News

THE EFFECT OF CLASSICAL VIOLIN TECHNIQUE ON THE WORLD OF IRISH TRADITIONAL MUSIC – by Benedict Morris

THE EFFECT OF CLASSICAL VIOLIN TECHNIQUE ON THE WORLD OF IRISH TRADITIONAL MUSIC – by Benedict Morris

Irish traditional (trad) music is an engrained part of Irish culture. All over the world, where there is an Irish contingent or presence, there will always be music not too far away. We’ve seen so many amazing bands such as Planxty, The Gloaming, De Dannan all come from trad circles and which has become some of our most loved music. In recent times though, there has been a rise in the number of classical instrumentalists (in particular violinists) who play trad and bring with them all the knowledge and technique that comes with learning classical music and classical violin. By transferring all the technicalities that come with studying classical music into Irish traditional music, it has a lot of different effects on the way trad music is played, taught and perceived. So I’ve gone through various aspects such as contrast in styles, what is actually a ‘good technique’, and many others, as well as my own insight as a classically trained violinist in the trad world, to see what place it has in the world of Irish trad.

The origins of Irish Traditional music began almost 2,000 years ago when the Celts first arrived on Irish soil. It was initially an aural tradition; melodies and tunes would be shared around by ear, passed along from generation to generation up until 1762 when the first written collection of Irish music first appeared. This idea of an aural tradition is still kept up in Irish trad teaching today, led by the organisation Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. Comhaltas are the ‘foremost movement in preserving and promoting Irish traditional music’ and from growing up in a ‘branch’ of the organisation in Scotland, I have personally experienced the great teaching and promotional work that Comhaltas do, spreading Irish music all across Ireland and the world. Having been brought up in Comhaltas for 16 years, the idea of ‘preserving’ the music and culture is a huge part of their teaching, and classical violin technique training is potentially an aspect that opposes that idea. Through this idea of preservation, Comhaltas have successfully established hundreds of ‘branches’ around the world from Ireland to the U.K, from Japan to the USA and Canada. Within these branches where Irish music is taught, the idea of the aural tradition is still very much alive with young children from the age of 5 are taught tunes and melodies by ear. This training allows children to be able to remember hundreds of tunes, not needing music to be able to play them when at a music session or performing them at a concert. This major aspect of traditional music is possibly the strongest argument not to incorporate an alternative way of teaching into the Irish tradition. Comhaltas over the 70 years since they were founded have done an incredible job of spreading Irish music and culture globally. The Fleadh Cheoil Na Éireann, the biggest festival in the world celebrating Irish traditional music which was started by Comhaltas now has over half a million people going each year with around 2,000 musicians competing in competitions and thousands more travelling from far and wide simply to come and play music for the week. All this has been achieved through their own teaching, focusing on the ‘preservation’ of the tradition with ideas dating back 2,000 years still being taught today. They have been extremely successful in their work and it seems as if they will continue to do so. Why in that case change a fundamental part of the teaching to incorporate a classical technique when they have been so successful without it.

One master fiddle player from Co. Clare, Martin Hayes, is known and loved all around the world by trad music fans and musicians alike because of his unmistakable sound and the feeling that he puts across when he plays the fiddle. Growing up in Maghera, Co. Clare, Martin was taught by his father P.J and won 6 All Ireland fiddle competitions, including 2 consecutive Senior Fiddle All Ireland’s. Despite not being classically trained and having a flat palm against the neck of the fiddle (what some might say is ‘bad technique’) he is considered one of the best Irish fiddle players ever to pick up the instrument. His playing is derived from feeling and emotion and it is that which has made him so successful. In an interview with Irish comedian, actor and presenter Tommy Tiernan, Martin talks about where his music comes from.

