Ceolas Irish Flute Guide

The Flute Interviews

All interviews were conducted by Brad Hurley, unless otherwise indicated.
Please do not reprint without permission.


1. An Interview with Grey Larsen

2. An Interview with John Skelton

3. An Interview with Catherine McEvoy

4. Notes from a week with Jack Coen


An Interview with Grey Larsen

Grey Larsen is a familiar name to folk music fans throughout North America, especially Irish music lovers. He is recognized as one of America's foremost exponents of the Irish flute, tin whistle and concertina. As a tune-smith his celtic-style tunes, especially "Thunderhead," are know worldwide. His expertise also extends to traditional fiddling in American and Scandinavian traditions as well as guitar and keyboard playing.

In the process of learning Irish traditional music Grey spent a great deal of time with Co. Sligo flute player Tom Byrne, Co. Leitrim fiddler Tom McCaffrey, and Co. Galway melodeon player Michael Kennedy, all elderly Irish immigrants to Grey's home state of Ohio. He has also made musical trips to Ireland.

Since he teamed up with Malcolm Dalglish in 1975, and then formed the trio METAMORA with Dalglish and Pete Sutherland in 1982, which later also included Martin Simpson, he has played for many thousands of listeners at concerts and festivals throughout North America and Europe. Still more have enjoyed the recordings that he and his partners have produced, records that have sold well in excess of 100,000 copies and have garnered the high praise of critics and music lovers alike. These include Banish Misfortune, Thunderhead, The Great Road, Windham Hill's Morning Walk and A Winter's Solstice II, and his own solo album, The Gathering, which won an honorable mention from NAIRD (the National Association of Independent Record Distributors) in 1987.

In 1992 he formed a duo with French Canadian guitarist and singer André Marchand. Their CD, The Orange Tree, was released in 1993 on Sugar Hill Records and was chosen by CD Review Magazine as Runner-Up World Music CD of the Year.

He is also known as a film composer, record producer and recording engineer and as the music editor of Sing-Out Magazine, an international folk music quarterly founded in 1950 by Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and others. Many thousands of film-goers have heard his music featured in the score to Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange's 1989 movie Far North and in the popular children's cable TV movie Tuck Everlasting.


Q: What kind of flute(s) do you play, who made the instrument, and why did you decide to get this particular flute?

A: I play a Firth, Pond and Hall flute, made c. 1850-60 in New York City. It has six keys and is made of cocus wood. It is a lovely sounding instrument with fairly small finger holes, which I like. The first time I played it I fell in love with its sound. It may not be as loud as some flutes with larger finger holes but I can get a wide variety of tone colors from it and it suits my inclination towards more delicacy and nuance of tone. Chris Abell made a new headjoint for my flute about four years ago. It increased the responsiveness of the flute signifigantly and made it easier to get a consistently good tone. I highly recommend Abell headjoints. I like the simplicity of the six key arrangement and the light weight of the flute,though I sometimes wish I had an extended low range. I also have a very nice anonymous German flute with 12 or 13 keys that goes down to B but I use it mainly for recording sessions where the low range is needed, preferring the sound, feel and response of my Firth, Pond and Hall flute.

Q: Who has influenced your playing style? Has it mainly been other flute players, or is your flute style also influenced by fiddlers, pipers, or other instrumentalists?

A: My style is certainly influenced by players of a variety of instruments as well as singers. Among the flute and whistle players that I admire the most are Josie McDermott, Mary Bergin and Matt Molloy. Other influences: Noel Hill, Kevin Burke, Paddy Cronin, Paddy Keenan, Liam O'Flynn and the singing of Dolores Keane, Andy Irvine, Micheál ó Domhnaill and Triona Ní Dhomhnaill.

Q: Can you suggest some favorite musicians for an aspiring Irish flute player to listen to?

A: Aspiring Irish flute players should certainly listen to Josie McDermott, Mary Bergin and Matt Molloy. We should do as much listening as possible to a wide variety of players of various instruments and of course to singers, especially if interested in learning slow airs.

Q: Do you have any general advice for beginning flute players? Any words of wisdom or warning?

A: Be diligent in learning to be able to do your ornaments (cuts, taps, etc.) dead on a steady beat. Use a metronome and don't practice at a tempo that is too fast. Otherwise you will be reinforcing your mistakes. Practice slower than you think you need to and always listen to yourself.

