For the last three weeks I've been trying to avoid learning anything new.
More precisely, I've been practicing the tunes I've learned thus far, focusing on performance. My renditions of several of the tunes had become a bit sloppy, and my teacher asked me to focus my practice on playing the tunes well rather than new tunes or techniques. It was timely advice.
One of the things I noticed when I stopped making as many mistakes and got my timing more consistent is that a reel I've been learning, the Five Mile Chase started sounding really mechanical — like a string of eighth notes rather than a reel. This was very similar to a similar problem I had with jigs which I'm presently working on correcting. I made a note to bring the issue up with my teacher and expected a similar solution.
I had a lesson last night, and his suggestion surprised me a little. Yes, I need to emphasize notes differently depending on their position in the measure. But the best way to fix this, it seems, is to change the way I tap my foot.
I doubt I would have come up with that one on my own! Part of his advice has to do with counting in cut time instead of common time. But part of it is literally changing the physical way I move my foot. I'll treat both issues separately.
It's common to see reels notated in both common (4/4) and cut (2/2) time. In both common and cut time there are the same number of quarter notes per measure, so the note values won't change if you move from one time signature to the other. But it's generally understood the music in cut time is played faster, since there are half as many beats to count. Also, the emphasis is different: You emphasize the notes which fall on a count more than those which do not, so fewer counts means fewer emphasized notes.
On the subject of how to notate a reel, Alan Ng writes:
A group is defined here as a sequence of notes whose first note is synchronized with the (main) tap of the musician's foot in a traditional performance.
Reel: Two groups of four notes each, adding up to an eight-note bar. Within each group there are two heavy-light pairs. Accordingly, I notate reels in 2/2 meter, not in 4/4. A 4/4 notation is a less accurate reflection of the traditional sense of rhythm in a reel...
Well, the "traditional sense of rhythm in a reel" is exactly what I'm aiming for, so Ng's advice is in line with my teacher's in that respect. I confess that when I started playing the whistle I'd sometimes count reels notated in cut time in common time instead, simply because my playing was so pathetic that I'd lose track of the beat if I had to go four notes in between taps. But I'm past that now!
Methods of foot tapping
I've been involved in making music in one capacity or another for over 15 years now, and it had never before occurred to me that there are different methods of tapping your toe. But there are, and it's quite enlightening to ponder.
What I had been doing is holding my toe off the ground and then tapping it onto the ground on each beat. This is quite tiring, so I tend to switch feet when my leg gets tired. My teacher's first suggestion was to keep my foot on the ground and lift it up before the beat, bringing it to the ground on the beat, and keeping it on the ground until just before the next beat. This is a different sense of rhythm than I'm used to, and it's going to take some practice.
For a reel in cut time, he suggested lifting my foot off the ground on the half beats (what would be the 2 or the 4 beats if the same passage was notated in common time) and bringing it to the ground on the full beats (the 1 and the three in common time). Again, I'm going to have to practice this while listening to a CD or humming before I can even try this while playing.
Counting this way makes the beats to emphasize quite similar to a jig. Handy, that.
Time to practice
I ususally have lessons every two weeks, but due to circumstances it has been three weeks since my last lesson. I don't mind that a bit; it gave me lots of time to practice and listen to myself. We tried lessons every week for a while, but that was too often; I didn't have time to practice what we'd discussed the week before. Sometimes less is more.