Sunday, January 31, 2010

100 Days of Practice Round 3 Day 8: The Salmon Moon in the Ice-Blue Sky

There are some mornings when I take a break from playing and think, "What a gift. This music is a gift from the gods."

Those are usually the days when the instrument is playing well, when there are no leaks, when notes comes out the way they're intended to.

And those are the days that reawaken us to the possibility that we and our instruments can be vehicles for the larger story.

This morning, I got in my car super early and did a little drive westward. At 6:45 am, the moon was massive and reflected the salmon of a recent sunrise in the ice-blue sky.

Perhaps the moon and my flute should talk. I think they've got a lot in common.

Friday, January 29, 2010

100 Days of Practice Round 3 Day 6: Fast-Talking Sax Players

This morning we return to the apologetically personal, with an earnest hope for potently universal. Ready?

Last night, when I woke up and found myself sleepless at 1:21 a.m., I started reading The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. Every now and then, for about a week or two, my mind starts moving too fast and as it threatens to get out of control, I remember to start looking for a way to slow it down. "Yoga, Susan, for the twentieth time!" my sister says. Me? I chose to read about death.


That's when I start thinking about meditation. But who's got time to meditate AND practice? Not me. I fell asleep, woke up five hours later, and decided to use morning long tones as my meditation for the day: breathing in deeply, and breathing out each note on the flute for eight counts.

Straight to the basement. Breathe in, Low D, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. Breathe in, Low Eb, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. Started thinking about dynamics. Ok, so start quiet, increase volume for 4, decrease and fade out at 8. Nah, 8's not enough. Let's try 12. Inhale, exhale, 1, 2... Wow, that coffee is really horrible. Am I ready to bring the sax reels to the studio? I'd better wake up MiniMe for school soon. Those clothes have been in the drier for five days. The wrinkles...

Oh wait. Right. Inhale. E. Exhale, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.

F. Repeat. Work it all the way up to very high E. Yeah!

Five minutes later: Time for tunes! Remember, meditative, slow. D jig, transition to G jig, back to D. Nice. Crappy C natural, but ... hey, it's on an off beat. Wonder if Nikki will join us on this... I should write to her. No, finish practicing.

Tango time. What a cool tune... we need accordion. Think I'll go write to that guy write NOW! More coffee! Dash upstairs. Oh, look at the time. Better get some sax in.

Dry reed, not playing. Horrible sax player. Soak. Think. Coffee. Wet reed, wow it sounds great. More reels! Faster! Faster! Woohooo!!!!! I freaking love this horn.

Yeah. Practice session over. I did it.

Run up the stairs. Smile.

Wake the kid.

Start the day.

Conclusion: Meditation, even "bad" meditation... it works. Or was it the coffee?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

100 Days of Practice Round 3 Day 5: Innovation and Tradition Revisited

Some of the ideas I expressed on Day 91, "Tradition and Innovation" have been keeping me awake at night. Mind if I clarify a few things?

First and foremost, I hope it’s clear that the characterization of Comhaltas as “uptight” is not an opinion that I hold, but one that I have heard many other musicians express, in my travels in more trips to Ireland than I can count over the last nineteen years. Let me add that if you read behind the lines (which I tend to do all the time) it generally seems that the Irish musicians that I have heard speak out most vehemently against Comhaltas were not against it because of what it stands for, but rather because it appeared that they’d been rejected by it or snubbed by it at one point or another . . . or simply that they've felt limited by its definition of "tradition."

Comhaltas serves many important purposes and one of them is that it is the sole body in charge of making sure that the tradition is preserved—a role that becomes more important every day in our continually shrinking world. Without the right wing, there’d be no left wing, right? Frankly, this is a subject that’s too big and too deep for me to want to wade further into, mostly because it offers no promise of satisfactory conclusion. And it's just too darn contentious.

But truly, is a conclusion all that important? I suppose what is most important here is that musicians remain true to themselves in whatever it is that they want to create—neither rejecting their inheritance nor pretending that it’s any different than exactly what it is—no matter what it is.

Second, I apologize if that friend of which I spoke on day 91 made it seem like all local musicians are uptight. They’re absolutely not; perhaps she was being a little, um . . . hyperbolic that day. There is a ton of fun being had in sessions from Gloucester to Boston to Cape Cod. And, on the other hand, there are people who are so serious that it’s scary. You can choose to notice either of those groups, or neither. Hey, I can’t help it. My glass isn’t half full every day.

Oh, and I’m sorry too for the bathroom humor. But speaking of owning up to your inheritance: You can take the girl out of the truck, but you can never take the truck out of the . . . oh, never mind.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

100 Days of Practice Round 3 Day 4: Expressiveness in Traditional Irish Music

Yesterday, I asked students in my music listening class to express what it is that they like about the music they like. After what felt like an extended period of silence, here were the first three answers:

1) The beat (how it makes you move)
2) The emotion (how it makes you feel)
3) The lyrics/the message (how it relates to your life)

While it's likely that none of the students were thinking of Irish traditional music when they offered these ideas, we can certainly apply this to Irish music. Lucky us, players of Irish traditional music, we've got the beat part down.

The jigs, reels, and hornpipes of Irish traditional music are all about rhythm, because, of course, the music's original intent was to liven up a dance floor, get people moving, connecting with each other, and having fun. A lively, steady pulse is one of the most important things we can put into our tune when playing the music as it was originally intended. As a music intended for dance, a jig or reel is wildly successful if it can do two things for listeners: enhance moods and get people tapping their feet.

Of course, the music presents a unique challenge to anyone who wishes for music as a vehicle to express the wide range of emotion that defines human existence. The emotion is not built in there with Irish tunes. If you want it, you gotta put it there yourself.

