Preparing to play Irish flute in the Holiday Ball

Pittsburgh Contras and Squares

A very important event for me last year was joining Abby in playing music at the annual Pittsburgh Contras and Squares Holiday Ball at the Swisshelm Park Community Center as part of the “Holiday Ball Orchestra”.

Today I started to prepare to play music for the Holiday Ball (Friday, December 14) again: I have three weeks to practice.

What progress have I made in the past year on the goals I listed after last year’s event?

Improvement at instruments

Last year, I wrote: “I want to be much better at all the instruments I would play in it (recorder, flute, tin whistle)”.

My status this year:

From a sound and style point of view, the Irish flute is clearly the best of my instruments to use for the Holiday Ball. So I read through my copies of the Holiday Ball music (lots of jigs, reels, waltzes) tonight at speed, to see where I stand.

Last year, I could play (on any instrument) barely any of the music at speed, even on my best instrument at the time, which was soprano recorder. I was reduced to sitting out some tunes or playing just a single note each measure, when I otherwise would have been unable to continue.

Today, I found that I could get through most of the selections OK at speed, but somewhat sloppily and inaccurately. I would not be happy to have to perform this music at speed tonight; I would rather sit out or simplify rather than try to play something beyond me. But I have three weeks to improve significantly, and I believe I can improve enough that when the time comes, I won’t be sitting out most of the tunes the way I kind of did last year.

Since the fingering of the tin whistle is the same as for my keyless Irish flute, I can also choose to use the tin whistle where I feel appropriate.


Last year, I wrote: “I want to be proficient and confident enough to sit by a microphone”.

The idea of being in the foreground is still a bit daunting to me, but I think after I get in some good practice over the next week or so, I’ll feel confident about not just being in the background the way I was last year. I do think it would be nice to have an audible Irish flute in our performance for the dancers.


Last year, I wrote: “I want to do some solos, with stylistically appropriate improvisations”.

Even scarier. I’ve been working through Grey Larsen’s book, which is amazingly detailed and good, but as Irish music has not at all been my focus during this year of music for me, I’m nowhere at the level of passing for a traditional Irish musician. Still, there is time to work up a sound basic practical level of ornamentation, I think.

I’ll have to evaluate, after a week or two, what I feel comfortable doing on stage. The basic rule is: better to play an melody simply and beautifully, unornamented, rather than do something badly and in poor taste and technique!


Last year, I wrote: “Maybe I should learn some of the dances and perform some too”.

It turns out that in fact, I did learn some contra dance, so depending on how Abby would like to split up playing music and dancing, I would be, unlike last year, totally up for participating as a dancer as well as a musician.


I had a lot of fun playing music at the Holiday Ball last year and hope to enjoy it again, and this time with a higher level of musicality and a higher level of contribution.

If you’re in the Pittsburgh area and like contra dancing, make sure to put Friday, December 14 on your calendar already, and come to the Holiday Ball!

comments powered by Disqus