Learn Your First Traditional Irish Reel in 4 Easy Steps
No experience necessary! There is a powerful trick to forming habits of which many of us are completely unaware. This blog post is especially for beginners of a traditional Irish musical instrument. I hope to help you get started and set-up with the best music practice regime I know, a regime which will have you playing a simple traditional Irish tune within one month with minimal effort.
Step 1. Surf Your Motivation
First and foremost, I will assume you are motivated, if you aren’t, stop reading this post until you are! I want you to surf the wave of your motivation, you know that moment when you’ve decided, “Right, I’m gonna do it! I’m finally going to learn how to play traditional Irish music!”. That’s the moment to read this post and the moment when you’re ready to commit; the energy is there, you’re open to advice, happy to plan and momentum from that energy will propel you along.
This is also a great moment to engage a traditional Irish music teacher should you wish, and thanks to the miracle of modern technology it is possible to access brilliant traditional Irish tutors online no matter where you are in the world so lack of local availability need not be an obstacle. Don’t worry, you don’t HAVE to engage a teacher initially, there are plenty of online resources to get you up and going before formal tuition needs to start.
Step 2. Set Your Goals
This is the tricky bit but it needn’t be. Often when we fall down in acquiring a new skill like learning a new instrument it’s caused by the goals we set for ourselves. We want to start playing a tune nearly immediately or we think we should be able to play the D scale after hearing it twice!
These kind of goals early on are nearly guaranteed to cause frustration and eventually lead to you putting away your instrument and never touching it again. Does this sound familiar? Oh the guilt!
If this is you don’t despair, take a mental step back and start looking at goal-setting again. The trick? Start small. Both those words are critical. “Start” – don’t talk about it, or daydream about it, just start. “Small” – make your goals bite-sized, even one minute practice a day is better than none.
I’m going to use the Anglo concertina as an example, it’s one of my best-selling instruments and it’s a great compact size. So you have your concertina but you’ve never played a musical instrument before or you’ve never played this style of instrument before, where do you start?
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” This Inspirational Chinese Saying is a Universal Truth
Step 3. Build a Practice Habit
Aim to practice for no more than ten minutes a day. With a concertina, note placement is crucial, as is your push/pull technique. Remember to keep your goals bite sized – for example, you could print out a concertina fingering diagram and commit to learning off where each note is on one side of the concertina.
How simple is this? You don’t even need a concertina. In fact, only a certain amount of buttons are used on each side of the concertina for most traditional Irish music so you don’t even have to learn note placement on all 30 buttons.
The following week could be spent learning the other side. Baby steps! If the idea of ten minutes is daunting, switch to five minutes a day – the crucial takeaway here is that you commit to doing something nearly every day. If you have a tutor they will help you set realistic goals and give you handy starting points for learning your particular traditional Irish instrument.
Add a daily alert to your phone or write a note on your calendar to remind you to practice. Make sure the instrument is within easy reach and you have a space to practice. Make the instrument part of your decor, most traditional Irish instruments are blessed with aesthetic appeal so put them in pride of place in a room you frequent.
If it’s a concertina, have it nearby, on top of its hard case, or on a sideboard, ready to pick up, and have a stool or upright chair ready to sit into before you begin. If it’s a bodhrán hang it on your wall or invest in a handy instrument stand. Your options are as varied as your creativity is.
Back in the 19th century and early 20th century in Ireland, concertinas were stored in a special nook in the chimney, ready to be played by a member of the household or a visitor – the modern entertainment equivalent of a stereo system or tv.
A Reward System
To cement a daily habit you need a cue and a reward. The cue is the alert on your phone or note on your calendar. The reward is a pleasurable gain from the activity itself. So, if you treat yourself to a reward after your practice you’re more likely to associate the practice with pleasure.
The reward doesn’t have to be complicated or big, it just needs to feel nice. After your concertina practice you could promise yourself a delicious hot drink – a cup of coffee, tea or a flavoursome herbal decoction, alternatively you could listen to your favourite Irish session tune or favourite traditional Irish musician, or how about a chocolate biscuit, a small slice of cake etc.? It just needs to put a smile on your face and reward you for your actions.
Of course, that great feeling you get upon conquering a tricky piece of fingering, or finally completing a musical scale by heart will also further enshrine your practice in the pleasure centres of the brain but in the meantime, reward yourself.
Step 4. Your First Traditional Irish Tune
Once you’ve set up your daily practice habit allow yourself two breaks in a seven day week. The muscles you’re using will start to memorise placement and as you progress your brain will start to accumulate musical knowledge and as a nice side-effect you will actually start to regenerate parts of the brain!
After 15 practice sessions (three weeks) you’ll be ready to tackle your first tune, it can be something as simple as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star but if you feel you’re ready for something a little more challenging, take a look at this extremely popular easy beginner traditional Irish tune, Kitty’s Gone a’ Milking.
You can slow it down, break it into bite sized practice pieces and take it at your own pace. Remember, most traditional Irish music learning is done by ear and this is something you’ll need to get used to particularly if you come from a classical music background. I’ve added ABC notation to the above video to help you along. The notes in capitals are on the lower scale and the small letters are on the higher, a 2 directly after the note denotes holding that note for two beats.
You’ll note from the recording that Caitlín is adding decorative notes, you can ignore those, come back to them when you feel ready, for now just concentrate on the bare bones of the tune and learn them off by heart. Five sessions of practice will have you up and running and playing a simple Irish reel. Now, how easy was that?
We have a collection of inspirational yet very practical guest blog posts on how best to approach learning traditional Irish music by top Irish musicians, Caitlín Nic Gabhann, Liam O’Connor and Conal Ó Gráda.
Other fantastic resources for learning a traditional Irish instrument are our free online lesson packages that come with the purchase of our best-selling traditional Irish musical instruments. If you buy a McNeela concertina from us you will receive up to five free online concertina lessons with Caitlín Nic Gabhann. If you purchase from us a McNeela tuneable bodhrán you will receive eight free online bodhrán lessons with Rónán Ó Snodaigh. If you’re not sure you want to purchase an instrument just yet, click on the Free Bodhrán Lesson button at the bottom of the screen and get a free 30 minute lesson with me, you don’t even need a bodhrán! A pen and a circular piece of hard cardboard or A4 notebook will suffice.
We plan to add free lesson giveaways to other traditional Irish instrument categories so check back here regularly for updates and feel free to contact me directly with any questions or comments.