ACCEPT, TO BEGIN, that tradition is the creation of the future out of the past. A continuous process situated in the nothingness of the present, linking the vanished with the unknown, tradition is stopped, parceled, and codified by thinkers who fix upon this aspect or that, in accord with their needs or preoccupations, and leave us with a scatter of apparently contradictory, yet cogent, definitions
(Glassie, 1995, p. 395)
These writings are an attempt to stop, parcel and codify one aspect of the bodhrán playing tradition: the movements used to strike the skin with a stick. Viewing bodhrán playing through the lens of movement has allowed me discern an unstructured space of nothingness in my present: the switching of grip postures. In this space I search for musical, rhythmic movement in a process that tries to find connection with my musical past, and create my musical future.
This is the web-based written component of an arts practice research project carried out from May to August of 2022 as part of the MA Irish Music Studies programme at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance (IWAMD) at the University of Limerick. The project set out to explore the broad topic of creativity within Irish traditional music through the embodied means of my own bodhrán playing. In particular, I set out to see to what extent the generative notion of switching between ways of gripping the bodhrán stick (“switching grip postures”) could be embodied effectively in my bodhrán playing.
This research is best understood directly through my embodied practice, and so was presented as a thirty-minute performance of Irish traditional music where I accompanied an accordion player, demonstrating and explaining some of my findings. This performance can be viewed here on the left, or in the Performance section. This website serves to support and contextualise that performance, with written elements, multimedia and musical scores. To quickly get a grasp of the research and its findings, the reader can view the materials in the Grip Switching section.
In this introductory section I will provide a brief description of the instrument at the centre of this research, the bodhrán. I then outline some of my previous research which is of relevance, discuss the arts practice methodology I have used for this research, and define the "field of problematicity" (2) Paulo de Assis: On Research Questions Objectives, 2020) within which this research operates. The various elements introduced here can be accessed through the contents menu at the top left corner of this website.
The bodhrán is a single-headed frame drum (Robinson, 2003, p. 362), consisting of a round wooden hoop of about 40 cm to 50 cm in diameter over which a cured animal skin (usually goat) is stretched to form the drumhead; it is played by hand or with a stick (Ó Danachair, 1955, p. 129; Ó Súilleabháin, 1984, p. 1; Robinson and Brocken, 2003, p. 349). Since the 1950s its popularity has grown rapidly (Ó Súilleabháin et al. 2001) to the point where it is now considered the “iconic form of percussion used in Irish traditional music” (Cunningham and Vallely, 2011, p. 68). It is sometimes speculatively attributed Bronze Age Celtic, Roman or Arabic origins (Ó Súilleabháin, 1974, p. 4; O’Mahoney, 1999, p. 34; Uí Ógáin, 2002, p. 141; Morrison, 2011, p. 38). Such suppositions are lent a degree of credibility by the ubiquity of similar frame drums across time and geographical distance around the world (Robinson, 2003, pp. 362–363), but they are not supported by any direct evidence (Ó Bharáin, 2008, p. 53).
In the past the bodhrán was strongly associated with the outdoor ritual context of Wrenboy processions (Harte, 2020, p. 13); footage of a Wrenboy competition from 1963 is shown on the right. Today the bodhrán is a familiar feature in any context where Irish traditional music is played: in homes, at informal pub sessions and on stage. On the left is Waterford bodhrán player Niamh Fennel giving a recital at the popular ‘Craiceann’ bodhrán summer school and festival. For more information on the bodhrán, see the Bodhrán Literature and Practice Review section.
My Previous Research
This project is a continuation of a short arts practice research project I carried out in semester two, titled ‘Motor Structure as a Heuristic for the Development of Bodhrán Expressivity’, which can be downloaded on the left (Sheehan, 2022b). Relevant points that arose from this research were:
- My development of the term ‘grip posture’ to refer to the particular way a bodhrán player holds the stick;
- I observed that the vast majority of players share a broad similarity of grip posture, which I refer to as the Mercier grip posture (after Peadar Mercier, bodhrán player with the Chieftains);
- I explored a small number of other less well-known grip postures and found that they had promising potential for use in my bodhrán playing;
- I found that switching between grip postures in the moment of playing was possible in some cases, and might hold the best potential for interesting stylistic development in the future.
