Loving the fiddle

I’ve been working on this watercolor of my friend, Cyndi, holding her fiddle. Finally it’s finished (oops, except for strings. I’m going to add those using chalk).

I don’t have much to say about it right now, except that it took me longer than I expected.

Last night’s fun

Tombow brush pen drawing of Athena, done in the dark without my glasses. But I caught the gesture of the way she plays, almost like dancing with her beautiful five-string fiddle.

We saw Mick Maloney and Athena Turgis last night. Mick, Irish musician and musicologist, has woven research into the early days of music theater, and the influences and collaborations of Irish immigrants and Jewish immigrants. He’s put it all together in a cd and show called If it wasn’t for the Irish and the Jews.

I recommend the show. The history is fascinating, the Tin Pan Alley songs are compelling (if a little weird to our 21st century ears), and the fiddle and banjo playing of Athena and Mick are over-the-moon wonderful.

They’re at the Freight and Salvage in Berkeley tonight. Get there if you can.

The morning after St. Patrick’s day

St. Patrick’s day is over, and with it goes for another year the green beer, leering leprechauns, and the ridiculous and boorish kiss-me-I’m-Irish behavior. Thank God.

This kind of faux Irish revelry, while lucrative for Irish pubs, people who make green sparkly hats, and those who put green coloring in cheap beer, is like, well, like drinking cheap green beer compared to drinking Guinness.

The pure drop—traditional music, set dancing, singing and story telling—is nothing like the commercial event we celebrate in the States. It’s deeper, denser, more satisfying, and infinitely more fun. There’s a community built around it, and it’s going on all around, under the mainstream media radar, in pubs and pizza parlors, churches and granges, living rooms and back patios. And once you get involved in it, you’ll find more and more of it around you.

The best place to start learning about the Irish-American community is to listen to some traditional Irish music at a session. There’s a good list of sessions around the world at thesession.org. And once you’re tapped into this community, well, you may be housing round the set yourself someday. And when that happens, you’ll know what that last sentence means.

Klezmer Festival!

I was lucky enough to have a front row seat and plenty of light, so out came the sketchbook. How much happier could I be than to listen to amazing music while drawing the amazing musicians making said music?

Last night we heard the trio Veretski Pass play their Klezmer Shul, a beautiful piece of music that combines Jewish sacred and secular music of Eastern Europe (and maybe some “co-territorial” music from other cultures).

In a talk with the audience after, the fiddler Cookie Segelstien (oh, alright, she’s a violinist, if you want to reference her work in the classical world. As if being an amazing Klezmer fiddler isn’t enough) told us that there used to be, a long time ago, special shuls (houses of worship) dedicated to specific tradesmen. There were shuls for builders, and tailors, and, they think, there were shuls for musicians. Cookie said, “we asked the question, in that light, what kind of music would Klezmer musicians jam on?”

The music was terrific. It was haunting, and joyful, and all the things you’d expect from three amazingly gifted musicians mining the very roots of their musical souls. The Klezmer Shul is what happens when classically trained musicans cross over into folk music and create something new and wonderful.

I loved what I heard last night, but it was more academically inclined (not that this is a bad thing, mind you). It’s just that the kind of music in the clip below makes my heart dance. This video clip is pure Klezmer.

I’m hoping we’ll have some of this music in the house soon. My own fiddler has been away these last two days, attending Klezmer workshops at the KlezCalifornia yiddish Culture Festival at Congregation Etz Chayim in Palo Alto. I would have loved to join in the fun, but I just can’t take on another hobby right now. But I’m hoping he brings home some tunes.

Boxwood flute

Boxwood Flute © 2009 Margaret Sloan

This painting is a portrait of a young woman I met at Friday Harbor Irish Music Camp. Her flute was made of boxwood, which has a tendency to warp.  Hers was bent in a charming shape. But, she said, it hadn’t really made any difference in how it played. It was a sweet-toned flute, and fit her playing style very well.

It took me a while to finish this painting, with many sketches and smaller studies. I started off rather badly; the night I began I was exhausted, and there was loud, very interesting music playing in the classroom. I have a really hard time working when music is playing, because my brain stands up and says, hey! There’s music going on over here that you need to come listen to right now! It’s one of the things I know about how my brain works. I can’t have music playing when I’m painting or drawing.


I’ve been working on this drawing of Catherine McEvoy for my watercolor class. It’s been problematic because my photo reference is so bad. I took it in class last year at Friday Harbor Irish Music Camp. Really, the photo is mostly just the idea for the painting, and a brief reference for Catherine’s face.

My teacher, Steve Curl, brought up something that has helped me with the drawing. “Think about the angles,” he said. “That will give you the dynamism you need to show the intensity the has when she plays the flute.” Steve is a musician as well as a painter, and right off he recognized  the dynamic force with which Catherine plays the flute. That force is what I’m trying to capture.

So I put the drawing in Adobe Illustrator and picked out the angles and the line of action to better understand the drawing. The purple lines are the dominant angles, the light blue lines secondary, and the orange lines are the lines of action. I still don’t have it quite right. I’ll have to spend some time in front of a mirror with a flute (holding it backwards since Catherine plays left-handed) in order to understand the pose. It’s times like these I wish I could afford a model. And I’ll have to spend some more time watching Youtube videos of Catherine. Darn.

The practice of music and art

Pastel pencil on colored paper
Pastel pencil on colored paper

This is a small drawing I made of my friend Cyndy. It’s from a photo taken as she was sitting around a campfire, playing tunes with a group of musicians.

I know Cyndy’s present teacher. He’s told me that she’s the kind of student a teacher loves to have. She really thinks about the music she plays, and she makes him think about it too. And she practices!

She’s passionate about her fiddle in the way most of us are passionate about a new romantic partner. But, come to think about it, I know a lot of musicians who are married to their instrument, and playing music is simply part of their everyday experience. I also know artists who feel the same way about their art. (I’m torn between the two. Do I play tunes, or do I draw? Tough question, that.)

Sometimes playing music or making art becomes a stale thing, or a stressful thing, fraught with needs and cravings that block the joy of our passions. But if we really think about what we’re doing, and lose ourselves in the process, suddenly the work becomes play, and we amaze ourselves at our success.

Shannon Heaton, one of my favorite Irish flute players, has a terrific blog at Whistle and Drum called The Inner Game of Irish Music about practicing the music. She’s talking about Irish music, but she could be talking about drawing, painting, old time music, classical music, dancing, or even just plain-old, everyday work.

Erhus and dulcimers


While walking around in our down town area last Saturday night, we happened on two girls playing Chinese music on the erhu and hammered dulcimer. They were seated outside the Asian market and they were playing some pretty fierce tunes, fast and complicated, and with all the energy two kids can bring to their music. Two older women (I assume the mamas, because if I were a mother of either of those girls, I’d be watching them like a hawk) sat nearby, barking at them if they spoke too long to passersby.

I was still pumped up from drawing at the contradance earlier that day, so I sat down and sketched the girls as they played. They enjoyed seeing the sketches afterwards—and thanked me for drawing them!