Try practicing in front of a mirror, for several reasons: 1) you can see what you are doing with your hands, shoulders, arms, neck, embouchure, etc., 2) the sound bounces back at you with more clarity and that helps you hear what you're doing, and 3) perhaps most importantly, it helps you to maintain your concentration. It is easy to get distracted when just looking out into space. The flute has the disadvantage that you can't see it while you play. Good practice is 90% good focus.

Also, one does not have to have super lung capacity to play for long periods without tiring. Instead, one needs to learn to use one's air very efficiently and this is mostly a function of embouchure, of learning to get a very small aperture between the lips without creating tension in the facial muscles. Of course good posture and diagphragmatic breathing are very important as well.

Q: As a multi-instrumentalist, how do you decide which tunes to perform on the flute, as opposed to concertina, fiddle, whistle, guitar, etc.? Can you identify a quality in certain tunes that seems to make them especially suited for the flute?

A: More and more I see it as a good challenge to try tunes on the flute that don't seem, on the surface, well suited to it. I like to learn to play in odd keys, e.g. B-flat or B major. Of course it it essential to have some keywork on your flute to do this. Also tunes that go "too low" for the flute are fair game for adapting. Transposing certain notes or phrases up the octave can yield some wonderful surprises. (Listen to "The Jug of Punch" played by Paddy Carty on his Shanachie record and by me on Metamora's "The Great Road.")

Q: One of my favorite bits of flute musicianship is, oddly enough, your accompaniment to the song "Western Highway," on Maura O'Connell's album "Helpless Heart." The flute comes in with a lovely, deeply felt, rather melancholy melody at the end of the song. Did you write that flute part? Can you tell us a little about how you came to appear on that album?

A: Bela Fleck produced that album and asked me to play on it. The part on the end of "Western Highway" was improvised by me with some input from Bela. When I was recording that part there was another instrument in there (can't recall what just now - perhaps I had done two flute parts or a concertina part). I was playing out and then laying back in some places, playing simple lines behind this other instrument. When they mixed the song they removed that other instrument leaving in those simpler phrases, which had been conceived as accompaniment to another melody line. I too like very much the feeling that the part creates. It was a good move on Bela's part to do that subtractive mixing. I don't know if he had that idea up his sleeve all along or if it was something he came up with at mix time. A good example of a time when less is more.

Q: What draws you to the flute -- can you articulate what it is about the instrument that you love? Anything you don't like about the flute?

A: This is a very big question. The flute suits my soul as a vehicle for expression better than any other. The music is created out of your very breath and is therefore very internal and personal. It is very akin to singing and speaking for the same reasons. It is a voice without words, which for me is liberating. The nuance of tone, expression, dynamic and blend that are possible draw me strongly to it.

As for drawbacks, I often wish I could extend the range downward further. Of course you can't smile, laugh, speak or sing while playing. It also puts an odd strain on your spine and upper torso. It really puts your body into a very unnatural position much of which is unmovable while you are playing. I was in a car wreck in 1987 and injured my spine just at the spot where the bottom ribs attach to the spine. A physical therapist told me that she thought that place in my spine was vulnerable to injury due to the twisting stress in that area from so much flute playing.

Chris Abell can be reached at the Abell Flute Company, 111 Grovewood Road, Studio B, Asheville, NC 28804, USA. Tel/Fax: +1 704-254-1004.

An Interview with John Skelton

John Skelton is probably best known to American audiences from his work with The House Band, with whom he has recorded 5 albums on the Green Linnet label. He has also released a solo album, One at a Time, on Pan Records, Holland's leading acoustic music label. John has performed at all the major folk festivals in North America and Europe and has given concerts in over 20 countries. He is also an experienced flute teacher and has taught at summer schools in North America, Europe, and Africa.

John's roots lie in Irish traditional music. His grandfather and great-grandfather were flute andtin whistle players. He was born in London and returned there to live during the seventies. This was a "golden period" for Irish music in London. Bobby Casey, Roger Sherlock, Raymond Roland, Danny Meehan and many others were out playing and it was in this "hothouse" of great music that John spent his formative years. He first began to play professionally with the Irish band Shegui, and for six years he toured throughout Europe with them. That band included pianist/fiddler John Coakley (later of The Boys of the Lough), fiddler Tommy MacCarthy (now a leading light in Boston's Irish scene), and singer Sean Keane (brother of the great Irish singer Dolores Keane).

