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Clíodhna Ní Aodáin – Bringing the Celtic Cello to the World

Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona daoibh! Happy St. Patrick’s Day! To celebrate, here’s an interview with the wonderful cellist, composer, conductor, and teacher: Clíodhna Ní Aodáin.

I first encountered her work through her YouTube videos; in particular, her beautiful recording of “The Parting Glass.”

I found her website, The Celtic Cello, when looking for information on playing Celtic music on the cello. She was running a free masterclass before her Celtic Cello Club started up in autumn of 2021.

Having enjoyed Clíodhna’s videos, I had high expectations. I only planned to write about the club, but I learned so much in one short session that I would have joined if I had not had a schedule conflict.

If you are interested in joining the club, it will re-open in autumn of 2022. Clíodhna opens the club only once a year to build a community for her club members who stay together for an entire academic year.

You don’t have to wait for the Celtic Cello Club to re-open, though – you can get started with Clíodhna’s recent book, 20 Celtic Cello Duets. Can’t wait for that to reach you by post? Clíodhna has kindly given Cello Museum visitors a free PDF download of an Irish tune to help you celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. (Download accessible via link at the end of this article.)

Clíodhna also granted the Cello Museum an interview to help us celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and Women’s History Month. In addition, she’s generously donated a copy of her 20 Celtic Cello Duets for a giveaway. Enter below for a chance to win.

The following interview transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Clíodhna Ní Aodáin

Celtic Music on the Cello

Cello Museum (CM)

I don’t like to make assumptions. For example, I’m an American, but I don’t specialize in American music. I know you’re Irish – how did you get into playing Celtic music?

Clíodhna Ní Aodáin (CNA)

My grandfather was a traditional Irish fiddler, and my great uncle – there was a lot of music in the family. My grandfather died before I was born, but the music was definitely there. And then the next generation, my parents’ generation, played classical music.

At the time, growing up in Ireland, there was a big divide – it’s still there – that you were one or the other [type of musician], and there was no way the camps would meet. I’m immersed in the Irish culture; I have an Irish name, I went to an all Irish school, and I love the tradition, but there was nobody playing the cello – and I wanted to play the cello!

I tried the fiddle, but it wasn’t really my thing. The desire for the cello was stronger, so I went the classical route. I did all my studies as far as I could go professionally on the cello. I had always played traditional Celtic tunes for myself, but I never thought of really sharing them with the world.

How an Accident Led to an Album

And then I had an accident five years ago. I was in my parents’ house, and the attic ladder fell on my head, knocked me to the floor, and almost knocked me out. My then four-year-old son was with me and held my hand until the doctor came. My first thought was, “Oh my God, a head injury. Can I still be a mom?” My second thought was, “Will I ever play music again?” because you don’t know, and I remember my son saying, “Mom, it is bleeding out.”

He helped me – he really helped me – he literally held my hand for 40 minutes, which is an eternity for a child. That helped me and kept me there. And my parents were there, too. They called the ambulance.

I was really severely concussed, and it took me seven weeks to be normal again. But in the recovery time, I just thought, and I remember thinking this lying on the floor: “If this is it, I have nothing to share with my son. I don’t have any documentation that I ever played the cello. I’ve nothing to show – I’ve played my whole life, but I’ve never recorded myself, never.” And then it became clear to me. I didn’t really want to record any of the big cello concertos. I’ve played them, but what I want to share with him is my culture – all those songs and tunes that I’ve been missing for my whole life. That’s what I wanted to share.

When I was injured, I thought, “If I get out of this, I’m going to record.” And that’s how my first album, The Celtic Cello, came about. I released it in 2018, and I dedicated it to my son.

Pandemic Focus on Celtic Music

And the next impetus was, of course, the pandemic. I remember thinking at that time: “I wonder what Martin Hayes is doing.” I was homeschooling and trying to do yoga, and he popped into my head. I looked him up, and he had just started doing a Patreon site. Martin Hayes is an amazing Irish fiddler, a wonderful musician. And so I joined his course. And that has been so inspirational and amazing.

