Learning to Play the Ancient Irish Instruments
Irish bronze horns are by no means unique in the world of music, though they do belong to a particular wind instrument family. This is called the single cavity family. The essential feature is an open mouthpiece which allows the entire length of the instrument to resonate a note. Other members are animal horns from Africa, didgeridoo from Australia, wooden trumpets from the Amazon and various sea shells from around the world.
It is possible to listen to recordings of surviving players and traditions of some of these instruments and gain insight into the properties and possibilities of bronze horns. While no tradition of the Bronze Age survives in Ireland our present day music and song still contain certain rhythms and properties to which the horns lend themselves. It is thought that the Irish drum or bodhrán is at least as old as the horns and maybe older. Therefore, it is no surprise to discover that these two ancient instruments work extremely well together.
Different sizes and types of horns require varying playing technique. The larger end blow instruments from further South can be played in a manner very similar to the Australian didgeridoo. This involves using circular breathing and complex lip, mouth and upper body movements and pressures to vary tone and rhythm. Smaller side blow horns can be played intermittently as horn players from Africa do. Several notes can be produced using the hand in the bell and tones can be enhanced through mouth and voice control.
Though more difficult, circular breathing can be used on side blow instruments. By employing a particular tongue technique some of the horns can be made to produce a strong overtone series. This can be compared with the overtone singing of Northern Europe, Nepal, Tibet and Mongolia. The discovery of these extraordinary musical properties was made during the recording of original horns for the Coirn na hÉireann. For anyone wishing to learn to play Irish horns it is a great advantage to have already achieved some measure of competency on a didgeridoo or equivalent plastic or wooden pipe. The ideal size of such a pipe is approximately 3 cm or 1.25 inches in diameter and 1.2 meters or 4 feet long. It is advisable to fashion a smooth mouthpiece at one end to facilitate the lips. The note is achieved by vibrating the lips loosely together into the mouthpiece.