Can anyone Explain Why

Can anyone Explain Why

Why, Oh Why….
… do folks play a Slow Air followed by a Strathspey and a Reel????? Why is it the accepted norm.

In my humble opinion it is the weirdest thing, (and I really dont like it)..It is like following La Traviata with a Benny Hill sketch. The passion, grace and meaning of a slow air requires a reflection, a pause, a sigh….not an immediate leap into some sort of comic slapstick scratchy squeaky jiggyness..
I just dont get it!!
Right I have vented.
Crawling back under my rock to the smooth whispers of a delicate air drifting on the autumn breeze.
ET x

Re: Can anyone Explain Why

It is an accepted form in Scottish (and probably also Cape Breton) traditional music. It is much less common in Irish music, where a slow air usually stands on its own.

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It’s not uncommon for there to be a march after the slow air and before the strathspey.

Usually, this is more of a performance set which you’ll hear from solo fiddlers and other players, pipe bands, Scottish dance bands when not playing sets for specific dances, strathspey and reel societies etc. It’s less common in actual sessions but, again, it depends where you are and who you are playing with at the time.

It is what it is and there are also peculiarities with Irish music sets for performance outwith the session scene.

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Further to the above, the format is usually specified for competitions and you’ll encounter it there too. Many of the sets will have originated there.

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From my experience listening to Cape Breton music, it’s fairly standard there even for dances. Often the marches and/or strathspeys after the slow air will begin slowly and in a stately manner, then pick up the pace gradually until the climax, which is usually a set of fast (sometimes even frenetic) reels which gets people dancing.

I actually rather like the format when used in Cape Breton music. It feels organic, growing from one to the other in a logical manner, assuming of course that you give the slow air the pausing, reflective feel that many do not.

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"The passion, grace and meaning of a slow air requires a reflection" In a ‘performance’ setting you won’t get that if it is followed by applause, coughing, shuffling of feet and then giving attention to the next thing. Going on to another tune allows for what Daniel Parker describes in his last sentence.

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I have seen Irish uilleann pipers do this as well. While it’s not my favorite segue either, I suspect that some performers wish to end the set on a happier, more up-beat note than that afforded by a lament or other slow air.

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Here on the west coast of Scotland, March, Strathspey and Reel is more popular. At sessions more often it’s just a couple of Strathspeys then some reels. I think it’s a great time change - providing you can play Strathspeys reasonably well of course.

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I must say I have very rarely, if ever, heard a strathspey in Cape Breton music that is not followed by a reel. From what I’ve heard, where there’s a strathspey there’s virtually always a reel. Since I first heard strathspeys when I got into CB music, it almost seems weird to me that you would want to end a set of strathspeys without going into a reel - it’s such a great change, it releases rhythmic tension and energy; it’s even cathartic sometimes.

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It is the session police law. Anyone not doing this will be banned from all sessions forthwith. I’m shocked that the tradition is being damaged in such a way.

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Competition sets have to be different rhythms to demonstrate how good (or not) the player is. I have only heard march/strathspey/reel once in a Scottish session. If you look at the older Scottish dance collections you’ll often find they are laid out reel, strathpey, reel, strathspey, reel to play for a dance - but the strathspeys aren’t slow. They’re described as "lazy". A slow strathspey is a different beast, in my experience usually played alone or with another strathspey. One of my great aunts was a traditional Scottish fiddler (born in 1895) and if pressed to play (she was very shy) she would play a demonstration set of two strathspeys.

I have, however, known Manchester area Irish session musicians who like to follow a slow air with a much faster tune and 30 years ago I used to do that a lot under one particular influence - but after I had had a strip torn off me by the nth bodhran player I toned it down. It’s like changes of key in a set. Some people say you must do it - and some people say you must not - and you have to follow your own taste.

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Thing is, most people - musicians included - seem to have a limited tolerance of melancholy. So, to endure the boiled vegetables of a slow air, they have to anticipate dessert, in the form of at least a strathspey, if not - ah! there it is! a reel!

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Daniel, in Cape Breton for square dancing, which is made up of three "figures", it’s two sets of jigs followed by a set of reels. For solo step dancing it’s strathspeys followed by reels. Any other combination of tunes is for is for listening to. Now it might be that in a long listening set of a march or slow air followed by some strathspeys and some reels someone might get up and stepdance. In that case the players might follow the dancer (or they might not if it’s a prearranged set).

