This article originally appeared in: Mandolin Magazine, Summer 2007 issue
A student was recently expressing deep anxiety that he wouldn’t be able to play up to tempo in the local sessions, noting that tempos in the sets of local favorite reels and jigs often seem to be shot from guns. Worse for him, they tend to speed up from merely fast to untenable. We played a bit as I pondered how to approach talking about this phenomenon, something I’d been aware of since my first days playing meekly in the back pew at The Starry Plough 30 years ago. As we played I noticed that, anxious as he was, he, too, was letting his tempos creep up and eventually get the better of him. And he didn’t need any social encouragement to do so.
I’ve heard it chalked up to mere testosterone and youthful excess of adrenaline. And there’s always the showman’s bravado as common in bluegrass circles as Celtic sessions: that unspoken “We play this fast because we can.” And I sit back, silently annoyed that the bat-outta-hell tempos are sucking the life from some of these delightful little tunes. But as far as the unconscious accelleration goes, there’s one specific thing that’s going on which, once you’re conscious of it, you can actually help control to rein in your tempos and, perhaps, the tempos of the other session players around you.
Here’s what you are doing: you are not giving the long notes at the ends of phrases their full time value. Accelleration occurs at the end of each 8-bar phrase, when, no matter how many eighth notes are strung together, you almost always get a quarter note or two to finish the musical thought. And if you collapse time a tiny bit at the end of every eight bars, just think what’s going to happen after a set of five reels, each repeated three times. You’ve jumped the gun 30 times and suddenly your metronome is cranked up six points.
Okay, it’s easy to identify the problem. But what can we do about it? I have two suggestions. The first will actually require practice. The second is simple common sense.
I’ve stressed in early columns the virtues of maintaining a right-hand rhythmic “engine” for playing jigs and reels. For jigs, it’s the DOWN-up-down, DOWN-up-down picking pattern that I try to keep going, whether you’re playing a note or not. Every one-, three-, four-, and six-beat in a jig should be a DOWN stroke of the pick. If there’s no note there (or you’re still holding a previously played note), your right hand keeps the picking pattern going just above the plane of the strings. If you really lock into this right-hand pattern, you are much less likely to let your tempos get out of control.
A similar thing is true with reels. As a learning exercise at least, try to set up a clockwork up-down-up-down picking pattern so that every odd-numbered beat is a down stroke and every even-numbered beat is an up-stroke. If there’s no note to play move silently above the strings, but don’t alter the pattern, until, like riding a bicycle, your hand is totally and unconsciously used to it. At that point you can start deviating from it, but until them, try not to. The point here is to become a human metronome, establishing your rhythmic drive for a tune and them being able to maintain it indefinitely.
But a simpler solution is to tap your foot while you play. More than that, move any and all available parts of your body while you play. Some of my students are so tied up in knots when they sit, wrestling the tunes out of their instruments, I get a cramp just looking at them. “Move!” I will bellow, “These are dance tunes, after all! They’re supposed to get you to move!” In almost every case, the minute a student unknots himself and starts tapping or bobbing, the rhythm smooths out and the tempos roll along, pretty as you please.
So here’s a wonderful tune that will force you to keep your tempo down and your rhythm steady. “Minnie Foster” is a hornpipe from the repertoire of the late New York fiddle master Andy McGann, which happens to be included on Kevin Burke and Cal Scott’s extraordinary new CD “across the Black River” (loftusmusic.com). The melody is sprightly and lilting and is all over the place on your instrument, from the low A on the G string to a high C on the E string. (There are precious few Irish traditional tunes that cover two octaves plus two scale steps… the only other one that comes immediately to mind is the rave reel “Farewell to Ireland”.) And just to make you engage your brain that much more solidly, this one’s in the key of F major.
Okay, this is a hornpipe and not a jig or a reel, so my advice above about the right-hand engine doesn’t do much good here. But learn this tune anyway… it’s just too good a tune not to have in your repertoire… and then go practice your favorite jigs and reels, feet tapping and right hand grooving.
I’ve marked a few fingerings in the notation to help get up to the first few high notes without lunging. In the third bar of the A part, you have an open E, which gives you ample time to shift up to play the following G with your first finger. Descending at the end of the bar, you can choose either to shift down between the A and G or between the G and F. If your tempo is nice and easy, you shouldn’t have any trouble. The shifts in the seventh bar are both done during the handy open E’s.
I think I’ll toss you to the fingering wolves for the B part. Find your own elegant solution among the several possible ways to navigate up to those two lovely high C’s. Happily, the high C in the fourth bar is meant to be played light and staccato, as are the two low C’s that bracket it. You can even slide subtlely into the high C if you like, to add a little grace note, which mimics the way Kevin Burke plays it on the fiddle.
Good luck and make sure to keeping tapping your feet.