Tuesday, January 24, 2006

thinking: my finest teacher

Back in the middish-90s, I had the happy accident to be studying traditional Irish singing and bodhran at the Irish Arts Center in New York City. After one class, I asked the instructor if there was anyone living in the City who gave private lessons.

"Yes, there's a nice young lady named Karan Casey I know, she might give you a lesson or two."

My half-dozen or so meetings with her were perhaps the most important lessons I've ever had, on any topic.

We'd sit in her narrow apartment on the upper east side and drink cup after cup of tea; we'd talk, she'd sing, I'd sing, we'd talk some more. I tried to take notes at first, then I realized what I was missing when I was writing, so I just listened.

Learning how to sing traditional Irish music, or sean nos, is an exercise in personal honesty. It is a style of performing that admits little drama or artifice of any kind. It doesn't lend itself to great displays. From what I've been able to learn, songs in this tradition were often handed down from parent to child like one hands down garden tools or recipes.

Leading up to that point in my life, singing was about performing; what I learned from Karan was that singing was about. . .something else entirely.

She shared some tapes with me of singers she admired, especially (the late) Frank Harte, whom she adored. She taught me a few simple drills for waking up my voice and strengthening my breath. She told me to go buy An Duanaire 1600-1900: Poems of the Dispossessed and read it.

Then she said "go out and sing". Curiously, that was the most important, and difficult, of all the things she taught me. Much of craft, especially musical craft, is learned then kept private. By her understanding of it, if you're going to learn to sing, go sing. It's no more complicated than that.

There comes a point when teachers have nothing left to give you but one last lesson - that the only way to learn anything more of value is through the bitter experience gained from finding your own way.
She who, conscious of her own light, is content to be obscure, she shall be the whole world's model; her virtue will never fail. She reverts to the Absolute. --- Lao Tzu

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