I thought it would be interesting to discuss the speed at which Irish music is played (he says as he takes a bounding leap from the tip of the diving board into the can of worms!).  I'm curious to see where you all stand.


The reason I ask is that I often encounter people who play faster than their ability lends.  I feel that there is perhaps an uneccessary felt need by some to play all reels at x speed, all jigs at y speed, etc (yes, even in the absence of dancers).  Because of this I see many players going full throttle at the expense of good rhythm, intonation, and other elements that are more important to make listenable or even danceable music.  I am curious as to why speed is so encouraged into players rather than the more important elements such as rhythm, intonation and structure when speed can always come later.


Let me state that I have no problem with music played at a brisk pace if it is played well and in time.  However, to me the music becomes a bit monotonous after a while if that pace is not broken occasionally.  Some tunes even seem to lose their impact on me if played too fast (I don't think speed is the only thing that gives energy and life to a tune).  I find myself drawn to recordings and performances that are on the relaxed end of the tempo spectrum (for example Liam O'Flynn's piping, Mick O'Brien and  Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh's album Kitty Lie Over) but this has only become my preference in the last few years as I've immersed myself in many recordings.  Personally, I can play fast but prefer not to as my tastes has been shaped by the above.  


What are your thoughts?  Do you find these same phenomena in your locality?  Is it something that's more common in American players?

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Thanks for your post.  This is a topic that comes up in many circles, and I don't think there is a one-size-fits-all answer.  I enjoy playing fast, but of late I have been trying to pay much more attention to other elements of the tunes, such as lift, that are better perceived when played slowly.  I have come up against some musicians who are very keen to keep the pace slower...sometimes because they truly feel that the music sounds better this way, but other times because, either in secret or openly, they lack the skill to keep up with the fast playing. 


When I hear or play a tune (or tunes) I always like to feel that there is some kind of emotional response/reaction to the music.  Either it makes me feel excited, happy, sad, contemplative, etc. etc.  If I don't feel anything, then the playing seems rather pointless after awhile.  I suppose in an ideal situation, one would be able to play both fast and slowly, depending on what feeling one is trying to convey.  As an example, a few months ago I recorded a slow version of Colonel Fraser's Reel (on youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wvy7nIbGNYs) -- sort of as an experiment.  This reel, as you probably know, is usually played at a very brisk speed.  So in slowing it down, it became an almost entirely new tune.


Sometimes, I feel that there is nothing quite like playing a jig or reel at a very brisk speed...there's a feeling there that I can't quite explain, but it is very cool.  But, for sure, the oportunity for certain ornamentation, lift, and other creative elements is much less... so I can agree with those who say that something is lost in the speed.


If you CAN play fast, then you have more choices.  If you can't, then you are limited to slow playing.  So ideally, a player can do both.  However, if you are always feeling the need to play everything at top speed, something is lost there too.  And unless you're a top notch player, you might sound pretty bad, and again, not convey the emotion of the piece that you may have intended.  Just a few thoughts...

Steven Hawson

Steven, I am in agreement with your post.  I also realize this discussion can be tricky as words like "fast" or "slow" are quite subjective.  I've had times where I thought I was playing at a pretty relaxed tempo and others didn't play along because they thought it was too fast.  It's been funny sometimes to see folks who usually play everything fast struggle to maintain solid rhythm when I start a set a bit slower than they're used to.   It's all about control and, your are correct, being able to play fast and slow has it's merits.  I feel that many tunes tend to speak for themselves and I'm all about letting them do so; playing them how they want to be played.  For example, the jig Humours of Trim is one that sounds atrocious to me when played fast but just beautiful slowed down a bit.  On the other hand, something is lost in the Bucks of Oranmore if you don't get it going at a brisk pace!  One of the things that drives me crazy the most is when people over-use rolls to make it easier to play fast-entire phrases are glossed over with one or two rolls and the tune is almost lost.

Thanks for the additional comments, Johnny.  I'm in agreement. 

