Can you play a tune ‘the wrong way’?

Can you play a tune ‘the wrong way’?

Christ, I’ve ground my teeth for hours wondering if I should reply to this one. "’authorities’ telling people they’re playing a tune ‘the wrong way’". My conclusion was, ‘No, I shouldn’t touch that with a ten foot pole.’ But despite my better judgement, I’m here to tell ya, it is possible to play a tune completely and utterly incorrectly.

The key difference between playing DIFFERENTLY and playing CORRECTLY and playing BADLY is a matter of understanding. There is no amount of words that can convey the meaning of that phrase. If a group of Donegal style players say that your Sligo style is incorrect, then shame on them! But, if a player places an emphasis on vibrato, flashy playing, bows every note, and generally loses the swing of the tune, then they are playing neither CORRECTLY or even (more diplomatically) DIFFERENTLY. There is room to grow in this tradition, but this change must come from a thorough understanding of that tradition. Once someone has that, they may introduce as many changes as they like. No ‘authority’ would ever say anything against them. They wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. The music grows and changes when you play it with understanding and sympathy to those who came before you. That’s what makes it a tradition.

Re: Can you play a tune ‘the wrong way’?

scrape….. scratch…. scritch….. That is the sound of me dragging my soap box across the floor. Ahem, a little throat clearing….

Just seeing the subject header for this thread gets my ‘dander’ up. :O)
Perhaps, that is because I thought I played terribly for the first ten or twelve years. Yet, other people were able to find enjoyment in the music I played when the circumstances were right. That gave me the encouragement to continue. And now I find myself getting tremendous enjoyment listening to the music of other beginning fiddlers.

I guess it comes down to our personal interpretation of terms such as "wrong", "correctly", etc. I prefer to think that I played "differently", and not "incorrectly", due to the fact that people enjoyed the tunes.
If we think of fiddling as the self -expression of the of the fiddler, then by definition, any music played by the fiddler, must express some aspects of the person. From that point of view, all music is perfect, regardless of intonation, sense of rhythm or lack thereof, etc… It will be different from the expression of other fiddlers, and it should be. It could be argued that every fiddler is necessarily different from every other fiddler, and the magnitude of the difference is simply a matter of degree.

While the music may or may not be defined as Irish, or any other style, I just can’t think of it as "wrong", or "incorrect". It is the perfectly accurate self expression of the fiddler.

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAgh, clunk…. Just fell off the soapbox…. :O)

Re: Can you play a tune ‘the wrong way’?

Well, this is a fine can of worms, isn’t it?

I don’t think anyone would say that there’s NO wrong way to play a tune - putting a disco back beat behind a reel, for example, would just seem wrong to me (although there are probably those who would enjoy it and dance to it *shudder*); what I think is that when an artistic form stops evolving, it starts stagnating. Go to the BBC Virtual Session site, and within those recordings you’ll hear slight variations, different players palying different notes, even what sounds to my ears like a few wrong chords on the guitar hereand there.

Everyone interprets music a little differently - do you play a d or a c-natural as the second note of the second section of The Butterfly? I’ve heard both, and both have been recommended in the comments on this very site. I bet there are people out there who not only prefer one or the other, but become irate when they hear someone play the "wrong" one, and make a point of lecturing newcomers on which is the right note! There may even be a war over it one day - or at least a fistfight!

Yes, it’s good to learn the traditional rules. But it’s also good to occasionally bend or even break them.

Re: Can you play a tune ‘the wrong way’?

KABOOM! — just blew up my soapbox.

Now that I’m sober *hic* I think I ought to say that I am an Irish trad fiddle player who happens to play CORRECTLY very BADLY but with enough knowledge not to say I play DIFFERENTLY. Now some people say I’m very good, but personally, I’m not happy with it, and I guess that’s paramount to me.

As far as the Butterfly goes, I’ve played d on the second phrase forever. But what a wonderful thing that c-natural is! I just pulled out the fiddle and gave it a go. My vote is for c-natural on that one, and I don’t care how it was originally done! If someone told me I was incorrect, I’d thank him very much. *Thank you Jeff!*

I wouldn’t consider the BBC Virtual Session tunes to be anything but the good stuff. It’s a fine site and odd things here and there don’t detract from the sound at all. If I could even make those mistakes *if they are at all* , I’d be happy!