It’s not new, but it’s a reawakening because it was already there. He’s so deeply steeped in the tradition [that] he’s the other end of the spectrum to classical musicians. We have such great fun in conversation and how to bridge the two traditions. Asking, “How can we talk to each other?” It’s amazing.

I’ve been studying with him, and he’s become my mentor. I’m still meeting with him every month, and we’re talking about tunes and the cello and how to bring it more into the repertoire – into the Celtic music scene.

The Book: 20 Celtic Cello Duets

20 Celtic Cello Duets

CM

You released a fantastic book, 20 Celtic Cello Duets, just before the winter holidays in 2021. Please tell us more about it.

CNA

20 Celtic Cello Duets is the book that I’ve been wanting to write for 20 years because I have students, and they all say, “You’re Irish – do you have any music?” Of course, I can give them tunes, but as a teacher, I want tunes that I can play along with. If they’re beginners, they can play an easy bass line, and I can play the tune. Or, if I have two together, I can get them to play a duet.

So, the idea was to pick all of my favorite tunes, and narrow it down to 20 so that my students could learn them. I made an audio recording to go with it so that they could learn by listening as well.

I put them all in very cello-friendly keys, and the first ten pieces are all in the first position. I don’t think that takes away from the beauty of the pieces. It’s very heartwarming and satisfying to play something that you can actually play effectively and easily.

It was a lot of work. I underestimated it because I’ve been writing and arranging music for years and giving handouts and sheet music. But to get to that level where I was happy with the layout, print, and writing added another layer of detail and complexity. The arrangements were one thing, but the book production – it was the first time I did anything like this. So I’m really proud of it; it took an awful lot of work.

I hope that it brings a lot of joy to a lot of people. I’ve sent copies all over the world; I have a nice map and that was fun to track it and think, “Wow! Somebody in Australia and New Zealand and all over the United States and Canada – they’re all playing these tunes!”

20 Celtic Cello DUETS in the world

Getting Started Playing Celtic Music on the Cello

CM

How do you recommend someone with classical training to get started playing Celtic music?

CNA

I would start with this book because it’s really cello friendly, and they’re airs. As cellists, we like to play melodies – we get that. We are intuitively able to play a song and a beautiful line – that’s why we play the cello. Intentionally, I haven’t put any jigs or reels into this collection, just because I think it’s a stylistic thing.

I think these airs fall nicely into the hands, they resonate, use the instrument, and help us remember that this music comes from singing – and we know how to do this as cellists. So I would definitely start with learning slow airs and the beautiful melodies in this book.

Albums Inspired by the Pandemic and Connections to Nature

CM

You talked a bit about your first album; you’ve also made a second album, Celtic Rituals. On your website, it says we can expect the third one. Can you tell us more about this and your upcoming third album?

CNA

Celtic Rituals is my second album, which was inspired by the pandemic. I thought, “I have to get creative or go mad,” because we were all trapped, and everything was uncertain.

I couldn’t get to Ireland, and my parents weren’t well. It was a really nightmarish time. They’re fine now, but it was this feeling of “I have to do something!” That’s how it came about. And it’s interesting because I think I managed to get into a creative space where I was free.

One of the tracks is called “Idir Eatarthu,” which means “between worlds.” This is an old Celtic phrase for what it is like to be not in the other world, but not in this world – there’s this space in between. And that’s exactly what the pandemic felt like: we weren’t in the old world; we weren’t in the new world. And when I went back and listened to it, I thought, “I don’t remember how I did it.” I don’t even feel like it’s my music; it just flowed through me. And I think there’s some of that quality in the music of being in the moment and allowing it to come through.

My first album had one original track on it, and this one has nine originals, but using Celtic elements, keys, and colors – and using the idea of ritual. And in my imagination, thinking about how the Celtic people would have lived – what they would have brought to their fire. That’s the second album.

