Bit-by-Bit and all together now

Bit-by-Bit and all together now

Touched on here: Discussion: By Heart
# Posted on January 31st 2010 by ceolachan
https://thesession.org/discussions/23710


Starting with a good listen to the ‘whole’ of a melody, and then dealing/learning it from the parts and working back toward accomplishing that whole, I believe there is fair reason for looking at the structure of this music in this way, teaching it this way ~ building from the parts toward the whole, the goal to make the connections and pull it all together, 100%+…

Those parts, from beats to bars to phrases ~ typically two, four and eight bars long ~ that’s part of the definition of the ‘dance’ in this dance music. It is the waft and weave that speaks to the dancers and gives the music lift and form. That lift helps lift the dancer’s feet, propelling them through steps, moves and figures. However, I have percieved an illness associated with a lack in understanding this, a diarrhea of style where the whole damn thing just runs on and into one another with little structural form and rhythmic definition. Is it that some think it’s an unnecesary concern, that they’d rather skip and ignore these rhythmic elements? I have heard its absence in ‘some’ session playing. That absence, often equated with rushing through the melody, playing it ‘flat’ out, is generally obvious to anyone with any experience playing ‘dance music’ for dancers, and/or as a dancer.

Most folks that teach this music, as I’ve experienced it, teach an awareness of that ‘definition’, one way or the other, by parts… I believe an awareness of those important rhythmic ‘parts’ has value, particularly if one honours the roots of this music ~ in particular dance… That greater wholeness, the two, music and dance, are in my sense of it integral to one another, inseperable, dependant, one. That awareness finds voice through articulation, inclusive of points of pause or silence ~ through speaking the music rhythmically ~ beat, meter, measure and phrase ~ with bow, plectrum, ornament, breath, tongue ~ drum or feet ~ or any other means of definition or accompaniment…

What are your ways or notions with this, your experience ~ the parts and the whole ~ as teacher and student?

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My ways and notions of this come from one source: my wife. Being married to a woman who grew up with Irish dance has some benefits, not the least of which is that I know I am doing something right when I am playing a tune and look over to see that look in her eye, the one that tells me she is thinking of dance steps. As a means of measuring success, it helps.

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Lucky you, a natural source… :-D

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True, but I never said how often I see that look. :(

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There seems to be an increasing element of competition in today’s players. If they can play quickly, and their triplets are fast, then they consider themselves better musicians than those who don’t feel the need for speed. All tunes become as one, to be played a neckbreaking pace, and the subtle phrases are lost in the rush. As a child I learned Highland dancing, and forty-odd years later I still picture myself going through the steps of a hornpipe when I am learning a new one, to be sure to get the phrasing right. As a pibroch player, I learned that phrasing is everything and speed is fatal. Dexterity is not speed. Speed kills. But it has a certain attraction that is hard to resist. Part of the problem is I think in the way tunes are written down, in that they tend to be learned by bars and measures rather than phrases. Changes in volume are often not considered when a tune is being learned, but can make all the difference. One method I use when playing is to imagine a sort of film, or a stage set, with different characters — hippos, rabbits, children, anything that comes to mind — and try to reflect that in my playing. After a little while I forego the imagery (you wouldn’t want to see it, I promise) but the phrasing sticks.

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ceolachan - I love the way you phrase things - "a diarrhea of style…" Not only does that appeal to my naturally vulgar side, but it sums up the concept quite nicely. A slur of notes sacrificed on the altar of speed ain’t my cup of tea either. However, to be fair, there are many players who can play at a brisk pace and do not miss any of the lift, or rhythmic definitions that make this music so great. Unfortunately, too many of us hear the speed element of those players and take shortcuts to match it, believing tempo to be the more important of the two.

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How many people know the differance between speed and timing?

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I know that this music IS dance music. I acknowledge it as a fact. But I don’t really think of it that way when I hear it. And I prefer to hear it fast. I usually, but not always, hit the skip button when I hear the airs and such.
But when I play it’s a different story. I can’t play at a fast tempo. And if I slow things way down I can do more with a tune. I have a lot more fun playing it and can play it in different ways. In the end it sounds much better. But man I do wish I could play it fast.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6miucjSSR-o

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I never really understood reels until I danced to one.

