Keeping warm when playing outside

This weekend we had our first truly chilly gig of the season. In this part of Ontario, fall really starts after the labour day weekend. We may have a few balmy days left, but the leaves are already starting to turn, and the past few nights have fallen into the single digits (Celcius). Saturday definitely felt like fall, cool, dry and breezy. Of course, couples about to be married being the paragons of common sense and logic (hah!), every single one of our September gigs (and one October one!) are scheduled to be outside. And you know brides – it pretty much has to be hailing or flashing with lightning and pouring for them to finally give in and let it be inside.

We thought we had enough layers – thick skirts, long sleeved shirts, sweaters. Yes, sweaters – no matter how fancy the bridal party is, if they expect musicians to perform outside by the lake at this time of year, they get to deal with sweaters. Our trio long ago settled on a classic black-and-white look (after failing miserably to come up with some kind of colourful or interesting theme that would suit all of us and still look professional), so at least our sweaters are all nice, classy knit white sweaters that pretty much match.

Our flutist came prepared, as always, complete with long johns. But the day was deceptive; as we were leaving, the sun was shining, the air was arm, and our flutist was already determining she’d probably have to shed most of her layers. The cello player and I decided to throw caution to the wind and go as we were without backup layers or coats. By the end of the gig, our flutist was cozy and comfortable, and the cello player and I were shivering and chilled right through. Our cellist actually had to go sit in the car for about ten minutes before the second half of the gig started, in order to warm up.

One thing I did have, which I highly recommend, is a pair of Thinsulate gloves. They live in the pocket of my harp case year round, along with the spare tuner and some extra business cards. They’re thin and white, and actually meant to function more like liners inside of regular gloves or mits. The best part is, I can play while wearing them. The trick for being able to play in gloves is something any busker knows very well – you take a nice sharp pair of scissors and cut the fingertips out. Another nice thing about these gloves/liners, is that since they’re white they don’t clash with our gig outfits. Without them, there have been some gigs where I’d have been reduced to playing a clumsy ham-fisted bass line (technically doable in a trio, but disastrous if playing solo.)

Which brings us to gig rule #3 – if it’s after Labour Day, and it’s outside, always bring more layers than you think you need. You can always take stuff off, but you can’t put it on if it ain’t there. Next weekend, it’ll by tights and undershirts and extra sweaters for sure.

Yes, of course you can always refuse to play if the weather conditions are truly terrible. But we have become very stoic over the years, and will try to soldier on if at all possible. We live in a small community, where reputation is key, and we’re really reluctant to put our rep in danger by completely refusing to play (unless it’s actively raining or snowing – then they would be out of luck, end of story.)

Gig Story #1, Part Two – You can never predict the weather

Oops, it really has been a while since the last post, hasn’t it. Well, I can honestly say that I was quite busy, mostly with harping. As of now we’ve hit our busiest 6-week stretch, gig wise. Mostly on weekends, but on weekdays I’m up before the dawn to drive my boo to work, and lots of other things have been clamouring for my attention. But that’s poor excuse! So here we go, part two of my gig woes from last weekend.

Saturday was fun with a golf cart; Sunday turned into fun with weather. To start with, we were breathing a sigh of relief on the drive in, not in spite of, but because it was pouring buckets. You see, one of the worst things for a musician booked to play outdoors is if the weather is iffy. If nature isn’t actively throwing rain or lightning down at you, the couple will always choose to be outdoors anyhow – no matter how dark the sky is, no matter how the wind doth blow. Good conditions are: sunny (as long as there’s some hint of shade), or driving rain (then there’s no doubt about it being inside). That kind of gentle grey day, where the sky looks dim but benign and there’s no scent of rain in the air, can be okay too, since it’s often better than baking in the sun.

