go back to Alan Ng's friends/family page         (Last change to this page on April 16, 2007)


. . . takes a top billing in my life, probably because it's an avocational pursuit.

1. General

Playing music is a vital necessity for musicians. See this photo taken on Space Station Alpha.

As far as it being a vital necessity for me:

Are you a musician? Did you find your way to my Road to Recovery page yet (abc tunes)? You may also be interested in my Tips for Learning Irish Traditional Music. I'd also like to invite you to join other musicians in donating time on your computer to help predict global climate change.

I began at the age of 6 in Renaissance and Baroque music, playing recorder with my mother's musical friends. She now plays with several recorder groups in Silicon Valley. Here's one. That music is remarkably closer to what I play these days than the classical music (you'll hear the prelude from Bach's Partita #3 for solo violin [Sequence © Pierre R. Schwob—by permission], which I still like to play . . .) that I abandoned around 1992, when I discovered that my violin could be transmogrified into a fiddle under the influence of certain spells. To speak in D&D terms (remember those, guys?), the components of these spells are not only aural, but also somatic and social!

So anyways, I'm now pretty much exclusively an Irish musician. Thanks to Madison's Irish trad scene, I've been a regular at the Wednesday Mickey's sessions (7:30 p.m., 1524 Williamson St.) since 1993—except when I'm out of town. Wherever I happen to be in the world, you can be sure to find me at the nearest Irish session. And I've gotten myself involved in Madison's Celtic Music Association, which puts on concerts by the best trad musicians from around the world.

2. Previous Musical Career

Just for the record, I have done other things than play Irish fiddle. The most signicant omission above is that not only my entire musical life, but a good chunk of my daily routine from 6th grade through age 23 was taken up by playing violin in various orchestras and violin lessons. In fact, for my first two years at UC-Berkeley, I was a double music-physics major, with more than half of my credit load taken up with intensive music-major courses. I had vague dreams of composing, and indeed ended up excelling in the mechanics (but not the art) of counterpoint, voice-leading, theory and analysis. So much for composing . . .

What remained of that experience was a solid (and in my case necessary) ground for my subsequent wholesale flight into traditional, aurally learned music and the teaching of that music. I also have found that the musicianship I developed as an orchestra violinist transfers very well to my current career in bands and sessions. Perfectionism, tight ensemble work, comfort with rhythmic complexity, and the ability to discuss music are skills you can use everywhere.

3. Me and Irish music

My discovery of Irish music also led me to playing additional instruments. At about the same time I switched to Irish music, I taught myself tin whistle, recalling my childhood recorder experience, and I also took up bodhrán, my first percussion instrument. Then, thanks to a gag 30th birthday present from Kirk, I taught myself traditional Irish music on the melodeon (one-row button accordion). Here's my thoughts on

Why Irish traditional music is real music:

It is a music played, not merely listened to, by all kinds of people across class and age spectrums. It is "alive" because it is still evolving and all participants have a creative role. It is also integrated into a broader and especially a particular (Irish) culture—it is still intimately connected with the dances (also still evolving) and perhaps even a sense of abstract structural design found in other Irish art forms. Even the tune titles commemorate lyrical, comical, and communal moments and images of daily life. All this differentiates it from academic music. And its development, composition, and performance are far more independent from capitalist mass-market engineering than pop music. Instead, it is driven by the tastes and inspiration of thousands of individual musicians around the world, and then indirectly by the preferences of listeners, as they speak with musicians and attend performances. There is no standard of correctness and no critical apparatus other than centuries of "tradition" which itself is in flux according to the performances of all participants.

My theory of the session: Since I am writing this for the modern medium of the Web, let me add that the traditional Irish session offers its participants a haven of pre-modern communication and community. We play for each other, who are our local friends and neighbors, not for an audience. Our music is a social function and a shared aesthetic experience, not a product or a message. To put it in the language of cultural studies, a session is a real (not virtual) community made up of face-to-face direct relationships instead of mediated mass relationships. An interesting side-effect of the musical basis of the session community is that is it more open than other nationally specific communities to new members who come from a range of culturally and socially different backgrounds. Proof by way of personal note: my obsession with Irish music has no basis in my upbringing. Irish music is simply the most satisfying to me. And my continued participation in the session owes a lot to my friendships among Madison's Irish musicians. In fact, of Madison's current musicians, only one grew up immersed in the traditional culture of Ireland. Socially we have the full range from professors to engineers to artists to carpenters, spanning ages 20s through 70s, with racial backgrounds from Slavic through Chinese.

As you might guess, I have a decidedly conservative take on Irish music. Hybridized and popularized versions of it, whether Loreena McKennitt, the Pogues, or Afro-Celt Sound System, hold little interest for me as music I would want to perform. For my own fiddling, I am attracted instead to historical recordings of Irish fiddlers such as Michael Coleman and Hugh Gillespie for reels, James Morrison for jigs, and Julia Clifford for polkas. I also learn style and technique from the piping of Seamus Ennis, the whistle-playing of Willie Clancy, and the accordion styles of Joe Burke and early Jackie Daly. My repertoire, however, spans a more liberal range of sources, from O'Neill's to Liz Carroll, from our local sessions to my own compositions, and I furthermore readily admit to being strongly influenced by the contemporary fiddlers Kevin Burke, Seán Keane, and Martin Dowling.

If you want to hear more about Irish music from me, take one of my classes at the University of Wisconsin Division of Continuing Studies—I can blather on for hours on this topic! For example, you could take an on-line course I wrote, open to anyone in the world, called Celtic Music: Regional Cultures and Modern Success. If you enjoy reading strongly expressed opinions, see also my Tips for Learning Irish Traditional Music.

4. A Remark about Bodhrán

A long time ago I shared a description of how to play bodhran with the IRTRAD-L list, and it seems to be far more popular than I wish it was. Here's the standard e-mail text I send to absolute beginners who write to me wanting bodhrán lessons:

Personally, I have committed myself to only teaching bodhrán to people who can play at least 10 traditional Irish dance tunes in a convincing manner on a melody instrument.

I.e., I am available only for advanced bodhrán private lessons, or for beginning bodhrán lessons exclusively for musicians who are already familiar with the basics of Irish traditional music. For someone in your situation, I recommend starting with a melody instrument and teaching yourself how to learn actual tunes by ear from recordings of traditional Irish musicians. The easiest beginner instrument is the tin whistle (see http://www.chiffandfipple.com/). Your voice can also be a very handy instrument; using it for dance tunes is called lilting. For an index of common tunes played around here and their sources, you can use my database at http://www.irishtune.info/. I have also posted some "Tips for Learning Irish Traditional Music" at http://alan-ng.net/irish/learning/. After you've spent a year or more at that, you'll be much better prepared for a successful and satisfying bodhrán career.

Hope this helps, and good luck,