Re: Can you play a tune ‘the wrong way’?

Hmmm…I can’t make much sense out of this topic unless we’re clear about our context here. When we say "wrong" or even just "different," what do we mean? Wrong as compared to WHAT? Some of us apparently want to talk about what defines Irish traditional music, while others focus more on individual interpretation and style (or even simple ability). But what is "wrong" to the traditionalist may be the element that makes the music sing for the individualist, and vice versa.

When someone talks about right and wrong in music, I hear that they want to impose their views on others. Wouldn’t we be better off talking about "preferences" or likes and dislikes, which would allow musicians to sort themselves into like-minded sessions with far less elitism and hostility. I know what I like (and have described it in other discussion threads). And I seek out people with similar musical preferences. This is probably how the "tradition" evolved. I doubt that the original musicians met first to draft a declaration of traditional musical does and don’ts. That notion arose only after the music had been around a few hundred years.

I may not want to spend much time playing with people who have different musical tastes, but that doesn’t make them "wrong" or less musical.


Posted .

Re: Can you play a tune ‘the wrong way’?

I should unearth the sentiment that has been eating away at me since I started reading and replying to these messages- There seems to be a lot of hostility in the world of music to people who aren’t very good. I want it to be clarified exactly who is out there playing things "the wrong way" that is actually equipped to play things "the right way" (via practice, training, etc.) but simply refuses to do so.

As far as I can see, all the people who are out there (myself included) playing things "badly" aren’t trying to insult or irritate the good players, they are just at a different level of musical development. The reason I seek out fantastic players and muster up the courage to play badly in front of them is that it is a vital part of my learning process. I need to be in the thick of things, constantly thinking "Now how is what is happening now different than what was happening when I played my tune? What’s missing?"

I could seek out sessions where everyone is at the same level as I am, but what would I learn then? The risk I take is that everywhere I go, there will be players silently fuming that I have played artlessly, too fast, too slow, too simply, or just plain badly and somehow "wrecked" the music they love.

It’s very discouraging to the learning process and deflating to hear the constant complaints about "wrong" playing. Playing the "wrong" tunes, with the "wrong" embellishments, at the "wrong" times and in the "wrong" places.

I also learn quite a bit about technique from these pages, so I’m not really complaining. I take the good with the bad. Maybe this is something we should all learn to do. Everyone knows the difference between bad and good playing, it isn’t necessary to sustain hostility to those learning who aren’t good yet, but are brave enough to swim with the big fishes.

Re: Can you play a tune ‘the wrong way’?

"The reason I seek out fantastic players and muster up the courage to play badly in front of them is that it is a vital part of my learning process."

That is the way to learn. Good for you. Maith thu! There is no other substitute. If anyone gives you any greif for doing that then that is shameful and I would personally box them about the head and shoulders for you!

The reason I started this thread *aside from having one Guinness too many*, was to illustrate that technically excellent players of the violin (or, insert your instrument here) are not always very good Irish traditional players. A technically horrible fiddler who plays CORRECTLY is a much ‘truer’ vessel of the tradition than the most technically perfect violinist who plays DIFFERENTLY.

What exactly is CORRECT? Must you sound like Micheal Coleman? Kevin Burk? Matt Malloy? to be correct? The answer is no. However, if you want to play CORRECTLY, one has to know that there is a common understanding between all the above mentioned players that goes deeper than mere technical ability, regional styles or common slavish imitation to those who came before them. They simply know how it sounds. They see the dancers feet lift off the floor. They feel it in their bones. It is a part of them. It’s that thing, when captured, that enables you to play CORRECTLY.

If you are constantly pestering musicians to teach you something about how to play Irish traditional, then you’re my kind of player and you’re welcome at any session I’m at.

Re: Can you play a tune ‘the wrong way’?

I agree with fiddler on vermouth. Her concerns about sitting in at a session and being comfortable when you’re just starting out on the learning curve are reason enough to shun players who harp on about right and wrong. I’ve hung around a number of top flight players and I can’t recall them talking in those absolutes. Instead, they usually say something like, "If you bow it like this, or move the beat here, it lifts the tune up, don’t ya see." Of course, the point is that their way was an improvement over what I was doing, but none of these A-tier players ever told me I was doing it "wrong."

