Into the slip jigs

Bog cotton on Owenreagh Hill - geograph.org.uk - 201316

Davy Maguire included the slip jig Na Ceannabháin Bhána in his concert set in Aberdeen and this became the inspiration for looking at this and other slip jigs at the FluteFling November workshop.

Recordings and sheet music for the workshop can be found on the Resources page. This includes music in ABC notation. For more information on this, see the ABC Notation web site.

Na Ceannabháin Bhána

Na Ceannabháin Bhána (roughly, “na kan-a-van won-ya”) is in G (“The people’s key!” – Davy Maguire) and so fits nicely onto the flute. The title translates as The Bog Cotton, but is often erroneously referred to as The Fair Young Cannavanssee a discussion on The Session. As with many slip jigs there are words associated with the melody and these are to be found in that link as well.

We looked at ways of varying the breath, tonguing issues, use of diaphragm, glottal stops, vibrato (or not), flattement (or “ghost trills” as I call them) and simple decoration on the beat, accompanied by a little more air to help accentuate the rhythm.

I mentioned the Irish band Cran and here is their version of the song alongside other slip jigs:

A Fig for a Kiss

A Fig for a Kiss is a fairly well-known tune that can be found in many collections but the version I play has come out of playing it with Absolutely Legless Irish Dancers for many years. I first heard it on a cassette of music by Leeds fiddler and box player Des Hurley. It has evolved to be a little different, but the two versions can be played alongside each other with no significant issue. To compare, again see The Session.

Another flute-friendly tune, it lends itself to variations, particularly in the first part and these were demonstrated in the workshop. Some of these were melodic, but others were rhythmic and produced by varying the breath — punchy and staccato one time round, subtle and legato another.

It needn’t take very much to explore and bring out interest in a melody. Playing a tune many many times over was also a theme and something that Davy mentioned in Aberdeen. Let’s drop the play it twice and move on thinking and instead do the music some service. Three times is good, but why not four times or even five or six? It builds up the rhythm, lets you explore the tune and others then get a chance to pick it up.

Slip jig variants

We had a digression in which I talked about and demonstrated 9/8 slip jigs, which of course feature in the Scottish tradition, hop jigs and other variants, such as Barney Brallaghan. Also there was a look at 3/2 hornpipes, common in the Scottish Borders and Northumbrian traditions (and occurring elsewhere in England), as are 9/8 tunes. Malcolm and I duetted on Aly Anderson’s Dog Leap Stairs and I played Go to Berwick, Johnny (3/2) and The Berwick Jockey (9/8) side by side for comparison.

The 3/2 hornpipe is clearly an old form, which Händel famously used for the Alla Hornpipe in his Water Music of 1717.

James Byrnes’ Slip Jig

In the sessions I tend to play at, (Monday nights, Sandy Bells — less often recently due to work; Captain’s Bar, third Saturday of the month), Donegal and Scottish influences feature and we tend to follow A Fig for a Kiss with James Byrnes’ Slip Jig.

We didn’t have time to look at this, but I demonstrated a breathing variation in the second part, which emerged out of playing in sessions (we occasionally go under the name of Cauldstane Slap; Facebook page here). Here again, a relatively simple melodic part can be enhanced through breathing — in this case leaping octaves to create a counter rhythm. I have included this in the resources and then remembered that The Mooncoin Jig features something similar in the last part and may have been part of the inspiration.

December workshop

Next month’s workshop will take place on Saturday 16 December and there are plans for Kenny Hadden to come from Aberdeen to co-teach. We may make the Dalriada session afterwards (ends at 6) and then the Captain’s Bar in the evening and you are welcome to join us.

If you made the November workshop, you should have a discount code for the next one. If not, please get in touch. I am currently looking at dates for January-March 2018 and will announce these first in the FluteFling Newsletter.

FluteFling Autumn Workshops 2017

Some quick FluteFling news to let you know of some trad flute workshop dates coming up between September and Christmas, including a minifest in Aberdeen in November.

The Aberdeen minifest is an exciting chance to take the flutes on the road and is a smaller version of the main annual weekend in Edinburgh. It will be great to catch up with the many flute players who visit Edinburgh and play some tunes with them on their home turf for a change.

The regular monthly workshops in Edinburgh will continue, but September and October see some changes due to diary clashes.

  • Saturday 23 Sep 1-4pm at Tribe Porty in Portobello (4th Saturday of month)
  • October: no workshop
  • Friday-Sunday  02-05 Nov FluteFling goes to Aberdeen: Sessions Fri, Sat, Sun; all-day Saturday workshops with Sharon Creasey and Gordon Turnbull with special guest speaker and concert. Details, including tickets, to be announced very soon.
  • Saturday 18 Nov 1-4pm at Tribe Porty in Portobello (3rd Saturday of month)
  • Saturday 16 Dec 1-4pm at Tribe Porty in Portobello (3rd Saturday of month)

Tickets for these will go on sale very soon with limited places. Signing up to the newsletter ensures you get to hear about it first. I hope you can make it and look forward to seeing you on one of the dates.

Photo: Órlaith MacAuliffe, Sharon Creasey, Cathal McConnell and Laura MacKenzie at Jeanie Deans Tryste session during the 4th FluteFling Weekend, Edinburgh June 2017 (c) Gordon Turnbull

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.

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.

November workshop

flutes and whistles

Flutes, whistles and fife (c) Gordon Turnbull

Only two weeks to go to the November workshop, but if you’re thinking of coming along, there are just 5 places left. I know a few people have shown interest but have yet to sign up, so don’t be disappointed.

For the first part we’ll be looking at phrasing and the use of Bb on an unkeyed D instrument in a tune. Don’t worry, it’s a slow melody and if you have a Bb key on your flute you’ll be fine. We will also think about F naturals and G# using the same melody transposed.

I have yet to decide on a tune for the second focus, but the use of pulse and variation are likely to feature.

I hope you can make it and can also join us afterwards for a tea, coffee or something stronger at a cafe/ bar around the corner.