The whole variation thing

The whole variation thing

Variations are, of course, part of ITM, but there seem to be different approaches.

I take it for granted that tiny variations are entirely normal. A note may be cut from above one time, "cut" from below another, just glottal-stopped (or similar) another time round. As a flute player, I try (often without success) not to always use exactly the same notes to miss out in order to breathe every time round, but to shift them around from one bar to another. Can I call them "light" variations?

But there is the other kind, in which the player leaves the notes as might be written in a single take of the tune and takes a different route through the notes to get from one end of a phrase to another. I suppose this could either be pre-planned (as in the "variations" sometimes printed in tune settings) or semi-spontaneous, as a blues or jazz player would do. "Strong" variations, for the sake of a name.

So far, so good, but this is where my limited knowledge runs out. Some people seem to speak as if strong variations are more or less de rigeur, the ""essence" of ITM as it is the essence of jazz/blues, and speak as if strong variations are ubiquitous. But others are not so keen, and I’ve seen it said (rightly or wrongly, I don’t know) that variations are much more emphasized in some geographic regions than others.

So what’s the score? Given that obviously some people use them a lot, are there indeed others who view taking flights of melodic fancy as showing off and disrespectful to the tune? Was it always so, or is it something subject to fashion?

I’d be interested to hear what those with wide knowledge can say about this.

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It depends whether you are playing solo or in a session. If you are playing solo you are pretty much free to play about with the tune as you like but in an Irish session there is more expectation that everyone plays the tune fairly ‘tight’ so extreme variations are not much appreciated (unlike ‘English’ sessions where improvisation / busking along is more accepted.) That at least is my experience in UK and Ireland.

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Good question.
I have wondered how people go about with variations. Do you practise them, learn different kinds of variations and play them more or less the same each time you play the tune, or do you vary the melody spontaneous/ improvisation each time. I am learning the pipes and I think with this instrument (maybe more than others) repetition and muscle memory is essential so when I learn a tune and practise it over and over again I get "trapped". If I break out of the pattern it mostly end as a train wreck. But if I consciously practise the variations and play them the same place each time I’m good. But would that qualify as a variation or am I just learning a version of the tune?

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Don’t overthink it. Rather than looking for rules about how to do it, listen carefully to players that you like and do as they do. Copy them, no harm in that. Eventually you’ll develop a nice bag of tricks and you may even invent some of your own.

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One of the things that drew me to trad long ( LONG) ago was the fundamental difference between itself and say classical or jazz. The way I see it, those genres are about glorifying the player. "We are going to see so-and-so play the Brahms first tonight" etc etc. When you learn those forms of music, you are looking to generate virtuosity which says "listen to me!" Trad on the other hand, tends to say "listen to this!" Its about the tune.
You gain proficiency to better play the tune and convey it to others, but less about dazzling technique. There are exceptions to both sides of course. If you are trying to create dazzling variations, I think you have chosen your slot. As was said before, if you are playing solo dazzle away. But is it then about the tune, or is it about yourself?

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Interesting Alex thinking of variations as having two levels.

As you point out, many variations aren’t about restructuring the melody but about varying the articulations, both those done with the fingers and those done with the airstream.

About taking breaths, my breathing-spots will often change as I play through the tune, simply because I need to take a breath.

Then there are little things like choosing which sort of roll to play in a particular spot, or whether to play a roll there at all. I think of the "roll-spots" (for lack of a better term) as the places where the melody parks for a moment, often the places I will take a breath or otherwise change what I do there. One might choose not to park there and do a melodic thing.

For myself, when I first learn a tune I will play it more or less the same, but the more times I play it the more I explore alternative avenues. Some of these feel more "right" to me that the way I received the tune, and become part of my own setting. Some get squirreled away and become potential variations.

Every player seems to have a unique approach to variation. There are players who will play the tune more or less the same the first two times around, allowing their setting to become fixed in the listener’s mind, then on the third playing introduce a big melodic variation.

"Good music is the balance of the familiar and the unexpected."

As you’ve probably noticed, with many (most?) tunes a certain phrase tends to be chosen as the place for variations while the rest of the tune is left more or less intact.

The players I don’t care listening to, no matter how good they are, are the ones who are constantly varying every phrase, so the listener never gets a sense of what "the tune" is. To me they sound like they’ve never integrated the tune with themselves, never came to grips with it. They fail to balance the familiar and the unexpected.

