Speed Kills

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Agree without exception. Some tunes need a bit of speed, others not so much. The secret is to listen to the tune, no really listen to the tune. If all you hear is the speed you’re playing it too fast. To paraphrase my departed father…" you need to know three things about playing music. First, you have to play every tune as fast as possible. Second, you don’t have to play any tune fast. Third, know the difference between the first two".

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There is a certain pleasure in playing very fast. I suppose the world seems to slow down all around - disappear even. That’s true even when playing very fast not very well.

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Hey,it’s natural, and nothing to feel guilty about - but it should be done in the privacy of one’s own bedroom … !

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Hard to find disagreement with the article.
I would make a distinction between session play and performance play though.
Session play is primarily for the pleasure of the players and "lightning-fast" play often arises from the pure elation enjoyed by the players even though a casual listener may say "it all sounds the same."
As a member of a performing band, I find audiences are more engaged when it doesn’t sound "all the same". Mix in song and pepper with tunes at different tempos. When the really fast one hits they will appreciate it all the more!

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Love that last paragraph and the connection to nature.

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Dancers and set dancers specifically have a determined speed, playing loose and slow is a sure way to get yourself into trouble with them

Sessions are fine and dandy for floundering but if there is dancers, speed will be close by.

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I find a lot of sessions are slow and the ones that play at that pace are so proud of their speed or lack of. I find sessions where musicians drive it on a bit to be the best. Slow music can’t engage the listener or dancer like a good strong session. I notice that they referenced a lot of musicians outside Ireland which tend to be more conservative.

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I’d be the first to say that overall, I prefer a bouncy, laid back pace. However, it’s fun to gallop off at breakneck speed.

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For sure, when you’re a beginner, speed kills. I keep finding that out…

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I agree with the above three posters. Lethargy kills much more often than speed does in my experience. Play at whatever speed you want providing you’re capable of doing so. It seems to me many speed complainers simply can’t keep up with dance pace and it’s actually them the speed is killing and not those they’re accusing. Sometimes laid back is nice but sometimes the same tunes are fun to play faster.

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That is one of the better arguments I’ve seen about why speed can be detrimental to the music. It’s really all about playing within your means.

Most of the comments I’ve seen about speed detracting from the music come across to me as being from people that can’t play well fast. So yes, in that case, speed kills. But some of the best music out there has both pretty incredible speed combined with pretty incredible talent, which makes it all seem fairly effortless. And in my mind, that is something to strive for, not shy away from.

But I totally get the argument that people tend to try to play beyond their ability. The good news is that to increase your ability, the best way is to push yourself just beyond your current ability until you’ve inched your ability forward a bit. The trick is being able to do it gradually so that it’s not super detrimental (or ‘fatal’) to the music. ;-)

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I’m not a lover of great speed, especially when the tune and ornamentation gets lost in a mush of people trying to keep up. Yes, it can generate excitement when it is done well by a band as part of a performance, or even in some sessions, but it can be overdone too. (See Rev’s final paragraph).
As for dance speeds, depends who you are playing for: experienced dancers can cope with, and want, tunes faster than a room full of novices, tripping over their own feet if the speed is too much for them. Experienced players for dance will watch the dancers and respond accordingly.

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Wouldn’t it be great if there was a single, one size fits all, answer to speed. The word "sometimes" fills the bill. Sometimes it really is about the dancers, sometimes (call me a skeptic here) "for the dancers" is an excuse for trying to play too fast. I have seen that sometimes the dancers use speed to cover for skill too. Sometimes playing fast is confused with playing well. Too fast is a moving target. I get that speed is sometimes elating. Sometimes giving up a little tempo to keep everyone together and participating in a session is worth it. Sometimes playing at light speed (assuming the tune isn’t sacrificed) adds real excitement to a performance. We’ve had the speed discussion often enough. So far all we can do is share our feelings about the issue. What we can’t do is find something definitive.

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Here’s the secret to speed: When the best players play fast, you are more aware of how well than how fast. You don’t really know how fast they are playing until you try their tempo. To paraphrase an old saying, those who can, do. Those who can’t, complain about those who can.

That said, fast playing at an open session is never in good taste. Save it for performances or a private session. And you’d better be good - damn good.

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It goes without saying that ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ are relative terms. To me as a player, set dancing tempo (~116-120 bpm for a reel) feels fairly fast - any faster than that and I start getting sloppy. Yet many players would consider that tempo the very baseline when it comes to playing ‘for real’ (i.e. not learning or practising a tune) - I can certainly appreciate playing at faster tempos by those that do it well.

bogman: "Lethargy kills much more often than speed does in my experience."

