Fiddleosophy Blogs

Why I teach – Fiddle as a metaphor for Life 

I had an interesting interplay of communications today with regards to a couple of Facebook posts I made. One post was a quote from John Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933):

“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”


The online conversation went like this:

T: So, being stubborn is good …
ME: Stubborn is a word fraught with negative connotations … but yes, being stubborn is good. Being obstinate, however …
T: You’ll never be able to convince me of that …
ME: It’s not my job to convince you of anything, Sensei.

(I have some cool and humorous friends. T is actually well versed in Eastern philosophies and is a fine instructor in the Martial Arts form Aikido.)

The second post had to do with a couple of quotes from the Buddha:

“Believe nothing merely because you have been told it. Do not believe what your teacher tells you merely out of respect for the teacher. But whatsoever, after due examination and analysis, you find to be kind, conducive to the good, the benefit, the welfare of all beings — that doctrine believe and cling to, and take it as your guide”


And this:

“Believe nothing. No matter where you read it, or who said it, even if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.”

The conversation regarding these quotes went like this:

R: Teacher, you just told us not to believe our teachers.
ME: “Believe nothing merely because you have been told it.” What do you think that means, R? I can guarantee is does not mean to disbelieve your teachers.

And another:

ME: S, believe nothing merely because you have been told it.
S: Including things told to me by Michael Kelly? ;-)
I can almost hear S saying this with his tongue-in-cheek/
ME: Perhaps you need a better understanding of the word “merely”, Mr. S. Try the dictionary and thesaurus, perhaps …

This interplay of conversations had me thinking about my job as a teacher. What is my job? Why do people come to me to be taught? How are my students benefitting from my teaching?

My job as a teacher is simply this: Share knowledge and wisdom I have obtained through study, practice, and experience with those who are willing to learn from me. My job is not to convince the student that my way is the right way; rather, it is to show them how that knowledge and wisdom will work for them in their own practice.

So why do people choose me as their teacher? I actually have asked this question of my students, and their answers boil down to (1) They like the way I play (I am setting an example of the type of musician they wish to become); (2) They admire how easy and effortless I make it seem (they see that the techniques I teach them work as I apply them in my own playing); (3) They see how the techniques I teach actually work for them (My lessons agree with their own reason and common sense); and (4) They see how much fun I have and the effect my playing has on others (conducive to the good and benefitting the welfare of all beings).

How do my students benefit from me being their teacher? Well, my definition of success, with regards to music, is the integration of knowledge and application of the principles and techniques I teach. In other words, they benefit from my teaching when it works for them; when they, too, are able to experience the joy of playing easily and effortlessly.

In return, I receive a huge amount of satisfaction, gratification, and joy when I see them succeed. Add that to the money they pay me for lessons, and you have the reasons why I teach.

Learn to play fiddle the FAST, EASY, and FUN way!

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Getting the feet wet … again 

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It seems I have a propensity to procrastinate. So many thoughts and ideas go through my head every day that I want to put down in writing. Instead, I end up spending my time performing, practicing, teaching, or (gasp!) dawdling. By the time I think to open up the iPad and start typing, my body is telling me, “Hey! How about a little sleep here, huh?”

So rather than compose a brilliant post today, I thought I’d just get my feet wet and put something down … anything, just to get the juices flowing again.

I’m giving myself 10 minutes to do so while I’m on break between sets at Disney California Adventure.

I’ve been listening to a wonderful audiobook by Thaddeus Russell called “A Renegade History” (of the United States). I’m enjoying it because it addresses the subject of how the lowest of the low influenced our country, and how they helped establish the liberties we enjoy today.

One thought that sticks out is how the Founding Fathers (and pretty much every US government since the nation was established) tried everything they could to turn the populace into good little worker bees. All work and no play make a good citizen. No holidays, no weekends, 19 hour days, no dancing, and definitely NO FIDDLERS. It’s amazing the lengths they went to in order to insure a more perfect nation.

Now look at us. What would we do without the weekend? Or Federal holidays? Vacations? Music? Dancing?

It dovetails nicely with the thought that we have all been socialized to think that “hard work” is the solution to everything.

It’s not. And now it’s time for me to go play.