It's not like Beethoven or Wagner, those most emotive, even sometimes melodramatic of composers. Inherent in any single one of their symphonies (and please, I do not speak for all of their compositions, just the Top 10 Hits) is deep drama, ranging from rage to fear to joy to reverence. They wrote it in. The conductor then interprets this for the orchestra, and boy, we get the message.

So what do we do with Irish traditional music? One solution is that you can play slow airs your whole life, and some do that with such mastery that they can make you cry with just one note. Or, you can keep playing the dance tunes but do what fiddler Martin Hayes does: venture beyond the music's original intention, leave the rigid pulse behind because no one is intending to dance at this concert anyway, and then let the music breathe. His musical pulse quickens or slows depending on the emotion at hand. He makes the music human, philosophizing with every note, gently coaxing true confessions in every phrase. The tune comes to trust him so deeply that it doesn't even realize until the next morning that it gave him all of its bank account numbers and the keys to its Prius.

There are a few tunes out there that seem to have the emotion built in... especially some of the minor ones. It's easy to milk intensity out of just about any E minor tune, and easy to put nyah into one of those D/C or G/F tunes. But what the heck do you do except be happy when playing one of those carbonated, relentlessly major tunes like the New Policeman, the Silver Spear, the Maid Behind the Bar, the Wise Maid, the Galway Rambler? Can you deliver each one with a different emotion, or are they all just saying, "Come on in! The dance floor's open!" I suppose they are. And that's just fine. Fun is good.

But this is where we start talking about improvisations. About venturing a bit from the prescribed melody and making up wee bits that are your own, wrapping a little bit of emotion into tiny melodic packets, lighting them, then tossing them out on the floor to see if they detonate. There's a bit of risk taking involved... sliding out a little further on the limb, putting your heart on your sleeve, then lifting up your arm for others to see. You're risking making mistakes, of course, and you're also risking yourself... cracking your exterior, showing a little bit of the anger, fear, insecurity, ego, sadness, or oblivious joy hidden within. There's a shadow back there, too, and we look to our finest musicians to share it with us because we would rather not do it ourselves.

Carl Jung says that we all have it:

“It is a frightening thought that man also has a shadow side to him, consisting not just of little weaknesses and foibles but of a positively demonic dynamism. . . . We know that the wildest and most moving dramas are played not in the theatre but in the hearts of ordinary men and women who pass by without exciting attention, and who betray to the world nothing of the conflicts that rage within them except possibly by a nervous breakdown." - Carl Jung, New Paths in Psychology (1912)

I found this quote in a beautifully written article about Mel Gibson in the Boston Sunday Globe, in which film critic Ty Burr likened Mel Gibson's public fall from grace to Carl Jung's writing on the human dark side:

"He is not a well-behaved star, and that is oddly welcome: We need to see the beasts beneath our icons. The vileness that poured out on a Malibu roadside three years ago - not just the blotto racism but the anger, megalomania, resentment, insecurity - are kept carefully hidden by an industry and a society that just don’t want to know. But it’s in them and it’s in us, and Gibson can’t help bring it to the surface. Something in him - religion or the devil, entitlement or booze - prompts him time and again to go too far, to release the shadow. In so doing, he illuminates what we ask of our stars: How we demand they behave and how we punish and enable them for stepping over the line."

Okay, we're not going that far here. I don't necessarily need to see the beast behind the sax player in the Boston Highlands Ceili Band. And I don't want you to, either. Not yet.

Such a range of possibility.

I absolutely savor the effortless mastery of players like Shannon Heaton, who seems to have boundless creativity in her interpretations of tunes, who never plays a tune the same way twice, whose flute always delivers creative improvisations with ne'er a slip up, with perfect diction, with a carefully sculpted sound that is very much her own distinct voice. There is discipline in her sound, the beautiful, pristine intention of a Japanese rock garden. It makes you want to sit down and stay awhile.

There are also times when it feels awfully good to see a musician on stage step over the line, go too far, risk a little too much. Like watching a tightrope walker, we love to watch our artists work in perfect balance. We marvel at their skill, but always sit at the edge of our seats... What if today were the day they slipped? Fortunately, they've got a big, wide net to catch them, and that's us, the listeners. We love our performers, we'll catch them when they fall, and as long as they smile and say "thank you," we'll gladly help them back up the ladder to try again.

So perhaps that's the next discussion. We love our music, we love its beat, its ability to move us both physically and emotionally. But we also love our musicians, our stars, and we're willing to give them all the latitude that we so often do not give to ourselves.

Monday, January 25, 2010

100 Days of Practice Round 3 Day 2: Is the Dump Open Today?

I just found the neatest contraption on Freecycle. It's a little strap-on machine with two little boxing gloves at the end of mechanical arms, and all you have to do is press a button and you can beat yourself up any time you wish! I've been using for the last couple of weeks, and it works great! Wanna borrow it? What? You have one already? Oh.

Yeah. Haven't been practicing as much as I'd like to lately, and not liking it. The conclusion I've come to (again) is that if I don't practice first thing in the morning before everyone else is awake in the house, chances are I won't practice at all. I don't think I've missed any days entirely, but I've come close. Many a morning, instead of practicing, I opt to write email, or write blog posts, or do laundry, or send bills, or go food shopping instead of practicing. So, last night, I pledged to wake up and practice first thing.

I did it, folks.

