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PostPosted: Tue Aug 18, 2020 3:10 pm 
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david_h wrote:
Nanohedron wrote:
Do you have less of this trouble when you work from notation?
What trouble? We are not born knowing where the notes are. I manage pretty well now with tunes in most modes and one or two sharps which is all I need on whistle/unkeyed flute.

That wasn't the impression I was getting from you.

david_h wrote:
My initial post was pointing out what you put in half a sentence took me a few months. During that time it was encouraging to hear others say that it might not be easy, otherwise I might have given up.

And it's evident that you'd read too much into that half sentence. I was only talking about ear learning - period. The rest was incidental to that, but apparently it was not incidental to you. In short, you lost my track, and went on yours. But since we're now on your track, let me repeat myself: I never said anything was easy. My point is that if you know there's a road, you can have direction. The rest is however much effort it takes - and TBH, as a beginner I was never really interested in that; especially when starting out, difficulty and effort are always a given, so it's simply something to be shouldered. You get on with it.

But that has nothing to do with ear learning itself.

david_h wrote:
I don't read music. Not in the way I do English text. More like at primary school running a finger along the page and joining up the syllables. Certainly not like these folks who can hear what they see or just somehow play from the score. I can decode it though, and transcribe what I can play, so I get by.

That's pretty much my level, too. :)

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PostPosted: Tue Aug 18, 2020 3:44 pm 
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PB+J wrote:
Person to person, I think learning by ear is better, but if I have to choose between a recording or the written notes, I often prefer the written notes. Partly that's because the recorded player is often eager to trot out his ornaments and variations and I feel like I need a simple version of the tune first.


Nanohedron wrote:
PB+J wrote:
... if I have to choose between a recording or the written notes, I often prefer the written notes. PArtly that's becaue the recorded playerr is often eager to trot out his ornaments and variations and I feel like I need a simple version of the tune first.

Yeah, that can be an issue. In Trad we speak of the "bones" of a tune - its fundamental, pared-down essence - and whether by dots or ear, that's what one wants to grab, not being distracted by a performer's special encrustations and variations. It gets easier the longer you're at it, but sometimes a recording is so free-wheeling that it's hard to pin down what the new tune's bones actually are. Or sometimes the tune is so naturally complex and acrobatic, and I'm so impatient, that I'll go to the dots and memorize that way. In my case that's the exception, but it's why I learned the dots in the first place: a backup system for those special cases.

A tune's bones give you a blank slate, if you will, to work out your own ornaments, breathing, and variations. That's the way it should be: you make the tune your own. Because notation is usually ornament-free, it can to a limited degree be compared to having the bones, but it's really not the same thing, since every example is going to be someone's version of the tune. Not that that's a bad thing; it's just that the bones go deeper. In the end, you go with what works for you, but I recommend finding the bones as good exercise for the ear.


Yes. I think my preferred method is to read the notes, and also listen to see how the tune goes (preferably to multiple recordings). Then I know I understand the basics before I go too far in and can know I have it "correct" from the bottom up.

(I am the same way about language. If I need to learn a new word, I prefer to see it written, rather than being at the mercy of the pronunciation of whoever is teaching it to me and my own ears...)

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PostPosted: Tue Aug 18, 2020 5:14 pm 
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Katharine wrote:
I think my preferred method is to read the notes, and also listen to see how the tune goes (preferably to multiple recordings). Then I know I understand the basics before I go too far in and can know I have it "correct" from the bottom up.

There's something to be said for that approach. But - and this is not to naysay the dots - one has to be sure one doesn't have a faulty copy, and as you've indicated, comparing by way of listening, or other copies, is paramount. Here's an example of unknowingly relying on bad copy: One guitarist (classically trained, and not a regular, but she would periodically visit our sessions) absolutely had to use sheet music, and there was a set of dots she had for one jig - I no longer remember which, but it was well known and one of those that come with a quirk or two in it - but her backup didn't work, and this was a recurring thing with her and this particular tune. I told her once again what the right chords should be, but she wasn't buying it; she protested that she was following the notation. So I finally had a look for myself, and sure enough, there it was: an incorrect key signature. It was simply missing a sharp that should normally have been there. She thought her training made her equal to all tasks, so Trad to her was just another feather among others to put in her cap, and no real familiarity was needed on her part so long as she had sheet music. But with that approach, the poor lady had no way of knowing that her source was defective.

Had she been able to use her ears, she would have heard that the melody players were at odds with what she was doing. That should have been her first clue. But until my discovery about the key signature, she was in stubborn thrall to the mistaken belief that notation will by definition be beyond human error, and be correct every time, no matter how wrong it sounds. Now she knows better.

