Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Flute Lessons with Mike Rafferty

Although a fair amount of biography and some good descriptions of Mike Rafferty's playing are available online (see links at the end of this post), I have yet to find anything written on his teaching. This blog post attempts to fill that void. What follows here are my reflections about Mike as a teacher and what I’ve learned from him over the past four years.

Mike’s style of playing derives from the East Galway region of Ireland where melodic flow and lift are valued more than flash and speed. As one would expect, then, Mike believes tunes should be lively but not too fast so that the listener can follow the melody and savor it. At my lesson we often discuss tempo, and Mike always cautions me against the rapid speeds that have become increasingly popular.

The same East Galway emphasis on the prominence of the tune extends to ornamentation (embellishments). Mike believes that ornaments should enhance, not obscure, the melody line. When you hear Mike play a jig or a reel, you don’t immediately think, “what dazzling playing!” More likely, you would say to yourself, “what a beautiful tune!” The subtlety of Mike’s ornamentation reveals itself as I listen to the recordings made during my lesson. The more closely I listen, the more decorative figures I hear. Traditional Irish ornaments like cuts and taps (similar to grace notes) are extremely light and executed with much grace. Occasional triplets connect melodic intervals. Rolls (similar to turns) are inserted only where there is sufficient time. Again, what I’m describing is an essential part of the East Galway style, but Mike's execution is flawless. As I practice, I strive to add more of Mike's subtleties, thereby increasing my understanding of the East Galway style.

Mike teaches in the traditional way – by repetition and without the use of any type of musical notation. Let me describe the process. First, Mike plays the entire tune to make sure I don’t know it already and to familiarize me with its general sound. Then we begin in earnest. Mike repeats a phrase over and over while I try to play along. When I'm able to play the phrase in perfect unison with him, he will ask me to play it by myself. Finally, we put all the phrases together. As final proof that I've really learned the tune, Mike asks me to play the whole thing by myself. And what a feeling of accomplishment I have when I'm able to do that!

As a classically trained player, I found the traditional approach rather disconcerting, but I’ve discovered it has many benefits. My listening abilities have become much keener. As you might expect, I learn by ear more quickly now, and with confidence. I credit these advances to Mike’s effectiveness at teaching the traditional method of learning.

Traditional players build technique on an as-needed basis, depending on the difficulties each tune presents. Since certain note patterns tend to be repeated from tune to tune, trad players build technique as they increase their repertoire. In his one-hour lessons, Mike imparts as many tunes as a student can absorb. Students, then, learn tunes and technique in an integrated way.

While Mike is a superb player, he doesn't require that his students play to the standards he sets for himself. He assumes we're all playing the music because we love it and that we will each play to our own standards as dictated by time, interest, and ability. To that end, Mike offers flexible scheduling. Some students have weekly lessons; others at less frequent intervals.

Mike believes that one of the primary reasons for learning tunes is to be able to play with others. He has encouraged me in words and by example. Besides recording, giving concerts, and teaching, Mike attends and sometimes leads sessions (gatherings of musicians, generally occurring in pubs) in the New York metropolitan area as well as at numerous music festivals all over the US. The Michael Rafferty branch* of the Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann, the Irish national folk music club, holds monthly ceilis (pronounced KAY-lees and, translated from Irish, means dances) where Mike invites any musicians present to play with him in the ceili band which provides music for the Irish set dances.   (*renamed The Mike Rafferty-Joe Madden CCE in May, 2011)

Working with Mike, I've gained a deep appreciation for the fact that his approach to learning is as much a part of the Irish musical tradition as the tunes and their stylistic elements. Trust and friendship are built as one player learns from another. By passing along their associations with the tunes, teachers provide a framework for simultaneously nurturing the musical experience as well as the cultural heritage.

As I reflect on my studies with Mike over the last four years, I realize that Mike has taught me much more than music. He has opened the door to many new friendships and to an entire social network. The beautiful tunes I have learned ring in my ears and provide joyful background music to my life. Most importantly, Mike has introduced me to the Irish musical tradition. Many of us grow up very far removed from our cultural heritage. Mike and his music give us a way to participate in the heritage of our ancestry. He communicates to students and listeners alike the musical legacy our families may have forgotten.

More Information:

Mike and Mary Rafferty website
An Interview with Mike Rafferty by Paul Wells and Mike Casey
The Long Road from Ballinakill by Paul Keating
East Galway style
Earle Hitchner’s column in the Irish Echo honoring Mike Rafferty
Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann Mid-Atlantic Region Hall of Fame listing Mike Rafferty's induction in 1991
The Mighty Raff: 2010 National Heritage Award Winner by Mick Moloney.
Beautiful, Genuine, Irish by Earl Hitchner, Wall Street Journal, July 13, 2010


Mike Rafferty: Reel of Mullinavat and Mama's Pet
Mike & Mary Rafferty and Donal Clancy: The Lilting Banshee & Barrel Rafferty's (jigs)
Mike Rafferty, Larry Reynolds, Tara Lynch: a selection of reels
300 Tunes from Mike Rafferty, tune book by Lesl Harker, 2006
Second Wind: 300 More Tunes from Mike Rafferty, tunebook by Lesl Harker, 2009

National Endowment of the Arts' National Heritage Fellowship award winner, 2010

The 2010 NEA National Heritage Fellowships Concert webcast, September 24, 2010. Click HERE and fast-forward to 34:05 to see Mike's introduction and performance that night.

Mike Rafferty CDs:
  • The New Broom (2009)
  • Speed 78 (2004)
  • The Road from Ballinakill (2001)
  • The Old Fireside Music (1998)
  • The Dangerous Reel (1995)

To see all my posts about Mike, click HERE.

© 2008, Linda Mason Hood (updated September 17, 2011)
Truffles, Turtles & Tunes Copyright Statement

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