Some observations from my week at the 2019 Joe Mooney Summer School

I arrived to the 2019 Joe Mooney Summer School knowing how to play about 70 tunes, but I left a week later knowing how to play three. That’s a good thing.

This was my first “music camp” – at 43 years old! I didn’t know what to expect, other than lots of music. I signed up for the courses in button accordion, with my D/G box – quite a strange tuning in Ireland but nonetheless not entirely incompatible with the music (more on that below).

The concert to open the week featured the group “Buttons & Bows“. Among the players is the superstar accordion player Jackie Daly. I later learned that Daly’s playing style is quite different from that of the accordion tutors, who seemed to all be students of Joe Burke, who was greatly influenced by the playing of Paddy O’Brien. At a few points in the concert Daly made comments to the extent that polkas aren’t given the respect they deserve. Then he would play a set of polkas. He related one funny story about a friend of his slagging polkas. So Daly wrote a polka and named it after his friend. I will be revisiting the way I play the Ballydesmond polkas, and will model them on Daly’s style. He will also be publishing a book soon collecting his compositions from his many years of playing.

On the first day of classes I found myself in a small room of about 60 accordion students. The average age was surely below 15. The youngest was probably 6 or 7. I was one of 10 adults, at least four of whom had traveled from outside Ireland (including Australia, Canada, England and Sweden). We each had to play a tune individually to be assigned to one of the five tutors – including two All Ireland Champions! When my turn came I started to play “Pigeon on the Gate”, but I wasn’t far into it before I was assigned to level 3, Nuala Hehir. Some students played a scale, a jig or a polka for their grading, but the tutors asked if they knew any reels. Reels are the most technically demanding to play.

There were 15 students in my class, including 6 adults. We each had to play a tune solo again for the tutor to hear. I played a bit of “Drowsy Maggie.” It wasn’t long before the tutor recognised several non-traditional characteristics – which is entirely to be expected since I haven’t had proper lessons in Irish accordion. More on this below.

In the six days of the course, we learned to play four tunes: two reels and two jigs. The first reel we learned is called “Crossing the Shannon” (called “The Funny Reel” here: https://youtu.be/FXqlUCOZBcc?t=50). The tutor played the entire tune for us to give us an idea of what it sounds like. Then she wrote up a textual ABC-like notation on the white board:

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The circles denote crochets. The ticks on the letter denote an octave above the middle. Numbers denote fingering for B/C accordions. And the slur underneath two pitches denote sliding a finger on two buttons for B/C accordions.

The course proceeded with the tutor playing a few bars at a time with the ornamentation, and then the students playing along several times. In this tune, the important ornaments are cuts and a roll. Every second D’ can be rolled: D’-E’-D’-C#’-D’. In this case the roll happens in the duration of a crotchet. The E’ is a cut on the D’. A cut should be a nearly imperceptible blip. It doesn’t have any tonal value, but subtly changes the attack of a note. Cuts are often used by accordion, fiddle and flute and whistle when a note repeats. My D/G box can play a D roll only with a change of bellows direction to catch the E and the C#. A roll has to be smooth, so all pitches of the roll have to be played with the same bellows direction. Since we could not find any alternative, I must live with just cutting the D’ with an #F’.

The tutor had each student individually reproduce bars of the tune and coached them into improving it. Then she continued through these steps until we had a whole part. In the first day we made it through the first part of the tune, and recorded the tutor playing the second part at a slow speed so we can individually work on it for the next day.

On the second day we work-shopped the first part of “Crossing the Shannon” and moved on to learning the second part in the same way. Learning the second part wasn’t too hard because it mostly repeats material we already learned in the first part. By the end of the first half we had our first tune! The tutor had each student individually play the entire tune with repeats and helped them improve rolls and cuts, etc. She encouraged the students to not read the notation on the board.

In the second part of the day, the tutor gave us a single reel, “Glentown Reel”:

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In this tune we have cuts, rolls, and triplets – all of which are possible on my accordion. The lines over the B’s remind the B/C student to play the outside row B. Some of the cuts are also made explicit. Learning this tune took most of day three. Before the end of the session, the tutor gave us a part of a jig (the second ending would be given the following day):

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The tutor didn’t remember what it was called, but remembered she learned it from a particular teacher. She had us play a part of the first section, and then played the entire tune solo so we could record it and learn by ourselves at home. With the help of a friend I learned that the jig is similar to one called “The Road to Granard”.

On day four we went through both “Crossing the Shannon” and “Glentown Reel”, and finished learning the jig with the two endings (not pictured in the notation above). This jig has no rolls, but does involve cuts and triplets. Also, the tutor varied the use of triplets and showed how not every note needs to be ornamented in the same way. She also showed how a tune can be played beautifully without ornamentation.

On day five we went through all our tunes. Then the tutor asked whether any of us had another jig we wanted to work on. I suggested “Scatter the Mud”, but it wasn’t until I played it that she recognized it. Apparently, the version I played was not what she had learned. She confirmed with another tutor that the version she plays is closer to the right one, but she would have to do some research to make sure:

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The sources of tunes are very important. The way a tune goes is not to be found on the internet, but in historical sources, like O’Neill’s collections, or the way particular masters play it and have recorded it. She warned us in considering the sources of our tunes.

The class on day six consisted of playing through all our tunes again, with some individual work, and then meeting with all the accordion students to play one or two tunes we learned. All five groups learned different tunes, none of which I had ever heard. Tutors deliberately choose rare tunes so that everyone can experience learning them fresh.

The week was also filled with many sessions happening around the high street of Drumshanbo, starting early in the day and ending very late at night. In any one of the four pubs, there could be four sessions going on. The high street also featured many children playing music together, some dancing, with hats out for money. It was great to see such enthusiasm from these young kids, many of which are playing very well! I attended sessions every night for the first four nights, and played in three, but by my third class I realised that I can play many tunes at speed without too many mistakes and can lead sets, but I’m not playing tunes in the “proper” traditional way.

Early on my tutor recognized some of my untraditional characteristics. One is my use of “Sharon Shannon” rolls, which are like triplets on the same note without any cuts. Another characteristic is my use of bass. B/C accordions have a much more limited bass side than my accordion, so the things I was doing didn’t sound right to her. Another characteristic I have is a general lack of rolls, cuts, and proper triplets. These ornaments, along with the rhythms, are what bring these tunes to life and gives them a dynamism. A bad habit I have developed is playing staccato. This means that when I play the accordion it doesn’t sound like an accordion. Now, in some contexts that could be called masterful, but this is not one of those contexts. So I decided that I would benefit more from going over the tunes and ornaments I was learning at slow speeds than repeating playing all my tunes at speed in non-traditional ways.

I look forward to next year when I can audition with “Pigeon on the Gate” played in a traditional style!

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