An Interview with Garry Shannon
Interview conducted in July, 2000
Garry Shannon is the eldest of a celebrated musical family that includes accordion-player Sharon Shannon and banjo-player Mary Shannon of “The Bumblebees.”
Garry won the senior All-Ireland flute title in 1988, has played with a number of respected groups (he is now a member of the legendary Kilfenora Ceili Band), and has recorded two solo albums.
Details on Garry’s biography and discography may be found on his website. Recordings also may be ordered through the site.
Garry’s solo CD, “Loozin ‘air,” includes a great mix of tunes, all played with style, humor, agility, and gusto.
Q: You come from a very musical family, and there must have been quite a variety of instruments around the house. What drew you to the flute?
A: I’m the eldest and started whistle aged eight. There were neither musicians nor instruments in the immediate family. My sisters Majella, Sharon, and Mary began after me when they in turn reached the age of 8.
Didn’t change to a decent instrument (fiddle) til age 13. At that stage, it was a very long road to have to go back to square one. Though playing fiddle, I longed to play a flute because of its similarity to whistle. My father brought me to order one from flutemaker Bruce Du Vé in Spiddal when I was 16. Bruce introduced us to his new wife Mary…Bergin! (the first time I’d even heard of her). Once I got started on the flute, the fiddle took a back seat and I finally discarded it aged 19, not before using it on my first recording gig – with St. Flannan’s Céilí Band – an album called “Reunion” which featured past pupils of my school such as Tony Linnane & Noel Hill, Gearóid ó hAllmhuráin and Paul Roche, flute player with Stocton’sWing whom I still rate very highly. These people were gods and it proved a seminal experience.
Q: The first thing that struck me about your playing on the new CD was your musical inventiveness: you have a great ear for variations and twists on a tune. You also sprinkle in a few chromatic variations, reminding me a bit of Niall Keegan and Joe Skelton. Can you tell us how you approach variations in a tune? Do you get an idea in your head and work it out on the flute, or do the variations come out in your fingers on the fly — or is it a little of both?
A: It’s the latter. When playing in a concert or session, most of the variations are instinctive as I react to the other players. I’m fully aware that some of the session variations wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste but I get a great buzz from such mischief. When recording, on the other hand, most of the embellishment is planned. I’m very clinical in studio.
The two players you mention can achieve very complex arpeggio-based variations, comfortably involving chromatics etc. without a safety net. They are more naturally adept at improvisation than me.
Q: Your album has a nice blend of the solidly traditional (the Micho Russell tunes and the set of reels with Eamonn Cotter, Peter O’Loughlin, and Kevin Crawford) with more modern touches such as a few Finnegan-esque tongued triplets (or quintuplets!) and the above-mentioned chromatic variations. Obviously you are able to play both ways and you can adjust your playing style to the setting and the company. The debate about “maintaining the tradition” versus “it’s a living tradition” has been done to death, but do you have any views about what kinds of techniques or styles are “appropriate” in Irish flute playing?
A: Each new generation sits on the shoulders of predecessors and reaches new heights of excellence. I admire Peter’s generation for the advances they made during their era and I admire Finnegan & co. 50 years later for the same reason.
I do feel though that the trad. enthusiast is alienated by those who confuse him with overuse of chromatics and over elaborate departures from the melody. The player himself may enjoy turning the tune into a variations exercise but he will please only himself. Some such players are so preoccupied with melodic improvisation that other technical aspects like consistency of rhythm and tempo suffer, in which case the performance sounds to the listener like a “jumble of notes”. It could be that I am guilty of this myself. I don’t know coz I can’t hear myself as others hear me.
So I approve of all innovatory ornaments, especially if they’re judiciously used to enhance rather than to destroy.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about the flute(s) you play on the album? The flute you use on the Micho Russell tunes sounds like a foghorn — is that a different flute or were you just blowing it differently?
A: I played a Bruce Du Vé flute for about 10 years before changing to the present instrument made by Brendan McMahon who lives in Ennis – still making fine flutes, now in his 70s. I also have an E flat flute by Hammy Hamilton, an F flute by Hawkes & Son and a piccolo by Brendan. I very rarely use these. On the “Loozin ‘air” album, I play the Brendan McMahon D flute on all tracks.
Q: In a related question, it looks like you play left-handed, like many other Irish flute players I’ve met. If so, did you have your flute custom-made so you could get at the keys?
A: I’m a right handed person but, as a beginner whistle player, I knew no better than to put my right hand on top and nobody corrected me. I have other bad habits, none of which I can kick. I rest the flute on my shoulder, my right thumb presses in from the side instead of supporting the flute. My upper hand is straight fingered (the latter is an advantage in some situations such as doing a, b & c rolls). The flute had to be custom made because of the left handedness and also the straight fingeredness. I can’t play anybody else’s flute.
Q: You teach flute yourself. Can you offer any general tips or suggestions for beginning (or experienced) flute players? Are there any common mistakes that beginning flute players need to watch out for?
A: I tell all my pupils to look closely at me…and do the exact opposite!
Don’t play left handed, straight fingered, or on the shoulder.
Learn by ear as early as possible. One thus internalizes the tune and then plays it from the heart.
Play regularly with a sociable group who have a limited repertoire of standard tunes which they perform for recreation.
Don’t buy a very cheap flute. It will have tone or pitch problems.
If the musicians and the music itself don’t become part of your social life, you will not last.
Q: Who are some of your favorite flute players and what do you like about their playing?
A: My early hero was Paul Roche of Stocton’s Wing. One of the best. Cannot persuade him to do a solo album. “Where’s the point?”, he says, “if one can’t produce something better than Molloy’s black album”.
Molloy is God. I deliberately avoid listening to him in case I subconsciously start to copy him.
I envy Niall Keegan’s virtuosity. I mightn’t want to do everything he does with tunes but I dearly wish I were able.
I find Brian Finnegan’s perfectionism and his tongueing technique awesome.
I feel I’ve plenty to learn from the playing of such as Tom Doorley, Mike McGoldrick and Desi Wilkinson who all have something different, yet exceptional to contribute.
I loved Micho Russell’s whistle and flute playing – all bound up with his quaint personality. You had to hear him live.
I aspire to the durability of Paddy “Organ” Mullins of the Old Kilfenora band. Rock solid. Played flute til he was 80. Still plays whistle.
Youngster to watch: Michael King from Limerick. Remember who told you first!
Flute player with whom I most enjoy playing: Anthony Quigney, my wind partner in the Kilfenora Céilí Band.
Q: What projects are you working on now? Do you have any touring plans? Can we expect a Kilfenora Ceili Band album anytime soon?
A: I just completed an M.A. in traditional Irish Music performance during which I wrote a thesis on the origin of the Kilfenora. It whetted my appetite for writing and I intend to do more. I do seminars/lectures on various topics relating to Irish music (see my Web site). I have a notion to do a lilting album. People seem to really enjoy the oul’ “didling”. I occasionally produce albums for other musicians. I enjoy helping the Ennis Céilí Band in the Fleádh competitions every Summer. I might do some of the festival circuit next Summer (I have until Autumn to decide). The Kilfenora are currently in rehearsal for the next album. Should happen over the next few months.