It is this last finding that formed the starting point of the current research project: I wanted to see to what extent I could develop the embodied knowledge necessary to effectively employ a creative process of switching between grip postures in my playing. Where my previous research had established that this could potentially be used for creatively developing new artistic expression in my practice, the current research aimed to see if this abstract potential could be more fully realised in embodied terms as a tool for artistic expression at a more advanced level with other musicians. I would consider the previous research as a proof-of-concept, whereas the current research is concerned with the development of a technical facility of real-world artistic value.
Methodological Background: Arts Practice Research
Arts practice research is a form of academic research where a scholar’s existing artistic practice is central to the research being carried out (Phelan and Nunan, 2018, p. 2). The goal of any academic research is the production of new knowledge, as articulated by Nelson:
the rigours of sustained academic research are driven by a desire to address a problem, find things out, establish new insights.
(Nelson, 2013, p. 3)
One of the defining aspects, and major strengths, of creative practice in general and arts practice research in particular is that they necessarily question the idea of what constitutes knowledge, challenging “the schism in the Western intellectual tradition between theory and practice” (Nelson, 2013, p. 5). In the long history of academia, theoretical knowledge, as expressed through literacy and numeracy, has been valued over practical knowledge, which can be embodied, emotive, and intuitive. (Phelan and Welch, 2021, pp. 5–7). These kinds of knowledge can, by their nature, be tacit and ineffable, or otherwise unsuited to representation through the normal means of academic discourse, and so a major challenge of arts practice research is to find means of communication and representation that are appropriate to the modes of knowledge at play, and the academic framework within which the research is evaluated.
To effectively communicate the various types of knowledge that might be produced by an arts practice research project, Nelson advises that the research submission “is comprised of multiple modes of evidence reflecting a multi-mode research inquiry” (Nelson, 2013, p. 26). As such, a typical multi-modal submission would include a “product” (for example a video recording of a performance or composition), documentation of process (for example, a journal, photographs, video), and complementary writing “locating practice in a lineage of influences and a conceptual framework for the research” (Nelson, 2013, p. 26). In the case of arts practice research in performative arts, Nelson further advises that the research is also presented through performance, to be experienced directly by the examiners, and recorded by audio-visually for posterity (Nelson, 2013, p. 27). This performance element is of central importance, as arts practice research
“arises only where an insightful practice is submitted as a substantial part of the evidence of a research inquiry” (Nelson, 2013, p. 9). My research findings were primarily communicated in person to the examiners as a thirty-minute live performance and presentation (which was documented audio-visually); the other elements presented on this website function in a supporting role to contextualise those findings which are represented directly in performance.
Following Nelson’s multi-modal approach, this web-based submission of my arts practice research project includes:
- Written elements (described below);
- A small number of “products” in the form of short videos which demonstrate the creative process of Grip Switching developed over the course of this project;
- Links to notation of the rhythmic concepts (which I term “schemata”) embodied in performance (which are found in the Grip Switching section);
- Compilations of short clips recorded during my daily private practice sessions, dated and indexed by clip number, found in the Documentation of Research Process section.
Nelson remarks that his approach “might be seen to be more consonant with a postmodern relational and rhizomatic model” (Nelson, 2013, p. 14). I see the web-based format used here as particularly suited to representing such a rhizomatic model.
Arts practice research has also been further qualified as practice-based research, practice-as-research, practice-led research, artistic research, and practice through research (Phelan and Nunan, 2018, p. 2) to reflect the different ways in which the artistic practice interacts with the research being carried out. I would characterise this research project as largely practice-led; appropriately, this realisation came to me as I was playing bodhrán in one of my daily private sessions, as I subsequently reflected on in the journal entry for that session:
I think this could be what is meant by “practice led” research, that is, letting my embodied practice and embodied intuition lead the way, rather than being hemmed in by some neat concept that might not actually help me find movements that are accessible in the moment of embodied practice.
(Sheehan, 2022a, p. 31/05/2022)
The accompanying clip from that practice session on the right shows me working on a movement sequence that arose naturally in the course of exploratory playing, rather than being something I had abstractly conceived of as a possibility beforehand. I came to call this sequence the “Reverse Ó Riada Shuffle”.
Writing and Arts Practice Research
Returning to the question of how different forms of knowledge should be represented and expressed in arts practice research, it has been found that “the nature and role of writing” is highly contested (Phelan and Nunan, 2018, p. 1). At one extreme, some practitioners are of the opinion that arts practice research need not be evidenced or contextualised by any means other than the practice itself, that “art in and of itself should be recognized as research and as a site of meaning-making and knowledge construction”. At the other end of the spectrum some artist-scholars consider some form of writing to be essential to the field of arts practice research (Phelan and Nunan, 2018, p. 3). This submission is being made to the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance as part of a taught Masters programme, where it is required that a written submission of at least 7,500 words accompanies a performance of 20-30 minutes.