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In Irish, I often hear an air followed by either a reel or jig. My thought on that has always been that it’s nice to follow solemn with joyful, in the same way that you follow a death with a celebration of life with a wake…

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Thanks for that Donald. I wasn’t actually aware of that. I’m not familiar with the dances themselves, only the fiddle music, so that context is helpful.

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Reverend, I feel the same way. Before I got into Irish music I listened to a lot of klezmer music, and you see the same thing, a slow lament followed by joyous dance music. If done right it can be extremely uplifting.

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Come on pikilily, …..following a slow Air with a Strathspey and a Reel is NOT anything like following La Traviata with a Benny Hill sketch. It is not anything like an " immediate leap into some sort of comic slapstick scratchy squeaky jiggyness." What kind of music do you listen to, or dance to? Perhaps the truest statement in your OP was that you " just don’t get it".

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Doesn’t bother me. I’ve heard it lots. I rather like it.

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Actually, Gobby, I very much appreciate some time for reflection at the end of a slow air. That part of pikilily’s OP makes perfect sense for me.

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I am a complete sucker for slow airs: the more the better, and they don’t make me feel melancholy. BUT I do very much prefer to keep them as stand-alone tunes. We have some very odd pairings of tunes in our band repertoire, just because someone felt (as some others above seem to) you had to have a lively tune after a slow air. Well you can, but just make it part of the NEXT set, not the same one! If I am writing a set list for a gig, I will usually alternate slow tunes (stand-alone!)with faster sets.
Agree also with the OP.

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There is nothing better than an air followed by a march, a couple of strathspeys and a blast of reels.
That’s how I’d have it anyway. And why not!

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Gobby, I listen to loads of different recorded and live music…and at sessions etc.
And often I hear a beautifully played air, which is then followed by screeching and scratching…… and images just jump to my head…ie Benny Hill Reel running brainlessly around a tree. Or a Strathspey, dedicated to a Lady who according to the images it conjures up is not very bonny, pleasant, or particularly well regarded.

They are my images, my feelings, and, as I said ‘in my humble opinion’ …..So far, you seem to be just telling me I am WRONG, but have not shed any light, so please do enlighten me, ….help me to understand the delights of this format and then i can eliminate the images.

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Sorry pikilily. I wasn’t arrogantly saying that you were ‘wrong’ in anything. You will perceive things as you will. I just can’t make the mental stretch to the Benny Hill theme, and I don’t see fast jigs as being comic slapstick scratchy or squeaky. But hey, we are all different I guess.

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Re: Can anyone Explain Why

Slow airs are often fantastic as standalone tunes. They are often good as preludes to a set of tunes that builds up in speed and tension until finally releasing in a reel. They’re great both ways; no one is saying you "have" to follow the slow air with lively tunes. Some of us like to do it, is all. Also the reflective pause at the end of a slow air doesn’t necessarily mean the end of a set. Plenty of times the slow air is followed by a slow strathspey played rather softly and only speeding up enough so that it’s recognizable as a strathspey. Again, buildup. Only in the later strathspeys and reels does it become livelier and perhaps showier. Also, it’s worth mentioning that the great Donegal fiddler John Doherty used to follow airs with reels frequently. The Coolin / The Flogging, The Day I Listed / The Fantastic, etc., etc. It’s just another way of playing them.

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Gobby, I think if you take pikilily’s imagery literally you’re missing the point. I think it’s intended to be taken as something jolting going from the the slow tune immediately into something at much faster tempo too soon. If you’re expecting something exactly like a Benny Hill skit or some slapstick routine that’s just part of the exaggeration used for emphasis.

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Hmm. I’m a little too autistic to always recognise exaggeration. Sorry! And I’m sorry again to you pikililly;- I am not a man to question a woman’s feelings. if that’s how you see it then I accept it. I just don’t see it myself.

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Maybe someone should invent different fonts to signify such things as sarcasm, joking and exaggeration etc. I am good at reading those things face-to-face but not in writing. I take it seriously, which is very odd given that I write so much irreverent crap myself.

