What’s wrong with playing “Flight of the Bumblebee” for a world speed record?

A lot actually, because if speed is the only tool at your disposal you’re not going to be a working craftsman (or craftswoman) for very long.

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Guitar-squid, (a cool user-generated content guitar site I really like and recommend you check out), recently posted a link to a you-tube clip of of John Taylor trying to break a speed record by playing along with a sequence of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the bumblebee at 600 bpm ( 11:48/12:26 in the video – note:  I think the math here is suspect – it may be 600 bpm if he’s counting it as 1/8th notes – but it sounds like 1/16ths at 250 bpm/300 bpm to me).

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For sheer technical precision you can also see this attempt by Tiago Della Vega at the same song here at a much cleaner 320 bpm. (7:38 or so)

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The Guitar-Squid post was asking the question of whether or not the performance was real or faked.  The real question however should probably be, other than the players themselves, does anyone care?

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Flight of The Bumblebee

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I’m not going to bag on either of these players because I respect the work that went into both renditions, but I am going to use this approach as a springboard for:

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Why I think trying to set Guinness World Records for speed is a musical dead-end.

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  • It’s not emotionally moving.  It’s hard for me to think of a worse piece of music to devote time developing than a solo guitar rendition of the main “melody” of Flight of the bumblebee.  It’s not a particularly memorable melody  and other than the initial exposure of – wow that’s fast – it doesn’t leave you with anything.

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One reason these particular arrangements aren’t moving is because there’s nothing to contrast the velocity of notes against besides a number of earlier renditions of the same arrangement.  Let me use another analogy.  Say you take a commercial flight somewhere and have a window seat.  Soon you get to cruising height and look out above the peaceful clouds and it feels very calm.  You’re actually moving at over 500 mph but since there’s nothing to contrast it against,  it just seems like a “normal speed”.  If, however, you were to fly at that speed about 20 feet off the ground you’d probably die of fear – because when you saw how fast you were moving past other vehicles and identifiable landmarks, you would understand just how fast you’re going.  When you play quickly, it’s only quick compared to the slowest note you’re playing.  Otherwise, you’re just playing a lot of notes and it’s perceived as cruising speed by the audience.

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  • It’s not musical.  Perhaps you disagree, and this would be why Flight of the Bumblebee is the number 1 song on your Itunes playlist. 😉 Other than musicians, practically no one listens to renditions of this song because (particularly as a solo guitar arrangement)  – it just isn’t a strong piece of music.

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In contrast to this, Hendrix’s solo on All along the Watchtower is something I could sing start to finish right now.  Paco De Lucia can play a million notes with every one of them will leaving you breathless – and I’m sure that he could care less about how fast he could play Flight of The Bumblebee. In these examples, both players left me with something even after I stopped listening to the recording, because there’s real expression behind it.  It’s hard to be play a lot of notes with meaning, but it can be done and when it happens – it’s done by people who are playing a lot of notes to get somewhere very specific rather than just to impress you.   I’d point to the best moments of Yngwie or Scotty Anderson as one starting point and Shawn Lane, Allan Holdsworth or Guthrie Gowan as three guys on the more extreme end of the spectrum of note density who have something to say.

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I’m not going to put all the fault on Rimsky-Korsakov either because the fault lies more in this particular arrangement and the parts people are leaving out as much as it is what they’re playing.  Below is a piano rendition by Maxim.  While it’s nowhere near the velocity of either of the guitar versions above, playing the harmonic component at the same time makes for a more nuanced (i.e.  to my ears – enjoyable ) rendition.

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  • As a career, it’s not sustainable and it’s not going to get you a gig.  This is a little misleading.  You probably  can get a gig from this.  If you make a world record attempt at something like this and you have a news worthy hook (like being particularly young for the child prodigy angle, or physically impaired in some way for the overcoming obstacles angle (yes – this sounds particularly harsh – but believe me, the healthy middle class 22-year-old trying for the record will have great difficulty getting air time)),  you might be contacted to do a version for your regional morning show.  You’ll get to the studio at some inhumanly early hour and (in a best case scenario) get enough time to run the piece and answer some questions.   You’ll be replaced the next day by the local pie baker with an award-winning recipe or the local author with a new parenting book out.

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If you do get gigs from it, they’ll be clinic type gigs where you play this and (just like the end of the first video) you’ll just getting people demanding that you play it faster.  Not “better” – just faster.  Because all this arrangement has going for it is velocity, and just like your news story will get bumped by other local news, your speed playing will get bumped by a cool extreme sports video or another video of someone wiping out trying to do a stunt.

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I’ve mentioned some elements of this here and  here as well, but being known as a really good guitar player who has the ability to chop out when you need to will serve your career in a much greater capacity than being known as the player with just a lot of chops.

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Please note:

I’m not bagging on having chops or trying to develop them (and to do so would be completely hypocritical in my case).    As a musician, you have to have enough ability to express yourself on your instrument and that requires technique.   But technique only exists to help serve the song and the musical moment.  Technique for its own sake is a musical dead-end. 

