Here are some useful links to resources that will help you in your listening and learning.
This is an amazing resource for live Cape Breton music, just how it is played and heard at home in Cape Breton. The archived recordings include everything from house parties to Celtic Colours shows. And it’s free for anyone to listen.
Troy MacGillivray, award-winning fiddler/pianist from Nova Scotia has released a playalong series for fiddle called the Trad Track series. The CD features slowed-down and up to tempo accompaniment tracks with piano, bass and percussion. The accompaniment is for well known tunes like Big John MacNeil, The Irish Washerwoman, and King George the IV along with some of Troy’s compositions. The CD is also available on itunes.
Paul Cranford is a well known publisher of Cape Breton music. Beginning with reissuing the Skye, Simon Fraser and Alexander Walker Collections he later started the Cape Breton Musical Heritage Series music books which include collections of well known Cape Breton composers Jerry Holland and Brenda Stubbert as well as Cranford, himself. His website is a great resource for Cape Breton recordings and tune books, along with those from Ireland and Scotland that can be difficult to find elsewhere.
This became my new best friend when I was trying to study different styles of music. It’s not only great for slowing down tunes, but you can loop sections so you don’t have to keep clicking back to the spot you are working on. If you feel like you can’t keep up when recordings are going by at full speed, this is the tool to help you play along. You can slow the track down to any speed so that you can practicing playing along to the whole tune or the entire track. In addition to downloading it to your computer, you can also download the app for your iphone, ipod touch or ipad.
A metronome is an invaluable practice tool to keep your timing in check. It will tell you if your are rushing or not keeping up. It is also great to use when you are trying to work up a difficult section of a tune. If you don’t already own one, there are some places on the web where you can use one for free. These all have their pros and cons and of course, nothing beats having your own, physical metronome. But these are the next best thing.
If you are new to strathspeys and find them difficult to understand, you are not alone. Here is a bit about what they are and why they can be more difficult to play than other tune types.
What is it?
A strathspey is a type of dance tune in 4/4. In Cape Breton, solo step dancers will usually dance a strathspey or two followed by a few reels. Cape Breton medleys usually feature strathspeys followed by reels – sometimes preceded by a march and/or a slow air. In addition to dance strathspeys, which are played at a clippy pace, there are ‘listening’ strathspeys played a bit slower that aren’t normally used for step dancing.
Why do they seem more difficult than than other tune types like jigs and reels?
Rhythmically, strathspeys are comprised mostly of dotted eighth notes followed by sixteenth notes or vice versa. If you are new to playing and listening to strathspeys it can be tricky to remember exactly how the rhythms go. Does the dotted eighth go first or the sixteenth? It is tricky because you may hear the same strathspey played more than one way, rhythmically. In the Cape Breton repertoire, there are particular phrases that are standardized, rhythmically. Everyone plays these particular phrases the same way. Within these phrases, if the rhythms were reversed, it would sound ‘wrong’. However, there are other phrases within tunes that can vary rhythmically from player to player. This discrepancy, between standardized and personalized, can seem difficult when learning a strathspey. Because Cape Breton fiddlers know the repertoire and the other musicians inside and out, they understand which phrases they can vary and which ones are standard. So again, listening over and over is key. It might help to learn the tune from one source first, and then compare that version to others in order to see which phrases vary and which ones don’t. Going to a book source can also be helpful, but again, many players deviate both rhythmically and melodically from written sources.
How are strathspeys different from marches? Don’t they have dotted rhythms too?
Yes, marches have dotted rhythms too, but it is the time signature and pulse that makes them feel different. Marches are usually written in 2/4 or 6/8. In either case, there are two strong pulses per bar. In the case of the 6/8 for example, you don’t feel or tap out 6 beats, you feel strong beats on the 1 and 4. That is the pulse. In a strathspey, each of the four beats in a measure is strong. If you watch Cape Breton fiddlers, you will see them tap out each of the four beats of strathspeys with their foot. So it is the pulse that makes strathspeys feel different than marches.
Hope this info helps you to understand strathspeys a bit more! Please share any other questions or comments you have on this topic.