My Artistic Practice
It is difficult to give a concise account of what my artistic practice is. Although it would be appropriate here to concentrate on my practice of bodhrán playing, I find it hard to untangle that from the rest of my musical life. My bodhrán playing is only one aspect of an engagement with music that started in early childhood and has gone through many iterations. To understand where I am coming from as a bodhrán player, I think it is worthwhile to give a picture of the larger musical world I have lived in.
A picture taken of my older brother as an infant gives some idea of the house I grew up in. My brother looks to be just months old, and my father is crouched in front of his bouncy chair, playing tin whistle ‘at’ his captive audience. While doing jobs around the house or driving the car, my father would often be lilting or whistling snatches of songs or traditional Irish tunes, which he still does. Family car journeys often involved sing-a-longs. When my older sister started piano at the convent, I would have to wait in the room with her while she had her lesson. If the music was lively I was liable to get up and start marching around the room. I don’t think Sr. Agnes minded too much. Soon it was my turn to start piano lessons, and for a while I enjoyed learning how to turn the funny dots on the page into a nice bouncing tune.
I think I only began to differentiate a thing called “traditional music” from the other types of music in my life when my sisters started learning tin whistle. In my recollection we were on holidays in Kerry, and they were due to start lessons the next September. My father was giving them a head start, and the sound of whistles filled the air. I was bought a bodhrán and a copy of Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin’s tutor book (Ó Súilleabháin, 1984), and after being shown the basic strokes by my father, I began to learn myself. I was about twelve years of age, and had abandoned the piano by this point. Over the next few years traditional music became a very important feature of life for all of us. Myself and my sisters started set-dancing in the same village where the music lessons happened. The social scene was great, with lessons, competitions and pub sessions giving ample opportunity to meet and make friends with other musicians our own age.
Developing in parallel with this was life with my school friends. There was no overlap with the traditional music world at home, but music was also of central importance here. Cliques of friends at my secondary school seemed to coincidentally share musical tastes, and often bands were formed from within these cliques. There were metal bands, indie bands, grunge bands; my friends and I seemed to tend towards the more esoteric. I had begun to teach myself guitar, and my friend took up bass. Although we shared some musical tastes with the wider social group, we often eschewed music that everyone else liked, and for that reason alone. Anything that verged on pop music was completely suspect. My older brother and sister were operating as taste-makers for me, and I was an avid fan of The Doors by the time I started secondary school. Through guitar magazines and books I learned that improvisation was an important part of what gave older bands like The Doors and Led Zeppelin their exciting, loose sound. The message I took from the music I liked was to be innovative and original. Some of these values I could hear in contemporary bands like Alice in Chains, Nirvana and Therapy?, but I just couldn’t understand how anyone could like Oasis or Greenday.
These values of originality and improvisation also filtered down from the world of traditional music I was part of, as well as an appreciation of an aesthetic of wildness. Through the experience of set dancing and going to pub sessions, it was clear that music could and should create an ecstatic experience.
In the intervening years I have played in many bands, from Black Metal to Wedding bands, pub ballad groups to experimental music. I began learning bodhrán at about the age of twelve, and now, almost thirty years later, I still play regularly in solitary practice, and also with family and friends in pub and house sessions, and occasionally on stage. I teach bodhrán and guitar, and I returned to third-level education in 2016, studying bodhrán under Colm Murphy (of De Danann) at UCC. More recently I have studied bodhrán with Tommy Hayes privately, and with Jim Higgins at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance.
Especially in the last few years, and spurred on by the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns, I have developed a regular practice of playing by myself at home. It has now become a very enjoyable and grounding routine that is self-sustaining. Sometimes I play to recorded music, but other times I just play, enjoying the act of exploring different movements of the bodhrán stick across the skin of the drum.