Irish Bodhran Tutor
The Secrets of the Bodhrán and How to Play it
Welcome to “Secrets of the Bodhrán” a short but we hope a rewarding journey through the mystery, history, lore, culture, techniques and principles of this unique Irish musical instrument. Malachy Kearns is one of the few people producing the Bodhrán (pronounced Bow-Rawn) on a professional basis, and used by many professional musicians both in Ireland and abroad.
Like most things in Ireland, the origins of the Bodhrán have been lost in the mists of time. But the Irish love a good argument, so there are various theories as to its origins, – and there are even some people who argue that it should not be played as a musical instrument at all! – Thankfully in a minority! The arguments (theories) on the origin of the instrument basically fall into two categories:
1.) The drum was invented many years ago in Ireland and metamorphosised from a work implement to its present state of art.
2.) It arrived in Ireland from abroad, between one and two thousand years ago.
The Bodhrán fails into the category of a ‘Frame Drum’, made from a circlet of wood (e.g. ash) which is easily bent and upon which is stretched a treated skin of an animal, usually, a sheep or a goat. At first glance, it may remind one of a skin tray or a sieve, such as is used on a building site to sift materials. And it is this first glance upon which the first theory lies.
It is well known in the Celtic World (Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany etc.), that a ‘skin tray’ fitting the above description was in universal use for over one thousand years, and in fact was still being used in parts of Ireland during the 1950’s. This tray was suitable for winnowing (separating chaff from grain) a process still to be seen in third world countries such as Africa or India. It could also be used as a sieve through the simple process of punching holes in the skin.
This implement had various names:- DALLAN,WECHT,WICHT, and interestingly enough BODHRÁN. Now Wecht and Wicht translate as ‘sieve’, but Wicht is also ‘creature’. Wecht is close to the word Wecken (to wake tip). Bodhrán translates as ‘tray’, but also as ‘thundered’, ‘deafening’ and ‘dull sounding’! So we instantly have a connection between the work instrument and the musical instrument. But what is the secret of the Bodhrán. Was it a drum first, that became a useful work instrument, or was it the other way round?
Was the Bodhrán a drum of purely Irish origin, of Celtic origin, or did it arrive courtesy of other cultures? There is some evidence to suggest that the prototype for the Bodhrán arrived here through the Roman Empire or through Arabic traders. One can see Roman murals depicting musicians and dancers using frame drums including the ‘tambourine’! The frame drum is used today in Algeria, Morocco, Basque country, Lapland, China, Russia, Mongolia, and many other countries. It’s also still used by the native American Indians and many other indigenous peoples throughout the world. The author has in his possession a frame drum from Azerbejan, a country situated on the Caspian Sea (North of Iran) and a Chinese tambourine.
The majority of these drums are used purely in religious or cultural festivals, and it is only in countries such as Ireland, the Basque country and Spain, where they are an integral part of musical entertainment. And it is only in Ireland that the frame drum has reached a high degree of sophistication.
The very fact that so many races and cultures make use of such a basic musical instrument can lead to two fundamental conclusions.
1.) Each race and culture developed the drum according to it’s ‘needs’.
2.) The drum was handed down or across from race to race, culture to culture.
So what is the real secret of the Bodhrán?
Lore & Culture
As was stated in the last section, the frame drum is used mainly in religious and cultural festivals. In Ireland the drum, although rmainly used for entertainment, still on occasions is used for religious/cultural festivals. One that comes to mind is St. Stephen’s Day, December 26th – ‘The Wren Hunt’! when groups of people with blackened faces, wearing outlandish costumes, usually made of straw, parade a captured wren bird from house to house, playing music and singing a ceremonial song.
Other festivals which may still be in active use are, St. Brighid’s Day, February 1st; May Day, May 1st and Halloween, October 31st. The Bodhrán also features in Mummers Plays and many Harvest Festivals (the link with the skin tray for winnowing).
A modern day example of how the bodhrán is still used in a ‘ceremonial’ way, are the groups of Bodhrán owners who accompany the Irish soccer teams to all international fixtures, beating out the war cry of the Ancient Gael.
The Cross symbolises the 4 roads and Christ’s rule over all things- length, breadth, height & depth.
