Balancing order and spontaneity in and out of Irish Music

The Bunch of Keys

Balancing order and spontaneity in and out of Irish Music
Balancing order and spontaneity in and out of Irish Music
Episode Trailer

Irish musicians, and writers, and home makers can all benefit by learning some rules and technical skills—and by allowing a little spontaneity and flexibility. But how much great technique do you need? Does that get in the way of the magic? In this episode, Nathan Gourley, Brendan Mulholland, and Sharon Murphy reflect on the alchemy of order and spontaneity: how rule following and rule breaking can make for a great journey; but how a total lack of plan can derail everything.

Find more about the projects discussed in this episode here:
* Brendan’s Online Flute School 
* Brendan’s Recordings
* Nathan’s newest recording with Laura Feddersen


Thank you to everybody for listening. And a special thank you to this month’s underwriters: Michael Taylor, Edward O’Dwyer, Adele Megann, Peter Crimmin, the Irish & Celtic Music Podcast, John Sigler, Randall Semagin, Ron Kral, Isaiah Hall, David Vaughan, Susan Walsh, Matt Jensen, John Ploch, Tom Frederick, Paul DeCamp, Jonathan Duvick, Gerry Corr, Mike Voss, Sean Carroll, Isobel McMahon, Bob Suchor, Finian McCluskey, Rick Rubin, Ken Doyle, Chris Armstrong, Ian Bittle, and Chris Murphy

Episode 77-The Bunch of Keys
Balancing order and spontaneity in and out of Irish Music
This Irish Music Stories episode aired February 29, 2024

* * * * * * *
Speakers, in order of appearance
>> Shannon Heaton: flute player, singer, composer, teacher, and host of Irish Music Stories 

>> Brendan Mulholland: Flute player and teacher from County Antrim

>> Nathan Gourley: Wisconsin born, Boston-based fiddle player

>> Sharon Murphy: Award-winning writer, educator, and academic

>> Nigel Heaton: young announcer for Irish Music Stories

* * * * * * *

>> Shannon: I’m Shannon Heaton. And this is Irish Music Stories. The show about traditional music, and the bigger stories behind it. 

[ Music: “Bó Mhín Na Toitean / The Watchmaker / Humours of Max,” from Mulholland & McCluskey

Artists: Mulholland & McCluskey ]

Like how Irish musicians, and writers, and home makers can all benefit by learning some rules and technical skills. And by allowing a little spontaneity and flexibility. 

But how much great technique do you need? Does that get in the way of the… magic?

>> Brendan: The best musicians that I’ve met in sessions, aren’t technically the best. The best session musicians that I’ve seen are people that make the session work. 

I’ve seen flute player Brendan Mulholland make a session work. He’s fun and social. He can go with the flow. And he’s a great technician. So when he’s teaching—at home in County Antrim, or around Ireland and Europe, or in his online flute School, Brendan is very particular about the mechanics.

>> Brendan: If you practice the technique, every tune you ever play will be better. 

Okay, so if you’ve got a handle on the mechanics of your instrument and the rules of Irish music, you’re well-poised to respond to whatever happens in, say, a music session—if something inappropriate or confusing happens; or if there’s a lot of excitement and the tunes are brisk; or if people are pensive and the tunes are more modal or mournful, you can just roll with it.

Ditto for the writer who tries to convey different moods or types of news… or for the parent managing kids and meals and bills… If you’ve got some systems and skills in place, you can navigate the twists and turns better. You can manage the fluctuations and pay attention to social dynamics. 

Boston-based fiddle player Nathan Gourley also thinks about hardwiring in those mechanics as a path to more freedom and fun.

>> Nathan: Learning all the individual things, and then combining them, and then not thinking about any of that is kind of ultimately one of the goals.

[ Music: “Kitty Got a Clinking Coming From the Fair / Flowers of Red Mill / The Strawberry Blossom,” from Brightly or Darkly

Artists: Nathan Gourley and Laura Feddersen ]

My mom, Sharon Murphy, is another advocate of skills and elements of style. She plays a bit of fiddle and piano, but her field is journalism. She’s practiced and taught rules of good writing, like the ones in the 1918 style guide by William Struck Jr., revised by E.B. White in 1959. Critics aside, it’s still an essential book on the basics. Which needn’t limit creativity if you use it creatively.