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Bonus quiz:

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Give yourself a B+ if you can name either of the names of the two guys playing the guitar videos above without looking them up.   If you can name either one two days from now without looking it up give yourself an A+.

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Be the person people hit the rewind button for.

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Marty Friedman once talked about how a really great solo is the one that you’d stop the recording for and rewind to hear again.

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We remember things that touch us.  We remember things that move us in some way. We share those things with other people.  People that get excited about the things you do, are more likely to see you perform or seek you out and if you can move them at a show, you’ll see them again.  That’s how you build an audience – one rabid fan at a time.  If you touch people as a musician, you’ll be able to sustain an audience (and a career) a lot longer than someone who merely impresses them.

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Thanks for reading!

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-SC

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ps – if you like this you may also like:

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VISUALIZING VIDEO GAME LICKS OR AN INTRO TO SYMMETRICAL 12 TONE GUITAR PATTERNS

MAS MODELING!! POD FARM, POD HD, SCUFFHAM AMPS AND A WHOLE TONE LICK

MELVILLE, MADNESS AND PRACTICING – OR FINDING THE DEEPER LESSON PART 2

FINDING THE DEEPER LESSON

INSPIRATION VS. INTIMIDATION

KEEPING YOUR EGO OUT OF THE SONG’S WAY

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SURVIVING THE GIG

A Lesson In Improvisation And Jargon From A Cooking Show

WARMING UP: FINGER EXERCISES, THE 3 T’S AND THE NECESSITY OF MISTAKES

BUILDING BLOCKS – OR MORE EXAMINATIONS OF A LAPTOP GUITAR SETUP

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A QUICK LICK – AND A RIG DU JOUR UPDATE FROM HO CHI MINH CITY

“THE LIMITS OF MY LANGUAGE ARE THE LIMITS OF MY WORLD”

A BRIEF THOUGHT ABOUT MUSIC THEORY

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Books:

LESSONS

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Practicing:

MELVILLE, MADNESS AND PRACTICING – OR FINDING THE DEEPER LESSON PART 2

Some Useful Online Practice Tools

POSSESSION IS 9/10S OF THE LAW BUT PERCEPTION IS EVERYTHING OR PRACTICING PART VII

TESTING YOUR VOCABULARY OR PRACTICING PART VI

PRACTICE WHAT YOU PLAY OR PRACTICING PART V

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DEFINITIONS AND DOCUMENTS OR PRACTICING PART IV

TENSION AND THE SODA CAN OR PRACTICING PART III

PROPER POSTURE IS REQUIRED FOR PROPER PERFORMANCE – PRACTICING PART II

PRACTICE MAKES BETTER AKA PRACTICING PART I

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3 thoughts on “What’s wrong with playing “Flight of the Bumblebee” for a world speed record?

  1. I agree with you. I believe its not good for any musician or aspiring musician to focus a great deal on simple speed because – one simple reason, michael angelo batio – if you don’t realize that his playing is musically wrong, despite being technically decent, you should work on your listening skills. Working to get good at a fast barrage of notes isn’t working at anything like music. One way to look at it is that its a sport, but an unusually safe one like golf, which might not merit the same kind of awe that physically perilous sports can. Another way to look at it is as sort of a magic feat, because there are magic feats that do demand rigorous attention and highly difficult physical challenges.

    There are things that can apparently be achieved by many with practice and perseverance. On the other hand, the library of Jimi Hendrix tunes is something that practice alone would unlikely bring about. It makes me think that Hendrix had developed a gift of looking down into his soul.

    Some guitarists are very good along with their technical skill, one part being rapid speed. (Another that can’t live on its own is “flash” and tricks – as in Vai and Satriani). The speed and flash can add dynamics if used musically. But speed and flash never stand well on their own in terms of building a wide audience. Van Halen, to me is gifted because when I hear eruption, I hear swung notes, rhythmically inventive and emotionally moving content – and rhythmic expressiveness, like his tapping beginning with a spurring 7/8 phrase before going into 4/4. See, its the spaces and movement, not speed alone. Al Di Meola, to me, is musically gifted because of his creativity when it comes to building strong emotional progressions through adeptness at rhythm and syncopation. He occasionally does add fast notes, which bug some people, but his feeling is there. McLaughlin is on a very high level emotionally, with plenty of space in his music despite being amazingly technical. For me, if a musician gets used to working on flurries of notes and not the spaces between them, he/she is being diverted away from true music, which is about feeling, which is as much about space as about content.

    • My opinion, but i think if you were to really check out Steve Vai you would realise that he’s not “getting by with his flash” but is a remarkable artist. Yes, once upon a time he reliedon his dizzying technique (80s), but listen to whispering a prayer, then feathers, tben weeping china doll, lotus feet, these all make me cry, or freeze on a Summers day…… My apologies, but i simply cant let you brush off such a brilliant talent. P.S, im not really a Satriani fan either but some of his stuff is really good and hes a nice guy so cut him a little slack too :).

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