Speed Kills

By Wayne Webster

In a business world there’s a phenomenon known as the Peter Principle: employees rise to the level of their incompetence. If you are good at your job you will keep getting promoted to jobs requiring higher levels of expertise and responsibility until you reach a position that exceeds the level of your competence, and there you will remain, one step beyond your optimum performance level.

The Peter Principle is rampant these days in the choice of tempo in much of the playing of Irish traditional music. Usually when you try to play as fast as you can, as so many are wont to do, you don’t know what that tempo is until you have exceeded it. People usually end up playing as fast as they can’t, playing just beyond the speed their ability to play cleanly, with expression and sensivity will allow, the Peter Principle.

Maybe the notion that faster is better has to do with the fast pace of modern life. Maybe trad players feel they compete with rock and roll, that speed equals energy and excitement. Whatever, most of the top Irish traditional bands play reels and jigs on their CD’s and in concerts at a blazing tempo. Even with the astounding skill and mastery at which they play, there is a cost to the integrity and inherent beauty of the tunes themselves. Impressive to the listener at first and for awhile, lickity-split playing eventually becomes tiring to the audience. The listener’s ear eventually becomes inured to the din. How many times have you heard your non-trad friends say that all Irish tunes sound the same?

These speed demons are role models for average to advanced session players who listen to, and learn tunes off of these CD’s, often feeling obliged to match a pace they can never hope to handle with the mastery a more leisurely perspective could achieve. Ornaments get left out, or worse, sluffed over. Lilt, accents, dynamics and all the things that contribute to the personality of a tune, its soul, is sacrificed at the altar of the demon speed. Sessions turn into track meets.

The fabulous and renowned layed-back playing Mayo/New York boxer, flutist, Dermott ‘Darby’ Grogan, first made me aware of this situation as not merely a quantitative problem but, indeed, a qualitative one. I’d previously laboured under the illusion that speed was a relative thing, a matter of artistic choice. I knew I had grown musically to the point where I preferred the more leisurely layed-back approach of the Martin Hayeses, Kevin Burkes and Óisin Mac Diarmadas, but suspected my inability to cleanly handle the break-neck pace set by many of the young bucks at Manhattan sessions to be the real cause of my preference, a form of sour grapeism to be sure. Darby labours under no such insecurity. To him it’s not just a matter of preference, there is a right and a wrong way to play traditional Irish music, and hyper-attenuated speed-balling is nothing more than ‘pure s…..e’. There isn’t a nicer guy in all New York Irish musicdom, so it was very refreshing to hear such ‘un PC’ candour from one so respected. The trad scholar Don Meade and virtuoso fiddler Brian Conway also of New York have echoed these sentiments, yet the speeders abound from sea to shining sea and beyond. Let the message go out; let the debate begin.

I mean really, shouldn’t a three hour session be more like a marathon than a succession of sprints? Like in a marathon you might want to kick it near the end, just for kicks. But if you start out lickity-split from the beginning, you’ll have nowhere to go by the end, except home alone, as your audience most likely, will be worn out and long gone.

The fine New York fiddler Patrick Ourceau once told me that the musician should be playing in service of the tune and not the other way around. The very talented Ray Coen of Sligo told me that the highest compliment a player can receive is, what a lovely tune, not, what an impressive talent you are. In other words, the tune isn’t a vehicle for the player to impress the audience with his virtuosity but rather the players virtuosity is a vehicle to impress the audience with the beauty of the tune.

Playing for speed and not taking the time to find the individual personality that each of these tunes possesses by patiently exploring the landscape of a melody like a hiker traversing the hills, valleys and plateaux of the countryside is killing the soul of traditional music much like ATV’s, dirt bikes and snow mobiles are killing the environment. So please, slow down and smell the noises.