Swannanoa Gathering

This year was my third time going to that little slice of paradise known as the Swannanoa Gathering, on the campus of Warren Wilson College, near Asheville, North Carolina. This year, since the girls were still in Lyon, I traveled down with John, Holly, and Sue in their amazing infinite cargo space passenger van that somehow managed to carry all our instruments and suitcases without breaking a sweat. Really enjoyed traveling with all of them. John and I clearly went to the same travel school, as he kept us on pace until the stop at Mill Mountain Coffee in Salem on the way home where we delightfully lingered a bit. But enough about travel and on to the music classes!

Irish Songs in English – Nuala Kennedy
At my first SwannyG, I had a 9am singing class with John Doyle. I have no idea why they schedule singing early in the day, but I have to admit, I love starting the day with a relaxed singing class! But I do feel for the instructors 🙂 Anyway, Nuala was a total delight. We learned several songs primarily by ear, but she also handed out lyrics, which, in my case was a good thing because I think most of my brain cells were tied up learning tunes! She also showed / played a number of recordings of various traditional songs. Poor Nuala’s computer audio jack was a bit on the fritz though, but she persevered nicely. Our performance song was “Raglan Road” which has been on my “to learn” list for a long time, so that aligned nicely. For our performance, I was standing next to Nuala and hearing her harmonies and pacing was so lovely I forgot to sing a few times! This was a delightful class and Nuala’s presence at SwannyG was definitely one of the highlights – her flute playing (and singing, of course) was fantastic! She and Brian McNeill did an amazing performance of the old-time tune, Kitchen Girl to wrap up Monday Night’s concert. Wow!

Mandolin II – David Surrette
David, like Nuala, was new to me. When I took Angelina’s class a couple of years ago, I felt like I was in somewhat over my head. I had just started learning Irish melody at that point and it was a stretch. I went into this class worried that I might have the same reaction, but this year it felt like it was a perfect fit. David taught us some tunes (I actually learned all 5 he taught – 7 if you count the Breton set as 3 instead of 1). His teaching style was relaxed, but thorough. The first two days we learned two tunes each day, one by ear and the other, he handed out notation. I thought this was a nice compromise for folks who learn either way to help strengthen whichever approach was weak. Since my learning is often ear first, notation to check / variation, it was perfect for me. David spent Wednesday primarily discussing accompaniment, which frankly, I have never really considered on mandolin for Irish (hmmm… that’s not quite true as I have been known to do a bit with KGB, but very different style than David). But after hearing him in a few late night jams, I REALLY liked what he was doing. Probably can’t get there myself, but maybe add a bit of this approach here and there. On Thursday, we learned a set of Breton tunes (see previous post). Very much enjoyed David’s class. Tunes learned were Mountain Road (which I should have known, but didn’t), DeVanney’s Goat, Reverend Brothers, Hardiman the Fiddler (goes very nicely with Foxhunter’s Slip Jig or Drops of Brandy btw), and the Andros set (Breton tunes). David also offers a weekend Mandolin Festival/Camp in New Hampshire in early March that I’m considering combining with a visit with Katherine (New Hampshire in March… yikes!)

Session Guitar Accompaniment II – John Doyle
I’ve been looking forward to taking John’s guitar accompaniment class since the first SwannyG I attended, but you have to sign up early to get into his class. So this year, when the early sign-up notification came, I did not hesitate! The class did not disappoint. However, the class did blow my rather feeble mind. One issue was that I’ve never played in drop D tuning, so I was fighting my fingers all week on that front. But I was there more to understand how the heck he creates his incredible rhythms. I theoretically understand now, but what my mind understands is not the same as being able to get my body do it! John is doing at least 4 independent movements with each stroke of his pick. One is the pick movement and emphasis, but also with that hand is a possible dampening effect. [Aside, John uses a .73 nylon pick and medium strings… so I’m giving the pick a whirl too… lighter than my current pick]. Then, for fingering he has the quick drop D chord changes, plus a pulsing motion with his fingers depending on the effect he wishes to create. He’s also very careful about which string he either hits with his pick or he dampens with his fingers. Then you throw on top his unbelievable fast (but steady) rhythm and there you go. Well, easier said than done! Honestly, after understanding what he is doing, I’m even more in awe of his playing. The big change for me will be creating the rhythm more with the pulse than with my pick. That will be a tough transition, but a worthwhile goal to work toward.

Bouzouki – Eamon O’Leary
This was my 2nd class with Eamon as I took DADGAD guitar with him several years ago. Eamon’s teaching style is somewhat different than most of the Swannanoa instructors. I would say it is more of a process-based approach, where his learning goal is more about how to approach accompaniment than to mimic a tune or a particular pattern. This learning approach sometimes leaves me with more questions than answers, but ultimately may be more helpful long-term in terms of developing one’s own style. Eamon’s playing style is more melodic than John Doyle’s so I found myself focused on rhythm issues with John and counter-melody strategies with Eamon. Since purchasing my octave mandolin a little over a year ago, emulating Eamon’s melodic style of playing has been a goal, but I needed an introduction to the basics. Until this class, my approach was more like rhythm guitar, which was okay, but not the ultimate goal, especially if playing in a more intimate setting of 2-3 melody players. Plus, I’d really like to be able to offer a different layer to the sound than either the guitar or the melody players, and the octave mandolin is the means to this end. Eamon’s class started me on this journey. First issue was retuning from GDAE to GDAD which, for me, effectively ends using the octave mandolin as a melody instrument. My mind just isn’t flexible enough to play melody on mandolin, tenor banjo and fiddle one way and octave mandolin another. But, I do love the sound of the more open tuning. The open tuning (GDAD) also means that the capo comes into play and all the issues that come with that (loss of tuning, clean changes, etc.). Generally the same trade-offs as playing out of DADGAD on guitar. This time (unlike DADGAD), I need to learn alternative chord patters in different capo positions right from the start. Last night, I played a bit of accompaniment with Katherine and the minor tunes seemed to jump off my fingers and sounded great. Major tunes need a bit more thought! Eamon’s class was a great introduction to this style of playing, and now I have alot of homework to do. The first thing I need to find is a melody player who is willing to play a bunch with me as I work this out. That, and getting out recordings and playing along with them. Anyway, I have more to say on Octave Mandolin accompaniment, so I’ll devote a separate post to it as John P. also picked up an Octave Mandolin while he was at Swannanoa and is looking for an introduction.

Beyond the Classes
But to think that SwannyG is all about the classes would be missing out on the bigger picture. Each afternoon after classes are “Pot Lucks” where instructors take an hour or so on a topic of their choice (see previous post as an example). These are highly recommended. But they also come at prime nap time, so choose wisely! After dinner, there is a slow-jam led by 3 different instructors each evening. These are a great way to pick up a couple of new tunes, or, if you’re just starting out, to practice playing in a group setting. Finally, in the evenings, there are two concert nights and two dance nights followed by open jams until the wee hours of the morning. The concerts are definitely one of the highlights of Swannanoa. Wednesday night’s concert this year was probably my favorite Celtic concert I’ve ever seen. Four hours of unbelievable musicianship and energy with lots of unique combinations of instructors that really highlighted their interests and abilities. I can’t begin to capture it, so you’ll just have to come and experience it for yourself someday!

Finally, reflecting a bit on the community that is Swannanoa, and the traditional music of Charlottesville, I realize how many wonderful friends I’ve made over the years through music. The rhythms and tunes connect us to each other figuratively and literally. I am so grateful for the music in my life, and for the people who make the music come to life.

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