2002 Al Purcell Tionól
review by Tom Kennedy
The second annual Al Purcell Tionól and Irish Music Festival which took place in Ann Arbor, MI on the weekend of September 28, the anniversary of Al's passing, was once again a lively celebration of his life and teachings. Beginning with an open session on Friday evening at a local hotel, the main focus of the weekend activities filled out the day on Saturday with workshops in piping, fiddle, flute, and reed making while a group of concertinas congregated in the stairwell to jam. Included in the activities of the Tionól were a concert on Saturday evening which lasted well over 3 hours followed by a house party that kept the session music going well into the wee hours of the morning. As a result, the Sunday morning breakfast and session at Conor O'Neill's Pub was a bit thinly attended.
Advanced Piping Class
The basic lesson presented in the Advanced Piping Class, taught by Kieran O'Hare, was that you never know what you don't know 'till someone tells you. Since all of the class participants were piping at an extremely high level, the focus concentrated on the finer points of playing.
The morning was spent discussing the mutability of tone that is striven for in piping. Kieran displayed an amazing ability to analytically describe how he accomplishes his piping style, and even described the individual steps required for each movement. It was refreshing to learn from a player who could tell you what it was suppose to sound like and then exactly how to do it. Often one knows what it's supposed to sound like, but can't adequately describe how to get that sound. Kieran was great at both.
The afternoon session was a bit of a change of pace, starting out with a discussion of regulator playing. It turns out that regulator playing is just a matter of "time." You start by adding a little bit into the tunes as you best can and keep on working at it until you get it right. After seeing what it takes to reach all the regulator keys and then getting a few examples on tape Kieran moved on to an individual analysis of the different pipers in the group. Here again, Kieran showed excellent form. He would start each analysis by giving complements on what he heard that sounded good and then move into areas of divergence - Not necessarily "improvements" but things that could be done to make your piping more creative. It was a great learning opportunity for all involved.
Eric Hahn remarked that he thought the Advanced Piping Class with Kieran O'Hare was an excellent learning experience and provided plenty of concepts to work on for the next few months. "Actually, my brain was pretty much filled up by 10:30 that morning and we still had a long way to go!"
Intermediate Piping Class
Isaac Alderson was back with us again this year teaching the Intermediate Piping Class. It was truly an educational as well as entertaining experience enhanced by the exquisite use the regs during his demonstrations. In addition to brief attention to a variety of jigs and reels where specific techniques were demonstrated a major amount of time was dedicated to some very detailed work on The Humours of Ballyloughlin. After spoon feeding us the tune part-by-part Isaac then worked with each of the pipers phrase-by-phrase in highlighting details of embellishments and ornamentation that take a really cool tune and change it into a much more musical and exciting work of art. He demonstrated various methods of enhancing the tune that contributed to maintaining a fresh sound throughout the music and kept it from sounding repetitive. He also illustrated alternative movements which could be used depending on the specific note progression in a passage or could be used to enhance the music in different ways. He also gave us suggestions and exercises for enhancing our fingering and musical techniques. Following a short dissertation on open vs. closed piping styles in which he gave a bit of history and related these styles to various notable pipers, Isaac impressed on us the importance of learning a good staccato technique and advocated practicing with a goal to achieve a dynamic balance between the two extremes.
Isaac finished the formal portion of his class in the afternoon by covering some of the types of ornamentations used in playing airs, demonstrating with a beautiful rendition of Dark Women of the Glen. Playing airs is such an individual thing that you can't define a specific manner in which to embellish them. All you can do is give examples and encourage listening to how other pipers handle them and then develop your own interpretation and style. The end of the afternoon segment was spent attending to specific individual problems and requests.
Beginning Piping Class
The beginning pipers experienced a special treat. Being that there were only two of them taking opposite half-day sessions, they each ended up receiving a lengthy private lesson from master Toronto piper Ray Caldwell. Being a novice musician in the presence of someone who is accomplished can often be an intimidating experience but Ray was extremely patient and made his students feel entirely comfortable. He began by launching directly into some new tunes, Tom Busby's and O'Keefe's Slide. "Ray had the patience of a saint as I struggled through the tunes," said John O'Gara, "and made some great suggestions regarding learning...mainly SLOW DOWN, get the tune down first with clear notes, then later go for speed." Going beyond expectations, Ray later emailed his students MP3 audio files of the tunes they worked on, played both slowly and up to speed. John, being thoroughly satisfied with the event, said that he would definitely attend next year's workshop.
Reed Making Class
Seth Gallagher taught a concise and complete reed making class in addition to instructing and assisting other pipers with their individual problems. His presence at the Tionól was a very worthwhile experience since we all seem to experience reed problems on a much too frequent basis. John O'Gara was interested in taking Seth's class because the reed that came with his set never really played "easy" and always took way too much air to keep it going. Arriving with many of his own tools and materials in hand they dove right in. Seth looked at some reeds John had produced before and made some observations regarding blade thickness, etc. and what was right and wrong with them. "What I really wanted to learn was 'the scrape', which I clearly did not have down pat." Seth covered everything from sanding to final scraping and, of course, all along imparted wisdom on everything from the diameter of the sanding cylinder (2.6") to the length of the "vee." In short order he had fashioned a reed which played very nicely and left John walking away with a significant amount of notes. The class not being strictly limited to reeds, he also discovered through working with Seth that he needed to do a better job sealing bag and bellows from leaks. Thanks to working with Seth, John's 5 previously unsuccessful attempts at making reeds were reversed later on at home where he put his refined skills to work and was able to make a couple of reeds that played acceptably in both octaves. "All in all a great experience," he said when it was all over. "Three hours of reed making with a master!"