“In the course of a few minutes, you can only just show a tiny snippet… in the course of an evening of music it’s a journey through feelings, it’s a journey through ecstatic expression, to pure energy and raw joy and wildness, and delicacy and sweetness and sadness… The big thing for me in Irish music was realising that in fact it’s a complete musical language and the full variety of expression can be expressed through that…almost all these musicians, humble and unheard of musicians, had glorious moments of joy and experience and so for me, I collected these moments in my memory and decided those are the moments that define the music. That’s what I’ve been attempting to do most of my life.” – Martin Hayes

Hayes describes Irish trad here as a ‘musical language’. It would be incorrect to suggest that Irish traditional music is the only genre that has its own language; all styles and genres of music have their own ‘language’ in their own right. However just as a Scottish person might not know how to speak French, or a Spanish person might not know how to speak German, a classical violinist might not be able to understand the language of Irish traditional music. Despite having the best foundations of technical violin playing, that often is not directly transferrable into trad music. Yes, all the technicalities will be present and yes, they will make a lovely sound, but the feeling and essence of the music and what it stands for and what it makes you and those around you feel, is rarely there. Martin Hayes like most professional trad musicians, grew up surrounded by this feeling; they could walk into any pub and play with their friends week in week out and experience this ‘ecstatic expression’ every time they picked up their instrument. It’s through taking those experiences and translating them through their playing to the audience that creates the best musicians and provides the best performances. A classically trained violinist would not typically have those experiences at hand to convey to a trad audience. While they might have many chamber and orchestral rehearsals and performances under their belt, it is indeed a different ‘language’ and a different musical experience which is not transferable into Irish traditional music.

I have personally been playing Irish traditional music since I was 5 years of age, 2 years before I started studying classical violin. While growing up in that circle of music, I noticed a common denominator between many fiddle players that I learned alongside with or saw at a live performance. When looking at many Irish traditional fiddle players, whether it be in a local pub at a session or on a stage at a festival, one common theme amongst them all was a lack of what violinists in the classical world might call ‘good technique’. There are several areas where this lack of technique can manifest such as a flat palm under the neck, flat fingers on the fingerboard, a high right shoulder and a slouched posture to name but a few. The life of a professional trad musician can be extremely demanding. In a busy period, there will be gigs every weekend, lessons to teach and of course their own practice to do when they can fit it in. Because it can be such a high intensity job and they are playing and gigging constantly, the continuous exercise of the many muscles they are using, with incorrect technique and posture this can potentially lead to a lot of damage.

“Once a muscle is being held in an improper position for periods of time and then stressed (as when playing an instrument), trigger points (irritable spots within the muscle) and taught bands of tissue begin to form. These structural changes can create decreased blood flow to the muscle and misalignment of muscles creating a compromise of the muscle’s performance. “Tight” muscles can also create a strain on the joints of the neck, back, shoulder, and elbow causing pain in these areas as well.” – Piersol

As shown above, given the unnatural position of the hand when playing the fiddle as well as the relentless amount of hours playing it, it can just take one muscle to be put under stress for damage to occur. Bad habits such as having a high right shoulder can lead to serious muscular problems that can easily come back in several years’ time in their career which could cause severe pain and potentially mean retirement from performing. This is undoubtedly an area where having a good classical violin technique impacts positively on the world of Irish trad music. By having a solid foundation in good technique as a classical musician, it can be taught to children from a really young age which greatly reduces the risk of muscle problems if they go into the profession, making sure they have the best chance at a healthy and injury free career.

In addition, many studies have been conducted all over the world which aim to show the impact of posture on the development and health of a musician. One study, conducted by ‘Healing Arts Studios’, concluded these results from musicians who had issues with pain with relation to Playing Related Musculoskeletal Disorders (PRMD’s) and Repetitive Stress Injuries (RSI’s):

Playing Related Musculoskeletal Disorders (PRMD’s):

  • 75% of players suffered from finger and/or hand pain
  • Of those, 30% had tendonitis; 20% muscle problems
  • 10% joint disorders, 15% neurological disorders, 25% had elbow and forearm disorders

