Catch up with James Cavanagh #MNGrade1athon Challenge

James Cavanagh in rehearsal with Symphonic Waves Youth Orchestra © Cormac McMahon.

Image: James Cavanagh in rehearsal with Symphonic Waves Youth Orchestra © Cormac McMahon.

James Cavanagh, recently retired professor of trumpet and head of performing groups at the RIAM, is learning the uilleann pipes as part of the Music Network Grade-1-a-thon Challenge. All funds raised during the challenge go directly to our Instruments for Older People Appeal. We caught up with James to find out how he's getting on...

James, you’re a highly accomplished conductor and trumpet player. Why take up uilleann pipes?

To be honest there are many different types of projects I have always wanted to undertake not least the opportunity to play the uilleann pipes. The sound of the pipes is exquisite. Being an extremely busy professional musician has prevented me from having the time to engage with the uilleann pipes but the opportunity has finally arrived through lockdown.

When did you start learning to play the uilleann pipes, and how have you been finding the process so far?

I managed to procure a loan of a beginner set of pipes in November but made the mistake of tackling them right away and without guidance. Before long I had quickly developed many inappropriate habits, some not very helpful to playing the uilleann pipes. We have all heard the old adage about “old habits being hard to break”. It’s fair to say that playing the pipes is a heck of a challenge with multi-tasking a prime requisite. So demanding.

Are you getting lessons or teaching yourself?

Really lucky that a longtime friend is one of the founders of Na Píobairí Uilleann and one who is steeped in the organic traditions of the pipes. Also blessed to have the acquaintance of one of our current great exponents of the instrument. They are both generously giving me their time on Zoom, all of which is a voyage of discovery. Mind you, Zoom also finds the pipes quite challenging.

What’s the hardest thing about adjusting from a trumpet to a pipe?

Definitely the multi-tasking. The trumpet demands good breath control, a good embouchure and three fingers on the right hand. The pipes need two hands, NINE fingers, TWO elbows, a right knee and bravery. But most of all, the challenge posed by the incredibly volatile and unpredictable reeds.

Do you have any particular practice routine?

As you are aware traditional Irish music is mainly around playing and exploring tunes like slow airs and dances. As a beginner I have concentrated on slow airs (kept it easy). This helps to develop a bit of technique and co- ordination. Progress is mainly measured through the addition of new tunes. My approach has been to incrementally add a new tune, say every week or two. This is always followed by treating myself to playing my already familiar pieces, it’s a sort of reward system. Lately my mentors added two Irish jigs to my homework. This is where the real business seems to begin. Be sure it will be a very long time before anyone gets the urge to dance to my jigs on the uilleann pipes.

Who is your hero uilleann piper?

Great question. There are some magnificent exponents of the instrument out there at present, too many to mention. Having said that Seamus Ennis, Leo Rowsome and Liam O’ Flynn are the stand out pipers. They sing via their instruments and their virtuosity is something to behold. Just listen any of these three pipers play The Fox Chase.

Do you have a “desert island” uillean pipe album, recording or video that you’d like to share?

Again there are very many wonderful recordings of solo Pipes and in ensembles. My dessert island disc choice though is Planxty at Vicar Street. Hear Liam O’ Flynn soar like a bird. This CD though must be accompanied by Beethoven’s complete Quartets played by the Italian quartet.

Planxty at Vicar Street

What have you found most enjoyable about the process to date?

As a professional musician I have always recognised the importance and relevance of timbre and sound quality. The uilleann pipes are a wonderful instrument with a unique sound quality, while playing the pipes one just adores being connected with the sound. I am relishing exploring the world of our traditional customs alongside great Irish music. Given my classical music background this is all a revelation.

Do your neighbours share this enjoyment?!!

As we have recently been staying in the North West in a rural area, thankfully our closest neighbours live at least 500 metres from our home. On occasions the local Sheep and cattle have attempted to break into our property. It is just a case of whipping out the pipes and letting them have a touch Mary Had A little Lamb before they scatter into oblivion. A great deterrent.

Do you have any advice you’d like to share for anyone thinking about taking up a musical instrument as an adult?

For many years I have been a lecturer and teacher. While we have always emphasised the importance of proper technique etc., there is a universal stress on the need for regular practice. There is no greater truism than “practice makes perfect”. Now that I am on the other side of the fence, I fully realise the importance of daily engagement with the pipes. It really does help if one enjoys the practice process. I am continuously reminded by the pipes that the state of “perfection“ is a far off goal.