Get a rare glimpse into the life and times of piper and OAIM tutor Mikie Smyth; who believes every note has its right to be heard; that uilleann pipes squeak; and that instruments have their own mood swings!
Pop on the kettle, pull up a chair and prepare to be put under Mikie’s spell! Enjoy!
You started playing the uilleann pipes at only 9 years old, which is very young for such a physical instrument. Could you tell us about how you got started?
My mother Ann brought me to The Pipers’ Club in Henrietta Street in Dublin and it was there that I was introduced to my first teacher, a man called Colm De Brun. Colm introduced me to people like Nollaig McCarthy, Andy Conroy and the music of pipers like Séamus Ennis and Willie Clancy. The Pipers’ Club was an amazing place, it still is an amazing place, but when I was small what I remember most distinctly is that when you went through those doors of that building in Dublin, whether you were nine years old or ninety years old, whether you where a midwife or a mechanic, whether you were a man or a woman or whatever; whatever you were coming through those doors, it was all left behind on the steps. Once you were in there you were a piper. There was this amazing sense of community. All of these people working towards that same goal, to try and overcome the challenges of playing the uilleann pipes.
It was such an amazing place to be. The encouragement, the support that you get and just the sense of community and, I have to say, without the Pipers’ Club or without the support of the pipers there, I don’t think I would have managed such a physical instrument. You know it really was a remarkable, and really it still is, a very remarkable place, it’s a wonderful organization. They do great work for piping, they do great work for the pipes and I’d strongly encourage people to check them out.
Apart from your teachers, are there other musicians that have influenced your playing in particular?
There are many musicians who have influenced me over the years: flute players, fiddle players, whistle players, concertina players and, of course, pipers. It’s very difficult to narrow it down to one or two musicians but Andy Conroy, a great mentor, a great friend, taught me more than I was able to learn, I suppose, and I’m still catching up on the things that he showed me. And I never will catch up! He was a great piper and a great man. But I suppose outside of piping whistle players like Séan Ryan, Mary Bergin, Carmel Gunning and flute players like, Séamus Tansey, Catherine McGorman and Catherine McEvoy. Younger players as well were always very influential like Kevin O’Reilly, or Caoimhin O’Rahilly as he’s now called, and Sarah Jane Woods. All my pals, I learned a lot from my peers growing up, which is always a great way to learn music. You have good fun and they’d always bring you a new tune that you might have not got directly from pipers, that’s always nice.
Mikie appearing on The Pure Drop, RTE Television 1993, aged 11
As a very experienced teacher (Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy, The Irish World Academy, OAIM), what kind of advice do you usually give to people who have just taken up the uilleann pipes?
For people who have just taken up the pipes the first piece of advice I always give them is pipes squeak. Uilleann pipes make weird noises from time to time and that’s part of the charm. Forgive yourself, be patient with yourself, don’t let perfection bully good.
The instrument has its own personality. Every single instrument has its own personality, its own mood, its own mood swings, and we’re always challenged to play with the instrument, to play in harmony, for want of a better way of putting it, with the mood of the instrument. And that can be difficult because the mood of the instrument can change from time to time. So we have to be in the right frame of mind. The most important thing starting the pipes is to be gentle and patient with yourself. After that, don’t neglect the small things.
I have a code for pipers, the ‘ABCD of Piping’ and it’s probably not fit for a general audience so I will not go into detail with it here because those letters ABCD they correspond to particular words. Out of context they will make no sense, but the main thing when you’re starting the pipes is to be patient with yourself, the pipes squeak, don’t be so hard on yourself that you put them away.
The second thing I would say is never put the pipes away! If you’re at home and you leave them in the case, in the box, you have to take them out again the next time you wanna play. You have to strap them on, you have to go through that process of assembling the instrument. So rather than do that, leave them somewhere safe, up high where the pets or the children or whatever can’t interfere with them. Then lift them down and strap them on. It’s one less barrier to overcome.
