Learning by ear and developing your own practise

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! 

Stylistic elements and variations

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve also looked at ornamentation and variation elements. The idea here is to look at the broader picture of where these are generally used in order to empower players to use them independently in their playing, rather than giving you a strict model to copy that isn’t as easily disseminated.

  1. Single cuts in between repeated notes.
  2. Adding connecting notes in between notes that are three or four notes apart.

Here is a short video that explains these things, with examples:

Walking Bass Lines

Over the last few weeks we’ve used the idea of walking bass lines, either as an actual bass line or as a harmony for the melody players. Here the lowest note walks between each chord, moving by step rather always being the root note of the chord. This is indicated in the chords with markings such as D/F#, meaning that you should play a chord of D with an F# as the lowest note in the chord. It’s not about adding extra F#s, but about using a particular inversion of the chord, and you might end up using only the higher end of your instrument in order to accommodate the full scale.

Here is a video to demonstrate the effect – you’ll notice that I’m keeping the rhythms quite sparse in the accompaniment for a more delicate arrangement.

We can use this idea through out mst of Sir John Fenwick (just not in the final phrase of each section) and throughout Star Above the Garter, as well as in the A section for Spring at Last. Here is a PDF with suggested chord sequences and bass lines for these tunes.

If you want to try this on some other tunes, then it’s useful to know your arpeggios/the notes of the chords. For instance, a chord of G = GBD and a chord of D = DF#A, so if you’re going from one to the other you could play G-F#, D-D or B-A in the bass.

Major Malley’s Reel

Major Malley’s Reel, aka Major Molle’s, is a Scottish tune by Andrew Gow first published in 1809 shortly after Gow’s death. Molle was an officer in the British army. The tune has since traveled to Canada and England, and we know it was still in use in the 1800s in England, as Thomas Hardy referenced the tune in his 1874 novel Far From the Madding Crowd.

Variations covered in class include adding turns to notes that are part of descending scales, and rhythmic variations in the B section.

Here is an example of how you might apply these ideas:

Lass of Dallowgill Variations

The ideas used here are the same or similar to those used in Rattle in Cash. This is mostly because the tunes were chosen for their similar melodic shapes, so that they would be good companions – note the removed notes in bar 13 to mirror the same rhythmic feature in Rattle the Cash.

A ‘fidget’ is a note added in between repeated notes, either a step above/below the repeated notes, or a third above/below (a ‘skip’). The scale is a connecting note added in between notes that are a skip (or a third) apart. I’ve written an example below to demonstrate how these might be applied to this tune, averaging one variation per two bar phrase, but try out these ideas in other places to find what works for you.

Variation ideas for Rattle the Cash

We looked at three main ideas for varying Rattle the Cash, which are all applicable to other jigs. Firstly, looking for ‘skips’, aka intervals of a third – you can add the note in the middle to make a scale, smoothing out the melody. Or, vice versa, take the middle note out of a scale to make the tune more bouncy. Secondly, look for ‘fidgets’, aka auxiliary notes – take out the middle note for make the tune bouncier or add a fidget note in between two repeated notes to make the tune smoother. Lastly, we tried adding a ‘cut’ ornament in between repeated notes. This works best when you keep the repeated notes in the same bow/breath/bellow direction.

Here is an annotated copy of the tune, to demonstrate how these can be applied. I’d recommend trying one idea per two bar phrase, so that the tune doesn’t become too busy.

Experiment and have fun!