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There’s a long way between playing hell-for-leather, too fast for your ability or for the tune, and playing airs.
The key, I think, is to be able to play at quite slow tempos and keep the feel of the dance. It’s a liitle like the idea of a slow race on motorcycles. I’ve only been told about this idea, but as I understand, the winner is the one who finishes the course in the maximum time, without losing their balance or their forward motion. Since a cycle depends on the gyroscope effect of the spinning wheels to stay upright, this is a real test.
I think a similar idea holds with playing slowly - if you lose the rhythm, you’re missing the point. Dance tunes are not airs, and they mostly make lousy airs. But when you play then at very slow speed, you can start to hear the phrases that you miss at breakneck paces. It’s those phrases that call the steps to mind, I think. And while I don’t like breakneck tempos for tunes, I find that over time my threshold for "breakneck" increases, bit by bit, and I think part of that is from playing the tunes slowly, a lot.

Jimmy, I bet if you can get that look when you’re playing a tune at half-speed, you’ll get it more often when you bring it back up to full throttle.

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c, I learn and teach tunes the same way: singing the natural phrases of the melody. The singing is in my head but usually comes out on my fiddle.

This has nothing to do with bar lines or other visual reference points—it’s all by sound and feel of the rhythm and timing. (Rhythm is the beat, timing is what happens between the beats.)

The only difference I notice between learning a tune and handing it on to someone else is that, when I learn it, I simultaneously vary the phrasing and timing. When handing a tune on, I find most people want just one way to play the tune—any variations would be a "distraction."

That feels like a disservice to the music, but not everyone’s ready to absorb the whole ball of wax….

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Having learned music by playing for dancers, I was very quickly "put to order" by the dancers, and when I play for dancers, I try to play at the right speed for dancing, but also at the speed I can give the lift of the dance. I have noticed over the years that if you give the right lift, dancers can go on dancing about forever. If you don’t give it, you see people sitting down after 3-4 dances. And when I dance, I get more easily tired if the music isn’t played with that lift. And I get bored with tunes played too fast, where the only admirable thing is the technique of the player - of which you get over after one tune… so when I teach, I always tell my pupils that to learn quickly you have to play slowly, and that speed isnt the aim… but some people don’t understand that… somtimes (but not too often…) I like to play a set fast in a session… but then there’s no dancing. Oh for a slow and swinging hornpipe !

Tangential point … .

Staying on a bicycle or motorcycle is almost nothing at all to do with the gyroscopic effect of the spinning wheels. It’s to do with the fact that by steering left or right your are able to constantly fine-adjust your point of support to the left or right to keep it below your centre of gravity.

A bit like balancing the broom on the end of its handle on the tip of your finger.

If anyone wishes to discuss this further, this is not the place to do it. Maybe I shouldn’t even mention it, I dunno. I’d really dislike for anyone to follow this tangent any further as that would detract from a really good thread.

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Back on the important subject of the thread - what you write is very good Coelacanth, and almost moving.

Technicall it is possible to dance to a metronome. Or one stage better - banging the rhythm on a drum and blowing a referee’s whistle at the eight bar points.

BUT that would be to miss the point that C so beautifully illustrates - that the music and the dance are a wonderful interweaving of the sounds and the movements.

I didn’t start out playing for dancers, but now that I do it adds a whole extra dimension. If playing themusic alone is a beautiful picture then playing for dancing is like being in the place where the picture was taken, and hearing the sea and the gulls and smelling the wind.

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After c’s By Heart thread I have been trying to find an analogy to use instead of this 100%+ business. One not-quite-right-idea was a place where you could remember the view or take a picturef. Then come back in different weathers or a different times of year and do it again. Each time 100+ but the actual view being more than that. Hadn’t thought of the seagulls and smell.

Miss L - using that analogy some of us beginners need to learn to appreciate it on one day before coming back for the vaiations.