He joined The House Band in 1987 and since then has been a central figure in that band's success. He has toured the world with them, and on stage, his marvelous introductions and stories of life on the road have become central to their concerts, with one American newspaper gong as far as to refer to him as "the English Garrison Keillor!" He is, however, better known as an accomplished and distinctive flute player.

Alongside his background in Irish music, John also has a wealth of knowledge of the music of Brittany. He spends much time there and is a hghly regarded player of the bombarde (the traditional oboe-like instrument from Brittany). He was recently described as "the finest bombarde player outside of Brittany" by NPR's Thistle and Shamrock radio show. John also plays the "piston" (low bombarde) and the "veuze" (the bagpipe of Eastern Brittany).


Q: That's quite a collection of flutes and whistles you have (in the photo on your CD)! Which flute(s) do you find yourself playing most often, and why?

A: I play two flutes almost exclusively. They're both eight keyed and were both made in London by Hawkes, one is in concert pitch and the other's in F. The concert flute is a mid nineteenth century 'Hawkes First Class' and is made of rose wood. The F is a "Hawkes Sonorous" model and is made of ebonite. The concert pitch flute has been my flute for 20 years now, it's a great flute and I know it inside out ... that's why I play it . Playing the F is a kind of relaxation; it isn't as hard to fill and has a lovely hard edge, it allows me to 'let rip' and get an 'older' sound.

Take no notice of the photo on the CD! Over the years I've acquired a lot of instruments both as gifts and from out of the way junk shops (one of the perks of being 'on the road'). I don't really play them very much, it was just a humorous idea for a photo.

Q: The whistles you play on the CD have a nice, strong tone (both the standard whistles and the low ones). Who made them?

A: The D Low Whistle was made by Brian Howard in England. I also play an Overton now and again. It all depends on the tune. I find that the Howard seems to suit the slower more 'wistful' tunes, whereas the Overton has a bit more bite to it. All the other whistles are straightforward 'Generation' ones. They're older whistles on the whole (I tend to hang on to the same whistle for ever!) interestingly, the older 'Generation" whistles seem to be better made. They're heavier and the mouthpieces are better finished.

Q: You were inspired to pick up the flute by the playing of Mikey Cronin (fiddler Paddy Cronin's brother). Can you describe his style for us?

A: Earthy. Rhythmic. Raspy tone. What we used to call in London, "dirty playing." The nearest as I can remember (it was 25 years ago) would be like the style associated with Seamus MacMathuna and Conal O'Grada. I first heard him in Ballydesmond which is in the heart of Sliabh Luachra. Not an area for flutes and I don't think that he had a particularly local repertoire, but he was a hearty player. (As an aside, if anyone reading this can point me in the direction of any recordings of Mikey Cronin, I would be very grateful - my few bits and pieces have long since disappeared).

Q: Roger Sherlock and Cathal McConnell have also been big influences for you. What attracted you to their playing?

A: Roger Sherlock was the main flute player in London when I first lived there. I wouldn't claim that I try to play like him, it's just that his effortless playing was always a joy to listen to, and hearing him twice aweek for 3 or 4 years must have had its effect.

To me, Cathal McConnell is the epitome of a great flute player. When I hear him play, what I hear is "listen to this, this is a great tune" not "listen to me, I'm a great player". Of course he IS a great player, but it's all very subtle. Being frank, I'd have to say that he's a player who is best appreciated by 'grown ups.' Maybe some of the more 'pyrotechnical' players impress the general public with their technique, but I find after a short while that their tunes all start to sound the same. Not so with Cathal. He's passing on the music, not using it to impress. Of course there's also that wonderful tone, and the slow air playing (where it's obvious that he's a singer).

Q: As someone who teaches flute, can you give a few helpful tips to beginners, and perhaps a few words of advice to more experienced players?

A: The WAY that you practice is often overlooked and is important to get sorted out.

a) Find a nice quiet room with good acoustics if possible. Arrange to be 'incommunicado' for the practice period.

b) keep a learning tape with the tunes that you are working on. Record the tunes that you want to learn several times back to back, that way, you don't have to keep going back to the beginning of the track. Needless to say - learn by ear.

c) start each session off by playing over the last tune (in it's entirety) that you have just learned. Set yourself a goal for each session : perhaps the turn of a tune or a nice variation you just heard. Concentrate on that, don't just play about.

d) learn the WHOLE Tune. Don't tell yourself that you have the tune when there are still phrases or bits that are still a little hazy. Once you have all the notes in their right places then the Rhythm will fall into place. It's better to know 10 tunes inside out, than 100 tunes 'fairly well'.

e) Don't give up! It all works out eventually. If you've made it this far through all the pseudo "Celtic" dross, and have come to appreciate good traditional playing, then you'll probably be listening and playing for many years to come. So .... you've loads of time to build up that repertoire and achieve the sound.