This was not an iffy day. Our windshield wipers were on full, tires splashing through puddles. That is, until we got to our destination. Our unease began to curdle in our tummies as we realized, the rain had not got this far yet. The sky was rolling with dark, foreboding clouds, the wind was howling – but no rain yet. When we pulled up to the main building, sure enough, we could see through the trees, a whole bunch of white chairs, set up down in a quaint little valley.


Celtic Jams, Sessions & Ceilis (Part 2)

Time Signatures for Dance Tunes & Celtic Music

One thing that can really help find the beat in Celtic music is to know your time signatures. This applies to playing for English Country Dancers as well. In Celtic music, time signatures are often associated with a particular type of dance, which helps to inform how Celtic players will approach them. All time signatures each have their own unique rhythmic feel. The treatment of them in dance tunes can be notably different, however, from how they are treated in, for example, classical music. The following are some of the most common examples.

  • Jig = 6/8, usually two groups of three eighth-notes, with more emphasis on the first note of each group (so, “ONE two three, TWO two three, etc.), played semi-legato, e.g. DA-ya-da, DA-ya-da. Note that Irish whistle and flute players will often tongue very little if at all, and will instead use ornaments to emphasize certain beats and add texture and colour
  • Slip Jig = 9/8, usually three groups of three eighth-notes
  • Reel = 4/4, often played quite quickly, with emphasis on the first note; tends to be played semi-legato, i.e. neither separated nor slurred, e.g. DA-ya-da-da, DA-ya-da-da
  • Polka = 2/4 (or 4/4), more detached than a reel, with an unmistakable ONE-two ONE-two feel
  • Hornpipe = usually 4/4, often written in even eighth-notes, but meant to be played more like dotted-eighth-sixteenths; if you play them too much like dotted-eighth-sixteenths it will sound stilted, so they are usually played with a bit of a swing
  • Waltz = 3/4 or 6/8; exactly like waltzes the world over, except that the 6/8 “waltzes” (often O’Carolan tunes and the like composed before the waltz as a dance was invented) may move a little more quickly or have a bit more of a lilt to them
  • March = 2/4 or 3/4, depending on the rhythm – it will be obvious by the regular “walking beat” feel to it

There are other forms in Celtic music as well, which don’t necessarily fit into a particular time signature, for example:

  • Air = usually a slower piece; this is one of the few that may be treated “tempo rubato”, or more freely with regards to rhythm and timing; often it is based on a song, and thus played in a very lyrical fashion
  • Set Dance = often a longer piece, designed to accompany a particular dance; the musical cues will tell the dancers which part is coming up next, so it’s important to know exactly how many times to play each part through, and in what order

Celtic tunes are often divided into 2 or 3 parts – these will usually be referred to by the letters A, B, C, etc. (A being the first part, and so on). So if someone says, “let’s start again at the B part”, they mean to start at the beginning of the second section of the piece. Usually one or more of the parts is repeated (so some common patterns would be: AABB, ABB, AAB, etc.)

The best way to get the feel for Celtic music is to listen to it – often! Get yourself a handful of CD’s, preferably from different groups, different regions, different instruments. Listen to fast dance tunes, slow airs, songs, whatever you can find. Best of all, attend as many live performances as you can. Listen in on jams and sessions in your area. Even excellent sight readers will not be able to capture the “feel” of Celtic music without hearing it first.

Celtic Jams, Sessions, & Ceilis (part 1)

Sorry for the long wait between posts, I was away all this weekend visiting with old friends.

Since so many harpists are fans of Celtic music, a lot of them are interested in jams and ceilis – what they are, how a harpist can participate, and so on. So this will be the first in a series of posts about that very topic. I’ve already got a fairly detailed look at Celtic Jams and Sessions up on the Celtic Harp Page, but I will go into each in a bit more depth here. To start with….

What are Celtic jams, sessions (or “sesiuns”) and ceilis (or ceilidhes)? Aren’t they all the same thing?

