Interview #2- Martin Hayes

May 2008: Martin Hayes (Vol.5 No.5)
Interview recorded by S.Kenan on 12/03/08

Part Two of the interview with Martin Hayes following on from last month's Fiddle News:

On his recent tour of Australia, Martin visited Melbourne and Sean Kenan interviewed him at the Victorian College of the Arts. Martin was about to give a talk to College students and some of his conversation with the students is also included in this article.

Martin gets a great sound from his fiddle when he performs on stage and I asked him what he uses to amplify his instrument.

Q. How do you mike yourself up for stage performances?

A. Martin HayesI use a microphone, a Sennheiser MK E2.This is an omni-directional mike. It is kind of equivalent to the DPA microphones, Danish Pro Audio, which are very common at the high end but this is a good deal less expensive. I usually use some kind of pre-amp, some kind of signal processing
before I hand it over to the sound engineer.

One of the reasons for that is I don't want to have to spend an hour explaining to the sound engineer all the things I don't like about the fiddle sound. So I take out a lot of what are going to be problematic frequencies on the high end of the fiddle and I dull it off at the very spiky high end. This is a problem area almost always above 2 and 3 K, you know, that range of the violin. So I smooth it out and I try and warm the fiddle sound up a bit before it hits the board. The engineer then has less to do to get the tone where is ought to be and also the sound is a little more indestructible by the time he gets the fiddle sound. There is less of an opportunity for the sound engineer to utterly destroy it as well. So that's what I do to get the fiddle tone. I kind of go back and forth in terms of whether I use monitors, sometimes I don't use any monitors at all. I find this allows me to play 'in the room' to be able to 'feel the room.' I think the monitors create a barrier sometimes. They put you back in a bubble on the stage so you can't physically 'feel the room' or 'play in the room'.

Q. What bugs you about sessions?

A. Well, sessions are unpredictable. By their very nature they sometimes exceed their expectations and sometimes don't meet their expectations. I should put sessions in some kind of context. As a kid growing up in Ireland in the seventies playing music, sessions weren't as nearly as common as people imagine.
There were impromptu get togethers. Now thing about the sessions that I recall were they usually happened in one locality where musicians knew each other and played the same repertoire and were of the same style so the chances for conflict in terms of repertoire and speed of the music, all the kinds of things people get agitated about, in terms of people thinking, "The session is not going the way I want it to go," much of that was eliminated by the simple fact that we would have known each other. The other thing was that sessions weren't all that regular. They were sporadic. They could happen, they might happen, they might not happen. We also would have arranged the sessions amongst ourselves so basically it was who wanted to play with each other would inevitably turn up.

Now as time has passed, we have kind of created a session culture where there is a session in a pub and everybody within a hundred miles is welcome to come on that night and people would have never met each other, don't know each other and have no conversation and hope to play in the hope that it will coalesce. But there are often so many different agendas and varying viewpoints as to what this music ought to be that it is often difficult for the session to come together. My advice in sessions that I give to people is, don't come with your agenda. Don't come as someone who is going to lay an imprint on the session but come as a listener. Come as a flexible participant, as somebody who is going to bend yourself to the mood, feel and rhythm of the thing that's happening. The other thing is, for example, if you feel you are at a higher technical standard than the musician beside you, it is better to reach down and find a common level and find the lowest common denominator at which people can unite because one person playing at a high standard with someone playing at a lesser standard and not being able to connect is significantly less enjoyable than people coming together at a simpler, steadier pace with a simpler melody and all playing in a unified manner. If you are a better player than some of the other players in the session, I think it is a mistake to take that and run with it and set the standard. I think you have to be a bit more benign if you are in that position and you have to find the most common ground and pull people together. At the end of the day, if you were playing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, and you were all playing it together, it is more satisfying than if one guy is playing Lord Gordon's Reel at breakneck speed and you have ten people trailing along behind barely keeping up, that's a catfight. So that Lord Gordon's, despite how good that musician felt it was, is less of a musical experience than Twinkle Twinkle Little Star where everybody was on the same page.

That is an extreme example of course but in a way I think it is good keeping that concept in mind.

Q. What advice have you got for someone taking
up the fiddle?

A. Martin Hayes gets his fiddle out of its case outside the VCA I would say practice in small chunks, fifteen minute chunks.