>> Sharon: Strunk and White is not necessarily punctuation and capitalization and paragraph structures, so much as how to tell the story. It’s like if you’re going somewhere you use a map. But if you know the rules, then you know how to break them.

In this episode, I’ll speak with Nathan Gourley, Brendan Mulholland, and my mom Sharon Murphy about the alchemy of order and spontaneity. How rule following and rule breaking can make for a great journey. But how a total lack of plan can derail everything.

[ Shannon looks for the keys. “Where are the keys? Where are the keys? ]

All adventures—including Irish music sessions, and news articles and novels can be filled with surprises. And unexpected setbacks.

But there are a few avoidable hurdles.

Like, if you have a bowl in your home where you always keep your house keys, you won’t spend time looking for them when you’re trying to leave the house.

You can spend more time being, say, a musician, or writer, or parent. And less time looking for the keys.


[ Music: “Piano Meditation,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories 

Composer/Artist: Shannon Heaton ]

There’s no reason why you can’t put the keys in a really weird bowl. Maybe it has some weird design—maybe there are ceramic monkeys all over the rim. Maybe it lives on top of the piano, which you’ve moved right near the kitchen, so it’s easier to grab a few notes every time you walk by. 

You got your cool monkey bowl. The unusual place for the piano. That’s whimsical. But it’s also practical. There’s joy and thoughtfulness in this paradigm. Just a little bit of discipline does away with the “where are my keys” song.

It’s really nice to know where the keys are. And to know what key you’re playing in. And to know what tune you’re playing.

[ Music: “The Bunch of Keys,” from Last Night’s Fun

Artist: John Carty ]

Irish dance music is a melodic tradition—it’s a body of MELODIES that people learn and play together. And the goal is to tune in, and match and fit together. 

Like, if we were all trying to sing together and maybe harmonize, we’d really have to know the words and the melody to make it work. Same with the tunes. It’s about knowing the tunes. And there are a lot of ‘em to choose from: 

>> Nathan: It is a communal thing. You don’t want to play tunes that like nobody’s ever heard of all the time. You don’t want to only play the first hundred tunes that everybody’s learned. I’m talking about the extremes here. But generally speaking, you want to have interesting tunes and played at a nice pace and with nice accompaniment.

[ Music: “G Chimes,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories 

Composer/Artist: Matt Heaton 

>> Shannon: In all fairness, that’s a lot to learn and manage. But sure, there’s no hurry to build a repertoire of tunes. And I suppose you can spend a lifetime experimenting with how to manage and share that music.

Fiddle and guitar player Nathan Gourley has a beautiful collection of tunes. When he plays with fiddle player Laura Feddersen or uilleann piper Joey Abarta, he often features rare gems and inventive settings of tunes. And in sessions he tends to play more standard material. We were recently at a small session together with a nice blend of common and unusual tunes. There was a good groove going on. But there was a little hiccup when some newer players came in. They weren’t really in the same time zone, and they didn’t know the tunes. But that didn’t stop them from playing anyway.

[ Music: “E Minor Pick and Drive,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories 

Composer/Artist: Matt Heaton  ]

>> Nathan: On some level they all had really good energy. They were all excited about it, and they were all really wanting to participate, which is great. That’s what you want. And also, one of the first rules that we have is you have to know what you’re playing. You have to know the music, like at least a little bit. 

And you were great about saying, “Hey, we like your energy a lot.” We’re playing specific tunes, and we all know these. And if we don’t know them, then we sit out and we listen. And we would hope that you would not try and use TunePal to find the tune and then read the tune along with us on your iPad. They just.. they didn’t sort of know the rules.

>> Shannon: No, they did not know the rules. These guys were standing above the rest of us and playing notes over everybody’s heads. At one point, one of them did, in fact, shove a phone under my nose to record a few measures for the tune identifying app. NOT a very conversational or conventional approach.

