Interview #2 - Kevin Burke
June 2006: Kevin Burke (Part2) (Vol.3 No.6)
Interview recorded by S.Kenan on 04/04/07
The National Folk Festival and Canberra's School of Music hosted Kevin's masterclass which was held for three days just before the Easter break. Fiddle players from over Australia booked in for the classes which ran for four hours per day. Over the three day period, Kevin taught two jigs, two hornpipes (The Tailor's Twist and The Plains of Boyle) and a reel (The College Groves).He went into fine detail while teaching the tunes. No sheet music was provided, all the tunes were taught by ear. Kevin is returning to Australia in June 2007 to perform at the National Celtic Festival held in the Victorian seaside town of Portarlington.
Many thanks to Canberra fiddler Jenny Gall and Ian Blake who made recordings of Kevin's workshop available for the Fiddle News. The following article contains some of Kevin's workshop talk as well as his response to some further questions.
Q. Did you ever imagine in your early days, the success and stature you would later receive as a musician?
A. I'm still not really aware of it. It's funny, I know within this small circle of Irish fiddlers, fiddling fans, I am a noted figure. I still see myself as one of the gang, struggling to get a few tunes together. I don't feel I have reached any dizzy heights. Maybe I should.
Q. Who were the fiddlers who influenced your style?
A. A whole gang of them. Paddy Killoran, Hughie Gillespie, all those old 78 rpm records. Brendan McGlinchey I used to listen to a lot. There is a Sligo player called Tommy McGowan who wouldn't be among the top players. He was one of these guys who had a great spirit with his music. When he joined in the music got better even though if you listen to him on his own you notice him skipping around a few corners here and there. He had dodgy bits of the tune, he would have to bodge them or fake them. But I learned a lot about how the music could work and I learned that you can learn a lot from players who aren't necessarily the great players. Lots of players have something interesting about them even if they wouldn't be considered the best you ever heard. It is like some guys are great storytellers but you wouldn't call them orators. I listen to lots of other kinds of music that makes me feel a certain way.
Sometimes it's Rock and Roll and sometimes it's Ella Fitzgerald. Sometimes it's classical music and sometimes it's Marvin Gaye, Frank Sinatra or Van Morrison. I like music that doesn't leave me cold. There is a lot of music around and I don't seek out that much.
Q. You told us the other day that the metronome was, “an instrument of torture but it is fantastic.”
A. Oh yes, you have got to learn to play with a metronome. Even if you don't do it for life, just that experience helps. You think you are playing on the money and unless you are practicing with a metronome you are probably not. It really is embarrassing.
Q. What advice would you give to someone taking up the fiddle for the first time?
A. Forgetting about music for a while and learn about the instrument, how to handle it, partly because of what you said about injury, repetitive injury.
Q. Where does one get this advice?
A. I'd take lessons. Classical people in general know a bit more about the instrument and how to use it, but not always. I have met a lot of classical players who play in a very strained way which I wouldn't recommend. So, asking around, watching other players who look like they are comfortable. If you see someone playing and they look really stiff, it's probably not the way you want to play. You can read it in books. It is like holding a golf club. Everyone who has ever played golf has a theory about how to hold the golf club. They are all different. They are all trying to say the same thing. It has got to be firm, it has got to be relaxed. You have got to have control but you have got to let it swing, you have got to give up control. We really have got to get a good sound. The fiddle, unlike a lot of instruments sounds really bad at first. When you play the piano and hit the wrong notes, it still sounds like a piano. With the fiddle you can hit the right notes and it can still sound awful, squawking and squeaking. So learning how the bow moves on the strings, being in a position to let things work is important.
Q. What do you think of music sessions? We have seen the delicacy of your playing. Could this get lost among lots of other instruments?