Maybe so, but playing at slower tempos need not equate to lethargy. I have encountered and played in sessions where the tempo was round about the 100 mark, perhaps slower, yet with all the lift and buoyancy you could ask for. In fact, I am thinking in particular of sessions with the two men in this video. The first reel they play here is somewhere around 95 bpm https://youtu.be/7-pPoKC8b1M

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I wasn’t equating slower tempos to lethargy, I’m a fan of lower tempos. I was referring to playing slowly without much in the way of lift/bounce/feeling - not easy to describe. Players without much in the way of understanding of what they think they’re trying to do maybe?

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Aye, you’ve got more chance of injecting lift, bounce or whatever you want to call it, if you DON’T play at 150 bpm! Nice video above from CMO!

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There’s a lot of talk about "dance speeds" here.

That’s not particularly challenging as long as you are "au fait" with the tunes. Most reasonably good players can cope with this speed, I suggest?

However, if you were to try and dance at the speed you sometimes get at the more frenetic session, there’s a good chance of falling and breaking your neck!
:-)

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Bogman, I get what you say. Maybe one way to find out how good a player you are (the generic "you", not meant for anyone in particular) is to play tunes you know well slower than your normal tempo and find ways to add excitement/lift without adding speed. Recording keeps you honest here. If you can’t do that then it could be time to reassess your ability to play the tune at all. I’ve spent this afternoon with that challenge and often the result wasn’t pretty.

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"Fall and break your neck" - not quite, but last dance of the evening here is usually an Orcadian Strip the Willow: fast and furious, and at one of our ceilidhs one lady did fall and break - not just one wrist, but both at once! Didn’t kill her, but pretty uncomfortable and disabling!

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Some good comments about a mostly dead horse… I liked what Ailin said about "When the best players play fast, you are more aware of how well than how fast."… and "Those who can’t, complain about those who can."

Certainly when I was newer, super-speed sessions were difficult or unhappy. Nowadays, I can cope better unless the tune lies awkwardly on the flute.

I have a more objective complaint: I have experienced sessions where the speed is comfortable for only a couple of the key players, leaving the rest of the musicians in a "a mush of people trying to keep up" as Trish said. I think the tempo should not outstrip the ability of a majority of the session.

Even as I get better, I still appreciate tunes when played at a less frantic tempo, one where you can really hear the melody of the tunes. It depends on the tune, of course…. For example I really love "Tell her I Am" and "Lad O’Beirnes" (D-minor) at a moderate pace - what a waste of great melodies at break-neck speed!

On the other hand, there are some technical things that you don’t really achieve unless you have built up your speed-ability. One example would be articulations, which depend on momentum, physics, and muscle tension. Another example would be breath control on the whistle or flute as you jump between octaves - "Dusty Windowsills" comes to mind.

I’m not a fiddle player - maybe dynamics, lift and attack are learned at speed?

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Poor playing kills, not speed per se. If you’re not adding to the sound you’re subtracting from the experience.

In the heat of battle of a lively session, many of us stay "in" well past the point where our technical abilities allow us to carry the tune. It’s harder to drop out of a tune you know (but which is being played above your comfort level) than it is to sit out one you don’t know.

The qualifying line is what is being sacrificed for speed and if the tune is being shredded to make the pace then slow down. There are legitimate sacrifices for ecstacy fuelled Céilí Band speed - but it takes pretty accomplished players to make the call on what is fair game and what is simply untidy play.

There are tunes which brighten with a bit of oooomph and others which enchant by being held back. There are tunes which are almost schizophrenic in their personality depending on slow or fast play (e.g. Butterfly) with both the light and the dark offering competing shades of enjoyment.

As to whether the pace of a given session should be determined by the strongest or weakest players - that’s a political question rather than a musical proficiency one and way above my pay grade.

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Here’s a good example of a session with great musicians from the heart of the Irish tradition playing with plenty of lift and drive while never exceeding about 100 bpm on reels. The main musicians are Eoin O’Neill (bouzouki), Rosa Carroll (fiddle), and Lily O’Connor (concertina). (Yes, if 4 or 8 set dancers were to appear and ask for a set to dance to, they’d play faster, but they don’t do it for imaginary dancers, to thrill the tourists having dinner or drinks, or to pretend they’re the Bothy Band or Danu.)