And sessions are public conventions. The really nice ones are usually led by people with proficiency on their instruments. They’re able to steer things clearly and lean into the turns. Though it’s hard to keep things upright if there are participants who are just meandering around, and crashing into everybody around them.

Like…. just wiggling your fingers and sawing away on a fiddle, or plucking away on a banjo (even if your timing is great and you know what key you’re in), if you don’t know the tune and other people are playing a tune together in unison, it’s really like signing nonsense words along with a song. Or like writing random words and squiggles on a piece of paper and handing that in to a editor. The other reporters are taking time to write these news articles, and you’re just tossing together some words and symbols. 

I mean, maybe a poet might play with random words because of how they sound, and thorw in some symbols for an expressive effect? But this is not the work of someone who’s trying to convey a story in, like, a newspaper.

[ Music: “Pride of Roxbury,” from Brightly or Darkly

Artists: Nathan Gourley and Laura Feddersen ]

SO, if you’re writing a news article, you focus on a topic. You try to share your insights coherently. You aim for precision, matching tenses. You use punctuation to delineate new phrases and help with clarity.

If you’re playing in an Irish session, you play melodies with other people. And if you’re living in a home with other people, ideally you adhere to simple elements of home organization, like having dedicated places for clothing, food, and keys. This keeps the household running smoothly and helps keep the mood bright.

In addition to being a fine writer, my mom also has a beautiful interior design sense. I learned a lot about setting up a house with her. But it did take her a while to figure out where to keep the house keys. Me, too. Thankfully we’ve got it sorted now. 

>> Shannon: When we were growing up in all our various homes


All the different places we lived, in all the different parts of the world. Things were always orderly. Except for the keys!


>> Shannon: Ugh. It took us all a long time to settle on where to keep the keys. So we were always looking for them when trying to leave the house. 

[ Music: “C# Walking Theme,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories 

Composer/Artist: Matt Heaton 

Now… losing the keys all the time is a sign of chronic stress and fatigue. And I imagine raising two kids, and traipsing all over the world to research, and write, and teach journalism would not be a no-stress path. Neither is managing a bunch of musical collaborations and engagements—this can also take a lot of energy and focus. And then if you’re trying to run an Irish session music and you have people just throwing keys around, it can be draining.

And when you’re exhausted to begin with, it might feel like less of a priority to find a cute bowl for the keys. But without some order… without rules… you keep facing the problem of losing the keys, or losing the plot, or losing the tune.

>> Shannon: It’s kind of like working on playing Irish flute, right? You haven’t worked out sensible breathing patterns. Like it’s always going to be a problem. That’s a known variable. 

>> Sharon: Yep

>> Shannon: So you’ve sorted it out with the keys. And then are there writing pitfalls that you see? Like things that people do all the time, kind of clunky usage issues or bad habits that like you just have to tighten up from the beginning, otherwise it’s never going to go anywhere?

>> Sharon: Well. I have a phrase that I have used about a couple of newspapers, it’s called diarrhea of the pen. Where people write and write. And you keep thinking what are you trying to say? What’s the main point here? You know, there’s a beginning, there’s an end. That’s sort of the rule for writing, I think. 

I remember, because I went to Catholic school, all the grammar, and all the punctuation, and parsing sentences, and graphing them on the board. And then studying German and Latin, you learn many of the rules, because languages are run by rules. Which I think gave me good discipline. 

[ Music: “Heartstrings Theme,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories 

Composer/Artist: Matt Heaton 

I used Strunk and White every year as a required text. Everybody had to have it. It’s almost as if you kiss it good night and you kiss it in the morning. And that’s… that’s your key. You must have the basics. But you also need to know when you can break the rules. I’m thinking of the works of like, ee cummings. No capitals? No punctuation.

>> Shannon: Yeah, I mean, it worked for James Joyce

>> Sharon: Absolutely, it worked for many writers. Because they knew the rules, and then they did what it took to get their ideas out, whether they broke the rules or not. And sometimes breaking rules, is the best way to tell your story. Your father used to tell everybody in his classes, “good writing is telling stories to make sense.”