On the third one, I would really like to focus on connecting even more to nature. In the second album, I have a song called “Cailleach na gCrann” (“The Tree Witch”), in which I’m singing the names of the Celtic trees in Irish and then playing the cello – weaving the voice in the cello.

I think this will probably be the seed for the next album, whether to expand the idea of each Celtic tree or take ideas from nature. I live near a forest, and I walk there every day. Trees are amazing beings, and I want to celebrate them and honor them.

Her Cello – A Love Story

CM

What cello or cellos do you play? Do you play different ones in different contexts?

CNA

I have two cellos. One of them is the one that you would have seen, the one that I usually play in masterclasses or videos. It is a beautiful German cello made by Martin Dihl in 1781, and that’s a total love story cello.

I was in a music store, looking for sheet music, and I heard this cello – somebody was playing it. I thought, “What? Oh, my goodness!” So I asked, “Who’s that? What is that?” It was really exciting. And he said, “Oh, this is this cello. But that’s the solo cellist of I Musici in Rome, and he’s come to take it – so forget it.” I said, “Well if he doesn’t like it, can you just let me know?”

And so what happened was, it’s a historic instrument, and he was six feet tall or more, and it was too small for him. It was literally too small for him, so the cello came back! I mean, from outside – from another room that cello just – it’s just one of those stories. I love it.

The other cello I play is from Brussels – Darche is the maker, from 1861, I think. I’m fortunate I have two beautiful instruments. It’s at the music school where I teach so that I don’t always have to have a cello on my back. I have one at home and one in music school – a nice one.

The Celtic Cello Club

CM

I was very fortunate to have been able to attend your masterclass, which was a warm-up for your Celtic Cello Club that you only open up once a year. Your masterclass made me want to join the club. Please tell us more about The Celtic Cello Club and any other online courses you teach.

CNA

The Celtic Cello Club meets live once a month. It’s exciting – I have members, including cellists from the US and Canada, all over Europe, and Kenya, which is wonderful. Every month I send out the sheet music for three new tunes, plus a video and audio so that they can learn the tunes when they’re out for a walk.

When we meet in the masterclass, I go into how to teach – I have professional teachers in the class, some of them are teaching others, which is wonderful to know that it’s going to go on. I teach them how I would approach practicing it. We might take the key, and we might take a bowing style. I mix it around so that it’s maybe a jig or reel and an air. This month I put in a slide, and another month I’ve got a hornpipe so that we’re getting to know all the different styles.

I don’t just send one sheet – I send, for example:

“Here’s the basic tune. Now here it is with fingerings. Then here it is as a duo, and here it is with the duo fingerings. And here it is with ornamentation, optional. And here it is in another key if you want to play it in the higher position.”

There are at least five or six sheets for each tune, so it’s really in-depth. Everybody can pick the level they need and want to work with.

The live class has been evolving because I had some quite advanced players and some intermediate players. And so, I made breakout rooms with intermediate and advanced players. Plus, I record everything so they can review the material if they missed the class or if they want to go back and watch.

What has just evolved now is that I’m actually giving kind of mini-coaching sessions. I ask, “Would anybody like to play one of these tunes?” If I have a volunteer – now that they know each other, they’re more courageous – they play for me. That’s my favorite part. If somebody plays, I see exactly what they need.

You don’t have to play the whole tune – you can play four bars – and I know what you need. So that’s also taking away the pressure of performance. Then I say, “Okay, well, it could be your posture, your bow hold, it could be this – turning your left hand a bit more forward – so that everybody learns from that. I think it’s a great way to be in a community and a masterclass. The community spirit is so wonderful.

I also have a Facebook group, and it’s so lovely to see what they post between sessions so that people stay in touch. Some people have even created a little practice pod group where they meet. It’s really fantastic.

