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An Interview With Pat Higgins

Pat HigginsPat Higgins is an Irish traditional musician who plays wooden flute, tin whistle and guitar. Originally from County Galway in Ireland, Pat now resides in Wellington, New Zealand, where he works as a computer engineer in the IT industry. Very active in the local Irish traditional music scene, Pat is a regular at the Kitty O’Shea’s sessions on Monday evenings and is a past chairman of Ceol Aneas – New Zealand’s Celtic music school.

In this interview, Pat shares his insights and inspirations concerning the Irish flute, Irish traditional music and life in general. This interview was recorded on Saturday June 19, 2004. Our thanks to Pat Higgins for kindly giving his time to record this inspiring and informative interview. Go raibh maith agat Pat.

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Shardul: Would you like to tell us a little about where were you born Pat?

Pat Higgins: I’m from rural County Galway in Ireland – a place called Annaghdown which is on the eastern shore of Lough Corrib. It’s about twelve miles north of Galway city. When I say I’m from Galway people usually say, “Oh, you’re from the city”, and of course I’m from a farm – I’m a farm boy.

S: Did you grow up around music?

PH: Not really. My Mother loved music, but in fact there was no active music in the house at all. My Grandmother, who I didn’t really know, she played the accordion, but I have no memory of the accordion being played in the house. I kind of got into music, well, in Ireland, mostly we were listening to music on the radio. I was twenty-one when I started playing my own music for the first time.

S: You got started a little late you could say, but that does not seemed to have dampened your obvious passion for the music.

PH: Yeah very late. But I think in some ways it might have enhanced it because I started off being conscious of the lost years, if you know what I mean. I have met and read about people who started playing when they were three or four, you know, and were taught by their parents but we didn’t have that tradition in our house. In fact when I was growing up in the 60s in Galway, there were very few houses around us where traditional music was actually played. It wasn’t fashionable, you know. But it was to become fashionable, some ten years later though.

S: I was recently reading a delightful interview on Brad Hurley’s web site with Mike Rafferty (Irish flute). Mike talked about growing up in the 1930s and 40s with music in the house and being taught by his father and the local retired policeman. He practiced in the fields and so on.

PH: He’s from east Galway – a place called Ballinakill, which is forty minutes from where I come from. There seems to be a much stronger tradition of music in that part of Galway. That’s where Paddy Fahey (fiddle) and Joe Bourke (accordion) come from as well – and many others who are big in Irish traditional music.

S: When did you come to New Zealand Pat?

PH: In 1987. I was travelling. I had been in Dublin for three or four years and I started travelling. I was in Australia and Asia and I ended up in New Zealand and I kind of liked Wellington, you know. And actually, I discovered the folk club here and so the highlight of my week was going to the folk club on a Friday night to play my new tunes on the tin-whistle. So 1987 was the first time that I came here. At that stage I was just travelling with a back-pack and then I decided to come back and settle.

“And so the discipline involved is the realisation that I could so easily lie down on the couch and go to sleep – and that would be that – or I could pick up the flute and go into the room and get over the bump of inertia. Then after twenty minutes, I’d be warmed up and actually be getting energy from the music and then might continue playing for an hour or more.”

S: What was the Wellington folk music scene like in those days?

PH: It was in a different venue to where it is now. It was in a pokey little room upstairs with candles, which was very secluded and kind of church-like. It was like an obscure sect when you compare it to mainstream society, you know. And people would go along there with various skill levels and perform a little party piece; a song or a poem or a tune on the guitar or something. It was a way for people to express themselves, you know. It’s a beautiful thing really. And I really connected strongly with that I think, because that was something that I had never experienced at home.

S: It’s the same at the Devonport folk club here in Auckland. A shame that it doesn’t happen in people’s homes more often.

PH: Back in Ireland say fifty years ago people didn’t have television. They had radio but often times they didn’t have electricity either. The winter nights would be long and people found these ways to entertain themselves. But now, people are relying on the television, CD’s and the internet much more.

S: You say you didn’t play music as a youngster. What got you started at the age of twenty-one?

PH: My cousin came down from Dublin with a tin-whistle and she had one of those ‘teach yourself how to play the tin whistle’ books. And it stunned me that somebody could sit down and play their own music, you know. And of course, I was attracted to that, so I borrowed the book and the whistle and started from there. I spent the summer teaching myself simple little songs like The Cliffs of Dooneen. So I abandoned listening to the Bay City Rollers and Simon and Garfunkel and started playing my own music. I started on the whistle and it took me six or six or maybe ten years before I was able to play the whistle even half decently and then in 1990 I got a flute and it has taken me another ten years to become a competent flute player. I mean, it’s become a life’s work really. If you had somebody to teach you, one could make much more rapid progress, but that’s been my particular story.

