Published Feb. 5, 2008
I renewed a resolution this year that I made two years ago: I resolved to practice music every day. Non-musicians probably don’t understand the incredible amount of practice that leads to facility on an instrument. A prospective musician, and I say prospective because it can be weeks before he makes music and months or years before he makes musical music, devotes an inordinate amount of time to learning the basics just so what he does can be called music. Music takes practice, preferably daily, to maintain one’s level of playing and more practice to improve. I knew that, but I still wasn’t practicing, and the Celtic music world was passing me by.
I played violin, mandolin and mandola in a Celtic group in the 1990s. We played at occasional festivals and were accomplished enough to be respected by many of our peers. When the band disbanded, I took a needed break from solo and band practices and the trips to gigs, years passed, and one day it occurred to me that I had become an outsider. I felt as if I were looking into one of those snow globes at a Celtic music scene that I had once inhabited and could not re-enter.
I resolved to get involved again, but my biggest obstacles were my rusty skills and my lack of reels. Reels are the standard by which Celtic instrumentalists are judged. They are fast, driving and littered with notes like a January snowstorm. A Celtic instrumentalist isn’t complete without reels, but I had never mastered their drive and complexity. As a friend once wrote, I had an uneasy truce with reels.
So this year I set myself to mastering reels and reconditioning my violin skills for the second time, the first being in 2006 after attending an Irish music session where I had trouble holding the bow so decrepit had my playing become. I stuck with my resolution through much of 2006, practicing violin a half hour every night no matter my fatigue, but it broke down in October when my schedule got busy, and once broken that regimen was never resumed. I wasn’t that bumbling this year, but I was certainly out of shape, and I wasn’t learning reels by wishing them into my repertoire. It was time to practice, every day.
Daily practice is difficult when I work full time. Playing violin after working all day, when I would rather put my feet up and read, requires discipline and drive. That’s where the resolution comes in — I hate to miss a day. Once I fixed on daily practice, I listed practice on each day’s to-do list and marked in my appointment book afterward that I had practiced.
My approach to reels uses a combination of listening and books. Books help explain technique but can’t teach the sound of the Irish style, which comes only by listening. Some cities, especially New York and Chicago, have strong enclaves of Irish descendants that continue the tradition, but growing up in a generic Ohio city meant I wasn’t exposed to Celtic music in my youth, and the traditional Irish sound was at first foreign to me. I was more familiar with American country and bluegrass and had played classical violin in high school. I had to learn new bowing patterns and left-hand fingerings to make my violin sound Irish, and I did well on jigs, but I struggled with reels and just couldn’t grasp them. I figured that because Irish music wasn’t part of my childhood I would never understand reels, but classical music wasn’t part of my earliest years either and I learned it, through intense private lessons and repeated exposure. So overcoming those mental obstacles, I started with the first step: listening. I put Irish fiddle CDs in my car and on my computer. At the same time, I began studying reels intensively and extensively, putting in the time on Irish music that I expended on classical studies in my youth.
I made one change this year. Two years ago I missed my mandolins when I focused exclusively on violin, and they missed me, sitting in their cases feeling neglected, so this year I practice in a three-day rotation of mandolin, mandola and violin. That allows practice and improvement on each instrument and provides the variety I crave. My goal is to regain and surpass my skills of years past and to hear an Irishman say, “Tá sé ag seinm go maith” — he is playing well.