FolkWorld article by Erik Margraf & Tom Keller:

Learning Trad the Contemporary Way

MadforTrad's CD-ROM Tutorials
Playing traditional music has always essentially been a matter of picking up tunes by listening to and watching advanced musicians at "work". This holds true even long after the advent of sound recording and sheet music such as Chief O'Neill's The Dance Music of Ireland. Not many of us, however, have the chance of meeting great players at sessions in their local pub, neither in Ireland nor elsewhere. Therefore, buíochas le Dia, for all of those who are left to their own devices in terms of "trad", the Cork-based company MadforTrad have jumped the bandwagon of mediamania and come up with a set of instructional CD-ROMs for no less than 16 instruments, from fiddle to flute to piano to sean-nós singing, all of which are introduced by some of the finest musicians playing Irish music today. So with the names of such instructors as Cathal Hayden, Brian Finnegan and Gerry McKee ringing softly in our ears, we picked up the ol' fiddle, whistle and bouzouki in order to check these tutorials out.

As Irish music stems from an oral tradition, face-to-face communication between advanced musicians and beginners in "trad" music has remained, up to our own day, the most important way of learning how to play authentically. Thus, the new and exciting thing about MadforTrad's CD-ROMs consists in the fact that they give you the opportunity to literally hire one of the most prominent musicians on your favourite instrument as your private tutor, if with a little help of your home computer.

Many of the multi-media features currently available are fully integrated into the course; as a result, the CD-ROM tutorials combine "textbook" passages, video clips, photographs and sheet music, thus forming a comprehensive electronic "coursebook" in any one of the principal "trad" instruments. In doing so, MadforTrad seek to make it as easy as possible for amateur musicians to get the "hang" of Irish music. Notably, even though the tutorials for any instrument start virtually from "scratch", the courses are designed for advanced players as well as beginners, because the units progress rapidly from basic scales and slow tunes to all kinds of metres, fast rhythms, and sophisticated ornamentation.

Each course consists essentially of a Beginners' and an Advanced section, framed by a brief biographical sketch about, bits of interview with, and a full-length video of an entire set performed by, your "virtual" tutor. Once you run your CD-ROM from a regular web browser, you can "click" your way through any of these sections and follow the instructions on screen. Typically, you will read the text passage introducing any one of the units and then "learn your lesson" from the video clips and musical notation of the tunes.

In Brian Finnegan's tin whistle tutorial, for example, students are taken from slow airs in G and D through relatively easy jigs and reels, which, having initially been presented in "plain" form, are then supplemented with elemental ornamentation like finger cuts, tongued triplets and rolls. It's nice to see that some of the advice given by the tutor is especially oriented to the beginner, as in the remarks, "Remember to tongue the notes for a clear, crisp sound" (for "South Wind"), or "Be careful in the early stages of playing this tune that you tongue the notes, it will give you more control of the high octave" (for "Lilting Banshee"). Moreover, the Beginners' section provides basic information on the cultural background of "trad" music, such as the classification of jigs or the fact that "dance tunes used to be played for dancing, but are now played primarily for the mere pleasure of playing or listening to them" (for "The New Roundabout"). -- The Advanced section takes you through more jigs and reels, as well as introducing a selection of polkas, slides and hornpipes. In this section, the tunes are presented with ornamentation included from the start and are generally expected to be more challenging. Consequently, it is in this section that you will begin to hear how the great players interpret tunes and, hopefully, will yourself aspire to the model of your "idols".

The bouzouki course, taught by Gerry McKee, has a similar structure, but one in line with the requirements of a backing instrument, to be sure. Like the others, it starts out with reading music and instructing you how to hold and tune your instrument. Throughout the tutorial, McKee employs the GDAE tuning. The Beginners' section introduces chord charts, which are then used all along, basic strumming rhythms, practice patterns, and simple jigs and reels. Again, the Advanced section builds in difficulty in a gradual manner, covering hammer-ons, chromatic runs and syncopations as well as adding hornpipes and slip jigs to the overall repertoire, which comprises 27 tune accompaniment examples altogether. The CD-ROM for the bouzouki climaxes in a joint performance featuring McKee playing together with Niall Vallely, of Nomos fame, on the concertina.

Running through the MadforTrad tutorials, we were delighted to see that the basic idea behind them was not only a clever one in theory but turned out to be an enjoyable experience in practice, too. It is true that, along the way, we came across some minor errors, such as the odd wrong character on the browser pages ("Buachaill &oacuten &Eacuteirne" instead of "Buachaill ón Éirne"), and some incorrect transcriptions in the sheet music, which failed to concord with the notes played in the video clips, but these misprints are certainly negligible. A more serious point of criticism, however, consists in the fact that the tin whistle course (and maybe others in the series, too?) is based on an incorrect concept of the "classical minor" key, which is here taken to be identical with the "harmonic" rather than "natural", or aeolian, minor scale, as is common knowledge. Even worse, the term "minor" is employed inconsistently within the course (cf. "E minor" (here: aeolian scale), as oppposed to "A minor" (here: dorian scale)). -- These deficiencies aside, the MadforTrad instructional CD-ROMs constitute an approach to the teaching of Irish music that is at once innovative and instructive, and great fun at that. Go for it!

The MadforTrad CD-ROM tutorials and info website (CD shop, news, tours, festivals, artists, tunes, sessions) is the brainchild of bodhrán player Frank Torpey (Nomos, Riverdance) and banjo player Ciaran O'Connell. MadforTrad offers tutorials for 16 instruments, priced at US$39.00 (about 45 Euro): Derek Hickey (button accordion), Gerry O'Connor (banjo), Seán Óg Potts (uilleann pipes), Cathal Hayden (fiddle), Brian Finnegan (tin whistle), Seamus Egan (flute), Frank Torpey (bodhrán), Karen Tweed (piano accordion), Gerry McKee (bouzouki), John Doyle (guitar). Yet to come: Niall Vallely (concertina), Ciaran Coughlan (piano), Brendan Power (harmonica), Karan Casey (traditional singing), Laoise Kelly (harp), Lillis Ó Laoire (sean nós singing). System Requirements: P.C.: Windows 95, Pentium 166MHz, 16 MB RAM, CD ROM. Mac: O.S 8.1, 32 MB RAM, 604 Power PC 180MHz, CD ROM. (Sorry Linux freaks!) You can download a sample video clip, in order to confirm that your system can run the tutorials.

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