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Each time 100% but the total opportunity for experience being more than that

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I know it is dance music, but is that a reason to play fast? I think I mentioned this before: my father played the pipes for us kids at our dance classes. One day he was asked to play for someone giving a performance, and he agreed. They started off together, but, as my father later told me, ‘he leaped into the air and I was half way through the tune before he came down’. People come in all shapes and sizes and have various abilities. A trained dancer can hang in the air, but most people at a dance just want to enjoy themselves, not compete. Not being Irish, I should perhaps keep my nose out; but there seems a lack of consensus that I find baffling. Perhaps that is the Irish way, and part of the tradition.
When I go about learning a tune I start at the speed at which I can play without a mistake. I am just walking the course, as it were. Looking over the fences. Then as I speed up, I become aware of changes: compartmentalizing, re-wiring, filing, I don’t know. But phrases take shape, rather like stepping back from a pointellist painting. Round about 100 bpm for reels, the structure of the tune is clear. Anything less seems a little slow; but that may be because of my piping background: competition reels=104 bpm. No question. Some tunes invite that little bit extra, a few have a more leisurely feel. But I never play as fast as I can. It is not just a matter of physical ability: there seems to be a kind of bow-wave (fiddlers pronounce that how you will) in my brain anticipating my movements, organizing everything, clearing a path. It’s hard to describe; but I know when I am playing too fast, because that bit of leeway vanishes. Instead of knowing what is coming, I know what has just happened. Too late to do anything about it. I can keep going, even play faster, but it’s not a pretty sight. I hear this often in some players: they are running on ice. They can’t slow down for fear of going super-mammary. Rather than enjoying the music, they are frantically trying to stay upright, and the expression on their faces at the end, depending on the degree of success, is either of relief or of triumph; but rarely of joy.

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I like the imagery of ‘running on ice’…

Jusa Nutter Eejit: "~ there are many players who can play at a brisk pace and do not miss any of the lift, or rhythmic definitions that make this music so great."

~ Yes, that’s part of the fun, those rhythmic elements and definitions, whatever speed one chooses that one can work within and still have that control and oneness with the music… But, it wasn’t really ‘speed’ I was as concerned with here as the process of teaching this music, the process of tradition, passing it on, in pieces and as a whole.

Some people have made statements in the past and recently that suggest they dislike the method of teaching by parts. It seemed that, possibly, for them that approach didn’t work, didn’t take them where they wanted to be, and that in contrast they prefered it all-at-once rather than phrased and in parts. This is how it comes for us once we’ve been at it for a spell, but with beginners it seems most who teach take the approach of acquisition in stages, a piece at a time, building toward phrases and from phrases to parts and then putting those parts together to make a complete melody.

Nikita Pfister ~ Yes! ~ and as well, for musicians that can’t hold a steady tempo, not uncommon with session-only musicians, that lack of a secure tempo tires out the dancers, who end up struggling with such sloppiness ~ when do they step, and if also unclear on the phrasing, when do they move. The same confusion can be suffered by a caller, or can also be the cause of a phrase ignorant caller/prompter. Such things can empty the floor. I’ve seen it where the person prompting the dance tries to get folks to come out for a dance to such music and the preferance is for remaining seated. Dancers quickly lose interest in erratic rhythms and missing beats… The suffer a bad caller better than sloppy music, especially as the caller can speak with them, and if they are ‘beginning’, true too with musicians, folks can be forgiving.

Sorry Fishmonger, I’m no fan of Solas, whatever speed they take. While I enjoyed the link and gave it several listens, personally I found it dull, flat. But, hey, they’ve lots of fans out there and my opinion is just that, mine and one opinion… Yes, I have one of their albums, but it doesn’t get much air time…

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Trained dancers are subject to the same gravity as the rest of us. Perhaps they can jump higher, making a longer time between take off and landing. But a trained dancer cannot hang in the air. Sorry.

Perhaps it was in free fall? 8-)

Even with jumps and leaps it is about timing, the beat, the phrase…

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".. a trained dancer cannot hang in the air. " But do they just rely on gravity to place a foot ?