ANIMALS and BIRDS
Animals and Birds were sacred to the Celts and many of their Gods and Spirits are represented with Bird or Animal parts. In The Book of Kells the Four Evangelists are depicted as: Man for Matthew, Lion for Mark, Calf for Luke, Eagle for John.
The Spiral is the natural form of growth. In every culture past and present it has become a symbol of Eternal Life. Surrounded by the water as they worked, the Celts (Monks) were constantly reminded of the flow and movement of the universe. The spirals they painted represented : the continuous creation and dissolution of the World; the passages between the spirals being the divisions between life , death and rebirth.
Knotwork represented the Human Soul which it was believed was a fragment of the Divine and would ultimately return to it’s Divine Source. Interlacing knotwork with it’s unbroken lines symbolises the process of Man’s eternal spiritual growth.
The Instrument and Principles
There are three basic drums to be found in the world; tubular, kettle and frame. The Bodhrán is a frame drum. it can come in many sizes and guises. The best drums are usually between 15″ and 20″ (18′ is the standard drum). The rim (wooden part) can be 2″ to 6″, and made of ash, beech or similar pliable wood. The rim is usually made of thin strips of wood, layered and glued together, although there are examples of solid frames in use.
The important part of the drum is the skin. It can be deer, sheep, calf, goat or horse. The goatskin is the favourite (and the most expensive), because its thickness and durability is unbeatable. The skin, after a process of cleaning and treating is stretched across the frame and affixed by tacks at least 1″ apart.
The Bodhrán may have a cross piece inserted. This can be one or two bars, which serve the dual purpose of easy handling and an aid to tension. The crosspiece or bars can be made of wire, wood or metal.
But of course some Bodhrán players prefer no cross piece at all. But I would recommend a cross piece to the complete beginner. As they say “Every little helps!” The other essential piece of equipment for the Bodhrán player is the stick or ‘tipper’! These like furniture come in all shapes and sizes and are made from various woods of varying weights.
It is essential that the player find a ‘tipper’ that suits, as there is nothing worse than a stick that is too long, too short, too heavy or too light, or one that has the ‘gift of flight’ in mid tune. One important point – always have two or three sticks, as the fairies have a tendency to run off with your stick just when you need it most.
It is very important to look after your drum skin. It is just like your own skin and is susceptible to changes in the weather and atmospheric changes. Most good Bodhrán makers can supply you with a treatment for the skin (a leather softener). But you can use ‘dubbin’ (used on football boots). Use this treatment at regular intervals on the outside of the skin. This will keep the skin supple and protect it from excess moisture (essential in Ireland’s climate). Never leave the drum in very hot conditions e.g. near radiators, or on the back window of a car on a hot day. You will soon be the proud owner of a completely “banjaxed” drum if you ignore this advice.
Never play the drum when it is too soft or limp, this will eventually produce a dent in the skin, or a nice hole through which you can observe you fellow musicians having a great session of reels and jigs. Keep the drum when not in use in a case in a cool place so that the skin can relax. You can then bring it to playing tension by gentle and expert use of a heat of your choice (not a blow torch or a bunsen burner).
If the skin is too tight, use a little water on the inside of the skin (not the outside) and give it a few minutes to work. Never use Beer or Guinness – save that for drinking. I also do not recommend tightening the skin with hand pressure – only if there is no other means of heating available. Now you have your drum, the tipper of your choice and the basic do’s and don’ts of the instrument – its time to learn the secrets of playing the beast!
The Instrument and Playing
The Bodhrán arrived into the popular area of music in the late 1950’s, although I’m sure it was being played up and down the country at some small gatherings. Its close cousin the tambourine was a lot more popular, but its use has nearly died out. The author has been using the tambourine for 20 years and remembers hearing old recordings of percussionists from the West of Ireland using the instrument and some years ago Seamus Tansey, the Sligo flute player doubling on the tambourine on an L.P. recording. Be that as it may, the Bodhran is now the prominent percussion instrument in traditional music today.
The Bodhrán is as valid as any other instrument despite what its detractors claim. OK, its not a front-line instrument like the flute or accordion. OK, you can’t play a tune on it (although I’m sure that supreme percussionists such as Tommy Hayes could get very close). But in the hands of gifted, sympathetic percussionists, it is both extremely exciting and a joy to hear. So remember, when you pick up your drum and ‘tipper’, it is an instrument of subtleness you are handling, not an old tin tray that you are banging away at!
