Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Singing Class with Roisin White

Roisin White performing on the main stage
at the Catskills Irish Arts Week in East Durham, NY.

During the Catskills Irish Arts Week I took a 5-day singing class with Roisin White of Northern Ireland. Although I was not familiar with her before this summer, I came to realize very quickly that she is well known and highly respected in the world of traditional Irish singing. As a matter of fact, she had just come from two weeks at the 2007 Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington DC, where the music of Northern Ireland was one of the cultures featured this year. She appears on a Smithsonian Folkways CD called Sound Neighbors: Contemporary Music in Northern Ireland. Her only solo CD - The First of My Rambles - was reviewed by Brian Peters for The Living Tradition newsletter. An excerpt from his review describes her niche in the world of traditional Irish singing:

… Roisin White falls in the grey area between tradition and revival; singing went on in her County Down family, but she has learned much of her repertoire from such impeccable sources as Paddy Tunney, Robert Cinnamond and Eddie Butcher, as well as living singers like Len Graham and Joe Holmes. Although not strictly a 'source singer' herself, White has absorbed the local tradition whilst establishing a style that is all her own...

Over the course of the week Roisin taught our class approximately 13 songs. In addition to making sure we knew the tune, she told us her source for each song as well as stories about the song itself or her experience with it. She impressed upon us the necessity to know and love the song's melody. She advised us to digest the words and understand the song on all of its levels. Finally, she encouraged us to make a personal connection to the song, one which would enable us to tell the story as though it were our own. Overall, she instructed us to remember that the song - not the singer or the performance - is of utmost importance. Everything the singer does should focus the listener’s attention on the song itself and the story it contains. Indeed, Roisin's singing embodies all of that.

Roisin’s voice is not what you'd call "pretty" by classical singing standards. It is a forceful, strong, and compelling voice. It is honest and unpretentious. Her pitch is very accurate, and her diction is flawless. Both in terms of style as well as timbre, nobody else sounds quite like Roisin White.

No one else delivers the songs in quite the same way either. Quoting Brian Peters again: "she sings with warm, earthy honesty, and bags of rhythm and swagger.” I think that’s his way of saying she personalizes each song she sings. She loves the stories and the history they hold, and the listener is interested because of the compelling way she delivers the song.

Throughout the week I heard many singers, teachers and students alike, and was impressed by the enormous range of difference in the voices. Interestingly, the voices with the sweetest or most appealing tone quality were not necessarily the most moving. The most stirring performances were always skillful, but the listener’s attention was not drawn to the skill of the singer but to the beauty or the humor or the tragedy of the song. It was amazing to hear some rather rough voices deliver such a wallop!

Roisin has helped me realize I can sing - indeed, that I want to sing. All that singing in the Catskills reminded me that singing can be a way to share experiences, to draw people together, to respond to the things that come our way in life. That’s what traditional music has always done for people, and still does in the pockets of society where it is preserved and cherished. I'm not sure where this present musical exploration will take me, but I hope the singing – whatever form it takes -- will never end.

Thanks for a fabulous class, Roisin. I hope our paths cross again!

© 2007, Linda Mason Hood
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