At first, it was painful. (The machine, remember? Did you know that you can calibrate those things on low, medium, and high?) The flute wasn't speaking properly. I wasn't into it. Then I decided to take a two-minute break to fold laundry, the gift that keeps on giving. I came right back to the flute, and started playing a tune we'll be recording on our upcoming CD. Note, note, low note, high note, big deal, walk through the tune, yeah, yeah, get through it, just get the fingers remembering the movements they're supposed to make.

Then, something happened: I forgot I was practicing and I think the Beat-Up-Machine ran out of batteries. Or maybe it doesn't work when you're not paying attention to it. In the next twenty minutes, all sorts of creative ideas were bubbling up inside the music and some chick I call "Soul Mama" was finding interesting little improvisations within a tune she's been playing almost exactly the same way for about ten years. Joy! I just had to rush upstairs to write to you.

Why today for this breakthrough? Because, I think, I let go. Back when I was a church mouse, I might have said, "Let go and let God." Same thing.

Makes me think of a little excerpt from a forthcoming book I've been editing on conducting and musical leadership, written by Edward Lisk. Mr. Lisk bases some of his musical teaching on the ideas Renate and Geofrey Caine present in their book Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain. They note that there are three ways to ensure the best learning, and one of them is "relaxed alertness." From Lisk's book:

Relaxed alertness means that we have to try to eliminate fear in learners, while maintaining a highly challenging environment. Relaxed alertness ensures that students are being challenged within a context of safety (no threats, rules, or regulations if something is not done). It also includes a personal sense of well-being that allows students to explore new thoughts and connections.

Hm. It is possible that you have a Beat-Up-Machine in your closet, too? If you don't mind me saying, today is probably a great day to take it to the dump. Suddenly, you may find that all sorts of fun ideas pop up!

Friday, January 22, 2010

100 Days of Practice Round 2 Day 100: Why Music?

Congratulations! We've completed our second 100. It's a good time to revisit an important question, one that takes two minutes to answer intellectually, but a lifetime to embody: what's it all about?

Yesterday was the first day of classes for me at Bridgewater. I love the first class, always, because it's brainstorming time, and always a mind-opening, eye-opening experience. For about an hour, I worked through some big ideas with students in my music appreciation course: what does music mean, and how does it fit in our lives?

Overwhelmingly, students said that they love (and by that, I mean love-love-love) music, and listen to it all the time. We made a list of the important occasions on which we turn to music, and the list spanned every significant milestone that we pass as human beings. Expectant mothers are almost universally instructed to bring their favorite music to the delivery room, and many hospitals keep a CD player in the birthing room specifically for that purpose. Every birthday has its song, and that song happens to be one of the very first ones that a child learns. As a child moves on to school age, music is a required subject in almost every classroom across the county. Then there's the prom. Graduation. The wedding. The funeral. Every one of those events is impossible to conceive of without music. Now, think of that well-publicized image of Haitians standing in the rubble of the earthquake, arms raised, and doing what?: singing. Amid unspeakable disaster. Our conclusion: Music matters.

What a path we've chosen, musicians. Sometimes we'll travel light, but other times we'll be asked to help carry someone's burden. Sometimes we will skip and toss flowers, but other times we will trudge and collect bodies. Sometimes we'll play for ourselves, and other times we'll be asked to play someone through the most important moment of their life. Sometimes, it feels like no one is listening. But often, many someones ARE listening, and we will move some of them to tears in a moment they will remember for the rest of their lives. This is an overwhelming honor; it is also an immense responsibility.

Most important, it is a gift that is only valuable when we share it with others.

I read the book Frederick by Leo Lionni (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967) to MiniMe last night. Here's the story in full, to warm your toes:

All along the meadow where the cows grazed and the horses ran, there was an old stone wall.

In that wall, not far from the barn and the granary, a chatty family of field mice had their home.

But the farmers had moved away, the barn was abandoned, and the granary stood empty. And since winter was not far off, the little mice began to gather corn and nuts and wheat and straw. They all worked day and night. All—except Frederick.

"Frederick, why don't you work?" they asked.
"I do work," said Frederick. "I gather sun rays for the cold dark winter days."

And when they saw Frederick sitting there, staring at the meadow, the said, "And now, Frederick?" "I gather colors," answered Frederick simply. "For winter is gray."

And once, Frederick seemed half asleep. "Are you dreaming, Frederick?" they asked reproachfully. But Frederick said, "Oh no, I am gathering words. For the winter days are long and many, and we'll run out of things to say."

The winter days came, and when the first snow fell the five little field mice took to their hideout in the stones.

In the beginning, there was lots to eat, and the mice told stories of foolish foxes and silly cats. They were a happy family.

But little by little, they had nibbled up most of the nuts and berries, the straw was gone, and the corn was only a memory. It was cold in the wall and no one felt like chatting.

Then they remembered what Frederick had said about sun rays and colors and words. "What about your supplies, Frederick?" they asked.

"Close your eyes," said Frederick, as he climbed on a big stone. "Now I send you the rays of the sun. Do you feel how their golden glow..." And as Frederick spoke of the sun the four little mice began to feel warmer. Was it Frederick's voice? Was it magic?

"And how about the colors, Frederick?" they asked anxiously. "Close your eyes again," Frederick said. And when he told them of the blue periwinkles, the red poppies in the yellow wheat, and the green leaves of the berry bush, they saw the colors as clearly as if they had been painted in their minds.

"And the words, Frederick?"

Frederick cleared his throat, waited a moment, and then, as if from a stage, he said:

"Who scatters snowflakes? Who melts ice?
Who spoils the weather? Who makes it nice?
Who grows the four-leaf clovers in June?
Who dims the daylight? Who lights the moon?

Four little mice who live in the sky.
Four little mice... like you and I.

