Confession time: I grew up classical (and competitive classical at that). I burnt out on it and at some point in my mid-20s was seeking something else. I had bought a wooden flute and knew vaguely that I wanted to play some kind of “Celtic-y” music but I didn’t know what that would mean, or even whether there were many people out there doing it. I had a memory of seeing a group playing together and putting together an arrangement without sheet music, which I found mystifying and amazing.

So I packed up my wooden flute and went to this traditional session in Montreal. I had the amazing good fortune to sit next to one of the best traditional flutists in Quebec. I sat there for 2 hours and had my mind blown, listening to a style of flute playing I had never heard anything like before and didn’t yet have words to describe.

O'Regan's 259When I was invited to play a tune, I meekly started The Butterfly and played as pretty as I knew how, gathering along the way the distinct sensation that everyone was playing along with me to be nice. We finished and I looked over at this flute player who had asked me to play.

He kind of nodded, and then he said the kindest thing he possibly could have said to me: “You’re a good musician, but you know absolutely nothing about this kind of music.” He paused. I kind of nodded. He continued, “I can’t help you because I don’t live in town, but I can get you in touch with the people you can study with.”

Here’s why I believe this was an incredibly kind thing to say.  In one fell swoop he let me know the following things:

  1. There were things going on in this music I wasn’t aware of.
  2. I needed to be a student.
  3. The community would help me.

These three things are essential, I think, for classically trained musicians interested in entering into traditional music. They’re simple but apparently not self-evident. In the years since I took my first steps, I have seen a plethora of classically trained musicians who come into traditional spaces and proceed to alienate everyone in the room. I am fairly sure that these individuals were not aware of how superior their attitudes came off, and I am also fairly sure that they were not aware of the sideways glances the people in the room were all throwing each other.

So, fellow classical folks: humble pie is a nourishing dish if you can choke it down. I am now going to say the things that people are unlikely to say out loud to you, but which will help you immeasurably if you take them seriously:

Come as a student. Let people know you’re trying to learn. This will win you automatic bonus points: the trad folks will have been so used to classical musicians coming in talking about “these simple melodies” or “correcting” their playing that they might fall over in their chairs. (Double bonus points if you buy them a drink and ask advice after the session or in a quiet moment (read the room and please don’t do it while someone is singing a song, for example).)  If you’re worried that this is just about tact, take a look at the written examples in this article and see how much is going on in those “simple” melodies.  (It’s exciting, actually, to realize how a whole new world is about to open up to you!)

O'Regan's 288Learn on their terms, not your own. Yes, this means learning by ear. Please give it a try (for months, maybe – how long did it take you to learn to read music?) and avoid saying things like “I could play it if you gave me the sheet music!” (or its variant, “I could play anything if you gave me the sheet music”). Use apps like Capo or The Amazing Slow Downer to help you when you practice. The further you get down this path, the more you might start to realize some of the shortcomings of classical training – or at least how it develops some skills and not others. It’s not a panacea by any means. (Do people call this “going native”? Food for thought…)

It’s okay to feel self-conscious as you step out of your comfort zone. By coming to a traditional session (and probably with very little preparation in terms of lessons and experience, etc.) (no, classical lessons don’t count; there’s little in them that prepares you to understand the etiquette and ritual of a traditional session), you’re doing the equivalent of showing up at an opera rehearsal when you’ve only ever played duets with your teacher. So of course you’re going to feel a little unsure of yourself. That’s OK – and it’s probably the result of you being a person with the sensitivity to play beautifully AND relate to others well. You will win triple bonus points if you sit quietly and respectfully during tunes you don’t know and try to understand what’s going on.

Seek internal peace with the idea that you are new at this. Enter a beginner’s mindset. Yes, this is hard when you’ve achieved a lot in the classical world on your instrument. I know you don’t want to think of yourself as starting back at ground zero (it’s the same instrument, right? see below). But just think of it this way – this is the equivalent of a trad fiddler who’s, say, won All-Ireland saying she’ll “help out” an orchestra by playing for them, even though she can’t play higher than 3rd position and has never taken classical lessons. (Good luck at the audition, honey, I’m sure they’ll be grateful you showed up.) And if you just nodded along with me as I said that, consider that the same is true in reverse – don’t tell the trad musicians about all the impressive things you’ve done in the classical world. People will feel much more gifted by your presence if you don’t seem to think your presence is a gift.

When you hear something that seems unusual or even wrong to you, assume the musicians are doing it on purpose. Maybe someone keeps playing a note that falls somewhere between an F natural and an F sharp. Let go of your assumptions (“they need to practice their intonation”) and start trying to find that pitch for yourself. (If it helps, call it a quartertone and tell yourself you’re doing advanced ear training. It is advanced if you’re classical. It’s day one if you grow up in the tradition.)

Listen obsessively. There are so many good recordings out there. It’s exciting, actually, to think about how many amazing things you’re about to discover. Ask for recommendations and get everything you can get your hands on (I have an account with and they’ve got a good trad collection). Think of it this way: you need as much exposure to this new style as possible. Trying to sound traditional when your ears are full of classical is like thinking you can speak French with a good accent without listening to native speakers, just because the language uses the same letters as English.

Imitate what you hear, and do so full-heartedly. That open string the fiddler used? Don’t “correct” it with a 4th finger replacement. Play it open. Let it ring! Let go of that part of you that’s worried that people will think you’re “not good enough” to play with a 4th finger. (If it helps, know that we’ll probably think exactly the opposite if you play 4th finger all the time.) (If it helps more, know that Cape Breton fiddle regularly makes use of the 4th finger on the string below as a drone – maybe that’s going to be your style?) The singing voice that O'Regan's 269might alternately sound clear or harsh, that varies the tone between notes? Do the same and let go of your vibrato, even if you took many years of voice lessons or even have an advanced degree in vocal performance. If you’re that good, you know your instrument well enough to use it many ways.

And that’s one of the truths about classical training – that it can open up options for you, if you’re smart enough to exercise them as options and not be confined by your technique. As a friend once told me, don’t let anyone say that the fiddle and the violin have different techniques. The instrument is the instrument. But their players use different techniques to get different sounds. I once helped a very, very classical violinist to sound more traditional by telling him to play with a flautando bow while slurring the notes and adding sforzandi on certain alternating beats. As a flute player, I use something similar to vibrato technique to get a swing in my playing, but I would never use that same mechanism to vibrate on a held note. The instrument responds to what you ask it to do. Just please, don’t play classical in a traditional space.

(This post (c)2013 Lisa Gilbert. If you’d like to reprint it somewhere, I’d be honored, but please get in touch first. Cheers!)