S: I know you love to play in sessions, but have you played in bands or made a CD?

Ballyscully Live – CD coverPH: I have played in bands. I used to be in a band that played in an Irish pub. We played very traditional music. Often-times I think we puzzled mainstream New Zealand audiences who happened to be in the Irish pub and didn’t understand Irish traditional music. I also play country and a bit of acoustic music on the guitar, you know. But flute is my main passion. I played in one band for a few years called Ballyscully and we used to play in Molley Malone’s in Wellington. No CD’s though [at the time that this interview was recorded]. The thing I do nowadays mostly is help run a regular session on Monday nights at Kitty O’Shea’s, which has basically become the hotbed of Irish traditional music in Wellington. We have got a very motivated group who are working on new tunes and teaching each other new tunes on a Thursday night, you know, specifically so that we can keep the session vibrant.

“The advantage of learning by ear is that it teaches you to listen; the first skill required in any communication. A good musician must first of all learn to be a good listener. To be successful you need to ‘internalise’ the tune and make it your own.”

S: Who’s at the core of that group?

PH: Myself of course, and Ruairidh Morrison (Irish flute, whistle and concertina). Two women: Edith O’Reagan (Irish flute) from Ring in County Waterford and Neasa Scanlon (accordion) from County Mayo (Edith and Neasa make up half of Glór na mBan). Also Andy Linton (bouzouki and guitar), Davy Muir (fiddle) and Edward Abraham (fiddle) – a good group of people. Mostly expatriates I think, with one or two Kiwis who are into it as well.

S: That seems to be a common thread here in New Zealand. Many of those at the forefront of the Traditional, Folk and Acoustic genres at the moment seem to be from Ireland, Scotland and the British Isles, some of them recent migrants.

PH: Yeah. I mean down south there are some Kiwis that are at the forefront of the music scene there. Barry MacDonald is one, Brendyn Montgomery is another – he’s the new generation now. Duncan Davidson and his brother Alex. They’re young Kiwi guys and they’re fantastic players. It’s harder for people who don’t have access to the tradition; they aren’t influenced by it, so it’s harder for the locals to start from nothing, if you know what I mean.

S: It’s interesting that you say that the people in the pub, Kiwis especially, didn’t really know what they were listening to. This again seems to be a common thread in New Zealand, that somehow – a few generations down the track from the original Irish, Scottish and English migrants that came here in the nineteenth century and of course brought their music and instruments with them – we seem to have lost that genre of music and now there is something of a rebirth of the traditional music in pubs and sessions such as you are describing.

PH: Perhaps what happens is that people bring the music with them; they settle in a new country and their children grow up with it, but it is not necessarily popular among the children’s peers. So the children abandon it because it is not fashionable, you know, and so it dies out. What’s happening locally now is that there is a few of us that are motivated enough to make something happen and we are running music classes here at the Irish Club and we will probably do another set of music classes later in the year – plus we’ve got this Nelson Flute School (Ceol Aneas) thing going on. A re-birth is probably overstating it, but I think if you have got a couple of people who can plow for a while or if you plant a tree, eventually you end up with a forest. It’s possible, you know. Who knows where something could go – it just takes a while. I mean, eventually you would probably end up attracting teenagers or ten-year-old kids I suppose and gradually build up a renaissance of music that way.

S: Are you getting interest from the younger generation; are young people coming through the Nelson school for example.

PH: Yeah, but only in small numbers. There would have been maybe six teenagers there this year out of 120 students. But then, you’ve got to start somewhere I guess.

S: 120 is a good turnout – that’s quite a good number isn’t it?

PH: Yeah, well the flute school mushroomed this year because we had a big band performing (Lunasa) and we attracted a lot of registrants. I mean, last year was about fifty in total, so we knew it was going to be busy. They came from Canberra in Australia, one guy came from England and they came from all over New Zealand and I think found it a fantastic weekend.

S: The school has certainly had a lot of good reviews from this years (2004) effort, so I guess it will mature into something quite grand as time goes by.

PH: To be honest, I felt like we were punching above our weight this year because it was quite a big deal having Lunasa here and it’s only really a committee of four or five people, you know. It was a lot of fund raising we had to go through, so we will probably scale it back a bit for next year because really we are not trying to be hosting stars, we are basically about education. In fact we don’t really need big names; we just need inspirational, non-famous good traditional musicians. And we think we can import those pretty easily. It’s something that is just evolving and it’s obviously the right time.