But similar situations can befall the ear learner: learning a nonstandard key or setting to a tune you don't otherwise know. I've done that with keys - Mother's Delight in Em, Pull the Knife And Stick It Again in Am, The Colliers in D, and more. It's fine for recordings and performances, but at sessions people get testy. As for settings, one fiddler initially learned his Tatter Jack Walsh from the first track of Larry Nugent's The Windy Gap, and tried trotting that out at a session - not for variety's sake, but believing it was a session-standard version. Boy, was he embarrassed. But what got me was that this was no beginner, and the likelihood of him not knowing TJW outside of the Nugent treatment was so vanishingly small, that it was a complete surprise to me. The only possible explanation was that live playing would have been his only other source for it, and by accident of sheer coincidence, people must never have played it when he was on hand. TJW was no rare tune around here, I can tell you, so those are crazy odds.

So, yes. Listening to multiple recordings and live players is a darned good idea when you're learning a tune.

Whatever your sources, caveat emptor.

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 19, 2020 6:50 am 
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Nanohedron wrote:
Katharine wrote:
I think my preferred method is to read the notes, and also listen to see how the tune goes (preferably to multiple recordings). Then I know I understand the basics before I go too far in and can know I have it "correct" from the bottom up.

There's something to be said for that approach. But - and this is not to naysay the dots - one has to be sure one doesn't have a faulty copy, and as you've indicated, comparing by way of listening, or other copies, is paramount. Here's an example of unknowingly relying on bad copy: One guitarist (classically trained, and not a regular, but she would periodically visit our sessions) absolutely had to use sheet music, and there was a set of dots she had for one jig - I no longer remember which, but it was well known and one of those that come with a quirk or two in it - but her backup didn't work, and this was a recurring thing with her and this particular tune. I told her once again what the right chords should be, but she wasn't buying it; she protested that she was following the notation. So I finally had a look for myself, and sure enough, there it was: an incorrect key signature. It was simply missing a sharp that should normally have been there. She thought her training made her equal to all tasks, so Trad to her was just another feather among others to put in her cap, and no real familiarity was needed on her part so long as she had sheet music. But with that approach, the poor lady had no way of knowing that her source was defective.

Had she been able to use her ears, she would have heard that the melody players were at odds with what she was doing. That should have been her first clue. But until my discovery about the key signature, she was in stubborn thrall to the mistaken belief that notation will by definition be beyond human error, and be correct every time, no matter how wrong it sounds. Now she knows better.

But similar situations can befall the ear learner: learning a nonstandard key or setting to a tune you don't otherwise know. I've done that with keys - Mother's Delight in Em, Pull the Knife And Stick It Again in Am, The Colliers in D, and more. It's fine for recordings and performances, but at sessions people get testy. As for settings, one fiddler initially learned his Tatter Jack Walsh from the first track of Larry Nugent's The Windy Gap, and tried trotting that out at a session - not for variety's sake, but believing it was a session-standard version. Boy, was he embarrassed. But what got me was that this was no beginner, and the likelihood of him not knowing TJW outside of the Nugent treatment was so vanishingly small, that it was a complete surprise to me. The only possible explanation was that live playing would have been his only other source for it, and by accident of sheer coincidence, people must never have played it when he was on hand. TJW was no rare tune around here, I can tell you, so those are crazy odds.

So, yes. Listening to multiple recordings and live players is a darned good idea when you're learning a tune.

Whatever your sources, caveat emptor.

Yeah, I have a tendency to compare sources for dots as well. I'm more likely to trust stuff I find on TheSession, in published books, etc., but sometimes I'll still compare (easy to do on TheSession since there are often multiple versions, but that's also why I check; see next bit). Especially if I just find it on the internet... I like to make sure it's not "Oh I transcribed this from the way such-and-such band plays it and they've modified it and do it in a strange key."

(Seems a bit strange to me though that a musician wouldn't notice their key is totally different than everyone else, though! Did this guitar player seem to have a listening problem otherwise?? Or maybe she couldn't hear herself over the other instruments? I guess I don't play guitar that much and have never really backed anyone but myself, so maybe it's easier to not notice than I think, but... I don't think so! Not long ago I and a friend were collaborating on a recording and I was adding guitar to what she already recorded and it was painfully obvious to me that the guitar wouldn't stay in tune... never mind if I had the wrong chords altogether! {Now, I've had times I've been playing whistle and it hasn't jived, and I maybe can't figure out precisely why, but I know it's off. I admit I've had a few times when I'll be playing with someone and the whistle is wrong, so I pick up another and it works, and I say "wait, what key did you say this is in?" "We're playing in C." "Then why does it work on my A whistle???" I've yet to figure that one out; need to study this some time. I don't have perfect pitch so I don't know the key on the fly...)