AND .... You can't learn a tune until you know it. (I know that sounds odd). If you find a tune you want to learn, don't come to it cold, listen to it over and over for days ... in the car, doing the dishes, whatever. By that time you'll be able to hum it (or most of it) and then it's fairly easy to transfer that to the flute.

For the more experienced players: work on achieving your own sound, so that your playing is recognisable and you're not just another clone. I suggest that you listen to Jean-Michel Veillon from Brittany. I consider him to be THE leading simple system player today. Totally recognisable, all rhythm and highly innovative. Of course, not everything he does necessarily fits within the framework of Irish playing, but he will certainly make you think about your own playing.

Q: The Road to Buggleskelly, a reel you wrote and recorded on your solo CD, is a brilliant tune! Can you tell us a little about how you came up with it?

A: I don't write that many tunes, and the ones that I do are usually played in the kitchen at home and nowhere else! I'm glad that you like that tune though. I suppose that there are several ways of working (I'm sure that they're similar for other people).

a) Take an existing tune and play about with it. For example, take a G reel and play it in D (by which time you may have had to 'adjust' it to fit the range of the flute). Then try it as a jig (adding further 'adjustments'), you'll end up with a new tune, or at least one or two new phrases. (As an experiment : try playing 'The Salamanca Reel' in 6/8 .... it makes a great jig).

b) Come up with a nice phrase and then build the tune around that.

c) Play one of your favourite tunes over and over, then,instead of going into another recognizable tune just follow wherever your brain takes you. Often you'll get a good starting phrase that way.

This brings me to a good point : always keep a little tape player nearby, otherwise that brilliant phrase you just came up with will be gone for ever. I use a little dictation one that uses mini cassettes, I look upon itas a kind of notebook.

As for 'The Road to Buggleskelly' : it took a while to write - unlike some tunes that just seem to write themselves (and which I usually fiddle with, not being satisfied with something that happens so quickly ... but then I always end up returning to the original). I wrote the B part first a few years back, and then got the A part. I was never really happy with the A part, so I put it aside and then some months later, reworked it . It was written as a kind of "difficult" tune for accompanists !

Q: Speaking of recently written tunes, you mention that a book of Vincent Broderick's flute tunes has been published in Ireland -- do you know where one might one be able to obtain a copy?

A: I'm not sure about the States, I would imagine that Elderly Instruments in Lansing, Michigan would be able to get a copy or The House of Musical Traditions in Tacoma Park, Maryland. Here are the publication details :

The Turoe Stone. Vincent Broderick. Published by Walton Music, Dublin.

Walton's also have an American address:

Walton Music Inc. P.O.Box 1505, Westfield, MA 01086

There's also a tape to go with it called 'The Turoe Stone' produced by the Comhaltas.

Q: If readers wanted to get copies of your solo CD, can you give us the names and addresses of distributors?

A: It should be fairly easy to get through one of the specialist importers like 'Elderly Instruments' or 'The Celtic Trader'in Charlotte N.C. It's on 'Pan' Records, a Dutch label.

Q: The 8-key flute you're holding on the front cover of the CD looks like a Chris Wilkes Pratten replica (the keys look like Wilkes...but maybe it's an actual Boosey or Pratten?), and some of the other flutes on the back look like Rudalls -- I don't know about you, but I've always found it hard to switch from one to the other, and if you can offer any advice in that regard, particularly on how to get a good strong bottom D from a Rudall & Rose, it would be helpful.

A: You have very good eyes! It's my Hawkes concert flute. I have been told (and I pass this on as the result of a very erudite conversation one night in a pub in Cork) that it was probably made by Pratten. Hawkes later joined with Boosey to form Boosey and Hawkes and Pratten was associated with both companies. I like to think of it as an early Pratten's Perfected. It's unusually light. Patrick Olwell was taken by it and took measurements a number of years ago. I think that he may have used some of those in his own flutes because when I hold an Olwell flute it feels very strange, almost as if I had my own flute in my hands.