Letting Go Redux – Fiddling as a metaphor 4 life 

One of my adult students recounted a story tonight about attending the Topanga Banjo and Fiddle Competition in California and being blown away by the effortless skills of so many youngsters.

“I’m watching their hands and arms, and they’re playing exactly the way you’re telling me I should play, and they make it look so easy,” she opined.

“I know that age isn’t important, that you can learn to play at any age,” she continued.

I interrupted. “Actually, there is a huge difference between someone who picks up the violin as a child and an adult student. Can you tell me what that difference is?”

Aside from several decades of time, she couldn’t come up with an answer.

“Do you think a four-year-old child cares whether or not they play a piece of music perfectly? Do you suppose that a child actually knows that a mistake is bad? Or do you think that four-year-old mainly cares about how much fun she is having?”

After a bit of discussion, I continued. “A child isn’t constantly trying to avoid making mistakes. A child doesn’t try to come up with reasons why a mistake is made. A child only focuses on what feels right, and the fun she is having.

“An adult student, however, is so wrapped up in the idea of playing perfectly that she micro manages every part of her body in an effort to do it right. The harder she works, the more difficult she makes it for herself.”

I went on to explain that an adult has decades of experience developing behavioral patterns that get in the way of her learning as easily and quickly as a child. For example, most adults, when confronted with something they perceive as difficult, will assume that they have to “work harder” to conquer the challenge. They assume that they must put their nose to the grindstone in order to succeed.

What does a child do? She looks for the “cheats”. The easy way. It’s a game, and the child gets to make up the rules as she goes along.

Adults tend to view the “easy way” as “cheating”. If it’s worth anything at all, you have to work hard for it.

Anything in life that is unfamiliar can be perceived as difficult or hard. What’s the solution to getting familiar with the unfamiliar? Spend some time with it. Really get to know it, understand it.

I tell my students that if they’re working hard at something, they’re doing it wrong. Persistence and consistency are required, not an enormous amount of effort.

This flies in the face of what most of us adults believe. Once we determine that something is difficult, we assume that it will require a great deal of work to conquer. The reality is, however, that looking for the easy way is much more effective than working harder.

There are so many different directions I could go now in this post, so let me sum up the basics of what I’m saying to this point: Adults who want to succeed as effortlessly and as easily as a child must forget what they have learned, let go of their desire for perfection, and look for the easiest, most natural way of doing so. They must adopt a childlike passion for fun and leave the hard work for all the other unenlightened adults.

I welcome your responses to this and all of my blog posts. Your observations and opinions help me more than you might think.

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Skill & Generosity – Fiddle as a metaphor 4 life 

Someone said to me recently, “One thing I’ve noticed time and time again: The more skilled the player, the more generous he seems to be.” He was complementing me on being very generous in a performance where I shared the stage with another fiddler who, although he is a very accomplished fiddler in his own rights, is rather new to the Celtic genre. There are many levels to his observation, and our ensuing conversation covered a lot of ground. I’d like to focus on just one aspect of his statement.

Skilled musicians do have a tendency to reach out and share tips and bits of wisdom with less experienced musicians. Although I find this fact self-evident, I was initially surprised that this concept seems unique to a lot of people. I’ve been thinking about it ever since, and I believe I better understand where that surprise comes from.

When I first started fiddling, I had one book: The Fiddler’s Fakebook. I was a trained classical violinist, could sight-read new material easily, and I found the music in the Fakebook extremely easy … and boring. No matter how fast I played the music, I was unable to capture the “feel” and “sound” of a true fiddler.

I hooked up with a group called the Utah Old Time Fiddlers Association in Salt Lake City, Utah. I went to their jam sessions. I found, for the first time in my life, that I was uncomfortable playing in a group that consisted of kids, adults, and old farts. I didn’t want to embarrass myself, and so I played very little. I even considered giving it up entirely.

Before I could quit, however, one of the old-timers and better fiddlers came up to me. He said, “Mike, you’re a great player … but you play like a classical violinist. Let me show you a few tricks that will help you sound like a fiddler, and I’m certain you’ll quickly get the hang of it.” He showed me simple things, such as “swinging eighth notes”, “Georgia Bowing”, and taught me how to use the discography in the Fiddler’s Fakebook to find recorded examples of the tunes so I could compare what was written on the page with how it is traditionally played. It made a huge difference in my playing, and I quickly regained my enthusiasm for the genre.

