Switching from Classical Music to Traditional Irish Music – Everything You Need to Know
Published: November 6, 2020
Are you a classically trained musician who wants to learn traditional Irish music for the first time? Well then, you’ve come to the right place.
Making the switch from classical to Irish music can seem a little daunting at first, especially if you’re to believe everything you read online. Most of this advice would be enough to put anyone off. Don’t worry. I’m here to help.
If you’ve researched the topic at all, I’m sure you’ve come across several opinions stating that classical musicians can’t play traditional music authentically and will need to leave their formal training behind. Nonsense! There are far more pros than cons to being classically trained.
So what are they?
Keep reading to find out. I’ll show you the main pitfalls to watch out for when learning traditional Irish music. You’ll learn the nuances and stylistic elements to be mindful of and I’ll provide some handy tips and tricks for learning traditional Irish music. I’ll also dispel the common misconceptions about both disciplines.
You’ll be an authentic trad musician in no time.
The Quick Answer
Once you are prepared to listen and learn, there’s nothing holding you back:
- Learn to listen, and most importantly, learn to swing.
- Go to as many trad sessions as you can.
- Immerse yourself as much as possible in traditional Irish music.
Understanding the Genre
If you’ve listened to a life changing trad album for the first time and decided you want to make the switch to traditional Irish music, great. Now go listen to at least ten more albums so you have a better understanding of the music before you begin.
Find out who the masters of your chosen instrument are and listen to their music. Identify the elements of their playing that sound foreign to you. These will be the aspects that will need the most attention.
Listening is so important and something you can never do too much of. Immersing yourself in the tradition through listening will be of massive benefit to both your learning and playing. It’s also one of the least challenging and most enjoyable parts of learning a new instrument or genre of music.
Classically trained musicians typically have excellent technique. Whether it comes to posture, holding the instrument or the technicalities of playing. None of this will be a hindrance to your learning or playing.
Just know that when you go to a session, you’ll see people holding their instruments in weird and wonderful ways. This is particularly true for flute and fiddle players.
You’ll see flutes resting on shoulders, and fiddles held with a flat palm against the neck. You might not want to look too closely at the bow holds either.
Personally, I’m a fan of good posture. It leads to less injuries further down the line. That being said, some of the greatest traditional Irish musicians hold their instruments the ‘wrong’ way and succeed in producing a beautiful sound.
When it comes to playing, there are certain musical techniques that don’t translate well from classical music to Irish music and should be used sparingly.
Vibrato is achieved by a different method on the Irish flute than on the classical flute for example. To learn more about this, take a look at my helpful blog post: Switching from Classical Flute to Irish Flute.
Don’t worry too much about these small differences though. A good teacher will soon set you straight. Which brings me to my next piece of advice…
Find the Right Teacher
Where’s the best place to find a teacher?
I always recommend starting with your local Comhaltas branch. Comhaltas Ceoltoirí Éireann is the Irish national organisation responsible for the preservation and promotion of traditional Irish music, song and dance.
These days however, they have branches throughout the world, making them very much a global operation.
If there’s no Comhaltas branch near you, I would still recommend contacting them as they may be able to recommend a musician who teaches in your area.
I know you might be thinking ‘Do I really need a teacher? Can’t I just teach myself?’.
You could try. You might even succeed. But, you might also miss out on the nuances and subtle stylistic differences that set traditional irish music apart.
A good teacher will set you on the right path and offer invaluable guidance and expertise. Lessons are a worthy investment that will equip you with all the necessary skills to take your playing to the next level.
Next, make sure that your teacher understands you’re already a fully functioning musician in your own right. You may need a little fine tuning. But as a classically trained musician (unless you’re learning a new instrument), you already know the basics.
This means your teacher can start to focus on playing style and the intricacies of the music right from the beginning.
If you’re struggling to find a teacher local to you, don’t despair! With online learning becoming so prolific, it’s easy to find a teacher these days who can carry out lessons via Skype or Zoom.
There’s also an abundance of pre-recorded courses available online for almost every traditional Irish instrument. They’re really handy if you can’t get hold of a teacher. They’re portable, you can access them whenever suits you and you can slow them down or stop and repeat tricky parts whenever you need to, so you don’t miss anything.
Most classical musicians already have great aural skills in many ways. To learn Irish music you may need to retrain your ear slightly.
Many tunes are taught ‘by ear’ – in other words, aurally.
Here’s how it usually works in a lesson format:
- Your teacher will play the tune through in its entirety to give you a feel for it and to allow you to absorb the melody.
- Starting from the beginning, your teacher will play the tune at a slower pace, phrase by phrase.
- You will be expected to play back the phrase as you hear it in a call and answer style.