As does the bow of the fiddle…

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"When I play on my fiddle in Dooney,
Folk dance like a wave on the sea."

http://www.irishfiddle.com/fiddlerofdooney.html

Folk dance like waves on the sea…

They dance to tunes that sound and are played like waves on the sea…

Or do your tunes come rushing ashore in a destructive flood, drowning dancers, listeners and other musicians?

OK, no more poetic analogies for this fiddler before I’ve had my coffee.

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Mr. C, you are always thought provoking with this stuff we love!

You call it "a diarrhea of style" which is hilarious. I’ve always called it the ‘vomit of notes’, that destructive Tsunami of music that comes barfing out at you with no waves or phrasing, depending ont he analogy we’re using.

OK, really now, coffee time.

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Jon -

I usually do practice reels at a little slower than typical dance speed, usually around the 95-100 BPM neighborhood, because that is a comfortable speed for me on my mando, but other tune types are pretty much at standard dance speed. I still get the look, but she does tend to acknowledge that they are a tad below tempo. Then I tell her it’s a good thing I’m not playing for a ceili band, not that they would accept a mando player anyway. :)

A tsunami of notes ~ destroying everything in its wake… :-D

C - - O - - F - - F - - E - - EEEEEeeeeee… :-O

Sorry Jimmy, that was for SWFL… I still have about an hour before the espresso is espressing…

Mandos are a favourite instrument in this house… :-)

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showaddydadito: I did not mean literally hang. Unless they give themselves enough rope.

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I’m back, fully charged! [zing!]

Jimmy, was herself a step dancer? You could play her a double jig at around 80 bpms and tell her that it’s a "Treble Jig", she’d know what to do with it. ;-)

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"Staying on a bicycle or motorcycle is almost nothing at all to do with the gyroscopic effect of the spinning wheels. It’s to do with the fact that by steering left or right your are able to constantly fine-adjust your point of support to the left or right to keep it below your centre of gravity."

Well, drat. Shows you can’t believe everything you hear. I’ll never believe anything I hear again.
Acknowledging that I was wrong on the physics, I still think the analogy holds.

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SWFL -

Yes, she has mentioned treble jigs before. She’s danced ‘em all at some point in the past. Used to compete. I’m encouraging her to get back into it for her own enjoyment after our second son is born. We’ll see.

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She really likes slip jigs, and I have yet to learn one. I’m a terrible husband.

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Getting back to the original thought…maybe:

The neatest tune teaching technique (TTT) I’ve seen is used by Paul Oorts who claims it is The Way in Belgium. Play first phrase and learner echos. Continue until the phrase is in place, then play the first and second phrases. When learner is comfortable add the third phrase.

There are several nice advantages to this technique: As the tune goes along the learner will get better at the "expressing" the parts already in place. The teacher can introduce variation in parts already played as a challenge and also as a means of understanding the variation. And, tempo can be started below intended speed and gradually increased so the learner finds they may be playing at an acceptable tempo by the time the piece is learned.

Key to this is picking the bits to be added to the tune. They usually match nicely with a couple of bars of notated music, but not always. Folks who know the tunes the teach will almost always get it right though.

As to speed: The right tempo is the on at which you can play the music of the tune, note just the notes. Nothing is worse than players who go too fast to express the music. Nothing is more exciting than players who play very fast but continue to express the music.

BTW, nice slip jig

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AAARGH

The tunes they teach!

And, obviously the idea of adding phrases continues until the whole tune is covered.

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Right - sorry Ceolachan, I missed the intent of your thread by focusing on the diarrhea part.

I was taught tunes by a Scots fiddle player initially, who, much like cboody’s description above, had me sing the notes of each part/phrase first until they were in my head. Then we took up instruments and began sussing out the phrases.

I’ve taught myself tunes this way ever since. Hear it, sing it, play it.

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Hear it ~ Sing it ~ Play it ~ yes, I like that, and working up to phrases and then parts and the whole.

cboody ~ no problem, the 3rd phrase is quite often the same as the first, or very close… :-P