Now that I’m an old fart myself, I find that I have forgotten the gentleman’s name. I haven’t forgotten the impact his sharing made in my life, however. In an attempt to “pay it back”, I arranged and produced a selection of tunes commonly used in their jam sessions, published it in book form, and recorded a group of the session members playing those tunes. I gave the Association all this material and told them that they could sell it if they wished and use the proceeds in the Association. I was gratified to learn that to this day, some twenty years later, they still utilize the book.

Fast forward a few years. I’ve recently moved to Southern California and I am playing in a rodeo band and my own Country Western cover band. Through a series of happy coincidences, some of which I’ve related in previous blog posts, I have fallen in love with Irish music. I start my own band, called Sligo Rags, and begin to play a couple of residencies.

One night, a fan of the band comes up to me during a break between sets. He says to me, “Mike, you’re probably the best fiddler I’ve heard in an Irish band around here, but I gotta be honest with you: You don’t sound Irish.” I was flabbergasted. I thought I was pretty hot-shit, and I was really excited that our band was having so much success early on. Of course, I asked him to explain. He said he really couldn’t explain it, just that I didn’t sound like any other Irish fiddlers he’d ever heard before.

I respect this kind of honest critique, so I didn’t take offense at his words. His comment, however, bothered me immensely. What about my playing is so damn un-Irish??? Again, feelings of inferiority and insecurity began to seep into my psyche. I started listening to more and more recordings and comparing them to recordings I made of my own performance. I read every book I could get my hands on. Still, understanding eluded me.

Then one day, a fiddler more experienced in the genre than me said something that changed everything: “Your accents are all wrong. In Irish music, we put the accents on the off-beat. You know, like a mandolin plays the rhythm in off-beat chunks. Think of it as adding the accent where a drummer would normally hit the snare on the back beat.”

Bingo! That one little tip changed my entire playing. It took hours and weeks, even months of practice to change my playing style to accommodate this off-beat or back beat accent, but when I had it to the point where I could utilize the technique effortlessly, it totally changed my sound.

So, as I was mulling over my friend’s comment regarding skilled musicians being more generous than less skilled players, I began to understand why such a generous nature might seem surprising to someone who is anxious about his or her skill level. It’s difficult to imagine that someone would care enough about you and your playing that he would offer constructive suggestions to help you grow and improve … especially when that player seems so far above where you see yourself at that moment.

It is easy for me to understand why skilled players love to lift their fellow travelers up from the lower levels. I have so much fun playing this music that I can’t even imagine turning my back on anyone who is struggling. They should be having as much fun as I am. As I share what bits of wisdom with those who are open and receptive to my advice, I find that I am enjoying myself even more.

Perhaps it is just “pay back”, as I mentioned earlier. I think it’s a little deeper than that, however. Sharing what I know brings me something akin to soul food. It fills some empty space in my soul every time I am able to help someone enjoy playing this music I love so much.

I met someone this morning who is a master of her craft. She is a writer and a poet. She is also a wonderful teacher. The joy she expressed while discussing how she enjoys seeing her adult students start to “get it” was obvious. She absolutely glowed as she related story after story. I felt a strong connection with her passion for sharing the joys of reading with those who never had the opportunity when they were younger.

Look around you: There are so many masters of different life skills all around us. If you enjoy using Facebook or other such types of social networking, you see them every day. Sometimes it is easy to ignore their input as just more “internet noise”. Day after day, however, you see certain people who stand out as attracting the most attention and consistently sought out for their opinions.

It is the same in almost any social situation. Sitting around a table for coffee with a group of your friends, there are always “expert” opinions. Sometimes these opinions are only proffered up as a way to get attention, true. But it is very easy to recognize good advice coming from someone with more experience. There is a real desire to make a difference in someone else’s life by sharing wisdom garnered over a lifetime of experience and practice.

It gives me hope that, in this world of strife and turmoil, people of skill and character are willing to share their wisdom, simply because it gratifies them to lift up their fellow travelers.