>> Shannon: Nice

>> Sharon: There are people out there to whom you want to say something. Because you want to share something extremely important, or extremely entertaining, or extremely beautiful, or whatever. And so we look at the audience, or we listen to the audience, or we think about the audience. 

>> Shannon: So if you didn’t go out there and meet people, and talk to people, and observe people, could you write these stories? Could you write stories that made any sense? 

>> Sharon: I don’t think people can be very effective unless they’ve been out in the world, as we say. I mean, you probably change your style sometimes based on the people in front of you, right? 

>> Shannon: Yeah.

>> Sharon: And the writer often does that, too. I’m sure every time you’re on a stage somewhere, you’re watching the audience.

>> Shannon: Yeah, you’re there with people… on a stage, in a session. And I guess in the company of others, you learn how and why to share your material. Not sure you can learn all of that JUST in the practice room… or the writer’s room.

>> Shannon: Good Irish music than just knowing tunes or having technique on an instrument. Like at some point, I think all of the great players needed to step out of the practice room and then go out into like the messy social world. Just to meet people and try stuff.

>> Sharon: Well, you learned to walk by falling down on the floor, right? 

[ Music: “D Mutey Big Build,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories 

Composer/Artist: Matt Heaton 

>> Shannon: Yeah, you gotta fall. And lose your keys. And play in the wrong key to learn.

I’ve learned from missteps, and trying stuff. And by paying attention.

>> Sharon: And you learn to write by writing something and realizing it doesn’t work, and rewriting and rewriting. I think you learn to write by reading and writing. Read everything. Read good stuff, read bad stuff. Analyze why the good stuff, why you liked it. What made it powerful? And the not-so-good material: why was it weak? What was wrong with it? Read, read, read. And then, write, write, write. 

>> Shannon: Like with Irish music. To learn, you listen, listen, listen. And then play, play, play. And listen back to yourself, and figure out what’s working and what needs to develop. 

[ Music: “Allistrum’s/Ned Kelly’s,” from Brightly or Darkly

Artists: Nathan Gourley and Laura Feddersen ]

Before he moved to Boston, Nathan Gourley did a lot of listening. A lot of playing. And he tried a lot of stuff.

>> Nathan: I lived in Madison, Wisconsin growing up. I learned Suzuki violin when I was five. And I never had an Irish music teacher, I just heard it one day at a festival that my dad took me to. And I moved to the Twin Cities after college. And Paddy O’Brien, the accordion player from Offaly who lives there, sort of took me under his wing. And we played together a lot. But I never had a fiddle teacher as such. So I think I just been out here in the wild wandering around learning by trial and error.

>> Shannon: Nathan’s Irish music journey in the wilds of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota is not unlike many other players who’ve learned to play traditional tunes in cities all over the States, Ireland, everywhere. 

>> Nathan: I went to a lot of session, and I played with a lot of people. It happens naturally when you go enter a scene and start playing in different bands and playing a lot. And you record and listen to yourself.

Paddy O’Brien used to always say, play the long notes. Don’t stop. You know, when you come at it from classical music, you played these kind of short… there’s a tendency, or at least I did, play shorter, choppier notes. And he was always good about reminding me to kind of loosen up my bow and play the whole note. Don’t think of it as notes on a page. Think of it as like a continuous stream of music that you’re trying to make

>> Shannon: So how do you teach other people to do that? 

>> Nathan. I sometimes quote Paddy for one thing.They say that learning language, one of the best ways to learn language is to just listen to a lot of that language at all times, get as much of it, kind of soak your brain in that language. I think there’s a similar thing with music/ If you want to learn a style of music, you should listen to it as much as possible and kind of get used to the the sound, snd then try and emulate that sound yourself.

>> Shannon: Yeah, so a language that you learn immersively from other people. There’s a little bit of magic. You just kind of soak it all in, and then eventually fluency can come, right? And yet, Nathan did learn rules. And when he teaches?

>> Nathan: I tend to talk about it when I’m teaching as a system.

>> Shannon: You have like a system? Does that mean you have a methodology?