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As Meself said: fast tunes are the sweetest part of the tradition and slow airs are boiled veg! XD

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Hello All,
Yeh I accept I was writing in an exaggerated tone….but i really do see tunes as images in my head. Gobby you said you are autistic….I am artistic (really) so music creates colours and textures in my head (so perhaps that is my burden). As a by the way, I once transcribed Beethoven’s Violin Concerto into colours for a design for a Stained Glass window. It ended up about 15m long…took me months of repeatedly listening to the concerto day after day ;-0

Anyway back on topic, I really do like*most* strathspeys, reels and jigs. So that’s that cleared up. It is just the ‘jolting’ into them that seems to happen as an expected ending to a slow air that i find rather uncomfortable. I will add here that it would depend on the manner its done. Daniel mentioned, above, a progression which sounds to my mind rather more compatible, however round here this is not the norm.
I also do acknowledge that the skills of the players have a huge part to play. My ears are also very very susceptible to the squeakier tones of a fiddle that is being pushed to the limits. I must also mention that I find it uncomfortable listening when the tune is played so G’dm fast that it has no structure, or texture, and becomes a ‘rummel’ of notes - all in the name of showing off skills. Ooops there I go again, LOL

I have taken on board the comments and will look up some of the examples above.
Thanks all.
ET x

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"Benny Hill sketch" may have been extreme enough to indicate that it wasn’t to be taken literally but "screeching and scratching" is clear. If it follows a "beautifully played air" then it must be the same musicians so I interepret that as meaning that pikilily doesn’t like strathspeys and reels.

Coming onto a forum that centres on traditional dance music and likening it to "a Benny Hill sketch" is likely to get a tart response or two.

pikily - why not ask the players why they "start screeching and scratching" after a playing a low air?

[crossed but I am not changing it]

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Emma, I am so in awe and jealous. There is nothing I would wish for more than that ability to see music in colour. What a gift.

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It seems to be the norm to go into a faster tune after playing an air in most circumstances. Might depend on the situation though e.g. in a formal situation like a commemoration event, an air might just stand on it’s own.

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Oh David, I know that my imagery, questions, and comments may not be to everyone’s taste…and to a certain extent that is my point.
Its all about taste, and at the root of my problem is that I question why I can be judged, or feel under pressure, and commented on at sessions, because I *choose* not to follow a slow air with a strathspey or reel…. I will admit that my playing of strathspeys and reels is less than bonny, and therefore I would rather wait until I am more competent….and maybe then I will *get it*. In the meantime I prefer to stick to what I can do fairly well, and keep my own scratchings for at home practicing. However, I reiterate ….I DO like strathspeys and reels…and jigs !!
Anyway, enough of this topic, I still haven’t really got to the bottom of the ‘whys’…so I will soldier on, looking for the answer.

thanks all
ET x

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In the Highland pipe world the March, Strathspey, and Reel has long been a standard format.

The original Highland dance and dance tune type seems to have been the Reel, and in the 18th century one gets the impression of pipers mostly (or exclusively) playing reels for dancers. The Strathspey was originally a fiddle idiom, later adopted by pipers.

I do believe that in the old days it would have been, for dancers, Reels only, or one or more Strathspeys followed by one or more Reels, and that’s still done in Scottish dancing. Just when a March got placed in front to create the March Strathspey Reel I don’t know, perhaps in the second half of the 19th century.

When I started doing Highland piping in the 1970s it was very common to play medleys consisting of a Slow Air followed by Jigs, or a Slow Air followed by Hornpipes.

Another standard Highland pipe format is one or more Hornpipes followed by one or more Jigs.

What the OP mentions, a Slow Air followed by Strathspeys and Reels, is uncommon in the mainstream Highland pipe world.

I’ve heard Cape Breton players play grand medleys which go Slow Air > March > Strathspeys > Reels. These are fantastic and as somebody mentioned above gets everybody on their feet dancing.

The Irish thing of playing a medley of three Jigs only, or a medley of three Reels only, or a medley of three Hornpipes only, is seldom heard in the Highland pipe world, except when playing for dancers.

What are very common in Highland piping are medleys of three Marches in the same idiom, say, three 2/4 Marches, or three 6/8 Marches, or three 4/4 Marches, or three Retreat Marches in 3/4, or three Retreat Marches in 9/8.

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"Can anyone explain why……. " …… you’d want to play slow airs at a session ? I go to a session to play music WITH people. A slow air to me is very much a personal piece of music, for solo performance, which to me, is not what a session is about. Just my own opinion.

