Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

I was thinking of bettering my hornpipe repertoire the other day, so I started out by listening to a lovely version of Cronin’s hornpipe telling myself one just has to play a hornpipe as he’d play a slow reel but with an exaggerated upbeat. I recorded my attempt and the result was alas pretty close to atrocious. I’m starting to think hornpipes actually demand fairly advanced skill in dynamics and in handling a melody, more than reels. The slower tempo is really unforgiving and will expose your shortcomings. Would you guys agree?

Re: Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

Yes.

Re: Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

Can you post a recording of your playing so we can hear what your struggling with?

As for me, particularly on the B/C box, I enjoy playing hornpipes a lot more than reels for many of the same reasons you mention, they can be a great exercise in precise expressive playing.

Re: Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

Some hornpipes are easy than others. And difficulty may depend on the instrument too.

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I think the instrument might matter, for me they’re the easiest tunes on a whistle

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The very first tune I learned to play on the whistle was a hornpipe, and I’ve always found them fairly easy on that instrument, much more so than reels. I’m a pretty average fiddle player, but I can make a decent job of hornpipes, while for reels I find it difficult to move my fingers quickly enough. On both instruments I find that the slower tempo of hornpipes makes it easier to introduce variations than it is with reels. And I should say that I almost always play hornpipes in dotted rhythm, not in the American style.

Re: Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

Depends what hornpipes you’re talking about.

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Re: Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

So true, “The Golden Eagle” and “The Independence” are quite different from “Harvest Home” and “Boys of Bluehill”. 🙂

Re: Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

Echoing comments above, I think we have to define what kind and style of hornpipe we’re talking about. There are the bouncy session standards played at dance tempo (or regrettably faster). There are the “big” hornpipes like “The Drunken Sailor” or “Johnny Cope.” And then sometimes an artist will play hornpipes on stage or in a recording where they’re taken more slowly, more like a slow reel with room for expression.

For example, Kevin Burke’s playing of “Caisleán An Óir” into “The Humours Of Tullycrine” (he calls it Bobby Casey’s). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Km76yPpEV0s


A hornpipe played like that is far more exposed, with room for nuance but you have to know what you’re doing. My playing is more or less on autopilot when playing one of the session standard hornpipes at speed, but not for something like this. Not that I can play them like Burke, but I do like these two together.

Re: Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

Why not assume the thread is about Cronin’s Hornpipe for starters?

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Re: Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

Cronin’s is not one of the more challenging hornpipes, IMHO. Pretty straightfoward.

Re: Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

I agree, Michael.

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Re: Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

It’s you. In my experience, they’re not played much. At my session, almost not at all. I like them.

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Re: Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

In the San Diego sessions, we play a fair number of hornpipes. It’s been like that since I first started playing in sessions here in 1998 or so.

San Diego sessions also often have a more relaxed speed for reels than in other sessions I’ve visited. Reels here are typically at 100 bpm or less with a gentle tasteful (IMHO) loping feeling. Jigs at 105-110 bpm. Hornpipes feel right at home in our sessions.

For some reason, perhaps because some of us only started to get more into Kerry and Sliabh Luachra music in the past 5 years or so, we do play polkas and slides at a very lively tempo, roughly about 138 for polkas, suitable for set dancing.

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You don’t say what instrument you play, Danny. Some of the difficulty can be instrument-specific (as Belayatron said.)
Some (but not all) of my string-playing friends struggle with them (and strathspeys) because of all the dotted notes. I find them no bother on piano - a quick flick of the fingers - but can be more tricky on my B/C box when the dotted bits sometimes require sudden directional changes. But just keep practising and they will come eventually!

Re: Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

Danny N.’s profile says he plays B/C box.

Some sessions seem to stick to reels and jigs, but others play a fair bit of hornpipes, as well as slides, slips, hops, polkas, flings, highlands, etc. In my experience, the dotted vs straight issue depends more on the specific hornpipe than on any session’s overall preference. Some hornpipes just sound right when they’re swung or bounced, and some lend themselves to a straighter feel (though still usually swung more than reels). Likewise tempo—for dance sets, they can go at a good clip, likewise for novice step dancers, but advanced step dancers will want them slow to accommodate all their fancy footwork.

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Re: Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

Ok, got that now, but I don’t routinely look at everyone’s profile before answering their posts, Gimpy. It does help if folk say which instrument they are talking about in their original post.
So what I said as a fellow (with Danny N) B/C box player makes more sense for the reason I stated.
Your own profile, Gimpy, leaves me completely uninformed as to which planet you are on! 😉

Re: Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

Thank you for the feedback everybody! Sorry I didn’t state my instrument in the main thread.

Turns out I’m not used at playing hornpipes at all - a scenario I shouldn’t be surprised by, as I practice reels 99% of the time. It’s also a matter of key. I learned the tune in C, D, G and A. I learned it in D first - D is never the easiest key to play in on the B/C button box, so it requires more solid muscle memory as compared to say C or G. Tunes in D start to sound right after a good nights’ sleep.

