First, many thanks to my readers for all your supportive comments! I’m glad you enjoy reading my posts as much as I enjoy writing them.
I’d like to diverge from the current series on the teacher-student relationship (will resume with next post), to comment on the tempos at which we play our music.
The tempo you choose can make or break a piece, but maybe not in the ways you might think! How fast is “upbeat”? Does it differ for various styles? And why do those pyrotechnic folks play so darn fast, anyway?
Whether you play from notation or by ear, every musician makes a choice about how fast or slow each piece is played. If you use music notation, there is often a tempo indicated. (For those unfamiliar with it, the number that usually appears at the top of the page (such as 98 or 120 or whatever)is the suggested setting for a metronome. If you learn by ear, the tempo on a recording or video is probably what you’ll aim for. If you have a teacher or mentor, he or she will probably advise you.
Many new musicians try to play pieces “up to tempo” as soon as possible, long before they are ready to do so. The result is sloppiness and frustration. It’s better to practice every new tune SLOWLY for a LONG TIME. It will come up to speed on its own as your accuracy and kinesthetic sense improves.
Some people play too fast because they’re afraid of playing too slow, as if someone would scold them. That’s self-defeating. It usually results in sloppiness, which isn’t enjoyable for either the player or the listener. Better to play slower and accurately. If anyone gives you any guff, just tell them to show you their Music Police badge.
Another reason you might play too fast is because, as you learn a tune, the brain automatically wants to maintain the status quo; if you’re a bit tense as you learn, your brain maintains the tension by speeding up the tune so it’s always just over the edge of control. Practice should allow you to relax more and more, so if you notice that you’re not making progress on a tune, slow it down and you might be surprised that you can actually play it much better when it’s slower. (When you’re tense, the brain interprets that there must be a threat of some kind, so that tune becomes associated subconsciously with threat.)
It’s also common to play too fast when we’re nervous, which can happen in a lesson or a performance. The most common reason for messing up on stage is because we’re playing much faster than we do in practice, due to the effects of adrenalin, and the fingers can’t keep up because it’s much faster than you realize. When on stage, I play everything slower than I think I should, so it actually comes out just right.
Some musicians think playing fast shows off their skill. But upbeat music should have character and finesse, and the musical quality of a tune should not be sacrificed for speed. Playing really fast is not the most important skill.
All that said, many musicians would like to know how to at least get their tunes up to the tempos they should be played at. So how do you learn to play “fast” and accurately? Easy. Play slow for a long, long time. Honest. Surely you’ve heard musicians who play fast but you can’t really tell what all the notes were supposed to be, because they’re sloppy; those are the ones who practice fast. And you’ve heard musicians who play fast but you can hear every single note becasue they’re clean and accurate players; these are the ones who practice their tunes slowly and patiently, and focus on details. When the tune is finally committed to muscle memory and can accurately and cleanly be played faster than the brain can think and the eye can move, one can practice it that way sometimes. But it won’t stay that way if you don’t also go back and play it slowly just as often as you play it fast.
So, how fast is too fast? I’ll comment mostly about Old Time, Bluegrass and Celtic music here, but the same principles apply to most styles.
A good rule of thumb for, say, dance tunes is that they should be played no faster than a dancer can dance. And any “fast” music should be played in such a way that all the notes can be heard, the melodies are recognizable, and you can still play expressively.
I used to attend an annual festival at which groups of Old Time fiddlers jammed all day and all night. I was a vendor, and my booth was in earshot of them, so I had many hours of captive listening. Over time I was able to recognize many of the tunes by name. Later when I began to learn some of the tunes on banjo, I was amazed that the melodies I knew in my head from listening to the fiddlers bore little resemblance, except for the chord structure, to the ones I was learning by the same names! The melodies I “knew” were comprised of only the downbeat notes! There were a lot of notes in between that I had never heard. Why? Because the fiddlers had played them so darn fast. I learned that the actual melodies were a lot more interesting and complex.
Playing over the speed limit does the music no favors. The only exception I know of is playing Bluegrass, if it’s played well. The whole purpose of the faster bluegrass tunes is to show off the exceptional skills of the players who can fit a million notes into a split second – but cleanly, so you can hear every note. Celtic and Old Time music are not meant to be played as fast and furious as Bluegrass. Yes, Bluegrass evolved from Old Time music, and Old Time music evolved from Celtic music. But the three styles are quite distinct in character and execution.
Old Time music evolved and is still played in the rural Southeastern U.S., played by hard-working farmers and laid-back country folk who enjoy a long afternoon sittin’ in the front porch swing. It’s zone-out music, not meant to be entertaining for the listener, and it’s almost trance-enducing for the player. Don’t get me wrong; it’s nothing like the slow and unstructured music of the New Age genre; quite the opposite, with its often sprightly tempos and complex melodies. But if you know them well, you can just let your fingers dance on the strings using muscle memory while your conscious brain isn’t heavily engaged. You can’t play them overly fast and still relax, because you’d have to concentrate too hard.
Celtic music contains several types of tunes. Below is a list with the time signatures for each type. Don’t mistake time signature for tempo!* I’ve given suggested tempos (beats per minute or “bpm”) as well.
Strathspeys: skipping set dances, with many Scottish snaps or cuts (Scottish ornaments); tempos should be moderate, and emphasis should be on the backbeat to catch the dancers in the air. (Too much emphasis on the downbeat makes the dance sound like elephants stomping.) Suggested tempo: 120 bpm.
Jigs: 6/8 time, lively, emphasis on first and/or fourth beat, with a lilt. Jigs can have different personalities, so tempo can vary from about 100 to 126 bpm.
Reels: 4/4 time, lively but smooth, emphasis on second and fourth beats, to catch the dancers in the air. About 160 bpm is good for dancing.
Marches: 2/4 or 6/8 time, strident, a walking rhythm, stately. Play it no faster than you can imagine an army marching. Suggested tempo: 80 to 84 bpm.
Polkas: 2/4 time, lively. About 126 bpm.
Hornpipes: 4/4 time, with a lilt or dotted rhythm that often is not written into the music; many triplets for ornamentation. Slower than a reel. About 126 bpm.
Slide:12/8 time, lively, fourth and tenth beats emphasized. About 116 bpm.
Waltzes: 3/4 time, with a lilt; Irish waltzes are faster than American ones. About 138 bpm.
Airs: slow, moody, pretty, attention to dynamics and phrasing, can be quite slow.
Laments: very slow, moody, sad, often no particular time signature
Sean Nos: a capella vocal music which is slow; no time signature (free-form)
Piobroch: starts simple and slow, and works up to a highly ornamented finish with variations; time signature is irrelevant as it is a free-form style.
*Regarding the difference between a tempo and a time signature, the time signature just tells you how many beats there are in each measure and which kind of note gets one beat, but it doesn’t tell you the rate of speed of the beats. (A measure is not a measurement of a rate of speed.) For instance, a piece in 4/4 might be a march or a reel; those are two different tempi.