Saturday, January 30, 2010

Irish folk music jam session in a former train station in Germany!

It was a lazy Sunday on January 17th, and a very snowy one. I think the snow is following me around, plaguing places that haven’t seen this much of the white stuff for over 20 years. Around 2pm Angelika and Axel decided it was worth braving the snow to get to their monthly Irish folk music session. We set out in the van, on snowy roads leading through the country and quaint little towns. After 45 or so minutes of driving we arrived at our destination, Kuz Kulturzentrum im Kleinbanhof, a pub rented out by the town of Osterholz-Scharmbeck, that used to be a train station. Where the waiting room used to be sits several rectangular chairs and tables and in the main room a bar lines one side of the room with 8 or so small tables pushed together to make one big table taking up the center of the room. Along another wall is a big fire-burning oven, where roasted apples stuffed with dark chocolate and marzipan (Bratapfel) are waiting to reach the correct consistency to land happily into our tummies.

I awkwardly find a seat at the now large rectangular table across from Angelika, surrounded on both sides by Axel and a girl named Enya to my right, who is the only other person my age. I am the only native English speaking in the room, so mostly I watch everyone’s gestures and facial expressions in order to understand what’s going on around me. While I may not have understood the exact words used with my still limited German vocabulary, it’s surprising how much you can understand without words. Every once in awhile Axel makes a joke in English to me and Angelika relays to me that the apples are ready, a fact that quickly leads to one appearing in a bowl in front of me. Eventually Enya comments that she heard me speaking English and asks where I’m from. We make small talk before everyone starts playing and I think she’s much braver than I, at 18 or so, to play in a room with so many other talented musicians who’re much older and more experienced than her.

There are many fiddle players, guitarists, a man playing the harp and several people playing different types of flutes and wind instruments. Axel is a fiddle player and Angelika mans a flute and a drum called a bodrán. The jam session begins much more informally than I thought. One person starts playing a tune and others join in at their own pace if they know it. Every once in awhile most people know a song and play it to its completion, but mostly it’s a fading in and out of different songs that’s almost mesmerizing to watch. When there’s a lull, someone starts playing up another song and everyone joins in again.

Axel on the fiddle

Angelika on the flute

Angelika on the bodrán

The informality of it astounds me, but not in a bad way. I expected formations, sheet music and music stands, but instead there were a bunch of people sitting around a table together in this station-cum-pub. Playing as they liked, nibbling on apples, cake and tea, making small talk and jokes between songs. A little girl coloring with crayons bursts out crying with a shout of “Nein!” when her Dad breaks up a puzzle she very-much wanted to stay in one piece, and I laugh to Enya next to me, “She really didn’t want that puzzle broken!” Mostly I’m happy I understood the word “No!” in German. If I’m lucky I’ll speak 5 year-old by the time I leave here.

Here's a video of part of the session I took. It's a bit dark and may cause seasickness, but you get the idea!

I realize as I’m listening that I’ve never been taught to play music for fun. Since age 8 or so my teachers and conductors have separated us into categories of the good ones (1st violin), okay ones (2nd violin, first half) and those just good enough to stay around (the back few stands of 2nd violin). I’ve been either required or strongly encouraged to participate in NYSSMA during most of the beginning years of my musical literacy. There was always talk of music scholarships and how only the best can make it in the music business. Conductors telling us how it’s sight-read or die in the big, bad world: a skill I never quite mastered on any of the instruments I’ve played. While all this is fine and well, I wish someone had just put me in a circle and told me to play! If only some small percentage of us will make it anyway, might as well teach us to have fun! To this day it takes all the courage I can muster to try and play in front of anyone, because I’ve been bred with this idea that if you’re not the best (or at least very, very good), then you shouldn’t even bother and you’re just wasting everyone’s time. I don’t think I realized this is why I’m so shy to play or practice in front of anyone until I was sitting in this circle of people just playing music for the joy of it…because they can.

On the drive home in the dark, we talked about Angelika’s Irish friend, a very accomplished dancer and flute-player, who is also in the three-piece band she’s apart of that travels around for gigs throughout Europe now and then. We also talked about stage fright, those delicious baked apples and the difference between a violin and a fiddle. To put it into perspective, a violin is what I expected with those formations and music stands and a fiddle is what I got.

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