Don’t panic if this sounds daunting. Your teacher will break the tune into manageable chunks and work at a pace that suits you. You can (and will) practice and improve your aural skills.
Eventually you’ll be picking tunes up by ear at a session without having to slow anything down at all!
Traditional Irish musicians are not musically illiterate. Many trad musicians can and do read sheet music. We just don’t use it for performance purposes.
There are many handy tips available to help with memorising tunes. Listen to the melody repeatedly, but most importantly, practice, practice, practice. The muscle memory in your hands and fingers will work wonders!
Many teachers are also happy to use sheet music notation as a teaching aid. You don’t have to learn by ear all the time. Yes, you should always be listening to recordings as a guide. But no, you won’t always have to learn by ear.
The ability to learn by ear is an incredibly useful skill to have however, and one well worth honing. But you won’t be left in the dark if you struggle with this a little at the beginning.
Music Notation Interpretation
You may struggle slightly if you’re attempting to play a traditional Irish jig or reel directly from the sheet music notation however.
Traditional Irish music has an unwritten swing which can vary according to each regional style.
This swing exists in jigs and reels alike but you will never see it notated. That’s why listening to the music is so important. Only then will you understand the rhythm and phrasing of a tune, as well as where to place the accents.
While the signature ‘dotted’ rhythm of hornpipes is usually easier to identify on a page, even this notated rhythm is nuanced.
Some classical players can struggle with understanding the swing and natural rhythm of tunes. It’s not that different to jazz or blues. You just need to listen and feel the groove.
Another aspect of traditional Irish music playing that you won’t learn from sheet music notation is the use of melodic variations. It’s rare that you’d hear the melody of a tune performed the same way twice in a row.
Improvisation is a musical skill that some classical players may not be quite as used to. This one really depends on individual musical experience. But, like all skills, it’s one that can be practiced and perfected with time.
How can you practice your improv skills? I’m aware I’m starting to sound like a broken record here, but listening to recordings will give you all the inspiration you need.
Simply try playing along to your favourite tracks. Try to play something different each time, even if it’s just something small. Change the duration of a note. Play a different pitch or note in place of another. Use a different form of ornamentation. Then gradually build all of these ideas up together.
Sometimes ideas will work. Sometimes they won’t. Trial and error really is the best way to learn!
I sometimes hear trad musicians claim that classical musicians just can’t feel the music in the same way. I heartily disagree.
Any talented musician who is in touch with the music on an emotional level can play expressively. Listen to any classically trained pianist play a Chopin nocturne and try to tell me they don’t understand musical expression. This is an unfair and unfounded claim.
For most musicians, the sheer enjoyment of making music with others is so evident when they play, that musical expression is not a worry. The infectious energy of traditional Irish music creates such joy in those who play it.
Slow airs or laments are tunes that truly allow musical expression to shine.
Airs are more than a beautiful, haunting melody. The most popular Irish slow airs are usually taken from the melodies of well known sean nós songs.
The best way to learn a slow air on your instrument is to listen to it being sung first. Try to match the singer’s phrasing on your own instrument. Find a copy of the lyrics and follow along as you listen to the placement of the words.These are all important aspects that should influence your instrumental playing.
The lyrics of the song, and the singer’s breath dictate the phrasing, while the overall text or message of the song will dictate the mood. It’s important to know and understand the history and subject matter of the air or song.
We’re not exactly a nation that’s known for our uplifting ballads. More often than not, the subject matter is heartache, unrequited love, banishment or death. This is important to keep in mind when attempting to play any slow air.
Have a listen to these two versions of the beautiful air Amhrán na Leabhair, sung here by sean nós singer, Seosaimhín Ní Bheaglaíoch:
Next, played on the Irish wooden flute by Conal Ó Gráda. It’s clear Conal understands the subject matter of the text and has listened to the phrasing as performed by an experienced sean nós singer:
The Right Instrument
While some instruments, such as the piano or violin, are universal and can be used to play any genre of music, certain other instruments are specific to traditional Irish music.
If you’re a classically trained flautist for example, I would highly recommend investing in an Irish wooden flute, rather than attempting to learn to play Irish music on your Boehm system flute. It can be done, but for that authentic Irish sound, a wooden flute is best.
Alternatively, you may have your eye on learning a brand new instrument entirely. If that’s the case, then you’ve definitely come to the right place.
McNeela Instruments has been specialising in Traditional Irish Musical Instruments since 1979, so you know you’re in good hands.
The Next Step
Whether you’re looking to re-learn on your current instrument or take up a new one, we have something for everyone. Every good musician needs a good instrument in hand.
With a new instrument in hand and this new information in your head, you’re already well on your way to becoming a fully fledged traditional Irish musician – no one need ever know otherwise!