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Thoughts On Learning Old-Time Music, Part 1: Introduction and Background

Posted by rcc on Sunday, August 9, 2009

So this is going be my thoughts on learning to play old-time fiddle.  I don't claim that this is the way everyone should learn.  Matter of fact, I'll claim that there are many ways to go about learning to fiddle or banjor or ... and the right way depends on the person, their prior experience, how they learn best, and their musical goals.  Change any one of these and the "best" way to learn is likely to change.  And anything that I seem to state categorically as fact is really my opinion and my opinion only.  Feel free to take away from this what you can and disagree with whatever you want.  Hopefully reading this will help someone or set people to thinking a bit.  And I've thought enough about this over the years that I just plain want to write some of it down.

I'm going to write in parts (I don't know how many) because if I try and write it all down at once, it's going to be too much work and I'll never get around to it.


Back in the day, people learned to play music by watching, listening and sometimes outright learning (as in having someone really try and teach you) things from the players around them.  They'd be the people who lived around you -- friends, family, relatives, etc.  Then you learned what you could where you could and if you heard something you liked, you'd try to remember it as best you could because portable recording devices didn't exist back then.   Musicians were likely a lot more common back then because until radio and record players became easily available, the only music around was the music you made yourself.

Some things happen naturally in circumstances like this.  Tunes change because they get blurred by imperfect memory.  People thought of old-time music not as "old-time music" but just as "music" -- the music they liked to play and listen to.  Think of it as the rock-and-roll or pop or hip-hop music of their era.  So with the exception of some "family tunes" handed down like favorite recipes, people changed the music the way they wanted.  (The existence of portable recording devices and slow-down software has had a huge impact on the way we can learn music.  More about that another time.)

Today most people are in a different situation.  Most people don't grow up surrounded by musicians.  And if you do, they're likely not old-time.  And if they are old-time, the children may not want to play old-time because they get exposed to so many other forms of music, one of which they may like a lot better.  Plus old-time music is the music of their parents and learning your parent's music is never cool.

Old-time (and any form of music for that matter) survives because that easy accessibility to different forms of music is a two-edged sword:  what it takes away, it gives back in the form of people (like myself) who didn't grow up in the tradition but stumble across the music and are drawn to it like moths to a flame.  Or others (like my wife) who get pulled into it when they stumble across "old-time" music, remember their childhood days and their grandparents and realize this is the music of their youth and that it still resonates for them.

But those of us who find our way to the music this way, without access to the tradition, have to learn the music some other way other than by sitting at the knees of players week in and week out for years, aborbing it until it's in the blood.

There are many ways of going about it.  I'm going to write about my way.

1 comment on “Thoughts On Learning Old-Time Music, Part 1: Introduction and Background”

bj Says:
Monday, August 10, 2009 @10:02:07 AM

I can't wait to hear the rest . . . :-)

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