I was continuing to think about this question today while working on the roof of my house...searching for a metaphore that might help me address the issue.  All I could come up with was food.  Here in the Southwest (New Mexico), much of our traditional foods are served with a salsa or hot sauce...often quite spicy.  Now, I love spicy food.  But, some salsas are so spicy that THAT is all that you can taste...it is overpowering, and many of the other tastes from the other ingredients in the salsa can't be perceived...it's just spice.  Some of my favorite salsas have little or no spice to them...you can taste the chile, onions, tomatoes, cilantro, lime, etc. etc. and the combination is sublime!  I still like the spicy salsa, but appreciate the milder, more complex salsas too.


Don't know if any of that makes sense with respect to trad music and speed, but it's making me hungry anyway.  Steven

makes sense to me - bill
Found an interesting piece half related to this topic HERE There are countless recording of all types of speed when it comes to the music. You only have to compare Martin Hayes v John Carty or Tommy Peoples. It is historically a dance music and the repeated comments from Judges at this years Dublin Fleadh where my 11 Year old was competing was just that. They look for a steady pace and rythmn first and foremost when judging. These judges were all relatively young people. Generally speaking I think people play it too fast.

Since most of this music was created for dancing, I'm going to have to say that the music should be of such a rhythm to drive the dancing, which would be a faster pace.  On the other hand, most of these tunes are also very lovely when played slowly with a lots of feeling and good intonation!  We have a "slow jam" group at our school which does this.

Ohio has a fair number of Irish traditional music players in Cincinnati, Dayton and Columbus; unfortunately, I'm continuously forced to play faster than I should, if I want to join a session. This is intimidating, nerve-wrecking and exhausting if you happen to be a shy person.  If I want to play with others in Ohio, I have to get past the "intermediate" level and speed it up.  It's been a little precarious for me lately, as I am getting a lttle bit bored by the beginning (very slow) playing and stressed by the advanced (very fast) playing.  Here's how I'm personally dealing with this: I've been avoiding sessions and working on my speed in private.

Tony, I browsed the paper that you linked in your prior message.  It looks like some good reading.  I'm going to read it all later; maybe it will give some guidance.

Hi folks,

I reckon speed is entirely relative & depends on the situation you find yourself in & the other musicians.

So, if you have a bunch of wild eyed, manic Set Dancers screaming Faster! ...  Faster! then you will probably find yourselves galloping along at a fair rate of knots.

However, if you are sitting in your kitchen with a few friends, why not just take your time & play at whatever speed the mood dictates.

In other words, it's only Dance Music when you are playing for Dancers. If there aint no Dancers about, then it's listening music & anything goes.

So, yes it's fun to tear along in a groove for dancers, but when given a choice, I must admit, I much prefer to just amble along & relish the moment.

Here are a couple of examples of my favourite pace, with myself on a tuned down Fiddle & that great Co Antrim Uilleann Piper John Hughes:









Good points, Dick.  I'll start playing in the kitchen more, while I eat my spicy food.


Dick, I'm no expert, but I think the speed of your jigs and reels was  very nice.  I'd also like to complement your fiddling and John Hughes' pipes too!!! Thanks for sharing.

Dick hit the nail on the head for me... and his playing very much suits my taste.  Energetiic and lively but at a relaxed enough pace that the lilt and phrasing really shines.  I get quite tired of the same arguement that "this is dance music so reels have to at least be x speed and jigs y speed."  I love the dance aspect and do wish there was more of it in my locality but a also love to play and listen to this music.

Steven's analogy was very nice too.  As fun as it is to listen to Paddy Keenan blow through a set of reels at the speed of light it is only part of it and when it comes down to it he plays slow just as well as fast.  The speed is only part of the makeup of Irish music and I think it's fair to say that many do highlight it over other elements too much.


By the way, Dick, "Hand Me Down the Tackle" is one of my favorite tunes... and sure you played it well!


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