Why Do Irish Musicians Play Fast?

Why Do Irish Musicians Play Fast?

….because we can?

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Because dancing to slow music is boring.

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They don’t all…

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I would suggest that, in the main, good Irish(and Scottish) music played by experienced musicians who care a bit the tradition/genre don’t tend to play it excessively fast although it may seem that way at first to a beginner. There are exceptions, of course, and certain tunes do need to be played at a "fair lick" but not necessarily in "fast and furious" fashion.

In most situations, I don’t find speed to be a problem if (It’s a very BIG "if") I am familiar enough with the actual tunes and can adapt to the style of playing within that particular session. For me, the latter two aspects are more important.

Of course, in performance situations, many musicians will play extremely fast but, even then, not all the time. Otherwise, it can be just "too much of the same"(My opinion only). Some of them, especially younger musicians, will also bring this aspect of their playing into the session scene but if they are just doing their own thing together this shouldn’t be a problem for the rest of us.

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I think it is actually easier to play fast than to play slow, at least
on a fiddle. The bow almost bounces around by itself when you
get to 120+. Not a big deal on the D whistle either.

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You’d be better off saying "because they can", I think.

Meanwhile, I’m a big fan of playing at different speeds depending on the mood, the tune, the players … "the day that’s in it", as my Irish friends might say.

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In response to "…dancing to slow music is boring" I suggest that playing fast makes the music boring, and people speed up in an effort to make it less boring, or rather more exciting, thereby reinforcing the notion that the purpose of playing and dancing is excitement.
I submit that this music is better played with greater breadth and depth rather than speed.
As to dancing, gravity dictates how quickly you come down once you have left the ground. Playing fast might make dancing exciting, but then so does anything attempted against the clock. It is rather a superficial enjoyment, though.

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Speed can choke a tune. Slowing the tune down allows it to breathe.

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There’s another angle too.. you’ll often hear a good musician playing at what sounds sound like a nice easy tempo but in fact they’re playing pretty quick. Because their timing and technique is good, it sounds handy.
So an impression of speed can just be created by playing badly and mashing the notes together.

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Because they aren’t playing for dancing any more.
Really.
If you played for dancing regularly you’ld know there’s a good speed for hornpipes, reels, jigs, etc. Once the dance is going you can up the pace a bit, and you get the rhythm rocked back at you from the crowd.
Start it fast and they’ll never keep up.

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I’m a middling player. I can play about 10 tunes very fast indeed. The rest, not so much. I can’t handle a session that is all played very fast but I suppose I can appreciate that the people playing are having a good time.

My favourite player is very accomplished and she always plays nice and steady by preference.

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To get to the bar quicker.

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My default speed is slower than Ethical Blend’s! 😉

I like a variety of speeds. Laid back and bouncy and then kick it up. Not so into those sessions where everything is plated at 100mph.

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I would agree with Hup that playing fast is easier than playing slow. You can fluff your way through runs and rolls at speed and no one will notice, so bad playing sounds better speeded up. Slow down, and every note has to be just right.

But I think some of the speed originates in dance traditions. Irish step dancing happens on the spot, so the dancers are taking short, fast steps. In the set dancing common in Scotland and other areas, the dancers are moving round the room, taking longer steps which need a slower beat.

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Breaking news: there is a set dancing tradition in Ireland where the dancers move around the room.

Unsurprisingly, you can’t generalise that easily and say "Irish players do X" and "Scottish players do Y" and then come up with some spurious reason as to why this might be the case. Speed and style varies regionally, it varies from player to player, and even varies with the same player from night to night. You can make very tenuous claims which reflect the way some people in a given geographical area play, like saying Clare playing is often laid back and just hanging behind the beat, whereas Donegal playing is faster, more forward and in front of the beat.

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…but those claims need to be made with caveats as not everyone from said geographical area will fit the model.

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Can anyone recommend any set dancing on youtube ? I often can’t be sure if I am watching ceili dancing or some sort of display.