We’d all be better off if we focused more on simply feeling the music rather than worrying about whether we were feeling it rightly or correctly. Other than the mechanical aspects I brought up in another thread, the lift is best learned by osmosis. Play with good players and your bones will feet it too.


Posted .

Which is to say, I’m happiest when beginners and advanced players welcome each other and enjoy the music together, making allowances for differences in technical ability.

The odd thing is, once you’ve played this music for a few years, it’s easy enough to sometimes be the "best" player in the room and other times be the "worst" just by moving from one session to another. And labels such as best, worst, right, and wrong are counterproductive, and usually tell more about the labeler than the labelee.

Want a peak experience? Seek out sessions that welcome all abilities AND respect players with talent, experience, knowledge. If you can’t find one, start your own.

Posted .

Re: Can you play a tune ‘the wrong way’?

Just a few words (which may turn into a long winded reply ๐Ÿ™‚ for fiddler on vermouth. As far as people declaring that something is right or wrong; don’t worry about it. I’ll bet that nobody has ever said that to your face during your musical career. It is an internet thing. Wear it like a badge of honour. I have seen an American fiddler question one of the top Irish fiddlers on his description of ornaments. I have seen an English fiddler question a top Irish born dancer on her ability to dance hornpipes correctly. I am sure that I will see it again and again. If you ever encounter it, don’t take it personally.

Bear in mind that Caoi mghgin was referring to something entirely different than anyones personal level of ability with the instrument.
If I understand Caoi mghgin correctly, he was talking about how faithfully a fiddler captured the genuine Irish style.

But, for the sake of discussion, I will take issue with that as well. Which genuine Irish style? According to THE GARLAND ENCYCLOPEDIA OF WORLD MUSIC, "In 1951, members of the Pipers’ Club formed the musicians’ organization Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann. They organized competitive local, regional, and national festivals each year…… Looking for opportunities to play informally, experienced and beginning musicians began to gather in so-called pub sessions; in the process, they created a new tradition of collective playing."

The point is; the music which we identify today as the "pure drop",
actually is quite different from Irish traditional music prior to 1950.
The dance has changed as well, as it is usually accompanied by accordion, which entered traditional music sometime around the beginning of the 20th century. The accordion is almost always played with a rhythm quite different from the fiddle, and dancers have had to adjust to that.

Further, old recordings may not be the perfect documentation of the old styles. For the most part, only the best fiddlers were recorded. A visit to any old time fiddlers convention will confirm that for every great fiddler, there exist hundreds of others, each with uniquely different styles. A collection of the most advanced fiddlers is not necessarily representative of fiddling in general.

So, it gets pretty dicey to attempt to determine what the traditional style was. Conversely, it is quite simple to discover what styles are currently in vogue.

Scotty’s bullseye

In other words, the "tradition" encompasses a zillion individual styles and abilities. Just because lots of people try to emulate Michael Coleman doesn’t mean that’s the only "acceptable" Sligo style, and it certainly isn’t the only "acceptable" Irish style. Listening to concerts and recordings only skims the surface of all the trad players out there—like an archaeologist trying to decipher ALL of our culture by watching only reruns of MTV. You miss a lot, much of it splendid stuff.

What all this advice boils down to is: when someone critiques your playing as "wrong" or "not traditional," smile and take pity on the poor soul’s limited horizons. And just keep playing.

Posted .

Re: Can you play a tune ‘the wrong way’?

Sessions have not been going on a few hundred years, rather less than a hundred. The players used to be pretty much soloists, very protective of their own versions, because the tunes were their livelihood. Playing Irish music together in groups is a very recent thing. Sessions as they are known today came about in approximately the 1950’s, as a result of people listening to ensemble playing of the tunes on recordings.

From a 1994 discussion on IRTRAD:
"…authorities such as Breandan Breathnach and others agree that Irish music as played traditionally was a solo, unaccompanied
musical form. Furthermore, the artistry of the music depends for a large extent on the variation and ornamentation of the basic tune by the

Re: Can you play a tune ‘the wrong way’?

Alice, great stuff… but…

I fear that I have changed the subject of discussion. In reading back through the earlier comments, I think that I misinterpreted Caoimghgin. In rereading, I think that his point was that a player can play a tune without "giving life to the tune", regardless of the skill level of the player. And conversely, a less advanced player can "bring a tune to life". My apologies to Caoimghgin!

