Developing Solid Timing When Playing Irish Music
9/28/2016 by Jeff Ksiazek
Although Irish traditional dance music is a melodic tradition, rhythm and drive are still essential elements of the music. This is dance music after all, and time in a set of reels or jigs is not a big ball of wibbly, wobbly, timey wimey stuff (sorry, Doctor!). No other element of playing Irish music, from choosing esoteric tunes to complicated ornamentation, will cover up tempo issues. Let’s look at ways to work on potential timing issues as you practice Irish music.
The Metronome is Your Friend
Oh, the dreaded metronome! A favorite torture device of music teachers everywhere, this simple tool has caused much wailing and gnashing of teeth in music lessons around the globe. If you want to work on improving your timing and developing a groove to your playing, though, it’s time to make friends with your metronome. The key here is to use the metronome to work through familiar tunes slowly and methodically. This will help you to analyze any timing issues and will help you figure out how well you know that tune! Try this:
- Set the metronome at 75bpm.
- Play a familiar jig one time through following the metronome pulse.
- Did you get through the tune without a problem? Set the metronome five clicks higher and repeat!
- If not, lower the tempo by five clicks and repeat.
- Do this until you reach a threshold where you can’t play the tune comfortably.
- Set the metronome back five clicks and practice playing the tune three times in a row.
Try this technique with a set of jigs, as well as different tune types. Your goal here should be consistently playing your tunes at a steady tempo without straying from the metronome pulse. There are a number of metronome apps available for smartphones and tablets, so this important tool can literally be at your fingertips!
Listening in Sessions
When you’re playing in sessions with other musicians, you won’t likely (hopefully!) have a metronome keeping a consistent pulse for you. When making music with others, remember that keeping steady time is everyone’s responsibility, not just accompaniment musicians. If you’re just starting to play music with others, keep in mind:
- Listen closely to whoever started a set of tunes and follow their tempo.
- If you can’t hear the leader of the set (or your session leaders), play more quietly.
- If time is going wibbly or wobbly, there’s no harm in stopping for a second to get your bearings straight.
Play Along with Recordings
This can be a fun substitute for metronome practice. Pull up a favorite track of a tune you know and play along! You can even use software like Audacity to slow down audio files if the recording is too fast to keep up.
Note that real music breathes and develops a groove that isn’t strictly mechanical. But before you can reach a point where your Irish music has lift and life, you’ll have to pay some dues and commit your musical timing to being a strict progression. Remember that many musicians before you have worked on their own tempo issues, so don't be discouraged. You can do this!
Let us know your favorite tips for working on timing by contacting us or commenting on Facebook!