Never Too Late: Part Two
By Lois Siegel
Recap: Celtic Slow Jam, Glebe Community Centre:
The group sat in a circle and took turns selecting a tune. The person who chose the tune would start it at the speed he desired. I tried to follow the music. They were playing much faster than I could ever imagine playing. It was a losing battle. I was able to play maybe two notes that first night. That was it. But I did play those two notes.
I had to try to figure out which tune on the tape recorder went with the sheet music. It was like a puzzle. I started learning the tunes a few notes at a time.
We visited my boyfriend’s parents in Florida every December for a week. I brought my violin along this time. Playing the violin out on the porch was a good way to pass the hours when we weren’t touring. The days were long.
I’m sure the squeaking drove everyone in the house nuts, but out on the porch, I could close the door and only feeble sounds of squeaking would emerge. After one rather long, squealing session, my boyfriend’s father poked his head into my porch sanctuary and said, “I hope you don’t think you’re going to be Beethoven.” I knew I sounded awful, but I was determined.
Persistence is the only way to learn to play the violin.
Warning: no one told me you weren’t supposed to practice four hours in a row without stopping. I was obsessed. My arm started to ache. When I returned to Canada, my family doctor prescribed physiotherapy. I now know that you should rest every 20 minutes. Walk around, do something else for a few minutes before continuing to play. I learned the hard way.
I struggled with fiddle lessons and continued with the Celtic Slow Jam. Eventually, I started to recognize the tunes. My eyes weren’t good, so I enlarged the music and dry- mounted each sheet onto old photographs on mount boards. I’m a photographer, so I had the equipment to do this. The photographs faced the other players at the jam session. The sheet music faced me. They thought this was funny. Each tune had a different image: Old-French ladies in France; a Paris street sweeper with a big, long broom; a young boy sitting on the skeleton of an old boat, watching the ocean filled with more boats disappearing into the distance . . . images I had taken on trips to Europe as a student.
I soon realized that playing with this group was excellent because they were encouraging and very laid back. They didn’t care if you made mistakes, and since the session was large and rather noisy, they didn’t hear your mistakes anyway. This was good.
If you keep practicing, eventually you get better. I was lucky to have met very good people. I soon learned that not all jam sessions were with nice people. Sometime egos got in the way, and then there were players who insisted on rushing through tunes. I named this “The Celtic Speedway,” and it’s often caused by too much testosterone, if you get my drift. The music turned to mush. I avoided these types of jam sessions.
As the months passed, the Celtic Slow Jam people all became better players. One day, one of the players called me and said he was going to start a performance group. I was invited to join. Would I like to become a member of a band? You bet I would.
January 1998: The new group argued about a name for the band. Some people wanted Celtic names… but they were difficult to pronounce and remember. Best was a name that was easy to spell and easy to remember. We finally named ourselves after the street where we practiced: The Lyon Street Celtic Band.
We practiced once a week in a small room at the top of the Glebe Community Centre. There were fiddles, guitars, a mandolin, bodhrán (Irish drum), and even a stand-up bass. Our group kept getting bigger until we were over 10 band members. We worked on all types of Celtic tunes for a year.
At one point we hired an experienced performer to criticize our band’s performance. The session was terrific. He went over many details and gave the following advice.
1. To start a tune, tap your foot to get into the rhythm and hum the tune too.
2. The bodhrán and guitar can sometimes start a tune by playing 1 to 4 bars prior to the melody
3. If you want to join a tune after everyone else starts playing, wait for the start of part A or B…. That way it may even sound as if you intended such an arrangement. Don’t just jump in anywhere and start playing.
4. Abandon your ego, and go with the flow of the moment. This suggestion speaks to many of the negative aspects of making music, including nervousness and fear of failure. The desired effect is to relax, and be aware of what is happening in each moment of group music.
5. Be playful with the melody. You don’t always have to play it exactly as you preconceive it.
6. Space out, rhythmically, as well as melodically. This can lead to pure joy, so watch for it, and bask in it when it happens. Isn’t joy the reason we make music, why we spend so much time at it?
7. Learn tunes by playing at slow speeds: this is both good and bad. It’s good in the sense that it’s necessary to learn the melody first. It’s not so good later if it becomes a restriction. Playing a tune faster sometimes requires one to change one’s choice of notes, slurs, and triplets. Sometimes one cannot simply speed up the slow way of playing a tune. Something has to change, and it can result in a more pleasing presentation of the tune.
8. Listen to the other instruments as well as to yourself.
9. Muddy sound. This can happen when two or more instruments clash. This is an interesting point because it’s about playing in an ensemble.
When several lead instruments are not playing exactly the same melody, sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. The purpose of group playing is to build a sound that is greater than the sum of its parts. This means you have to take chances during the process of making an arrangement and work out the clashes.
10. Dragging (slowing down) at the end of a part. This is only good if it’s a deliberate arrangement.
We worked on all these approaches to music, and then we decided to take the plunge into performance. A long-term care residence was contacted. It was situated on a waterfront property overlooking the Rideau River.
to be continued . . .
about the author
Lois Siegel is a filmmaker, casting director, photographer, writer and musician. When she isn’t playing fiddle, she teaches Video Production at the University of Ottawa, Canada. She plays fiddle, bodhran, spoons, the Ugly Stick the washboard, and the dancing marionette with The Lyon Street Celtic Band and Celtic North. Siegel just started Siegel Entertainment, representing other musicians.