The music in your bones

Watercolor color study
Watercolor color study

Last night after the session wound up, after the last Irish jig and reel danced out across the floor, after the last polka whirled by and the last hornpipe bobbed out for the night, after the flutes were swabbed  clean and the fiddles wrapped and stowed in their cases., we musicians fell to talking a bit about Irish music.

We talked about how we came to this old and eccentric style of music in this land of pop melody and commercial jingles. Nearly every person at that party came into the music during a crisis in their life (many of us, it seemed, found it while ending a bad relationship). We found solace in the music, friendship in our instrument. “When I feel down or troubled,” C. said, “I tell it to my fiddle.”

How well I know that type of long conversation with my flute.

Not everyone who comes to Irish music is an emotional refugee looking for comfort. Some are lucky enough to have been born into the music, and wise enough to continue playing their legacy. Others just enjoy the intellectual exercise of learning stacks of tunes. And most of us love the camaraderie and community that comes from playing this music with others.

But I’d wager that for lots of musicians, the music is more importantly a place of comfort and safety. The familiar tunes are like favorite stories  we tell ourselves when we’re happy, scared, bored, or sad.

No matter our level of competence, just to sit quietly by ourselves and play this music is to have a relationship with the tunes and with our instruments that is as deep and serious as our relationships with our spouses, our children, our parents.  I guess because ultimately, it’s a relationship with ourselves.

Study of a flute player

Girl playing flute Graphite value study
Girl playing flute
© 2009 Margaret Sloan
Graphite value study

I met this lovely young woman at Friday Harbor Irish Music Camp. She had a boxwood flute that had bent as it aged, but it sounded lovely.

One day while we were in class, the rain and snow stopped, the sky cleared, and the sun streamed through the windows. Sitting in a shaft of sunlight, the young woman glowed as she practiced her tune. I snapped a photo quickly. There was no time to fool around if I wanted to capture the naturalness in her posture. Youth is a time of great beauty, but also great self consciousness.

I’ve come to understand the importance of doing value studies before beginning a painting. Steve Curl, my watercolor teacher, told me that when I was designing the value study I shouldn’t focus on the details. Instead, he said, look for the large shapes of light and dark; I did, and it made all the difference.

I’ve already practiced painting hands playing the flute, so I should be in good shape for her hands.

Finally! It doesn’t take this long to play the tune!

Trim the Velvet <p>Watercolor</p> <p> Copyright Margaret Sloan 2009
Trim the Velvet
Copyright Margaret Sloan 2009

This week I painted my final version of William Bajzek’s hands playing flute. I think I’ve painted about 12 versions of this; I’m happiest with this last version, although I also like the earlier version I posted in February.

I’m calling it Trim the Velvet, one of my favorite Irish tunes. It’s a tune that falls beautifully on the flute, and one that William plays really well. You can hear sound samples of William playing Irish music with his wife, Angeline, in their duo called Castlerock. Unfortunately, they haven’t any sound samples of Trim the Velvet on their website. They should.

12 versions of the same painting. That’s a pretty compulsive thing to do. But I made about every mistake a person can make in those 12 paintings. Sometimes I made pretty awful color decisions (and sometimes no decisions at all). I struggled to create soft edges. I roared into the painting and impatiently splashed dark values onto the paper too soon. I didn’t pay attention to the paint.

These are the things I learned: Painting a watercolor is a lot like starting a relationship. It’s best to be delicate in the beginning, leaving room for the big decisions that you’ll have to make later on. Plan well. Make clear choices. Use a light touch. Be happy with what the painting wants to be.

Irish set dancing

Playing for set dancers  Graphite
This is a drawing from my sketchbook, made up from memories of all the dances for which I've played, and all the dances at which I've danced. It's just a sketch, but it captures how it feels to be in the band, making music that lifts the feet of the dancers. Graphite on paper

Last night we played for the set dancing at the Brittania Arms in Cupertino. Irish sets are usually danced with four couples, like American square dance, but they are more elegant, the dancers moving more smoothly and closer to the floor. There’s less bounce. But a lot of energy. I love to play for dancers. I also love to dance the sets.

I’ve wanted to paint the dancing of the sets ever since I first saw a huge céilí mór (a big dance party) at Cois na hAbhna, the Irish regional resource center in Ennis, County Clare, 11 years ago. The energy was incredible; the hall was filled with the wheeling sets, the young men battering out percussion, the women smoothly stepping. The music was brilliant, of course (it’s County Clare!), with so much lift and urgency that I imagined the trees outside would pull their roots and start dancing.

Friday Harbor Irish Music Camp

Fiddlers at a session
Fiddlers at a session

What a way to ring in Saint Patrick’s Day. We spent a week at the Friday Harbor Irish Music Camp on San Juan Island. It was brilliant. These drawings were done one night during a session, in dim light, while the music was rocking along.

I didn’t get much drawing done at the camp. It was too exciting to draw; the music, wild and free, trapped me, and so I just played music, pretty solidly, for six days. Art took a fiddle class from Liz Kane, and a music theory class from Randal Bays. I took flute classes from Catherine McEvoy, one of my favorite flute players. I fell in love with my flute all over again.

Catherine McEvoy playing the flute. She looks demure, but her music is powerful.
Catherine McEvoy playing the flute. She looks demure, but her music is powerful and strong. Not ladylike at all.

For the last few years, I haven’t been playing music much,  concentrating instead on painting, and so I had fallen out of the groove of playing. But a week of music brought it back: how much I love the music, love playing my flute. Don’t know how I’m going to balance music with painting, and still go to my day job.

If you haven’t heard of Catherine McEvoy, check out this video. She’s amazing.