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Measure for measure
Laurel Martin and Séamus Connolly
a guide for would-be fiddlers

By the time he was 30, Sťamus Connolly was one of Ireland’s most renowned fiddlers, winning 10 consecutive Irish National Fiddle Championships (a feat unequaled before or since) and the even more prestigious Fiddler of Dooney competition. These days he is director of music, song, and dance in Boston College’s Irish Studies program. He arranges music classes and concerts, oversees the University’s vast Irish music archives, and organizes the annual Gaelic Roots Summer School and Festival, to which people travel from all over the world—even Ireland—to learn from master players.

On most Tuesday evenings Connolly and Laurel Martin, adjunct professor of Irish music, teach Irish fiddle classes at BC, and it was in that experience that the seeds were sown for their book Forget Me Not: A Collection of 50 Memorable Traditional Irish Tunes. In a quiet, folksy way, it is a revolutionary book.

Like all folk forms, Irish traditional music is learned primarily by ear, aurally transmitted from generation to generation, player to player. Certain melodic structures form the basis of a tune, to which each musician then brings his or her own stylistic filigree—trills, bowing variations, and other ornamentation. These improvisatory elements are difficult to teach to young students, especially those accustomed to sight-reading. Connolly found that the available transcriptions often failed to distinguish between the core melody and the ornamentation laid upon it. So, in their book, he and Martin opted to provide two versions of each tune—the unadorned version on one page and an ornamented version opposite.

“If you go from measure to measure, comparing the unadorned version with the other one,” Connolly says, “you can see exactly how ornamentation is intended to be used. A certain note will be, say, a quarter-note in the unadorned melody. When played with ornamentation, it becomes two eighth-notes, or a triplet. But it occupies the same quarter-note space in the melody. That can be the hardest thing to teach.”

Two CDs included with the book give the same juxtaposition, giving the melodies first in their simplest form and then laced with the embellishments that are such an important element in how traditional Irish music is played. The tunes were all taught to Connolly by the older Irish players he knew as a young man in County Clare. He selected tunes that were easy to learn, and in keys that all Irish music instruments could play, so that families or groups of friends could learn them together.

“The difficulty in writing down Irish traditional music is that you cannot put all the nuances on paper—the bending of the notes, the subtleties of rhythm and phrasing,” Connolly says. “One has to listen to this music really to understand it. So much is played by feeling, and there are no symbols for feeling.”

Scott Alarik

Scott Alarik is the principal folk critic for the Boston Globe and the author of Deep Community: Adventures in the Modern Folk Underground (Black Wolf Press).

Photo: Laurel Martin and Séamus Connolly.
By Gary Wayne Gilbert

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