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Alex, one of the things I like about Irish trad is that the approach to variation making is quite relaxed, and generally done without making major alterations to a tune as often happens in jazz. Some very good players seem naturally gravitate to relatively little melodic variation, and no one would say their playing suffers for it (e.g. Kevin Crawford, June McCormack); others, just as naturally seem to play with more melodic variation (e.g. Catherine McEvoy, Tara Diamond), and some are somewhere in the middle (Aoife Graneville, Emer Mayock). You probably have Conal O’Grada’s flute tutor. In the section in which the playing of a number of fine players is analyzed, a good deal of attention is paid to variation. Reread that section. If you want something a little more organized, Shannon Heaton talks about ways of doing melodic variation ‘on the fly’, and Majella Bartley, in her OAIM flute lesson series, sometimes gives quite elaborate and obviously worked out beforehand variations. Her series deals with playing tunes in competititions, and so those may be called for in that context. Chet

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I’m not saying right or wrong, but what I like best is a level of variation that you don’t notice unless you are listening carefully.

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Shannon Heaton was mentioned above and I just wanted to add that she has a good take on variations with her Tune of the Month videos on YouTube (also available as an audio podcast). In the context of flute, she teaches a tune’s basic form with lilting and slow playing. But she also plays the tune through a couple times while introducing a few tasteful variations that could be applied once you have gotten the basic tune “in your ear and in your heart” as she puts it. Highly recommended for learners of any instrument, not just flute.

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I will admit that I play with a lot of (mostly) spontaneous variation when I’m playing. Pretty much all of my variation is done in a playful way, and is directed subconsciously by a feeling or emotion that I am trying to convey.

And while I do a fair amount of melodic variation, it’s typically not straying too far, so I might substitute a note for something that is harmonic to what other people are playing, but it rarely strays beyond maybe two notes in a row. Occasionally, I will "find a new way home" with a whole resolve phrase, or something, but as others have mentioned, that can get annoying and can really muddy up the overall sound when I’m not playing solo.

But I do a LOT of variation that isn’t varying the melody. I will vary just about anything else, from note dynamics, attack, sustain, ornamentation/articulation, timing, or even intonation — I play banjo, so the frets keep me from straying too far, but I will often slide into a note to soften its attack, for instance. This can actually help when playing with other players that may play a note that is more in between notes than right on pitch, too. And occasionally I will bend a string to sharpen a note slightly.

But for me, it all comes back to being playful with the music. When I was first developing beyond being a complete beginner, a fiddler sort of took me under his wing, and seemed to get a kick out of playing with me. And what has always stuck with me is how much more expressive and playful he was with the exact same notes I was playing, with an occasional different turn that just sounded eloquent to me. And I have spent my time since then working to develop that kind of expression in my music…

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Missing out a note (and substituting a rest in its place) can be effective too, and can give some extra "lift".

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I’m surprised no-one came up with the famous Colm Meaney quote from The Boys and Girl from County Clare,
‘there’s no f…….in jazz in ceili music- stick to the melody’ !

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christy taylor: "I’m surprised no-one came up with the famous Colm Meaney quote from The Boys and Girl from County Clare, ‘there’s no f…….in jazz in ceili music- stick to the melody’ !"

Well, ceili bands are a whole different cuttlefish. They’re all about working together as a unit; whatever variations there are are pre-planned and co-ordinated to the microquaver.

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I posted above :

"Missing out a note (and substituting a rest in its place) can be effective too, and can give some extra "lift"."

….but meant to add :

"Also, it won’t mess with the melody."

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Other quotes from "TBAGFCC" [ something like ] :
"I was only spicing it up, Jimmy". Reply - "If you want spice, get a ####### curry".
"If you want jazz, listen to the Beatles" 🙂
Variations are great fun when playing solo, very few traditional Irish musicians want to play the tune the same way every time, but context is everything here. You can do what you like with a tune playing in your own kitchen, variations certainly add to an on-stage performance from an audience point of view, and they are strongly encouraged, and indeed , expected, in a competition situation.
Whereas there will always be differences between what musicians are playing in a session, most of the time the idea is to play the tunes together, so the player who takes off with obvious or even obtrusive variations, for whatever reason, is probably not going to fit in or be too popular.
A sweeping generality of course, there may be sessions somewhere where variations are applauded but I’ve never come across one. Everyone playing different variations on a tune at the same time is just going to be a non-musical mess.

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"there’s no f…….in jazz in ceili music- stick to the melody!"

For sure in a ceili band.

In Irish music as a whole, variation is a part of it, some would say an essential part.

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I don’t make the claim of having deep historical knowledge about variations/improvisations (the former being a tad more structured than the latter), but as the primary arranger for most of the instrumental music we performed, I can say what worked for me/us.
We had an advantage of at least two melody voices (violin + violin, violin + whistle, violin + tenor banjo ect. ect.). Rather than melody predominating each section, I would compose a descent (for lack of a better name), that still fit within the chord progression, or sometime a slight change to the progression (maybe going from dominant to minor or vice versa) and melody (doesn’t work to have one voice end on the minor at the end of a phrase, and the other end on the major). Usually this descent or counter melody if you prefer, was played over the melody, but with the melody supportive of the descent melody. For us it worked 99% of the time.
I’m sure purists condemn me to that warm place for doing that, but it’s just the way my ADHD mind works when I hear a melody, I automatcally and unconsciously harmonize it, and I think that’s why it was so easy to do.

