I think that learning by ear and remembering the tune go hand in hand – that’s not to say you can’t remember a tune that you’ve learned from the written music, but rather that learning a tune by ear gives you a head start. Here’s why:
When we learn by ear, we are learning in a way that always us to internalise the tune – we’re not reading or relying on an external source but rather the whole thing is in our heads, at least for a bit, which is to say it’s in our short-term memory. Internalising the tune is step one in remembering it in the longer term.
From there we need to reinforce and repeat the tune over time to help to move it from our short-term to our long-term memory. If you dive for the sheet music as soon as it’s available, then you are letting go of that internalisation and you are far less likely to remember it in the longer term. Don’t be afraid to forget the tune. Seriously. You probably won’t forget all of it but if you do then you are much better off relearning it from the video or from an audio source – the second time of learning will be much quicker than the first time, the third time will be even quicker again as you strengthen the neural pathways in the brain.
By all means refer to the music if you need to check a note or to remind yourself of what note the B section starts on but try to avoid cleaving to the dots for fear of forgetting, as you need to partially forget and relearn a tune several times before it’s fully internalised and in your long-term memory. Building this kind of recall is a process and if a tune isn’t all there, that just means that you’re not done yet.
Experimenting with the ornamentation and variations that we cover in class is a great way work on tune recall as it demands that you repeat and reinforce the tune many times in a creative and proactive way that really gets you inside the tune and understanding it (internalisation), also allowing you to develop your own way of playing.
Another benefit of relying on audio sources rather than written music is that you will start to hear the rhythmic and stylistic nuances of the music that simply can’t be expressed effectively in written music. I often throw in extra elements for the more experienced players to try – the more you listen the more you will hear. I’m generally unable to create website posts until later in the week, so making your own recordings at key points in class is encouraged!
Folk music by its nature consists of communal ownership of material (a shared repertoire of traditional tunes) and personal agency (individual expression and interpretation). I try to design exercises and tasks to empower people in both aspects of the genre, but this does demand a proactive, independent approach. I hope this post makes all of this a bit clearer!