>> Nathan: I guess I try and just talk about the components of what you’re actually doing as a whole, and then break that down into individual things. You know, rhythm, intonation, ornamentation, phrasing. Just like a tall ship: you’ve got technique and intonation and where the bow is placed in your left hand—all of that is like the structural integrity of the hull. You want it to be watertight

There’s  also the actual groove and the rhythm that you’re playing with. And that might be the sails.

There’s also the motivation too, which is like why you’re playing music. It’s different for everybody. And that might be the wind.

[ Music: “Travel Theme,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories 

Composer/Artist: Matt Heaton 

>> Shannon: So if what you want is for this to feel fun, and for you to be able to enjoy these sweet tunes with other people on maybe a high level, how much of it is just being able to technically play your instrument?

>> Nathan: Yeah, that’s certainly very important. And at the same time, I know great players who don’t have, like standard good or great technique. So I think it’s more important that you find a technique that works for your style, your system of playi.

Technique can be a shortcut to sounding great, like if you’re taught here’s how to hold the bow, and here’s how to phrase things, and here’s an ornamentation, it can be a way to get to a good sound pretty quickly. I know people who didn’t have that and have kind of found their own system that isn’t exactly standard. But it still works within the context of what they’re doing. In fact, it’s like part of the allure and the charm of their playing. So I think technique is, you know, just one of the many variables that go into the system as a whole.

>> Shannon: So rules and mechanics: these are just part of it for Nathan. But practicing technique can be helpful, and it can be pretty straightforward.

>> Nathan: I tend to focus on it myself in my playing, just because it’s something objective. Like I listen to back to recordings of myself and I’m like, Oh, I’m out of tune, and I’m rushing, and I missed that third finger roll. So it’s easy sometimes to practice technique, because it is slightly more objective than something like groove, which is also something that can be practiced, but it can be trickier. 

>> Shannon: One thing that’s not tricky: feeling grateful for these conversations and for the community that surrounds the Irish Music Stories project. Making a podcast involves technical elements, too. And the payoff is connecting with people. Connecting with you listeners, and connecting g with all my guests, and making connections with their stories. I’ve been traveling around Ireland and collecting more stories to share, so thank you so much to the recent supporters. Nigel, would you do the honors?

>> Nigel: Thank you to Michael Taylor, Edward O’Dwyer, Adele Megann, Peter Crimmin, the Irish & Celtic Music Podcast, John Sigler, Randall Semagin, Ron Kral, Isaiah Hall, David Vaughan, Susan Walsh, Matt Jensen, John Ploch, Tom Frederick, Paul DeCamp, Jonathan Duvick, Gerry Corr, Mike Voss, Sean Carroll, Isobel McMahon, Bob Suchor, Finian McCluskey, Rick Rubin, Ken Doyle, Chris Armstrong, Ian Bittle, and Chris Murphy

Having some support and practicing some skills can be good for everybody.

[ Music: Wheels of the World,” from Do Me Justice

Artist: Len Graham ]

Okay, so practicing mechanics on an instrument can help you play the tunes with ease, which helps lock in with other musicians. If you don’t have to worry about where or how to move on your flute or fiddle, you can just cruise and enjoy the journey.

Nathan: It’s like learning to drive this complex car, and sitting behind the steering wheel. And you’ve got all these different options for what to control and how to move it. And at the end of the day you need to be able to not think about any single one of them while you’re doing it . You just need to know how to react. Like, you want to think about, like, I got to push the brake now. I got to push the gas. I got to I got to indicate right. Learning all the individual things, and then combining them, and then not thinking about of any of that is ultimately one of the goals.

>> Shannon: And at the end of the day, you want to get where you’re trying to go safely, without crashing into somebody else’s session!

>> Nathan: Absolutely. Haha! I got snapped at back in the Twin Cities when I sat in on my first sessions. And I was all excited. And I was playing whatever tune five percent faster than everybody else around me, just because I had this adrenaline from being there. 

>> Shannon: You definitely want to encourage enthusiastic, good-hearted people who are bringing great energy. And at the same time you want to protect a standard. When you have somebody who crashes the party it can really bring it down.

>> Nathan: Absolutely.

>> Shannon: That wee session that we had a couple of weeks ago was definitely on display a number of things that maybe weren’t as successful.

