In the last article we talked about learning a tune starting with the ears, instead of with the eyes or brain. This is not merely about “learning by ear” but about taking a very practical break from the quantifiable — the written notes, names of notes, rules and regs — to allow the ears time to process a tune, its phrases, the beat notes, the pathways it follows to get you from one beat to the next. The ears know a tune long before the brain has a clue.
We are not merely advocating “feeling” instead of “thinking.” By all means, use all you’ve got! But there are traps people fall into, and we’re trying to avoid them. The brain is fully capable of micromanaging and obsessing over details it can’t really understand, while ignoring the key moments and the bigger picture that we really need it for. Many people read music and drill the notes until they feel they get a tune down, but they usually neglect to recognize that the reason they got the tune was because they allowed their ears and hands time to learn it (meanwhile the eyes and brain took all the credit! O, the injustice!).
The bottom line, as mentioned in the last article, is that what we think most about is what we are able to verbalize. Without good words, we have a hard time thinking about, respecting, and developing the job done by the ears and hands (i.e. actually play the fiddle!).
“Ear map” were the words we came up with and emphasized in the last article. To learn a tune, we have to map it out with our ears.
The words for today are “clarify” and “embody.” After mapping out the tune with our ears, we have to clarify the map, and embody the tune in our hands.
Think of how an artist draws a portrait. The first step is to map out where things are — top of head, jaw line, placement of eyes and mouth within that map, etc. If the artist starts out by detailing one eye, and then the other, the eyes might look amazingly good, but stepping back, they are likely to be different sizes and placed at odd spots in relation to the rest of the face. The result is likely to be grotesque. A good artist lightly maps out the locations and general shapes before honing in on the details.
Like the artist, our ears map out timing, phrasing, beat notes, and the profile of the melody before clarifying the details. This is much the way you might frame a photo before focusing the camera. It’s the way a baby can communicate with tone of voice before finding the words, or the way a toddler (like one of ours!) might say “pisketti” before learning that the word is “spaghetti”. We understand the meaning well before the details are refined.
Clarifying the tune map is a delicate process, kind of like trying to recall a dream when you wake up. If you chase it too hard or impose logic on it, it vanishes. This is why drilling the notes as written on paper is kind of a crude way to impose a tune on yourself.
Clarifying is most effective (and fun) by trying a variety of experiments. Use the ears as your guide, and rotate through different approaches with your bow hand and your fingering. Always keep hold of, or keep coming back to make sure of, your feel for the timing and the beat notes. This is best done in manageable bits, such as phrases.
On fiddle-online.com the written music has colorful boxes around each phrase. These are important musical ideas, building blocks of each tune, and manageable amounts of music to learn. Note that these phrase-boxes often do not match up with the bar lines, because pickup note belong musically to the beat that follows them, not the measure they’re written into.
More importantly, fiddle-online.com sheet music includes self-repeating audio by phrase, so you can click on it to get it started and then work with it in all sorts of ways, both with and without looking at the written music.
Here’s where you begin to “embody” the tune. Your muscle memory needs to learn the feel of the phrase and start to polish first the beat notes and then the pathways leading to them.
Bowing is crucial and often underrated in this process. If you bow consistently, your right hand helps you tremendously in learning and remembering the phrase — there is muscle memory built into the bowing rhythm, the pattern of bow directions, and the pattern of playing different strings at different moments. If you ignore the bowing and only think about getting the notes, you are enabling the left hand, the eyes, and brain to be in charge, and they’re not always up to the task! Music is timing, and timing is handled by the bow. The bow is really in charge of your music.
One very helpful exercise in learning a troublesome phrase is to focus entirely on the bow. Strip away the left hand altogether and play the phrase only on open strings, with the right bowing rhythm (for example, if there’s a slur of two eighth notes you’ll be playing a single quarter note with the bow), and on the right strings for each note. This is harder than it may seem at first, but once you can do it for a phrase or even just a measure, it’s surprisingly easy to insert the fingering and have it all down! Make sure the bowing matches the timing, and is not dependent on what’s convenient for the left hand (you may have to slur from one string to the next, for example).
Fingering is of course very important. Once you know the (usually four) beat notes in a phrase, learn how the intermediate notes lead into the next phrase. There are very few choices, when you think about it, given the number of fingers we have! It’s often fairly easy to learn how the tune moves from one beat note to another. As is discussed in many of the learning videos on fiddle-online’s workshop materials or live classes, tunes often rely on limited numbers of notes, sometimes a pentatonic scale, or only two strings. You might find it interesting to learn about this in Technique Video Group #4 or in the past workshop materials about “Great Scale Tunes“.
Try to work phrase by phrase. It can be too much information to try to get all the notes for the whole tune. Just learn a phrase at a time, and then sew them together. As you can see in the fiddle-online audio phrases, there are often not that many different phrases to learn, and it isn’t that hard to piece them together. You’ll save time in the end, remember it better, and play it more musically!
Your mind needs to allow all this to happen but also to take notes and be helpful. It may need to notice the “fork in the road“, the one note where two otherwise similar phrases diverge. Your mind certainly needs to notice the feel of the phrase, and the structure of the tune — how the phrases fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Your mind can also serve you well by picturing the story told by the tune, even imagining a movie plot that could use the tune as a sound track! This is how you can have fun, play better, and be more expressive with your music, right from day one.
One simple tip in practicing a tune — listen to the recording, and try playing at least some of it without looking at the sheet music. Try this three times in a row, and notice any improvements, however small. You may not be able to explain the improvements to yourself, but there they are. Always look for the spots you’re getting right, not the mistakes. Your goal is to grow what you’re getting right, to build bridges between them, not to fret over the inevitable mistakes!
I hope this is all good food for thought. Feel free to make comments below or ask questions, and enjoy your tunes!
©2018 Ed Pearlman