had included the jig for reference but somehow it caught people’s interest. It was picked up by a few people, including Tom McKean of the American band Dun Creagan:

When I play the tune today I tend to use rolls on the long B and F# notes but initially didn’t do so very much as they were still a challenge, especially on the flute due to hand positions. So feel free to play them either way. The high B jump also presents a little technical challenge.

Other tunes

I have included music and recordings for two Irish jigs, The Legacy and Sonny Brogan’s, and The Green Mountain, an Irish reel I learned from Skye-based uillean piper Duncan MacInnes.

Other resources and inspiration

We mentioned a few interesting people. I have included links, but it is worth googling them to find out so much more:

The next workshop takes place on Saturday 18th February.

November workshop roundup: a Galician waltz and an Irish reel with variations

The FluteFling November workshop was surprisingly sold out with as many as fifteen people attending, so firstly my apologies to those who were unable to make it.

It’s only the second of this new monthly series, but it has been well- attended and I am delighted with the level of interest. Plans are already being made for January-April and beyond.

The next FluteFling workshop will take place on Saturday December 17th and you are welcome to join us for a coffee or beer afterwards.

Flute and whistle players take a well-earned break at November's FluteFling workshop.

Flute and whistle players take a well-earned break at November’s FluteFling workshop.

Technique

We played long tones to begin with and help us warm up ourselves and the flutes. These tones were based on arpeggios associated with the tunes we were going to look at and get our ears and fingers used to the tonal centres and shapes within the tunes themselves.

An arpeggio is basically a broken chord, meaning the notes of the chord are not all played simultaneously, but one at a time. These arpeggios are to be found within the tune structures of all music genres, including traditional music. When learning by ear it is a useful and important skill to understand that, for example a tune in the key of G will feature phrases that include G, B and D with linking notes and runs of notes. So if your fingers are familiar with the relevant shapes and positions, then the melody can be anticipated and more readily picked up.

If you aren’t familiar with chord structures, then for our purposes all you need to consider is that a chord triad (three notes) consists of the first, third and fifth notes. (There are many permutations, but all we are concerned with here is understanding how a traditional tune may be structured and how we can use that to help us play by ear.) For a tune in G, the G is the root of the chord, or first note, A is the second and not part of it, so B is the third, C the fourth and D the fifth, giving us a pattern of G-B-D.

So for a tune in G, we would expect to hear phrases that incorporate these notes. Furthermore, these notes could be expected to feature prominently. This is useful in learning the tune as we can after listening hear and understand the shape of the phrases and try to translate this to our fingers and breath.

Repertoire

The tunes were the Galician waltz A Bruxa (The Witch) by Antón Seoane, which I had transposed into B minor and hung on B-D-F# and The Sunny Banks (The Flowers of Ballymote), a traditional Irish reel very much in D and hanging on D-F#-A. The sheet music for this can be found here and on the Resources page. Click on the links below for my recordings of the tunes or follow me on Soundcloud and access more that I have done.

We stood up, walked about as we played and felt the movement of the tunes in our legs and at one point had a number of us unconsciously swaying gently together like grasses in the wind. We also has a look at phrasing across parts of the tune, especially with the wistful descending phrases of A Bruxa, giving more air to the opening of the phrases than the conclusions.

Our setting of A Bruxa in B minor has an A# (or Bb) in the final phrase. This is fine with a keyed flute, but we looked at cross-fingering to flatten the B natural on keyless instruments and on the low whistles a half-holing measure was also found to be useful. Although tricky, this was better than a setting in A minor that had many F naturals and a G#. If you’re interested in how that might look or sound, there are versions on The Session web site, along with discussion of the title.

The original version was recorded by Milladoiro (official web site here), with hurdy gurdy player Antón Seoane being a founder member.

The tune has an Edinburgh history as there are recent musical connections between Edinburgh and both Galicia and Asturias in northern Spain.

The Easy Club recorded the tune in the 1980s, and The Tannahill Weavers did so later on. John Martin played fiddle with the former and has been with the latter for many years. One of the bands which gave rise to Shooglenifty in the late 80s and early 90s was Edinburgh band Miro, who included mandolin player Iain MacLeod, but also fiddler Simon Bradley (who plays with Asturian band Llan de Cubel) and at various times flute players Rebecca Knorr and Niall Kenny; Shooglenifty’s fiddler Angus Grant Jr., who sadly died recently, also appeared with them on occasion.

