Monday, January 21, 2013

Book Review: Play Tunes on the Irish Tenor Banjo by Brian Connolly

Over the last several decades, the 4-string tenor banjo has become accepted as a viable instrument for Irish traditional music.  Despite increasing popularity, there are still very few Irish tenor banjo instruction books available.  Brian Connolly, of the trad group Craobh Rua, is helping to remedy that with the release of the spiral-bound Play Tunes On The Irish Tenor Banjo: Introductory Repertoire.  In the tutor Connolly, who is from Belfast, employs simple, user-friendly directives to teach the basic techniques required to get that Irish sound.

The book starts with the banjo beginner in mind, going over the parts of a banjo, the fingerboard, how to hold the banjo and the pick, what strings to use, how to position the fingers on the frets, tuning, and how to read music.  Many pictures are used to give the reader a visual image to accompany the text.  Even a seasoned player could do well by reviewing this material.  

Connolly then jumps into playing exercises, scales and arpeggios to help get your fingers moving. The beginner often wonders if playing scales and arpeggios is worth it, but down the road you realize that having this knowledge can help you pick up and better understand how a tune comes together.  

The book includes two CDs and practically every exercise, song and tune is accompanied by an audio recording on one of the CDs - essential for making the aural connection that is at the heart of this tradition.  There is a progress check at the end of each chapter to help you make sure you're ready to move on to the next section.

Then the book gets into the meat and potatoes - playing songs and tunes!  Connolly goes over 7 songs, 10 Irish polkas, 8 double jigs, 2 single jigs, a couple slip jigs, a couple slides, 4 reels, 2 hornpipes and 2 mazurkas (a full list of titles is below).  Along the way he covers ornamentation and triplets, arranging sets of tunes, and suggestions for further practice.  I should note that notation and tablature is shown for the songs, but there is only notation for the tunes - no tab.

The audio for pub songs like Wild Rover are played almost too slow for my taste, but I found the medium-tempo used for the tunes to be just right for playing along with and learning by ear.  In fact, getting to clearly hear the melody line of these tunes being played on tenor banjo, and having the notation to go along with it if needed, is one of the best overall features of the book. By just playing along by ear to the the audio tracks of tunes like The Eavesdropper, Tobin's Favorite and Paddy Has Gone To France, I've noticed an improvement in my abilities over the last few weeks.  

Brian Connolly
Throughout the book there are color photographs of current Irish tenor banjo players playing or holding their banjo. Not only is this great because you get to see how others may hold the instrument, but it will also provide you with some new names of players to check out.  

It says in the preface of the book that when not on the road with Craobh Rua Brian is kept very busy giving lessons to would be Irish banjoliers.  It is surely through this experience with teaching that he has been able to devise a book that feels like a series of lessons that you might get from Brian in person.  The book alone is not going to make you a great banjo player, but it can give you the confidence and motivation to put in the hard work and focused practice required to get there.  

Here's a list of the tunes and  songs in the book.  Along with some session standards, there may be a few titles on the list that are unfamiliar to you, as they were to me.  This is good because in addition to learning the auld favorites that everyone is supposed to know, it's nice to have a few obscure tunes up your sleeve so that you can pull them out at your local session.  

Songs: Down by the Sally Gardens, The Wild Rover, Whiskey in the Jar, Spancil Hill, The Irish Rover, The Star of the County Down, I'll Tell Me Ma.
Polkas: The Mist on the Glen, The Britches Full of Stitches, The Little Diamond, The Munster Bank, Dalaigh's, Egan's, Maggie in the Wood, Denis Doody's, The Ballydesomond No. 2, Matt Hayes' No. 1.
Double Jigs: The Leg of the Duck, The Blackthorn Stick, Slieve Russell, My Darling Asleep, Maho Snaps, Bill Harte's, The Eavesdropper, Tobin's Favourite.
Single Jigs: Sergeant Cahill's Favorite, Smash the Windows.
Slip Jigs: Deirdre's Fancy, The Fisherman.
Slides: Going to the Well for Water, Dan O'Keefe's.
Reels: Paddy Has Gone to France, The Glentaun, The Road to Lisdoonvarna, Sword in Hand.
Hornpipes:  The Humours of Tullycrine, The Fairies'.
Mazurkas: Prionsias O'Maonaigh's, Rachel on the Rock.

Play Tunes On The Irish Tenor Banjo is available from Claddagh Records,, Matchetts Music, and Clareen Banjos maker Tom Cussen's site.

1 comment:

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