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Learning Whole Tunes

Posted by bj on Tuesday, November 17, 2009

This past weekend at Fiddle Hell I realized something. To learn a tune, I have to hear the whole thing. I am totally incapable of learning a tune in pieces, and then trying to stitch those pieces together.

That's exactly the opposite of the way every workshop at Fiddle Hell is taught. The others I've gone to are the same way. Every workshop I've been to so far breaks the tune down into tiny little pieces. Which turns me into a bow bedevilled blithering idiot.

It's always been somewhat this way for me, but as my ears have "grown" and the ear/finger connection has kicked in, I seem to pick up the fingerings from the flow and gestalt of a tune. If a tune is being broken down into pieces, the flow is gone, and my fingers are taken over by gremlins who push them all the wrong way!

In thinking back, I had to struggle to learn the tunes at the Kolodner workshop and they didn't stick. Out of three tunes taught at that workshop there isn't a single one I play. I had just as bad a time at the Shane Cook workshop, but after the workshop some of us got together to play, and we played that tune, Loggieville Two Step, over and over as a WHOLE tune. And that one stuck. It's a fave in our jam circle.

It's not that I don't get good info at workshops. I learned ghost bowing with Ken Kolodner, the double up and some great "put swing in your playing" techniques from Shane Cook, what makes a Missouri tune sound like a Missouri tune from Michael Richwine . . . but I feel like a dunce when I sit there and play ALL  the wrong notes when the kids in the room are getting it. So I've just stopped trying to get tunes in pieces. The fiddle sits on my lap, and I just listen. One other funny thing that happens-- When someone says that note is a C# I have NO  CLUE what that means to my fingers. I just never took the thinking that direction since I do everything by ear.

But put me in a jam circle where the tune is being played as a whole tune over and over, and most tunes I can learn that way within the first half dozen repeats. The really notey ones don't come that way yet, but all the simple to intermediate tunes in the keys of D, A and G are coming out my fingers after hearing them not all that many times through, though it takes a few times past that (and jamming on them later) to refine them and hear notes I didn't distinguish the first time or two around.

That's the way it works for me. It seems it works differently for most others.

Can I learn tunes in a refined way this way? No, they're always a work in progress. Even Old Joe Clark is a work in progress. The tunes I've known for awhile get played with different variations each time through. Tunes I've learned over the past few months I'm pretty monotonous about, they get the same repetitive bowing, with maybe just minor phrasing variations, every time I play them through. That'll change as the tune goes into the "automatic" bin in my brain. Once that happens I can start to play with the bowings and other dynamics in both left and right hands.

So the bottom line is that right now there are around 80 tunes I can play, but not all of them well. I can kick off a bit over half of those, maybe 50, and a quarter of the tunes I can play are in the "automatic" bin of my brain, and I never play those through the same way twice.

A recent thread had me pointing out that we're all our worst enemies on this journey, since we can't judge our own progress. I think many times I sound godawful, and I'm making no progress. But then someone comes along and gushes about how well I'm doing. This past weekend a sweet young gal heard me say I'd been playing for just a couple months over two years. She asked me how many tunes I knew, and I told her there were only around 80 I could play, but barely half of those fairly well. She repeated, "ONLY  eighty?" about five times. So maybe I shouldn't be upset about looking like an idiot when I can't learn tunes at workshops. This stuff is all relative. Especially since I heard this girl play and she is spot on with intonation when she does play a tune she knows. They could calibrate tuners off her playing, and she's pulling fabulous tone too. I'm okay with that, probably better than a lot of folks with the same time in as me, but I'm not nearly as good as she is with that. If she and I knew the same tune well, and played side by side, she's without a doubt the better player. Yet she wants to know as many tunes as I do. So I guess we all have our strengths and quirks and weaknesses.

