Virtuosity: Technical vs Musical

Virtuosity: Technical vs Musical

Is anybody else tired of musicians that are Technically skilled, but aren’t as interesting in the Musical sense?

I just get irritated when listening to a lot of "hot" ITM players. Fiddlers, in particular seem to strive for greater and greater intensity and drive - like every tune has to be turned up to 11. Sometimes flute players seem to throw in so many decorations that the melody is lost in the busy-ness. Bands get into the competitive groove: faster, louder, more intense. Get the mosh-pit thrashing!

I’ve been listening to Michael Coleman a lot recently. His technical virtuosity is unquestioned. His decorations are fairly busy; but his music is always in service to the tradition, and he makes it seem so easy.

Other musicians I like for their attention to the musicality of the music (despite of or because of their obvious technical skill) include Kevin Burke, Kevin Crawford, Martin Hayes (although I feel that his style is his own rather than ITM). Fill in your own preferences, if you like.

Maybe I’m getting old, or as I like to think, more experience, mature, deeper.

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I find that even the best music played fast is less likely to draw me back. I think there is a huge challenge to retain sensitivity with speed. Maybe a few do manage this but most probably don’t.
An interesting observation is that few pop songs are really fast. They might have heavy bass and rhythm but the melody is rarely too quick. They may not be what you would call full of musicality but I think they realize that speed doesn’t help frequency of plays

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What I appreciate, is someone who uses everything tastefully. What I try to do when making an arrangement for any song I play, Irish or radio pop, is to keep the integrity of the sentiment. Not everything calls for embellishment, and extravagance. Some of the most beautiful pieces of music we all know are some of the simplest. If a tune calls for speed, give it speed. If it calls for pull, give it pull. If it calls for groove, give it groove. If the melody can do with some variation, go for it. If not, keep the ornaments simple and stick to the melody.

The question is, does the musician have that choice? Do they have enough command of the instrument, and of the music itself, to do them both justice? Because what’s so wrong with technical ability if the artistry is present? What’s wrong with the embellishments and the ornaments if the artist knows how to use them, and when? Do you know when to shift gears? When to bring the music down? When to bring the music up? Not everything has to be progressive, or shapeshifting. Somethings are just fine in their simple selves.

I think technical skill and musical skill can and do go hand in hand. A musician has to understand something technical about the music and the instrument, even if that understanding is instinctual or intuitive, it’s still technical. Maybe some of those musicians play everything fast because they can’t play slow. Or maybe they don’t play slow because they don’t understand the aural value of the melodies. Maybe they think they have to play fast and hard and strong, because they think it’s what the audience wants. But whatever they case, it seems to me they’ve either given up on, or let go of, an important aspect of music. Variation and command.

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No, I am not tired of that, because I only listen to music that I like 🙂

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I totally recognise the kind of ‘unmusical virtuosity’ you’re referring to, and it occurs in all forms of music. I’m sure each one of us could mention different musicians that we loathe because despite being amazing at what they do, their abilities far outstrip their own taste and judgement.

But speed isn’t necessarily the defining factor of that unmusical virtuosic playing. It might be a lot of the time… but I’ve also come to appreciate that a lot of players I always thought of as playing at medium-t0-steady-to-slow pace are actually playing a hell of a lot faster than I had assumed. They’re just really good at what they do, and are able to let the tune breathe, and fit all the notes in clearly, and not sound hurried or rushed, and not sacrifice any of the modality or shape of the tune – even at a fast pace.

For me, speed is only an issue when it destroys the mood of the tune, and it is unforgivable when it ‘adumbrates’ the tune, when notes get left out or blurred in order to play the thing fast. (Actually, even that’s OK at a session from time to time…) I will never understand how a player can take some beautiful, modal, rather melancholy sounding reel and then play it at 130bpm with the musical equivalent of a big smile on their face. I appreciate this is dance music, but really…

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It’s a fine balance, I think that ornaments definitely improve the music but not when they are played so often they effect musicality. Speed on the other hand all depends on preference and whether the tune should be played fast or not.

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One thing I heard recently, which I hadn’t knowingly ever heard before, is a player whose particular choice of ornamentation from repeat to repeat actually made it a struggle for me to recognise the tune as being the same. I assumed he was playing three-part or four-part tunes when he wasn’t. That’s mainly because he was clearly a big fan of three-or-four-little-note substitutions, adding in notes where the tune had an intervallic gap of a fourth or fifth, say. I don’t know what the technical term for this sort of thing is. But I really, really, really didn’t like it.

