Jena on Violin

To be steeped in the culture of another country without crossing a border is an adventure indeed; this was my experience last July in the green hilly Catskills, as I arrived fiddle in hand, for Irish Arts Week. Born of Irish parents I spent my first decade there. Twenty years later I continue to nurture my connection with the sophisticated artistic heritage of my ancestors.

Irish Arts Week is an educational, celebratory and community-building festival that offers classes from over 90 teachers during the day and “sessions,” concerts and dances all night at multiple simultaneous locations.

I took part in two group fiddle lessons a day. Incidentally the fiddle is identical to the violin; it is just the style of playing that differentiates the two. My first teacher resembled my mother 20 years ago – straight black hair, a stunning smile and athletic figure. The likeness warmed my heart. In the Irish tradition we learn the tunes without written sheet music. The teacher plays the tune for the students to get the feel of it and then repeats it one phrase at a time. Subsequently the whole class plays a phrase over and over until we can play it fluidly, and then plays the next phrase. So it goes until we’ve memorized the whole song by ear. Fortunately digital technology allows us to review the tune later when memory fails, a luxury unavailable to Irish musicians of past.

One can think of learning a tune by ear in several ways. On one level it’s muscle memory. Sometimes when I am sure I have forgotten a tune, I discover that my fingers remember how to play it: they remember, while my mind blurs -an experience that always amazes me. Alternatively a tune can be considered a game of spatial organization on the fingerboard of the instrument. Where the fingers need to land is a mathematical puzzle, an endless interplay of ratios, intervals and sequences that wrap around each other to create music. However for me, the easiest way to remember the tunes is to sing them to myself again and again. Once they are lodged in my head, I can hum the tune and make my fingers move accordingly -drawing the notes out of the wooden body of my violin.

A defining trait of traditional Irish music is that all the musicians play the melody in unison, with the exception of one or two that hold the rhythm. A commonly known repertoire of standards enables musicians to play together. The music becomes a uniting experience that dissolves differences and fosters a sense of oneness. Remembering hundreds or in some cases, thousands of tunes, hones the brainpower of the “trad” musician.

The typical form of a tune is: Part A: two lines repeated, then Part B: another two lines repeated, then the both parts again once or twice before slipping seamlessly into the next with immaculate timing. The tunes are sequenced in different keys and with each key change the intensity mounts towards the final crescendo of the set. The melody twists and turns building to its climax, finally concluding in such a natural, satisfying way that the tune almost seems to play itself. By this point feet are tapping and spirits are soaring – a good mood becomes infectious.

For example, during a late night Wednesday session, flute, fiddle and accordion melted into one voice, their individual timbres becoming exquisitely indiscernible in a unified pool of sound. The music had hypnotized the crowd, taking the listeners up and down arpeggios, weaving their minds around matrixes of notes it would seem only fairies could invent. Tirelessly, entranced musicians played beyond long midnight.

In another location was a “singing session” where singers and listeners alike sat in a circle, taking turns to lead a tune. Some songs were hilarious with lyrics describing “making Irish music at the pearly gates, so merrily there was a line to get in.” Others recounted true love, early death or expressed pointed political remarks: “Those in power write history, those who suffer write songs.” One struck my heartstrings so powerfully it nudged sweet tears of emotion to spill forth from my eyes.

While all of this was happening, in the pub next door, a ceiili, an evening of traditional set dancing was happening – the tears in that room were from sweat! My first night out I joined the ceiili, already in full swing. Literally translating as “a coming together of friends” ceillis fall into five main categories – polkas, reels, jigs, hornpipes and slides – each with their own name, the most amusing I heard being “Four Shoves and a Push.”

The dancing takes place in groupings of eight people, four couples in a square. When I arrived all the groups were full, so in order to participate I had to muster seven sitting dancers to create a new group. I managed to do so and soon I was among the many on the dance floor. At the front of the room on a low stage were no less than twelve musicians – fiddlers, accordions, flautists, piano and drum – though on another evening I saw twenty! An announcer stood by the stage with a microphone explaining the steps of each dance as it began.

“We’ll do a regular hornpipe,” she would say, “go in and out three times and on the fourth time, ladies, go along to the man on your right.”

The dancers whizzed around the floor, dance heels clicking like wooden sticks on taut leather skin. My first partner was at least 40 years my senior. How often do I get to dance with a man in his 70s, I thought? He called it “Irish aerobics” and claimed that after an open-heart surgery a friend of his was pushed on the dance floor by his wife and months later astounded the doctors with vast improvements in is cardiovascular health and fitness. No doubt, the dancing was fast and went on for three hours.

“Do you know how to set dance?” he asked

“I’ve done it once, but I’ll remember,” I said,. Partner dance is one place in my life where I love being a woman. Simply knowing how to meld with the music and a partner who can lead suffices. No expert was I, but my feet moved fearlessly, and the room began to spin as I was transported into ecstasy. From a bird’s eye the set dancing would have looked like a living, ever-changing kaleidoscope, a geometry of squares, circles and diamonds in motion.

That night I danced until my feet blistered “The fiddle spirit gets inside the people and lifts them off the chair,” I was told; it was clearly true. With a slight shortage of men, women would dance with each other, whatever it took to make the dance work.

Back in fiddle class I found I learned best with my eyes closed, intentionally removing one sense to heighten the sensitivity of two others – hearing and touch. Arriving in Ireland in the late 1600s, the fiddle was immediately embraced by existing traditional music that is inspired by horse’s hooves, the patter of rain, the movement of water, wind and birds. I felt the elemental forces of the earth fill me as I played.

It’s rare for me to be in a room where so many people look like me, however on Saturday night, after 6 straight days and nights of music, unfolded the final, culminating concert of the Irish Arts Week. Here I could tell I was among my living ancestors: curly haired, round faced, blue eyes and solid bodied like me. The crowd was still diverse, yet decidedly Irish looking and I felt among clan.

That night was a jewel case of music and dance. The cream of the crop had been flown in from all over the world to fill this star-studded lineup. As audience members, whether we realized it or not, were toning the right halves of our brains, the side that recognizes faces, solves spatial problems, the same side that gathers, nurtures and appreciates music. That hemisphere was being flexed simply listening.

As I write this I feel Irish expressions poking their way into my fingers, wanting to make thwir splash across this page, however I will save them for face to face conversation. I will never speak Gaelic, but I plan to “speak” the language of Ireland’s music and dance until I die.

For information on Irish Arts Week visit

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