On a nearby thread I spotted this "…and you get the rhythm rocked back at you from the crowd" from Guernsey Pete. I have also heard a variously attributed quote about "picking out the best dancers on the floor and playing for them". I suppose it is about the way people’s bodies move when doing various dances.

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I think that many musicians play fast because it’s expected of them, and because when performing for people with a limited knowledge of traditional Irish music, that’s what gives an audience (particularly a drunk audience) a thrill.

Others play fast because they’re young, and male, and stretching the boundaries of their abilities. Some people might interpret this as ‘showing off’.

Some people play fast because they can, and because they can make it sound good - tunes played at a fast tempo which retain their lift and drive are exciting to hear. But there are few players who can play very fast and make it sound good.

But, it is relative, and what is fast for one player might not be fast for another. Or, what might be fast and enjoyable for one player might be fast and boring for another.

What I think many people (who know something about traditional Irish music) object to is the common practice of playing too fast for one’s own ability, and ironing out the tunes. It seems easier to play fast for some people, but only because they don’t really listen to themselves, and because they are driven by that destructive force that whispers in the ear: ‘You should sound like so and so… You should play as fast as so and so plays, or you’re not good enough… You need to sound like everyone else or you’re worthless…’ It’s the same little whispering voice that tells people to play along to every single tune at a session, regardless of how imperfectly they know it, and it’s what ruins open sessions for people who want to pay attention to each tune, and ease every nuance and detail out of it, rather than rush through it and on to the next.

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Yes, I agree with all of that Dragut. I certainly think that while playing in Clare, Roscommon, Donegal, West Highlands, Northeast Scotland, and so on has certain characteristics, there is a very distinctive style associated with being young, male, and having a musical instrument instead of a souped up car. This transcends geography.

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Ah, the universal cocktail of testosterone and petrol…

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There are some exceedingly fast young women musicians too but I’d agree that they tend to be less aggressive and cocky even if they are still energetic and enthusiastic about the music.

The difference is very subtle but it’s there.

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I tend to play on the slow side, but I get more complaints of playing too fast than other players who clearly play faster than me. I think it’s because I like to play lots of ornaments so it gives less skilled players the impression that I am playing fast while the actual speed of the tune is slower than it is when faster players (who play less ornaments) start it.

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Actually, in my experience, that sort of accusation normally happens when people rush, ie they don’t play in time. Steadiness - at any speed - is generally fine.

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I think how people count in their head makes a big difference. I never play tunes at the same speed in every situation- it totally depends how I’m feeling at the time. Tunes in a sun-drenched park (though there’s been not many of them this year sadly) tend to go a lot slower than late tunes in a crowded pub.
When I do play fast, I tend to naturally tap my foot once to the bar, meaning that the pulse remains steady even if the notes are flying by rather quickly. I think if you try thinking of it as four beats to the bar at high speeds then it starts to sound rushed.

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>>"Unsurprisingly, you can’t generalise that easily and say "Irish players do X" and "Scottish players do Y" and then come up with some spurious reason as to why this might be the case."

Of course you can give a general answer to a general question. "Irish players do X, and Scottish players do Y" isn’t a general answer, it is a very specific one, and it isn’t what I said. The assumption that Irish players play faster than Scottish is implicit in the question, not my answer to it

What the question implies, what I was addressing, and what you seem to want to refute, is that in general, on average, and taking a very broad view, looking at the music as a whole and not individual bits of it: jigs and reels are played faster in the Irish tradition than in other similar traditions.

The question wasn’t ‘is that true?’ it was ‘why is that true?’

Once you understand the question, reference to dance traditions is anything but spurious. It is irrefutable that different dance styles require different tempos. It is irrefutable that different dance styles prevailed in different regions. If you look at all traditions, on both sides of the Atlantic, there is a fairly clear correlation between music tempo and dance style - regions where step dancing prevails (or did in the past) tend to play faster than set dancing regions.