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Playing tunes too fast with too much elaborate ornamentation, geeze, I don’t know. Much better if they did much safer activities that don’t harm anyone, or put them themselves at risk, like drag racing on the motorway at night, or BASE jumping.

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Getting back to the old "Session V Performance" argument.

Sessions should be inclusive but technical virtuoisity is fine if there are a sufficient number of players there who are at a similar level or prepared to appreciate it.

In a performance, a player can do as he or she likes but it’s a matter of taste. A listener will either like it or not.

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"One thing I heard recently, which I hadn’t knowingly ever heard before, is a player whose particular choice of ornamentation from repeat to repeat actually made it a struggle for me to recognise the tune as being the same."

Most players I listen to vary their playing all the time. It’s only a problem if you use such a recording as the main source for the tune.

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Well it’s a problem if it’s bad music! I’m not talking about simply varying things: I doubt I ever play anything exactly the same way twice. I’m talking about varying it so much that it’s almost unrecognisable, via the insertion of extra notes (far far in excess of said player’s use of rolls, trebles or cuts); as I said, I genuinely thought that the guy was playing lots of three/four-part tunes.

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If it’s too fast or not to your taste, stop listening to it. You don’t have to like it all, you don’t have to have an opinion.
Sometimes folk play tunes too fast. Gosh.

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I was just listening to Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill playing Dowd’s Number 9.
It is about 200% faster than we play it in session and it is sublime: clear, dynamic, nuanced. Also, it is quite a contrast to the rest of the Live in Settle album.
It’s not too fast, just faster than me.

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I don’t see a reason to separate the two. One without the other makes music almost unlistenable.

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Irish traditional musicians can be some of the most judgmental, passive aggressive people I have ever met. My flippant comment was an attempt to point that out (passive aggressively, of course). It annoys me when people pronounce stuffily, "I don’t like X’s playing," as if it’s a massive inconvenience to them to have to tolerate X’s playing in the same session, on their mate’s iPod, or worse, at one of those gigs at Willie Week where a zillion people play a set or two each.* They will, of course, be nice as pie to X’s face (assuming they know them).

For one, I’m insecure, and I can’t help but think, "If he doesn’t like X’s playing, I don’t want to know what he thinks of mine!" So there’s that. But more universally, it makes the person saying it sound like a dick, like they have to reaffirm their membership of the refined, trad music snobbery club by announcing to all and sundry that their taste is vastly superior to those pillocks who play in a crude and distasteful style. So, what? X plays in a way that they enjoy, that makes them happy. Just like everyone. And if you’re good enough to play wild variations at 100mph and you do it because you can (fair enough — it’s fun!), more power to you. No one ever died from a tune playing too fast.


*Assuming for the sake of argument that all players in question are basically competent and it’s stylistic and taste differences, not being able to play roughly in time.

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I appreciate the OP’s POV. We’ve all heard some people play a tune in such a way that it just compels one to stop and listen. And we’ve all heard others where’s it just like anonymous noise.

One thing that has always struck me though, is that often the best musicians can appear to be playing fairly leisurely, languidly even - but when you try to play along, you find they’re actually going at a fair clip.

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Speaking of Coleman, I just wanted to say that because his name gets dropped on the Mustard and I just wanted to drop his name once. Woo-hoo! one more thing to check off my bucket list.

Someday I’ll make a bucket list.

Emily, I like X. But I like most any punk music. One of my best friends (he’s a musician) is from southern California and I have always clicked with his music and I think he w/mine; though we are each different, musically. It’s cool. I guess it helps that neither of us have to live up to the other’s xpectations.

Yeah, John Doe … Exene Cervenka … the unheard music!

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Coleman played pretty fast.

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To entertain should always be uppermost in your mind. Elaborate ornamentation might impress your fellow session players but most of the time…….less is more.

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I think it was Charlie Parker who commented (I’m paraphrasing) "learn the rules, THEN throw away the rulebook".

I always took this to mean that the better musicians should have technical ability, but musicality is something different. It should come from within, and reflects both the personality of the musician and their reaction to the piece being played.

As I get older, I am less and less impressed by technical virtuosity, and more and more by a musician or group of musicians who can capture a feeling and express it.

If there is no heart in music it becomes an exercise in mechanical noisemaking. It may be pleasant but it isn’t alive.

Just my tuppence worth.