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User Name Thread Name Subject Posted
lisa null virtuosity and traditional music (103* d) RE: virtuosity and traditional music 12 Mar 07

Well I guess this response is mostly intended for Mike Miller as he posed a question and, in a sense, a debate.

Mike, I couldn't agree more with you that formal performances -- paid gigs in front of an audience-- demand skills that are quite different from those demanded of a performer sitting around swapping stories, songs, and tunes with friends. For more than 20 years, since I got off the road, I've been doing just that -- helping to conjure up magical evenings with friends from the Folklore Society of Greater Washington. That is quite a different task than winning a group of festival goers at, say, the Winnipeg Festival.

Skills necessary for larger than life moments at a festival might not translate easily into my neighbor's living room, anymore than the stuff I do in a livingroom belongs on the big stage. But the smaller, informal places for sharing are where the songs I sing were sustained for generations. They demand performance skills of their own.

The informal sharing of music has been good for me, and my role models have shifted increasingly to those singers who excelled within community contexts and kept the music going among friends and family until "discovered."

When I go back on the road again--and I am plotting a return to performing--you bet I'll be looking again at people who have mastered the art of stage performance-- balancing repertoire, vocal hygiene, timing, humor, good intros -- all will become important to me once more, even if I focus on house concerts and intimate venues. But I have learned a lot from the informal singers too,

The indivudual singers you mentioned in your post are all incredible to me.

When I first heard Joe Heaney, I had no idea what I was about to witness -- I wandered mistakenly into an auditorium looking for a poetry reading at the local Y and left with something close to a "born again" experience. I had goose bumps, a lump in my throat, and felt that I had just heard the history of a noble people wrapped up in a few songs. Maybe he didn't give me a conventionally good time, but he brought me into a world I'd never have known existed without him. He awakened a deep love of Irish music. Later in life, emphysema knocked out some of the "virtuosity" of his singing but none of the artistry. He became a guide and teacher to many of us. Maybe he didn't always have the ability to move a mass audience (though I've seen him do this), but the intensity with which he could always shake the souls of a few beyond all measure seems a worthy trade-off.

Sara Cleveland is another marvel -- I only knew her after her accident, and I'm told her voice had a lot of power and timbre and lyrical beauty earlier in her life. When I first heard her, I had scant knowledge of American traditions of singing other than those from Appalachia. I was oblivious to the strengths and weaknesses of her voice but completely caught up in her songs. I can remember hearing each one she sang back then as well as her introductions. I barreled my way right over to sit with her and drink at the fountain. She did not teach me how to vocalize, but she certainly taught me about taste, restraint in ornamentation, and letting the tune and words come forward. She thought a lot about these things. Maybe her music was not meant for a coloseum, but she conveyed a tremendous amount of wisdom, assurance, and delight in her material. Is this virtuosity -- for a singer?

I think so.

The proof was that she could continue to inspire even when her breath was short and her range, minimal. Also, having a limited memory myself, I was staggered by the breadth of her repertoire -- memory counts a lot for a singer. You should know-- I believe you too know lots and lots of songs. That must give you a lot of flexibility no matter where you perform. Sara Cleveland wore at least a hundred or two hundred songs like a glove.

Saul Broudy? -- well, Saul has been such a good friend over the years, it's hard to write objectively about him. On the other hand, maybe admiration preceded my friendship. Are there more elaborate guitarists? Yes. Are there people who do even more with a harmonica? Maybe (though not many-- and certainly none who can play it more tenderly). There are few singers with a more exhuberant, clear, and unerring voice--all his energy snaps into focus when he sings.

How many other singers can communicate the stylistic DNA of a song with more economy, timing, understanding, wit, spirit? Saul taught me how to listen to music -- any music, all music -- how to latch onto the signature riffs, the uncanny things that make a song unique. He would imitate those things as we listened -- and later those observations would translate themselves into his singing-- almost a Haiku of music that had once been blowsier and more elaborate.

I'd say that's a very special kind of virtuosity and, no, it does not interfere with authenticity--- Saul IS music-- he has given his life to his music, doing his thing his way.
Perhaps his greatest gift is the ability to listen and express the very marrow of a song or a tune -- not many singers know how to do that.

He could sing the phonebook and probably has! That's another kind of virtuosity too.

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