This, however, has turned into a great discussion. Very enlightening.

Re: Can you play a tune ‘the wrong way’?

Thank God! I was worried this thread would turn ugly!

One example. I knew a young fiddler named Jody (who has since moved out of the Dallas area) and she was simply a HORRIBLE fiddler in every possible way. Sloppy, undiciplined, wrong bow strokes, you name it. But (and I’m not lying here) I could listen to her play all night long. The old-time fiddlers in America have a saying, "Rough but right". Jody happened to like my playing very much and she constantly asked for any advice I could give her. The things I could tell her were childs play compared to the things she already understood. She was ‘Right’ in a way that I might spend the rest of my life searching for.

In short, I learned far more from her than she could ever learn from me, though, technically, I was the ‘better’ player. Even today, I can’t explain what it was that was CORRECT, but I can recognize it when I hear it. Some people say ‘attitude’ and I think that’s as close to the truth that my native language can approximate.

Re: Can you play a tune ‘the wrong way’?

It’s good to know a sloppy player can have fans. I am starting to realize how heavily I used to rely on my band to help me give my playing "lift" - It’s not that I was hiding my inexperience, it’s just that I was a far better player with a nice tight group to play with, and I think our audiences appreciated the energy of our playing. I could never really pull off a solo performance though. Now that I’ve moved and don’t have a band to play with any more, I’m heading in a totally new direction - trying to unlock the tunes so that they sound good on the fiddle alone. It’s a tough nut to crack.

Incidentally, Alice, If people were not playing Irish music together until they heard ensemble recordings of it, how was the recording made in the first place? Who were the ensembles?

Re: Can you play a tune ‘the wrong way’?

You know, I’m enjoying this particular thread a lot. I’ll weigh in again and say that what I noticed at BBC Virtual Session weren’t what I’d call mistakes but rather variations in individual style from player to player, and occasionally different players playing different notes in the course of a single tune (like one fiddler playing a d in The Butterfly and the guy next to him playing the c instead). The fact that all these presumably good and respected players sat down together and recorded these tunes, and that you don’t hear anyone yelling and screaming in the recordings about the differences tells me that it’s really less picky than you might think.

I’ve always personally felt that anyone who felt they needed to jump all over a beginner or less skilled player probably doesn’t have much confidence in their own playing. We were all beginners once, and who didn’t sound like a dying cat the first time they put a bow to a string? It’s much classier, more polite and shows more confidence to say, "Hey, not bad - why don’t you try this" than "Yer fackin’ spalpeen! Yer doin’ it all wrong!"

By the way, Caoi, I vote for the c in The Butterfly too, partly because that’s how I first heard it and partly because it just sounds cool ๐Ÿ˜‰


Ensemble playing and sessions

The sources that Alice quotes are widely cited as "the word" on the relatively recent advent of sessions as we know them today. But I wonder if people are misinterpreting that info in terms of Irish musicians playing together at all in the centuries before 1950. Earlier histories and personal accounts speak often of 2 or more fiddlers or pipers gathering at a house to swap tunes and to play for dancers. The oral record is full of stories about a master player travelling through and staying at the home of a local musician, which quickly becomes the gathering point for most of the local musicians hungry for new tunes. In some cases, only one or two instruments would be out at a time (in deference to the guest perhaps, or for fear that local instruments and skills wouldn’t measure up?), but it wasn’t unheard of for 2 or 3 players to crank out a few tunes together.

By the 1920s, bands were forming to play for dances. The Ballinakill Traditional Dance Players was one of the earliest, numbered at least 8 (pipes, fiddles, and flute) and began playing for dances in 1926. It would be hard to believe that they formed without any precedent for ensemble playing.

These "ensembles" no doubt remained small, especially compared to today’s gatherings, but it goes against all common sense to assume that Irish musicians never played together before 1950 or even 1900. A more useful distinction may be to say that pub sessions are a more recent phenomenon, and so are ensemble *performances.* But informal playing in pairs or even small groups probably dates back almost as far as the instruments themselves. And for most of us, that’s how it is today, too. Playing with friends and family, for fun.


Posted .

Re: Can you play a tune ‘the wrong way’?

