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Thoughts On Learning Old-Time Music, Part 2 -- Learning From Old Dead Guys

Posted by rcc on Monday, August 10, 2009

I learn mostly from recordings -- which means mostly from old dead people.  Many top players (Bruce Molsky, Rafe Stefanini, Rayna Gellert and many others I've talked to) seem to do the same as well.  This makes sense because at some point you run out of live people to learn from.  Either they're too far away or they're not interested in what you like or the only source material you have to work with is a recording (from someone either dead or alive but sadly, likely dead).

I say "mostly" because live guys have been invaluable in teaching me how to learn from the old dead guys.  (More on that another time.)

I've got two ways of going about learning a tune.

If I want to "learn from" the fiddle player, I'll listen to his/her version of the tune a lot.  I'll burn it onto a CD and listen in the car, listen on my ipod, etc. until I'm really familiar with the tune.  Often I'll make a mix/playlist of the tunes I want to learn and play that constantly.  I may also slow them down, burn the slowed down versions as well and listen to both the fast and slow versions.  I don't often burn a slowed down version now but I used to do this a lot.

When I feel ready to learn the tune, I'll sit down using Amazing Slow Downer and try and figure out what's going on phrase by phrase.  While I try and get it into my fingers, to be more efficient, I also try and write the tune out in notation.  Because I'm not great at it, the notation isn't 100% accurate (typically my written timing can be off) and on a tune with complex bow-rocking, the notation may not include all of the bow-rocking if I'm confident I'll remember the rocking without writing it out.  So it's more like my own private notes to help jog my memory when I come back to the tune rather than a true transcription.  But my goal is to be efficent in my use of time -- so since I can read and write dots, I use it.

While working out the tune, I'll typically try the tune out (or pieces of it) both slow and fast to see if it makes sense mechanically when it's up to speed.  I've concluded that a good bowing (once you get used to it) feels smooth at speed -- it should be something you imagine can doing for hours.  Working slow is good because I figure out precisely what's going on where (and I do that when spot is rough) but I also try it faster to make sure the bowing feels right when sped up.

If I'm learning one player's version, I really do like to try and play it the way the player did it.  That doesn't mean I'm going to keep playing it that way but doing it that way does a couple of things for me.

First, (if I'm lucky and I figure it out), I learn something about how a fiddle player made a particular sound or fit a bowing and the notes togeher.  (More on this another time.)

Second, I've found that for me, it's a good idea to try and learn a tune the way oh, Tommy Jarrell or Fred Cockerham or <name your favorite great OT fiddler> played it.  If that fiddler played something differently than I would and I try it their way, I find it often expands my own musical thinking.  The end result is that I not only have a better version of that tune but I also have a wider range of musical tools that I can draw on when I play.

The most recent example of this was Fred's Natural Bridges Blues where Fred was ending certain key phrases with a two note slur.  This is pretty common but for some reason, my natural inclination on those phrases was to hit the last two notes separately.  But I made myself play it his way for a while and once I got it up to speed (not super clean but up to speed), I came to like the way Fred did it.  I don't know that I would have learned this had I not forced myself to play it the way Fred did.  And so I'm really glad I made myself do that.

Similarly, Tommy will put some 2-2's (two two-note slurs) into his playing and often in places that I wouldn't have thought to do it.  But I did it his way for a while and eventually was able to feel why he did it that way and came to like it.

And I'm sure I've learned other things (especially fromTommy's playing) that I'm not even consciously aware of.

It doesn't always work out this way.  Sometimes no matter how much I'll try something, I'll conclude that I just can't play it that way.  (Or maybe "won't" would be more accurate.).  I usually take two, three or four cracks at that -- sometimes weeks, months or even years apart before I finally give up depending on how badly I *want* to be able to play it that way.

But more often that not, I've found that trying to learn to play something as closely as I can to the original (note-wise and bowing-wise) has been worth the effort.

Doing this is a lot of work, requires more than a fair bit of obsession and immersion and isn't for everyone.  But the reward is gleaning nugget after nugget of musical and fiddling wisdom from truly great musicians.  And I find that as I learn from their playing, I appreciate them even more.  (And the folks who made those recordings and preserved that playing for us.)

The real problem with this approach isnt the work -- it's that you have to learn to be a careful listener.  And that takes a lot of work and can be very difficult to do completely on your own.  In its own way, learning to be a careful listener can be as hard as learning to fiddle itself.

I think I'll try and write about that next time.

6 comments on “Thoughts On Learning Old-Time Music, Part 2 -- Learning From Old Dead Guys”

robinja Says:
Tuesday, August 11, 2009 @2:35:59 PM

Keep 'em coming. It's always interesting to me how others approach the music. By the way, I had one lesson with John Engle this summer while I was attending Mars Hill, and it was great. I am hoping to get up to Asheville sometime to get another lesson. I can't easily distinguish bow direction changes when I listen (I'm looking forward to your next installment....), but I suspect that I may be too lazy to do it anyway. John offers a nice short cut when you like a particular version of a tune and want to play it as close to the source as possible.

rcc Says:
Tuesday, August 11, 2009 @4:20:04 PM

I'm glad you were able to spend some time with him. John is a great fiddle player, great teacher and all around nice guy. He's one of my favorite people. He's helped me a lot -- I've made a lot progress with fiddling that would have taken a lot longer or maybe would never have happened without his help.

OTJunky Says:
Wednesday, August 12, 2009 @11:24:58 AM

Yup - I do it the way you do it.

It's the only way I've found that works for me.


ChickenMan Says:
Wednesday, August 12, 2009 @4:25:38 PM

O. D. G. for me too. It is rare that I don't learn it one way (or two or three) but end up making it mine after learning the ropes from the ODG.

dsreiner Says:
Sunday, May 30, 2010 @10:11:10 PM

Very well described and eminently sensible...


MOFiddlin Says:
Thursday, August 25, 2011 @3:28:35 PM

Your blog is something I've been thinking on recently. Because I am new to the fiddle. I need to literally immerse myself in my favorite old time players and into that culture of thinking. Bruce Moslky has also said he would listen to a tune long before he learned it to get it in his head until he was sick of it but it helped him to learn it that way.

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