@Michael - the fact that hornpipes are usually simpler melodies compared to reels is part of my point - it’s way harder to make a straightforward melody sound like it’s something special, you’ve got to resort to a larger amount of ornamentation, dynamics and smart variations. “Just make it sound bouncy” simply won’t cut it. So I agree, they are indeed a great exercise in precise expressive playing!

Loved the “big hornpipe” comment by @Conical bore.

Melodies that are somewhat elaborate or complicated to start with don’t require much brain work once you’ve gotten them laid down and can soar through them at mid-tempo, in my experience. I guess my main arguments are the following:
1. It’s the silly tunes the ones you got to watch out for.
2. Playing slowly turns out, as always, harder than playing fast 🙂

Re: Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

Trish, I’m none too sure myself! 😉

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Re: Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

Danny N., I disagree with the idea that one needs to “make it sound like it’s something special” through adding a bunch of ornamentation, variation, or anything for that matter. It’s quite possible to play a simple hornpipe quite tastefully and lovely without loading it up with a bunch of gratuitous ornamentation, and that’s where I do agree that dynamics, which are a huge part of creating the right feel for any tune style, are crucial.

Many simple hornpipes stand on their own quite well, for example several of the versions of “The Blackbird” (for example https://thesession.org/tunes/4101 ) are lovely played very simply with a gentle swing and not a whole lot of additional ornamentation.

“Way harder” implies that there is a some arbitrary requirement that you have to meet when interpreting a tune. I don’t think it’s “way harder” to play hornpipes than any other kind of tune.

Re: Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

@Michael yes, dynamics would be the first thing. It always is. I don’t play overly ornamented myself - still I believe one is more at risk of sounding beginner-y with simpler melodies without the help of some extra expressivess.

And yes, the “way harder” comment referred to all tunes, not hornpipes specifically.

Re: Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

Again, I’m trying to understand where you are coming from with all this, which seems to be about avoiding sounding like a beginner and having to do things to achieve that either in your playing or tune choices.

I’d say focus first on playing simple tasteful versions of simple hornpipes with a nice gentle swing and phrasing and stop worrying about what others think. I’ll take simple and lovely over gratuitous variation and ornamentation any day.

Re: Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

@Michael Eskin you are right Michael, we’re really just saying the same thing here, as what I mean by “extra expressiveness” is synonimous to what you mean by “simple and lovely”. Simpler melodies are not to be underestimated and have lessons to be taught on the importance of dynamics I guess is what I’m trying to say.

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I don’t know if Danny’s problem lies with the B/C accordion, the workings of which are beyond my understanding, but for me hornpipes like Cronin’s, The Home Ruler, The Fairy, The Steamboat, The Little Stack of Barley, even old standards like Harvest Home, Boys of Bluehill and Off to California virtually play themselves on the moothie, D/G or D one-row melodeon, at a moderate tempo with a bit of swing. These are melodically quite simple tunes and lend themselves easily to the mouth organ or diatonic box, but like Michael Eskin says above tunes like the Golden Eagle or The Independence are a whole new box of tricks!

Re: Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

… or possibly, a lot more challenging if you play the flute!

Re: Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

OK, I’ll bite. What is the deal with Cronin’s? Seems like a standard hornpipe to me. Why are so many talking about it?

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Re: Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

@Ailin I was basically making the argument that straightforward tunes will more easily expose your shortcomings in dynamics/expressiveness, and Cronin’s was an example.

Re: Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

Danny, here’s a theory. If you’re not inspired by a “simple” or “straightforward” tune, the lack of spark will show in your playing of it. Likely, it’s not the tune that’s to blame. Rather, you may need to spend more time with it, or hear a brilliant rendition from another musician, or find (or create) some emotional connection to the tune. It may be enough to simply “sing” the melody with your instrument, worrying less about the mechanics and focusing instead on expressing the bare feeling(s) of the tune.

After all, this music brims with simple, straightforward tunes. And they’re well loved by thousands of musicians. It’s not speed or pyrotechnics that make the tune. Play every note like it’s significant, not just a waypoint between the beginning and end.

Also, the more you develop control over dynamics and other expressive skills on hornpipes (played slowly to start), the more you’ll be able to use those skills at tempo in reels, jigs, etc. The same feel works well in reels, just on a more nuanced scale.

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Re: Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

Hey, Rick. I just tried it on flute and it’s a walk in the park. 😉

Could you, or maybe a volunteer, record your version of Cronin’s. I obviously know how it sounds on flute (that’s a lie) but I want to hear another instrument for comparison. More to the point though; I just listened to the audio onsite & the accompaniment {how can I put this} it doesn’t cut the mustard.

Thank you very much!