One is the Springtime who turns on the showers.
One is the Summer who paints in the flowers.
The Fallmouse is next with walnuts and wheat.
And Winter is last... with cold little feet.

Aren't we lucky the seasons are four?
Think of a year with one less... or one more!"

When Frederick had finished, they all applauded. "But Frederick," they said. "You are a poet!"

Frederick blushed, took a bow, then said shyly, "I know it."

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

100 Days of Practice Round 2 Day 98: Dealing with Session Fright

Has this happened to you?: You walk into a session, put your pint down, and just barely get the instrument out of the case, and before you even get a chance to sip that first creamy pint, someone says, "Give us a tune."

I happened to me once in Donegal, and I was floored. In my case, I'd already sipped a couple of pints while standing at the edge the session observing, before jumping in.

I'm not a ham. It's not my normal mode to just jump right in and start playing. I often suffer from a bit of stage fright (though much much less now). But in the past, my usual response was: freeze for a moment. Heartrate goes up.

You'll be in a similar situation, or perhaps you've been in this situation a million times. The best solution: Reach back into your recesses, find the tune that you play most easily, the one you can play with your eyes closed and both hands tied between your back (I'm not sure how you would then play the tune, but let's move on), and do a beautiful, clean job of it. Don't pick the fancy one just yet. Don't try to impress. Pick the one with no speedbumps. And from my perspective, don't worry if it's a tune they've played already. If it's a nice session that you want to be in, no one will stop you and say, "But we've already done that one!" (See pt. 3)

Here are some tips for navigating session entry:

1) When asked to start a tune, pick the one you know best.

2) Pick a tempo that is very reasonable. Don't try to rush it to meet the group's speed, because you simply can't play a tune faster than you can play it. I'm not a mathemetician, but I think that is true.

3) Don't worry about picking a tune that they've already played, if it's the only tune that you are sure you can play well. If in doubt, ask. There's nothing wrong with asking, "Is it alright if we play 'The Sally Gardens' again?" Kind session leaders will say yes. If they say no, then think about it...maybe that's not the right session for you as a learner.

4) Nerves will almost always make you play faster.

5) Too much beer will almost always make you play worse. You just won't realize it and no one will probably tell you. Except maybe your husband.

6) Own your skill level, but, GOD, please don't start your tune with a four-minute apology. If you're new, it seems perfectly reasonable to say, "I'm just learning, but here goes..." and leave it at that. Nerves may drive you to one of those long, "Well, um... toot... tweet... let me just... I am really not good at this.. .Hey, can you play The Merry Blacksmith, or maybe it's the Silver Spear or maybe it's Galway Rambler, I'm not sure what key it's in... Um, man I think I had too much beer... toot... tweet... um" Oh, goodness, is that annoying. Just be yourself, don't apologize, and play. Dammit. People will know your skill level within ten seconds of hearing you, even if they don't make eye contact. Believe me, they're listening, and if they've asked you for a tune, then by God, play it with confidence.

7) Know what key your tune is in, and say it out loud before you start, if you think it will help the guitar player. But beware that experience tune backers can figure out the key easily, and some may get insulted if you tell them the key.

8) Determine if this is a session that will welcome you to do a "solo" or if you're better to play something everyone knows. Usually, sessions are about group participation, so it might be best to pick one everyone can join you on. Showing off right from the start is not the best policy, particularly in the Irish world.

9) No matter how much you rehearse, you still may mess up your tune.

10) It's likely that you're not messing it up as badly as you think.

11) When asked to start a tune, only play tunes you REALLY know. If you really can't get through a tune without losing the rhythm, or stopping and starting over from the beginning, or you just started working on it yesterday, then you probably don't know it well enough to bring out to a session. If you're like this with ALL tunes, then maybe you're not quite ready to fully participate in a session--unless the session clearly is comfortable with that, and keeps encouraging you to play. Then it's a learning session, and that's a great place to be for you at this time. Hooray! Embrace those people. You'll probably become great friends over the years.

12) It's not about you, it's about the music. If you suffer from stage fright, chances are it's because you're thinking more about yourself than the music. What will I play like? What will they think of me? Will I impress them? Can I do this? Etc. Instead, focus on the tune, and being a vehicle for delivering it. You're just the messenger, so forget about you. Just think about the message.


No matter how much prep, one normal result you can count on for a while is this: You've been going to the same session for about a month now, and they have a round robin style, going around the circle so that each person gets a shot at selecting a tune. You've been working on a set for the last month, you can play it pretty well, and so you start playing it... and crash and burn. Ugh!

Well, don't worry. It happens. Go home, practice it some more, and try again next time. Just keep having fun while you're at it.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

100 Days of Practice Round 2 Day 95: Welcoming the Stranger

I've spent the last four days pondering tradition and innovation, caught between wanting to spend the next 100 days exploring the question "What IS Irish music, anyway?" and "Who the heck cares? Just shut up and play." Many of these questions surrounding what is traditional, what is not, what is acceptable variance from the tradition, what music goes too far -- much of this comes down to a question not of "tradition and innovation," but rather simply, taste. And perhaps even more to the point, custom: what you've been surrounded with, what you've first heard as Irish music. What you identify with.

Was it: The Clancy Brothers? Seamus Ennis? The Tara Ceili Band? The Tulla Ceili Band? The Pogues? Noel Hill and Tony Linnane? Joe Heaney? Nioclas Toibin? The Dubliners? John McCormack? Bing Crosby? Christy Moore? The Dropkick Murphys? The Wolfe Tones? The Bothy Band? Lunasa? Beoga? Seamus Connolly? Joe Derrane? The Saw Doctors? Maura O'Connell? Liz Carroll? Steeleye Span? This could go on and on. Someone shoot me.