A. I played in sessions all the time when I was growing up, but those sessions were usually comprised of great players. If you are surrounded by great players you are going to play better, no question. But if you are surrounded by a bunch of people that aren't that good you will probably be influenced by them too and bad habits can develop. I have been to lots of sessions and everyone is just banging away and it's an irritating noise and as you say, the music just tends to get lost. I have been at other sessions where it is just the best thing you can imagine. As I get older, I have to admit I am getting less and less fond of sessions probably because I don't have the stamina anymore for staying up really late at night. Also I don't want to waste my time being bored in a session, I would rather go away and read a book or something. If I am with the right people I would sit there. Just a few months ago I was in Ireland and I went to visit Ged and John Carty and another guy, our sound engineer because we were doing some recording. After we finished the recording we went to Ged's local pub just because there was a bunch of people down there who would love to hear a few tunes. So we went down, there was just the four of us, John, Ged, this other lad and myself. We had no plans, just sit around and say “Hi” to Ged's local buddies but we started playing and it was great, it was just great. We had been playing all day doing this recording but just to sit down and play without caring about “Was it in tune?” or “Was it too fast?” or “What are we playing next?” It was a very small session and the surroundings were quiet and it was great. Everyone in the place was really clued in and there were old guys there who hadn't a clue who we were. Even if you told them they wouldn't have a clue who we were. But they knew we could play, they knew that much and they loved it, like it was their thing, their kind of thing. They wouldn't have been fellows who read the liner notes on CD covers and all that. This was the music they grew up with and they spotted that these guys were really in with it too.
Q. When performing, what is the most important thing for you?
A. Well I like to be playing for people who want to hear it. I don't like to be in a position where I have to kind of impose. If people aren't interested in hearing it, that's fine by me, I just don't want to be there playing.
Q. But does that ever happen to a player of your skill level?
A. Oh yes. You play at some places and there's guys talking to their kids, telling them to be quiet or “Sit over there” or something and there's another guy over there on his cell-phone, there's other people playing the slot machines. Yes, I'd just as soon pack up and go home. It's not that I demand attention, I demand attention for the music. If the surroundings are not good I'd rather not be playing. I really mean it when I say I understand entirely that not everybody wants to stand around and listen to music all the time. I'm not one of these types that says, “Oh this is music, you have got to listen to it.” Not at all. If you don't want to hear it, fine. In fact I even object to people putting on music at dinner parties, I'd rather they turn the bloody thing off until we have exhausted our conversation and we can sit down and listen to the music rather than having all this mindless dinner party chatter.
Q. G.K. Chesterton said “Music at dinner is an insult both to the cook and to the violinist.”What are your thoughts on this quote?
A. I agree so much with with that. It is so true. That's great, I never heard of that before. I love that.
Master Class Notes
Classical style and Irish fiddle style
One of Kevin's masterclass participants who was a classical player, said the fiddle and violin styles were so different that they both could be considered separate instruments. As a classical player, the student is taught to project the sound, use lots of bow and lots of vibrato. When Kevin was asked if a particular note in a tune he was teaching was a C natural or a C sharp, he commented that either could be used in this instance. The classical players found this amusing and something that would never be done intentionally in a classical setting. Kevin says, “The classical musician is thinking of a concert Hall, the traditional musician is thinking of a small house, a small cottage, a pub.”
Kevin had this to say about sessions, “One of the points for me was it was a very social occasion, you were meeting all these people. Mainly it was to play music but in between the tunes there would be jokes and there would be lies, there would be guys arguing, there would be flirting.”
One student commented on sessions where vast numbers of tunes would be strung together and Kevin replied, “I hate that. It's not like a marathon. I really hate it when it becomes an endless litany of tunes, usually played in a pedantic way and the only thing is to prove you know yet another tune. I was at a session with Paddy Canny, the first time I met Paddy Canny, a great fiddle player from Clare, an older farmer. I listened to him when I was a kid and I was a big fan. I never met him until I was about 35 years of age and he was playing in a pub near his home and there was a bunch of other musicians there, two or three locals but five or six young fellows who were from elsewhere but their parents brought them along I think.
