An Interview with Eamonn Cotter
“To get a good tone you need a tight embouchure. You need to practice tone separately from everything else. Play long notes, and keep adjusting your embouchure until you get a nice tone.”
Many thanks to Rachel Marsh, a flute player from North Devon, England, who graciously agreed to interview Eamonn Cotter at the 1998 Willie Clancy Summer School in Miltown Malbay. Rachel also transcribed the interview.
Eamonn Cotter is a highly respected flute player, maker, and teacher from Kilmaley, County Clare. He plays with the popular group Shaskeen. He has released two solo recordings: “Eamonn Cotter: Traditional Music from County Clare,” and (in 2012) “The Knotted Chord.” Eamonn teaches privately and at workshops and summer schools, including the Willie Clancy Summer School.
Here’s Eamonn’s own description of his recorded work:
“The first recording I did was an album just released on tape in 1979 with the school band that I’d been with for 5 years – that was at St Flanaghan’s College which I attended from 1972 to 1977. That was a great school for musicians; I studied with Noel Hill, Paul Roche, many well known musicians.
“We all played together in a ceili band for those few years. The school decided to release an album to commemorate some centenary they had to celebrate the foundation of the school. It was just released on tape. It’s a very good album; it’s a shame they don’t release it on CD. It was recorded at Windmill Lane studio in Dublin; it’s a famous studio now but it was in its early days then. Since then I’ve recorded with Shaskeen Ceili Band; I also did a solo on The Mouse Behind the Dresser, which is a very well-distributed album. Of course there’s my own solo album which was released two years ago in 1996. It’s gone fairly well, I got pretty good reviews, I was surprised. Naturally you’d expect with an album like that you would get some negative vibes; maybe people are being too nice to me. I’ve been braced for it, but I haven’t got any yet for some reason — maybe they feel I wouldn’t be able to take it!”
Q: Would you describe some of your musical beginnings? Who were your early influences? Did you start out with flute, whistle, or something else?
A: I come from a musical family. My mother has been teaching classical piano for over 50 years now. My sister Geraldine, who is on the album, plays tin whistle and published a book with Ossian many years ago — the Tin whistle Tutor, which has travelled the world. It’s like O’Neill’s book at this stage. My brother Kieran plays concertina… all my family play. I started off initially with the piano, naturally because there were two pianos in the house. I took to the whistle more; maybe it was just the fact that my mother was teaching me the piano and we didn’t always hit it off that well — which is the normal thing. There were whistles around the house, and I took to the whistle. We had plenty of recordings of Wagner and Beethoven and the usual classical recordings.We only had one traditional album (I’m talking about the late ’60s): we had the first Chieftains Album, which I learnt all the tunes from by ear. I could slow down the speed of the record; it was totally out of tune but I could get every nuance of it. That was the benefit of the old records. Then in the ’70s there was the Bothy Band of course, and Matt Molloy and Tommy Peoples had been coming round to Ennis, where I’m from, for years and I was amazed at Matt’s ability to play the flute: he was so far ahead of anyone else at the time. Saying that, I was mostly influenced by fiddle players.
Q: Is there much of a flute-playing tradition in Clare? Obviously there’s Peter O’Loughlin, but in my mind I associate Clare more with fiddle, concertina, and pipes. Have those instruments influenced your playing style?
A: Apart from Peter O’Loughlin and Paddy O’Donoghue down in Shannon, it wasn’t a strong flute playing county. It was mostly concertina and fiddle and a few accordian players, you know.
Q: Like Paddy Carty and Catherine McEvoy, your flute playing is very melodic. Many players today seem to focus more heavily on ornamentation, with the result that the melody sometimes is obscured. Would you tell us what attracts you to a more melodic style?
A: When you’re surrounded by fiddle players, your style is influenced more by fiddle playing. That’s where the melodic influence comes into it, the phrasing, the lack of punctuation, and more legato, because that’s the music I grew up with. If I was in Sligo or Leitrim I would have been influenced by other flute players and that’s where the tacking side would have come in. I wasn’t familiar with that style. It’s not in my character anyway, it wouldn’t reflect my personality to play with that type of power. I mean I do have stamina but it’s much more subdued.
The energy is there, but when I play flute I think fiddle. I do pick up the fiddle from time to time, but I’m a very bad fiddle player and I usually clear the house. A lot of my repertoire would be from Bobby Casey, P.J. Hayes, Paddy Canny, Peter O’Loughlin. One flute player I was very influenced by was Paddy Carty, because Paddy played that kind of legato style; maybe in sessions he played differently, but on his recording with Mick O’Connor on the banjo he plays a melodic style and I was very much taken by that.
Q: You’re also an accomplished flute maker. Please tell us about your flutes: are they replicas of earlier models or have you come up with your own design? What qualities are you aiming for in your flutes?