Another notable recording of A Bruxa is on Senex Puer by Lá Lugh, from Dundalk. You can hear a sample of the tracks on Eithne Ní Uallacháin’s web page and it is worth exploring the rest of the site to learn more about the group’s singer and flute player and her legacy.

The version I taught is here:

Flute player and teacher Kenny Hadden joined us for the second tune, an Irish reel called The Sunny Banks (also generally known as The Flowers of Ballymote and in Bulmer and Sharpley’s collection as The Flying Column).

Again, we looked at arpeggios for the tune and then learned the bare bones. We walked about and found our own acoustic spaces. A discussion then followed about how variations feature in traditional music, in particular in Ireland. The Session web page for The Sunny Banks includes a number of versions that show it is open to interpretation and variation, but it is still the same tune.

As it happens, Kenny Hadden had posted a YouTube clip of The Cheiftain’s playing it, with a Matt Molloy solo for the reel. They precede it with a slip jig (9/8 time) entitled Top it Off, which is a version of the same tune.

Here’s the clip:

Quoting Cathal McConnell, Kenny made the point that once you learn a tune it is yours and you can do what you like with it. Variations are your way of expressing what you enjoy about the tune and for me I would say that exploring variations is like turning the tune around and viewing it from different angles in order to know it better. It embeds it in your mind and you become more comfortable playing it. I would say that a tune existing as both a reel and a slip jig is another example of somebody somewhere and at some time trying out variations, too.

Here are some of my variations:

I generally agree with Kenny that this is more common and accepted in Irish music. However it also exists historically in Scottish music in the form of set variations of tunes published in the 18th and 19th Centuries and in the Highland and Lowland piping repertoires. Fiddler Alasdair Fraser also commonly plays variations on his recordings.

An impromptu reel: Jenny Picking Cockles

Barra Cockle Beach by Fiona BownieSo there I was ready with a couple of reels for the week’s class and this reel popped into my head instead. Inspired by Rieke’s trip to Barra to pick cockles, we did Jenny Picking Cockles — I hope that the weather was good!

Jenny Picking Cockles is an Irish reel with a few variants and titles. In D mixolydian (it has C naturals instead of sharps), some versions have F naturals in the second part, which possibly borrows from a very similar three part reel called Jenny’s Welcome to Charlie. The version we did lifts and slides the C naturals in the second part through what was once termed “C supernatural” in online message boards to C# as it the tune transitions from C natural to D.

There is a suggestion that this reel may be associated with the north of Ireland and my own personal feeling is that “Jenny” tune titles also betray a Scottish connection, both Jenny and Jock(y) appearing in many earlier Scottish tune titles as generic female and male names.

It’s just an observation however and I have no other evidence for this wild assertion. More information on the origins over at Tune Archive. Different settings of the tune can be found over on The Session website. Our version can be found on the Resources page.

Here’s Eric, Hugh and Colm Healy, Noel O’Donoghue, Seán McGrath playing Jenny Picking Cockles, George Whites, Jenny’s Wedding:

Photo: Barra Cockle Beach by Fiona Cownie, some rights reserved.

 

FluteFling Summer Term details

Flute players at the Flute Fling workshops

Flute players at the FluteFling workshops. (c) Ros Gasson

It’s shaping up to be a busy and exciting term. The second FluteFling Scottish Flute Day takes place on 9th of May, with workshops, sessions, a talk and concerts also taking place.

More is also being planned, so do make sure you don’t miss out on one of the flute events of the year.

Regular FluteFling classes also resume this week on Thursday 23rd April, with 5 fortnightly classes for two groups, taking us into the end of June.

Do come along and explore different techniques and expand on your repertoire of music from Scotland, Ireland and beyond. Open to wooden and metal Boehm system flutes, whistles and low whistles. Full details on the Diary and Booking pages.

There is additional good news about our regular venue of St James’s Church Halls in Portobello as the situation remains unchanged for this term at least.

Photo of FluteFling workshop particpants: (c) Ros Gasson