Which way the causal link goes is open to debate - did the music develop to fit the dancing, or the dancing develop to fit the music? But when considering the tempos used today in various regions, the correlation between dance style (past or present) and tempo is undoubtedly a major factor.

Answers involving testosterone and petrol would seem to be addressing the question ‘Why do Irish musicians play TOO fast’, not the original question.

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For example, Angus Grant jr. plays very fast indeed, but you don’t realise just how fast until you try and play along with a recording. Try it with the first track on Venus in Tweeds and you’ll probably see what I mean. He never sounds rushed to my ear.

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What about answers involving a parrot and a bicycle?

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Yeah, but Irish players don’t play faster than Scottish players. Next time you’re in Glasgow, pay a visit to the session at the Ben Nevis and get back to me on that one.

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Though mind you, the last session I played with you was indeed an Irish session and it was very fast, but the banjo player who was starting most of the sets is someone who generally plays quite fast, especially when he’s p*ssed. But even he would be working hard to keep up with the lads in the Ben!

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I’d say Irish players tend to play things like strathspeys, hornpipes, highland flings and single jigs faster than Scottish players, and they don’t always sound better for it. Depends on the musicians though.

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FWIW

"An Coimisiún Le Rincí Gaelacha, representing Irish dancing worldwide, has also established minimum speeds and ranges for these other dances:

Other Dances/
(Rincí Eile Minimum Speed/Íosluas)

Reel/Cor 112-116
Jig (Heavy)/Port Trom 72-76
Slip Jig/Port Luascach 112-116
Single Jig/Port Singil 112-116
Hornpipe/Cornphíopa 112-116
Light Jig/Port Eadrom 112-120 "

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actually ethical, I don’t think I was rushing because some other players who were just listening were nodding their heads to the beat in approval. I have a nice steady flowing beat on the banjo most of the time, which is when this happens. I would say you were right if in fact I had been playing the concertina, on which I have no shame in saying I need help keeping a steady beat.

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Bloody dancers, someone spike their drinks with sleeping pills pls

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I think the’right’ speed for a tune changes with time and competence, amnongst other things. I thought my (improving beginner) fiddle playing was not getting faster until I listened to a very early recording I made. The perception was that I had stayed the same, - I guess I was just getting more comfortable with the instrument. Equally, I felt my playing on fiddle was catching up with my mandolin playing, until I tried playing along with a clip of myself. Bizarrely, a comfortable speed on the fiddle is already sometimes quicker than on the mandolin for any one tune. Make sense of that!

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It definitely depends on what the dancers want. We play dance music; and I watch the dancers to see how they are reacting to the tempos. Then, at session, we tend to play the same speed as if it were at a dance (depending on who starts the tune, of course). All in what you’re used to…

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An Coimisiún’s established minimums and speed ranges are for dance *competitions*, not for dancing. I often find them terribly slow, especially the hard shoe dances. Some of the advanced choreographies (hornpipes especially) are so intricate that the music must be ssslooowwwed way down to get all those steps in. Personally, I prefer a better balance between choreography and the music, but I long ago recognized the difference between Irish dancing and the children’s sport of Irish dance.

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Quick clarification — I don’t necessarily find An Coimisiún’s established tempos too slow musically, I find the tempos actually used in some competitionzzzzzzzz …

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Fair enough, Earl. It’s funny how that happens between different instruments, isn’t it? I went through a patch of not being able to keep a steady beat on whistle. Seems to be OK now. OTOH, I hardly ever play whistle these days. 🙂

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I think it’s mostly the young ones who haven’t put on the weight for their drink and don’t want to fall asleep at their pints while playing.

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It’s a good question. It’s puzzled people for a long long time, but now CERN has completed the warm-up task of finding that pesky little Higgs boson, they can turn their attention to this far greater challenge.

Colliding a jig and a reel together at 99.9999% of the speed of light is predicted by some to cause a strange phenomenon known as the Finnegan effect, where the reel donates a quaver to the jig to form two extremely difficult Eb tunes in 7/8 time.