I really had very little Sessions experiences to work from. They just weren’t a common event in the late 80’s early 90’s in Colorado. The 2 or 3 I did attend, bored me to tears sitting in on. Hearing the melody played over and over, with the only real variation being a change to a different instrument taking the lead, was a real yawner for me (apologies to the purists, I’m just being honest). Just imparting what is, no doubt a very non traditional approach. It worked well as a performance tool for us, but I doubt it would work as a Sessions tool without the support of the members.

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I remembered reading an article on variation written by the piper Eliot Grasso. I quickly searched for it & found a dissertation he had written on the subject. I’ll link the site for anyone that may be interested. It is over 500 pgs long…

Melodic variation in the instrumental dance music tradition of Ireland
Grasso, Eliot John
https://scholarsbank.uoregon.edu/xmlui/handle/1794/11557

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I’ve enjoyed people’s takes on approaches to variation - and BTW Here Comes the Sun is rather lovely, though admittedly boosted for me by resonances of happy times in my youth, so thanks for all that.
In fact it is the history and geography that particularly interest me, so special thanks to Henrik and Chaos for that link!

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Re: the article on variation written by the piper Eliot Grasso mentioned above: I just read the summary of this dissertation (v. interesting!) and remember listening for the first time to Matt Molloy’s 1976 solo LP. It’s not only top-class flute playing, of course, but Donal Lunny’s contribution is a masterclass in backing - a topic discussed here more than once. I’ve often listened to it again just to try and take in how he goes about the accompaniment, and it seems to me there’s the notion of a ‘deep structure’ in his playing - maybe a bit like Chomsky’s idea of the structure underlying grammar in a language. That is to say that a good tune has a shape and substance that goes beyond the melody plus chord progression, and Lunny’s accomp. recognises and represents that.

The reason for reflecting on this is that I think a player who has a sense of this ‘structure’, if that’s what it is, will create variations which enhance the tune to the point of taking it in a distinctive direction while still maintaining its identity. It’s quite different from an extension of embellishment or decoration. I suppose it’s what jazz musicians do, but they tend to take their improvisations further away from the initial melody than a trad player would. If asked for an example, I’d put on a Tommy Potts’ recording or the YouTube clip of Aoife McAuliffe’s ‘Colonel Fraser’, but I imagine the process could be heard in all the best ITM players.

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"I would compose a descent… Usually this descent or counter melody if you prefer, was played over the melody, but with the melody supportive of the descent melody."

Looks like spell-check may have got you there. The word is "descant" which means counter-melody. Originally, and oftentimes still, the descant was played, literally, over the melody as you say, staying above the melody.

The word "descent" means downward motion, or ancestral lineage.

A very effective arranging trick I’ve used a few times in a group, with songs, is to write a counter-melody which is melodic enough to be used and perceived as a standalone melody, the counter-melody used alone as the instrumental introduction of the song, and the instrumental break.

Then after the break the instrumental counter-melody continues, now functioning as a counterpoint to the singer’s melody.

IMHO this is a completely different topic than variation as it exists in Irish trad.

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I find it interesting to talk about ‘the tune’ as a sacrosanct thing. Rarely when I hear/read a tune do I find that it’s in its most basic form. I spend some time with it, playing it, dropping bits, learning it until I can hear the core of it, then I play with it. Not because my way’s better, just because hearing the tune is what matters to me. Reading through other comments, I realize I don’t have a proscribed way I use melodic variations. Usually, they’re what I’m hearing in the moment, so I’m usually hoping for one more time through to try a different arpeggiation or an octave change that presents something I hadn’t thought of yet. Maybe that’s ‘flashy’ but Larry Nugent told me in a workshop that it should be fun. It’s not practice, it’s play, so taking a risk is usually worth it, if the session isn’t too staid to handle it, and of course that’s the fun of playing with friends. You can rib each other for the things that went wrong and enjoy the moments when everything magically went right.
I don’t usually practice variations, unless I’m hearing something in a tune and I can’t quite put my finger on it in the moment. Usually there’s something interesting there, maybe from some interesting chording from a friend, or an album I can’t even recall.

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"It’s not practice, it’s play, so taking a risk is usually worth it, if the session isn’t too staid to handle it" - could be great. Provided, like guitars and bodhrans, there’s only one player doing that kind of improvisation at any one time. IMHO, of course.

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Recently I’ve started working out my variations rather than letting them crop up naturally. It takes longer for the natural ones to spontaneously evolve something good, and as a whistle player, flubbing a variation is likely to leave you hanging, often at the expense of taking breaths in the wrong places and screwing up my phrasing.

That said ,the best stuff that comes up tends to be spontaneous, where I’m not overthinking.