The third thing I’d say, if they’re not going right, you’re not going right, walk away. Go get a cup of tea, do something else for 15 minutes and then try again and you know if it’s still not working that’s it leave it at that for today and come back to them tomorrow. That’s maybe maybe the main things I’d say, you know. Be patient with yourself, leave them somewhere accessible, and if it’s not going right, don’t get frustrated walk away. Don’t let yourself get angry about it, it’s meant to be fun. Come back to them when you’re in a better frame of mind.
Which musicians do you enjoy listening to these days? And do you listen to other types of music as well?
In the car at the moment I have a long commute to work. It takes me just over two hours to get to work and then two hours to get home in the evening so the car is a great place for listening to music. I have Damien McGeehan, a Donegal fiddle player, and his album The Tin Fiddle. I love his work. I have two pipers, Padraig Keane from Galway, he’s a hero of mine even though he’s at least 10 years younger than me. He is an absolutely stunning musician. Another piper, but on this particular album he’s singing, and that’s Jarlath Henderson and he has a wonderful album called Hearts Broken Heads Turned and I enjoyed listening to that.
I also have a lot of gypsy music, central European music that I’ve been enjoying listening to for a change. Some I’ve just been introduced, or reintroduced, to some Mongolian throat singing strangely enough and I’m enjoying that too. So kind of a very strange mix of things but for the most part to be honest it’s Jarlath Henderson, Padraig Keane and Damian McGeehan are the ones that are my ‘go tos’.
I always have Willie Clancy and Séamus Ennis and I have a new album, a new release of Tommy Reck, which I’m not putting on yet because that’s gonna take time and I want to be free in my head to really get into Tommy’s pipe. Tommy Reck was a genius. There’s a double CD out of his music and again I would advise you to try to get your hands on it, anyone that’s into music at all it’s worth listening to, but particularly piping. So Tommy Reck’s album is waiting in my car ready for when I’m fully prepared in the mind to engage with his music properly.
It’s been a while since you recorded your solo album “The Wild Keys” (2005). Have you any plans to record more music? We would love to hear some more!
It’s a long time since I sat in a studio and recorded an album and a lot has happened in my life since 2005. I’m anxious to record again. I have lots of music in my fingers and in my ears, in my head and in my heart and I’d like to get it down. I’d like to do some work on the whistle, I’d like to do some work on the pipes but it’s time. It all comes down to finding the right time and the right headspace and at the moment I’m having the most amazing distraction for music you know.
I have a wonderfully patient and beautiful wife and four fantastic children ranging in age from eight down to one. That’s how I’m focusing my time at the moment. I do hope to record an album in the coming year. But for now it’s all about bedtime stories and run around in the garden and a game called Crazy Gorilla and it’s great craic. At the moment my children think I’m cool and I’m going to enjoy that as much as I possibly can and music will always be a huge part of my life. I will record soon but for now it’s all about the kids. It’s all about the family and I’m loving it, absolutely loving it.
You have performed both as a soloist and in various shows, including Riverdance. What was it like to play in such a big production?
Yes, I have done some huge shows and when I take a moment to stop and think about that, over 40 countries across 6 continents… I played in some of the most wonderful venues the world has to offer. What a privilege that is. What an honour to be able to bring Uilleann Pipes to such huge audiences. It’s amazing to play with big productions like Ragus and Riverdance. It’s such an honor to bring the pipes to incredible venues all over the world where they might not necessarily get the chance to go on their own.
I think that’s one of the key things that you take from doing those shows is that you have an opportunity to showcase instruments. With Riverdance you have a particular job to do and it involves playing the chanter and there’s a lot of other instruments involved and it’s not a huge part of the show and that’s fine. It’s still a part of the show and it’s incredibly important and that’s great and it’s a great opportunity for the instruments and for me, of course personally, that’s brilliant you know, great fun.
With a show like Ragus you get five minutes to do whatever you want, I could play the most obscure piece of old traditional Irish music or I could pay something a little bit more modern. Fergal Ó’Murchú (the producer) gives you that freedom, he trusts you as an artist to to make a call on the audience and that’s a wonderful opportunity because I can get really into the pipes and show the audience the drones and regulators and what the instrument is capable of and that was always a great buzz doing those shows. Fantastic to play with those productions it really, really was.
