Tunes which seem hard/ impossible to play

Tunes which seem hard/ impossible to play

Has anyone noticed, that it seems impossible to play certain tunes on any instrument.? When I say impossible, I might be stretching that opinion a bit. I was talking to a musician some days ago, and this topic came up for debate. Some of the "tricky" tunes that we mentioned during our chat, were Lord Gordons reel, Trim The Velvet, and The Cliffs Of Moher. Another example is, The Masons Apron. It is easy to play on an accordian or a piano, but it seems impossible to play on the tin whistle. Yet another example is The Irish Washerwoman. Again let me repeat, it is easy to play on the accordian, but seems much harder, on the tin whistle. Of course, it can also come down to practice. Who can think of some more "hard", or "impossible" tunes, which are easy on some instruments, but harder on others.?

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The ones you named are all pretty easy. On the other hand, The Mathematician, to me, seems like an elaborate prank.

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Any tune with C naturals or G sharps is going to be trickier on the whistle; C natural for the awkward fingering and G sharp because you have to half-hole it. In particular, going back and forth between C natural and B gives me fits on whistle, to the point that I’ll usually edit the B naturals out, or just play fiddle. Doing it to the extent I just described might be considered cheating to some, but ‘editing’ tunes or modifying them for the instrument you’re playing is common and often necessary.

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There are loads of these tunes, that are supposedly easy, which are very difficult on the Banjo in the B part. Tunes like Maids Behind the Bar or Musical Priest which jump around between high f natural, g natural, a natural, and b natural. The popularity of such tunes must surely be because of whistle and box players, because they are a bitch on strings unless you are in C tuning. I usually modify such tunes and/or play up the neck, but it always feels a bit contrived, and not the sort of natural way I would play if I was in first position. So in my case it is a matter of practice, when the tunes don’t fit, you have to work out different ways to handle it.

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You banjo players have to stretch or shift for that high b, don’t you? I could see that turning into a royal pain in a hurry.

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"Any tune with C naturals … is going to be trickier on the whistle … for the awkward fingering …"

It might be tricky until you have learned to do it. But tunes with C naturals in probably make up almost half the total Irish repertoire. To me - and I think many flute and whistle players would agree with me on this - G tunes (i.e. those normally played in G, not just any tune transposed into G) tend to be the most comfortable to play on whistle.

G#s are another kettle of fish. Half-hole fingerings can be tricky, depending on what note comes either side. But it is possible that the perception of half-holing being difficult comes about only because it is not used very much and so, most of us don’t get much practice at it.

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Another hard tune to play on the accordian, is Lady Ann Montgomery. I couldn’t think of it, in the list of tunes earlier. It takes more skill, because the first part is repeated 4 times, before it goes anywhere. It is easier to play on the tin whistle.

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It’s either a stretch or a shift. I have small hands so I tend to shift for it. In tunes like Abbey reel, it’s fine because I don’t have to use all 4 fingers. If you try it with shifting you will see, it doesn’t get you all twisted the way Maid Behind the bar does. It’s not so much the high B but when it is followed by lots of f, g, a in a certain order that forces me to use my first second, third, and fourth finger all in one phrase. Like the Kesh in G, don’t understand that one being "easy" as it is probably the hardest jig that exists for us tenor banjo players. So I will ask for it in D if someone really wants to play it. Usually comes up in G, so I just sit out.

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The third part of Troy’s Wedding (Aaa Bac|aad aea|faa gec…) is just a straight run up the scale on the pipes, but on the fiddle or mandolin it’s a beggar. Similarly with the last part of The Little Cascade, (…Bega | GdBe…) which has the three top strings fingered at third position.

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Re: Tunes which seem hard/ impossible to play

Gordon Duncan tunes on the uilleann pipes unless you’re Jarlath Henderson. I went through a phase of trying to play Pressed for Time, the Fourth Floor, a few others, and then decided that it was just daft. It would never be worth the effort, given the best I could do was getting those tunes to sound sort of okay when there are a million other tunes I can make sound good with a fraction of the effort.

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Button accordion players - may depend what tuning you play! Helluva a lot of pulling and pushing on tunes like Soldier’s Joy in D, Flowers of Edinburgh in G, St Anne’s Reel in D on a B/C: probably dead simple on a G/D. And East Neuk of Fife - give me strength! (a doddle on the piano!)

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The Irish Washerwoman is hard because it requires a great deal of tonguing. The Mason’s Apron is usually played by fiddlers in A, whereas flute and whistle players should play it in G.

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Spike Island Lasses nearly broke me… …until it became one of my favorite tunes ever.

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"Should"…..?

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I’m wrestling with The Moving Cloud’s B-part at the moment - quite a finger stretcher for an elf-sized banjo player

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I honestly can’t think of even one impossible tune on the fiddle - but maybe if I played whistle or concertina there would be a few.

