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Playing Celtic music on the cello: the melody

Hi and welcome to our blog! I thought I'd share with you a post highlighting my findings on playing Celtic music on the cello. Here is a video I shot in March, where I was working on my accents. I am currently mainly working with Matt Cranitch's book (the orange one) because I like it a lot, so I just took a tune from there, called the "Old John's Jig", and started working on it. 

Mind those accents

My goal was to make it sound as authentic as possible to the tradition of playing Celtic music, and I also played with the CD which comes with Matt's book. Somehow that confused me; the recordings on the CD are in quite a slow tempo, which helps to learn the tunes, but it doesn't give a very clear idea about how the accents should be played.

Playing the accents right was my main point of struggle since the very first time I tried playing Celtic music, the use of bow is just so different from what you would use in classical music! I could play them quite well every time we had a unison with Allison, but whenever I tried it at home I was lost.

So this first video basically reflects my work on the accents at that time:

Go play at an Irish session

Some time has passed, and I finally got the accents! At least I feel like I got much closer to the proper way of playing them. There were several things which I found helpful. First of them was going to an Irish session, which happened during the celebration of St. Patrick's day. I got a chance to play a full session with musicians in Sondica (Basque Country) and then went to another session they held in the Residence bar in Bilbao.

Learning by ear is an invaluable part of playing pretty much any folk music, and playing on the sessions forced me into the natural flow of Irish music. I found out that my tempos were on the slow side and general playing was a little bit heavy. 

Louder, not longer

The other thing that helped me was the information I found in Liz Maxwell Davis's Irish cello book. She wrote that many beginners are confused about the accents, thinking that they should swing and they actually are not supposed to. In, for example, a jig, each first eight note must be louder, not longer than the other notes. 

It might be contrasting with some of the traditional players you can think of, but for me, as a beginner, it was a valuable piece of advice. I figured I'd just start from there, "louder, not longer!", and work my way up to other ways of playing later.

Here is a video which I shot two months later from the first one, in May 2018. 

Where did all the ornaments go?

When I listened back to the video, I realized it lacks almost any kind of ornaments. It only has one in the second half of the tune, and you can hear it only if you listen very carefully (or if you know it's there). So next step would be to record another video of the same tune, now adding some ornaments to it. I would like to reach the level of Phil Berthoud, whose playing I like a lot:

I made a transcription of what ornamentation he is adding but soon was faced with a challenge. Some of the ornaments he plays are quite difficult to play on the cello because of the shifts we have to make! It made me think about getting a 5-stringed cello or an additional finger... I could also try to only copy the parts that aren't so difficult, but I will do my best to find solutions to repeating what he plays in the most exact manner. So I will let you know how that goes. 

The Boys of Bluehill

I still wanted to work on some ornaments though, so I did so on another tune. Those are also from Matt Cranitch's book, and the tune is a hornpipe called "The Boys of Bluehill". I love the liveliness of this tune, and I'm working on some arrangements of it. Here is just a little snippet I made during one of my practice sessions.

So let me know if you have any thoughts on playing Celtic music on the cello, have a very nice rest of the week and we see you next Wednesday with another Filidhean blog post!

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