Bodhran techniques with
Danu's Donachadh Gough,
Celtic Colours 2001
at the Gaelic College,
St. Ann's, Cape Breton, NS
(9 October 2001)

"I'm not the best teacher in the world." That was Donachadh Gough's apologetic caveat to nearly 20 drummers and spectators who turned up for his bodhran workshop at the Gaelic College.

The workshop was one of many similar events scheduled during the Celtic Colours festival week to give folks a chance to learn from some of the musical greats scheduled to perform. While some workshops were divided by skill level, this one was open to novices and experts alike.

Gough said he could teach the uilleann pipes more easily because he was taught to play that instrument. As for the bodhran, however, "I wasn't taught by anybody. I figured it out for myself." There aren't a lot of rules, he added. "Every bodhran player has a different notion."

Gough plays drum and pipes for the Irish band Danu, which was among the featured bands in Cape Breton for the festival. His preferred bodhran is smaller than the standard 18-inch drum, and he recommends a thin, light beater over the heavier, knobbed stick preferred by some.

He cautioned against a heavy hand when playing. "Be gentle with it," he told participants. "Treat it with respect."

There was the expected cacophony as everyone in the room beat out their best rhythms; Gough walked around the circle offering individual tips to each person. As drummers will, they quickly fell into step and developed a unified rhythm.

After offering tips on everyone's strokes, grips and hand positions, Gough seemed at a loss how to proceed with the workshop. Since no one had any questions, he played a Frankie Gavin CD -- fiddle tunes recorded without percussion -- so he could demonstrate his drumming technique. "I think it sounds better if you keep it simple," he said. His own style appeared very controlled, with economy of movement, but he conjured a broad range of sounds from a small circle of goatskin.

He later swapped his standard beater for a hand-crafted stick -- 32 barbecue skewers taped together, creating a Michael Flatley-like tattoo when brushed against the skin.

Although Gough said on several occasions that every drummer has an individual style, he insisted that there is only one correct position for the hand holding the beater. The wrist must be straight, he said. However, Michelle Stewart, maker of Cape Breton Bodhrans and a bodhran instructor/performer in her own right, was sitting in on the workshop and was using a very different hand position to play. When Gough left the session early to get to a sound check for Danu's evening performance, several workshop participants asked Stewart for a demonstration of her technique, as well as additional tips. Although she diplomatically avoided directly contradicting Gough's instruction, she underscored her opinion that individual style varies widely and there is no one correct position.

Stewart did question Gough's statement that players should never use water on their drum skins; Stewart often sprays her drum head to keep the skin from getting tight.

There's no denying Gough is a brilliant bodhranist. However, the ability to play and the ability to teach don't always go hand in hand, and Gough seemed out of his depth when it came to passing his own expertise on to others. Still, there's an unquestionable benefit to watching an accomplished player while practicing, and it's certain some participants came away with a better understanding of the Irish drum.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 8 December 2001