@Earl : [*The Mathematician, to me, seems like an elaborate prank.*] There were quite a few like that, written specifically for fiddle. I think it was Dick Gaughan who (alledgedly) said that Scott Skinner composed his tunes "with the aid of a slide rule".

He also said that The Proclaimers sang with a contrived accent. Pot calling the kettle black :)

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I have a theory that the instrument the tune plays easiest on is probably the instrument played by the composer…

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Hey Al I would say that’s a pretty good theory. Probably true at least half the time.

Speaking of it there are always those tunes that seem perfect for a certain instrument. For example when I got my 5 string banjo I just started plucking on it one day and the Rose Tree polka came out. A tune I have never played before and I had the whole thing without trying. Well it turns out there is an American tune called Rose Tree played on the 5 string banjo and it sounds at least somewhat related to the Irish version.

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i play the Mason’s Apron in G using a E whistle…if i want it in A

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"The third part of Troy’s Wedding (Aaa Bac|aad aea|faa gec…) is just a straight run up the scale on the pipes, but on the fiddle or mandolin it’s a beggar."

That one’s never posed a major problem for me on mandolin - or so I thought until I recently recorded myself playing it and discovered I was speeding up every time on that section. I was mortified - one likes to think one has overcome such habits after playing an instrument for 20 years.

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The B part of The Wise Maid… it feels like my pick has just landed in quick sand.

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Yah, that bit is a finger-twister on flute, too, CheekE.

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The B part is the relief for me on Wise Maid. The A part is more difficult. There’s nothing really tricky about the B part except that you need to remember the notes. I guess the trick to the A part is to *not* play the Maid behind the bar or Mountain Road.

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It took me a while to get that B part in Wise Maid up to speed on mandolin too, with my reference being the way Joe Cooley played it on that YouTube clip from ‘73. I had been misled about the tune by playing it in a band led by a fiddler who liked to play it much slower, almost like a slow reel for some reason. Then I learned it was played much faster in local sessions, followed by finding that Cooley clip.

Most tunes I can learn by a sort of combination of physical repetition ("muscle memory") and my ear leading me through the tune by reference to recordings and the way the patterns might be similar to other tunes (I’m mostly an ear learner). The B part on Wise Maid though, I had to get from just mechanical repetition. It sounds great, but it’s not a logical finger pattern, so I couldn’t reference similar patterns and had to just burn it in. After that, I could focus on getting some life and pulse in the tune.

Wise Maid is a very "musical" example because it’s a great tune, but there are others out there — especially in the modern Contra Dance fiddle repertoire — that feel like technical exercises more than music. In that former band, the fiddler like to play a tune from the Portland Book called "Cherry Tree Reel" that felt like someone wrote it just as a finger buster showpiece. It was fun to play up to speed once I nailed it, but I’m not sure it sounds like music you’d actually want to listen to, or dance to.

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[*The third part of Troy’s Wedding (Aaa Bac|aad aea|faa gec…) is just a straight run up the scale on the pipes, but on the fiddle or mandolin it’s a beggar.*]

It tripped me up too when I was learning the tune. Couldn’t figure out why, then I realised it’s not technically difficult in any way, it’s just an unfamiliar pattern.

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Oh, the Wise Maid B part. Struggle, struggle, struggle, then, whoop. Got it. Some things just take time.

I’m hoping that will happen on the b part of Tailor’s Twist, but so far, no joy.

There are tunes that are so much fun on the flute or whistle (Flowing Tide, Battering Ram) that I am just too lazy to play on the fiddle. I’m sure that great rewards would accrue if I just hunkered down and put in the time, but that is the joy of playing more than one instrument.

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That part of Troy’s Wedding isn’t just an unfamiliar pattern; there’s a tricky little 5 against 6 polyrhythm going on. And then, if you’re holding the a down you suddenly have to flip to the d. If I remember I’ll grab the a with a little bit of the side of my finger and roll the tip onto the d-if I remember…
A tricky bit for me is the last part of the Monaghan jig-running up that E minor arpeggio and then jumping down to the d-much worse on tenor banjo than mandolin, but awkward either way. And for some reason I always want to hold that top b a little longer than an eight note- it sounds more dramatic that way, but gets me out of time.

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"I always want to hold that top b a little longer than an eight note- it sounds more dramatic that way"

That reminds me of the kind of comic suspense you get in Tom Lehrer songs.

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you mean like
Little Johnny Jones, he was a U.S. pilot
And no shrinking violet was he.
He was mighty proud when World war III was declared-
He wasn’t scared, no sirree.
And this is what he said on his way to Armageddon
"Remember mommy
I’m off to get a commie
So send me a salami
and try to smile somehow.
I’ll look for you when the war is over…..
An hour and a half from now"

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That’s the kind of thing. I’d never thought of applying it to a jig.

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Well, that might be a little over the top. But just a tiny breath after that b note- the Monaghan being so inherently dramatic and menacing. I would of course never do this at a session, and even at home just the last time through.