I hope you enjoyed reading this latest installment of my mental meanderings. I encourage you to leave your comments and any thoughts you’d like to share regarding this or any of my previous blogs. If you truly like what you read, I’d be pleased if you followed me here on WordPress, or on my Celtic Fiddle Tune learning website, www.fiddlin4you.com. There you will find an abundance of material I offer, free of charge, to those who wish to enjoy playing Celtic music, as I do. It would gratify me greatly.

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Total Abandon and Vibrato: Fiddle as a Metaphor 4 Life 

Have you ever had one of those days where you find you’re telling yourself, “Physician, heal thyself”? I’ve had that kind of day for the past several weeks.

Let me begin with a bit of background.

A long, long time ago, back when I was a young violinist headed to the University to study Violin Performance, I had a beautiful vibrato. Total control over depth and speed, up and down the fingerboard. All four fingers effortlessly adding tonal color to my music. I didn’t have to think about it; it was a tool I used without difficulty. Then the unthinkable happened.

I auditioned for the Scholarship Honors String Quartet at the University of Utah. The quartet’s coach, Mr. Mikhail Boguslavsky, called me into his office after the audition to give me the news.

“Mr. Kelly, I’ve spoken with your teacher, and I’ve decided to give you a spot on the quartet on one condition: You MUST improve your bow hand. It is ridiculous how you can be in this program at all with such a miserable bow hand as yours, and I think it is deplorable that your teacher has neglected to instruct you in such a basic, necessary element of violin mastery. Let me make myself clear. If I don’t see drastic improvement in your bow hand in short order, I will drop you from the quartet and will make it the Honors String TRIO.”

Needless to say, Mr. Boguslavsky scared the piss right out of me. I was mortified. And yet, I committed myself to obtaining the best bow hand that sweat and dedication could buy.

And somewhere along the way, I “forgot” how to vibrato.

It happened so subtly that I didn’t realize it for some time. But it has remained a problem ever since that first year at the University.

It was very strange, and I had teachers and coaches that told me just how strange it was. Nobody seemed able to help me remedy this problem. I was able to teach vibrato to my students, but was unable to have a consistent, effortless vibrato myself. I had gained a beautiful bow hand, but at the cost of a skill I had “mastered” years earlier.

Fast forward to the present time. I’ve been reading books, such as “Effortless Mastery” (Kenny Werner, 2011) and “Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better and Getting Better” (Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway, and Katie Yezzi, 2012). I’ve also reviewed all of the material by Kato Havas. This reading started me thinking about my problem with vibrato, and a few weeks ago I decided that I needed to take a different approach.

In the past, I practiced vibrato in the manner I was taught decades ago. I would get frustrated in my practice, because the harder I tried to control and sustain it, the harder it became. My hand seemed to clench up every time I tried for it … but it would appear in performance on its own, unbidden and uncontrolled. The only time I had difficulties appeared to be when I really wanted to use it.

Using the same techniques I teach my students in their quest for effortless playing, I decided to go back to the basics. Here is what I discovered.

My first problem was that I was pressing my fingers too hard into the string. In Ivan Galamian’s “Principles of Violin Playing & Teaching”, I read that the finger should exert only enough pressure on the string to create a pleasant tone; exerting more pressure does nothing to improve the tone, and it interferes with the facility of the fingers.

Practical solution: Practice vibrato exercises with my fingers barely touching the string, almost like skating on top of the string. The resulting sound is not pleasant, but it is relaxed and allows for the fingers, hand, and wrist to do what they need to do.

My second problem was that I could do the exercises for only a short time before my hand and arm would clench up in an attempt to control the motion. This was a habit I needed to overcome if I were to have any control over my vibrato.

Practical solution: Using some techniques I learned from “Practice Perfect”, I designed some drills to help me extinguish the habit of clenching up. I would practice the exercises in a very relaxed fashion, and as soon as I felt any tension in my left hand, I would stop, drop my hand down to my side, relax, and then start again. This required a great deal of patience, and for a while it seemed as if I was dropping my hand more than actually practicing the vibrato. What I had to do was shift my goal from doing the exercises to extinguishing the habit. With that mental shift in my expectations, I was able to continue on in a consistent fashion. I found, after a time, that I was going longer and longer executing the drills before needing to drop my hand and relax. I also found that my vibrato was “popping up” more often in my performances.

My third problem was that after doing all this, I still considered vibrato a “problem”. I was doing the work, extinguishing the bad habits, practicing proper technique … but I still was afraid of not having control over my vibrato. I was overthinking the process on a daily basis.

Practical solution: It was time to stop micro managing my vibrato. I had done the research, made my observations, devised a solution, drilled properly … Now I needed to “let go” and allow the automaticity of the technique to take over. My conscious mental supervisor needed to step back and allow the subconscious hind brain to do what it had been trained to do without oppressive oversight.

The result:

Last night I performed with Anita Mansfield and the Mansfield Band at the Little Bar in Los Angeles. Not once did I worry about my vibrato, nor did I attempt to control it in any fashion. I found myself playing fluidly, and my vibrato came naturally. I played with total abandon. I felt the music, and the vibrato was there at the appropriate depth and speed, up and down the fingerboard and on all four fingers. I felt such a freedom while I played, and the joy was abundant and even transcendent. It is a rare thing for me to be impressed by my own playing, but last night was one of those times.

I am not to the point where I feel I can totally trust my vibrato yet, as I did when I was a youngster. I will continue following my own prescription for a while longer, making certain that this skill is as effortless as breathing, walking, or driving a manual transmission vehicle. The improvement in my “control” over this technique has been gradual but steady over the past several weeks, and last night’s performance was only the latest and most exciting example of my increasing mastery.

After decades of worry and frustration, I finally figured out a plan to heal myself of this aggravating weakness. If it is basic and remedial; if it is something that I have been teaching my students for years; if it is something I have known all along … none of that is important. What remains important is the fact that I executed the plan and that I am seeing very positive results.

1. I observed the problem, or the weakness, and puzzled out the reasons underlying the difficulty.

2. I devised a plan to drill and exercise the technique in a relaxed and efficient manner.

3. I consistently exercised patience as I drilled the technique, extinguishing bad habits along the way.

4. After doing the work, I let go and let the music inform the technique. I released myself from the constant worry and oversight of the conscious mental supervisor and just played.

I hope that you will find something of value in my experience that will help you overcome the obstacles in your life. I look forward to your comments, and I hope that, if you found this bit of writing useful, you will share it with your friends.

www.fiddlin4you.com/fiddleosophy

You can also find me on Facebook. Drop in and say hello!

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Drawn in by the music 

Mary Pat, one of our Tom Begin’s session attendees, made an enlightening observation after last night’s fun. She was talking to a gentleman who was “drawn in by the music”. He started by the bar at the other end of the tavern, and gradually the music pulled him into the dining room. He was made comfortable enough by the music that he sat down by Mary Pat, a complete stranger to him, and struck up a conversation that lasted the better part of an hour.

I noticed the same thing happening all night long. People were drawn into the dining room by the music. If there was no room to sit, they stood at the back. When a table cleared, it wasn’t long before it was filled again.

There is definitely something about traditional music that has the ability to capture your heart and your attention. It certainly captured mine roughly 14 years ago when I stumbled into the genre almost by accident.

I came to California ostensibly to follow a career in Country Western music. I was invited to play in a rodeo band called “Fit 2 B Tied”, which was basically a Chris LeDoux tribute band in all but name. I also started my own C&W band called “Fiddlin’ ‘Round”, and I played in several jazz and Rock ‘n’ Roll bands. I even did a stint in a Blues jam band.

Early on I took a job as a salesman at Jim’s Music in Tustin. One of my co-workers invited me to play one Sunday afternoon at a local Irish Pub in Newport Beach called “Muldoon’s”. I told him that I had never played Irish music before, and that I wasn’t sure it was such a good idea. He said, “Mike, you’ve been faking everything else your whole life and nobody’s caught on yet. You ought to give it a try. I think you’ll like it.”

What an understatement that turned out to be! I had so much fun playing with that little band, headed by Gilman Carver. I fell absolutely head-over-heels in love with the music, and I couldn’t get enough! Not only did I immerse myself in the music, I also devoured everything about the culture, history, and mythology of Ireland.

