Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Tunes: Sí bheag Sí mhor

So Jerry Freeman posted this request for folks to play a tune or lift a glass for his mum, who passed away recently. I have a Jerry-tweaked Clarke Sweetone, so I chose that whistle and played Sí bheag Sí mhor. I've been practicing other stuff, so I hadn't played the tune in a while, but I ended up playing it really well. Almost eerily well, considering what a terrible whistler I am. Certainly better than I had personally ever played it before. Maybe the somber occasion helped me focus on the tune? It was the best I could have done to fulfill Jerry's request, and I was happy about that.

At any rate, I played the tune again later that day to make sure I could still play it with the same feeling (I could) and thought some about what I was doing differently. Mentally the difference is easy to explain: As I played, I was thinking about the recordings of the song that I've heard instead of thinking about how to count the notes. This is how it should be done, but it was hard for me to do in the past before I had really learned it. It really does confirm the value of listening to recordings of tunes that you're learning repeatedly, however; sooner or later they get stamped into your mind and will surface to help your playing when you least expect it! But that has to translate into some kind of physical change in my playing, and I was curious what it was.

I discussed this with my teacher and played the tune both ways for him. He pointed out that I was tonguing a bit less and playing it faster. Both of these are true, but I think there's something more. I think I'm swinging the beat a little and modulating how much air I put into each note as it progresses. The physical changes are incredibly subtle, but the net effect is like night and day to me.

I also found that I was ornamenting it a bit less, in spite of the fact that, in skilled hands, the tune sounds better with ornamentation. But my focus was on getting the feel right. In the end, the thing that I wanted most was to do something very subtle with the five-count high-Ds in the middle and at the end of the tune. Brian, my teacher, suggested two possibilities: A quick tongue at the very end of the note and vibrato. Vibrato, I think, works really well in the case of really long notes at the end of the tune, though it's not something I'd typically want to use elsewhere. It's just right for these Ds, though. I have to use diaphragmatic vibrato in this case because, well, I'm not sure how else you could do it on a high D. On the Sweetone, a cylindrical whistle, I can get a nice, really subtle vibrato on the high D by covering and uncovering the top hole, but I find that doesn't really change the pitch perceptably (though it does change the timbre) on a cylindrical whistle. [Update: Joanie Madden says diaphragmatic vibrato is the way to go for a D, and that's good enough for me.]

I can do the diaphragmatic vibrato OK when I do it really slowly, but that doesn't fit when I play the tune at normal speed. That's like learning any other ornamentation; I have to start slow.

The "quick tongue at the end of the note" idea sounds good when I play the note straight, but with vibrato it's too much stuff in one note, I think.

The song itself, which I have vowed to spell differently every time I mention it, is said to be the first composition of 17th century Irish harper Turlough O'Carolan. Many people seem surprised to learn that it's a song. When I was first learning the melody I thought that it would help to learn the words, even though they're in Irish, to help me remember the notes. But I've never been able to find a vocal recording.

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