These young fellows were really good, they were probably fifteen, sixteen. They were still at the stage of the guy who knows 30 tunes is twice as good as the guy that knows 15 tunes. To prove they were really good they would play that little bit faster than everybody else. I was sitting down with Paddy Canny who is the very opposite in his temperament and his music and just about as I was getting bored with these young fellows, Paddy laid down his fiddle and he leaned over to me and whispered in my ear, “I'm lost.” I thought “Yeah, I'm lost too.” You see he could eat these guys alive if he just put his mind to it. It's not a test of endurance. I used to love playing with these older guys, these country guys because there was all kinds of humor and humorous things going on.
Sometimes there would be bits of rivalry and they would be needling each other. They would play tunes because they knew that guy didn't like it or they would play the minor version just because he didn't like the minor version, and the other would know why he was playing it! To me that was a big part of going to sessions, a big part. So I definitely wouldn't say sessions are pointless. It is like saying reading a book is pointless. Sometimes there are books that are pointless but other times they are fantastic. Sessions are a bit like that".
Kevin Burke's left hand resting position
The fingers are very close to the fingerboard and all have light contact with the strings. He uses minimal finger movement whilst playing. On the final day of the three day masterclass, Kevin examined the contents of his fiddle case and discussed what he found with the students.
Kevin uses a firm sponge pad as a shoulder rest. This is secured underneath the the instrument by a rubber band. He likes having the ability to be able to rotate the fiddle sideways while playing. A conventional shoulder rest restricts this type of movement. Kevin explains, “My teacher used to say things like, surround your instrument. This kind of arrangement gives me the feeling I am very close, I am a part of it, whereas the other shoulder rests give me the feeling there is a shelf and I am walking up to it and sticking my chin out. It feels like it's over there and I have to kind of reach out to it.
Kevin has a clip on electronic tuner (Martinez) which lights up. This tuner is clipped on to the peg and picks up the instrument's vibrations and calibrates the string's frequency. Kevin uses pizzicato or plucking to test the string's pitch rather than using a bowed stroke. This type of tuner allows tuning amongst background noise as it picks up the fiddle's vibrations rather than sounds in the vicinity which can confuse the electronic mechanism.
Covering his fiddle is a silk bag and of this he says, “The air on a plane is really dry, for some reason silk keeps the thing from drying out. So if you are going to be on a plane for a long time, put it in a silk bag. Now this was a silk shirt, I don't know where I got it from, it was in the house.
As well a rosin and a spare sound post, Kevin carries spare strings and I asked him what type he uses. He replied, “I usually use Obligato brand but I am very fickle. I keep changing the line. I have got hundreds of strings at home, I have got a box full of strings. Lately I have been saying I am not buying any more strings until I use up these, I just use whatever comes out of the box".
My brother made this bow and he re-hairs my bows, for nothing.
Q. How often do you change your strings and how often do you get your bow re-haired?
A. I change strings probably every two months and the re-hair every six months or nine months.
Q. How do you know when your bow needs re-hairing?
A. It won't hold the rosin as well. You start noticing it more. You start putting more rosin on it.
Kevin's comments after being asked to go over a reel slowly
When asked to go over a tune slowly Kevin snapped his fingers and said, “It's a bit like learning to do that. You can't really do it slowly. It is like trying to learn how to spit slowly. Because it is a reel, it has got to have this kind of a kick in it somewhere. I know it's awkward but in the long run I think it works much better. If you learn it at a kind of pedestrian pace it is very hard to shake it off and get it sounding like a reel. You will always sound like you are playing it too fast or something. That is why I am trying to bully you into learning these phrases quickly. If I was learning this tune at home, I would read through it and I would be going..” (Kevin then repeats the first two bars from the B part of the reel The College Groves over and over again.)
“I would work on each little chunk to make sure it worked. Like when you start off reading and you say c, a, t, spells 'cat'. It doesn't matter how fast you say c, a, t , it doesn't sound like cat. That is what happens when we learn tunes slowly, you can get stuck in the spelling stage. I don't see that as nine notes. I see it as question and answer, this spells “where?” and this spells “there!”
Credit: Thanks to Jenny Gall and Ian Blake for the copy of Masterclass recording.