Jigs I: repeated notes, breathing, and other problems

Articulating repeated notes

Prerequisites. You won't get very far with the explanations on this page unless you can comfortably use the ornaments/devices known as cuts. Taps will help too. You should also be comfortable with the idea of using cuts to avoid tonguing, and have practised the exercise I gave on the tonguing page.

In the topic on tonguing, I gave the example of a jig in which it is relatively easy not to tongue - The frost is all over. The way I played the tune there, the notes sound pretty even in length to me. I know - despite what I said above about uneven note lengths. In a tune like that, slurred like that, this fairly even feel works OK.

But let's look at another tune, one that presents different challenges. Here's The Connaughtman's rambles.

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In the first part bars 1, 3 and 5,  there are repeated As occurring in positions 2 and 3 of the three-note group. Likewise, repeated Bs occur in bars 4 and 8. There are also repeated high Bs and high As in the scond part.

This is a very characteristic feature found in a high proportion of jigs. You need an effective way of dealing with these repeated notes.

Let's immediately rule out the idea of tonguing every note. (There are traditional players who make a jig sound good this way, but we'll make it easier on ourselves!)

In fact, let's temporarily set aside the idea of tonguing at all.

Method 1. Let's try using cuts to separate these notes.

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The clip below is of bar 1 played several times, followed by bar 4. I separate all the repeated notes by cutting with the first (B) finger, except for the third note of B in bar 4, where I tap with the A finger (because this is easier than cutting twice, especially when you get up to speed).

Bar 1 and bar 4, cuts and taps to separate repeated notes (44K)

Using this technique, the whole first part of the jig will sound like this (53K)

Hmm. Sounds OK. You can play jigs this way, and no-one will object. But for my taste the effect is a bit too much like a highland bagpipe. I am very fond of the highland bagpipe, by the way. But sheep's stomachs, or whatever those bags are made of, don't have tongues.

Method 2. Let's try something else. Let's use minimum tonguing to separate the repeated notes. The staccato dot shows which notes are tongued.

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Bar 1 and bar 4, tonguing the second of the two repeated notes (51K)

Using this "tongue once" technique, the whole first part sounds like this (57K)

Hmm-hmm. Works OK. There are quite a few people that play this way. But I'm still not satisfied. This tonguing pattern doesn't produce that jiggy swing I want.

Method 3. What would happen if we tongued both repeated notes, as shown in the figure below?

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Bar 1 and bar 4, tonguing the two repeated notes (49K)

Using this "tongue twice" technique, the whole first part sounds like this (57K)

All RIGHT! This is the business! This is the basic jig-tonguing pattern that I like to use for these repeated notes. Slur-tongue-tongue, slur-tongue-tongue. Let's call it the STT pattern. Using the tongue this way really enables you to achieve that elusive shortened second note - without getting a "dotted" rhythm.

You can use this pattern for the repeated notes. You can also use it here and there where you don't strictly need to, to bring out the jigginess in any phrase or passage you like.

You could use it all the way through the tune, but you and I would both soon tire of it, not to mention anyone else who happened to be listening. It makes sense to keep a good balance between this STT pattern and smooth or legato passages. And nothing to stop you using method 1, above, from time to time, to vary things even further.

Initially you may find this pattern hard to get hold of. The difficulty may lie in not tonguing the first note while continuing to tongue the other two. Apart from the fact that I think STT gives the most satisfying rhythm, tonguing all three notes in the group is hard to do at speed, whereas STT, once you get going with it, can be played at a surprising clip quite easily. Here are some exercises to help.

Some exercises

As I said, this "STT" tonguing pattern might take you a while to get the hang of. It may even seem counter-intuitive (especially if you have "classical" tonguing instincts). But give it a fair trial. Here are some fun exercises to practise the pattern. Remember, a dot indicated that a note is tongued, and a slur or tie-mark indicates that the note is NOT tongued.

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The three exercises above should sound something like this (84K)

And now you can have fun making up your own exercises to master this basic technique!

Getting that lazy feeling!

The STT tonguing pattern will help you to get a good jig rhythm. But remember, the tonguing pattern should serve to highlight the uneven note lengths that make a well-played jig sound so great. You can't "dot" the first note, but... linger on it a little, for the merest microsecond. Don't be in a hurry to get to the second note in the group!

This is absolutely vital. Listen carefully to the clip of jig-tonguing exercises above. Particularly in the first exercise, which is played slow, you should be able to hear this slight delay, the result of which is that the middle note becomes clipped.

October 2004 - the missing element! Some time after writing the two paragraphs above, I realized that something else was going on in the STT tonguing pattern that I hadn't told you about - indeed, something that had never occurred to me before. This something else is that my tongue is not merely providing the attack for the second note in the group (the first T note, if you like). It is also stopping the first note (the S note) in a separate movement to provide a momentary silence, the slight delay I refer to above.

