Updated: Mar 18, 2020
It’s St. Patrick’s Day! What better way to spend time at home than with Kirsten Allstaff and Jon O’Connell from the Online Academy of Irish Music? I signed up for OAIM over a year ago to learn Irish songs on the penny whistle. Kirsten is an expert at penny whistle who teaches all levels. My Irish friend Padraig gave me a penny whistle a few years ago, but I didn’t make real progress on it until I started lessons with Kirsten.
The thing about Irish music is that the interesting parts of the technique are not notated. Kirsten shows how a tune is actually performed, which sounds quite different from the notated version. Each performer has their own style and ornamentations, so there is a lot of latitude to improvise after you know what you’re doing. There are also many conventions, such as which tunes typically are performed together as a medley, and what parts of tunes get repeated, and in what order. Being able to have a video lesson is critical to learning the art.
Earlier this year, I added lessons from Jon O’Connell to learn Irish pub tunes on guitar. I hadn’t picked up my guitar in awhile, so I wanted to start with something that would get my fingers limbered up playing chords. Pub playing is a lot easier than other venues, because of the amount of drinking that goes on and the volume of singing that takes place over the instruments. Jon commented that his versions might differ from recorded versions because his versions are suited for the pub environment.
The Irish Session, Virtually
Irish music is very social. At its heart is the session. People gather informally in pubs, not only in Ireland, but in the USA and other parts of the world. There are sessions geared to all, beginners included, and then some geared to expert players.
I was getting up the nerve to attend a local session when the Governor ordered “shelter-in-place.” One of the benefits of OAIM is their virtual sessions. Those of us who can’t make it to a physical pub can choose to play with a handful of musicians from OAIM. They recorded lots of tunes in an actual pub. The recording provides a countdown to make it easy to jump in.
Jumping in to a session assumes that you are able to play at the lickety-split speed of the Irish. Fortunately OAIM offers an alternative for those not yet up to speed—Play Along Backing Tracks. You get to choose the tune, the jam speed (as slow as 50%), and whether you want to hear the melody or accompaniment, or both together.
What Am I Learning?
Jon is teaching me that a lot of Irish have spent time pining away for one thing or another, especially those who left their homeland, such as depicted in the songs Spancil Hill, The Lakes of Pontchartrain, and Galway Bay. Other song topics include spousal betrayal (Whiskey in the Jar), revolution and rebellion (The Foggy Dew), where sailors go to die (Fiddler’s Green), drinking songs (The Wild Rover), and classics like Will You Go Lassie Go, The Spanish Lady, and Ewan McColl’s Dirty Old Town. I have ten songs in all that I’m working on with Jon.
Unlike Jon, Kirsten doesn’t focus on the history of a tune. She instead shows how to add slides, cuts, rolls, and other ornamentation to the tunes she teaches. She also places a great emphasis on learning by watching her fingers. I’ve learned slip jigs, polkas, and reels. I’ve also learned that many of these tunes are difficult for me to pronounce, like Na Ceannabhain Bhána and Si Bheag Si Mhor. Other Irish tune titles, like I Buried My Wife And Danced On Top Of Her, are not only easy to pronounce, but easy to figure out what the topic is.
Want to Learn?
OAIM offers lessons on 14 instruments plus voice. If you don’t own an instrument, you can get started learning to sing Irish tunes. It’s a great way to invite a bit of Ireland into your home and make sheltering in place more pleasant.