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.

The Sailor’s Bonnet

So we finished the term with the concluding tune of The Tarbolton Set of reels associated with Michael Coleman.

The Sailor’s Bonnet sits pretty solidily in D with some B minor phrases. The first part is repetitive and rhythmic, with the B part flying out high from this with high B rolls possible. The leaps can be quite demanding for the wind player, flutes especially as the notes can easily go out of tune if not shaped correctly. However, it makes for a strong finish to the set and the phrases are relatively straightforward, especially when compared with The Tarbolton Reel.

While it is quite common for D and Bm to go together in tunes, the structure of this reel is unusual as the B part is twice as long as the A part. Certainly it is often played that way.

Alan Ng suggests that the earliest recording is Coleman’s of 1934, however while he certainly popularised it, The Fiddler’s Companion puts Leitrim flute player John McKenna and Sligo fiddler James Morrison as getting there first, citing musicologists Harry Bradshaw and Jackie Small. The alternative title The Highlander’s Bonnet hints at a Scottish connection, but it could simply refer to similar styles of hat.

Resources are up for this tune. Term begins again 24th April. In the meantime, sign up for the Scottish Flute Day on 10th of May while sitting back and enjoying the last two tunes of The Tarbotlon Set:

Image: Sailing on the North-Sea, Germany by Peter Femto, some rights reserved.