Will, I agree with your interpretation of the available records, though of course I am going on nothing but intuition. Having been a musician and associated with musicians for most of my life, I can’t imagine a group of people getting together without somebody whipping out a guitar and everyone else singing along. The whole point of music is to bring things together. Either bring musicians together or bring music to dancers or just bring music to the musician. It has a tendency to gel things together everywhere it is found. Of course this wholistic attitude is completely unsupported by anthropological research that I’m aware of… the point is it’s tough to take an analytical approach to anything so intuitive. If early players were exclusively soloists, how did they learn anything? There had to be a moment where there were at least two players together sharing tunes and some kind of rustic musical theory. In older oral Irish historians I’ve met, the genealogy of tunes goes back many generations, from "Jimmy O’Breslin wrote this tune back in the late 1900’s and taught it to his next door neighbour, who brought it to Cork on holiday and taught it to Kieran O’Malley, ad infinitum, bla bla bla, until I heard it from my auntie Pat at our last family reunion." It makes it sound like a much tighter community (looser?) than the research suggests. Could it have been brought into the pubs as an inevitable conclusion to an ancient recognition that beer and music go together like cream cheese icing and cinnamon buns?

Get together

Not really true. In the olden times when people’s livelihood depended on having original material to play, they were very zealous of their material. You see this everywhere, from Baroque to Blues, and probably Ireland too. For example, Blues guitar players like Robert Johnson were very secretive about the tricks they invented. They would try to make it hard for people to see what fingerings they were using, etc.

It’s only recently that people have been able to do music for fun.

Re: Can you play a tune ‘the wrong way’?

Neither I, nor the quotes I posted, said players were exclusively soloists! Of course it was possible that two or more people could have played tunes together. The point is, that solo playing was by far more common, even playing dance tunes, because instruments themselves were not easy to come by. One piper or fiddler was enough to give dancers a tune. Ceili bands are a more recent development. That’s a historic fact, as is that sessions as we know them are a recent development. My point is, folk music keeps changing with the times and with the people that play it, including the instruments (fiddles, bows, strings used to be more crudely made, etc.) and the older times in Ireland were circumstances (economically, too) that made soloist by far more common.

Re: Can you play a tune ‘the wrong way’?

Since fiddler on vermouth asked….., and Will added some additional info, here is a little bit more of the same article from THE GARLAND ENCYCLOPEDIA OF WORLD MUSIC. (I consulted this and other references several weeks ago, because I, too, wanted to understand a little background)

"Music and dance were highly valued social practices in rural Ireland during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,….. Singing was traditionally unaccompanied, but instrumental music, though often solo, was played in unison by informal, impermanent groups of two or three musicians."

… "Though the dance-music tradition declined in rural Ireland (during the 1930s), it was reinterpreted as the ceili band in urban contexts among Irish emigrant communities of Britain and America. Influenced by popular dance bands of the 1920s to 1950s and consisting of multiple fiddles, flutes, accordions, piano, and drum set, ceili bands presented dance tunes in a danceable style in which rhythm, harmony and collective playing eliminated much of the ornamental subtlety of traditional solo playing….. by the 1950s it had become extremely popular, throughout Ireland and in emigrant communities."

To answer fiddler on vermouth’s particularly insightful question, "How were the recordings made in the first place? Who were the ensembles…

"Sean o Riada (1931 -1971)— a classically trained composer, who served as a music director at Radio Eireann and later at Dublin’s renowned Abbey Theatre…. developed a fourth element of the Irish fold revival. In 1960, for Bryan MacMahon’s folk play THE SONG OF THE ANVIL at the Abbey Theatre, he organized traditional musicians into a group that became known as ceoltoiri Chualann….. Through his selection of instruments and his arrangements, he effectively invented a new tradition, a fusion of his training in classical music, his ideas about Irish music, particularly the harp tradition as exemplified by Turlough ) Carolan (1670-1738), and the tunes and styles of living musicians. His choice of instruments included uilleann pipes, two fiddles, a flute, awhistle, a button accordion, a concertina, a harpsichord (which he played), and a bodhran, a goatskin frame drum…"

His group became extremely popular with the urban middle class and the artistic scene in Dublin. They recorded several influential albums for Gael-Linn. Affiliated musicians, under the leadership of the piper Paddy Moloney, became The Chieftains, …. and went on to become world-famous…"

Sorry for quoting, but it is relevant to the discussion, and it is far better than expressing the same ideas without attribution.