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 19, 2020 7:05 am 
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"We're playing in C." "Then why does it work on my A whistle???"


Perhaps you automatically half hole the sharps to be in tune..... :)

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 19, 2020 7:58 am 
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Irish traditional music, the "trad nation," is strongly built around what benedict anderson called "imagined community." Ideally we all learned tunes from Willie Clancy or someone who learned them from someone like Willie. In the Seamus Tansey version the more rustic and rural the better. The ideal is face to face transmission of tunes. It's a lovely ideal and of course it does happen, but mountainy farmers are thin on the ground here inside the DC beltway, and so I go to recordings, which as mentioned often involve some really good player showing off everything he or she can do, and my feeling is "excuse me sir could you just show me the tune? Oh right, you are just a recording."

So I go to "the Session" and a few other sources for a bare bones version, which for me means mostly un-ornamented, and beyond that I look for one with an "internal logic" that I can grasp and build on. To me the key is less emulating someone else and more finding the "key" to the tune, or the core of its musical claims. I'm working on "Sean Sa Cheo" and "the Old Bush," both of which give me fits in terms of figuring out where the music is, if that makes sense. If I could sit down with a good player who played it at dances for years, it would be pretty easy. But that community isn't here.

In my research on Francis O'Neill you could really see the longing for community. O'Neill was always nostalgically longing for a community back in Ireland that certainly never quite existed the way he depicted it, and he stalked around Chicago in a police uniform, sending his subordinates to collect tunes by whatever means including a kind of bullying and intimidation. He's driven by a specific kind of imagined community but he ends up building a very different community, based on standardized and fixed forms of tunes.

The injunction that we should learn by ear is good advice and a good ear is crucial to develop, but most of us don't live in the world of face to face community--ESPECIALLY now, or until there's a vaccine. :)


Last edited by PB+J on Wed Aug 19, 2020 8:47 am, edited 1 time in total.

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 19, 2020 9:29 am 
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I think you use the resources available to you as best you can. Be they written, recorded, in person of whatever. You find the best ways to feed the hunger. The old musicians took their tunes wherever they found them, records, radio or written, no reason to not do the same and use whatever we have now.

Immersion is important, listening to music and, if possible, the company of musicians, be they mountainy farmers or otherwise. The most important thing I learned from other musicians were attitudes, ways to look on various aspects, the social environment and how everything fits together and has a place.

But immersion also in learning music and individual tunes. While I take my tunes where I find them, recorded, printed, online, from the radio or from the background of tv commercials, more often than not I find tunes have been soaking in for years, sitting there until an occasion triggers them and you take them up. I like to think tunes find you when they're ready and at that point they are learned much more quickly than when you make a conscious effort to learn them.

Seán sa Cheo, to go with that example, will, to me, forever be Micho's tune, soaked up during so many occasions hearing him play it (and much the same for The Boy in the Gap). I have learned it from Micho without ever sitting him down to give me the tune.

Those points sum up, to me, the process of ear learning, it's a process longer than just sitting down to deliberately learn a tune. Some tunes come readily, others are best left for another bit, until they're ready. Mind you, there are always tunes that somehow speak to you immediately and come easily, for whatever reason. And it's best to just go with them, wherever you find them. Don't overthink the process or fuss too much over it. That would be my suggestion.

If you doubt your ability to learn by ear, have a go at children's song and christmas tunes and that sort of thing, stuff you internalised very early on, and work from there.

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 19, 2020 10:03 am 
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Professional players, studio musicians and the like, can play equally well by ear or sightreading staff notation.

Irish trad musicians often can't read staff notation, but use ABC notation (to the extent that they use notation at all).

My opinion is that it's always better to be in situations where you have skills that aren't needed than to be in situations where you need skills that you don't have.

For that reason I think it's ideal for a person to be able to read ordinary staff notation AND be able to pick up new tunes entirely by ear.

Ideal but not necessary! Because many ITM players go by ear alone. It's just that you might find yourself in a situation where knowing staff notation is the difference between being able to do a gig and not being able to do it.

In any case I would say the first priority is to work on your ear. Or better yet, work on your ear AND eye, by that I mean find Youtube videos of people playing slow tunes on whistle and watch their fingers and play along. For me that's the quickest and surest way to learn new tunes.

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 19, 2020 10:52 am 
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Irish trad musicians often can't read staff notation, but use ABC notation (to the extent that they use notation at all).