A friend responded this way to the last blog post:

"...the choices a person makes musically will most often reflect their experiences--in my view, particularly their INITIAL experiences with not only the music, but the time, place, and with whom it was experienced. Irish traditional music for me has been one of the most personal musical experiences--as Jerry O'Sullivan once said, each tune brings to mind those above things--where you got it from and with whom you played it and where--and the people you meet playing music are some of the nicest people you could ever meet--as fellow musicians and friends. The music of today is STILL Irish traditional music, but it is the music of TODAY--evolving side by side with the times and its country of origin. It is the tradition of today. What I heard 33 years ago was the music of THEN--fitting in with the country of THEN--which is no more--and that is OK. I have laughed during 'serious' performances--just as an expression of the joy of the music--both as I was playing, or listening. It was an expression of joy, not criticism. If I can't have that, then for me the music loses its meaning and purpose!"

Joy as purpose. Who would deny that!? There are many technical ways to define Irish music: timbre, pitch, repertoire, form, instrumentation, rhythm, harmonic characteristics, melodic tendencies... but what draws many in more than anything is purpose and context. What environment is it being played in, what social relationships does it depend on and build, what friendships are being cemented? In other words, What are you getting out of it? And perhaps more important: What are you giving to it?

For many, the session is not so much about Irish traditional music as it is about the people, and as a result, the average session will include an astonishingly broad range of people, and of skill levels. The bodhran gets a bad rap (no pun intended), because so many public sessions are crowded with rows of bodhran players with widely varying skill levels. And SOMETIMES this can murder a session, if the point of the session is to make high-level, tight, rhythmically sharp music. But that is absolutely NOT the point of all sessions, and one thing I've become convinced of over the years is that when people see the warm camaraderie and joyfulness of music making that marks the average session, they want in! So, they take up the bodhran, thinking it's the easiest instrument to get up to speed on (still, no pun intended). That's honest, and earnest. Maybe we can give those folks a break.

It can be difficult to divorce Irish music from its social side. When I think of Irish music in Boston, my first thoughts often go to Comhaltas, to great joy, and to Larry Reynolds, cofounder and longtime president of the Boston chapter of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann, the international association of Irish music. I remember going to Larry's long-standing Monday night session at the Green Briar in Brighton, Mass. Not just my thoughts go to Larry, but also my deep appreciation. Much of the reason I've continued to play Irish music for some fifteen years or so is due to his initial: "Go on, give us a tune there, Susan." I will be forever grateful to his encouraging wink-and-a-nod to me across the session--urging me as a beginner flute player to start a tune, back when I could barely get a note out of my entry-level Ralph Sweet Sweetheart flute. (Check him out; great affordable flutes!)

Even when I flubbed, crashed, burned, Larry would ask me to do it again the next session. Or if I wasn't playing because I didn't know a tune, while playing his fiddle he'd look at my flute, nod to me, and motion to me to give it a try anyway. Then there was Jack Conroy, box player and flute player, now in his 70s, who I would seek out and sit beside every week because he'd name the tunes for me, encourage me to play, give me tips, make me feel welcome. That will forever define how I view Comhaltas, despite the many criticisms that get leveled against the organization.

The sort of treatment Larry and Jack gave, that also is the nature of Irish tradition to me: welcoming the honest stranger. In this case, a stranger with a Lithuanian name and a strange tendency to unwittingly lapse into a fake Irish accent or a strong Boston accent, depending on who she was talking to. Larry and Jack didn't know that someday I'd write a book that featured them and their early days of playing on Dudley Street, or that I'd be a music writer and columnist for the Boston Irish Reporter. Larry didn't know that fifteen years later, I'd play in a band with his son, a band that paid tribute to his own Dudley Street era of music. Honestly? They didn't care. And today, they still don't, in the kindest possible way, and for that I am so thankful. They didn't ask questions and still don't, except a genuine "How are you?" and then it's all about the music.

Most likely, what they saw back then was a young person that was just learning to play, but clearly really wanting to get it right, and having a great deal of fun at it. And maybe that was all that mattered.

Isn't that what it's about?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

100 Days of Practice Round 2 Day 91: Tradition and Innovation

The Lindsays spent yesterday in the studio, finishing up all of the guitar tracks for our new CD, which will be coming sometime in the next couple of months. We are really enthusiastic about what it's going to be: a little traditional, a lot nontraditional, and in that way, a solid reflection of us: The Lindsays.

Steve has picked some great songs, revisiting some of our old favorites and also some new favorites. And, with only one truly "trad" exception, we've included reels and jigs that were all written here in America or recorded way back when by people in the Irish scene. It is very much a CD that speaks of its place and tells the story of those who made it. I listened to rough tracks on the first six tunes the other day, and what excited me most is that it was "us" at our very best. And you really can't do better in this world than to be truly yourself!

I say this lightly, but as you can imagine, this conclusion only came after years of introspection and cogitation on the matter. You see, the ongoing preoccupation that plagues many a traditional musician is about traditionalism and authenticity. It's a recurring topic of after-hours conversation.

Many ask, do I sound truly "Irish"? It's not too hard for an experienced musician in any style to play the notes of a jig or a reel correctly, and in time with the pulse of the music. What takes time to develop is those touches the traditional musician adds to brand the music authentically Irish: ornamentation, lilt.. .the "nyah." And once a musician has mastered the "blas" -- Irish Gaelic for "sensation," "experience," "relish" or even "an experience shared" -- how far can he or she depart from what is traditional, and still be considered within the tradition?

