If you want to inject some life into your reels, make them light, fast and foot-tapping then this article will help.  Things like intonation, ornamentation, tone and variations are important, but what really makes a reel fly is the bowing. Below, I’ll go through the steps you need to take in order to make your reels a pleasure to play and listen to.  I’ll be taking a close look at a well-known Irish reel, and seeing what can be done with it in terms of bowing and variations.  The tune I’ve chosen is Collier’s Reel and here it is in basic form, with no bowings or ornaments.

Sounds pretty wooden if you play it exactly as written.  So, the first priority is to sort out the bowing so that the tune will flow.

With reels, the aim will be to put the emphasis mainly on the 2nd and 4th beats of the bar.  This is achieved by playing louder on these beats – not always, just most of the time.  This will make the music more foot-tapping or conducive to dancing – reels are dance tunes, after all.  This emphasis of the 2nd and 4th beats is achieved by the bowing pattern:

The example above shows the beats in red and the bowing. 

  • Slurred notes are joined by the curved line. 
  • All slurs are played in up-bows and the down-bows occur on beats 2 and 4.
  • Because you spend more time (3 quavers) on the up-bows, you have to move the bow slower for these – or you run out of bow!
  • Likewise, on the down-bows, you have to move quicker.
  • Moving slower makes the sound quieter; quicker makes it louder.  So, the emphasis occurs on beats 2 and 4!

Collier’s Reel II

Look at the first two bars of the next version of Collier’s to see how this is incorporated into the tune:

The first two bars have down-bows on the 2nd and 4th beats of the bar. 

The rest of the notes are played with up-bows. 

So, this bowing pattern gives you the emphasis you need, there is no need to go out of your way to play the emphasized notes harder or louder – the speed of the bow movement will make this happen. 

However, if this pattern were to be used for each and every bar of the tune, it would soon start to sound heavy and monotonous.  So, it’s good to break up the 2nd/4th beat emphasis sometimes.  For instance, having small sections played with separate bows (no slurs) is effective – like at the end of bar 2 into the start of bar 3, or the middle of bar 2 of the second part of the tune.  This gives some variation to the rhythm.

The version below works very well even though there are no ornaments.  It’s also possible to go faster with a version like this.  Things that may slow you down or get in the way of the flow of the tune: a) putting too many ornaments and b) doing a lot of string-crossing while slurring.  The first bar of the second part of the tune shows a slur with a crossing from the E string to A string.  The same crossing is found at the beginning of bar 3 of the same part.  All other slurs in the tune stay on the same string.  Some players find it easy to do this, while others avoid it.  If you are one of the latter then adjust your bowing accordingly, and do separate bowing on these notes.  It would be worth putting some practice time into improving this aspect of playing, though.

See my next post for more ideas on variations and bowing