A: Well initially it started off as a hobby. I had an engineering workshop, and I’ve beeen working all my life with machines and metal and welding, as my father before me. I took over my father’s business. It started as a hobby and it became an obsession very fast. I wound down the engineering and did more and more experimentation. I started off reproducing old instruments, Rudall and Rose and Prattens, but I decided eventually that a lot of the old instruments had built-in faults with tuning — they are consistently out of tune on the first octave, on the F#, and the A is slightly sharp, and it’s hard to explain to people why you reproduce a flute that slightly out of tune. The intruments I make now are exactly to A440. They are perfectly in tune in a good strong first and second octave. They are made specifically for Irish traditional music. If people wanted my flutes for early classical music and they wanted to play a lot in the third octave then I would have to redesign them; I would have to compensate. I am also aiming for good intonation, where you can get a comfortable embouchure without having to tighten your lips too much and at the same time where you can run up and down easily, and also a good resonating bottom D, everyone wants that. I think I have achieved that at this stage — I’m getting good vibes about them. I play my own flutes, and did so at the recital last night. (Flute and Whistle Recital, Willie Clancy Summer School 1998)
Q: There’s a growing concern about the future availability — and environmental correctness — of African Blackwood (grenadilla, m’pingo) for flute making. What do you think? Are supplies likely to start running short anytime soon?
A: Yes that’s going to be a problem, maybe not today or tomorrow but certainly in the future.
Q: Should flute makers start using other materials that don’t have such an impact on rainforests?
A: Well I’m certainly not going to go down the road of synthetic products.There are some intrument makers who have decided to go that way, but I think I’ll go back to the engineering work if I have to resort to Polly Pink or one of those synthetic products. I like boxwood, and I have it, but for some reason people don’t look for it. I have it as an option. Roger Sherlock plays a boxwood flute, and it has a lovely mellow tone.
People are looking for power and volume now, and you probably don’t get that on a boxwood flute. I tried rosewood once or twice, but it doesn’t agree with some people, and it smells, too. I tried maple too, but it’s a bit soft, and cocus wood, but that’s very expensive to get. When it gets to the stage where blackwood is impossible to get I’ll have to reassess like everyone else.
Q: What sort of flute do you recommend for beginners? Are keyless flutes a good idea, or do you think people should start right out with a 6- or 8-key instrument so they learn how to use them from the start?
A: Well keyless, really. If you’re talking about children or teenagers you have to consider the weight of the flute, and a big 6-keyed flute can be a bit cumbersome for an 11 or 12 year old. A lot of the Sligo-Leitrim players never use keys anyway — it’s an unmacho thing to be using keys anyway up in that side of the country. I mean, I use keys, but a lot of the professional players don’t. I don’t even give the bottom C and C# as an option on my flutes because I don’t like the mechanism; I think it’s too cumbersome. It looks beautiful, but for Irish music it’s not very practical; it’s too noisy and you have to put a fair bit of pressure on the keys. When I was recording my album I had to take them off the flute because I kept hitting [the touch] with my small finger and it was coming out on the digital recording.
Q: Would you provide a few general tips for beginning players?
A: To get a good tone you need a tight embouchure. You need to practice tone separately from everything else. Play long notes, and keep adjusting your embouchure until you get a nice tone. Record yourself, play your jig or reel and listen back and you’ll soon know whether you’ve got a good tone or not. The flute is one of the few instruments where you have total control over the quality of the tone of the instrument. You could be given a Rudall and Rose but if you haven’t got a good embouchure the tone will be lousy. Every aspect of Irish music should be practiced separately. To play reels for an hour or two in the evening isn’t going to make a good flute player; you have to practice each aspect of flute playing. In my classes, I emphasise the physical aspects of it — the use of the diaphragm, power, stamina, and how you can play for three or four hours and not end up on the floor. Play a note for as long as you can to build up your diaphragm. When I play with Shaskeen we play for three or four hours continuously.
If you come from a classical flute to a wooden flute, I find people are used to playing with more restraint. The wooden flute is a completely different instrument: it needs to be played with more energy, it doesn’t respond as easily as the Boehm system metal flute, and you just need more power, you have to drive it out a bit more.
With ornamentation, practice that on its own. Make sure you have the right fingering and the right technique first, and practice slowly and build your speed up. Put very few rolls in jigs, because when you put a roll in a jig it takes up half a bar — and you’re losing a lot of the basic tune. In a lot of ways it’s a question of taste. Cranning, well, it’s advisable to stay away from it in a lot of ways: it’s very hit and miss, it’s a piping ornament really and it’s very hard. It can work out fine at the back of the stage, but when you go out to perform it — you know… And that’s a common feature with that ornamentation. I think in recordings… I’m sure there’s some editing done to get in the cranning — it just doesn’t work out when you want it to work.