The Bodhran

My mother hails from Ireland, and my paternal great-grandparents are also from the old sod. I like to flaunt my pure bloodlines at my hubby, who has a beautiful mix of ancestry: a little Irish — hence the Kelly name — plus German, French, Dutch, and African. He says the mixed blood is the reason he’s so multitalented and good looking.

But with our children, I push the Irish heritage. And this time of year, out come the shillelagh, the stone Celtic cross, the turf, Belleek china, Waterford crystal, and lots of Irish music. This year, we will add an Irish drum to the collection, a bodhran.

Gerard Nolan (619-309-6167, teaches the bodhran (pronounced bough-rawn) and owns the entertainment company Cashel Entertainment, which offers Irish music and dancers for events.

“The Bodhran is what they call a framed drum,” explains Nolan. “It has a single skin on one side. Some bodhrans now come in different types of skin, but generally a good bodhran is made with goatskin. The frame of the drum can be all different types of wood.

“The technique is the same for all sizes of drums,” he continues. “The smaller the drum, the higher the pitch is going to go. The most common is the 18-inch diameter, but you can get smaller ones. For a beginner I would recommend an 18-inch because they are easy to find. Some cheaper ones will often come with designs on them such as the Guinness emblem or a Céad Mile Failte.” Nolan says those are more decorative, for sitting on your shelf. “If you are a serious player, over time the design is going to wear off anyway.”

The bodhran is played by striking the drum using a snapping, back-and-forth motion with a double-ended stick called a tipper. “You’re not brushing with the stick,” Nolan says, “you’re definitely getting a bounce off the skin. One thing I tell my students is that it is like you are going to turn the handle of the door. Put your hand on the round handle, and you’re turning it backwards and forwards. That is the motion that you use for hitting the drum. Your hand is going backwards and forwards as if you are opening a doorknob, and you want to get a little snap in that as well.

The traditional way to play the bodhran is to have the non-tipper hand hold the back of the instrument. “Your non-stick hand is on the back of the drum, and it can manipulate the skin by pressing on it or moving the hand up and down so you can get a high tone or a low tone.

“Some modern players are using a large piece of round wood on the back of the drum and are moving that around, and that gives it a slightly different sound as well. You can get much more of a chromatic, slide-down sound down with the wood. People are experimenting and taking things as far as they can go.

“Another modern development with the drum,” adds Nolan, “is that some professional-level bodhrans are tunable. The ones that you might buy in a shop with the design on it or the ones that are marketed toward tourists are usually not tunable. So the weather is going to have an effect on them. If it is hot, the skin will get looser; if it is cold, it will get tighter. You are kind of at the mercy of the elements. But with a tunable drum — whatever the conditions are, weather-wise — you can adjust your drum so that it will always have the optimum sound.”

Nolan says the bodhran is not a difficult instrument to learn to play. “With a drum set, you are using four limbs to do four different things. There is a certain amount of interdependency that you need to learn with your feet and your hands when you play a drum set. With the bodhran, you are using two — one hand is rhythmic, and the other hand is to change tones. As with drums, the bodhran player has to learn how to play and keep time and interact with other musicians. When the bodhran plays, it is in a supporting role to what the melody instruments are playing.”

Nolan offers lessons on the Irish drum for $30 per half-hour lesson at his studio in Lemon Grove or at Nick Rail Music on Sabre Springs Parkway.

If you’re interested in purchasing a bodhran, Nolan recommends The drums run from $53.75 for a 14-inch tunable black bodhran to $113.97 for a 16-inch tunable rosewood model.

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