Notes from a week with Jack Coen

We’re sad to report that Jack Coen passed away in 2012. There’s a great audio interview with Jack from the 2009 Kitchen Sessions series on Clare FM.

“Always play with someone who’s better than you are. That way you can only get better.”
—Jack Coen

Along with about a dozen other flute players, I spent a week in Jack Coen’s flute class at the Irish Arts Week in East Durham, New York in 1997. Jack was on a rigorous schedule and many other musicians wanted to spend time with him, so we didn’t sit down to do a formal interview. But my notes from the class are sprinkled with quotes and tidbits of information that are worth passing on.

Jack Coen was born in Woodford, County Galway and immigrated to the US during the late 1950s. He won the All-Ireland Trio Championship with the late Tipperary box-player Paddy O’Brien and the late fiddler Larry Redican. He performed with the Green Fields of America tour and was awarded the National Heritage Award in 1991 by the National Endowment of the Arts. His playing appears on the classic album “The Branch Line” (Green Linnet) with his brother Charlie Coen on concertina, and on “Warming Up” with Martin Mulhaire, Séamus Connolly, and Felix Dolan (also on Green Linnet). In 2001, Jack released a solo flute album, backed up by his son Jimmy on guitar.

Jack had an enormous store of tunes, many of them rarely played today, and many learned directly from original sources such as Father Kelly, Tommy Whelan, Paddy O’Brien, and Sean Ryan. He taught flute for many years, and his warm, witty personality endeared him to his students and hundreds of fellow musicians. When I met him, he was sharp as a tack in his seventies and playing with gusto, skill, and subtlety. He had a story for every tune he played and had an amazing memory. He is revered by such well-known musicians as Mary Bergin, Willie Kelly, and Billy McComiskey.

Melody was paramount in Jack’s sparsely ornamented playing style. It was a conscious decision on his part: he believed that a tune can be “damaged” or blurred beyond recognition by too much ornamentation. Listening to Jack play, you gain a new appreciation for common tunes: he said his versions of the Earl’s Chair and the two best-known Father Kelly’s reels are true to the original compositions, and I was struck by their unexpected turns. If you’re used to using a lot of ornamentation in your playing, it’s worth listening to recordings of Jack and experimenting with a more melodic style; I believe it requires more skill and musicality to play in this manner. In my own case, Jack’s teaching caused me to re-examine the way I play flute. I can see now that I often used ornamentation as a crutch to get around difficult turns in the melody.

Jack’s preferred pace was slow by today’s standards, although he was perfectly capable of keeping up with a fast pub session. He kept a rock-solid beat, and enjoyed playing slowly enough to savor a melody. I found his music very rich and beautiful, with a forceful tone, strong rhythm, and a quality of gentleness that’s missing from the aggressive approach that you often hear today.

Jack played mostly on an old Wheatstone eight-key flute, although he was breaking in an antique German flute when I met him in 1997. He got a strong, traditional sound on both flutes with lots of overtones. He was familiar with most of the flutes on the market, and had especially nice things to say about Bryan Byrne’s and Patrick Olwell’s flutes. He was quite impressed with the M & E plastic flute that one of the students brought.

Here are a few bits of advice and tips from Jack’s class:

  • Jack observed that most of us opened the topmost tonehole when we played the high D, but said that it’s not necessary and just makes for more work. You can use the same fingering for the high D as the low D: all fingers down. I personally find that my flute “sings” a touch more fully if I open the top hole on the high D, but it would only be noticeable in slow tunes or airs. For dance music it doesn’t matter.
  • Remember to “slack off your breath” and blow easier in the high octave than in the low. The flute is not like a whistle—you don’t get the second octave by blowing harder. Instead, you tighten your embouchure. In Jack’s playing, the low octave sounds slightly louder than the high octave, especially when he heads down to the grand D at the bottom. Speaking of octaves, Jack complained that many of today’s players overblow the low octave so it sounds like the whole tune’s up in the high octave. In Jack’s view, this destroys the melody.
  • On ornamentation: “don’t have your fingers go blooming crazy!”
  • On breathing: “You can always take a breath on a quarter note. You don’t have to, but the option is there if you need it.” Also, Jack said it’s wise to take a breath during the second-to-last bar of the A part or B part of a tune so you can finish strongly.
  • On learning tunes: “Any more than two new tunes a week is too many—you won’t learn them fully.” Jack noted that many people appear to know a lot of tunes, “but they only know them halfway.” Jack gave us 13 tunes during the week we were with him, but said we would probably have to work on them for “years” before we really knew them and played them well.
  • “Play the notes distinctly and get the blur out of it.”
  • “Always play with someone who’s better than you are. That way you can only get better.”