Some people, in fact a very very very very very good friend of mine (you might know her), has frequently complained that some of the trad folks around Boston appear to be a tad precious at times. That they can seem so darn serious that they're not making music look like very much fun. That maybe they're adhering so carefully to what is traditional, that sometimes there's no identifiable "I" or "US" in their music. No personality. That you find yourself giggling out loud during the hundred-year-old song they meticulously "collected" on a recent visit to Ennis, because you're wondering what would happen if the little kid in the back row let out a ripper in this church-silent audience. Sigh. Some of us have issues.

Now, my friend is not the only one who thinks this way. In my time as a reporter at the Boston Irish Reporter and also as an author, I've talked with many people about tradition and innovation, and how the two do or do not fit together. The people I spoke to from Ireland in general did not give two hoots about what was traditional or what was not, but boy did they get incensed in answering the question. They are tired of those uptight Comhaltas people, they'd say. They just made music; the traditional aspect didn't require any effort. It was just "there."

Keep in mind that conspicuously absent from my interview list was Comhaltas people in Ireland. But even still, this question: "Can you be innovative and still traditional?" is really more of an American question, the concern of those whose traditional boat is tethered to a foreign dock in an unprotected harbor, constantly battered by the waves of outside influence, and the careless wakes of half-drunken pleasure boaters. It's no surprise that Americans involved might be a bit more protective of their sacred vessel. Don't get me wrong, the waves of change beat mercilessly in Ireland, too, but here, that little boat is a lot more threatened.

My philosophy has always been that you need to first master the tradition before you can depart from it in good conscience. If you have mastered the tradition, then your explorations are informed, and we can reframe your journey to be called "expanding" or "building upon" the tradition. But when you've not really put in the time and then depart from the central canon, then, sorry, it seems that you're simply leaving it. Doing something else.

Still, at some point, a musician must express his or her own experience, as well, and the choices a person makes musically will most often reflect their own experiences, which undoubtedly include a raft of influences from outside the tradition.

It can take more effort to keep the outside influences OUT than it does to keep the traditional elements in. Perhaps, in the end, it's just best to play who we are and let it be. But be prepared: that decision can determine what festivals you will get into, what parties you get invited to, and which sessions will give you the cold shoulder.

Joe Derrane said it all in this quote from See You at The Hall:

"Years of playing so many things that have more complex chord progressions, resolutions, or passages--they stick to me... We're all products of our environment. My environment compared to most people in the traditional Irish music is very, very broad. Of course, I'm Irish American and I've been exposed to many different kinds of music. I mean, my God, just the elevator music from years ago... You turn on the radio, in your car, any of these things over an accumulation of years, some of this stuff starts to set in. The challenge is to make sure that you use that hopefully not too often, because then the music loses its appeal, and it invades the traditional senses too much. Some people would not agree. They say I've overdone it; other people think not. My own sense is, I play it the way I feel it, and gee, I hope and pray that they like it. But that's it."

You can find out more about Joe and his recent Mapleshade releases here. You can find older Joe Derrane recordings here in the Joe Derrane store on Amazon. And finally, you can get his 1950 recording with his accordion mentor Jerry O'Brien, made as a young tyke on Dudley Street, here at Rego Records.

Monday, January 11, 2010

100 Days of Practice Round 2 Day 89: BCMFest Photos

A fun concert with the Boston Highlands Ceili Band at the Boston Celtic Music Festival on Saturday, January 9. Lots of intense work in a short period, but really worth it! Here's a photo of the whole band on stage at the First Parish Church, Cambridge.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

100 Days of Practice Round 2 Day 87: Stopping to Sort the Ribbons

I've been trying to be good, I really have. Since New Year's, I switched to black coffee. I cut down on desserts. I'm taking smaller portions. But when I busted out my five overflowing boxes of ribbon last night in order to sort them by color and type, I really did have to break out a beer.

The last four days have been spent, amid daily musical practice and much family fun and laughter, sorting through the "Craft Area" in Mini Me's playroom. Imparting order, at last, on the mess of craft stuff I've been collecting for a little longer than I'm prepared to admit, all in hopes of someday having a little girl to be a little girl with... you know... to giggle with, listen to Muppet albums, and make stuff out of other stuff.

What stuff? Well, like, five boxes of ribbon, to start. Then there's the box of floral supplies. The box of stamping supplies. The box of pompoms, pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks, and googly eyes. The drawer full of candle-making and soap-making materials. The box of Playdough, and the drawer of clay. The yarn drawer. (I don't really knit.) The miscellaneous drawer that has magnetic mirrors, Velcro squares, fuzzy curly blonde angel hair (?), the sewing drawer with spare buttons from every dress I've owned since I bought my first business suit in 1991. Three drawers of fabric. One box of "wedding ribbon," one box of rolled ribbon, one box of "warm colored" ribbon, and one box of "cool colored" ribbon. A basket of shells, rocks, pine cones, and one dried up starfish. A drawer I call "specialty paper," a box of construction paper, and another little drawer with small specialty paper. A drawer of gift bags. A drawer of tissue paper, which also holds a box of wrapping ribbons. The drawer of candles, incense, one sage smudge stick, and a bag of dried lavender. Next to it, the box of candle holders. The shelf! Ah, the shelf: Eight bottles of tempera paint and four jars of glitter in green, purple, red, and gold. And a partridge far from his pear tree, but still looking majestic while lying on his side next to the adhesive felt. Everything labeled in all caps with a Sharpie on Avery 5160 labels. God, that is good. I think I need a cigarette.

My sister once called me a Type A. I recoiled. But I'm sure she's convinced now. Does spending four bliss-filled days of sorting, in order to create ten carefully Sharpie-labeled drawers and 12 neat little Sterilite storage boxes, count as Type A? Um... can we move on to the next question, please? Isn't that your mother I hear calling you?