Re: Can you play a tune ‘the wrong way’?

Gearoid O hAllmhurain’s ‘A Pocket History of Irish Traditional Music’has a chapter or two on the near demise of the house/crossroads music and dance to other venues and I’m certain there’s a bit about it in Caoimhin MacAoidh’s ‘Between the Jigs and Reels’ too.

Re: Can you play a tune ‘the wrong way’?

"By the 1920s, bands were forming to play for dances.". My guess here is that Ireland was undergoing what we would call a "Folk Revival". Playing Gaelic Football and taking Gaelic language courses were also in vouge at this time.

How many would say, "Gaelic Football, because it is now played on a square and trimmed field surrounded by stands (bleachers), is a very different sport than it used to be." Well, they have a point, but you have to ask yourself, what did that point really mean?

Do we now have licence to make a custom built Gaelic Football field that is round or perhaps kidney-shaped because it’s a folk tradition and it’s OK to change things? Have we no right to say "That really needs to be a square field!"? To carry it to the next level, I could affect a slight lisp as I speak a phrase in Irish Gaelic. I kinda like how the words flow better, and besides who really knows how they pronounced it in 1600 anyway. ๐Ÿ˜‰

These are interesting facts that have been brought up, but what exactly are we to make of them? Are we not allowed to call it a tradition anymore, because it is so new?

Re: Can you play a tune ‘the wrong way’?

I think the best way to maintain some kind of historical integrity in all aspects of culture is to stick to the version you learned from the oldest person you know from the place you want to learn about. Then take it with a grain of salt, because everyone will have different recollections of the same era in history. A good example is the fights my grandmother and her thirteen Canadian born sisters have at family reunions when they are trying to remember the words to old Russian songs their mother used to sing.

There is no definitive truth, no definitive history, and no book where we can find an absolutely accurate account of any event that has ever occured. A lot of what we view as history is hypothesis or pure fabrication. The rest is a collection of the sometimes conflicting memories of our elders, together with bits and pieces of archeological or anthropological factoids seeking a place in the grand scheme of things.

Of course this is just MY hypothesis ๐Ÿ˜‰ but the point I’m trying to make is that though research and humbly studious attention to the culture we are all so interested in is a fundamental part of our path to understand the music and the history of its development, we should not take our selves or our sources too seriously, and arguments about what happened when and to whom are usually futile.

Caoimghgin, the best way to preserve the tradition is to simply be a vessel to contain all you learn, add as little as possible of your own ideas on how to "improve" it, then let it come out of you in whatever form it chooses - That will be your contribution to the tradition. I don’t believe any of us are trying to intellectually impose change, but as our voices are added, the tradition can’t help but change. We just try to be as informed as possible, and keep track of our sources.

Re: Can you play a tune ‘the wrong way’?

Here’s my 2 cents worth, I have been a (serious) whistler now for about 6 years and am coming along nicely.
Earlier this year I attended a weekly session that I get to several times a year(it,s 185 miles away).After listening to
another whistler,I commented to the session leader,an accomplished singer,guitarand banjo player that this fellow
could whistle "rings around me",he replied he preferred my playing as he could hear my heart and soul
in my attempts despite the odd fluffy note. The wonderful thing about traditional is how one can bend and twist it
as long as you remain true to the original spirit of the tune.A tradition cannot remain in stasis or it will die.
Just my humble opinion.Long live these great discussions.Vive le Session!

Re: Can you play a tune ‘the wrong way’?

Here’s a thought….

When Johnny Cash recorded the American sessions, he did so in a "kitchen", late at night, without any of the modern recording methods he had been used to. In his own words, there are mistakes on every single track, but he let them go, declared these sessions as his favourite recordings and left it at that.

And now that I’ve thrown Johnny Cash into the stream of things, I’ll bow gracefully out….

Re: Can you play a tune ‘the wrong way’?

The answer to this age old question is…….
Yes I almost ALWAYS manage to play every tune the wrong way.

Re: Can you play a tune ‘the wrong way’?

hahahahaha….okay, this is a really old thread, but I had to weigh in and thank Dan Mulligan. *snicker*

Here’s my answer: "Yes."