It's a well worn cliché but you have to wonder if it still holds true for the current generations of players. The fact that many can play by ear and do so for convenience, does not mean they can't read various forms of notation. In my experience, a lot of musicians can, if they need to.

For the sake of this sort discussions it's usefull to distinguish between learning elements of style, the language of music and actual tunes. For the first the ear is irreplacable, once that's done and the musical side is internalised, anytrhing goes, probably.

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 19, 2020 12:11 pm 
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I started with Micho's version of "Sean Sa Cheo." It's great. Very distinctive in the way Micho is distinctive. His individuality is very clear. I've had a very hard time imitating it and it's helped me to try to find my own way to play it. Finding my own way to the tune seems in turn to have made Micho's version easier to play. I understand what he's up to better having a version of the tune to myself, as it were. I'm not claiming to be a good player, mind you. Just that it;s not easy to hear through his very strong musical vision. The notes offer something more neutral


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PostPosted: Wed Aug 19, 2020 12:59 pm 
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Some tunes are so strongly associated with the playing of one particualr player, it's hard to get away from that. I don't think many whistleplayers have tha ttune without havibng soem of Micho in it, whether directly or indirectly. Donncha O'Briain played it and you could hear Micho through it. In a similar way you'd be hard pressed to find a piper who doesn't have a bit of Johnny Doran running through their version of Rakish Paddy (or Copper & Brass for that matter).

You probably need to go to the source, Neilidh Boyle, in this case. Paddy Canny had enough personality to get beyond all that, perhaps, although I still think I hear bits in his that show where he heard it. And that's fine, footprints and all that.

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 19, 2020 1:17 pm 
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Mr.Gumby wrote:
Some tunes are so strongly associated with the playing of one particualr player, it's hard to get away from that. I don't think many whistleplayers have tha ttune without havibng soem of Micho in it, whether directly or indirectly. Donncha O'Briain played it and you could hear Micho through it. In a similar way you'd be hard pressed to find a piper who doesn't have a bit of Johnny Doran running through their version of Rakish Paddy (or Copper & Brass for that matter).

You probably need to go to the source, Neilidh Boyle, in this case. Paddy Canny had enough personality to get beyond all that, perhaps, although I still think I hear bits in his that show where he heard it. And that's fine, footprints and all that.



I have the O'Neill version of "the Old Bush," which he called "Captain Rock" right in front of me on paper. Footprints--I'm researching about the molly maguires in Pennsylvania, who grew out of the "ribbonmen" and the Mollies in Ulster; who are similar to the "Whiteboys" in Cork, who were led by "Captain Rock."

O'Neill had to have heard stories about "Captain Rock" growing up and it's interesting that he gave it that name or kept that name. The O'Neill family was more likely to have been a target of capt. rock, I think, than to have marched behind him


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PostPosted: Wed Aug 19, 2020 1:38 pm 
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Katharine wrote:
Seems a bit strange to me though that a musician wouldn't notice their key is totally different than everyone else, though!

One would think so, but because of the modal nature of the tune in question, in this case she was able to be fine for most of it until certain crucial elements came up, and that's where the missing sharp told the tale. But I agree that it's rather remarkable that it wouldn't register with her when something was off; it was jarring for everyone but her. So that brings us to your question:

Katherine wrote:
Did this guitar player seem to have a listening problem otherwise??

She did, although I could only speculate as to why, because there seemed to be more than one contributing factor. But I won't let that stop me: She wasn't tone deaf, because tuning her guitar was no issue. She was somewhat able to gather a tune by ear, but normally wouldn't bother because she was hampered - she could get a tune from another guitar or a banjo, for example, but not from a flute or whistle, so that greatly narrowed her options. Some people have instrument-specific needs when it comes to ear learning, but to me that's a sign that the listening muscle is under-developed (we are natural listeners from birth, though, so I would say "atrophied" is the more accurate term). As far as I know, when she formally learned her craft it was only by way of the dots to the exclusion of all else (by tuition or inclination - who knows), and although I had proven to her more than once that, happily, she could indeed learn by ear, it gave her no comfort or motivation to even give it a shot. I also got the sense that she felt that playing by notation validated her musicianship, and that's a hurdle. So she was very attached to sheet music; she was rudderless and unhappy without it. As long as the notation was in front of her she could reproduce what she saw with ease and good tempo, and she was pretty good at getting the basic chordal implications right. But again, it was only because she had sheet music, so if the source was faulty, that's all she had, and curiously her ears played no discernible part in the equation. If a tune started outside of the tonic or it shifted modes, she often lost any ear-sense of what the fundamental tonic was (but she would play the tune intelligibly nonetheless), and I think her militant dots-only-and-nothing-else approach contributed to insulating her from her ability to listen and hear. Ultimately I think the listening thing was due to putting herself in a sort of hermetic bubble, as it were, where the meaning of technical competence was different for her than it would be for me. Over the years I came to wonder what, if anything, she really heard, or if she did hear, then how she heard a tune must be utterly different from what I think of as self-evident. And if it isn't, then I'm even more confused. Whatever the case, her reception shortcomings didn't inhibit her as an output machine that ran on programming, like a player piano. But as we've just seen, as with all program-dependent machines, it's garbage in, garbage out.