What is going on, I think, is that after the first note of the group is sounded, my tongue first drops to block the flow of air to the mouthpiece, and then, in a second movement, articulates (does its tonguing bit on) the second note. This is probably the key to whole "lazy feeling" that I aim for.

Breathing in jigs

The repeated notes that are such a feature of The Connaughtman's rambles and so many other jigs not only give us a great opportunity for developing a good jig rhythm, they also provide a handy place to breathe.

Perhaps the best place to steal a breath in a jig is to sacrifice the middle note in a group of three. This fits with the most important rule about breathing in dance tunes - i.e. that you take a breath after an important note. You can also use this opportunity to avoid breathing at the end of a tune section.

In the following clip, I play the last part of the "B" part of the tune, and return to the "A" part, and snatch a breath by sacrificing the fifth note of the bar.

Skipping a middle note to take a breath (26K)

But practically any of the repeated note passages would do.

Other handy places to breathe are provided by quarter-note/eighth-note groups. In bar 4 of the second part of The Connaughtman's rambles, there is a quarter-note E followed by an eighth-note G. Here you could easily shorten the E and snatch a breath (in effect playing an eighth-note E, an eighth-note rest, and the eighth-note G).

You can also skip the middle note in groups where notes 2 and 3 are not repeated. An example would be the E that occurs as the 7th note in both bar 6 of the first part of the tune, and bar 2 of the second part of the tune.

What's next?

Besides articulation and breathing, of course, you will use all the other ornaments and techniques in your spice-rack to express the way you feel a jig. I demonstrate the use of cuts in the jig Saddle the pony in the topic on cuts. Rolls will be useful too, and they have their own topic.

Just to wind up with The Connaughtman's rambles, here's a clip of the entire tune, played the way I normally would.

The whole tune, as I might play it. (212K)

Not all jigs are as bouncy as The Connaughtman's rambles or The frost is all over. Some are lyrical and graceful. Others are wistful and melancholy, or even dark and brooding. Vary your approach to take account of each tune's special character.

So what's next is the usual recipe: listening, and practice. Try the various methods of articulating repeated notes given above. You may prefer no. 1 or 2, or something else entirely, over my recommended method. And listen - listen carefully to jigs played by good whistle players, but also by fiddlers, accordionists, pipers, fluters, and so on.

How not to play jigs

A visitor to these pages, seeing that a topic on jigs was in the offing, asked that I record some examples of how to play jigs badly. But having spent so long trying to do justice to the character of your Irish jig, I'm reluctant to butcher him in public.

But you don't have to look far to find examples of what I (and undoubtedly most experienced traditional musicians) would consider bad jig playing. You'll find quite a few on the web. Obviously, it's more important to you to listen to good jig playing than bad. But here, in music form, are a couple of prime ways of getting it wrong.

The less dramatic is to play the jig as a classical musician would if he or she saw this on the score:

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Using dotted notation can be seen as an attempt to indicate that simple eighth notes don't tell the whole story. But actually to play it strictly dotted goes too far. As with hornpipes, the true rhythm lies somewhere between straight eighth notes and dotted eighth-note pairs.

If on the other hand you tried to play a jig like this - and please don't - you would probably be approaching the way that some people reproduce a jig. Fortunately for us whistlers, this kind of travesty is more often heard from fiddle and mandolin players!

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Another thing that people sometimes do is to overemphasise the first beat of the bar. You don't need to do this - the first beat gets all the emphasis it needs just from being the first beat. Again, this is a failing that is more likely to be heard in embryo fiddlers, because it's hard to pack too much wallop on a little whistle.

March 2001. I have in fact now recorded a clip demonstrating one way to play a jig badly. You'll find it on the next page. But read the rest of this page before going on.

And in case you don't believe me...

I've been harping on about getting jigs right to such an extent that it's probably annoying you. But just to bring home the point about the effect a jig played badly will sound to a traditional musician or traditional music-lover, let me quote the words of a great Irish musician, Donegal fiddler Danny Meehan. This statement was made over 35 years ago, immediately after Danny had very kindly explained to me that I had just made a bit of a bollocks of playing a jig on the fiddle. I had probably played it in something like the "polka" rhythm given in the example above.

He said, "You know, Steve, a jig's a nice simple kind of tune, but if you don't bow it right, it's a nasty piece of work."

That little remark got me scratching my head for days. And strangely enough, I've never forgotten it! The message was delivered very gently, but there was no mistaking the force of the feeling behind it. It stands out as one of the most important musical lessons I have ever learned. So I advise you to learn it here, before someone feels compelled to tell you after hearing you play!

Updated 14 October 2004