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Shaping a melody: Fiddle workshop with Martin Hayes

“Anyone can write a complicated melody,” says fiddle master Martin Hayes to a group of eager fiddle players, “it’s the simple ones that take the most talent.”

It’s a packed house at Celtic Traditions on 10th Avenue. The cozy space that functions as a retail store by day and music school by night is usually closed on Sunday­—but today is open for a special workshop with visiting Irish fiddle player Martin Hayes who is in Vancouver on tour with The Gloaming.

Hayes has just taught the group of 25 fiddle players a short melody by contemporary Irish composer Peadar Ó Ríada. The title of the tune translates to “Where is the light,” and he cautions that playing this type of music is not as straightforward as it may initially appear. “There’s more to it than you think,” he says “and a lot of what’s going on in this music happens ‘under the hood.'”

For the next hour, Hayes discusses in detail his own approach to Irish music: how he has learned to think about melody, his approach to shaping melodic lines, thoughts on bowing technique, and advice on working with other musicians.

He notes that a key part of internalizing a melody is first being able to sing or vocalize it. “Every note has a particular shape, and I create that sense of shape by imitating how I would sing it” he explains. “Music is quite physical. It’s something you feel in your body, and you form the music inside of you. It’s about imbuing the music with your own personal expression.”

Part of internalizing melodies to give them unique voice, Hayes explains, also has to do with utilizing more abstract techniques of visualization. He makes the comparison between these techniques and those used by athletes in various sports. He urges musicians to clearly visualize their ideal performance, and the exact sound they want to create… even if they can’t perform it that way yet. “Being present and creating a vision of your ideal playing is key. If one has that ideal image, it will actually pull you towards it bit by bit…. The imagination is a huge part of moving forwards.”

Hayes also touches on the importance of listening, and being present and open when working with other musicians:

“You have to always be present,” he stresses to the group of aspiring fiddle players. “Not focused on thinking, but on listening. When playing with others you can’t arrive with an agenda and force it on the group; that puts up barriers. You have to be present, and fluid, and flexible, and you have to be a part of the dialogue.”


The Martin Hayes fiddle workshop was presented by the Chan Centre as part of the Chan Centre Connects series in partnership with Celtic Traditions

Martin Hayes performs with The Gloaming on Sunday October 15, 2017 at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts at UBC.


Sun Oct 15, 2017