At the moment, I have 16 people in it, and I hope to double it by next year. The more advanced people, if they’re teachers, see how I teach intermediate people. I think it balances out well. Or if it’s really advanced stuff, they just think, “Well, I’ll watch the recording later.” And I always give them a bass line and say, “If it’s too fast, just go down and play the bass line to play along.”

This September, the Celtic Cello Club will be opening up again, and I’m sure I will have some masterclasses running up to it.

Upcoming In-Person Courses

We’re getting back to live music which is fantastic. I’m teaching in the Swiss Alps from the 19th to the 24th of April. It’s a music improvisation course that I’m teaching with a dear friend of mine from the States in Kientalerhof. And it’s just an amazing place – you can imagine, you know, like on a chocolate box – at this wonderful center for well-being and further training.

I’m coming to Canada. In August, I’ve been invited to play at the Goderich Celtic Roots Festival. So I’ll be teaching at the Celtic College the first week in August; the festival is on the 5th, 6th, and 7th of August, but the College is the week before. So if anybody wants to come to another beautiful part of the world, I’d love to meet you there.

Upcoming Online Courses

CM

Are there any online courses that you’re planning for later this year or next year?

CNA

I won’t put in more of a definite date on it, but I want to create an online Celtic cello course this year, where people can have a home study course. I had people interested in joining my class from Australia, but the time zone difference didn’t work.

In this new course, people would have a series of lessons and me talking about how to get into the Celtic repertoire. What are the pieces that are good to talk about? Ornamentation and how to use it? I know I can’t be live everywhere all the time. That’s my goal.

Don’t Let Your Cello Weep in the Corner

CM

Please keep us posted about when you launch that course. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

CNA

People sometimes forget to play the cello, even though they love to play. I think if there’s a way of building in a daily cello hygiene into your life, even if it’s just 10 minutes of playing the open G string – just do it. Because I think we’re sending a good vibration into the world, and it needs it more than ever. It’s in our body, it’s in our space, and it’s a healing instrument.

People expect too much of themselves, thinking, “Oh, I have to practice this. And I have to . . .” – and it becomes a chore rather than a joy. I think it’s important to switch how we think about it because many people own cellos, but they’re weeping in the corner – “Nobody plays me!” Just take it out and play the open strings – this amazing gift that we have. So anybody who hasn’t visited with their cello for a while, just take it out and say, “Hi.”

CM

That’s a great message. Especially now – I didn’t think the news could get worse, and it has. We can’t stop a tank with cello music, but we can maybe change someone’s day.

CNA

Absolutely. And we can change our own day. I have that feeling too, and it just gets overwhelming. But I get the cello out and I feel better. And therefore, I’m able to show up better for my immediate surroundings. If I share music with the world, maybe it goes further. I also think listening to somebody else play or a recording of a beautiful piece of cello music can also change their days, too.

Cello Music for St. Patrick’s Day

CM

Do you have a favorite piece to play for St. Patrick’s Day?

CNA

One of my favorites is called “The Road to Lisdoonvarna.” It’s in the Dorian mode. It’s so nice to play in this key on the cello. Here is a copy of a solo version and a duet version:

PDF Download

The Road to Lisdoonvarna – Cello Solo

 

PDF Download

The Road to Lisdoonvarna – Cello Duet

How to Follow and Support Clíodhna Ní Aodáin

Order 20 Celtic Cello Duets here.

Enter Our Celtic Cello Book Giveaway

Enter for a chance to win a copy of Clíodhna Ní Aodáin’s book: 20 Celtic Cello Duets. The winner will receive the book and a green Cello Museum logo T-shirt. Two runners-up will each get one of our Cello Museum stickers. The prize drawings will be held on 28 March. Only one entry per person, please.

Celtic Cello Book Giveaway

Thank you to all who entered. Congratulations to our winner and runners-up!

  • Winner: Peter Weigold, Homburg, Germany
  • Runners-up:
    • Hilde, UK
    • Asia, Belgium


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