Saturday, April 10, 2010

It's Been a Long Time

In what was my first totally free Friday night in a very long time, I seized an opportunity to do something I haven't done in many years: I went to an Irish music session. A seisiun, or session, is a gathering of Irish musicians who gather to play music together. I learned of this session from a great little website called, a site run by a great whistle player named Gary Farmer. So after a day of blogging and recording, I packed up my tin whistles, jumped into the car, and headed off to the Ancient Order of Hibernians Hall in Detroit.

The irony of me being nervous to go to a session is not lost on me. My YouTube videos have been watched nearly 2.5 million times and I, daily, receive emails asking for help in learning to play Irish music. Just yesterday I read a note from somebody who thanked me for helping her to learn enough tunes to allow her to play in a local beginners' session in her hometown. Rather than being glad for her, I felt horribly discouraged! "How is it that I can help others play in sessions when I don't go to them myself?" I felt like a huge hypocrite: I tell people to claim their voice in the Irish tradition and, ashamedly, I don't contribute my own except through my teaching videos.

As a musician, I have always been very self-conscious: as much as I love to play, I hate it when other musicians play tunes that I've never even heard before. Sessions can often move so quickly that by the time I lock into a new tune and start to get it figured out, the group has moved onto another tune. By the time I start to get that one under my belt, I've forgotten the first one! Hence do I often feel like a loser, someone who is not as good as the others, and I worry that they're judging me. It's easier and more comfortable for me to record what I want to record, to teach what I want to teach, because I am in control.

In other words, I realized as I drove last night to how great an extent fear has kept me from doing something I really do love doing: playing music with others.

We played tunes last night that I hadn't heard or played in over a decade. Memories of my teenage years flooded back: the excitement of learning new tunes and going to sessions and performance and competitions. Last night, I got back into touch with a sense of communion and camaraderie that I had forgotten, or neglected, or had sought elsewhere. I realized, much to my delight, that the same joy I find it being a member of the Body of Christ - a rag-tag group trying to bring their voices and lives together to praise God - is the same joy I find in playing Irish music with others.

I am grateful that I had a chance to play music with true Irish musicians. Last night, I played with women and men who really loved Irish music and shared that love with me, inviting me to enter into something I had forgotten and to reawaken a long-dormant passion. They taught the teacher and helped me to realize just how much I still have to learn and how much of a desire I have to learn it. In a word, I have been inspired.

In these days of Church crisis, I am grateful for a lesson I learned last night. I am an Irish musician for the same reason I am a Catholic: because in and through a community of musicians and Catholics, I have found a joyful voice to express myself using my (very) limited abilities. My weak-but-willing self has been formed by others, challenged by others, sustained by others, and loved into greater wholeness by others. Sometimes, I fear, I forget how important community really is and write and think as though it's just me out there. It takes an evening of musical grace to recall that it's not all about me and just how much I owe to the community that has helped me to be the man, the musician, and the Christian I am today.

I am not a musician in spite of other musicians but only because they shared themselves with me. I have surpassed some of my teachers and I am proud to say that I have been surpassed by those I have taught. It's not about being the best, it's about being who I am, who I am called to be: one who is called and willing to contribute his voice, his life, to make more beautiful the music he loves. Each one of us is called to do the same. There is no perfect session - for there are always bum notes - just as there is no perfect institution. But sustained by a love of the music, of the tradition, we can joyfully offer our voices and lives as we come together in music and in prayer.

1 comment:

Reed said...

Great post Ryan -
I'm working up the confidence to sit in on the sessions here in the twin cities -

It's intimidating for beginners. Some people make an effort to make new comers feel welcome and some people are hostile to new comers.

I wish there wasn't so much ego and attitude in it. I got out of wind ensemble playing because of the egos and attitudes - I was hoping it would be different in trad music, but unfortunately it's not.

Perhaps you remember the scene from the 70s bicycling movie "Breaking Away" where the hero of the story, a young idealistic American cyclist is so excited to get the opportunity to race with some Italian cyclists. He works his way up to the the front of the pack and is so happy to be up there with them. They promptly put a bar in his spokes and send him in the ditch.

I've found that professional musicians don't tend to be this way, but other advanced players do.

My experience with professional musicians has been that they are happy to share and encourage interested musicians.

I guess all you can do as a musician is not let the bad attitude doctors get you down and remember to encourage new musicians as they are coming up.

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame