We are a céilí band, meaning we perform most often for dances and typically for Irish set dances. We also enjoy playing at our local Sunday afternoon seisiún (pronounced like the English ‘session’) where a group of musicians meet informally to just play tunes and to enjoy the camaraderie and collaboration. Our band members have also played at the local fleadh (pronounced flah) which is Gaelic for festival. Often a fleadh is used for cultural presentations and to stage competitions. A fleadh that provides competitions among solo musicians or musical groups is called a fleadh cheoil (pronounced flah key-ohl for festival of music).
Sometimes there are dances at the fleadh cheoil but these are customarily for Irish set dances; the type of dance where Croí na Céilí most often performs. In general, most people associate Irish dancing with the more widespread Irish step dancing, the kind of dancing made popular by Riverdance. Irish step dancing is highly figured and features high kicks and jumps with participants in bold, bright, colorful costumes who hold their arms stiff at their sides. The band’s exposure to Irish step dancing has been limited but it is something that we definitely enjoy. We realize that for students of step dancing, there is a great deal of training involved and advancement is by means of a festival known as a feis (pronounced fesh). A feis always provides a dance competition but must also offer some other contest related to Irish culture like a solo fiddle competition, Gaelic singing, or soda bread bake-off. The feis presents the best of what the various Irish dance academies may offer and is used to rank the dancers’ progress. A dance competition is very involved because different age groups and skill levels must be matched for all the contestants. Often the feis will feature live music for the dancers. Where live music is featured, a feis requires a musician who is talented, who possesses a profound knowledge of the Irish musical idiom and who has incredible stamina. Our friend, Mark Arrington, has very kindly allowed us to publish his views on what it takes for a musician to perform for a feis.
Playing for Competitive Dancers at A Feis
I’m sometimes asked by musicians about playing at a feis. There is no qualification, audition, or fee to become a feis musician. For those who think they might want to give it a try, here are some of the differences between playing for dance competitions and playing at a session or ceili or with a band.
Tempo: It’s essential to be able to play in time with a metronome. Tempos for reels, jigs (dancers call them “light jigs” if they’re in their soft shoes, and “treble jigs” if they’re in their hard or heavy shoes), slip jigs, and “traditional” hornpipes (dancers call the faster tempo hornpipes traditional to distinguish them from the slower tempo version) are around where they would be in a laid-back session or ceili. The “treble jig” and hornpipe (sometimes called slow) are much slower, and you’d think of them and play them as a separate type of tune. It takes quite a while to get the feel for those. Keeping the tempo steady is more important at a feis than tune styling, and it has to be steady for long periods of time because the dancing for a competition is continuous, and every dancer needs to have the same tempo.
Tunes: Most of the dancers do not regularly listen to Irish music, so they aren’t able to pick up on some of the most interesting tunes with unique phrasing. The best tunes for young dancers are ones where the phrasing is very distinct and repeats, and ones where there is a distinct ending for each part.
Stamina: Playing for 8 hours or more in a day, taking a break only to go to the bathroom and eat lunch, takes a lot of stamina and understanding the ergonomics of your playing. Without good technique you can end up injuring yourself. Even with good technique and physical awareness, playing for that amount of time is very difficult. You might want to try it at home first:
- Take a Saturday (a really beautiful one for playing golf, fishing, or going to the beach).
- Start at 8:30.
- Get the most uncomfortable chair on your house.
- Turn on the TV, a few radios, and your stereo with other Irish tunes, all going at full blast.
- Set up your sound system (you need to bring sound).
- Turn on your metronome, and play your tunes for 5 minutes at a time.
- Stop for a minute or so, then go again.
- Make sure you’re always on time with the metronome.
- Spend about half of the time playing jigs at 92 bpm and 73 bpm, and hornpipes at 138 bpm and 113 bpm.
- Take 1/2 hour for lunch at noon, then play again until 4:00 or 5:00.
If you can do this, love kids and big events, and think that even beginner-level of Irish dancing is cool, you might enjoy playing at a feis. Once you get the hang of it’s very rewarding, and nothing is better for keeping up chops on your instrument!
Mark Arrington is an Irish, Bluegrass, Folk, and Country music performer who has played hundreds of Irish dance competitions, or feiseanna (the Gaelic plural of feis), around the U.S. and Canada since 1996. He also teaches fiddle, guitar, banjo, and mandolin.
This year, the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann will be held August 12-18 in the city of Derry.