I have an old Rudall Rose, but it's not a great one. As I said earlier, I've been playing my own Hawkes for so long now, that it's hard to immediately get a good sound out of another flute. So I don't chop and change. I stay with the same flute. I'm afraid that I don't know much about getting a good bottom D on a Rudall & Rose, unless it's a problem of forcing the flute to play louder than was intended, with the result that some notes (towards the bottom) will sound a little thin.

An Interview with Catherine McEvoy

Catherine McEvoy was born in Birmingham in May 1956, both her parents having emigrated there from Co. Roscommon in the 1940s. Her father, Paddy, comes from an area six miles from Strokestown called Kilmore. His father, Mark McEvoy, was an accomplished flute player in his time, playing at local house dances and fairs for many years. Mark came from a large family, many of whom were also very fine musicians.

Sarah, Catherine's mother, also comes from Strokestown, and, in her younger days, was a very good traditional ballad singer. Both her parents remember many musicians around the Strokestown area, including Jimmy Tighe, a flute player, Pat Caslin, a fine fiddle player, and a character called Mutty Flanagan who was the local postman in Strokestown and also played the flute.

This great wealth of traditional music from Roscommon was very well reflected among the musicians who played in Birmingham as Catherine was growing up. This was especially true about the Birmingham Céili Band, one of the most popular bands of the 60s and 70s. During the 1960s there was a great tradition of Roscommon flute players playing with the band, including Frank Jordan from near Ballaghadereen, Frank Flanagan from Cloonsuck, and Paddy Joe Maloney. The founding members of the band, the Lawrie family, come from the Knockvicar area of Co. Roscommon. It was through the Birmingham Céili Band that Catherine, at a young age, was to have her first introduction to traditional Irish music.

Catherine's older brother John, himself a very well know fiddle player in both Ireland and England, had a major influence on her in those early days. John was very enthusiastic about traditional music and often brought home records of such great musicians as Denis Murphy and his sister Julia Clifford, Máirtin Byrnes, the Galway fiddle player, and Jimmy Power, a fiddle player from Waterford who lived in London. One of the first records to be brought into the McEvoy household was an old '78 recording of Michael Coleman.

At the age of 13, Catherine started taking lessons on the accordion. Her teacher was Kathleen Lawrie, a well respected musician in Birmingham at the time, and member of the Birmingham Céili Band. Soon, Catherine became a member of the band herself, playing initially on the piano. When Tom McHale, the whistle and flute player from Tulsk, Co. Roscommon left the band in the early 1970s, Catherine took up the flute. Though she had no formal training, she soon began to master the instrument and built up a large repertoire of tunes. The other flute player with the Birmingham band at that time was Frank Carty from Ballaghadereen. Catherine also played in duets with her brother John, and later teamed up with Brendan Mulvihill, a fiddle player from the Bronx, New York, who was living in Birmingham at the time.

Catherine continued to spend a lot of time listening to tapes of such musicians as Séan Ryan from Tipperary and the Killina Céili Band. Many of these tapes were lent by Paddy Ryan, the Roscommon fiddle player who was also a member of the Birmingham band. All traditional recordings and Radio Éireann broadcasts were listened to with great interest. Many of these had a significant influence on the musical life of the McEvoy household. Numbered among these were the recordings of Seamus Tansey and Roger Sherlock and one of the first LP's of traditional music called All Ireland Champions featuring Paddy Canny, P.J. Hayes, and Peadar O'Loughlin, all from County Clare. Catherine remembers being given a present of The Tribute to Coleman record which features the music of Joe Burke, Andy McGann, and Felix Dolan on piano. Shortly afterwards, Catherine met Felix Dolan who accompanies her on this recording.

It was in the early 1970s that Catherine met another person who had a lasting influence on her music. That was the great flute player, composer, and singer from Ballyfarnon, Josie McDermott. He was accompanied on his many visits to Birmingham by another famous flute player, Peg McGrath. "Peg was the first woman I ever saw playing the flute," says Catherine.

Catherine spent many holidays in Ireland around the Knockvicar/Boyle area of Roscommon. Many’s the night was spent playing in Dominic Cosgrove's in Boyle in the company of Patsy Hanly, the flute player from Kilroosky who Catherine holds in the highest esteem. Often, on these occasions, Catherine would pay a visit to Keadue to hear Josie McDermott play in the group "Flynn's Men." Also in this group were Tommy Flynn on fiddle and Liam Purcell on accordion. Catherine remembers Josie as always being very encouraging towards young musicians and he was particularly impressed with her playing as a young flute player.