S: So, how did the school actually come about in Nelson? How did that begin?

PH: Well, basically it was Bob Bickerton‘s idea. Bob lives in Nelson and is an Irish Traditional flute player and multi-instrumentalist. He has a recording studio and does various music programmes with schools throughout the country. Bob’s always had this vision to recreate the Irish summer school format in New Zealand. There’s a thing called the Willy Clancy School in Ireland where they teach classes for a week in the summer time. The first time I met Bob; he was a flute player and I was still an emerging whistle player, and he said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could get all the flute players together and run a master class.” So basically it’s been his vision and that was like 1990 or something when he first suggested that idea. Then, about five years ago, he was in Wellington and there happened to be a good flute player from Dublin here by the name of Alan Doherty. Alan went on to record music for the Lord of the Rings trilogy you know. And so when Bob mentioned it to me again, I looked at Alan and I thought, well, this is the perfect time; we’ve got the ideal tutor here and we just put the word out. We gathered eighteen flute players from around the country and they all came to Nelson and all played flutes for the weekend. That was in 2000. So basically it started like that and two years later we decided to add on fiddle and bouzouki classes because it would enhance our experience. There was an obvious demand for it and we’d all have better fun and so it’s kind of grown from there.

“To play on the flute is one way that I can recreate myself and I have always found it incredibly satisfying; spiritually satisfying.”

A session during Ceol Aneas
A session during Ceol Aneas – Pat Higgins playing flute on the far right

S: Are you noticing an evolution in wooden flute playing and the Irish music scene in general here in New Zealand? Is there a feeling of gathered momentum in this area?

PH: I think the standards are slowly incrementally rising. I’m not sure that I am aware of how it’s evolving overall but I guess people are taking inspiration back with them when they go to their home places basically. And probably repertoire is getting changed because new tunes are being brought in by the tutors and everybody records them and takes them away with them, so you suddenly find people are aware of a whole new repertoire. And they seed that in their local area. For example, musicians going back to Auckland would then spread those tunes around in Auckland. The inspiration thing is what is important. I am quite keen on the idea that players have a chance to be exposed to world class musicians, you know, that they wouldn’t otherwise easily have access to and will hopefully be inspired by. Personally I have always found the exposure inspiring and I guess other people do as well. That’s our sole aim really.

S: Irish music is traditionally taught by ear and through the process of swapping tunes and so on. Why is the music taught this way and what do you think is the advantage of this approach as apposed to learning from written music?

PH: Because originally folk musicians were poor people who probably never learnt to read, much less read manuscript – and staff paper would not have been freely available anyway. Assuming the students ever learnt to write! Some nineteenth century teachers were travelling musicians; also a lot of music was preserved by itinerants with no resources. Culture is often left to the poor and impoverished, as the elite only want to be fashionable. The advantage of learning by ear is that it teaches you to listen; the first skill required in any communication. A good musician must first of all learn to be a good listener. To be successful you need to ‘internalise’ the tune and make it your own. You don’t have the shortcuts of written notes to rely on or to aid you in ornamentation, so its slower and can be more difficult. But eventually you can make the music your own, make it ‘of you’; then you and the music are one. Dots on a page, with a corresponding classical approach are, to me anyway, like prison bars. How can you express emotion in music, if half of your faculties are involved in sight reading? Musicians like myself and the people I play with who have learnt by ear, only know one way to play. Although learning by ear is an old and slow method, you learn more along the way. The process of sitting down with another to share/teach music is in itself a process that yields rewards beyond just the musical. Confidence, connection, identity, roots, a sense of who you are, where you come from, who your people were… it’s reincarnation in effect, because you are re-voicing the music of those gone before. It’s a chain and your a link in it. This is especially true of old songs rooted in real events.

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Tune: The Kilmovee Jig
Musician: Pat Higgins – playing a nineteenth century Rudall & Carte flute.
Comment: Pat recorded this jig slowly as a practice piece for a student.


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S: Is there a written aspect to Irish traditional music?

PH: Sure and it’s a useful tool. But as I suggested, is not enough to recreate the spirit, the feeling of the music. The dots cannot express the emotion adequately. It will usually lack what Flamencos call duende – that is spirit, feeling, emotion, pain and so on.

S: With traditional Irish music, you hear often about the different styles of playing; the Roscommon style, the Galway style, and so on. Is there a New Zealand style evolving from the renewed interest in the music here?