Some people use the terms interchangeably (you’ve probably heard the term “jam session”), however some trad musicians distinguish between the various terms. To most of the trad musicians I know, a jam is more of a free-for-all, where new people may show up not already knowing the tunes, but willing to just pick out chords and such on the fly. Often someone will suggest (i.e. shout out) a tune or set, and launch right into it, and everyone who wants to join in does. Quiet instruments and beginners might find the pace a bit breathtaking, and may feel overwhelmed at first. Part of the problem is that you don’t always know what to expect – some days you might show up to find you’re competing with three fiddles, two guitars, an accordion and four bodhran players (of varying skill levels). Singers and harp players may only get to be heard while everyone else is taking a beer break. In these cases, it helps to attend a few jams just as observer, and if possible to find someone to write down a list of common tunes for you (if you’re really lucky, you might even get someone to copy some sheet music for you). Generally, jams are part of the true oral tradition, in that you play by ear (memory). However, at our Sunday Celtic Jam here in Peterborough, no one minds if people drag their music stand along, and it’s quite common to see several battered copies of the Fiddler’s FakeBook in use on any given Sunday. It’s usually best to talk to the local jam’s organizer first to get the lay of the land (we’ll be looking at jam/session “etiquette” later on.)

A session (or sessiun), on the other hand, may be somewhat more organized, or even more “elite”. Often it is an established group of players who all know the same tunes, and can play them consistently at or above a certain skill level. Session players may meet regularly to learn new tunes, but when performing are expected to be able to lead or follow without getting lost, and to be familiar with the types of sets typical for that group (e.g., for a reel set, someone may call out a familiar set of reels in G major; a “set” is just several tunes strung together, played one right after the other). If you want to join an established session group, likely there will be a group leader you can talk to. They may send you home with sheet music or a tape or CD to learn from, and expect you to show up at the next session (or practice) with at least some of the tunes already learned (generally, this means by memory – Celtic session musicians do not usually use sheet music for performing, although it may be used for learning the tunes initially). However, some people might refer to any impromptu gathering of musicians as a “session” (there can be other kinds of sessions too – bluegrass, blues, jazz, old-timey tunes, folk music, you name it). As above, it’s good to ask the local organizer or a veteran player if you’re not sure.

A ceili (or ceilidhe) differs notably from a jam or session in that it is often intended to accompany dancing (although some people will use the term “ceili” to mean a jam/session, or even just any party or get-together where music is played – just to confuse the issue!). In some ways, a ceili (the kind for dancing) is similar to a session, but may be even more restrictive in terms of who is allowed to play, and what they’re expected to know. If you want to play for a ceili, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with all the traditional time signatures and tune types – e.g. reel, jig, strathspey, slip jig, polka, waltz, etc. In a Ceili, usually the caller (the person calling out dances) will lead, and give indication to the band what tunes are needed. Often the tunes will be done in sets of 2 to 4 tunes at one time, sometimes in the same key, but often switching keys or going into relative minors or majors of that key. For a harp player, this can be a bit tricky, but usually you can get away with it by using, say, the first (“A”) part of a tune to flip levers, and coming in on the repeat. As a harp, keyboard, or guitar player, if you’re invited to play for a ceili even though you may not know all the tunes, you will be expected to have some proficiency in picking out chord patterns to accompany the tune. If you’re a drummer, you will be expected to know the typical rhythm patters, and you must be precise in your timing, so as not to throw off the dancers or the other musicians. Some local Ceilis happen on a regular basis (e.g. once a month), and are open to any local musician (with outsiders being considered guests; it’s usually best if you’re invited by a local). Just keep in mind, that while at jams you are just there to play music and have fun, at a dance ceili you’re actually performing a function – keeping the dancers happy and energized, as well as pleasing the audience. This doesn’t prevent it from being loads of fun, of course! But they will expect you to be in tune and know your stuff.

Here’s a short jam/session newbie checklist:

1. Know Your Chords – It really, really helps to know how to play basic chords, and to know your key signatures. To practice, FakeBooks or other collections of lead-sheet music (melody line and chord markings) are great. Playing along with CD’s or DVD’s can also be helpful, as it should give you an idea of what it’s like to play with people going full speed.