Catherine continued to play regularly with the Birmingham and all around England and Ireland at Fleadhanna, Céilis, Fleadh Cheoil and Oireachtas competitions until she decided to move to Ireland in 1977. Her going away present from Kathleen Lawrie and her and was the Rudall and Rose flute which she had been playing and still plays to the present day. The flute is a rare Rudall and Rose from the early 19th century which has no tuning slide.

In 1975 Catherine met her future husband Tom McGorman, himself a very accomplished flute player. After Catherine moved to Ireland, she and Tom spent many weekends in Drumshambo, Co. Leitrim, playing with Packie Duignan, Tom and Nellie Mulligan, and many others.

Around this time Catherine frequently visited "The Four Seasons" pub in Capel Street where John Kelly senior played regularly. Sessions there also included Paddy O'Brien, the accordion player from Offaly, James Kelly and Daithí Sproule, all of whom are now living in the States, and John Kelly Jr. who Catherine now place with on a regular basis. Thus Catherine continue to expand her musical repertoire.

Some of the best music around was to be found upstairs in the "Four Seasons" on a Thursday night during the early 1980s, with John Kelly Jr. and John McEvoy on fiddles, Mick Hand and Mick Gavin on flutes, and Jacinta McGorman on piano and concertina. Another frequent visitor to these sessions was the well known Dublin fiddle player Tommy Potts.

From 1984-1988 Catherine was a member of "Macalla," the first all female traditional group. In more recent years she has been one of the senior flute tutors at the Willie Clancy Summer School in Milltown Malbay, Co. Clare. She now lives in Co. Meath with her husband, Tom, and three children, Jane, Ruairí, and Fergus.

(Reprinted with permission from the liner notes to Catherine McEvoy's CD, "Catherine McEvoy with Felix Dolan: Traditional Flute Music in the Sligo-Roscommon Style," Cló lar-Chonnachta, 1996.)

Catherine's CD, "Catherine McEvoy with Felix Dolan: Traditional Flute Music in the Sligo-Roscommon Style," is available from common distributors or directly from:

Cló lar-Chonnachta
Indreabhaán, Co. na Gaillimhe

Tel: +353-91-593307; Fax: +353 91-593362.

Send e-mail to Cló lar-Chonnachta.

Q: It may be hard to put the elements of a musical style into words, but could you try to describe the Sligo-Roscommon flute-playing style compared with the other prominent regional styles (Galway, Clare, etc.)? What are some of the things that make it distinctive?

A: The Sligo/Roscommmon style could be described I suppose as flowing, but yet rhythmical. The Sligo style makes use of the breathing to phrase the tunes, of course depending on the individual player as well. There is also a lot of use made of ornamentation, e.g. short rolls and long rolls. Take for example the playing of Roger Sherlock or Seamus Tansey. Rhythmical and flowing with lots of rolls. Another good example of Sligo flute playing is John Joe Gardiner (1893-1979) who came from near Ballymote, Co. Sligo.

I suppose many of the flute styles have been standardised because of the availability of commercial recordings.

Josie McDermott's playing is available on CD (Darby's Farewell). Another fine example of Sligo flute playing.

Galway flute playing is very smooth and silky, and I think they probably play a different set of tunes, maybe influenced by such musicians as Paddy Fahy.

Leitrim flute playing has a very strong breathy rhythm with maybe not as much ornamentation as Sligo/Roscommon.

It is quite hard to make very definite distinctions between the main flute playing areas. You can hear similarities between Tom Morris (1889-1958) from Glenamaddy Co. Galway, and John McKenna (1880-1947) and Tom Drumkeerin in Co. Leitrim.

Q: Many listeners (myself included) have been struck by the pacing of the dance tunes on your CD with Felix Dolan -- these tunes have a wonderful laid-back lift to them that is a welcome contrast to the hard-driving speed that you hear so often on recordings today. Could you comment a bit about the benefits of playing tunes at a more relaxed pace?

A: In some ways it can be harder to play slower - it requires more breath control - but it really has to come from within. You have to be able to feel a tune to appreciate it. Each tune has its own mood -- some are naturally slow and others fast. I think the music has to be lively, but that does not necessarily mean faster. It's the rhythm that you put into the tune and how it is phrased and ornamented that gives the tune the lift. If the music is "churned out" at speed it loses all meaning and just becomes a string of notes.

