• Elena Kopteva

Quickstart guide to Celtic Cello

Quickstart guide to Celtic Cello

Hi everyone, today I would like to share some helpful tips about playing Celtic music on the cello.

So you’re a cellist and you want to play Celtic music, just as I do. What should you begin with?

As a cellist, you have two main functions when playing Celtic music: playing the melody or the accompaniment. When talking about accompaniment, it is all about Natalie Haas, who will be mentioned at the end of this post along with some other inspiring cellists. For now let’s say you’ve always wanted to play the melodies, just as the violinists, whistle-players or flutists do. In that case you have many sources to learn from.

First things first: where to find the scores?

There is a wonderful web page called If you go to “tunes”, you can find an overwhelming amount of scores, free too. You can even print them from there if you’d like to.

When you’ve opened some tune and tried to play it, you probably thought that the melodies are quite easy. Violinists would have thought so for sure as all the tunes are mostly in the 1st position for them. For us cellists it’s a bit more difficult as you’d have to transpose one or two octaves lover. I personally prefer one octave, in the end we are trying to steal some melodies from the high instruments so why would we play them as low as two? Although, nothing wrong with transposing two octaves.

By the way as a cellist you might as well get used to transposing this way because the material for the cello is limited.

When you chose your method of transposing and have played for some time, you might think again that the melodies are simple. But they somehow don’t sound like dance music and you are not sure what to do.

Find someone to play with.

If you are a string player, you will benefit greatly if you find a violinist who is already familiar with the style. I would recommend you to play as a duo first, that way it’s much easier to grasp the basics of the style. Depending on where do you come from, traditional music players can be more or less easy to find around, but there is always somebody if you search for a bit.

Next you could check whether there are Irish sessions at where you live. I have not been to one yet, so when I go to one I will write a separate post about it.

Sessions are a fun way to learn new tunes and play with people. You might want to check set-lists if they have one, otherwise you’d have to learn tunes “by ear”. By the way, learning by ear is quite common when playing traditional music, although as a classical musician you might not be used to doing it. It is great for stylistics and ornamentation. However, you might find it difficult to learn new tunes after 3 hours of playing. It might also be difficult to get the bowings right if you need to learn the tune at the same time. Especially if you are a cellist and apart from all above need to think about transposition and shifts.

If you want to make your session life easier, you might want to learn a set from the scores in advance.

New tune a day.

Who should you learn to play the melodies from if not from the violinists? There are many “Irish Tune a Day” projects to get you started. Here is one of my favorites by Fergal Scahill, “Fergal Scahill’s fiddle tune a day 2017”.

How to use such projects? You can find scores from the tunes he plays, analyze the ornaments and the use of the bow and start learning them. You can just listen to how he plays as a source of inspiration on ornamentation and execution of the melody or just for inspiration.

A similar project was created by two sisters, a violinist Katie Davis Henderson and a cellist Liz Davis Maxfield.

Tune books.

There is a great book called “O’Neill’s Music of Ireland”. All the scores are available for free in the internet, but if you don’t like playing from the screen you might want to get this book. In my case it was a present and my very first Irish tune book. It has an impressive number of 1800 tunes.

All types of tunes are grouped in sections and there is also an alphabetic index at the beginning.

Next book recommendation I got was a book by Matt Cranitch, an Irish fiddler. He has two books with detailed instructions and scores of Irish tunes. Here is a link to his web page where you can find them. I own the orange book for now.

The pros are that the book also has a CD and you can play with the recording. The explanations are detailed and clear which is great for understanding the bow use, accents and ornamentation. Another helpful thing is that the bowings are marked.

A slight con is that if you’re a professional, you’d have to skip the whole introduction dedicated to the basics of violin playing and score reading. However, you will see it in many other books too.

That’s it for the books for now, I will add more later on.

Exclusively for cellists and regarding accompaniment.

Here we come back to the genius Natalie Haas, who together with a Scottish fiddler Alasdair Fraser revived the tradition of playing Celtic music on the violin and the cello. On a side note, it’s only now that you get strange looks if you’re a cellist and you want to play Celtic music. Earlier it was a normal thing, for instance, in Scotland.

Natalie has a great video course on playing accompaniment in Celtic music. You can buy it as a DVD or as an access to the video and it is absolutely worth it. Natalie shows a couple of exercises, explains the “chop” technique and teaches a pair of riffs in detail. Paired with the albums by their duo, you get a nice idea about what you can use where. Their duo is a great source of inspiration if you are planning to do some arranging, too.

Here is a link to the video lesson:

And here is Alasdair and Natalie’s video:

Another cellist you can check out is the aforementioned Liz Davis Maxfield from the Irish Tune a Day project. She has a book called “The Irish Cello Book”.  The melodies there are transposed two octaves lower. She has some of the tunes on her YouTube channel, and I find her execution of the accents is particularly interesting and helpful for the cellists.

Yet another interesting cellist playing, among others, traditional music – Mike Block. He also sings while playing and is an inventor of the Block Strap – a strap you could use in order to play the cello standing up. He currently works on a book of etudes for non-classical cello techniques.

Well, hopefully you’ve found something useful in this post. Let me a comment, tell me know what you think and if you’ve followed any of the steps. Maybe you also play Celtic music and have some advice for me? Will be happy to hear!

#cello #celtic #fiddle #celticcello #howto #irishmusic #traditionalmusic

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