Your piping is very rich and you use all the features of the instrument. Your use of the regulators is especially powerful. Is it something you focus on in particular?
In terms of regulators, the question of whether I see it as something I focus on, of course, when I was young and I got them I did. I got my regulators one at a time. I got the baritone regulator which is the one in the middle with the DFG and A on it and I had that for about seven or eight months before I got to the tenor regulator which is the closest one to the piper. That has an FGAB and C that line up with the other notes. So I learned one regulator at a time. That made it a lot easier rather than getting a full set.
Now there was no reason other than financial constraints that I didn’t get a full set so it was a very lucky consequence of that. I think I can safely say I still have my communion money and my confirmation money. I think my communion money is tied up in a set of drones and my confirmation money is tied up in one of those regulators!! The other money came from savings for the smaller two of the two regulators on that set. But that was the best way to learn them. I did focus on them when I was young but now as a musician piper, and I use that word carefully, but as as a musician piper I don’t see the regulators as a separate thing. I see them as part of the whole sound and I try not to separate them in my mind. It’s very difficult to explain that in words actually, but they happen to be there, that’s all I can really say about it.
You also play the whistle and the flute. Do you enjoy playing them as much as the pipes and do you find that your style adapts to the instrument?
The flute and the whistle are very, very important to me. Like I mentioned a while ago, I have a young family and the pipes tend not to come out as often as I would like. So I leave whistles strategically throughout the house. I’m currently sitting in my office, I have two whistles beside me here. And there’s whistles in my car, there’s a whistle in my office in Dublin and there’s whistles in the kitchen and in the music room. So just when you get a minute you pick up a whistle and play a tune. I like the accessibility of the tin whistle, I like the range and the dynamics. The tin whistle is an incredibly brilliant instrument, it’s one of my favorites, to listen to and to play. It’s just so forgiving. I love the tin whistle, it’s such a simple instrument and it just gives you so much. They are not expensive and they they can give as much as a full set of pipes, that’s really the way I feel about. The tin whistle is an incredible instrument and my style doesn’t really change that much between the two instruments. I don’t think it does, maybe those of you who are listening to me could tell me. I think my piping and my whistle playing are quite similar.
An aspect of your album “The Wild Keys” that stands out is the relaxed tempo, nothing is rushed and there’s a great rhythm. Is that an important element of your approach to Irish music?
The relaxed tempo to my piping is more maybe down to laziness than anything else! Ah no, that’s not true. I think every note has a value and it needs to be allowed a chance to breathe. That album is 15 or 16 or maybe, oh God, that album is 17 years old now! My playing has changed a lot you know, I was maybe quite technical when I made that album and a lot of that technique is gone. I play a lot simpler now and probably even slower again but the older and more mature I get, the more value I’m placing on the individual note, its life and its right to be heard I suppose so that’s why I play slow. I just get more out of that personally and I’m not gonna say it’s easier because it’s not. Maybe it’s even more difficult to play slowly, now don’t get me wrong I also get a great buzz out of playing fast concert pitch loud pipes, hammer and regs, and definitely when I get together with other pipers and you just go buck mad with technique and that’s a great buzz as well it really, really is. But when I’m on my own and I’ve a flat set of pipes like the beautiful C# Jeff or the C Jeffs, just sitting back and letting the notes have their time… it’s just a much more enjoyable experience for me.
In terms of tunes, pipers have some unusual pieces in their repertoire such as “The Fox Chase”. You also play a great version of “The Downfall of Paris”. What do these tunes represent for you?
The Fox Chase and The Downfall of Paris and those kinds of tunes initially represented a challenge and then they represented an opportunity to maybe showcase different skills. Now they represent a bygone era of my youth when I was able to do such things. Maybe not so much The Fox Chase because there’s a lot of weight on that melody, there’s a lot of history to it, there’s a lot going on there. Whereas The Downfall of Paris and those kinds of tunes that I might describe as ‘party pieces,’ and I don’t mean to diminish the value of the music, I mean they’re amazing and important melodies so I don’t mean to just diminish them in calling them ‘party pieces’ but I suppose the trickery that I’m doing on the regulators it is there to impress an audience and to show off a little bit of what it is you can do. And maybe I have moved on a little bit from those kind of things now perhaps maturity or incapability, I’m not sure which, maybe I should try The Fox Chase to answer that question. Maybe I should try playing The Downfall of Paris to answer that question for myself, but for now I leave it you: is it maturity or is incapability that has created that choice!
