Sunday, March 15, 2015

Liz Carroll STRINGS Interview Transcript

I’ve linked to this Liz Carroll article before but I thought I’d post a full transcript of it below.  The interviewer is a classical music oriented publication and these appear to be stock questions, but a lot can be learned from Liz’s thoughtful responses from the perspective of an Irish traditional fiddler.

Liz Carroll (Michael Tercha, Chicago Tribune)
Ask Chicago-based fiddler Liz Carroll to describe what she does and she replies: “I play Irish music, a music made up of mostly short pieces such as jigs, reels, and hornpipes. The first and second parts of tunes are made up of eight measures. Every once in a while you have a three, four, or even five-part tune. It’s simple, lovely music! It’s also a very social music—fiddles, accordions, flutes, pipes, whistles, and an array of backing instruments partake.” You can hear for yourself on the new solo album On the Offbeat. Strings asked Carroll to describe her daily practice regimen.

What do you feel you need to do on a daily basis to maintain your skill level?

I do love to play, so it’s pretty easy to take the fiddle out of the case and have it handy throughout the day in case a thought occurs to me. It’s true that the fingers can get rusty, but it doesn’t take much time to get facility back. Tunes are in the first position, so the tunes themselves are the practice.

Do you have your own daily routine of scales or technical exercises?

No, I have no particular routine as such.

Why not?

I try to feel the music my own way when I play, but then I try to explore what other people (fiddlers) and other instrument players are doing. I feel that anything I choose to work on helps the whole. So, I can take a tune from a recording and sit down to play along with it and learn it by ear. This is an enjoyable exercise—playing along, stopping to check out what the player did, and then turning off the recording to see if I have it. Whatever journey the tune takes you on—you’re playing, you’re listening, you’re adding a new tune to your repertoire, and so you’re improving as a player.

Do you still use études or study guides?

I don’t have any exercise books, but there are some out there for Irish fiddle. I do work out kinks or difficulties within tunes, but it is a self-driven type of exercise.

Do you practice scales and arpeggios?
There are lots of nice runs within tunes, so I feel I get to practice arpeggios there. Irish music employs a lot of keys and a lot of modal scales. There are tons of tunes within keys like A, D, and G.

Any tune one learns can be played in a number of places on the fiddle. Some players don’t worry about shifting tunes to other keys (and you don’t have to have that skill), but I feel that I’m a better player if I can go there.

Was there a particular teacher who was instrumental in developing your practice regimen?

I took classical lessons at school when I was a little girl. I had a wonderful teacher, Sr. Francine, who did two things: She very much encouraged a good bow hand, and she noticed when I did or didn’t practice. I still work at my bowing, although I do love the left hand, too. When I play in front of an audience, there’s no question that the work put into a tune or an ornament within a tune gets noticed. You can get a certain amount of reaction from energetic playing. But you can’t beat that reaction from the audience, and the satisfaction from nailing a note or a variation within a tune, that comes from evident work.

How has your daily practice regimen changed as you’ve advanced as a player?

I’m the very same now, I’d say. I still love to compose tunes, still like to learn a new tune. I’m lucky to live in Chicago where there are lots of Irish sessions, gatherings of musicians playing tunes. When I’m not touring, I like to get to a session. And when I’m on tour I like to have a session with the local musicians, too. You can’t beat sitting down with your cup of tea—or whatever!—at a nice establishment and playing tunes with other musicians for a few hours on a Sunday afternoon. You work on your chops (bowing, fingering, variations) at a session—you work to make your music flow.

How do you know when you need to brush up on fundamentals?

You do need to play a lot in order to have a good brain-to-bow/brain-to-fingers connection. You just know when you need to play, I think.

Is there a particular technique that has given you trouble?

Style and the pursuit of a style loom large in Irish fiddling. Again, it’s simple music for the most part. When you see it written, it might not occur to you that there is a challenge there. But there is! There are regional styles in Ireland—Galway style, Kerry style, Donegal style, Sligo style, to name a few. Within those styles, there are excellent players past and present. When you learn a simple jig, from that point there are a myriad of versions from different players that you can and should attempt (long bows/tight, short bows; very ornamented fingering (rolls, cuts)/no ornaments; crans taken from pipers, breaths taken from flute players, unusual note choices from accordions. Then there are various stresses and pushes one can employ to the rhythm. All of these can give you trouble!

What advice can you offer about developing a daily practice regimen?

Well, one is to follow your nose—there’s nothing wrong with learning this music your own way. People are nice (especially fiddlers—ha!) and they’ll play a tune slowly for you on your recording device for you to learn. They’ll also show you a roll or other ornamentation they’re using if you ask them. You can take lessons; you don’t need to take lessons. Sessions are free, and you can do what I did when I was young—go to the session, sit in the back, and try. Try to pick up the tunes and try to pick up the bowing and the ornaments. There are apps now where you can record a few notes of a melody, find out the name of the tune, and then find the tune in a book or online.

And of course there are recordings of new and old masters—with a good ear and patience, the melodies are there for the taking. I always think it’s a good idea to keep your fiddle out of your case, where it’s visible and beckoning.

Finally, don’t be too hard on yourself. Learn the tunes you like first, and then go from there.

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