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so, how fast is too fast?

[Note: The point of view from which I approach the advice offered here is that of personal experience; in other words, I’m sharing with you what I have discovered. If you have something constructive to add, please email me (drewvervan@drewvervan.com) – I’d love to hear from you.]

So – how fast is too fast, when you’re playing a fiddle tune?

The short answer: Play at whatever tempo you choose – lightning fast – ponderously slow – it’s all up to you; no where on the planet is a standard tempo etched in stone.  So go for it – have the fun that suits you.

And now, for the long answer

On Monday evenings, at the wonderful store, Appalachian Bluegrass, I guide a small group of budding musicians through the steps of learning how to play celtic music.  For the most part, we focus on Irish, instrumental, dance music.  One of the questions that they ask from time to time is, “what would be a good tempo for this tune?”

As so many of my answers go, I usually start with, “well, … that depends …” and go on from there.  And if I’ve had some caffiene, then the answer could be quite long.

I’ll start by talking about Irish dance music.  The most common types of Irish tunes include reels, jigs, hornpipes, polkas, slip jigs, and set dances.  Beyond those, of course, you have highlands, airs, mazurkas, and so on.

Reels, jigs, hornpipes, and polkas all break down to two (2) beats per measure.  That is to say, that when you’re listening to the tune, if you find yourself tapping your foot along with the music, you’ll be tapping two beats per measure (assuming you’re actually staying with the music).

For ease of reading the music, reels and hornpipes tend to be notated in 4/4 time, with the tune notated with four beats per measure, and each beat divided into two eighth notes (two quavers, if you’re reading this in the UK).

When you play reels and hornpipes, however, you should play them in cut time, cutting each note length in half.  So, a measure of 4 beats becomes a measure of two beats – and each beat may contain four quick notes.  In other words, each time you tap your foot, you tap with the first eighth note in a group of four, which would pass before you tap again (excluding changes in rhythm, ornaments, and so forth).

At what tempo should those beats pass?

If you’re playing for dancers – that is, a group of folks wanting to dance and have a good time – you’ll have to have a fairly quick tempo.  On the other hand, you don’t want to play so fast that they can’t get their dance steps into the dance fiqures.  Depending on what the dancers want, you might be playing as gently as 100 beats per minutes (bpm) up to a crazy, fast tempo, such as 150 bpm – although, most casual dancers wouldn’t enjoy that speed.

If you truly want to get a feel for this, you should try learning some of the dances.  If you know how to dance the steps a bit, you’ll have a much better feel for what would make a comfortable dance tempo.

But generally speaking then, a reel, played for dancers, would be great somewhere between 100 – 130 bpm.

Hornpipes, which you play with a good swing, generally go slower than reels (90 – 120, for example).

Polkas, would generally go a bit faster than reels (110 – 140 or faster, depending on the dancers).

And what about jigs?

Jigs, of course, are in 6/8 time, also divided into two beats per measure.  Unlike the reels and hornpipes, which have two beats divided into four notes, jigs have two beats divided into three notes each.  Since jigs are a bit easier to play – since they have fewer notes per beat – you can play them a bit faster.

Very generally speaking, good jig tempos might be around 115 – 135 bpm.

And then, of course, there’s Scottish music.

John Turner – native of Scotland, and ten-time US National Scottish fiddling champion – is no fan of playing that is too fast.  I’ve heard him comment that “it’s just showing off.”

Ashley MacIsaac, by contrast, seems to be trying to break all land speed records.

I wrote to another Scottish fiddle champion, Bonnie Rideout, and she suggested – generally speaking, once again – that Scottish music is played a bit slower than Irish music.  Strathspeys – the quintessential Scottish tune type – are played slower than reels.

So, remember, I’m basing these speeds on the needs and tastes of dancers.  When I lived in Ireland, I heard several people complain about how, “the younger players play too fast, so you can’t dance to the music.”  I also heard people declaring, “I love it when the fiddler plays really fast.”  So take your pick.

If you were going to be playing tunes in a concert setting, that is, without dancers, then you would be completely free to play as slowly or as quickly as your mood would dictate.  In these settings, you can quite often hear someone playing a “slow reel” or a “slow jig” – and not simply trying to play these tunes as if they were airs.  Instead, they would play in a relatively strict – but slow – tempo, retaining the characteristics of a reel or a jig.  Some players, who are more than capable of playing at blistering speeds, prefer not to rush.  Martin Hayes comes to mind.

Now, I’ve made the tempo spectrums quite broad, to allow for personal taste and regional variations.  Yet, I’m certain some of you would disagree with me.  For example, some folks believe the hornpipe is a sort of slow, stately dance, and should never be played anywhere near 120 bpm; others like a good, rollicking tempo, particularly after they’ve had a few pints.  For a resolution to questions about variations and tempo disagreements, I suggest you refer back to “the short answer.”