Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Living Tradition

Please pardon my absence: I'm just now settling back into life in the Bronx.

I wanted, however, to call your attention to a very fine article written by Jim Lang of Assumption College. A professor of English, Jim contributes a regular column to The Chronicle of Higher Education and his latest column is devoted to a discussion of the tin whistle course I teach here at Fordham. I'm glad that he acknowledges Drew Marquard's help, without whom I would be wholly unable either to record or post my videos (I have a technological handicap). Indeed, follow this link here to see some of Drew's videos.

I hope Jim doesn't mind that I've copied the article here, so if you'd rather read it on-site then follow this link to The Living Tradition.

The Living Tradition

Think about teaching as a set of strategies or techniques that we inherit and pass on to the next generation

by James M. Lang

I've long been a devotee of traditional Irish music, despite my measly dollop of ethnic Irish heritage, and despite my inability to sing, or play any instrument you can carry into a pub. When I was in Ireland in March, though, chaperoning a group of students on a spring-break tour, I stopped into a music store in Galway and bought a half-dozen books of Irish music and a tin whistle.

I play the piano, which has 88 keys; the tin whistle had only six holes. How complicated could it be?, I thought to myself. So when I got home I opened the books and sat down to learn my favorites, expecting to master them easily with a little bit of practice.

Imagine your favorite cat sitting comfortably on the floor of the kitchen, dozing away. Now imagine you walk up and step on his tail. That sound that comes out of your cat? That's the same sound that emerged from my whistle.

So I looked to the Internet for help, and almost immediately found a series of YouTube videos called "Introduction to the Irish Tin Whistle," produced by two Jesuit seminarians from Fordham University, Ryan Duns and Drew Marquard. The videos accompany a course of the same title that Duns teaches at Fordham; he uses the videos ( and a blog ( to supplement his courses, and he has made them available to the public as well through YouTube and Blogspot.

Whistle in hand and mouth, I watched the first video and was impressed by the clear and easy nature of Duns's presentation. He covered scales and fingering techniques, and had me playing "Mary Had a Little Lamb" in two different keys by the end of the six-minute session.

But what really caught my attention were his closing words: "It is only through gradual, step-by-step learning, taking our time with it, struggling with the music, that you will begin to cultivate a sense of your place in the Irish tradition."

The idea that, as a 38-year-old amateur musician, I could ever hope to find a place in the Irish musical tradition never occurred to me when I picked up the tin whistle. But I found it to be such an encouraging and inspirational sentiment that it made me want to practice and keep going.

I continued taking Duns's YouTube "course," and each week found myself impressed by his patient and careful lessons, by his sense of humor, and by his evident passion for Irish music. So I wrote to ask if I could interview him about how to teach with blogs and videos, assuming he would have useful tips I could pass along. His insights into both music and teaching helped renew my own faith and interest in teaching, and reset my compass just in time for the start of the new semester.

I began our e-mail exchange by asking Duns why he bothered to put his courses online. What was the point of adding the videos and blog to an already existing course?

"The logistics of the tin-whistle course," he explained, "made some creative thinking necessary. I knew that I'd have limited face time with the students as a group and, unless I figured out a way to do private or one-on-one lessons with each of them, I'd have even less chance of working with them individually. Further, I know that it's hard for kids to practice — I've taught for enough years to know that, no matter how hard the teacher works, it makes no difference if the kid isn't picking up the instrument at home.

"It occurred to me that YouTube, where I had been posting some solo tin-whistle videos just for fun, would make a great venue for hosting my videos. The students were all familiar with the way it worked and it was accessible from their desks (where, I hoped, they'd keep their whistles), and it seemed logical that the ease of YouTube would help facilitate them in practicing along with my video. Rather than trying to remember what I said to them in class, all they'd have to do is pull up YouTube and find that week's lesson and allow the 'Balding Bard' to show them, again, what to do.

"Nevertheless, YouTube is also limited to posting only video, and I wanted to give my students the notes to the tunes. Hence the blog."

It turns out, Duns explains, that the videos and blog helped him deal with the challenge of working with students who were coming from a range of musical abilities.

"Sometimes I'll have a student who just doesn't get it," he writes. "She might be on the cusp of grasping a movement and I can see it … but I can't ask 34 other kids to wait for her. With the videos, I can pull her aside and say, 'Go home tonight and nail Week No. 6's video. You're so close! Just keep at it!'"

The videos also enabled him to divide the students into two groups: "those who could play already and those who, well, needed padded helmets when it came to music." He could put one group in a classroom with one of his videos while he worked directly with the other group.

Duns still hadn't explained why he wanted to make the videos and the blog available to the public. Why not put DVD's in the library, or restrict them just to students in the course?

"I firmly believe that my 'musical ministry' is to pass along what I have received," he says. "To date, I have received e-mails expressing tremendous gratitude for my videos from Vietnam, Brazil, Sweden, Germany, Korea, Canada, Ireland, Spain, Peru, and many others.

"Irish music is a living tradition, something to be lived out of, and it makes my heart swell with joy to know that there are people from around the world who are not only learning to love to listen to Irish music, but also who are learning to speak through the tradition." As our e-mail conversation came to a close, Duns made even more explicit the links between his musical passions, his vocation as a Jesuit, and his vocation as a teacher.

"I have a great passion for Irish music, and I want to share it," Duns says. "It has done such wonderful things in my life, and I want people to participate in that. I reckon my mission is to evangelize the gospel and the whistle! My spirituality is best likened to music: I pray as I play — with joy and awe at being invited to have a place in a much larger symphony of musicians, but a symphony where my voice is both wanted and has something to add to the richness."

As I was reading his reflections, I realized that we can think about teaching in much the same way: as a living tradition, a set of strategies or techniques — like melodies — that we inherit from our teachers, and pass along to those teachers yet to come.

Most of us share our melodies freely and happily with one another (unlike our scholarship, which we may guard jealousy and stamp with copyrights). When we find a teaching melody that works, we want to share it with others, and even to hear how our fellow teachers might help us make it better — give it a different rhythm, add grace notes, try out a new fingering technique.

And just as musicians have to work to find their own voice within a living musical tradition, we each have to struggle to find our voice as teachers, learning from those who have gone before us in the classroom and passing along our wisdom to those who will follow.

Monday, August 18, 2008

So Strange

I find it so strange that I tend to return home from vacation far more fatigued than I was when I left!

It has been a very busy two weeks and I'm now very glad to be back in Cleveland for a few days before heading back to NYC.

I haven't much to write about today. I would ask for prayers for Michael English who has gone to Ireland to compete in this year's All-Ireland Fleadh (It's like the Olympics of Irish music). He's one of our US representatives on the tin whistle.

I'm waiting for Emma, my niece, to arrive. My sister Hagan and I have a big big day of fun planned: we are going to walk to a local Sushi restaurant (Emma may have her own glass of Chardonnay, but I've heard that raw fish is bad for babies) and then head to Starbucks for a tasty beverage (Emma takes her coffee black. So mature for a one-year old). And then it's nap time...for me. Maybe her, too. But certainly for me.

Once I've rested a bit and caught up on some sleep, I'll start to post again. I've a few things to say (big surprise) and I think I'll have time this week to put these thoughts into words!

Sunday, August 03, 2008

On Holiday

It appears that there is rest for the wicked!

I'll be at our villa in Omena, Michigan and then in Detroit for Vows. So, technically, I'm on vacation until August 18th. But since I'm bringing my laptop and camera with me, I'll try to post some vacation photos while I'm up!


Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame