#09 -Control = Speed

Getting Up To Speed on Irish Flute

Be honest. Have you ever driven your care 45 MPH in a 25 MPH zone? Like most regulations, formal or informal, there is a reason for this rule. A speed restriction on our cars is meant to enhance public safety. It implies a certain vehicular decorum, if you will. It's the same thing in a session.

There are probably accepted tempos for the tunes at your local session. Just like any other speed limit, there will be some who observe it, some who lag behind, and some who push its boundaries. This is not meant to be "Healy's Rules of Order," since I regularly and enthusiastically obliterate all concepts of speed and decorum. Here are some of my opinions on tempo, with the usual suggested exercise.

Over the years, it has been my experience that people practice their tunes at a fast tempo and think that this helps them play fast in the long run. My feeling is that the reverse is true. Speed is a byproduct of good technique. To play at ridiculously breakneck speeds, if that's what you wish, all of your various techniques (breathing, fingering, etc.) have to be functioning on "autopilot." This requires a commitment to gaining control over all these various techniques. Before you can play a tune well at a rapid tempo, you need to be able to play it very, VERY slowly. Speed allows us to pass over notes or sections of tunes that we don't really know without it being heard. If you cannot play a tune slowly, you have no business attempting to play it fast.

Playing slowly develops breathing, embouchure control, and the ability to FOCUS on what you are doing. In the long run, the Zen of playing is to have your brain functioning as the only consciously "active" part of your body. Of course, you're opening and closing your mouth, you're moving your fingers, you're breathing, you're doing all the things required to play your instrument and stay alive. But you don't want to be thinking about all of those things. The problem is not getting so relaxed that you start speeding up uncontrollably. This is when we need to call on our inner clock to keep us in line. No matter how bad an individual's sense of tempo may be, they still HAVE a sense of tempo. It just needs to be developed.

One of the best ways to develop tempo is by using the dreaded metronome. Yuck.

I know this really sucks, but the best way to cure "tempos non descriptus" is a little bit of discipline.

Here's the drill:

Start by buying a metronome. Avoid the piano metronome with the swinging arm. Try to get one with both a click and a flashing light. Spend a few bucks if you're going to do this, and get a decent metronome. Get one that you can hear clicking while you play. Also, having a flashing light is very important.

DO NOT try to play along with the metronome at first. Set it at a tempo of 90 beats per minute (bpm) and just listen to it. Most people have never heard "perfect time" before, so give yourself a chance to hear and learn what different tempos "sound" like. Spend a good amount of time just listening and getting the feel of tempos at 85 bpm, 90 bpm, 100 bpm, and 110 bpm. These are some of the tempos in which most hornpipes, jigs and reels are played. A good way to check your progress is to first set a certain tempo on your metronome. Now, with your eyes open and watching the flashing light, tap the tempo on your leg or table with your hand. Next, turn off the clicker but leave the light flashing.

Alternate opening and closing your eyes while tapping the tempo. See how close your own tapping is to the true tempo as shown by the metronome's light. It's also helpful to think of a tune while doing this exercise so you'll feel how the tune fits the tempo. Practice this at various settings, but I strongly recommend that you stay with slower tempos (below 100 bpm).

And the beat goes on...