>> Nathan: Yeah. Well, I wanna pause and rewind to that session. We were at a session where, because of the seating arrangement, that we just happened to find, like when we all walked in, I got to watch kind of a master class pm how to helpfully guide a session in the right direction. 

The flute player is standing up behind you. And you’re like, hey, do you want to sit down? Oh, I’m really much more comfortable if I’m standing. And you’re like Well, it’s more conversational if you sit down. I thought that was a great retort, you know. You gotta meet people where they are. t’s nice to have guiding hands that are kind of used to that and can help direct the flow of energy into positive vibes. 


>> Shannon: It’s one thing to talk about this in a podcast—like, it’s great to run a session with grace. And it’s also great when people are onboard with a few norms. But managing these dynamics in person is harder. It can be really hard to talk to people about awkward behavior. Like it’s hard enough to talk with the people in your own home about keeping track of the keys. And it’s really the pits to face people in a music session who aren’t keeping track of the keys, or the timing, or the tunes. 

So a lot of players just ignore it. And seethe. And they feel cheated out of what could have been a nice night of music. And maybe this is just how it goes. It’s public folk music, right? Anybody’s welcome, right? 

Well… there are more closed sessions (mostly because the session leaders don’t want to deal with this stuff). But most sessions in public spaces have this inclusiveness that can be so magical and so free, because there’s some collective respect for rules. 

[ Music: “Rathcroghan, Garrett Barry’s, Collier’s,” from As It Happened

Artists: Mícheál Ó Raghallaigh & Danny O Mahony ]

>> Nathan:  I think sessions are such a great thing that exist for all of us as a way to go out and connect with our friends and play music in our local communities. There’s something to my favorite recordings. Like a lot of my favorite recordings are home recordings of either a live performance or a session. They have this aspect of feeling really authentic and feeling really fun. And sometimes when one is in the studio, one tries to like play perfectly or tries to not make any mistakes. And I think that my favorite recordings don’t have that quality of trying to not make any mistakes. They have this uninhibited, unfettered kind of quality.

>> Shannon: There’s a lot that can go into ‘just’ sitting down and playing tunes. With a group of friends, or with just one or two other players.

[ Music: “Sonny Brogan’s / Paddy Fahy’s / Feilimís Misfortune,” from Mulholland & McCluskey

Artists: Michael McCluskey & Brendan Mulholland ]

Brendan Mullholland plays flute in a duo with guitar player Mickey McCluskey, and in a trio called Music in the Glen. And he’s got a brand new band called Tempest.

>> Brendan: We’re all from Ulster, all from the north of Ireland. We’re very proud of where we’re from. We’re playing music from where we are from, and we know about it. And it’s just nice to share that 

>> Shannon:This issue of regional music, uh, is fascinating for me. I’m an American, so I am neither bound by nor strengthened by my local tunes. Sometimes it can feel a little like…. I’m jealous of that. 

>> Brendan: Like, when it comes to regional styles, some people say to me, the Belfast Flute style—I live like 15 miles from Belfast. I’ve never heard of Belfast flute style in my life. I’ve met people that aren’t from Ireland play with a breathy punchy style. I could name you 10 other players from Belfast that don’t play in that style.

>> Shannon: That breathy, punchy flute style is exciting and flashy. And Brendan’s playing is also exciting. But when he teaches, he’s not after churning out little Bredans. He’s trying to help flute players move through tunes with clarity, regardless of their style. And to do this, he focuses on technical development. That’s the central feature of his Online Flute School.

>> Shannon: Ok, so the online flute classes, Brendan, the videos that you’ve assembled, they’re really thoughtful. And they take people through, like from the start of how to set up the flute all the way to the high level technical and expressive elements. What do you find is the most popular?

[ Music: “D Chimes,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories 

Composer/Artist: Matt Heaton 

>> Brendan: I   thought it actually would’ve been the beginner class, you know? Because there’s a lot of people starting out to play the flute, but it actually wasn’t, it was the technical.

>> Shannon: So why do you think the people are so drawn to the technical stuff? 