I would say aim for emotional expression from the beginning, don't put it off.
It can lead you there and make the experience enjoyable all the time and relieve you from falling into the trap of drudgery. Play very simple things as well as you possibly can. Simple music is often a complicated thing to write and remember that. Don't disregard simple music because all musical forms, whether they are simple or complex often give you the opportunity for strong emotional expression. So don't be afraid to play something really simple and play it with heart felt expression because that becomes real music. If you play something complex with no feeling behind it, that's just complexity, it may not be music. Keep it simple and play from the heart. Play in a short amount of segments and visualise yourself playing things. Imagine how you want to hear these melodies and start aiming towards that because one of the things you don't want to get caught in is rote repetition of music and rote repetition of the things you have learned. The assumption is that repeating, repeating and repeating is practice. It's not, it could be a simple locking in place of where you're at so what you need to do is, you need to have a vision and a concept, personal to you, that you aspire to, no matter how little it is or how far ahead it is of you. You need to visualise this melody and start aiming towards it. When I say visualise it I mean maybe sing it to yourself or something like that. Just start moving towards that and have that goal in front of you because you need to be drawn towards something. What you don't want to do is have no clue where it is you are headed and just simply sit there and simply repeat the things you played last week in the hope that doing so will actually move you forward because it isn't the amount of time that you are going to spend practicing this that w get you ahead, it's really the quality of that time. You could spend forever doing the same thing and not move forward or you could move forward by having the vision. The other thing to remember is that music is not always about high technical capacity and techniques. I have heard so much great music played by people with minimal technical capacity. Sincerity will trump technique every time.

That is not to dismiss technique. I am not saying one shouldn't pursue it avidly, one should because the better the technique, the better everything works but your approach to music shouldn't necessarily be led by technique, it should be led by a passion and a feeling and a sincerity of expression. It is very easy to get lost in the technical world of the fiddle and the technical world of music and forget what, maybe innocently and naively and childlike got you into music in the first place. You don't want to lose sight of that.

On 12/3/08 Martin and Dennis Cahill gave a talk to students at the Victorian College of the Arts School of Music faculty which is located on Melbourne's St Kilda Road. Twenty five students including a few teachers attended and after Martin and Dennis spoke, questions were invited from the audience. The listeners included guitarists, string players, piano and wind students from both jazz and classical studies. Both Dennis and Martin welcomed the audience by playing some tunes and several times during the talk they took up their instruments and played music to illustrate points they were making. Here is a section of the presentation:

Martin: I have played some of the crappiest gigs you could imagine. Dennis and I were working in a band in Chicago and one of the first job we had every night was, when we got to the gig, was to move the pool table. So we moved the pool table out of the way and brought in all our gear, bass, drums. We had an electric kind of band. It was an experimental band if you will.

We would barricade ourselves with amps and mikes in a corner where all these rowdy construction workers gathered on a Saturday night. We would be playing Jimmy Buffet tunes and versions of Irish music all merged into some sort of jazz-rock fusion. The crowd couldn't even applaud because they were all holding pints and talking on top of each other. I remember a guy walking to the bathroom and walking past the stage and puking on my shoes while I was playing. So these were the gigs. Should I be making a new career move here? I don't know. Then we were playing in a club on the south side of Chicago called Fox's. Dennis was a veteran of that job. The day I came in the club owner made a horrible racist comment. He spoke of the cash register behind the bar. He only wanted to make money.

That was all it was about. He didn't give a damn what I played. Now you couldn't reach a harsher reality of trying to make a living as a musician than actually hearing this. I worked at the Irish Village on the north side of Chicago for another club owner whose only mission was to break your will and spirit at the end of the week so that he could pay you less and make you feel utterly grateful for just hanging in there. The big break was getting to play at the bar in the Hilton Hotel on the south side of Chicago where I played six nights a week from 9pm to 1am and I played for a cocktail hour from 5 to 6.30pm. Martin Hayes I played Danny Boy and the Black Velvet Band. My big moment of success would be Orange Blossom Special. This couldn't be any cheaper; you couldn't go any lower than this. But I was always was playing music on the side and I always knew this was total nonsense. Eventually I reached a point at which you are at now at probably which is I am going to commit myself to this now in a genuine way. I am going to do this without making any compromises.

If I make a life in music it must be my musical vision or else I won't do this. To try and navigate this world where you do not get to express your musical vision is a torturous journey.

Because you won't know what choices to make, you won't know where to go. Once I decided that I wasn't going to play any music that I didn't believe in, I was free!

Martin Hayes Martin's left hand position. His 1st finger is held on a B note and the 2nd finger is on a G note while the 3rd finger is on the A note. The 4th finger is used to play the high B note. Martin keeps his left hand fingers in close proximity to the fingerboard and this eliminates unnecessary finger movement. The fingers are already in position for descending passages. Martin Hayes Side view of Martin's left hand position. Note the fiddle neck is touching the base of his thumb which is considered incorrect by classical players. The lower photo shows Martin's little finger in the air rather than on the end of the bow. Martin seldom places the little finger on the bow but leaves it up off the bow almost the whole time. Classical players insist the little finger must touch the bow and regard a floating finger on the bow hand as incorrect technique.