Meanwhile, other scientists will seek to explain the "Newly Composed Theorem". Current thinking states that in the Standard ITM Model traditional tunes usually outnumber self-composed tunes by about 5:1. Unfortunately, recent evidence has shown that this ratio is frequently wrong. It is proposed that a beam of ‘c’ particles colliding with a beam of anti-‘c’ particles will uncover the reason behind this strange behaviour.

Another problem that has puzzled astrophysicists for decades is an extension of the Fermi paradox. The age and size of the universe suggests it should contain a vast number of lligs, yet there has only been contact with one.

Finally, the holy grail is to combine the Standard ITM Model with the Harmon Force into one all-encompassing theory of ITM. The Harmon Force causes an attraction between musicians and solid, considered, well-written and well-thought-out advice about how to play, listen and join in with ITM. The better the advice, the stronger the force.

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Higgs Boson? He’s that Scottish piper, no? I didn’t realize that he had gone missing again.

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"…one all-encompassing theory of ITM…"

I am sure this grail has been hunted with persistence and some transient success over the centuries. But its most complete and alluring manifestations have probably been tweaked from the grasp of avid seekers again and again by the stern cries of barmaids asking if they haven’t got homes to go to, etc., and other bubble-breaking incursions of rude reality.

Perhaps ITM accords more with the pattern of myth. Whether it’s Homer or Tolkein, you get a proper story, or more than one in parallel, in the main helping. You know the characters and the chapter of events and their causes and results. But the distant origins of everything and everyone can be a jumble of nuggets whose relations to each other can be quite wayward and don’t make a coherent whole. (Well, that seems to be true of Greek myth - I don’t know if the contents of The Silmarillion are like this…)

A lot of tunes certainly seem to have been gestated, named and transmitted in a context of whimsical chaos, whose insouciant persistence has probably infuriated several who have sought to drive it hence and make ITM in all its aspects a conquest of Reason. But I think they’re trying to push water uphill.

Perhaps the origins of ITM are similarly lairy and intractable to rationalisation and order.

I like the idea of ITM as myth. Is ITM true? Dunno, I haven’t got down to that one yet.

Did The Dubliners originate as ancient fungus gods? Dunno, haven’t got round to that one either. But these, perhaps, are the sort of questions we should be asking…😉.

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The fastest box player in the west -the man in the leather trousers. Seemingly playing fast pulls in the crowds. That rules me out
http://youtu.be/zPm8LZo6Jlw

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In the heat and sun at Gennessee County Museum a couple of years ago we played a whole lot of really nice tunes not too fast.
I heard that, when he was young, Aly Bain used to play so fast that Tom Andersen refused to play with him ! He’s definitely slowed down a bit, and no harm in that.

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"leather trousers"

I’ve often wondered about the exact moment in a musical career that an epiphany is reached whereby a musician says to himself, “Well that’s it then, I suppose I had better go buy some leather trousers now.”

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Actually the leather trousers are there for a technical reason - they have stronger belt loops, so he can clip on the electronic bits that connect box to PA system. LOL

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Must be hot inside there, though. I think we need the considered opinion of Yhaalhouse, our resident expert in that department of menswear.

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This is the contradiction of this Music.

Everyone says play slow, savor the tune rhythm and flow. And then play very fast. When playing for dancers, they want ‘dancable’ paces and will moan if the hornpipe is too fast to get the toe work in. But when the dancer is in the pub they want reels and they want to fly. Not a criticism. Just an observation of reality.

I suppose it is a matter of knowing what to expect from a session. When you walk into a pub, expect the speed. ‘Tis what it ‘tis.

To SWFL’s (haven’t seen much of you lately LOL) original point of why speed- because the players can do it.

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Why?
Perhaps because technical "mechanical" brilliance is much easier to attain than aesthetic sense and style.