The moral of the story is that if you want to go by the dots, then for everyone's sake including your own, bring your ears along.

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PostPosted: Wed Aug 19, 2020 11:40 pm 
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PatrickintheForest wrote:
I am just learning the D whistle, I am at the stage I can play very simple slow tunes, no half holes, no ornaments.
Reading tabs,
Reading the score,
Playing by ear,
I was wondering where to put most of my effort?


Such great answers already. My suggestions, while suggesting each person has their own preferences:

1) get to know the instrument with great familiarity, regardless of everything else, for how the notes sound relative to each other, meaning the sense of the octave structure, the key and tonal note's presence, the fifth and the intervals up the octave. (key note is D, for the key of D), and the fifth (A is the fifth in the key of D) Then your fingers will find music correctly, far faster.

I think this skill, and having confidence controlling and expressing via the instrument, are grossly under-appreciated in the "Music instruction" industry, for the core role of helping further a musician's long-term persistence, daily enjoyment and broad scope progress. Practice playing the instrument, interacting with it, so it becomes an uninhibited extension of the whims of your soul, and it's no longer "that thing over there I need to learn".

2) Learning "by ear". I listen to lock in my memory the structure and feel of a piece, it's up/down patterns and what time values various notes have, so I can remember it, repeat it with confidence from memory, hum it. I consider real learning from the source to be listening to the music, not sheet music. So when playing or listening to music, you can get a quick sense of "ah, that's the tonal note I feel in the melody and that's the fifth and it's in a minor key here, shifting back to a major key in the next bar", or something like that. This presumes you have a good musical memory. It can be exercised with repetition while enjoying what you're doing, meaning keep stress out of it. VARIETY!

3) I prefer full notation rather than more refined coded music. In full notation I see the structure of the music, the bar structure, key, time values of notes in the bars, most common key signature markings and by looking at the notation can quickly imagine with good accuracy how the melody or instrument is going to sound.

I recommend a learning technique you can find online, or free → get sheet music for music you like and listen while following along on the page. A Beethoven or Schubert piano sonata is good for this, because being only one instrument, it's not overly complex on the page, yet it is complex enough to give you a melody, a bass part and some of the notation extras; something to work with, a genuine coaching session, to learn from. You can repeat the process, paying attention to different parts of it as you see fit. You can watch the general shape of the melody, notice how time values of notes are displayed on the page, notice volume markings, key notation, etc., whatever you prefer at the time.

One example easy to follow; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K5-IqJZPxQY

NOTE: if you create your own music, being able to use basic notation is a great tool, so you can capture musical ideas quick and easy with enough precision that you can come back to them days later and know what they sound like. It takes no time to simply sketch out 5 lines and put the dots and rests on. My method is to jot down notes with the correct (relatively) time value (quarter note, eighth, half, whole, etc, including rests) and vertical place on the 5-line treble staff always using the key of C first time, make a comment about the tempo, and then correct the key later. This quickly built my ability to use full sheet music as an extension of "learning by ear" and it got me very comfortable reading sheet music for it's geography, it's visual structure, and getting a sense of how the music lines will sound.


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PostPosted: Thu Aug 20, 2020 3:25 am 
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I have the O'Neill version of "the Old Bush," which he called "Captain Rock" right in front of me on paper. Footprints


I seem to remember he used the name Petrie had for the tune. In my mind I would think of it as a Clare tune, coloured perhaps because the highly influential recordings of both Willie Clancy and Paddy Canny during the fifties. But if you look at it in O'Neill's, it sits right in the middle of a batch of tunes O'Neill brought back from Feakle so quite possibly it's one he got from Johnny Allen while he was staying there. And that would fit in with other people who had it, Paddy Canny's father Pat, who had a lot of tunes from a travelling fiddle teacher in the area Pat MacNamara, who would have known or be known to Allen. Martin Rochford also had it and he had a lot of tunes from Allen, and a few good stories about the man who was notoriously protective of his tunes. And Rochford had close conenction to Willie, Paddy Canny, Micho and all sorts of people who had that tune. Searching for origins, I'd look at (East) Clare.

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