The speed that I play at does vary according to mood, and who I am playing with. If I was playing with Peter Horan or Patsy Hanly I would be inclined to play slightly faster. In Dublin I play with some musicians from a Clare background and so I'd be inclined to play slower. When I play by myself I tend to play at a relaxed pace, because that's what I find most comfortable. Many groups who record commercially would feel the need (especially playing to live audiences) to make an immediate impact with their music -- I suppose the best way to do this is hit them hard with a fast pace. Once you start fast its hard to slow down -- like driving a car!!! I still prefer the horse and cart!

When you play tunes more relaxed you have time to think of the beauty of it, the phrasing, maybe who you learnt it from, who it reminds you of etc. Felix Dolan who accompanied me on the CD is a relaxed sort of person as well -- so we played comfortably together.

Q: Could you tell us a bit about the flute(s) you play? The liner notes on your CD refer to an old Rudall and Rose. It sounds to me like it has an unlined headjoint -- it's got a very "woody" tone.

A: The flute I play is a Rudall and Rose and has no tuning slide and a solid wood unlined head joint. It dates from around the mid 1820's. It probably had two head joints but one must have got lost over the years -- it may have had a tuning slide. I got it in Birmingham (it was given to me), and I have been playing the same flute for the past 25 years. It does have a very woody tone which is also quite soft. It blends very well with other instruments especially fiddles.

Q: On the hornpipe "O'Donnell's," it sounds like you're doing some tongued "tick-a-tah" triplets on a few notes. I rarely hear this kind of ornamentation being done by Irish flute players! Many Americans have the misconception that "real" Irish flute or whistle players never tongue any notes or ornaments; could you comment on this?

A: The sound on the track O'Donnell's is not actually tonguing. It is a sound made from the throat. The only way I can think of describing it is maybe the way a bird warbles. Josie McDermott used it on the flute and it was from him that I got the hornpipe O'Donnell's.

You can hear a similar technique used on a hornpipe on "Fluters of Old Erin" (flute, piccolo and whistle recording of the 1920's and 30's released on Viva Voce 002). There is a hornpipe called Dwyer's played by a William Cummins (1894-1966) who came from Roscrea, Co. Tipperary. He uses the same technique and it is a great piece of flute playing.

Q: Could you tell us a bit about some of the players who have influenced you the most?

A: I have listened to so much music over the years that I suppose in its own way it has all influenced me in some way -- but certain people do stand out. Tom McHale who was a whistle and flute player from Tulsk Co. Roscommon. He lived in Birmingham for a few years and I think he was more widely known for his whistle playing -- but he was a fine flute player and actually used to play the flute I have now. He has a brother Mike McHale who lives in the Catskills and is a fine musician. Then Josie McDermott would have been a huge influence and I listened to him a lot on his trips to Birmingham, and also when I went to Ireland on holiday. I listened a lot also to Seamus Tansey and Roger Sherlock. I loved Tansey's vibrant music and Roger's subtle variations in the tunes. Also older players like Tom Morris (Morrison), John McKenna, and Packie Duignan from Leitrim.

I also listened to many fiddle players like Denis Murphy, Julia Clifford, Sean Ryan from Tipperary, and Paddy Canny, P.J. Hayes, Sean McGuire etc. It is great to be able to appreciate all styles and try and understand them. I suppose I naturally developed the Roscommon/Sligo style from playing so much in that area when I was young and my parents being from there. There were a lot of Roscommon musicians in Birmingham at that time: Frank Carty -- flute from Ballaghadereen, and Frank Jordan, another great flute player from Roscommon.

People can have an influence over your musically, but you might not necessarily end up playing like them. Their attitude to the music can influence you.

In later years I met John Kelly Senior. and he had such a wealth of knowledge about the music and life in general. He always had a great respect for the music which I very much admired.

Q: As a flute teacher as well as player, could you give a few tips that might be useful for beginners? How about a few hints for more experienced players too?

A: (1) Listen to as much music as you can, not just commercial recordings -- try and get hold of old recordings as well. There are a lot being re-issued now.

(2) Play slow when learning, take your time to play the tune correctly, and don't be in a rush to brush over things.

(3) Concentrate also on getting a good tone. Have plenty of patience it can take a long time -- but sure what's the rush! I'm playing over 25 years and I'm still learning!

(4) If you have a new flute, keep it well oiled: it takes more looking after than the old ones.

(5) Make sure you tune the flute correctly when playing with others.

(6) I wouldn't dream of giving advice to more experienced players, they could probably teach me!

(7) Be yourself when playing. Don't try and copy anyone or you'll never really be at ease playing. Just develop your own style naturally.