>> Brendan: Because they see an instant improvement in their playing. Simple. You know, you can spot as a teacher, and you know this from teaching yourself, Shannon, you know, you can spot the same mistakes over and over and over again. But those are easy fixed if you just concentrate.

When I started to teach, I got asked to do workshops mostly in the European scene. There was a couple of German guys they said to me “We were at the session last night, Brendan. Everybody played the Kesh jig. But when you played it, it sounded different. We want to know when you played it, why did it sound different?” <laugh> To which I didn’t have an answer. I just, “I don’t know, maybe I’ve been playing longer. I don’t know. 

[ Music: “The Kesh Jig,” from In Concert

Artist: Bothy Band ]

I did not have the right answer. And I thought about that long and hard, on the way home in the plane, and for maybe a few weeks after it.

>> Shannon: Brendan thought about it on the plane. And he thought about it back home in Antrim, riding his bike, and dreaming up a teaching strategy to help people play the Kesh Jig and hear all the little things that make it come to life.

>> Brendan: I come from a sports background. I was a very keen cyclist. So when it came to like, training for things, you know it’s down to marginal gains. And it’s doing the little things right. So I sort of applied that attitude to the flute playing.

>> Shannon: He came up with this nine point plan. Kind of like the Strunk and White Elements of Style for Irish flute. A guide to good tone, some techniques for articulation and ornamentation, and just figuring out how to organize your keys.

>> Brendan: Good tone. Glottal stops (using your throat). And then you move onto the fingers: cuts, taps, rolls, cranns, trills, finger vibrato, slides. So of those nine things, well if I was able to give students three or four exercises for each one of them, then their overall technique should get better.

>> Shannon: Right, So dial in some mechanics, you can then move through the tunes on the flute. You can do the higher level stuff. The next year, Brendan was back at the same festival, and he met one of the German guys again. This time he had the answer about why his Kesh Jig sounded different from theirs. 

>> Brendan: Good tone, good timing, and good technique. Yeah? And the other thing is, as a flute player, always make sure you’re tuning. If there’s an accordion player there, just zone your ear in, especially in the second octave, just to make sure you’re not going sharp. Whosever’s beside you, I would lock my ear into what they’re doing. And just be aware of your tuning. If you start to blow too hard, it starts to get sharp. Be aware of that, you know?

>> Shannon Yes. And you really learn to play in tune with yourself against a fixed pitch.

>> Brendan: Yeah. Exactly. I have an app that does a drone. It’s like a shruti box, it’s very good.

>> Shannon: It never hurts to just, every once in a while in those warmups, just kind of put on the drone and just refind your own center.

>> Brendan: Yeah play a tune in a different key, and just let it drone in the background. And then you can figure out the weak spots, the strong spots on a flute. It’s hard to teach that!

>> Shannon: I think you can show by example though. You can show, look, listen to this.


And now listen when I take care, with those high notes especially, not to over drive.


>> Brendan: Yeah <laugh>

[ Music: “Meaning of Life,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories 

Composer/Artist: Matt Heaton 

>> Shannon: The more I listen and the more I learn what to listen for, I think the better my appreciation grows. And the better my aim gets. Like, I certainly do not always hit the mark. But I mostly know what I’m shooting for. Good tone, good timing, good technique. The three T’s! 

>> Brendan: I was teaching recently in Belgium. And there was a guy, he says, I could add another T onto that. I was going, really? He says, yeah, just taste <laugh>.

>> Shannon: So Taste. And I could add a fifth T: Toss your keys into the bowl on top of the piano, so you can make it out to the session in the first place. And there’s another important element that ends with T: Context.

>> Shannon: So… many of the people that I have gotten to teach did not grow up with this stuff. They didn’t grow up with the music. They didn’t grow up with the social scene surrounding it. What about tapping into the social rhythm together, and having maybe an awareness and a humility of like the bigger picture of it. And of the importance of the other practitioners in the room with you. 

>> Brendan: <laugh> Once you know your instrument, and you’ve learned a good volume of tunes and technical stuff, you have to live it. That’s important. And I think it’s the social side. Because you can play music for three or four hours in a pub. And then after that you want to go have something to eat, or you want to have a drink, or you want to go talk to somebody. That is all part of it. 