The moral? Well, nothing profound; just a bit of good news/bad news.

The good news is, if you've spent any time whatsoever on wrapping a gift that you've given to me, Soul Papa, or Mini Me in the last seven years, the work did not go unnoticed. We still have the ribbon.

The bad news is, you might receive a gift from us someday with the same packaging.

What does this have to do with music? Lots, my friends. I've been meaning to sort the craft stuff for seven years. Seven years! That is a long time. For me, this is a reminder to pay attention to life. Perhaps we've been a little too busy playing gigs, managing a musical life, and practicing to keep control of the craft gremlins. They got fairly busy when we weren't looking. They got into the fridge, the cookie jar, and now they're eyeing the last beer in the fridge. Worse, I think they multiplied. But have no fear, they can be corralled. They won't mess up your kitchen.

Aha. Here's the moral: No matter what our work, passion, or avocation, we still have gremlins to take care of. Keep practicing, but every now and then, stop to sort the ribbons. Smell the roses, but please, please, please, I implore you: don't smell that dried up starfish.

Friday, January 8, 2010

100 Days of Practice Round 2 Day 86: Big Band Is Not Dead, and Neither Is Elvis.

Brace yourself, Martha. The Irish big band is coming.

Tomorrow, at BCM Fest in Cambridge, Mass., the Boston Highlands Ceili Band is feeling ruthlessly enthusiastic about descending upon Boston's unsuspecting Celtic music crowd, decorating its hallowed halls with a bit of brass. It's not exactly storming the castle; it's more like sneaking a smoke on its back steps. Got a light?

Way back in the 1950s, the center of Irish cultural life was Dudley Square, Roxbury, where five dance halls were packed to the rafters three and four nights a week with young Irish immigrants and Irish Americans out to dance, socialize, and, often, meet the love of their lives. The most popular of the dance hall bands was the Johnny Powell Band, a ten-piece band that included instruments such as banjo, fiddle, those boxy and powerful Walters accordions, two or three saxes, sometimes a trumpet, and a rhythm section. Not your traditional Irish dance band of today, but back then, all that power was needed to be heard over the dancing feet of 500+ enthusiastic dancers, and the saxy side helped to meet the varied musical tastes of a mixed Irish and Irish American audience. A little jig, a little reel, a rumba, a two-step, a waltz or two, and maybe, just maybe a little Nat King Cole or Patti Page.

Local record label Copley Records noted the popularity of Powell's band and invited them to record, which they did, in the early 1950s... resulting in a handful of 78s, eventually released on 33 1/3 vinyl as a compilation titled The Folk Dance Music of Ireland with Johnny Powell and his band.

Fiddler Brendan Bulger and I got our hands on a copy of this recording, thanks to the generosity of Beth Sweeney at Boston College's Irish Music Center, and selected transcribed six of the sets, then put them together into a modern tribute that revisits, maybe updates, and but most importantly, enjoys that original Irish big band sound. We call ourselves the Boston Highlands Ceili Band, and we're feeling ready to meet Boston's Celtic music crowd, who really did nothing to deserve such treatment.

And you'll get to hear it on Saturday, if you come to BCM Fest.

Personnel includes: Brendan Bulger and Maureen Calvi on fiddle, Chris Bulger and Mike Reynolds on accordion, Helen Kisiel on piano, Larry Flint on bass and Stevie O'Callaghan on drums (the latter two, of the Boston-based Irish band Devri), as well as Glen Carliss on trumpet and Roger Gamache on alto sax, two mates of mine from the Cape Cod-based swing band, Stage Door Canteen. Oh yeah, and me on soprano sax.

Big sound. Big whoop. Come whoop it up with us tomorrow!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

100 Days of Practice Round 2 Day 84: The Prodigal Daughter Returns

So this is what it must be like to have two children.

For 184 days, Soul Mama has nurtured the flute because it was oh-so-needy... Meanwhile, the sax, taken for granted because it was the well-behaved first child, sat in its box, only let out for gigs and only intermittently for serious romps.

Then suddenly there's a big sax gig coming up at Boston Celtic Music Fest this weekend, and the flute--my trusty, faithful companion--has been for two weeks relegated to its velvet lined coffin while the Long Lost gets its due.

It just doesn't seem fair. Alas, we know the flute and her temperamental behavior, and payback is indeed a -- well, you know. Oh, payback will come. And it will be nasty.

For now, all attention is turned to the sax, and we're getting ready to unleash an 11-piece Irish big band on unsuspecting Boston Celtic music fans who did absolutely nothing to deserve such cruel and unusual punishment.

From a personal perspective, it has been an exciting two weeks, memorizing 15 tunes on sax, tripledy hard because everything is in multi-sharp keys. Everything old is new again. The chops are torn and tattered but the mind is en garde!

"'My daughter,' Soul Mama said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this sister of yours was dead and is alive again; she was lost and is found.'

– (FLuke 15:31-32)

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

100 Days of Practice Round 2 Day 83: Ah, but who am I kidding....

This is yesterday's neurosis, healed today (and re-injured tomorrow, no doubt.) Had intended to edit and post, but never quite got to it....

Break time. Great idea, but only if you do it.

Today is officially halfway to a year, and unless I haven't told you yet, we're really going for 365 days of practice here, 100 days at a time. Not too long into my first hundred days, I'd decided that this is really a full year endeavor, with the hopes that maybe someday Meg Ryan will play me in a blockbuster film called Confessions of a Mediocre Musician. Guess what: Today, we're over the hump. Only 182 left... and we're still here. Someone forward the link to Meg Ryan, please. Or if not her, Kevin Bacon... I hear he knows everyone.

