Listen & Learn with Ronan Browne

Ronan Browne

In every generation there are those who feel the urge to carry forward the essence of the culture, land and peoples that they are born into and amongst. Ireland’s Ronan Browne is such a person. A renowned piper, musician, composer, teacher, writer and historian, Ronan is not only making efforts to record and promote the traditional music of Ireland but, as the article below exposes, is also discovering and teaching new ways to hear and appreciate the beauty that lies at the core of Irish traditional music, language and culture. The grandson of the renowned Irish singer Delia Murphy, Ronan lives in Conamara with his wife and two children. For more information, kindly view the Ronan Browne links at the bottom of this page.

In the following article, which was originally published on the now defunct Gandharva Loka blog, Ronan Browne writes about the evolution and aims of his music appreciation and listening courses. We are very grateful to have this inspiring article on the Martin Doyle News blog – go raibh maith agat a Rónáin!

LEARN TO LISTEN – LISTEN TO LEARN

Written by Ronan Browne, with photographs by Lieve Boussau.

Synopsis

Essentially Learn to Listen – Listen to Learn is a “music appreciation/listening class” (using sound recordings, pictures and videos) where the students teach themselves how to interpret any piece of music they come across. Instead of lecturing the participants as to what they are listening to, they tell me, learning quickly to think on their own.

I have been running the course in varying lengths from 45 minutes up to 3 days – the longer you do it, the more fun you have…!

Comments from Course Attendees

  • “Broad syllabus covering all aspects of Irish Music with field recordings mixed with commercial tracks.”
  • “Gives a deep insight into music and styles, both regional and individual.”
  • “Listening carefully to the music and exchanging impressions and views with these experienced teachers.”
  • “Concept of people listening in pairs was very successful – it allowed us to begin to think for ourselves and not always rely on the tutors.”
  • “A listening class although equally a class that looks at music history, personalities, notation and funny anecdotes.”
  • “Wide range of music examples – some of them drawn from sources not accessible for the ordinary people.”
  • “Creates a very relaxed accessible atmosphere – no set agenda – where discussion of any subject is allowed.”

Background

Ronan Browne piper

By the mid 1990s I had become disillusioned with teaching ‘master classes’. Many of the same people turned up time after time; they clearly hadn’t applied what I had shared about listening to the master players, or recording and analysing themselves and comparing their efforts with those of the greats who went before them.

A request came in to do another master class and though my heart wasn’t in it I agreed to go, this time to Germany, and meet all the old faces again. As the day of departure grew closer I tried to think of ways I might survive teaching the same old thing to the same old people yet once again!

I began to formulate a (cunning) plan: if I could show them how to think for themselves they might be able to continue on their own, possibly never needing another class in their lives again – EVER!

So, I rummaged through my LPs and transferred particular tracks to tape cassette and, not without trepidation, headed off to Germany.

Germany and the Early Days

Then, as now, the class began in a state of high confusion with the students at a complete loss as to what was happening. I asked them to record the first piece (in this first case a recording of Willie Clancy) over from my little walkman to their own machines, broke them up into pairs and sent them into different rooms with one instruction – to listen. After a few minutes I began to visit from room to room and naturally, saw blank faces all saying:
“Erm… …that was a recording of some fellow playing the pipes?”
“Yes, perfect,” I answered, “but I’d like you to bring it all back to its basics and to become aware of everything you can think of, no matter how small and seemingly inconsequential.”

I then listed off the elements I would have wished them to note down:

  • This is a recording of Irish music
  • The instrument is the Uilleann pipes
  • Playing dance music
  • On flat pitch pipes
  • It is dance music – two reels
  • First reel – three parts, second reel – two parts
  • LP (how do I know? – scratches and clicks audible)
  • Piper – Willie Clancy
  • Personal reaction to the playing – liked it / didn’t like it, exciting / gentle, emotions aroused, etc.
Course participants
Course participants

I explained that I had separated them into pairs so that they would be forced to think and speak as opposed to sitting back quietly in a group situation. They humoured me, nodded sagely, resignedly and we carried on to the next track, going through the same sequence again. Within an hour, it had all sunk in and they were recognising almost everything – they were able to identify what was taking place even in detailed multi-instrumental arrangements. By the end of the day, all felt that they were hearing much of the music clearly for the first time in their lives (and they didn’t mind that they wouldn’t be signing up for master classes given by Ronan Browne ever again, hopefully not from anybody else either!)