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[*That part of Troy’s Wedding isn’t just an unfamiliar pattern; there’s a tricky little 5 against 6 polyrhythm going on. And then, if you’re holding the a down you suddenly have to flip to the d. *]

Well, slight difference there, if you’re playing it on a banjo? This tune ?

https://thesession.org/tunes/2014

No fingering issues at all on fiddle. Straight 6/8 all the way, just an unusual pattern (as I see it).

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Jim-if you look more closely, you’ll see that in the first three bars of the third section there is a polyrhythm- the Aaa Ba is the first group of 5,(3 plus 2) the caa da is the next group, and on the last group Magee flipped the grouping to 2 plus 3-ea faa which cleverly allows him to finish the next measure and a half in straight jig time. A very subtle and clever bit of writing, if you ask me.

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The Baltimore Salute on fiddle upset me because of the octave G phrases. It’s crazy easy on piano though. Though I will say, the dancing your fingers have to with most tunes on piano is pretty wild and makes me feel like many tunes just weren’t written for it.

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[*Jim-if you look more closely, you’ll see that in the first three bars of the third section there is a polyrhythm- the Aaa Ba is the first group of 5,(3 plus 2) the caa da is the next group, and on the last group Magee flipped the grouping to 2 plus 3-ea faa which cleverly allows him to finish the next measure and a half in straight jig time. A very subtle and clever bit of writing, if you ask me.*]

Well spotted! You know, I didn’t really analyse it much when learning it. It was many years ago, and at the time I just thought something like "oh yeah, he’s turned the beat upside down", and just kept playing the groups of three regardless.

As for the fingering, (on fiddle) to make it seamless, I use this :

http://worldfiddlemusic.com/guest/troys-wedding-fingering.jpg

I guess it would work on mandolin too, but I see what you mean about having to roll the fingertip over to the D-string.

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I think part of my dificulty with Troy’s Wedding on mandolin is that I generally play jigs with a bit of swing (lengthened 1st quaver, shortened 2nd quaver). This doesn’t really work on the syncopated bit, however, so I intuitively straighten it out for those two bars but, in doing so, unwittingly push the tempo slightly.

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Jim — I remember you said once before how you play that bit — my problem is the tendency (for me) to hang on to the top ‘a’ throughout the run. I shall practise taking my finger off and replacing it on two strings, but I usually forget until it’s too late :(

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Re: Tunes which seem hard/ impossible to play

The simple solution to many of the problems with tunes mentioned is to use a differently pitched whistle to the predominant D whistle and transpose the notation accordingly. A Low G whistle will fix tunes where notes go too low for the D whistle, a C whistle gives a natural F with a G fingering, An E whistle lets you play tunes in A or E with G or D scale fingerings if you transpose notation down a tone, etc, etc.

The problem for the whistler is to find the right whistle for the job and realise that generally there are a lot more possibilities if you start to see the whistle family as transposing instruments. Orchestras use instruments in C such as the flute alongside instruments in Bb such as trumpets and notate accordingly. Trad musicians can do the same but this doesn’t appear to be commonplace in my experience.

The level of notation is another aspect worth raising. Some tunes are over-notated or include embellishments that are figures the player will add without the prompt and which effectively get in the way by giving too much visual information. Other tunes are notated by players of a particular instrument to suit that instrument and in keys they prefer. In traditional music be prepared to accept that the notation is only a guide or framework and change the bits that don’t work for you. It’s not breaking any law to doctor the notation to suit.

Eamon from OZ

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"It’s not breaking any law to doctor the notation to suit."

…or rather, to ignore the notation and play the tune as you like.

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Wise Maid for sure- except if I’m not thinking, it sometimes just comes out of the fiddle - The motor memory is there if I’m relaxed. Christmas Eve is a bit elusive.

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CMO- something that I’ve recently started concentrating on is imparting that swing through dynamics instead of by duration. I was inspired to do this when working on Hugh Gillespie’s version of Contentment Is Wealth. This is a very haunting and beautiful recording, but the version I have is an mp3 dub of an LP dub of a 78. So needless to say there were some details that were hard to hear, so I did something I usually don’t-I slowed it down. And I as struck by the way that the middle note of each three was so much quieter than the surrounding notes-almost a ghost note. This was especially striking on those notes that you might naturally accent, like the octave jumps in the first and third measures. Where my natural tendency was to play the higher octaves a little louder, Gillespie plays them almost inaudibly. So I’ve been trying to do this myself, but it’s a lot harder than it seems. Therefore I can’t vouch for the results, but it’s something to think about.

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Nothing is impossible with a little creativity and a willingness to tell people to get stuffed.

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Eulic, you’re not swearing properly. I protest.

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Jim — only if I made it into a poster and stuck it on the wall.

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The woods of old Limerick B part is tricky on banjo - it has high C which I slide up from high B and back to B with my pinky - anybody know a better way ?
It’s one of my favourite jigs and best played nice and steady IMHO

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