The uilleann piping tradition seems to be thriving at the moment. What is your opinion on young and upcoming pipers these days?
I teach a lot of lads down here around Limerick and they surprise me. I really don’t want to mention individual names but I cannot move on without mentioning Tove Rose Byers, I think she’s 13/14, she just lives maybe less than a kilometre from me. She just got herself a C set of Derek Gleeson pipes and oh my God she is amazing, she is just a beautiful young musician and she’s gonna do scary things with that set of pipes. It’s been a privilege to be a part of her journey, you know, it really has. I have to be honest, I just stand back. I show her one or two things and I stand back and leave her off and she just does it. She knows what she’s doing, she’s amazing.
I had quite a lot of young brilliant pipers down here. There’s a young fella called Paudie Blackwell, he’s doing amazing things. Actually Paudi Blackwell is at this moment playing that set of pipes that I mentioned that I got with my communion and confirmation money, so he’s using them at the moment and again he’s a wonderful young man. He’s only 10 or 11, something like that, he’s absolutely fantastic. I could list so many brilliant students and that’s just down here, there are pipers all over Ireland and it’s testament to the great work of Na Píobairí Uillleann (The Pipers Club) in Dublin to The Pipers Club in Armagh, these organizations are doing fantastic work and of course to the Online Academy of Irish Music and the work that they do, so yeah there’s amazing piping to be heard.
Finally, regular practice is very important on all instruments. Have you got any practice advice or tips for our students?
Regular practice is important, there is no doubt. Time is precious and that is the key. I particularly address this with my more mature learners. When I was 10, 11, 12 learning how to play the pipes I wasn’t worrying about mortgages. I wasn’t worrying about educating children. I wasn’t worried about paying bills. I was worried about pipes. That was all, I could come home from school strap on a set of pipes for four or five hours and you know nobody said anything until eventually my brothers and sisters would complain to my Mam and Dad because I was wrecking everyone’s head! Then there would be a complaint, so my only concern was how long I could get away with playing them.
For mature learners, we don’t have that luxury of time, we have things to do, distractions, so when you get a chance to put on your pipes don’t waste 20 or 30 minutes trying to get them in tune, just give yourself 5-10 minutes playing them and play something you like. Relax, enjoy it and play something you know you’re good at just to get your head into the right frame of mind. Then there’s ‘targeted practice’. If you’re playing a tune, you’re playing the 1st 8 bars of a tune and you have a problem with bar 7 don’t play it from bar 1 to 7 and then go back and play 1 to 7 again, just play bar 7, fix the problem and then start again.
So focus in on the things that you’re doing wrong, record yourself listen back on yourself and use your time as productively as possible. Remember: patience with yourself that’s the most important thing really. Patience. Focus your practice on the things that are wrong, and that’s difficult to find. Find yourself a teacher or find yourself somebody nearby when you’re playing that’ll say ‘that’s not great maybe you need to work on that’. Although, a lot of these things you should try to figure out for yourself. So listen to the musician that you think is good, listen to yourself and then try and figure out what is it they’re doing that I’m not doing, just pick one thing. It might be a cut on a D, it might be a particular ornament and then work on that one little thing bit by bit, that’s how we get better!
I wish you all the very, very best of luck.
OAIM Courses with Mikie:
Check out Mikie’s Uilleann Pipes Album The Wild Keys:
4 responses to “Mikie Smyth Interview”
Thank you for posting this. Great to get a small glimpse into Mikie’s mind on the pipes..
I believe like many others, Downfall of Paris was my intoduction to Mikie’s playing..
Cheers from Maine,
A nice interview, with some wise words. It was good to have my perjudices reiforced, like never putting your whistles away. I too love the tin whistle and the big version they call the clarinet. Maybe this is the year I get down to learning how to play the tin whistle properly.
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