Notes from a week with Jack Coen

Along with about a dozen other flute players, I recently spent a week in Jack Coen's flute class at the Irish Arts Week in East Durham, New York. Jack was on a rigorous schedule and many other musicians wanted to spend time with him, so we didn't sit down to do a formal interview. But my notes from the class are sprinkled with quotes and tidbits of information that are worth passing on.

Jack Coen was born in Woodford, County Galway and immigrated to the US during the late 1950s. He won the All-Ireland Trio Championship with the late Tipperary box-player Paddy O'Brien and the late fiddler Larry Redican. He has performed with the Green Fields of America tour and was awarded the National Heritage Award in 1991 by the National Endowment of the Arts. His playing appears on the classic album "The Branch Line" (Green Linnet) with his brother Charlie Coen on concertina, and on "Warming Up" with Martin Mulhaire, Séamus Connolly, and Felix Dolan (also on Green Linnet).

Jack has an enormous store of tunes, many of them rarely played today, and many learned directly from original sources such as Father Kelly, Tommy Whelan, Paddy O'Brien, and Sean Ryan. He has taught flute for many years, and his warm, witty personality has endeared him to his students and hundreds of fellow musicians. Sharp as a tack in his seventies and playing with gusto, skill, and subtlety, Jack has a story for every tune he plays and has an amazing memory. He is revered by such well-known musicians as Mary Bergin, Willie Kelly, and Billy McComiskey.

Melody is paramount in Jack's sparsely ornamented playing style. It's a conscious decision on his part -- he believes that a tune can be "damaged" or blurred beyond recognition by too much ornamentation. Listening to Jack play, you gain a new appreciation for common tunes -- he says his versions of the Earl's Chair and the two best-known Father Kelly's reels are true to the original compositions, and I was struck by their unexpected and lovely turns. If you're used to using a lot of ornamentation in your playing, it's worth listening to Jack and experimenting with a more melodic style; I believe it requires more skill and musicality to play in this manner. In my own case, Jack's teaching has caused me to re-examine the way I play flute. I can see now that I often used ornamentation as a crutch to get around difficult turns in the melody.

Jack's preferred pace is slow by today's standards, although he is perfectly capable of keeping up with a fast pub session. He keeps a rock-solid beat, and enjoys playing slowly enough to savor a melody. His playing is the antithesis of the fast, flashy attention-getting styles of many younger flute players, but I find his music very exciting and beautiful, with a forceful tone, strong rhythm, and a quality of gentleness that's missing from the aggressive approach that you often hear today.

Jack plays mostly on an old Wheatstone eight-key flute, although he's currently breaking in an antique German flute as well. He gets a strong, traditional sound on both flutes with lots of overtones. He is familiar with most of the flutes on the market today, and had especially nice things to say about Bryan Byrne's and Patrick Olwell's flutes. He was quite impressed with the M & E plastic flute that one of the students brought -- I played it myself and also thought it had a nice tone and a strong bottom end.

Here are a few bits of advice and tips from Jack's class:

• Jack observed that most of us opened the topmost tonehole when we played the high D, but said that it's not necessary and just makes for more work. You can use the same fingering for the high D as the low D: all fingers down. I personally find that my flute "sings" a touch more fully if I open the top hole on the high D, but it would only be noticeable in slow tunes or airs. For dance music it doesn't matter.

• Remember to "slack off your breath" and blow easier in the high octave than in the low. The flute is not like a whistle -- you don't get the second octave by blowing harder. Instead, you tighten your embouchure. In Jack's playing, the low octave sounds slightly louder than the high octave, especially when he heads down to the grand D at the bottom.

• Speaking of octaves, Jack complained that many of today's players overblow the low octave so it sounds like the whole tune's up in the high octave. In Jack's view, this destroys the melody.

• On ornamentation: "don't have your fingers go blooming crazy!"

• On breathing: "You can always take a breath on a quarter note. You don't have to, but the option is there if you need it." Also, Jack said it's wise to take a breath during the second-to-last bar of the A part or B part of a tune so you can finish strongly.

• On learning tunes: "Any more than two new tunes a week is too many -- you won't learn them fully." Jack noted that many people appear to know a lot of tunes, "but they only know them halfway." Jack gave us 13 tunes during the week we were with him, but said we would probably have to work on them for "years" before we really knew them and played them well.

• "Play the notes distinctly and get the blur out of it."

• "Always play with someone who's better than you are. That way you can only get better."


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