Battling the bodhran

IMG_1133Growing up I never had the opportunity to learn music, let alone take up an instrument. While I “inherited” a good tenor voice like my Dad’s, and have enjoyed belonging to a variety of school and church choirs, I never learned to read music, either. I learn vocal pieces solely by repetition and memory.

Thus, I rather surprised myself when, a couple years ago, I purchased a nice bodhran (bow-rawn). I like traditional music from the British Isles, such as that recorded by the great ensemble “The Chieftains.” There’s something about the rhythm of such music, and the way in which instruments used to play it are woven into a tapestry of sound.

The bodhran is an Irish frame drum that evolved from the tambourine in the mid-Nineteenth Century, a time period to which I am attracted, for a number of reasons. Percussion instruments like the bodhran are found in cultures the world over. It features a goatskin head fastened to one side of a wooden frame.

The underside is open, so pitch and timbre are controlled by means of a hand placed against the inside of the head. The bodhran can also be played with the tipper, a wooden stick tapped against the head. The bodhran player is seated, with the instrument held against the thigh to steady it.

IMG_1134How does one learn the bodhran? I think practically anyone that has attempted to take up a dizzying variety of common instruments has been exposed to Mel Bay method books. Mel Bay (1913-1997) was an accomplished guitarist. After World War II he composed instructional guitar music for returning veterans under the GI Bill. When the major New York publishers turned Mel down, he founded his own company. Mel Bay’s first guitar book, published in 1947, is still in print today. Titles in the Mel Bay line are written by acknowledged experts for the instruments in question.

Today’s Mel Bay instructional books are likely to come with CDs, containing a selection of short tunes to demonstrate the material in the book. I find these to be very helpful. Of course, YouTube offers any number of videos (some helpful, others less so) that show how to handle the bodhran.

As with any instrument, mastering the bodhran requires more than good intentions: constant practice is the foundation for eventual success. I’ll admit that I have yet to follow through on this imperative. I don’t expect to be found drumming any time soon in my local Irish pub, but there’s always hope!

 

 

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