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After Hours: the Irish pub musician

With St. Patrick's Day coming up, “After Hours,” a series showcasing faculty and staff who are passionate about their activities beyond the work-a-day world, explores the fun of playing traditional Irish tunes in a pub. Meet Tim Taylor, who, with his flute and encyclopedic knowledge of hundreds of Irish tunes, is welcome at any Irish pub around the world.  
Hear Tim Taylor perform by clicking the arrow.

Timothy Taylor. Photo by Bjarne Rogan.
Name:  Timothy Taylor

Day job:  Professor of ethnomusicology and musicology

Second Life: A fluter with a passion for traditional Irish tunes who plays at a bar in Long Beach, the Auld Dubliner, about 30 Sundays a year.
Tracing his roots back to Land of the Blarney Stone:  “The University of Michigan, where I went to graduate school, had an exchange and fellowship program with several European universities, including the Queen’s University of Belfast. I wanted to go partly because my ancestors came from Northern Ireland to America during the Irish potato famine in the 1850s, and no one in my family had been back.
But mostly, I wanted to go because they had an important scholar, John Blacking, with whom I wanted to study ethnomusicology. So in 1988, I went to Queen’s University of Belfast. I was only in my third year of grad school. Queens had a small music department, so everybody did everything. I played in the orchestra as a classical clarinetist, and I sang in the choir.
The discovery:  “One night, I walked into an Irish bar with some of my music department friends, and we heard people sitting around playing music, drinking beer and talking. I’d never experienced that before. As a classical musician, I thought music was serious. I had no idea that hanging out and playing music could go together.”
Learning a new style: “Pretty quickly, I bought a tin whistle—what people here call a pennywhistle. The fingering is the same as the upper register of the clarinet, so I could just start playing tunes right away. I played them out of books, but it didn’t sound right; they sounded too classical. But, a woman in the foreign students’ dorm had an Irish boyfriend who, whenever he heard me practicing and trying to play, would come in and show me.”

Quality control:  “About 10 years ago, I picked up the flute, which, in certain ways, is a lot harder to play than the tin whistle. Some days I would sound okay; other days I would sound really good. But other days I would sound like crap. It took me probably about seven years before I sounded consistently good.”

Keep 'em dancing:  “There are hundreds of tunes, all very short at about 20-30 seconds long, So you repeat a tune several times, because this music is meant to accompany dancing, and they’re dancing for several minutes at a time. Then you immediately go into another tune without stopping.
Part of the art of playing is being able to think of your next tune while you’re playing another tune, and doing this without a break. When you repeat a tune, you never play it the same way. It’s not that different from jazz improvisation. You have a skeleton of the tune in your head, but you never really play that. The more you play it, the more different you can make it sound.”

A human jukebox:  “Knowing the style matters a lot, but knowing tunes is the name of the game. Irish music is not a ‘jamming’ kind of music. You either know it or you don’t. When I was taking lessons, my teacher taught me about 400 tunes. Most of us prefer to learn by ear.”

A musical passport:  “Whenever I travel, I take the flute, walk into bars and just play. I’ve played in bars in Australia, Paris and all over this country. My family lives in New England, so whenever I visit them in Maine, I take my flute. There are thousands and thousands of tunes out there. Some are very common and known by everybody, so I can walk into a session anywhere in the world and know half to two-thirds of the tunes.”

Playing for the joy of it:  “Inside Ireland and out, the place you’ll hear this music is in a bar — usually an Irish bar where musicians are made welcome, and we just show up and play. It’s not really a performance; there’s no microphone. We’ll sit in a circle, so some people will have their backs to the rest of the people at the bar. We don’t call it a gig or anything; we call it a session. Sometimes somebody will just start dancing.
It’s not a gig where you have to entertain people; you’re playing for yourself and for your fellow musicians.” 
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