2. Have a Way to Tune Your Harp in a Loud, Crowded Room – You’ll want to tune your harp perfectly before you go to your local jam, but as we all know harps don’t always want to stay in tune, especially if they’ve gone from house to car to unfamiliar location. It helps to arrive early to let the harp get adjusted to its new environment. For tuning when there’s lots of background noise, bring an electronic tuner and a pickup. Tuning by ear is a great skill to have, but won’t help you much when you can’t hear yourself! If hearing yourself is really an issue (you should at least be able to hear yourself a little while playing), then you might want to ask if it’s okay to bring a small amp. Some groups are okay with this, but in some places it’s completely taboo, so check first!

3. Know Your Local Group – Every regional group operates in its own, unique way. Talk to the organizer, talk to some regular participants. Most regular session players are friendly and helpful, and should be able to tell you all you need to know (such as, what playing level they expect you to be at, how fast it goes, how big the group is, if it’s okay to bring music and/or amplification, and so on).

4. Bring Your Own Stuff to Play! – People actually like taking a break from the rousing jigs and reels to listen to an occasional slow air. Bring a few favourites already memorized, and your audience will usually love it. The fast players can use this as an excuse to grab a beer or go out for a smoke, but you may be surprised at how many people stick around to listen. Harps are enchanting after all, and have an old, rich tradition in Celtic culture.

5. Don’t Give Up! – It may seem fast and furious at first, but don’t worry – if you get good at chording along to tunes, you should be able to start by picking out simple bass lines, then progress to more elabourate chords and rythms, and then on to counter melodies and harmonies. If the regulars don’t mind, you can bring a tape or digital recorder and record each session, then practice playing along at home. If you can find a tune list and sheet music, or if you’re good at picking up stuff by ear, you can gradually learn to play along with the melody lines as well. Consistent fingering helps to play those really fast tunes.

The Ergonomic Harpist

If I were asked to describe my approach to harp technique in one word, it would be “ergonomic”. It’s a term that many people think of being applied to computers and other things normally found around the office: keyboards, chairs, and so on. But it’s also an essential component of playing a musical instrument without doing damage to your health.

Most non-musicians don’t realize what a demanding physical experience playing an instrument can be. But those of us who’ve been doing it for a while know all too well how easy it is to overdo it. My first rule of harping, and probably the only one that I will not yeild on, is this: If it hurts, don’t do it! No matter how accomplished and confident your teacher may seem, they should never force you to do something that causes you pain or noticeable discomfort. Everyone’s hands and bodies are different, and not all techniques work for all people. The two most widely recognized pioneers of harp technique, Salzedo and Grandjany, both had unusually proportioned hands and fingers. What was right for them might not be right for you. Any good technique should be adaptable to different physical shapes and abilities.

I have met one-handed harpists, harpists living with Multiple Sclerosis, and harpists suffering from arthristis. I have taught harpists from as young as eight to as old as sixty-eight, all with different levels of strength and stamina, size of hand, length of fingers, and so on. So if you feel like you may not be “made for the harp”, take heart! Find a teacher willing to be flexible. Keep in mind that “flexible” does not equal “lazy” – you will still have to practice regularly, and be willing to make changes if they will help to improve your playing.

More advice for avoiding injury can be found in the .beginner’s tips section of the Celtic Harp Page. I would also highly recommend checking out Laurie Riley’s books: “The Harper’s Handbook” and “Your Hands, Your Music“. If you’re self-taught, be sure to pick up a good method book or instructional video. However, keep in mind that nothing can replace having a teacher. Teachers can point out your mistakes, provide encouragement, and generally keep you on the right track where books and DVD’s cannot.

If you know of any helpful pages regarding harp technique, ergonomics, repetetive strain injuries, or other related topics, feel free to let us know if the comments, below.