Playing from the Heart – Lessons from Irish Music

Greetings and welcome to a new Flute Friday!

Yesterday was St. Patrick’s Day! Hope you all wore green, ate some wonderful Corned Beef and hash, and played a few tunes on your tin whistles. St. Patty’s Day always reminds me of an Ethnomusicology project I completed during my doctoral studies that took place at an Irish pub (a very fun place to learn about Irish folk music!). Not only was I surrounded by excellent food, overflowing pints of Guinness, and fun and laughter from all directions, but I was also immersed in music – Music that came directly from the heart. What struck me during these sessions was how differently music was used as a communication device between players and not just a performance for a hushed audience. It was refreshing to see performers free themselves from the crushing need to play the notes “correctly” and just, well, play! I walked away with many valuable lessons about Irish music and playing from the heart. In today’s blog, I will be sharing some of these lessons. Irish music isn’t just about playing fun jigs on tin whistles – It is also about connecting with others in new and meaningful ways.


1.   Perfectionism. Particularly in America, there is a certain and constant “need to get it right” when it comes to performing music. As Mirjana Lausevic explains in her book, Balkan Fascination, musics found outside of the Western classical music society, such as Balkan music, uncover these tendencies and offer alternative reactions to the music making process:

Unlike Western classical music, much music and dance in the Balkans is not reserved for the talented few.  People of various levels of skill and experience often sing and dance together.  This accessibility of music-making to all members of a community is very appealing to many Americans who do not want to be “perfect,” but to make music in a communal and friendly atmosphere.  Specialty scenes and contexts like the Balkan camps provide alternatives to the competitiveness and exclusivity of most classical music education. (Page 33)

Irish music also falls under this non-Western genre of music. Accessibility opens music up to more people seeking a musical community regardless of skill or experience. The beauty of creating Irish music in America is that musicians can confront their perfectionist tendencies head-on, using music instead as a vehicle of socialization rather than a tool for performance.

2.  From the Heart. The pub owner at the time told me that many musicians in Ireland do not read music because they learn it all “by heart.” Freedom from the score means they can better internalize the music they learn and carry it with them always.

3. No Seating Charts/Chair Designations. There was no formal seating chart for the Monday night Learner’s group – They all simply sat around small tables, sipping wine and pints of Guinness, waiting for the rest of the musicians to arrive. No fighting over principal parts.

4. No Formal Starts. Irish musicians play melodies that are organized into “sets,” which include three tunes that are played three times with no rests between pieces. The music contained no formal “start” as everybody joined in when they felt ready. Players began playing and stopped during a set whenever they felt appropriate.  This informality gave the group a more laid back, gig-style performance.

5. Community-Based Dynamics. During a set, performers varied their dynamics to let different instruments stand out of the texture.  Whether this was intentional or not was unknown at the time, but it would later be discovered as part of a “follow the leader” technique that was employed in virtually all of the pieces played in session music.

6. No Stops. As the group moved seamlessly from the first set to the next, the music remained steadfast regardless of who was “lost” and where others wanted to join in.  For example, when a fiddler left momentarily to pour a glass of water, the group played another tune in the same way with sporadic entrances from different instruments. 

7. Strong Sense of Beat. Despite the piece and/or duration, every session musician had an extremely strong sense of beat. Nobody ever “fell” off the big beat.

8. Everyone is a Leader. During an observation of the Advanced session, the musicians allowed the music to trail off until another instrument assumed a leadership role and initiated a new tune.  Uncomfortable breaks remained at a minimum.

9. Taking Breaks – Make New Friends! At the conclusion of a group of sets, when it was appropriate to take a break, there was a small moment of awkward silence before individuals began to indulge in conversations with the musicians in their periphery, typically related to non-musical subjects such as the events of the weekend and previous Facebook communications. 

10. Follow the Leader Style. When starting a new set, the group often waited for the leader to finish playing through the melody once, varying dynamics after joining the melody in order to allow that leader to play out from the group whenever necessary. The proceeding leaders followed suit and began a great guessing game – When will the melody change?  In Ireland, the tune will last as long as the leader wants it to.

11. Laughing at Mistakes. Irish musicians were less concerned with “getting it right,” and tended to laugh more with one another when making mistakes. When was the last time you laughed at a missed note??? Try it sometime!

12. Tunes as Tradition. Tunes are passed down through tradition but the translation of that tune (whether written or otherwise) is really just a record of how one person played a tune at a particular time. There may be hundreds of notated versions of the same tune, but the authenticity of one is never valued over another.

12. Teaching Irish Music. One of the musicians I met during this project told me that the objective in teaching Irish music is to “teach people how to teach themselves.” Teachers are urged to empower, not discourage students.

13. Ornamentation is Ornamental. The true melody of a tune is valued above any ornamentation. Used as a way to emphasize a beat, the two most common types of ornamentation in traditional Irish music are cuts and rolls.  Applying Western Classical musical terminology for a moment, a cut can be compared to a single, very quick grace note played on the beat of the ornamented note, often taken from the “diatonic” note above.  A roll is a fast turn surrounding the primary note and is again played on the downbeat. The leader typically plays the unornamented melody first before adding ornamentation. Players do not have to copy the leader’s ornamentation but are encouraged to devise their own – As long it is used to highlight the primary melody.

14. From “the Dots.” Using scores, although rare, is known as playing “from the dots.” If we think about manuscripts as just “the dots,” it is easy to separate the page from the performer. We are the ones that bring the dots to life, after all.

15. Localities. Traditional tunes are based on the locale they originate from – Like a musical museum. Many pieces are dance tunes taken from different traditions. Part of the challenge is finding the local inflections buried in the music and bringing these out.

16. Happiness is the Answer. The Irish musicians I observed during this project seemed to enliven the music as they danced along to melodies in their seats and tapped their feet along to the beat essentially with their entire bodies.  The strongest players laughed and treated the music with a type of happiness that is often missing from classical groups. Is happiness the key to Irish music? After all of my observations, I indeed believe that happiness is the greatest gift that Irish music offers to its performers.


Do you play Irish flute? What are some of the lessons you have learned shifting between the Irish music tradition and Western Classical music? What do you think we can learn by studying Irish music? How often do you “play from the heart” rather than “from the dots”? Please comment below!

Happy fluting!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.