By Daniel Neely
Boston is one of the great Irish music scenes in the United States. It has a very strong Comhaltas presence, there are amazing sessions at places like the Burren in Somerville, the Druid in Cambridge, and the Behan in Jamaica Plain, there is set dancing at Doyle’s in Jamaica Plain, and concerts, lectures and events at Boston College. It’s a scene full of excellent, community-minded folks who seem to really understand the music’s value and who by and large work together for its advancement.
Many of Boston’s finest are also noted teachers. Take, for example, sean-nós dancer Kieran Jordan. Originally from Philadelphia, Jordan is an accomplished performer and choreographer. She has a Master’s Degree in Contemporary Dance Performance from the University of Limerick, holds An Coimisiun le Rince Gaelacha T.C.R.G. certification for teaching Irish Dance, and has danced with several major performers and shows, including “Atlantic Steps,” in which she performs, but is also its co-director and choreographer.
However, she has a sterling reputation as a teacher. Specializing in non-competitive Irish dance for teens and adults of all levels, she is co-director/founder of the Boston Percussive Dance studio in Cambridge, Mass., teaches at Boston College, and is in demand at universities, festivals, and Irish dancing schools everywhere, including the Willie Clancy week, where she recently taught.
Jordan has a great new instructional video out, “Musical Feet Volume 2: The Next Step.” An extension of Volume 1 (which I positively reviewed here), it consists of seven chapters that move from beginning to advanced steps (six jigs, with a single reel, including both traditional and original steps) and it will be of great interest to those interested in learning to dance.
Jordan has a special gift for teaching. The students of hers I’ve met speak of her glowingly and her abilities shine through in this video. The lessons are compact but systematic and her natural directness with the camera conveys a confidence that the users of this video can really “get” the steps she’s sharing.
She has a beautiful, relaxed style, but one of the most impressive things in the video is how apparent the melody is in her footwork. It is very easy to hear the tunes in her feet. And speaking of tunes, she has a pair of outstanding musicians joining her here. Armand Aromin (fiddle; he’s also a fiddle maker arominviolins.com) & Benedict Gagliardi (concertina; thevoxhunters.com) provide excellent music and lift here, as evident in Jordan’s dancing.
Jordan’s goal is for her students not to dance like her, but to dance like themselves and this DVD presents the tools necessary to achieve this in a friendly, engaging and accessible way. If you’re interested in dance, I highly recommend you check out this DVD, there is a lot to appreciate. Learn more and buy “Musical Feet” at www.kieranjordan.com.
Another of Boston’s finest performer/teachers is flute player/singer/composer Shannon Heaton. An award-winning musician (she was Irish American News’s 2009 Female Musician of the Year and Live Ireland’s 2010 Female Artist of the Year) who has spent time playing Irish music in Boston, Chicago, and County Clare, Heaton performs widely with her husband Matt, but also with a number of other groups, most notably the Shannon Heaton Quintet. She has just published “First 50,” her second instructional book, which I think is a must-have for developing players because it shifts the pedagogical emphasis from a “dots on the page” approach to teaching the music to a more holistic (and in my mind, more effective) “this is how it should sound” method.
It makes sense that “First 50’s” stated goal is “to help players develop a strong rhythmic base.” This is a crucial element of traditional music and is the lesson that is emphasized through the book. To teach this, Heaton has curated a smart mixture of common tunes, more unusual ones and a few originals, each of which contains something inherent that conveys an object lesson about the “how” of playing Irish music.
Every tune is presented without ornamentation in “flute” and a “fiddle” versions, as a way of emphasizing the nuance in each one. This is an extremely effective approach, especially when taken together with the book’s CD, where the tunes are played in a relaxed and very musical manner that shows the book’s users how to make the music sound “right.”
Heaton has, of course, brought her own expertise in assembling this book, but she’s consulted many Boston-area fiddle players for their insight, including Armand Aromin (of “Musical Feet Vol 2” fame), Hanneke Cassel, Nathan Gourley, George Keith, and Ellery Klein, all of whom join her on the recording.
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The book also includes a single song, “Óró Sé Do Bheatha Bhaile,” sung beautifully by the brilliant Bridget Fitzgerald. Having the one song is a nice tip of the cap to Heaton’s own background as a singer, but also to the importance of songs in the tradition.
“First 50” is not simply a friendly and valuable introduction to playing Irish music, it’s a book that emphasizes the stuff in between the notes, that which gives traditional music it’s character and feel. Indeed, the book does contain some great tunes, but it’s the way Heaton talks about how they should be played and the clarity with which she does it that sets this book apart from others. “First 50” is a valuable resource for fledgling player, but intermediate players will find its clarity and insight useful as well. Learn more about “First 50” at shannonheatonmusic.com.
Dan Neely writes about traditional music every week in the Irish Echo.