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Re: Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

Ben, there are no shortage of recordings on YouTube on many instruments. All sound about the same to me. Nice tune, but nothing extra. Don’t feel moved to learn it.

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Re: Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

@AB - Thank you for your thorough and insightful appraisal of my light-hearted arrangement 😉!
In lieu of offering any evidence to the contrary, kindly accept my word that it sounds far, far worse on my Tenor banjo than the MIDI rendering provided here on site.

Re: Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

Thank you, Rick. That’s actually a relief.

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Re: Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

It’s you.

Re: Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

just messin. some are easy, some are tough. japanese hornpipe is really tough and on my must learn to play list.

Re: Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

@fluteneek
The Japanese Hornpipe was one of Mick Moriarty’s (R.I.P.) favourites on his flute (not sure which Key he played it in) - on every occassion we met, he would ask whether I knew it - my answer was, sadly, always No. 🙁

Re: Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

If that’s a hornpipe, I count myself no judge. Painful, though.

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Re: Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

That’s painful, too!

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Re: Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

@Rick, would’ve loved to have heard Mick play it!

Re: Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

There’s more than one way to play a hornpipe.

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Re: Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

Yes. Well and lousy.

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Re: Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

Ailin, I get that you cannot stand the last couple of recordings posted.
I posted John Doherty because “The Japanese” came up in this thread & he presumably introduced the tune to Irish musicians. So I’d like you to listen to a couple of hornpipes which are known from Michael Coleman’s recordings. It’s not Coleman playing though. I think you’ll like it.

“John McGann (RIP) - The Stage/The Western Hornpipe (not commercially available)”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UbKV3EmN3-I

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Re: Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

Thanks, Ben. Not sure what your point is or what you thought mine was. I’ve heard two versions of the Japanese Hornpipe, neither of which sound like a hornpipe and both of which were awful. Kenny made the comment that there is more than one way to play a hornpipe. Do you know what that’s about? In any event, there’s nothing noteworthy about the tunes you just posted. Sound like standard issue hornpipes to me. Relating all of this to the OP, I find nothing challenging about playing hornpipes as compared to other forms of dance music. My original expectation was that the Japanese Hornpipe was introduced as a more challenging hornpipe. At this point, I don’t know what it is or why it was ever mentioned.

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Re: Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

“Awful” is your opinion, nothing more. Matt Molloy and John Doherty don’t play music they consider “awful”.
“The Japanese” hornpipe was mentioned because it would be regarded as an example of a difficult hornpipe to play. There’s nothing at all “standard issue” about it as a hornpipe.

https://youtu.be/Q2sT3qHmiXw

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Re: Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

Given the esteemed musicians in first two examples given I had felt some trepidation is saying I would prefer to hear the Japanese hornpipe played differently, and in any case was not sure how to describe it.

Now I can - like Fergal Scahill. Thanks Kenny.

(and what would it be if not a hornpipe?)

Re: Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

Kenny, thank you for posting the recording of Matt Molloy!

“There’s nothing at all “standard issue” about it as a hornpipe.”
If I’m not mistaken I believe Ailin was referring to the clip of the hornpipes “The Stage” & “The Western”.

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Re: Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

Thanks, Jeff! A good rendition of an interesting tune. I don’t know what was going on with the previous posted versions, but this was fine, and yes, probably more challenging than the average, at least the way your version sounded.

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Re: Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

@Ailin - maybe it’s the fact that the Japanese Hornpipe has a pretty big tonal range, with a lot being played in the higher registers. I don’t think concertinas and melodeons sound that great when played at the limit of their upper register, especially when these reeds rarely get used.

Just an observation, and of course no reflection on the skill of the musicians.

I got myself into trouble some years ago for pointing out the downside of the “higher register” thing in some tunes, though to be fair, at that time I was significantly more gobby 🙂

Re: Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

When enough instruments play together in the upper range, it creates the proverbial “jar of bees” effect. Unfair to the bees. More often, it sounds like the brakes on the old Boston subway red line echoing down the tunnel.

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Re: Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

Playing hornpipes for dancing needs you to think about what the dancers need. I was brought up in the English dance tradition, where one old boy told me that the job of the musicians is to lift the dancers’ knees. So lots of “bounce” in the rhythm. Set dancing needs a lot less bounce, unless it is a figure where the dancers are “doubling”. For me, I think that is where the tension comes: my fingers are expecting something slower and bouncy, but my head is telling them to play something closer to a reel …

Re: Is it me or are hornpipes unexpectedly difficult to play?

@Ailin
Perhaps the strict rhythm in Dermot Byrne’s recording helped you appreciate the tune. (It’s also present in Fergal Scahill’s playing, and Matt Molloy’s for that matter but less so in the John Doherty recording - there is a slight change of tempo in the B part, and if I dare say it - difficult to feel the beat.)

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Excellent input, Jeff. Much appreciation.

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