Some other stuff that's been pointed out and that I've come to realize. If I'm the one playing "alpha" fiddler, I can do it, but I don't do it well, since it adds too much complexity into things- it's like a juggler in training who has mastered three balls, and someone has just tossed in ball number four. This doesn't stop me from doing it, and I can pull it off to some degree, but I usually sound awful at this point, with my intonation slightly off, and some finger fumbles. But if someone else kicks off a tune I know, I can relax into it, and things sound reasonably good, with decent intonation and fairly strong dynamics and bow rhythm. At one point this weekend I had my heels clicking in clogging time while my bow was driving the offbeat, and at another point I was singing while fiddling the chorus. But I have to be DEEP into the zone for this fun and automatic stuff to start happening on tunes I know really well.

What funny creatures we humans are!



9 comments on “Learning Whole Tunes”

Swing Says:
Tuesday, November 17, 2009 @9:57:53 AM

bj... you are not alone in your learning malady.. OTjunky and I has this conversation and his comment was simply "I can learn but I can't be taught" which some it up pretty well. Really glad I got the chance to meet you at fiddle hell, enjoyed our conversations.

Play Happy

FiddleCat Says:
Tuesday, November 17, 2009 @10:20:22 AM

"I can learn but I can't be taught"

That sums it up 100%. Nothing could be better said then that!!

Cyndy Says:
Tuesday, November 17, 2009 @11:18:52 AM

Yes. Yes. Yes. I find I need to hear a tune in big chunks in order to make sense of the structure--at least in complete phrases. I tried to learn a tune once with someone playing just a few notes at a time and it made it really hard to grasp the flow. I could parrot back the short phrases but I couldn't remember the tune for anything. Cyndy

Andah1andah2 Says:
Tuesday, November 17, 2009 @12:06:24 PM

I'm jeolous. I which I could have gone to fiddle hell. It's only 3 hours away but stuff happens. Hopefully next year.

Humbled by this instrument Says:
Tuesday, November 17, 2009 @12:17:36 PM

I don't have to go to Fiddle Hell. I can bring it with me anywhere I choose...so best be nice to me.

bj Says:
Tuesday, November 17, 2009 @12:49:20 PM

Cyndy, I have to hear the WHOLE tune. Weirdly, I can learn A parts and B parts as pieces, but the tunes I learn that way, I end up mixing up the A part of one tune with the B part of another. They never stick together unless I learn them stuck together!

It was great meeting you too, David!

Dee, I hope you can drive up to Massachussetts with us next year. It's a lot of fun.

Humbled, I think it's about time you look at the possibility of moving East. You'd fit right in around here.

FiddleJammer Says:
Tuesday, November 17, 2009 @8:38:26 PM

Takes all kinds. But, I think event organizers would be smart to include some 'whole tune' sorts of workshops to accommodate that learning style along side the workshops that take a tune piece by piece. Me? I could just scream when I'm trapped in a workshop and repeating the second part of the B part for the umpteenth time. Can't stand it. I know some folks think that if you learn a tune up to a decent speed at a jam, you'll develop all sorts of nasty habits. My response has to be "Get out of the way and let us play". Just gotta.

bj Says:
Wednesday, November 18, 2009 @5:27:14 AM

I really am glad to hear that I'm not the only one . . .

How can anyone say you'd develop "nasty habits" learn tunes at speed? How did Tommy Jarrell learn tunes? I doubt he sat in workshops learning pieces of tunes.

zai Says:
Friday, November 20, 2009 @10:11:22 AM

I find it really hard as well to remember a tune I learnt in bits and pieces in a workshop. Not so much that I've trouble working out the bit and playing that, but without the context of the rest of the tune it's soon forgotten (before I learn the next bit) so what I try to do is "pro forma" learn each bit, then not even try to remember the bit, and then when the whole class plays the whole of the part we've been learning I pick it up again there. I was at some local workshop weekend here last weekend, and we learnt the tunes bit by bit, bar by bar almost. I noticed that where we'd played the seperate parts of the tune over and over instead of just twice per part (as oposed to play it with it's repeat and then again twice after a short interuption with pointers) some of us had a very hard time later on to repeat each part only twice when we got to playing the tune as a whole. As you say, what funny creatures we humans are.

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