Something about the music spoke to me in a visceral way that day fourteen years ago. It got inside of me like no other music ever had, and it wrapped around me as much as I wrapped myself up in it. It made me as Irish as if I had been born in the ould sod itself.

I still enjoy other genres of music. I love the old Country Western and Bluegrass songs and tunes, and I enjoy singer/songwriters. Story songs still get me. There is no other music, however, that has the power to draw me in so completely as Celtic music. So what if the tunes I play and listen to were popular two or three hundred years ago? They have meaning and relevancy in today’s world as much as they did back when they were first composed. New music created in the old style is still fresh and inspiring, and the different interpretations of the tunes and songs invigorate the genre.

Mary Pat’s new friend, and indeed all our new friends at Tom Bergin’s, got a taste of that last night. When I see people drawn in by the music I am playing, I have to smile. I know exactly how they feel.


Trad Session guidelines at Tom Bergin’s Tavern 

An interesting thing happened early this morning. Padraic Conroy, my co-host at the Tom Bergin’s Wednesday night trad session in LA, sends me a text message he received from the management of Tom Bergin’s Tavern. It seems that, after only two weeks of doing the session, we have become so popular with his clientele, management wants us to start the session an hour earlier so we can accommodate more of their customers. Starting today.

On top of that, we have 16 musicians who have confirmed that they will be in attendance this evening.

Both of these are marvelous signs that the Wednesday session will continue to be a regular event at this legendary LA landmark. It is also a good indication that Tom Bergin’s is committed to servicing and celebrating the Irish community and culture here in Southern California.

It also creates a bit of a logistical nightmare for Padraic and me. So I am reaching out to you in order to make things run a bit more easily.

First, a couple of basic items.

Normally, a trad session is totally acoustic … no sound reinforcement (i.e., PA system) is used. Due to the layout at Tom Bergin’s, however, we utilize a low-profile Bose PA system to push the music through the pub. There are several open microphones situated around the musician’s table to pick up the music, thus allowing more of the clientele to enjoy the tunes.

Normally, five or six musicians can sit around this table, and the resulting volume is enough to be heard, and yet low enough that customers can carry on conversations without shouting over the music. As hosts, Padraic and I usually remain at the table throughout the evening. The other seats are usually occupied by melody players and a couple of rhythm players (e.g., rhythm guitar, bodhrán, bones, etc). We like to to rotate players at the table so that everyone has a chance to play and be heard through the sound system, but there are no real rules to ensure that this happens.

What I suggest is that if you play an instrument which somebody else also plays, please give up your seat at the table after having played a few tune sets. Those who are not at the main table may continue to play, as long as they are sensitive to what is going on around the table.

I also suggest that there should be no more than one each of rhythm guitar, bodhrán, and bones at the table at any given time (aside from the hosts, of course). We’re not going to go all “Trad Nazi” on you and tell you not to play … but please, use your own judgement and exercise common courtesy. And if Padraic or I politely suggest that you give another musician your place at the table, please be assured that we only wish everybody who attends to have a grand time and be able to participate.

If you have a song that you would like to sing, or a set of tunes that you’d like to lead, please be sure to be seated around the table so that everyone in the pub will be able to hear and enjoy your music.

Using music books, tablets, iPads, etc is allowed. It is strongly encouraged, however, that you perform tunes and songs at the table with which you are familiar, and use your ears to pick up the tunes and songs that you aren’t familiar with. Recording devices are encouraged, as well, so you can bring the tunes home with you and learn them for the next session.

The management and staff at Tom Bergin’s have been truly wonderful and generous to us in the past, and we’d like to encourage them to remain so. Please do not expect that they will “comp” your drinks or your food, but if they do, please be sure to thank them. Leaving a generous tip will go a long way to ensuring that they continue to treat us so generously.

It is often intimidating to perform when surrounded by such fine musicians. We encourage you to step out of your box and jump into the fun; expand your musical horizons. If you have any questions or concerns about something that doesn’t seem right or makes you feel uncomfortable, please bring those concerns to Padraic or me so we can address them. We want you to be comfortable and have a great time.

Finally, I just want to stress that the success of this session depends on you, and musicians like you. Not only do you need to show up and play, but you need to help create a fun and friendly atmosphere. Thank you so much for supporting live Irish music in Los Angeles!

