At one time I thought I had a reasonably sized repertoire of maybe pushing four-hundred tunes. Ninety-five of them were reels, which also seemed reasonable, being significantly more than the number of jigs, which was the next most popular type. The majority of this repertoire, though far from all, I had learnt during my years in Ireland.
Then I went to another country and was surprised and, yes, disappointed, to find that not only were more reels played than any other tune type, which is probably quite typical, but more reels (by far) were played than everything else PUT TOGETHER! At any one session you might find 80% reels and 10% jigs, while the airs, barn dances, highlands, hornpipes, marches, mazurkas, planxtys, slides, waltzes and even polkas had to try for a look-in in the remaining 10% of the time. So whereas I had expected to be able to join in with at least a reasonable proportion of the music (One quarter? One third? Even just one fifth?) it could quite easily turn out that I only had two or three of the tunes in the common repertoire over the whole evening. To make matters worse, most tunes were played hell-for-leather, at a pace that my medium-at-best talents could not match.
I drew two good lessons from this.
The first lesson is the futility of lists of “basic tunes that everyone should know”. Attempts to produce such lists have shown remarkably little overlap. I view that as a good thing: prescriptive standardisation is a very cold, wet blanket. A list of, let’s say, “50 tunes that are commonly played at THIS ONE PARTICULAR established session” is a great aid to a newcomer. Someone who is kind enough to take the trouble to write such a list deserves our thanks. But on the other side of the railway track, or on the other side of the ocean, the 50 tunes most commonly played at THAT session may be almost entirely different.
The second lesson is something I was told by someone much more experienced when I was a relative beginner, but it took a long time to sink in: it’s not how many tunes you know – it’s how you play them. One of my biggest problems was that in spite of having what I still reckon was a reasonably sized repertoire, I simply couldn’t play them well enough, with the strength, reliability and musicality needed to lead off. If my repertoire had extended to only 20 tunes, but if I had those tunes really under my command, then a couple of times in an evening I could have said, “OK, I’m going to play this one, that one and the other one – are you all ready?” In all probability people would have joined in and enjoyed it. A week later I could have gone back and said “OK, I’m going to play pip-pip, pop-pop and ping-pong – are you all ready?”, and before too long somebody might have said, “Hey, why don’t you play that one and the other one that you played a week ago?”
Well, that’s not how it was. I was neither that good a player, nor that wise a person. I chased the idea that if only I knew enough tunes, they would “come round” often enough that I could join in.
Over the last couple of years I have reassessed. I’ve scratched a lot of the tunes that I sort-of knew, in the sense that I could sort-of join in if somebody else was leading the set. I’ve added a few that 1) I like and that 2) I know that at least a few other people like, although the first criterion has been the most important one. I only now count my active repertoire, and by that I mean tunes that I know well enough so that if someone says, “What about The Tingle-Tangle Jig?” I can respond with, “Yes, it goes like this…” This list has only recently passed a hundred, and I consider that PLENTY to be getting on with. Of course it can grow, and probably will, but merely bumping up the number is not a priority. Of that hundred, only six (in letters, S-I-X) are reels. They sound good at 110 bpm, perhaps even 100 bpm or less, and I flatly refuse to attempt anything above 120. This allows them, I think, to display their character. They can be danced to, and they don’t all sound the same.