Rhythm and tempo

Rhythm and tempo

In today’s workshop we focused on rhythm and tempo. We started by playing an open A, emphasising the note on the on-beat (imagining we were playing in reel time). We talked about ways we can emphasise an individual note to create a steady pulse. As well as playing that note louder, you could consider adding a chord onto the note, or adding a grace note. Then we also tried out playing the notes in between the on-beats as quietly as possible.

We talked some more about tapping our feet on the beat. If you’re not used to doing this, it can seem like an un-necessary complication to add into your playing. But having a steady foot tap can act as a metronome. In an orchestra, the musicians have a conductor to keep the tempo for them, but in traditional music, we need to find a way to access our inner sense of timing. You could chose to follow someone else you are playing with, but without your own sense of what the tempo is, you’d be reliant on other people being able to play steadily, and keep their own tempo under control. Some players move their body with the pulse. The advantage of tapping your foot is that it gives you a very clear ‘moment’ to aim for with your played beat – there’s no doubt as to the moment when your foot makes contact with the floor. If you choose to sway in time to the pulse, or nod your head, the exact moment of the beat isn’t so clearly pinpointed for you. So we worked on tapping a foot on each on-beat. If your tendency is to tap on the on-beats and the off-beats (4 times in the bar, if you’re playing a reel), and you want to switch to tapping just on the on-beats(twice in the bar, in reel time), try keeping foot on the floor until you’re just about to tap again, so you’re not left holding your foot in an elevated position, waiting for the next foot tap to happen – that’s an uncomfortable position, and if you’re going to tap your foot for any length of time, it will be difficult to maintain.

While emphasising the beat, we worked on playing in synchrony within the group. We started off doing this by looking at other peoples’ tapping feet. Then we tried shutting our eyes and listening. It’s useful to be able to hear and see other peoples’ tempos – if you’re in a crowded session, and the session tempo is speeding up, you can help keep it steady if you can follow someone else in the room who has a steady timing. You don’t necessarily need to be able to hear them to do this.

We then played around with taking control of the tempo. We split into 2 groups in the circle. We started off playing our steady tempo together, emphasising the on-beat. One person in each group was responsible for controlling that group’s tempo – everyone else had to follow that person’s playing. While one group aimed to keep a steady tempo, and the other half gradually sped up. We noticed that when we did this, there was a very uncomfortable ‘zone’ as the two speeds began to diverge. The point when they were starting to diverge, but still very similar, was when it was hardest to keep the steady tempo going. We then did the same thing, but this time with our eyes closed, so we were focusing on listening for the moment when the tempos started diverging. Each group was then also focusing on listening to their own group leader to follow their tempo.

We tried going through the same steps as above, while playing the first phrase of the Stone Frigate (which we learnt in the October workshop).

We then learnt the march Campbell’s Farewell to Redcastle, which is often played for the dance the Gay Gordons. A couple of folk in the group danced the Gay Gordons while the rest of us played for them. Playing for dancing can be helpful if you want to improve your sense of tempo. The dancers gave the players feedback on how it was for them to dance to the music. One observation was that although we were emphasising on the beat, an even stronger emphasis would have been better still.

We finished off by playing around with beats, off beats and upbeats. We split into 2 groups and started by all playing an A chord together, (a low A and E played on the D string). We were all emphasising the on-beat, imagining we were playing bars of 8 quavers in reel time. Once we’d settled into our rhythm together, half the group switched to emphasising the off-beat. Each group had a go at this. Then we added in an emphasis on the up-beat before the off-beat. It was a short step to then come up with a 2 chord riff (using the A chord and a G chord) to accompany the A part of the reel ‘Brenda Stubberts’. We played through this a few times, accompanying the first part of Brenda Stubberts reel, and played around with emphasising different beats, to create different rhythms under the tune.

Brenda stubberts - accompaniment