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Hmmm…don’t know about that, Kenny. The odd slow air, say, on the flute or whistle, backed by an accordion, can sound good IMHO, and can provide an often much-needed break in a session.
By contrast, I love all the tune forms, eg, jigs reels etc, but wall-to-wall reel after reel after reel can get a bit boring.
As for pikilily’s taste wrt air>strathspey>reel, let’s just say a person’s taste can change through education. So let’s hope your taste matures. I for one do like the idea of A>S>R, but unfortunately it’s rarely heard in sessions down here in London.

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Where I do agree with the OP, at least in Highland piping, is in the world of Ceol Mor (or Piobaireachd) where it would be considered strange and untasteful to follow a Piobaireachd with dance tunes.

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I think they can be nice as a solo piece at a ‘come all ye’ type session but with more than two people (and usually with two people unless they have done it before) it usually sounds an embarrasing mess and I never join in at a session.

Waltzes and song airs played with feeling and fairly regular timing can be satisfying though, and usually come together after a repeat or three. Listeners usually like it.

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some of O’Carolan’s pieces, Shetland ‘listening tunes’ or Phil Cunningham’s slower compositions can be played ensemble and make a welcome break from warp speed reels

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Kenny says: "A slow air to me is very much a personal piece of music, for solo performance, which to me, is not what a session is about."

I agree. Of course, every session is different but, generally, it involves playing with other musicians. Slow airs aren’t ideal for communal playing although the more popular ones will "half work".

Having said that, there are often "lulls" in sessions for "fag breaks", "blethers and topping up" when a musician might get an opportunity to play a solo tune. Or two or three musicians. This can also happen near the end of the night when things are winding down. So, I think this is a good chance to play the occasinal slow air or more unusual tune.

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I am coming back into this again.
I like what you are saying, and discussing now..
I think it would be fair to point out that I only play the airs when invited to do so, indeed, sometimes coerced into doing so. …and usually only lead any tune/set when I have been invited to do so.

I am very aware of the limitations of my skills and do not wish to hinder, or spoil a good going session with a poorly played set.! …..and I love it when the whole ensemble get in on the airs, sometimes it produces a fantastic sound! (sometimes its a mish-mash but, hey thats what sessions are like…we usually have a laugh afterwards 🙂 …..)

I don’t push my preferences down other folks throats, or ‘shove’ my way, musically, into sessions with a particular style or format.

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That’s about right, Johnny Jay.
In fact, what goes on in the "lulls" is in itself a good topic for discussion!!

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@Daniel, DonaldK has it right…. for squaredancing in Cape Breton, it’s jigs and reels. For stepdancing, it will usually be a BUNCH of strathspeys and/or marches, and then into sometimes quite a long series of reels. It’s not the same everywhere, either; the Mabou set is different than the Sydney set for one. For sitting and listening, that’s when folks may start with some airs etc. Youtube has quite a number of videos of the West Mabou squaredances, for example, you could check out.

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Just remembered that I forgot to remember to point out that - re: "As Meself said: fast tunes are the sweetest part of the tradition and slow airs are boiled veg!" - I meself don’t regard slow airs as boiled veggies; I was representing what I take to be the feelings of many others - but not me … !

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Well, yes, up to a point: slow airs in sessions don’t always work, especially large sessions. Often played far too fast, no phrasing or expression. It can be quite awful to start one and then have it totally murdered by people who gallop away at march speed or just don’t know the tune. They "half-work" best in a session when there is one lead player, and the rest just pull back a bit and accompany quietly. Not all session tunes have to be played by everyone going at full tilt and full volume.
But it is nice to play in a small group of people who know and are sympathetic to each others’ playing, know the tune, and can listen to each other, including pulling back, going along with pauses or rubato(varying tempo).This is perhaps more what happens when rehearsing for a gig than when playing in a session, but it is also a skill to be learned, as you can see in some small line-ups, duos, trios, quartets, when you can see that they are really watching and listening to each other like hawks. And I’ll stand by my preference for keeping most slow airs as stand-alone tunes, though others of you obviously have a different take on this.