182 days of practice, but don't you think practice alone would make a boring story? We need drama! Tears! Painful truths! Car chases! Overturned orange carts! Occasional racy nudity! (Sorry. Not here.)

But seriously... how much do you really want to know?

Do you want to know that sometimes (like, oh the last month or so) I've gotten a little tired of the "career" part of "music career"? That all this talk of break time, and family focus, and so on, is another way of saying that it might be nice to let go for a while and just enjoy the journey....

...That I have not practiced every day, but have done so most days, and that should be considered a resounding success!?

...That sometimes morning tea and the news is way more appealing than basement practice room?

...That I now suspect that I'm a writer who plays music, not a musician who writes?

...That the practice thing is indeed working... but not quite as well as I'd expected by this point? How about you?

...That it feels absolutely stellar to realize that "life/family first" is the reason you'll never be as good as X, Y, or Z... but that doesn't entirely make the ambition go away?

...That I find it scary (no, terrifying) that this blog is tied to our Lindsays web site and that I live in fear that some potential bride may read the blog and say, "No siree, this band will NOT play 'Pachelbel's Canon' at my wedding! Crazy lady! I bet she wears a black sequined beret to do groceries!" (I do.)

...That sometimes you have to go halfway up a driveway to really check out a house and decide that it's not one that you're going to call home?

...That I write about this all not because I want to tell the world my innermost thoughts but because I suspect that somewhere inside, no matter what our daily obsession, we're all more or less the same?

Thanks for being here so far, and do stick around for the rest of the story. Misery loves company, and hey, even Jesus needed 12 drinking buddies. Personally, I'm hoping for a more uplifting ending, but these things can't be decided upon ahead of time.

Onward and inward!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

100 Days of Practice Round 2 Day 80: Break Taking

Kenny Rogers would say, "You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em."

Buddha might say, "Inaction is the most important part of action."

And about 14 years ago while working as a writer for the New England Aquarium, I wrote a piece for Boston museum PR writers. On writer's block, I wrote, "When in doubt, go to the restroom." Truth: I've found some of my best writing solutions halfway between my desk and the office toilet.

There's nothing better than a well-timed break. Knowing when to take it is key.

Just remember to keep your eyes open on the way to the potty.

Friday, January 1, 2010

100 Days of Practice Round 2 Day 79 Take 2: Free Bird!!!!

I would like to say that I don't have any resolutions, because I know they're useless for the long term. Except I have them, and I'm hoping that the long term brings more exercise, and takes away 15 pounds. Yawn. The truth is so boring.

I do have one do-able resolution, and that is: more family, short term and long term. We know what that may mean: Less performing, for the short term at least. But much more playing, in every sense of the word.

For the Lindsays, this has been the year of, "Well, of course we can. In fact, we are!" Since Soul Papa and I first started dreaming with one heart, one night back at the Burren in Somerville in 1998 or so, one of major topics of conversation was how we'd like to make more of our living from playing music, and less of our living from working for someone else. Well, we're doing it.

How cool. But, as you've seen, it's not any easier than any other vocational path, and the big lesson of making a living playing music: You're still working for someone else. In fact, you're working for everyone else. And as the audiences get bigger, you get more bosses. A complicated position for people who don't like bosses.

Big Lesson 2: Playing music for a living doesn't mean your birdsong is the most beautiful in the forest; it does often mean that you'll sing anywhere, anytime, for a varying amount of seeds. If you're lucky, sometimes you'll get fresh worms, too.

How to get the big worms without having to wake up at 4 am and dig them your fool self:

Practice flying. Jump out of your tree sixty times each morning, perfecting your liftoff, mastering your backward double somersault tuck with resplendent charm, smiling through your armstand back double-somersault with one and a half twists in the free position, singing all the while. Then, do it live, for an audience and barely manage a half-ass swan dive. Your nasty splash douses everyone in the front three rows. Hand out towels. Make funny jokes. Laughter spreads through the audience. Everyone is joyous. Success! Fly back up to your perch. Inhale, exhale. Repeat.

I tell you, the worms will come, in spades. Somebody else's spade, of course, because you're a free bird now and you ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more. Remember?

100 Days of Practice Round 2 Day 79: At the Rising of the Moon....

Happy New Year from the Lindsays! We wish you a joyful 2010, full of hopeful sunrises, peaceful sunsets, resolutions met, the company of friends, and music to lift you and feed you.

It's a good time to revisit the words of one of our favorite songs: The Rising of the Moon....

As we wander through the universe, on this dark winter's night
The children they’re all dancing and the stars are shining bright
One more word must now be spoken, or sung to an old tune
Let's all dance the dance of freedom at the rising of the moon

So we gaze unto the stars that shine with wonder in our eyes
Will we just destroy the planet, or is peace to be the price?
'Cause the wall of fighting nations dims the beauty of the tune
Let’s all dance the dance of freedom at the rising of the moon

At the rising of the moon, at the rising of the moon
Let’s be friends this new year coming at the rising of the moon

May the wisdom of the ancients with their messages and signs
Come to shine on our tomorrows with the magic of their time
Like a star that shone on the wisemen, like the dawn that’s coming soon
It’s the truth that guides us onwards at the rising of the moon

We can live within God's garden if we tend her with our care
We can understand the meaning and the motives of the fair
Though we stumble through the darkness, trying far too much too soon
Let’s all stand up and be counted at the rising of the moon

At the rising of the moon, at the rising of the moon
Let’s all stand up and be counted at the rising of the moon