What form that writing takes is not explicitly specified, and Phelan and Nunan make the case that “writing practices should be dictated by research questions and methods of inquiry rather than ideological positioning” (Phelan and Nunan, 2018, p. 4), which in practice means that the researcher and their supervisor formulate a suitable format for the research at hand. The authors describe how a range of methods and modes of writing have been combined to form a distinctive style of arts practice writing at the IWAMD. The institution fosters:
a distinctly inclusive attitude towards writing: not as a necessary evil to explicate artistic practice, but as a useful component of that practice, or, metaphorically speaking, a changeable dance partner moving in and out of stylistic and methodological roles.
(Phelan and Nunan, 2018, p. 5)
This written element employs a range of different writing styles: discursive academic writing is mixed with narrative elements (as in the description of my arts practice, and my personal reflections that are interspersed throughout the academic writing). These writings are combined with multimedia elements such as video and images in the hyper-linked format of the world wide web, using the researchcatalogue.net arts practice research platform. A form of bodhrán notation that was developed over the course of the project is also used to represent aspects of my research findings.
As important as the modes of writing I choose to employ, is that which I actually choose to write about. Following the order presented in the table contents (which can be accessed at the top left corner of this website at anytime), I have included:
- a narrative description of my broader artistic practice (with video documentation);
- a discussion relating my bodhrán-playing practice to the conceptual framework of the academic discourse that informs it;
- a literature and practice review section concerning the bodhrán and its performance practices;
- a contingencies section, which describes other elements of my artistic practice that interact with the analytical frame of “grip postures”, which is at the heart of this research project;
- short written elements contextualising the various other materials evidencing the process of artistic research I engaged in over the summer.
Research Questions and Fields of Problematicity
In discussing (as seen here on the right) the relation of research questions to arts practice research, artist-scholar Paulo de Assis finds that:
Questions are important, but questions do not necessarily precede a project in artistic research [...] In artistic research, one never stops having new questions.
(2) Paulo de Assis: On Research Questions Objectives, 2020)
The paradigm of posing research questions and then engaging in research to answer those questions is found to be somewhat unsuitable for the field of artistic research (here termed PaR, Practice as Research) by Nelson:
questions typically imply answers and, in turn, evoke perhaps ‘the scientific method’ in which data lead to the resolution of a hypothesis [...] In my experience, PaR typically affords substantial insights rather than coming to such definite conclusions as to constitute ‘answers’.
(Nelson, 2013, p. 30)
Rather than formulating a precise research question, de Assis advises that artistic researchers instead define a “field of problematicity”, which he describes as “a ground where problems, doubts, questions, ideas, hypotheses, analytical and creative solutions become thinkable” (2) Paulo de Assis: On Research Questions Objectives, 2020).
In this research, the field of problematicity I have defined is “grip postures in bodhrán playing”. The concept of “grip posture” is used to analyse the performance practices of bodhrán players, and to formulate a creative process I call “grip switching” in my own bodhrán-playing practice.
In exploring the field of problematicity defined above, the core methodology I have used is my own artistic practice of bodhrán playing. In particular, I have used daily private practice to engage in an intensive period of exploratory playing. These practice sessions were unplanned and unstructured, while remaining focused on an exploration of the concepts of ‘grip posture’ and ‘grip switching’ through the embodied means of my bodhrán playing.
A total of forty sessions of approximately two hours duration each were carried out over the period from 19th May 2022 to 22nd July. These sessions focused on developing a facility with switching between some of those grip postures identified in the Bodhrán Literature and Practice Review section. To this end, I would play to a wide variety of recorded musical sources largely drawn from the Irish tradition of dance music, but from time to time including sources as diverse as Jazz, Scottish traditional music, African music, rock and Hip-hop. I also often played unaccompanied, focusing more directly on the movements in my playing rather than rhythm, in a creative process I term ‘rhyming’.
Short, targeted video clips and journaling were used to document this process. Journal entries were handwritten in an A4 lined hardback journal which allowed me to freely mix ad-hoc music notation, diagrams and writing as I needed. My findings were presented as a thirty-minute live performance and presentation; these findings are contextualised by this web-based element containing writings and multi-media. The Grip Switching section provides a quick introduction to the main findings of this research as represented through performance and written notation.