Diana Boullier: Exploring Irish Music and Dance

Kim Bates wrote this for Green Man Review.

At some point for children seeking to master traditional music, the learning must come through the power of relationship — through parents, friends, neighbors, or teachers. But not every child has access to that world, and many a child may be drawn to folk traditions via a chance exposure to music that calls to him or her. So what’s a parent to do? So many interests seem to pass quickly in these childhood years, making today’s investment in teachers, instruments and so forth the equivalent of pouring sand down the proverbial rat hole. I would also argue that learning to play, dance or sing Irish traditional music requires the dedication of family, teacher, and community. Diana Boullier seeks to bridge the gap between children’s interest and the world of Irish traditional music.

Now, some of the material in this book might be transmitted directly. But as Chieftain Derek Bell points out in his introduction, children don’t go to smoky bars for sessions, and not all teachers may have the time to go into the detail that a book like Exploring Irish Music and Dance provides. Designed for children at the primary school level, this book provides a much needed reference with answers to lots of questions, in a form that is accessible to the young ones. These questions might range from, “How do they know when first tune will stop and the next begin?” to “What is set dancing? Isn’t it like Ceili dancing” or “I thought the mandolin ital[was] an Irish instrument!” Boullier is both a musician and a parent, and I suspect many of the topics in the book come from both knowing the answers and being asked the questions.

She covers the history of Irish instrumental music, complete with a description of instruments, the structure of tunes, and how they are named. She also introduces some key players from Irish musical history. Some of this material may be less useful for North American children than for those from the old sod, but parents or teachers could easily supplement this material. I very much enjoyed the discussion of naming tunes, and the detail on how similar tunes might initially seem the same, but either diverge from a common source or be developed in different places.

The material on Irish dancing gives both a history and a description of various dances, although I found it difficult to make the link between a children’s dance class and the material here. Still, the descriptions of Ceili, set and step dancing were quite interesting, and should satisfy most young ones trying to learn a jig step.

Boullier includes photos and illustrations of dancers, as well as simple melodies that could easily be played by a child who can read music. She also discusses the relationship between learning by ear and by reading music, providing a gentle encouragement to seek out a class or a teacher, as well as explaining the late arrival of music notation in the world of Irish traditional music.

While it is no substitute for a good dance class or a teacher, this book would be a great starting place for a child interested in Irish traditional music and dance, with slightly greater emphasis on the music in terms of coverage. It would make a great gift for children able to read and considering learning to play an instrument. Exploring Irish Music and Dance has a good blend of simple, direct text, photographs and illustrations presented in a quality format that would make it suitable for a gift.

The illustrations of dancers and musicians ranges from the pre-photographic era to the present — from photos of early 20th century musicians right up to contemporary folks like Sharon Shannon. Having said that, it is not a “picture book” without substance, as there is a lot of information communicated in these pages.

I must admit that I had occasional technology-oriented thoughts while doing the review, thinking to myself how great it would be if this book were a CD-ROM, with movie vignettes and samples of the music — and how that would change the issue of learning by reading musical notation. Hmm….

(O’Brien, 1998)  

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