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On a personal note, probably little to do with the original post, I like to get a sense of how the person starting a set feels about the first tune; especially when it’s not typical of other sets being played. In our session the first tune of any set can differ in tempo and/or style depending on who starts off. Not only that, but I think some of the "airs" we play are open to interpretation. Some can be played in free meter with the phrasing being very important for individual expression and the air’s mood. But the same tune might also be played with a distinct meter. In the former I love to hear a solo player’s way with the music and rarely join in on my instrument.
In the latter, where a meter is part of the playing, it’s usually great to hear other players joining in.

ps ~ if you’ve never experienced a large session where not everyone with an instrument plays during every tune I recommend it at least once if not more often.

Ben

;)

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Pikilily, time to search out a better class of reel and jig and players. Anyone rendering you unhappy by "scratching" after a sublime slow air should reconsider his or her role in music. I would have thought the sensitivity required to render a slow air suitably would preclude any tendency to "comic slapstick scratchy squeaky jiggyness."

Taking a different tack: when I first took up the fiddle in my twenties after years of choral and piano training, I encountered an early Chieftains album, No. 2 I think. I was thrilled by the group playing and the energy etc., but I was disturbed by the "loose" tuning between the pipes and everyone else. It bothered me, not that they weren’t in tune, but that what I saw as a blemish on my beloved Irish music was coming between me and any enjoyment of the music. Our ears do adapt to the strangest sounds, intervals, scales etc. After a while I no longer heard the tuning thing in the Chieftains’ playing. Something more important had taken over: the music itself. The grouping of tunes in all the ways we do it is an expression of a language. Strange as it is sometimes—my band in the seventies made a point of playing AIR / REEL / JIG just to wobble things a little. At first it was a bit odd. Later we accepted it as a new normal. You get my drift. That was the year my late father persuaded me to try pepper on strawberries! Nothing, it seems, is sacred.

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Pepper on Strawberries -Yeh, I get that…wouldn’t have it any other way!

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because slow airs— which at pub sessions are like polka sets, ie time to hit the bathroom, get a pint,catch up on Candy Crush Saga, or have a cigarette— you feel like, Christ, I’ve just been invaded/my land stolen/my womenfolk carried off/my dog slaughtered etc. And you want to get your soul back.

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Chris’s comment reminds me of the time I played pipes during the Mass (a lovely Hymn, it was) and afterwards, in the Hall, a fellow comes up to me and says "when you were playing them pipes I wanted to run outside a cut off an Englishman’s head!"

So much for "The passion, grace and meaning of a slow air requires a reflection, a pause, a sigh…"

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he must have been overdosing on Braveheart……………………

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So maybe as well as Chris’s ‘mental health’ angle it can be a public safety device - get ‘em wanting to dance before they can start a riot.

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Ok, I can take a joke, but I still don’t regard slow airs as session-killers! And everyone has to choose their moment to go to the loo, bar, outside for a smoke, etc. Mine would be (excluding smoking) when anyone launches into a complete set of everything in fast and faster in exclusively minor keys (probably in fact, same key throughout)!
One drunken Irishman in a Devon pub did ask "Why are you playing all those wake tunes?"
Probably more often asked for the name of a tune when it’s a slow air, than any of your jigs and reels though!

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Are minor keys harder to play on the box?
Moothie players tend not to be too keen on them……..

I’m not sure what is fast or not. Many Pro musicians can play at breakneck speed when they are relaxing but most sessions aren’t that fast. Sometimes, it just seems so if it’s not gelling very well or one or more players aren’t familiar enough with the tunes to keep up.
Also, if the musical style is unusual, it can also seem faster.

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I don’t have any slow airs. Does that make me a bad person?

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No, just that we all have different tastes! Each to their own.

Re minor tunes on the box, not necessarily any more difficult than major ones, depending on key, but I just prefer a mix rather than relentless minors! But the mechanical characteristics of the box can limit your speed a bit if there’s a tune with a lot of pushing and pulling…….and that’s not why I have a penchant for slow airs either: they can be just as hard to play well: slow doesn’t necessarily equate with easier!

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"a lot of pushing and pulling". Similar to "sooking and blawing" for many tunes, I’d imagine. 🙂

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Moothie (gob-iron round here) players don’t like too many minor keys because it’s all suck, suck, and when we get to the end we’re knackered! These play better on the box or fiddle therefore! Have mercy …

Re:Why?

I like to think people all have different tastes. However, it’s hard to justify when someone so out of touch with, well, everything, is standing on one of the biggest soapboxes of our current era and he loves his megaphone.

We need diversity. Vital traditions have it. Argy-bargy doesn’t.

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