This article originally appeared in: Mandolin Magazine, Spring 2014 issue
I love the ease and grace with which some Irish fiddlers weave their musical magic. Ever since I first fell madly in love with Irish traditional music, I was drawn to the players who seemed to make everything flow from their fingers with effortless ease. The bow seemed to engage the strings without changing direction. The fiddler’s grip on the bow was impossibly light and delicate. The left hand was relaxed and the fingers hovered only a hair’s breadth over the strings, barely seeming to move as the melodies spun and the filigreed ornaments added spice and excitement.
The fiddler I perhaps owe the most to is Kevin Burke, whose mastery of the languid Sligo style of fiddling inspired countless fine fiddlers to study and emulate his approach. For years I’ve worked with measured success to incorporate some of Kevin’s technical details into my fiddling. And over the years, I’ve found a trick or two of his that prove equally useful on octave mandolin. I’ve mentioned Kevin in this column before and even made reference to the particular technique I’m analyzing today, so regular readers may recall.
When I started out as a classical cellist I had classical left-hand technique hammered into me. One aspect was that the fingers, always curved and poised over the string and ready to pounce, had to come straight down and then straight back up again. No lateral movement. No sneaking up on the note from one side. Shifting up the string was fine, but the whole hand moved as a unit and the wrist remained solid as steel. But this training, learned until it was unquestioned second-nature, got a kick in the pants when I realized what Kevin Burke was doing to make his jigs and reels sing.
Irish music and all the other Celtic idioms are gloriously bedecked with ornamentation. There are the “crans” of the bagpipes, which I hear as baffling little bursts of unidentifiable notes. There are preceding grace notes. There are pull-offs and hammer-ons. There are bowed triplets and picked triplets. And there are uniquely-Celtic ways of stretching and squeezing time for emotional effect that I hope someone writes a doctoral thesis on someday and then sends me a copy.
But today let’s focus on an ornament that owes its existence and power to a simple flick of the wrist. Getting back to Kevin’s playing, I remember one night watching him play and becoming aware that while he could play bow-skip triplets, he was just as likely to ornament a note with a higher note one finger up, and then swoop sideways off the ornament back to the original note. The swoop wasn’t big, but it violated all I had learned in my classical training. It accomplished an effect I had been struggling with—making a triplet snap. The sideways pull-off, subtle as it was, combined pulling the higher note off and into the lower with the note as played by the bow continuing to move in the same direction. Without the pulloff the same three notes would still be there but would lack the snap.
What a thunderbolt of a realization! It took some practice but I learned how to rotate or flick my left wrist toward the E-string side of the fingerboard ever so slightly, just barely catching the string and letting it go while rotating back into position to continue the tune. The rotating back is just as important as rotating down, of course. With a little work it seems to happen so instantaneously that it doesn’t interrupt the rhythmic flow.
And how does this translate to the octave mandolin, I hear you cry? Amazingly well. Without a bow to contribute to the vibration of the string, it’s up to the left hand to learn the precise pressure and speed needed to pluck the first note of the triplet, then hammer-on the second, and then swoop sideways off the hammered-on note to snap off the third note of the triplet. In time, you can play triplets with all three notes sounding equally emphatic and equally clear.
This sideways wrist flick works on triplets starting on open strings and on index, middle, and ring fingers. Open string and first-finger triplet snaps seem the most common, but depending on your taste in tunes in different keys, your experience may differ.
Here’s a tune to try out the downward wrist flick with. As it happens, I didn’t learn “The Cairin’ o’T” from Kevin Burke, but from the late Scottish fiddler Johnny Cunningham. Johnny was fond of stringing together several Scottish tunes, toggling between minor and major, to glorious effect. This tune was a major-key palate cleanser tucked in the middle of a dark and modal set Johnny called “Fair Warning”. While Johnny liked to play this at bat-outta-hell speed and I like to play it on the sprightly side, there’s something about the tune’s shape that makes me think it started life as a hornpipe, geared down much slower. The only vestigial remains of “hornpipe-ness” are the first three beats in the 4th and 8th bars of both A and B parts of the tune. They want to be phrased as follows: Fourth bars—”dit dit dahh” and eighth bars—”diddly dit dahh”. I’ve provided staccato marks as reminders.
You get open string and ring finger triplets on both the A and E courses. As you perfect the wrist move, work to make it as subtle and small as possible while still providing the snap finishing each triplet. Don’t worry. This could take years. You can also choose to occasionally flick down with obvious extravagance, just for theatric effect. Either way, it’s lots of fun and could add a devil-may-care lightness to your performance that everyone can enjoy. Happy flicking.