This article originally appeared in: Mandolin Magazine, Spring 2008 issue
Early on in my tenure in the Irish session scene I noted what I took to be a simple fact of life, to whit: Whatever speed you established when you started playing a set of tunes, by the end of the set you’d be playing a heck of a lot faster. I chalked this up to youthful zeal and adrenaline and mostly learned to live with it. But as I began to analyze the tunes and the sets and the sessions with a little more detail, I realized two things. First, there are identifiable mechanical and conceptual aspects to inexorable accelleration that have nothing to do with adrenaline. Second, this accelleration doesn’t have to happen.
To be honest, uncontrolled tempos annoy me. As I’ve said in previous columns, I love the melodic and narrative power of Celtic tunes and more often than not playing them too fast robs them of some of that power. Sure, it’s fun sometimes to really whip through a tune as fast as you can finger it. But there’s a difference between consciously throwing caution to the wind and unconsciously letting a tune set run away with you.
If an Irish dance tune is going to accellerate, it tends to do so at the ends of eight-bar parts. Sometimes this is due to excitement and impatience on the part of the players, eager to get to the next musical phrase. But more often it’s simply because the ends of phrases are where you’re most likely to find longer notes or rests after seven bars of unbroken eighth notes. And giddy musicians cheat the sustained notes or rests of their full time value and jump the gun into the next down beat.
Since this tendency seems to be universal, how can you keep it from happening? I mentioned mechanical and conceptual aspects. Let’s talk about the conceptual aspect first. Irish tunes, as I said, are mostly notated in eight-bar sections which repeat. A majority also sport melodies that both start and end on the tonic note. So it’s very easy to think of these tunes as being eight bars long. But really, every Irish tune is a subtlely cyclic little beastie that doesn’t start at the beginning and end at the end. Instead, it wants to circle back and repeat over and over and then move smoothly right into another tune that wants to do the same thing. An Irish tune is pointed not so much to the end of the eighth bar each time through a part, but toward the following downbeat. If you remember this, you’ll find yourself more solidly maintaining the rhythm all the way through the eighth bar, no matter how much space you might find there.
The mechanical element that’s connected with this conceptual shift is very simple. The idea is to continue the down-and-up right hand engine you’ve used through the notey part of the tune all the way through the longer notes and rests at the end of the phrase, but just clearing the strings in silence. For reels you’ll be alternating picking direction as if there are 8 eighth notes all the way through. In jigs, you’ll maintain your down-up-down down-up-down whether there’s a note to play or not. Keeping your right hand from stopping its motion will give you much more solid tempo control as you proceed from part to part.
Of course, some tunes have rests and long notes in places other than ends of phrases. The same advice applies. Keep your right hand moving and give every note and rest its full time value. There’s a real power to keeping a tune rolling along at a steady clip.
I picked a tune this time that features abrupt ends to eight-bar phrases but that totally rocks if you can give those last bars their full value before slamming down into the next part. “The Maids of Mt. Kisco” was first recorded in the 1920s by fiddler Michael Coleman and has maintained popularity for over 80 years. I think I first heard this three-part reel played by Frankie Gavin. I recorded it in 1984 on “Journeys of the Heart”. One odd feature of this tune is that the B part is only half as long as the A or C parts. I’m not sure I can think of another traditional Irish tune with this idiosynchracy.
I’ve notated the tune pretty straight, without many of the bowed triplets favored by the fiddlers. The A and C parts each end with a sharp, staccatto eighth note on the 3rd beat, followed by a beat-and-a-half of silence… unless you and your right hand engine want to engage the strings for a pickup note or two. Consider the notated pickup notes in the eighth bars of the A and C parts to be negotiable. Try playing through without them, ending each part sharply and coming in on the next down beat without speeding through the silence. Then add pickup notes as they amuse you.
I often tip my hat to Kevin Burke when I talk about tempo control. He’s as good an example as there is for how to create and maintain tension with Irish tunes without having to play them too fast. If you haven’t sat down and studied his playing, do yourself a favor and go buy some CDs. I’ve been listening to “If the Cap Fits” for 30 years and I’m still not tired of it.
One nice thing about this tempo control advice as that even the rankest beginner can follow it. It’s just a matter of bringing part of your technique to the conscious level and thinking about it. Of course, getting the rest of your session mates to go along with you will be no picnic, and to that end, I heartily wish you good luck.