Updated: Jun 7, 2022
Did you know there are different ways to play the bodhrán?
In fact, there are almost as many ways as players! Varying technique and style is common in music in general, but it's especially particular in this peculiar percussion instrument. This is because we are still in the development and technical improvement phase, as bodhrán is quite new when we consider it applied to traditional Irish music as we know today.
As you can see, I'm talking about style and technique, so let's separate things.
The technique involves how to hold the drum and stick, the position of the hands and stick on the instrument and how to move them in order to obtain a balanced tone with a good control of variations, speed, resistance and relaxation .
Style is the aesthetic-musical choice that the artist opt for: from the drum (size, type of skin, with tape or without), passing through the drumsticks, culminating in the desired sonority, how they will relate to the sounds of the other instruments and how the expressive discourse will be constructed and developed.
Initially, technique and style were closely linked, once a certain technique privileges certain features of a style, but when the technique is worked on, this dependence disappears, the musician has more freedom to take the sound he/she wants from the instrument.
When I started to play and do research about it back in the days, with the scarce resources and materials that existed on Irish music and bodhrán in Brazil, Orkut times, I heard about two styles: Kerry Style and Top-end Style. And I say “back in the days” because as we are still developing, the understanding and the way to call things has matured.
Kerry is a county in the southwest of Ireland (beautiful by the way), so supposedly those lands were played in the way that bears its name. Some have called it Traditional Style, but both styles are considered traditional nowadays. The main feature is that the stick is used on both sides, strikes in the lower half of the instrument and the left hand works from top to bottom, where the lowest sounds are obtained with the hand positioned at the top and the highest with the hand on the lower part. Nowadays we call this technique Double Ended and it allows for a fluid accompaniment, very linked to the melody, lower and opaque sounds and the ornamentation made with the upper part of the drumstick.
In the other hand, the “Top-End” style appeared, where the musician would attack in the upper half of the skin, making it impossible to use the upper side of the drumstick; the left hand, in turn, works in reverse, making the bass at the bottom and the treble at the top. Guess what the name looks like now? “Single Ended”! “Modern Style” has also been used, but naming one style modern may imply that it is objectively better than any other, which is not true. This technique marks highs, and the lack of ornamentation made with both sides of the drumstick required the technique to develop in another direction, forcing the musician to double the speed or repeat attacks downwards or upwards to obtain the same result (paradiddles!), this obviously brought new possibilities. As this style allowed a very clear difference between bass and treble, the drum beats (bum-pa, bum-bum-pa) entered traditional music.
The conversations and exchanges of information between the musicians, in parallel with the development of the drums themselves, was fertile ground for the elements of both techniques to merge and generate increasingly rich styles. Assorted grooves, melodic accompaniments and bass lines are possibilities for any technique. Ornamentation with the upper part of the drumstick can also be done by those who use mostly only one side, and paradiddles and high notes also for those who use both. The important thing is to look for the sound that we like the most and use the tools we have to express our musicality!