[ Music: “Lena’s / Winter Chill / Summer Breeze / The Stretchy Jean’s,” from Mulholland & McCluskey

Artists: Michael McCluskey & Brendan Mulholland ]

Sometimes you have to step outta the comfort zone. Nothing grows in the comfort zone. So you have to go to that festival like you’re not sure of, meet people in a session that, “oh, they’re too advanced.” No, just go to it. That’s important. 

>> Shannon: Grab those  keys and get out there. And then maybe head back home and adjust.

It takes time and effort to make fine music… and great novels.. and beautiful homes. 

>> Nathan: Some of my favorite players are ones who don’t think of themselves as especially technical. They have this persistent air of humility. They just think they’re just not really a great player. But they have this really earnest sound that is really authentic.

 I don’t think technicality necessarily matters as much as it’s made out to sound/ There’s a different type of technicality, right? There’s technical grasp of the instrument. But there’s also technical grasp of the music and what matters about the music. ….

Yeah. And also talking about these various aspects of traditional musicianship: is it kind of like talking about different types of intelligence? You know there are some people who are very academic and they’re intellectual. And they can make connections.  And there are other people who are so funny, and so quick witted, and so fast with the humor response. And there are some people who are so empathetic. And they can just sense what people need in the room, and they have a way of bringing people together, and nurturing, and serving. I mean those are all high levels of awareness and intelligence. Very different types. Maybe the same goes for skill with this music.

 Oh Definitely absolutely. Yeah, there’s a lot of great ways to be a good musician … And some people have strengths for bringing everyone together at a session. And some people their strength is maybe solo solo playing, and it’s harder to actually connect with them. But they have such a strong sense of their own playing that they don’t .. you know, you have to play next to them in some cases. But yeah … that’s a great analogy. I think there’s a lot of different ways to be be fun to listen to, and a great musician. And you do see it everywhere you go. There’s all sorts of different approaches.

>> Brendan: There’s a place in Irish Music for everybody, right? No matter if you’re from Germany, France, Columbia, America, or County Antrim, where I live in Ireland. A good tune played well, is a good tune played well,.

>> Shannon:  If that’s the end goal — a good tune, a nice moment in life with some quality music — or if the goal is a really great story, or a beautiful nourishing home — it’s probably all gonna come to life with some practice. Not by just blindly whacking away. Spending some time in the woodshed. Some trial and error to figure out some rules and concepts that really work, until it’s all just simple and clean. Whatever that means for YOU.   

>> Sharon: When we were traveling a lot, your father had a rule: a place for everything, and everything in its place. You have to be able to live comfortably in an environment. But the more cluttered it is, the harder it is to make sense of the home you live in. 

>> Shannon: Or the session you’re in … or the novel you’re reading. Following a playbook—and playing with that playbook. That’s a game that can keep things harmonious. 

>> Sharon: I think knowing the rules, simplifying, and be yourself. 

>> Shannon: And like you said, everything in its place.

>> Sharon: Well. Now you walk in the door and there’s a hook outside the door, and that’s where the keys go. So we never lose keys anymore. Hahaha!

>> Shannon: This episode of Irish Music Stories was produced by me, Shannon Heaton. Thank you, Sharon Murphy, Nathan Gourley, and Brendan Mulholland for the great conversations. Thank you for listening. Kick in to support the show by visiting Subscribe in your favorite podcast app, so you won’t miss my next episode. And what will my approach be for the next edition of Irish Music Stories? Will it be a winner? Will I follow some tried and true techniques… will I experiment?

>> Brendan: Hahaha. I think you know the answer to that!

>> Nathan: There’s all sorts of different approaches.

>> Shannon: Yeah. And there are some approaches that don’t work. There’s no one right way. But there are definitely some awkward ways. 

< Laughter >

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Cast of Characters

Episode guests in order of appearance

Shannon Heaton


World-reared, Boston-based flute player, singer, composer, teacher, and host of Irish Music 

Flute player and teacher from County Antrim 

Wisconsin born, Boston-based fiddle player 

Sharon Murphy


Award-winning writer, educator, and academic

The Heaton List