The playing of any instrument requires getting to know the implement – and practice, practice, practice! It is recommended, that before lifting stick to skin, that you familiarise yourself with the weight and balance of drum and stick. Balance the drum in your left hand, feel its weight, get it comfortable in relation to your body. When holding the drum it is best to be seated in an upright position. Hold the bodhran with the hand against the skin on inside. This dampens the sound and also, by pushing against the skin, gives different tones to the drum. Resting the rim of the drum against your left shoulder and on your left leg (reverse for left handed persons).
Next take the stick in your right hand (reverse for left handed). Now hold the stick as if holding a ballpoint pen, but in the middle. Now point the stick (writing point end) towards the skin at nearly right angles. This is the end of the stick with which you will strike your first and all important beat. This may feel really awkward at first -but perservere – it is the best way to produce that unique Irish sound of the Bodhrán. Divide the drum, mentally, like a clock – 12 o’clock, 9 o’clock,6 o’clock, 3 o’clock.
There are two areas on which to make a start. Once you have mastered these then the “drum is your oyster”. I have suggested two areas because you may feel comfortable with one or the other to practice on.
1.) The 9 o’clock area (backend of drum). Point beater end to 9, bring stick down and strike at 7.30 and allow stick to follow through past 6 towards 5. That is the downward stroke The upward stroke follows immediately afterwards, bringing the stick back from 5, hitting once again at 7.30 and following through past 9.
2.) The 3 o’clock area (front end drum). Point beater at 12, bring stick down and strike at 3, follow through to 5, and reverse for the up stroke. Remember – when striking the beat you must hit the skin towards the middle, not at the edge. NOW PRACTICE – down, up, down, up, down, up, down, up. Loosen up the wrist, balance the stick, keep the shoulder straight – Remember its all from the wrist!
Now we can learn a reel. The reel beat is basically placing your practice beats into two groups of four e.g. The black dots over the first down stroke indicate you must hit this beat harder than the others.
So its counting out the beat. When you have mastered that – double the speed. I suggest you acquire recordings of good traditional musicians – go for solo artists, either FLUTE, ACCORDION, or FIDDLE. Its much easier to play with a solo than a big band. Also obtain recordings of good Bodhrán players such as Tommy Hayes or Ringo McDonagh. Remember LEARN tunes. It is ESSENTLAL!
Now we can learn a jig. The jig consists of 6 beats to the bar,divided into two groups of three.
This time the accented beat is on the 1st stroke in the first section – the down stroke, and the 1st stroke in the second section – the up stroke – complicated? Not really.
When you have mastered that – double the speed. jigs are much harder than reels, so you have to devote much more time tothem. Now try this. Three sets of three both an extra beat added for a flourish. it makes a nice tidy beat.
You can now try placing the flat of your hand against the back skin of the drum, this will alter the tone, especially if you take your hand on and off at intervals. Try it! Hard? Yes, you have got to learn to rebalance the drum – but just Practice!
Hopefully we have started you on the road to many a good session of music. Because of the size of this booklet we cannot bring you the secrets of playing Slip jigs, Hornpipes, Polkas, Waltzes, Mazurkas, Rock and Roll or any of the other varied rhythms of the world. These you will have to seek out in other publications or just go along (without the drum at first) and watch the best Bodhrán players in your area.
When you do venture out with your drum, go with the intention of beaming! Don’t try and dominate a session with one or two rhythms. Don’t try and drown out other musicians. There is nothing worse for both musicians and audience than a selfish Bodhrán player ‘thundering’ away. Musicians and audience soon learn to avoid Bodhrán players in this category. Oh! And by the way avoid ‘packs’ of Bodhrán players, unless you are at a football match.
So on behalf of Malachy and Anne Kearns.
“Keep on Tipping”
Beannachtai Ó Chonamara!
Ireland’s Master Bodhran Maker
Roundstone Musical Instruments is the studio and shop of renowned bodhrán maker Malachy Kearns, or Malachy Bodhrán as he is fondly know. The Bodhrán is one of the oldest Irish musical instruments, a one sided hand held drum that is made through traditional methods using treated goat’s skin stretched onto a Birch frame. Colourful designs are hand painted onto the bodhrán including by request family crests.
Malachy has handmade all of the bodhráns used in Riverdance over the past 25 years.