What do you call the thing you play the bodhran with?
You can call it ‘the thing you play the bodhran with’ or ‘stick.’ Some people will refer to it as the beater. In America it’s sometimes referred to as the ‘tipper’ or in the Irish language, it’s called cipín, which means ‘stick.’
What should I look for in a good stick?
A good question, but not an easy one to answer. A lot is down to personal preference, stage of development and the style of player you are. A heavier stick will give a richer sound, but if you’re only a beginner it will wear you out quicker. Something too fat might feel comfortable to play at first but doesn’t allow for a lot of development. Manufacturers often put a bump in the middle of the stick, which I find unhelpful. If you are afraid of your stick falling out of your hand, wet it first, or wet your hand. It will form a better bond with your hand. Multi-rod sticks, which I believe I may have invented when I took a broken multi-rod drum stick from a bin in a rehearsal room some 20 years ago and whittled it down are great. Ben March is a really good maker of these now.
What should I look for in a good drum?
In some ways, this should be a very personal thing, but in recent years, there seems to be a lot of consensus and conformity of opinion on one particular style of drum; thin skinned, taped around the edges, deep shelled and small. Certainly the workmanship in bodhran making has reached new levels, as has the playing. If you want to future proof your drum, the most useful recent innovation is the keyless tuners that can be turned by hand so you never need to worry about losing your key and you can even adjust the tuning right before or during your playing. Some of the top makers now are March, O’Kane, Hedwitchak, White, Alphonso. Some of the bigger producers who also make very good bodhrans in their top range include Vignoles, Waltons, McNeela and PP Meinl. Two things to think about if you’re buying a drum; if money is tight, you can absolutely buy a cheap drum with no tuners and adjust the skin by heating or damping (with water) each time you play. If you’ve got money and buy an upmarket drum, then it’s always going to be a pleasure to hear your nice drum and it will keep a lot of its value, if you decide it’s not for you.
What are the advantages of online learning vs learning from a teacher?
Online you can learn from many teachers and get lots of different tips and styles. There’s a lot of free stuff available on youtube etc, admittedly of varying quality, but even the better stuff which you pay for, is way cheaper than the €20 or so per half hour you’ll pay for a one on one lesson. Also, the online lessons are there whenever you need them and work to your schedule. One thing to remember though is that a video can’t tell you if you’re doing it right or wrong, so at some stage investing €20 for a one to one online or in person with a local bodhran teacher will pay off, even just for a once off to check that you’re on the right path.
How should I practice?
Allocate the time you can afford and watch the clock. If you’re practicing a new bit of technique, decide how long you’re going to repeat it, example for 10 mins and do it by the clock. For the first half do it very slowly and then gradually in the second half increase the tempo. Practice slowly, learn fast. Play with CDs, play with whatever comes on the radio, traditional or not. Most importantly play with other people, that’s what you got into it for, right?
How do I join a session?
In one sense this is a minefield, in another it’s about humility, respect and common sense. Some factors are completely out of your control.
Some people have a built in unshakable prejudice about bodhrans. You’ll never change them so no need to worry about them. Some bodhran players don’t learn their instrument and yet feel they can can play with people who took the time to learn theirs. If you’re reading this, the chances are you’re not one of them.
A couple of things that can help are;
1. Play with people you know, though this is only sometimes possible.
2. Ask the players if they mind if you join in.
3. If there is another bodhran player there, you need to specifically ask them too as this will generally involve them allowing you to take over the bodhran role from time to time as the convention is to have one bodhran playing at a time. If it’s a huge session or a beginner session or the two bodhran players know each other really well, then that can change.
I'm not getting a clear beat, it sounds like it's scraping across the skin, what should I do ?
That’s a very common complaint for beginners, in fact, nearly everyone begins with making a “scraping” sound. The 2 main reasons for this are:
1. You are holding the stick at too great an angle from the drum, it should be about 45 degrees from the drum, no more.
2. You are clenching the stick too tightly, a common beginner mistake and also a common side effect of over thinking when you’re practicing. There’s a little bit in the lesson about the ‘wiggle’ movement your hand should be doing, like as if you’re shaking water off your hand. There can be an accentuating factor, but it doesn’t happen unless one of the above is present and that is that your skin may be a little rough if the bodhran hasn’t yet been thoroughly ‘played in yet.’ In summary; angle, wiggle and ‘practice practice practice!’ – Brian.
What is the purpose is of the black 'tape' around the edge of the skin?
The tape is a sound thing. It takes away the ringing, overtone sounds and gives more of a clear note. I feel it accentuates the bass sound too. As far as I know it was Ringo MacDonagh, the bodhrán player with De Dannan who started it many years ago. Seamus O’Kane, the bodhrán maker from Derry made it standard on his bodhrans, later and it has since become very popular, some might say too popular. – Brian.
Why is there a cross handle on the back of my bodhran?
I believe the cross bars in the back were originally to help the drum keep its shape. Some people incorporate the bars into their playing by using them to push against to get more leverage on the skin, but mostly they are surplus to requirements for the modern playing style. Also laminated wood has no need for the bars from a structural point of view. However, people often expect to see them in the back, so commercial makers still put them in to please the customer. You can always break them out when you get tired of them. – Brian.
Does it matter what size bodhran I get?
Back when I was starting out, all bodhrans were 18″ but the trend now is for smaller. It’s hard to know if the trend might go back the other way again sometime, but a small one might certainly be more convenient for you, e.g., 14″. Holding the drum is as awkward as holding the stick in the beginning though, no matter what size, so don’t expect a miracle. – Brian.
What can I do when the skin of my bodhran gets loose?
You can use heat to bring up the pitch and the tension in your skin, each time you want to play it. A hairdryer would do it, for example. If the skin is old and is constantly loose and you need a more lasting solution, you can saturate it with water, as much as it can take, and then leave it for a few hours or even overnight to dry, by air, not heat and it will usually rejuvenate the skin. As a last resort, you could take it to a local drum-maker to re-stretch the skin over the drum. – Brian.
My drum is brand new and doesn't sound right, skin feels too tight. What should I do?
One way to know if the skin is just too tight is to try wetting it with a couple of spoonfuls of water, spread evenly around the skin and allowed to soak in. Nothing will happen for about a minute and then the skin will get soft and lower in tone. You might need to do this every time you play for the first year or so. You’ll gradually get the hang of how much water to use and how long to wait.
I'm finding it hard to get the loose feeling in the wrist, have you any suggestion?
Squeezing the stick can prevent a nice fluid motion. Same as with the sword in fencing or a racket in tennis, you don’t actually squeeze it, you hold it just tight enough so it can’t get away. Sometimes you’ll see the maker has left a bump on the stick to make it easier to hold. However, I find these get in the way, as I like to move my hand to different positions on the stick depending on what style I’m playing, sometimes even in the middle of a tune. My top tip is to wet your fingers or stick before you play. It sounds counterintuitive but it actually makes the stick less slippy, less likely to fall out of your hand and therefore allows you to use a lighter grip, which in turn allows you to play more freely.