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLCVoA4ZO7FikTIyVNVmTluL_qg5OyBEJs

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I would like to dispel what, IMO, are a couple of myths I hear floating around.
1. Speed is a necessary requirement for the dancer. Maybe for beginners, but more advanced dancers seem to prefer a slower pace around 104 bpm for reels. No, when we blitz it, it’s because we can and we like to show others we can.
2. Being able to play fast means we are better players. Not necessarily. I maintain that once you’ve developed the ability to rip it, it’s actually easier to play at speed. If you can play "Bucks" at 122 bpm, try slowing it down to 100 bpm. You may find it harder than you think! Or just try playing along with the great Clare fiddler, Pat O’Connor in the clip CMO posted above. Just my two senses. :-)

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I play my fiddle pretty fast or pretty slow as the tune and my mood dictates. I wasn’t aware that there were speed limits. But once I thought I might learn to play the bodhran to back myself up a bit on recordings. Accordingly. I bought Conor Long’s "Absolute Beginners Bodhran" DVD. I had expected, as with Learning all musical instruments, to have to go slowly at first. So there I was, drum on lap and stick in hand, and paying careful attention to Conor’s instructions. “Hit the up-stroke at 9-o’clock” he says, “And hit the down stroke around 7-o’clock”. Well by around half past six I fell asleep and missed the down stroke completely. I don’t have much patience for playing slowly.

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Ailin wrote, "When the best players play fast, you are more aware of how well than how fast." It is likely a reflection of the fact that Ailin has many more years than I do playing this music, but I find that when a very good player plays fast, I’m very, very much aware of it, although also awed by their facility at the speed at which they’re playing. For example, Matt Molloy playing ‘The Moving Cloud’ on his album, "Heathery Breeze", or many things played at breakneck speed (and perfectly) by Orlaith McAuliffe. It also should be noted that some players do an amazing amount of melodic variation while playing at a very good clip, e.g. Catherine McEvoy and Emer Mayock. This makes their playing sound ‘right on the edge’.

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True, yes.

BUT…

I’d say about 9 out of 10 people who told me I played too fast were people who themselves couldn’t play a reel if their life depended on it - purely out of the "sour grapeism" the article so aptly names it.

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I can blast through reels att eh speed of light if I have to, but I hate doing it. It leaves no space for the graces, turns and accents that turn the notes into music. If you want your playing to sound fast and exciting don’t crank the metronome up, just play more notes.

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very well written and perfectly true

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Are you going to tell us _your_ thoughts, Goldfrog (the OP)? I’m curious as to why someone who has in other places expressed a strong dislike of Irish music being played fast, but who himself doesn’t really play Irish music at all (correct me if I am wrong on either of these points), chose to post this article (from 2002, but which surfaced recently on the mudcat forum) here. Were you seeking confirmation of your own views? Are you really interested in what people think? If so, how do you receive the various arguments you have heard so far? Thanks in advance :-)

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Stiamh - I was genuinely interested in the points of view of the posters here.

I don’t think I have expressed a ‘strong dislike of Irish music’ , I have expressed a strong dislike of Irish music played so fast that it lacks any musicality and, judging from the replies, I am not alone in this view.

The reason I posted it was it turned up on Facebook and I found it interesting and failed to note its age.

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@Goldfrog - thanks, curiosity satisfied.

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As a follow-up to cac’s comment, I am very aware of when the music is played fast. The first time I heard Matt Molloy play Moving Cloud, I was still pretty new. I admired everything he did with it (he did not lack "musicality"). I took the speed as a given for a musician of his calibre. Also of the genre, although I know better now and am personally content to play at a brisk but more moderate tempo.

It’s not how fast you play it, it’s how you play it fast.

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What a great article.

As a teacher I have to be able to play ALL of my tunes at several different speeds.

Beginners learn a tune at a slow pace, then are only permitted to speed up if they can maintain the all-important lift and swing.

I always roll my eyes when someone says they can only play a certain tune at breakneck speed.

It just means that they don’t truly know the tune, in the Biblical sense, that is.

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This is a sentiment often overheard in sessions when the auld wuns are discussing the young whippersnappers when they are playing fast and sloppy.

"there is a right and a wrong way to play traditional Irish music, and hyper-attenuated speed-balling is nothing more than ‘pure s…..e’"

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Just highlighting one more quote from this excellent article before I go. The highest form of musicianship is to let the tune be the star of the show. It should be like you weren’t even there.

"The very talented Ray Coen of Sligo told me that the highest compliment a player can receive is, what a lovely tune, not, what an impressive talent you are."

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If someone tells you how how lovely the tune you just played was, it might indeed be because you "stepped aside" and used your skill to put the tune to the fore, making a beautiful job of it.