Now get ready for some of the best craic on tap!


Relevancy and Pete Seeger 

I have so many topics running through my mind: Justin Bieber, The Grammys, the State of the Union, Kanye West, Same Sex Marriage, Racism, Misogyny, Justin Bieber ….

The truth is, I really feel the need to write something important tonight, and all this unimportant crap is going through my head instead. Not that Justin Bieber isn’t culturally significant …

A great man died last night: Pete Seeger. No, not the one with the Silver Bullet Band. The banjo-slinging Pete Seeger of Folk Music fame. The one who’s banjo displayed the slogan, “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender”.

I never knew the man. In fact, I grew up fairly ignorant of the huge musical footprint he made. I have come to realize, however, that his influence can be felt throughout a wide spectrum of the music I am familiar with.

I may not agree with him on politics, and I may not be familiar with his repertoire, but Pete Seeger is truly a musical hero.

From what I can tell, the man himself believed that music and love could change the world. He put his heart and soul into saving that world, and as he did so, he energized a genre of music that had been consigned to the dustbin of history. Protest songs. Labor songs. Hell, he even made the banjo look cool.

Throughout the 94 years of his life, he made and shared music with anyone who had ears to listen. The tunes may have changed over the decades, but his tune never did. A fierce fighter in the battle for justice and equality, love and peace. His weapons were his voice, his banjo, and his timeless songs.

So, while Justin Bieber may be languishing in jail, Kanye West may be ranting about Racism, and the Grammys may be celebrating mass same-sex marriages, let’s take a moment to remember one of the true heroes who has graced several generations with his timeless music.

Rest in Peace, Pete Seeger. We will miss you, but your music remains. Stronger than ever.


Broke as hell, but I still feel rich! 

The last two months of 2013 conspired to make me loathe Ramen noodles. I mean, I tried everything from adding hot peppers and Tapatio to adding brown rice.

The funny thing is, as broke as I am I still feel rich.

Perhaps its the current currency deprivation that has starved my brain cells and brought on a more severe case of lunacy than I am accustomed to. Or perhaps my overactive imagination has me believing that something other than little green paper rectangles can give me what I most want and need.

Or perhaps Im finally learning the true value of friends.

First, let me just say that eating Ramen noodles isnt the worst thing in the world. Second, if I had said yes to all the friends who offered to feed me in the past month, Id probably have another 20 pounds to work off this year.

The funny thing is, the majority of my friends had absolutely no idea of the financial straits I was in.

My friends showed me that I have been famished for real soul food.

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My usual solo activity around the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays is to visit Hometown Buffet and people watch. However, a good friend invited me to spend those two days with his wife and his ex-wife! I figured, What could be more interesting/entertaining than that? Sign me up!

What I got was a warm reception and total acceptance, as if I were a true member of their lovely family. I got an understanding of how even a broken relationship can continue to function in a civil, even loving manner. I got two lovely dinners, I was mauled by two precious children, and I was gifted with a sense of peace and happiness I had sorely been missing. My soul was fed, and I was more than satisfied.

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Due to the precarious nature of my bottom line, I was hustling to rustle up more gigs. I pitched a local pub owner the idea that I could play solo fiddle in her pub, low profile, low cost. She loved the idea and was kind enough to book several gigs when I needed them the most. As a result, I was able to perform for (and with!) many friends around Christmas, and I enjoyed my time with them immensely!

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A friend came down from San Francisco with her husband to celebrate her birthday. She wanted to be sure that she got to spend time with her favorite fiddler me! She and her husband not only attended a couple of my gigs while they were in town, but also bought me dinner and made me feel like a prince. More than the meal, their love and consideration for me fed me for the rest of the month.

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Another friend, who lives in Los Angeles, invited me to a St Stephens Day party for musicians and other creative types. In addition to having a blast (she is a wonderful hostess and knows how to keep things going even when the going gets rough), I met new people and made new friends. One of those new friends is a marvelous musician from Athlone, Ireland, and I am really looking forward to making more music with him in the future.

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These are just a few vignettes from a holiday season full of similar stories. In short, I ended 2013 feeling truly blessed with riches money cannot buy.

