Making Celtic Music Sound Irish, at Creative Strings Workshop

July 3, 2017, 9:43 PM · There isn't just one way to jam on the violin, I'm discovering while exploring improvisation at Christian Howes' Creative Strings Workshop, through Saturday in Columbus, Ohio.

We had a little elective in the afternoon, a choice between playing in ensembles that would be doing: free improv; reading sessions; or fiddle styles. After doing a reading session last night, today I opted for "fiddle styles" with violinist Andy Reiner, a versatile fiddle player who today was demonstrating Celtic Fiddle styles.

Hmm, could I get in touch with my Irish roots? I've always wondered how Celtic fiddle music sounds so...well, "Irish." If you look at the sheet music for it, it looks pretty simple. Then if you try playing that same music as written, it sounds...simple. But, if you listen to an expert like Andy, it's endlessly interesting:

Somehow when he plays it, it's full of mysterious fiddle tricks, groovy phrasing and infectious rhythm. How does he do all that? Well, he did illuminate a few of those Irish fiddle ornaments for us today. I'm sure it was just the tip of the iceberg, but I enjoyed being able to make an Celtic fiddle tune sound at least a little more Irish!

We went over four kinds of ornaments, which he called "micro-improvisations" because you can sprinkle them throughout a tune to make it sound not only more "Irish," but also to keep things different each time you play the tune.

"I'm trying to always keep the melody in my head, but I never want it to be the same," Andy said.

The ornaments were:

Here is a video demonstration:

Earlier in the day, I went to a basic clinic on improvisation with Christian Howes, the jazz violinist who is the director of Creative Strings. Today he spoke about how to get started with creative ideas. Of course, it helps to get a thorough handle on chords (here is a workshop he did about that), but the whole process involves more than getting to know the chords of any given tune.

"Creativity is about choosing," Christian said. And what holds people back? Two main problems: Not knowing where to start, and being in a rut.

"Play anything at all" is actually one of the most difficult ways to look at improvising. It's a lot more helpful to give yourself some parameters, to eliminate that feeling of being overwhelmed by too many possibilities.

Christian Howes
Christian Howes. Photo by

In fact, "the more constraints you have, the easier it is to improvise," Howes said. "As long as I pick a parameter, it helps me move forward."

Here are a number of the categories for creating parameters that he suggested:

Music sounds like a big category, but here are some parameters: limit yourself to certain notes to play; rhythms; fast vs. slow; phrasing; number of notes; genre; space and silence. For example, he set three people up to improvise together, giving them each a different set of very specific parameters. The first person was instructed to play occasional special effects; the second person was to play lyrical music, all in fifth position with lots of vibrato; then the first person was to play three-note phrases on the G string, separated by awkwardly long spaces. It came out sounding like what we classical musicians would call "modern music"! More importantly for this exercise: No one had trouble coming up with their part.

He said it's important to listen for all the same things we do in classical music, when doing improvisation: notes in tune, in time, with good phrasing.

At one point it was my turn to play a one-on-one free-style improvisation with Christian, the only parameter being that it was kind of a back-and-forth. It was a real treat for someone new to improvisation to play with someone who knows it all inside-out and has put in his 10,000 hours on the subject. I did my best to pick up on the motives he was playing, and a pulse seemed to emerge as we went back and forth. This is a nice way of learning, too: interacting and doing things by ear, getting more to the instincts of music-making.

More to come!

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July 5, 2017 at 02:44 PM · Celtic music is of course not just Irish; there are other important kinds such as Scottish, Welsh, Cornish, Manx and Breton, each distinctive and attractive in its own way. Even in Irish there are very many styles, varying from the Scottish-influenced fiddle music of Donegal to the more flowing Sleabh Luchacra style of the South West of Ireland.

For many years in Ireland there has been the annual PanCeltic Festival in which bands, solo performers, and dancers from all six Celtic nations take part. I was at this year's festival in Carlow, taking part in a Breton fiddle workshop and a session, amongst other events.

July 6, 2017 at 01:17 AM · I am very aware of Andy Reiner's freewheeling playing and teaching style. He captures the joy of music quite well.

July 6, 2017 at 04:01 AM · Trevor - Thanks for commenting that Celtic does not mean just Irish - but is from 7 different traditions, and in each of these larger traditions there is a variety of variations. I am more into Scottish than Irish and have tried to learn some of the others, so I appreciate it when musicians and others call the music more by the more backgrounds/individual cultures which helps people understand the differences and to enjoy each rather than pigeon-holing all into one group and then playing it all in one style.

I will get to attend a fiddle camp in the Rockies where Christian Howes will be the last full week of July and I recommend his classes to put a different spark into music.



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