In this series, we'll look at the process of starting to play an instrument in the traditional Irish style that you'll find in seisiúns around world.
This guide is written from a beginner's perspective, by a beginner, and doesn't cover in-depth topics for each instrument. If you've got additional things you think a starting player should consider, let us know in the comments below.
Step Two: Finding a teacher
To some extent, finding a teacher will depend on what instrument you choose. It’s perfectly possible to learn to play without professional help, but the added benefit of having a teacher correct basic mistakes you might not know you’re making is invaluable.
It’s also worth considering that, for many people, the forced timetable for practice that lessons provide can be as valuable as the lessons themselves. After all, the first question at every session will be ‘how did you get on with your practice this week?’
A first port of call should be Comhaltas Ceoltoirí Éireann, a cultural body that promotes Irish music and tradition all over the world. They have branches all over the world, with a concentration in North America and Europe, but a few in Australia and elsewhere, too. Each branch will have different teaching abilities, but their club model has the added benefit of social events - and they’re internationally recognised.
If Comhaltas doesn't have a branch near you, there may be a freelance teacher or other school nearby.
The first thing to try is a simple Google search for the name of your instrument and your area. Even if that doesn't turn up a teacher, it might still turn up a player, who can point you in the right direction or may consider private lessons.
You can also investigate local folk festivals or Irish societies, who often have better connections and will be able to help.
If finding a real-life teacher is impossible, you have a handful of other options. Skype lessons are a perfectly valid form of tuition, with many of the advantages of real-life tuition Assuming you can follow instructions without a teacher physically moving your hands, the biggest drawback is the time-delay in online chat, which makes it impossible for student and teacher to play together.
Unfortunately, there’s no single site online to link up students with teachers, but the sites for specific instruments and other message boards should be able to help (we'll profile some of these in a later part of the guide).
If you still can’t find a teacher, self-tuition is possible. Find a good book, and shell out for the accompanying CD. Unlike pop and rock music, a song isn’t just a song: many have several names, and some tunes have no name at all (you’ll sometimes see these listed as ‘gan ainm’, literally ‘no name’ in Irish). Be sure to check a European retailer like Amazon.co.uk if you can't find an appropriate book on the USA or .com sites.
YouTube can be a fantastic resource for both tunes and simple lessons.
The first thing to learn is where the notes are on your instrument – CDEFGAB and so forth. Sites like The Session have tune catalogues in simple notation, rather than sheet music, and have MIDI downloads so you can hear the tune and how long each note is played. This will let you start playing before learning sheet music, although many players and teachers would strongly encourage learning to read musical notation long-term.
If you are teaching yourself, it’s important to set a timetable for yourself and stick to it. Clear at least 30 minutes once a week to sit down and move on to the next ‘lesson’ in your book, just like you’d do in a real-life lesson, and practise for shorter periods several times a week.
A good technique for keeping track of this is committing to practising just a few minutes a day - 5 or 10 - and ticking days off on a calendar when you do. After a few days, you’ll have a string of successful days marked off, and you won’t want to break the chain. And sometimes you’ll find yourself enjoying it so much you’ll practise for longer than the allotted time.
In the next article, we'll take a look at some types of trad music and some tunes to get started.