One requires physical repetition and discipline, the other requires sensitivity, humility, and perhaps a bit of empathy (after all, you should have to open your mind and check your ego to learn certain subtleties, even to become a mere mimic with nothing original of your own).

So, kids, when in doubt just turn it to mush, but FAST exciting-sounding mush. The less informed amongst the listeners will be impressed, rather as a drag race is a thrill as "auto racing" -
that is, untill you watch Indy cars from right at trackside.

Or, perhaps a better example, speed skating vs. figure skating.
Both are superb powerhouse skaters, but one can do so much more on skates.

My rant,
IMHO only.

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Since when did the mastery of technique become easy & having a sense of the tunes become difficult?

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I think it’s always been that way. Learning players can always handle their instrument and bash out a tune ‘without mistakes’ long before they can play the tune with any expression.

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While I’m not intending to defend the mastery of technique, I do not consider playing without mistakes to be the same as mastery. Yes, playing tunes with expression takes time, which requires patience. But that doesn’t mean it needs to be difficult. It only means good things take time. And the things you discover along the way are a great incentive.

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"Since when did the mastery of technique become easy & having a sense of the tunes become difficult?"

Was that what i wrote, Ben?


"needs to be difficult"

And, was that also what I wrote, Ben?

(reaches for dictionary)

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There is Scottish and there is RSCDS. You can’t compare the two as RSCDS has set speeds.

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Why Do Irish Musicians Play Fast? Like who? would you give us an example?
I just think the opening ‘question’ is assuming too much and is a huge generalisation and plays to a common assumption but is not actually accurate.

After all speed is relative and different people play for different reasons. So to play for the sets a player like Michael Sexton plays fast and IMO thats why .Fast playing is exciting high energy, full of life and energy, gets people on to their feet and the dance requires this pace and lift. While there are plenty of players whos style is more suited to a listening audience, laid back and relaxed and of course all shades inbetween.

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I wouldn’t say that mechanical brilliance is easier to attain than aesthetic style, Piece. They are two separate skills, and there are some who find one or the other easier to master, and then a lucky few who can attain both!

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Just watched your youtube offering, Boots. Tres rapidement!!!

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Had the pleasure of seeing him in concert many years ago… Unforgettable.

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Great link, Boots 🙂

Jim (Worldfiddler)

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yep, that was … lively… 😉

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Jim:
Not the best example of Mr. Cleveland’s playing, IMHO.
(although I do get the point, and I do agree with it, Jim 🙂)

But try this instead:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=endscreen&v=sEY8a3BVos4&NR=1


Hi Al:
"I wouldn’t say that mechanical brilliance is easier to attain than aesthetic style, Piece. They are two separate skills, and there are some who find one or the other easier to master, and then a lucky few who can attain both!"

I believe this argument might lie in how one defines mechanical vs. aesthetic. Not to paraphrase anyone here (not me) but what with the dificulty of breaking down and mathematically reproducing the qualities and values of a traditional musical style, simply having an exceptional toolbox and lumber does not mean you can build a pleasing house, musically. Worse yet, "taste" and "style" is in the ear of the listener or session-mate, all relative to personal experience and study and personal prejudice. so it is all in what you listen for. Does that make sense?

I will back off a bit and say, rather, that re. what I originally stated, I believe the percentages are on my side, but you quite correct, the two abilities are not mutually exclusive, and true expertise in anything is always hard work.

Good Stuff.
Thanks for setting me to thinking.
🙂

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I played the clip that Boots referred to and my wife shouted out "That’s awful." I agree with her. Acrobatics are better suited to the circus. I feel the same way about Sean McGuire. I prefer Jacqueline McCarthy to Padraig Rynne. I admire Zoe Conway’s playing — she’s undeniably great — but I prefer to listen to Martin Hayes or the likes of Paddy Canny or Paddy Cronin.

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Maybe they play fast so the notes they have missed won’t have the chance to catch up with them?

Laurence

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Piece - thanks for the Michael Cleveland link. Good one 🙂

Jim (Worldfiddler)