The statistics above are evident of the extent of the problems due to incorrect technique. The majority of people in this study had been suffering from pain in the hands and fingers which is not least surprising as these are the main areas of the body that are exercised the most when playing an instrument. For 30% of people to have tendonitis just shows how an incorrect technique and posture can have a devastating effect on the careers and lives of musicians. By implementing the teaching of a good classical technique into Irish traditional music, the risk factor of having finger and hand pain to this extent greatly diminishes. Because of the extremely busy nature of playing music as a profession, if good technique was taught from the beginning of a musician’s study, it would greatly increase the career length of professional musicians allowing for more years to continue to perform and teach. On a simply health based level, I believe that teaching classical technique across the board in Irish traditional music is something that should be implemented as soon as possible. A course of action to prevent pain or injury to any musician in the industry, is one that I believe should be taken at all costs. While all of these different arguments discussed above regarding the impact of classical technique on Irish traditional music are formed through research and determination, I feel that, because my own musical learning and subsequent career have been formed from both classical violin technique and trad, my personal experience of 16 years is of at least some value to this discussion.

When I first picked up the fiddle at my local Irish music branch St. Patrick’s Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (CCE), I picked up several bad habits that once I began classical lessons some of which I found very hard to get rid of. From a flat palm under the neck of the instrument, to a straight and stiff little finger in my bow grip, little by little these small inaccuracies in my technique started occurring simply because I was not taught any technique. Of course, there are several schools of ideology focusing on different things. American violin virtuoso, Aaron Rosand illustrates his idea of a correct standing posture for example as he writes: “Remember that the violin rests on your left side and is the reason for the principle weight on that side for balance. Do not spread your legs too far apart. Twelve to fourteen inches is enough to give you proper balance. Keep your knees flexed, do not stiffen, and your right leg must be relaxed.” (Rosand, 2017). When I talk about having a good technique, I do not mean specifically one school of teaching however; I simply mean to illustrate that by having a solid foundation of posture as well as right and left hand hold on the instrument, it provides the musician a good base from which to create any sound they want to make, or play any genre of music in fact that they want to play.

For many children growing up learning and playing trad in Ireland especially, whether it be as part of one of the hundred Comhaltas branches or self taught, a solid instruction on how to hold and command the instrument immediately opens so many more doors for progression. I believe once that solid foundation of technique is in place, the musician is in a position to be able to learn to play anything they want on that instrument. Implementing a form of classical technique in Irish traditional music has the potential to significantly add to the number of incredible professional musicians that are currently performing. Currently, there are a lot of people who are turned off by playing Irish music professionally because they think it cannot be done; it’s not a viable option for them, however even with this small change of introducing the teaching of classical technique to children learning trad, I believe it will boost the numbers of professional fiddle players especially, as well as shoot Irish culture which is internationally celebrated already, further up into the sky.

Since I began studying at the Junior programme at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in 2009 and subsequently started on the BMus Performance degree at RCS in 2015, I have learned so many things about classical violin playing. Through chamber, orchestral and solo lessons and rehearsals I have acquired a lot of information and learned so many new skills with regard to the music as well the instrument that I play. It is something that I will keep with me for the rest of my career and continue to develop for the rest of my life whatever I do in my performing career. When I started gigging Irish music at 16, and ever since then I have noticed how massively the classical technique and tuition has impacted my traditional playing. Being able to examine my own trad playing and use all of the knowledge I have gained from RCS has become invaluable. Self learning is not something that is common in the traditional music world. The culture surrounding Irish traditional music stems from playing with friends or in the pub at a session where you’re there to make music which of course is the whole point but when it comes to performing professionally it becomes a different story. In the trad world, I feel as if it can become easy to slip into the habit of playing the same thing over and over without critiquing ones playing or sound they are making. I have found personally that I am constantly at a battle with myself to question my own playing, the sound I am making, the colours I am trying to express. By applying techniques such as how much bow speed, tilt, pressure, elbow angle that I incorporate, as well as countless others, I am able to critically inform my own playing and with practice, improve the traditional music tunes (just 32 bars most of them) that I play. This is something in my musicianship which I find invaluable and something I think can be taught much more across the traditional music genre rather than just the more ‘standard’ genres such as classical, jazz etc. It’s an aspect of classical tuition that, in my own experience, has enabled me to grow hugely as a musician and I believe it can have the same effect on musicians that play Irish music also.