Irish Flute Class
Brendan McKinney made the most of the beautiful autumn day and, true to Ann Arbor style, took his one Irish flute student, Molly Noyes, outside to Conor O'Neill's sidewalk café area where he give her a day long private lesson, teaching ornamentation, various techniques, and giving her advice on her playing and execution of the tunes they worked on. He also taught her about traditional Irish music and different styles of flute playing. Molly commented that the workshop gave her the rare opportunity to focus entirely on her instrument and music for a full day and was surprised at how much she learned from the workshop. She also remarked that Brendan is very good teacher and that much of what he taught her that day was applicable not only to traditional Irish music but to all aspects of her playing.
The fiddle workshop taught by Liz Knowles, offered for the first time this year, doubled the size of the Tionól. Liz was amazing in the way she took the entire group of 12 fiddlers ranging from beginning to advanced and connected with all levels simultaneously. Working with students aging from six to sixty with a wide variety of technical abilities and styles she did a tremendous job of keeping everyone's interest and addressing everyone at their own level. She began by asking her class what they wanted to accomplish and what they were looking for in the workshop. One of her extremely effective teaching methods was to get the entire class to focus by having them close their eyes and listen closely while she demonstrated a particular technique, then having them all immediately mimic what she just played. Liz's attitude toward the class was that their playing wasn't necessarily wrong but just needed to be improved and developed more. Using pieces they had already been working on, she suggested ways to enhance these tunes with different interpretations and ornamentations. She also worked with them on a couple of new tunes, Ships are Sailing (reel) and Gallagher's Jig, critiqued their techniques, and discussed individual problems they were having. After the workshop was over I heard nothing but praise for her from all grades of students along with a strong desire for her to return soon to give them more. Mary Jo Sandberg said the workshop was a wonderful experience and that her 7 year old daughter who attended with her was now excited to participate in even more of them.
At the end of the afternoon a few photographs were taken and we all split up into groups to venture out into the diverse world of Ann Arbor dinner cuisine and to chill a bit before getting on with the next half of the day, with only a couple hours at best remaining before the start of the concert at 7:30.
The second annual Al Purcell Irish Music Festival Concert was jump-started again this year with the vibrant and entertaining music of Isaac Alderson. Isaac began with tunes on both the flute and uilleann pipes before asking Ann Arbor's multi-talented Tyler Duncan to accompany him on guitar. The camaraderie between these two musicians laid the foundation for the rest of the night in Ann Arbor's Ark. Tyler playing pipes, whistle and bodhran with his own group, Millish, including Jessie Mason (guitar), Brad Phillips (fiddle), and Glen Bering (drums), took over from Isaac to blend a combination of traditional tunes with the hot Irish worldbeat fusion, purely Millish flair!
The Crotty-Doran Detroit Ceili Band provided music throughout the evening in the form of pure ceili entertainment, with pianist David Bowen also acting as Master of Ceremonies. Their backdrop of Irish music welcomed each new act on stage. Among those was Seth Gallagher on the uilleann pipes. Seth played a combination of jigs and airs before being joined by David on guitar for an amazing rendition of O'Carolan's Concerto. As Seth retired, three talented young fiddlers from Michigan took the stage. Kelsie Lutz, Helen Raiper, and Maura Nicholson, having taken a second place in the 2002 All-Ireland competition, provided a fiddle-trio of tunes. Young Síobhan McKinney on harp closed the first half of the concert with a professionalism not often witnessed even in adult performers. She was joined by Haley Cavanaugh for a duet of harp and dance that left the crowd craving for more.
The crowd was not disappointed, however, as the second half of the concert was begun by the headliners of the night: The Chicago Ceili Band, consisting of Kieran O'Hare, Liz Knowles, and Brendan McKinney. Kieran began the set alone on the uilleann pipes and treated the crowd to a combination of tunes and stories, including a humorous tale about Al's shoes. Kieran was then joined onstage by Liz on fiddle and Brendan on flute and the trio went on to keep the feet tapping and lips laughing. Brendan amused and amazed the audience with his exuberant footwork during his flute solo and his total immersion into the aura of the music he was creating. As the night came to an end, a fitting testament to Al Purcell, the man who impacted so many lives, was complete… until next year.
The evening being far from over, David Bowen and his wife Tina were very gracious in opening up their home to all the Festival attendees, instructors, performers, and friends and hosting a party that didn't totally flicker out until near dawn. While many socialized inside the house and out, musicians packed his living room with a main session that started up immediately and continued on through the night, sometimes waning in size but never dying out. Those that wanted to experience a different pace of music or just wanted to do some one-on-one had no difficulty in finding an unused room or study in which to do their own thing.
Next year's Al Purcell Tionól will be held on September 19-20-21, 2003, again in Ann Arbor. New information on the 2003 Tionól is already beginning to appear on the website at http://www.alpurcell.com and updates will be periodically posted throughout the year as the details are finalized.
I would like to give thanks to all who contributed material and helped in the writing of this report, including Tom Donohue for his concert review, and Eric Hahn and John O'Gara for the extensive accounts of their classes.