PH: No. I wouldn’t say so. I mean, Brendyn is probably a Sligo/Roscommon style of player – a guy who uses the throat a lot to articulate the rhythm. I wouldn’t say there was a New Zealand style – it’s too early for that. What happens is that people are influenced a lot by CD’s now, you know, and so everybody is emulating and taking inspiration from their particular hero like Michael McGoldrick, Kevin Crawford, Matt Molloy or Catherine McEvoy and June McCormack. It’s like the idea of a style couldn’t exist in a world where there is mass media because people in County Donegal are listening to music that comes out of County Cork, whereas a hundred years or so back people rarely travelled more than twenty miles away. And so styles could evolve in isolation, which is why those localities had such distinguished playing styles. Probably the idea of style is going to be lost. It’s getting kind of merged into one global, universal style. It can’t be helped probably. The kind of media that allows this music to flourish is also responsible for the homogenising of it, I guess.

S: Which musicians give you inspiration Pat?

PH: Many do. June McCormack, Matt Molloy, Josie McDermott, Kevin Crawford, Brendyn Montgomery, Duncan Davidson, Alex Davidson, Catherine McEvoy, Tommy Guihen and many others.

S: And what inspires you in terms of your playing and practice? Where do you get encouragement and inspiration from?

PH: Well, I’m sort of goal oriented and the idea of sitting passively watching television, to me, is to not be. I feel it’s a waste of ones energy and a waste of your life to not be and one way to be is to do things and to be creative. To play on the flute is one way that I can recreate myself and I have always found it incredibly satisfying; spiritually satisfying. As well as that there’s the technique and the endless hours of effort that go into it. In a strange sort of way, I find it really rewarding, you know. There’s a gradual improvement in skills over the months and something that was impossible five years ago, I can now do. It’s just rewarding and it gives you satisfaction. I enjoy doing that for myself in the house – just practicing – and the aim eventually is to share that music with other people. That again is another whole bonus – ah God, that’s incredibly satisfying as well. It’s about connection – it’s about connection between people really.

S: Wonderful! And music certainly is a universal language – it’s a really powerful way to connect with other people. To share music is to give and receive joy.

PH: Absolutely. Joy – yes – sadness and pain as well! The thing is that people can express themselves as opposed to just watching pop-culture on the television. So that’s kind of what it does for me, you know. That thing that we do on Thursday night is literally, well I have often thought of it as like a church actually. We go into this room which is downstairs and kind of hidden away and it’s not what the mainstream is doing and it’s very grounding and very connecting. The people who do it, they’ve learnt some new skills, perhaps it’s just a new tune, you know, and it can sometimes take maybe an hour to learn a new piece of music. And yet, that’s a lot of music, a lot of achievement; that’s not nothing! Those people have got something. It’s fantastic and it’s their accomplishment, yet it connects them with each other and it connects them with the people that the music came from. It will also connect them with the people that they will play the music with in the future and those who hear it, you know. It’s fantastic!

S: In my experience, the wooden flutes draw a lot of comment when they are heard. People really love the sound of them and they seem to touch people in a special way. What do you find so special about the wooden flute.

PH: Well, I think it’s because you have to blow into it and you have to put it to your mouth to play it, as apposed to the fiddle for instance, which has a more mechanical interface. I mean, when you play the flute, your mouth, your lips – you become the instrument, you know.

S: Yes, isn’t that true! And it’s your energy; it’s got to come from within you, not just the music, but the air has to come and the music has to come and the feeling has to come. The feeling is everything. The wood has such a warm, organic kind of sound as well.

PH: That’s right. So you become the instrument, and it’s quite transforming.

S: What types of flutes do you play Pat?

Pat Higgins playing a nineteenth century Rudall & Carte flutePH: I play two flutes. One is made by Hammy Hamilton. It’s a four key African Blackwood in D and is a copy of the nineteenth century Pratten Perfected flute design. A good session instrument – takes a bit of air to fill it though – but I’m used to it now. The other is a Rudall & Carte flute that I recently bought. It was made in 1886 by Wylde who was an employee of the Rudall company. This is an eight key flute and is a great instrument; easy to fill and it plays itself. I consider myself lucky to have this instrument. It originally came from a private collection in Auckland. I usually avoid collecting instruments, as they are all different, and commitment to one gives the best result. But I could not let this opportunity go by. I prefer the Rudall, it’s easier to play and has a sweeter tone but for the session the Hamilton is better.

“The inspiration thing is what is important. I am quite keen on the idea that players have a chance to be exposed to world class musicians, you know, that they wouldn’t otherwise easily have access to and will hopefully be inspired by. Personally I have always found the exposure inspiring and I guess other people do as well. That’s our sole aim really.”

