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Learning Irish Traditional Music on Skype

(published in Rawbar June 14, 2017)

Skype LessonsRobyn NiConney with Kevin Burke and Billy McComiskey
00:00 / 05:56

I got the chance to meet Matt Cranitch the last time I visited Ireland. 

I’d just arrived from California and when I entered the Corner House pub in Cork, Matt saw I had a fiddle so he gestured for me to take the seat next to him.  After a few tunes passed, he invited me to start a set so I played some of my favorite jigs.  When I finished, Matt gave me an appraising look. “So, where did you learn to play the fiddle?” he asked.

“Well, my teacher is Kevin Burke,” I replied. “I’ve been taking lessons with him every week for 6 or 7 years.” 

Matt laughed and said, “I knew it! I can tell.”  He seemed delighted to have his suspicions confirmed. Then he asked, “But he’s not in California, is he? Isn’t he in Portland?  How do you see him every week?”

 I smiled and said, “On Skype!”


Even though I grew up in the United States and didn’t discover Irish Music until I was an adult, I consider myself fortunate to be coming to the music now.  In the past, if you lived in a place far removed from Ireland, going to a local session could be an adventure in “creative interpretation” of common tunes.  Aspiring local musicians were at the mercy of whatever recordings could be found and imitated, usually imperfectly.  Without a total immersion in the music, it is hard to master the nuances of the music.  If you were lucky and could afford it, you might get to travel to Ireland once a year or fly out to attend a week at an Irish music workshop.  But the chance to meet native musicians and hear the music the way it was meant to be played was expensive to pursue and difficult to come-by. 

But in the last decade, a revolution has occurred in the way Irish music is passed on from one person to the next.  I am one of the “early adopters” of the Skype/Facetime/Online Video lesson trend.  I now take weekly accordion lessons with Billy McComiskey and for six years before that I had nearly weekly lessons with fiddler Kevin Burke.  In fact, I am pretty sure I was Kevin’s first regular online student.  I remember I met him at workshop and asked if I could come to Portland for a lesson.  He said, “Well you could do that.  But I’d be willing to try doing one on Skype.  Have you ever heard of that?”

It took us a few tries to get the technology all set up.  One time we’d try it and someone’s microphone wouldn’t work.  Sometimes we couldn’t get the video working.  And often we’d get it all going only to have one or the other of us completely freeze the program, requiring a reboot.  As Billy McComiskey remarked to me recently after it took me 15 minutes to figure out why Skype wasn’t finding my video camera, “People are going to look back on this like the early days of the Pony Express.  They’re going to wonder how we ever used such primitive technology for this stuff.”

Eventually Kevin and I figured out the best set-up for our computers and we were able to focus on the music instead of the technology.  I found that first lesson with him to be inspiring and helpful.  He was kind but didn’t hesitate to point out the problems he heard.  I listen now to the recording of that first lesson and cringe.  I wonder how he could be so kind.  Even though I have played the violin since childhood, it would take years of lessons with him before I could really hear what was wrong with what I was doing.  Irish music was still very foreign to me.

Since that first time, I’ve had as many lessons as possible with Kevin – usually every week when he is not travelling.  And Kevin told me it’s been a big benefit for him as a teacher as well.  “In general, I don’t take absolute beginners because they need the benefit of consistent lessons and I can’t offer that with my touring schedule.  And that’s true whether it’s in person or online.”  But for those who can already play the instrument, Kevin says online lessons are an easy way to connect with him.  “Well the obvious plus is that if someone in Berlin wants a lesson from me or someone in Paris or Tokyo...they can get in touch and we can do something.  For people who can play already it’s fine.  I refer to them sometimes as top-up lessons.”

But on some instruments, Skype lessons can work for absolute beginners as well.

After several years of playing Irish music, I began to develop an interest in the accordion and when I heard Billy McComiskey was starting to offer lessons online as well, I contacted him immediately.  I recently asked him how he got started giving online lessons.  “I guess it was two, probably three, summers ago when I just knew that I had to stop working in mechanical maintenance. My body was getting beaten up,” he told me.  “And whenever I did a gig with Brian [Conway], some of his Skype students would show up in the area.  We'd be playing with the Pride of New York up in Montana...North Dakota...the craziest places.   And his students would show at the gig.”  In Baltimore, Billy never had more than about 3 accordion students.  “I might have 10 or 15 students now,” he said. “I never in my wildest dreams ever thought I'd have 10 or 15 students.  And that's strictly because of Skype.”

Since I am a complete beginner to the instrument, Billy focuses on teaching me tunes with a specific fingering that will help me become an agile player as I work my way up to session speeds.  Our lessons rely more heavily on the video quality being adequate.  But since we are working more slowly, we have not had too many problems with the video keeping up with Billy’s slow moving fingers.  And I can always make a video recording of his fingers on the buttons to review later.

One unanticipated bonus of my lessons with both Kevin and Billy (and occasionally with other teachers like James Kelly) have been the stories they’ve told me.  These are musicians who play at the highest level and they have each had a unique trajectory in their own learning.  They grew up with daily or weekly contact with some of the biggest legends of the genre and they have thought deeply about the music.  A simple question like “how do I play a roll” might lead to a story of the first time they tried to learn, or how one player differs from another.  Or it might even spark a long story about a session they attended once in their youth or their thoughts on the playing of a particular legend like Michael Coleman or Joe Cooley.  That is the sort of contact you can never get from a recording or from video lessons.  I feel like I’ve gotten the kinds of stories I might have heard if I had been meeting them down at the local pub session for years. And for me, understanding this history and how what I am playing fits into the tradition has made a huge difference in how I hear the music.

While nothing can replace the experience of growing up surrounded by the music, the rest of us can come pretty close by seeking out teachers online who can take the time to sort out our playing and share their stories.  All it takes is a quick email or Facebook message to your favorite musician to see if they offer online lessons. And no matter where you are, most teachers are willing to accommodate you.

When I asked Kevin if he had any further advice for those new to online lessons, he chuckled and said, “Don't forget that you can be seen.…make sure anything you don't want seen is put away.  All those empty wine bottles from last night. You might want to hide those.”

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