Financially, I can say that theres hope on the horizon. Im still pinching pennies and scratching my head while wondering how Im going to pay my bills in January. I still have half a case of Ramen noodles left, though, and some of the best friends in the world. I may be broke as hell, but I am still rich in the areas that matter.

My hope is that you, too, will find riches in this new year. May 2014 be full of all the good things you desire and may you never, ever need to eat Ramen noodles!


Reflections at Christmas time 

Im sitting in my recording studio earlier this evening, relaxing after teaching a fiddle lesson. Suddenly, like a tsunami, I am hit with wave after wave of emotional distress. Feelings of sadness and heartache, loneliness, and depression. As the waves recede, I feel as if Im being dragged with them into an ocean of turmoil.

SLAP! At least, thats what it sounds like inside of my head when I mentally knock myself sane.

I am blessed with an abundance of riches. I have a world of friends, some of whom I havent even met in person but friends nonetheless. I have a career I thoroughly enjoy and that pushes me to grow on a daily basis. I have beautiful children. And I have a wealth of experiences that would be fodder for either a soap opera or a great American novel.

Still, I wish that I didnt have to learn things the hard, painful way. Im a pretty bright guy, I love to read, I love to learn. So why is it that most of my education has been at the School of Hard Knocks?

One of the things I am still in the process of learning is that I need to focus my attention on ME, not on what others think of me. Too often in the past I have tailored my behavior to what I supposed other people wanted from me. As a result, its taken me decades to arrive where I am. If I place my attention on building a better me, for me, then I quickly strengthen my weaknesses and become a better man. As a better man, I can then relate to others in a kinder, more powerful way. And yet, I still struggle with being a people pleaser, and the struggle to be a better me goes on and on.

Another lesson I am still learning has to do with mental discipline. I know for a fact that the negative statements I make about myself, and the negative questions I ask myself, are a damning force on my progress. Its kind of hard to move forward when youre telling yourself constantly What an idiot you are, Youre such a failure, Why cant you stick to something and get it done?, etc ad nauseam. My self-talk has always had a very negative bent, even though I strive on a daily basis to be positive and upbeat. One of the things that I have tried recently that seems to work is to change the nature of my questions, a process called afforming by Noah St John (The Book of Afformations).

Heres an example: Instead of asking myself why I constantly have money problems (negative), I ask myself Why am I so wealthy? Even though the premise of the question isnt exactly correct in the present time, my mind then begins to dwell on that question in order to come up with answers. Instead of coming up with negative answers, my mind comes up with positive answers. I can work with positive answers; the negative ones just bring me down.

Another thing I have struggled with my entire life is that I dont need an intimate relationship with a woman in order to be a complete person. Although I still feel that such a relationship adds value and satisfaction to a mans life, it is not a necessary component for his happiness.

On the other hand, friendships are invaluable. No man is an island (John Donne), and I am realizing more and more how true that phrase is. Interpersonal connections are the energy that fuels my life and my music. I have also discovered this year that caring friends are essential in helping me out of the quagmires I frequently find myself in. I still struggle asking for help, but my friends are always there, ready with a helping hand, a word of encouragement, whatever is needed. I am not one who finds asking for help easy. Too much pride, or perhaps too much shame. What will they think of me?

Along these lines is another lesson that is difficult for me to internalize. Just because I have failed in four relationships; just because I am not where I ought to be financially; just because I have a list of mistakes longer than Tolstoys War and Peace; does NOT mean that I am a failure as a human being. On the contrary, I am a man of great worth. Despite my failings (or perhaps because of them), many people value my friendship and association. I have much to offer this world, regardless of my many weaknesses.

So on this night before Christmas Eve in 2013, I sit here reflecting on the past year and the lessons learned and wonder. There is so much still to do in my life, and that life is getting shorter each day. And yet, I am so richly blessed.

My Christmas prayer for all of my friends this year is that they realize how much I love, admire, respect, and need each of you. You have been such a huge blessing to me, helping me through the rough times and enriching my life with your presence in it. I pray that you realize how important you are, how worthwhile you are, and what a difference you make in my life and the lives of so many others. May you be happy in your knowledge of just how wonderful a human being you really are.

Nollaig Shona Dhuit!


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