S: In terms of encouragement for players and beginners who might be reading this article, what can you say about the value of having a teacher, getting lessons or attending a course? What can they expect to gain from it?

PH: I think you can teach yourself how to do anything. I mean, I taught myself how to play the flute but everybody needs a teacher because it will help you so much to have somebody show you how to do one small thing that will in turn help you to move on more quickly. For myself, I was inclined to blame myself if I was unable to do something when in fact it may have been the flute that was leaking, one of the keys might have been leaking or something, you know. And somebody like a mentor or a teacher can straighten you out and explain that actually, it’s not you, it’s just the instrument or something. So that’s why people definitely benefit from mentors and teachers, otherwise you spend ten years flogging yourself to death working on something. If you are focused enough, you’ll do that. I mean, I’ve spent the time doing it but it would be more beneficial and helpful to actually have access to a teacher if you can connect with somebody.

S: From the point of view of inspiration as well, a teacher or another player, especially someone who is more advanced than yourself, can give you inspiration – no?

PH: Yes, that’s right. But also inspiration that’s accessible and you can see that it’s achievable, because they can help you get there. Something like a fully produced CD as a learning tool can be inspirational but sometimes discouraging as well, whereas a helpful teacher could show you something that would be inspiring and then show you how you can do it also. And that’s a really generous thing to do and it’s real. If a novice player can get access to that, then that’s fantastic.

S: I know that in my own case, it has always been nice to hear a developed player play my own flute. To hear a good tone played on the flute that you have perhaps been struggling with is certainly very encouraging – like a carrot before the donkey. You find yourself thinking, ‘well, that’s what lies ahead of me with a little patience and practice’.

PH: Yes, that’s right, that’s true. It’s amazing how if somebody can demonstrate to you how something is achievable, suddenly you can see “Oh – I can get there too” – the door opens.

S: What do you have to say as far as the discipline of practice and playing is concerned Pat?

PH: It is a discipline – it’s a discipline for sure. To me, it’s a lot about inertia. I mean; I work a forty hour week and so on and I’ve got a family here to run, so by seven or eight o’clock in the evening, the easiest thing to do is to sit down and fall asleep. And so the discipline involved is the realisation that I could so easily lie down on the couch and go to sleep – and that would be that – or I could pick up the flute and go into the room and get over the bump of inertia. Then after twenty minutes, I’d be warmed up and actually be getting energy from the music and then might continue playing for an hour or more. It takes discipline to get over that bump of the initial lethargy and inertia to get to the point where you’re getting back from the music far more than you are putting in. It’s like that lethargy and inertia is a gateway between them and Nirvana, you know. The easy way is not necessarily the most satisfying way. Practice does take discipline and yet it gives huge daily rewards. The other thing about discipline for the flute is that if you practice every day for at least twenty minutes or so, your musculature and your embouchure, the muscles that are required, get fit to play the flute, you know. Consequently your tone improves and so you get better results, whereas if you only do it once a week, it’s not going to be as good and you are not going to get the reward and people often discard it for that reason. That’s where I’m at!

S: My feeling is that the different music genre’s each offer something special and unique. What’s special and attractive about the Irish traditional music, do you think? What do you think Irish traditional music in general offers to the world?

PH: It has energy, life, it’s ‘up’; the faster tune-forms are anyway. It also reflects the pain, the heartbreak of centuries of oppression, so it’s a metaphor for life, death, joy and sadness. A tune called The Battering Ram is a bouncy positive little jig! Yet it’s named after a device used to evict tenant families by knocking down the walls of their cabins, leaving them homeless. The songs are loaded with heartbreak, pain, grief and sometimes love and joy… and so are like a channel for people to emote. To really be! I feel quite strongly that traditional music is a grounding source of spiritual renewal in this ever more frenzied world.

Final words from Pat Higgins

“Twas not for the lack of employment at home,
That caused us poor exiles in sorrow to roam,
But the terrorising Landlords, they would not let us stay,
So farewell unto ye Bonny, Bonny, Sliabh Gallen Braes.”
(From Sliabh Gallen Braes)

In an article that was posted on the WoodenFlute.com digest, Pat offered this little pearl: “Music is an act of love.” He made this sagacious observation in the context of Lunasa’s members having collectively and individually enthralled people with their music during Ceol Aneas 2004 in Nelson.

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For more information about Irish traditional music sessions, classes and Ceol Aneas, kindly contact Pat Higgins.

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