In January 2019, while still maintaining this critical self learning throughout my time studying on the classical degree programme as well as recording and performing my own Irish traditional music, I was extremely honoured to have won the BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year award at the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow. Within my 15-minute set, I played various contemporary/newly composed trad tunes (not common in the session scene) written by some of the scene’s most esteemed composers. ‘Melter’, a composition by Mike Vass was written and recorded originally on guitar which meant for me to play it on the fiddle, required a degree of position work up the neck of the instrument. The award winning album ‘Decemberwell’ which this tune features on, is a well known tune to hear however next to no musicians know it to play because it wavers from standard first position playing on the fiddle. It was only due to my technique and familiarity with the geography of the fingerboard that allowed me to learn the melody in the first place. The over-familiarity of first position playing on the fiddle in traditional music, using it as the only way to play is, in my opinion, the most evident flaw of trad fiddle teaching and playing. Not only is there so many more notes and colours that the violin has to offer that go unused, but there are well known tunes that no fiddle player attempts to learn because it goes further than 1st position. If the same technique was taught to traditional fiddle players that is taught in the classical world, then fiddle players would not be limited to what tunes they can and cannot play. It would also lead to more compositions on the fiddle, exploring the different notes and colours that would ordinarily untouched. Of course Comhaltas might differ in this. As discussed earlier, their job as preservers of the tradition would see this as harming the music and straying from the origins of the music and culture. There is a well known joke which goes,

  • “How many Comhaltas officials does it take to change a light-bulb?”
  • “Change?!”

I think this little joke sums up well the attitude towards evolution from the perspective of Comhaltas. All music, whether it be trad, classical or any other genre, in order to stay alive has to evolve and change. While the preservation of Irish music is of course important, if it is not allowed to evolve as well then it has the potential to die out completely. Incorporating classical violin technique into Irish traditional music is an evolution that can make much more of a positive impact than a negative one. By teaching young fiddle players good technique and teaching how to navigate the geography of the instrument it will open up so many more melodies to be played and composed in the music. Furthermore, with this increase in the number of tunes and people who have the technical foundation to play them, more and more people will learn to play traditional music giving the whole genre a massive boost globally. Throughout this article, I have explored above many of the different ways in which classical violin technique can have different effects on Irish traditional music. Beginning with the origins of traditional music and the alignment it has with the teaching of trad by Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, we can see why a change to the current teaching may not have a positive impact. Due to their success in promoting Irish culture, music and language across the globe, a change of teaching and belief on their behalf would not be a logistical move. However, when faced with the categorical evidence regarding injuries and the number of musicians that experience pain in their hands and fingers which potentially can result in pain for life and early retirement, I believe it cannot be ignored any longer. Implementing classical violin technique into Irish traditional music will result in less risk of injury for musicians, allowing them to play and perform for longer. Having a ‘poor’ technique simply because that is how the instrument was played when the tradition was founded in simply not a good enough reason to continue teaching to ‘preserve’ the tradition. A musician’s health should be at the top of the list when it comes to teaching ideologies, not tradition. As well as this, when talking about strictly the violin, Irish traditional music is possibly the only genre that doesn’t use the instrument to its full potential. In classical playing, the full tonal and colour range of the instrument is shown in a lot of music written for it. I believe that if the same technique was taught to trad fiddle students that is taught to classical violin students particularly in terms of bow control and geography of the violin, the range for exploration in traditional music could lead to some more amazing pieces like the Mike Vass composition ‘Melter’. To not use the instrument to its full extent is something that the world of Irish music is definitely missing out on. While the teaching and performing of the fiddle in Irish traditional music has come a long way and is recognised and adored throughout the world, there is no doubt places for it to develop and implementing a classical technique is as good a place to start as any.