The Continuing Journey

  Liz Davis Maxfield '09

This past January, I graduated from the University of Limerick, with a master's degree in Irish traditional music performance. During the degree conferral ceremony, I couldn't help but compare my experiences in Ireland with those during my time at Berklee. Both were eye-opening opportunities; both changed the way that I play the cello; and both ended with traditional pomp, a series of goodbyes, and that cathartic walk across the stage.

But let me back up and explain how I arrived at this place in my career. I grew up studying classical cello, performing all the while with an Irish band. While the band provided a creative outlet, it was always a low-key addition to my classical studies. But midway through my studies for a bachelor's degree in performance, I became disenchanted with the confines of the classical music scene and decided to pursue a career as a nonclassical cellist.

In 2007, I transferred to Berklee to explore innovative cello techniques and repertoire. In addition to finding self-expression, the most important aspects of my educational experience fit into three categories: theory, practice, and performance.

My theory and composition classes fundamentally changed the way I think about music. This sense of harmonic function and direction informs my playing, arranging, and writing, no matter the genre.

Berklee taught me that, for any musician, the art of efficient practicing is vital. My private teachers created a platform for me to become independent in my studies after leaving the college. They encouraged a consistent daily regimen, including scales, chord progressions, transcriptions, a small, dark practice room, and lots of repetition. They also emphasized the importance of developing one's own style that for me can come only from one-on-one time with my cello.

Performance technique was the topic of several classes at Berklee. Through these classes and numerous concerts, I became more comfortable onstage. I learned how-regardless of the quality of the music you create-eye contact, banter, and appearance can make or break a performance.

Passage to Limerick

From Berklee, I received a breadth of knowledge about numerous genres, but I felt it was necessary to delve deeper into one genre to home in on my core sound and continue to develop as a musician. As graduation approached, I discovered the Irish Traditional Music program at the University of Limerick. It seemed like a natural step to find depth by returning to my roots: the music I learned during my childhood.

Thanks to a generous Fulbright fellowship, uncanny timing, and my ever-flexible husband, we moved to Limerick in August 2009. At that point, I knew that I would be the first cellist to enroll in the program, and that I would use my studies to research and write a method book on adapting Irish music for the cello. But other than that, I didn't really know what I was getting myself into.

During the first week of classes, my adviser asked me to send her a list of musicians with whom I would like to study. When I asked who my options were, she said, "Anyone who we can bring in." Still a little shocked at my good fortune, I handpicked legends from my childhood CD collection. And to my surprise, I got to work one on one with many of them. They taught me tunes and told stories, and we worked together to adapt their phrasing and ornamentation for the fiddle, bouzouki, accordion, guitar, and uilleann pipes to the cello.

In addition to these guest workshops, I had private lessons, ensemble rehearsals, and a weekly lecture. The common threads between these classes were, in a way, parallel to my Berklee education. But no one said anything about theory, practice, and stage presence; instead my training focused on tradition, learning by ear, and craic (pronounced "crack"), which means "a good time."


The foundation for my weekly lecture was a series of articles and class discussions. We never analyzed the music harmonically, and rarely did melodic analysis. Instead we learned stories about the people who created the tradition. We listened to archive recordings to explore regional styles, micro-improvisation, and trends that had emerged over time.

We learned about so-called guidelines for playing and the absence of consistent terminology. And we discussed the process of creativity versus our allegiance to authenticity. There were no voice-leading exercises, no composition assignments, no definitive answers. I started to understand the complexity that comes with being steeped in tradition.

Learning by Ear

My private lessons were not structured around practice techniques, per se. Instead, my tutors (Siobhan People and Eileen O'Brien) would play a tune a few times until I learned the song by ear. After noting the ornaments, bowings, and variations, we would play it together repeatedly. So the tunes themselves became the scales, the études, and the repetition.

Other than private lessons (which are a relatively modern construct in the Irish traditional music world), most practicing and tune acquisition takes place during sessions.

Sessions are the most common venue for Irish music. A group of musicians congregates at a pub to play through the night. Designated as the session leader, one person starts playing a tune, and everyone who knows it joins in. Those who don't know it listen to the song a few times until they can play it by ear.

After a few rounds of the tune, the session's leader gives a signal (usually a "yip" or "hup") to go directly into the next tune. The rest of the musicians listen and join in once they recognize the tune. Session players know thousands of tunes, and many can catch on to the next tune after only two or three notes.


During my time in Ireland, we didn't have a class on the art of performance or body language or stage presence. We didn't dwell on how to cover up mistakes or beat out the competition.

But these weren't curricular omissions; in the session tradition, the focus is not on the person who creates the music or even a precise rendering of the tunes, for that matter. Rather, the musician is a filter, and the "tune spinning" is a means to create an atmosphere. Almost every pub in Ireland advertises, "Ceol agus craic," or "Music and a good time."

The interaction between musicians creates this atmosphere. Rather than making eye contact and "sending energy" to audience members, session players close their eyes and lose themselves in the spinning energy of the tunes.

Although passive listeners are politely ignored during a set, active participation is encouraged. In the middle of one session I attended, a teenage girl got up from a dining table to sing a song. The session musicians accompanied her, and the crowd joined in on the chorus. This sequence isn't unusual. Singers and dancers regularly step away from their drinks to perform a solo or join the session.

Rather than using stage presence to differentiate the musician from the audience, this situation creates a synergy that brings the two together. The feeling of community, the spinning energy, and, yes, the Guinness combine to create a delightful evening-with great craic.

Through my experiences on both sides of the Atlantic, I've learned a great deal about playing, composing, and performing. But perhaps the most important lesson I've learned is that there are countless ways to approach music. Every time I explore a new genre, university, or scene, I am exposed to fresh ideas that broaden my perspective and change my sound.

I'm not sure if I'll cross the stage in a cap and gown again, but I know that I'll continue my journey by incorporating these influences and seeking new opportunities to enrich my music. And in the process, I hope to inspire other cellists to do the same.