But it’s more likely that they felt obliged to respond but could think of nothing nice to say about your indifferent playing.

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Speed kills if you try to play faster than your ability allows. All speeds are good provided you’re capable of expressing yourself at any given tempo. The problem I have with the article is that it seems to want to homogenize tempos for trad — I see no point in that.

I personally enjoy playing a a slow groove, but I also play fast for dancers and sometimes just the effect and the craic. I have worked hard to play at a good clip and remain relaxed and in control. I think, at the end of the day, it’s more about the music than the speed.

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Maybe follow this up with a discussion about oumpah-pah basses for Irish tunes?

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Hmm, speeds for dancing: (@ Bill Scates) - may be different for Irish set dancing but my experience is that the converse is true for Scottish ceilidh dancing, i.e. you need to play a bit slower for inexperienced novice dancers who are just finding their feet whereas the well-seasoned dancers will want, and cope with, a faster pace.
There is such a (theoretical?) thing as the "Controlled accelerando" in that you start at one speed but get faster (all keeping absolutely together!) as the set goes on and the tension and adrenaline mounts. Not a fault if done well, but all enhances the excitement of the dance.

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There is a particular feel in the trad from around East Galway / East Clare that is more relaxed and gentle on the ear , slower …. it’s traditional around there also to play in flat keys , though obviously not everyone does play slow or flat ….
So players from around there , perhaps exemplified by Martin Hayes , (perhaps to an extreme! )can have a style that differes from the other regions and the big cities like London , New York etc where the general pace of life might result in fast furious and full playing as opposed to the laid back , open and relaxed style such as played by Pat OConnor above.

Our environment(s) surely must be relevant in the development of a true personal style . All be it a reaction against as opposed to a ‘going with’ the prevailing ethos .
Kila and mind the gap come to mind there!!!

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Frankie Gavin is working on his rebuttal.

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"…the big cities like London , New York etc where the general pace of life might result in fast furious and full playing as opposed to the laid back , open and relaxed style…"

I cut my trad teeth in London and, although there were certainly a few fast and furious players, I would not consider that an overriding feature of Irish music in London - and it could hardly be said of areas like West Donegal or Sliabh Luachra, where the music is often played on the fast side, that the pace of life there is fast and furious.

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Fair enough cmo but our society is linked by media , we all have to ‘compete ‘ with the internet. Recordings etc , there are very few if any pure stylists anymore . So the laid back approach does not fit so well in a modern world of fast and furious , cars , jet planes etc
To gain a foothold in the commercial world of music it’s easier to do so if your music fits with a modern ethos, hence the ironing out of various tuning approaches in favour of a standard concept of intune set by recordings and commercial radio.
How would BobbyCassy fair if he were starting out today? I feel he’d have to conform both speed wise tinnng wise and probably have a bass player and guitar in his big band !! :-)

Regional exponants of a traditional style can do so because thank god, there is a niche for it , but it’s small and not really a financial thing. That’s why the amateur is so important and without them, we simply wouldn’t have what we value so much anymore . Because they can be true to themselves and not do Christmas albums or whatever…..
it’s the amateurs ( no pressure to compete for the big buck) that are the core of the tradition

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On the other hand:

I’ve been in sessions where one person tends to start polkas at about 80 BPM.

While I try very hard to be supportive of others, and while there is certainly such a thing as "too fast," there is also such a thing as "too slow."

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I just cant have it that speed kills. Only bad playing kills. I can play impressively fast (according to friends) but what has been a very good tool of learning for me is this:- I sometimes play on my media player, all day long and just as background music, all my collection (i.e., hundreds) of Irish fiddle tunes. But I play them on slow so that All the intricacies of the ornamentation and the pulse sink into my subconscious. Then, when a tune dawns on me intimately enough, I play it, practice it and, if appropriate, speed the hell out of it.

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From a dancer’s perspective, I’d say quite a broad range of tempos is "dance-able", though it strongly depends on the type of dancing (and, obviously, on how good a dancer is).

Say, for competitive-style solo dancing one might actually want something really slow, to have time for high jumps and intricate battering (I’m not any good with bpm, so I’d rather give examples), like https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nB_t4T2fh_k


For Sean Nos, it can be faster - depending on dancer’s skill, something up to this - although at this speed, I would have to limit myself to easier and slower steps, but a good dancer would probably keep up just fine
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hfii-QvfWgw


Same for ceili - actually, a 2 or 4 hand can be performed even faster without much strain.
Not sure about set dances though.