Bowled over by how well the class went, I went home drunk on my success and didn’t think about it again for nearly ten years!

The Willie Clancy Summer School at Miltown Malbay

Ronan Brown and Seán Corcoran
Ronan Brown with Seán Corcoran

In 2004, following many declined requests to teach again, I embarked on upgrading my idea to a greater pool of musical pieces and spoke to Na Píobairí Uilleann about putting on a class at the Willie Clancy Summer School. I asked singer and collector Seán Corcoran [of CRAN] to join me and he brought a great stock of songs plus insight to the table. We ran the class for three afternoons and again it was a huge success, this time using personal CD players and headphones for each pair – I had a frantic preceding month gathering CD Walkmans and buying headphone-splitters in bulk. Two CDs were burned for each machine and little copybooks plus biros were provided. In hindsight, it was all a little over-the-top, cumbersome and un-wieldy but when I get an idea in my head…

A new element surfaced this time: after sharing everyone’s thoughts on a piece of music, they began to ask about the musician or singer in question – background information, social context and their place in the world of traditional music, song and dance. This soon became a significant part of the course with students saying that it was wonderful to share our personal knowledge of people and times which they could never experience themselves. An equal and opposite element is that we find it fascinating to hear what they feel, rationally and emotionally, about the pieces they encounter – like Stoker’s vampires, we experience the ‘real’ world vicariously through our students!

We held the course again in 2005, this time in the computer room in the West Clare Resource Centre, Miltown Malbay. Having the use of the computers was a huge advantage – by this time I had amassed a larger collection of pieces and having instant access to any of the tracks allowed the course to take on a new life, being able to jump quickly from any one piece to another. But it was all still a little cumbersome and I had to install software on to a computer; what I needed was a laptop…

Refining the Class

In that same year of 2005 the Irish Arts Council suddenly recognised Irish ‘traditional’ culture for the first time with a programme of funding called DEIS. The idea here was that we could apply for funding for almost any project with a commitment on the part of the Arts Council to try to understand what we do – big change! I immediately applied and a few months later was set up with a laptop and a small set of speakers! What lovely nice helpful people, the Arts Council…!

Ronan Browne

Since 2005, I have run the class in various universities, festivals and schools. The format (and even the first 5 pieces of music) remains largely unchanged from that first 1995 class in Germany although I never sent them off into separate rooms again – I had originally felt that it would be good for each pair to embark on the journey of discovery in isolation but as soon as we ran the first day of the 2004 course, I realised that the group dynamic allowed people to learn much more than if they were isolated.

Back in 1995, I knew that in any group you will have talkers and quiet listeners. My theory with regard to pairing people was that in a group, the talkers will talk (no problem there) but the listeners will only listen; they then won’t develop their ability to interpret – or express their reactions to – the music, both skills essential to being a happy, fulfilled participant in the wonderful jolly world of Irish Music! When broken into pairs, while you may have one person talking more than the other, the quiet one will invariably be brought out into the conversation. I decided against threes as you are sure to have two talking and one sitting mute. Time has shown that the system of pairs works excellently!

Format and How It Works

  • I play a recording or a video or show a picture but do no more. Working with no input from me requires them to think for themselves and to commit to those thoughts.
  • Working in pairs, they discuss for a few minutes what they just heard or saw, writing notes as they go along if they wish. By working in pairs, they bring each other along, and don’t get stuck.
  • We open to the floor, with them saying what “happened”. Opening to the floor allows everyone’s ideas to be shared.
  • At this point I join the discussion to agree/disagree, adding any information which has been missed along the way. This can lead anywhere, to more examples or new directions.
  • With each subsequent piece, their powers of perception improve.

The Future

Ronan Browne

I envisage many ongoing possibilities, especially in the area of education where we need more Irish music on the curriculum. Modern technology already allows the use of pre-recorded DVDs, combined with printed booklets and the internet where a course could be set and even examined throughout. Imagine if all young Irish people were exposed to Irish music in such a way, where they could interact with it on so many levels and see it for the vibrant, living and exciting way of life that it is!

Ronan Browne Links

Postscript

Ever the reflective type, Ronan penned a heart-felt postscript to this article that can be viewed here: Afterthoughts from Ronan Browne »

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  1. Pingback: Afterthoughts from Ronan Browne | News - Martin Doyle Flutes

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