Peter Cooper,
Complete Irish Fiddle Player
(Mel Bay, 1995/1998)

Mel Bay's Complete Irish Fiddle Player by Peter Cooper is a treat!

Too often, words such as "complete" are bandied about in the titles of so-called comprehensive works, but their shortcomings are often all too apparent. That's not the case with this one, however; Cooper has packed a wealth of music and information into this release from Mel Bay.

No, I'm not suggesting Cooper has provided the source for Irish tunes. There are bigger and better collections on the market. But if you're looking for more than just notes on a page, this is a good place to start.

Cooper's introduction begins with a brief definition of Irish music and a history of the form's evolution. He explains why Irish music is usually learned by ear, not from sheet music (although, obviously, he's hoping readers will find the sheet music included in his book useful!), and describes the basic structure of the tunes, techniques for bowing, fingering positions, tempos and other idiosyncrasies of the Irish style. He also delves slightly into the regional differences which divide Ireland, where a Sligo fiddler can be distinguished from a Kerry fiddler, and so on, although this is by no means a comprehensive analysis of geographic variations.

The bulk of the book is, obviously, devoted to tunes, but Cooper doesn't settle for simply collecting sheet music in one volume. He divides tunes by style (jigs, hornpipes, reels, etc.) and describes methods for playing each. In the first section of jigs, for instance, he discusses basic bowing patterns. In the next section on reels, he gets into arm weight and finger rolls. Techniques and variations grow more complex and advanced as Cooper progresses through 19 chapters of music, comprising a total of 80 tunes. He also provides brief backgrounds on the tunes, providing a cultural context often overlooked in Irish music collections.

His narrative is smooth and easy to follow, making even difficult moves sound easy. It's easier still when you listen to the companion CD (actually, a two-CD set spanning 55 tracks), which gives practical examples of the style.

I'm not sure it was necessary to begin the CD with a track dedicated to tuning (yes, the fiddler plays all four open strings so you can tune, if you haven't already done so), and the first tune is probably the slowest rendition of "The Irish Washerwoman" I've ever heard. But the CD is a good introduction for fiddling novices, providing simple demonstrations of bowing and fingering techniques as well as tunes to practice them on. Cooper even announces each tune before playing it, so no one has to stop and read the tracklist on the CD cover.

While accomplished fiddlers will find these tunes ponderously slow, they're at a good pace for people trying to learn the tunes and techniques by ear.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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