How long

How long

This has probably done before, but I wonder how long it would take for a normally talented player to learn to play a melody instrument at session level, given the fact that he/she already plays another melody instrument at session level. I’d say let’s not consider switching from fiddle to mandolin or banjo (or vice versa) for obvious reasons, but any combination of fiddle, box, pipes, flute, whistle would be interesting to hear about.

Estimations are fine, but better are stories from those who actually made this kind of step! And: did you keep on playing on your first instrument or did you concentrate fully on your ‘new choice’?

Re: How long

"at session level"? What’s that? Is it like sea level or something?

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OK, let’s say: for a start - to be able to play comfortably at the usual session speeds and to master 500 + tunes .

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I wouldn’t say I’ve mastered any tunes

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Ah come on ……

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come on what? You’re asking for a measure of the unmeasurable

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"normally talented player" is too variable.
So is the difference between working for 15 minutes a day and 1hour a day.

My main instrument is flute (still don’t know many tunes on it though). I have had a concertina for 2 years now. Still can’t be arsed to learn more than 2 or 3 tunes "up to speed". I don’t think it would take more than an additional year at 1hour a day to be up to the same level I am on flute.

As for tune numbers, on most instruments, once you learn to play the instrument, and you know the tune (i.e. you can sing it), placing the tune on the instrument is pretty straight forward, at least in the same way that transposing a tune to different fingerings is pretty straight forward.

I have a mate who is way ahead of the curve as far as "normal talent" is concerned. He moved from pipes to banjo in about a year.

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Re: How long

Llig if you’ve got nothing helpful to say……







… feck off

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Re: How long

It took me as long to learn guitar as it did GHB, which I learned in parallel, not so long to convert from GHB to Uilleann and whistle, or from guitar to bouzouki and fiddle, but the converting was different. I wan’t learning from scratch, but changing what I knew to a different format, as it were. I still get occasional messages from my brain trying to trick me into playing the wrong fingering; but mercifully they are fewer now than they used to be. It is hard to compare the learning times, as you seem to be asking for, because once you have learned the tunes, all you have to do is play them. It is the learning of tunes, rather than instruments, that takes time. It is like learning to drive: once you have passed your test, it is not hard to drive another vehicle; but you still need a map (dots) or GPS (recordings), or someone to show you the way.
I never gave up any of the instruments while I was learning another, but they are gradually falling by the wayside, or should I say gathering dust on the wall. The fiddle is hardly ever out of my hands, and I am never far from a whistle, which is my aid when figuring out keys and fingering and such.

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Re: How long

You’re daft if you think I’m not being helpful. You just can’t say things like "master 500 tunes". The music simply doesn’t work like that. Tunes aren’t things you tick off. Instruments aren’t things you tick off. If the tunes aren’t constantly and endlessly tickling you and reinventing themselves in your head you’ve got the whole business of playing this music upside down.

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You’re daft full stop Llig.

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Re: How long

Enjoy where you are, particularly on a second instrument.

Don’t set yourself some arbitrary goal and think: I’m start enjoying myself when I get there.

Not really what you asked, I know, but it would be the relevant answer for me. 🙂

- chris

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Oh, look! Over there!

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Dan, you’re young. Hopefully, you’ll grow up

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Hopefully you’ll grow down Llig.

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It’s obviously different for everyone!
There are different categories & degrees of required learning though…

1. Can’t play any instrument; not familiar with ‘the tunes’ or ‘the music’.
They have to start from scratch, both playing the instrument and learning the tunes.

2. Can already play a NON TRADITIONAL instrument; not familiar with ‘the tunes’ or ‘the music’.
These have to adapt & re-invent their playing into a traditional way on their non-trad instrument or adapt their already acquired musicality to another more traditional instrument as well as learning the tunes.

3. Can already play a TRADITIONAL instrument (but not in a traditional setting e.g. orchestral violinist, BLooZ six string devil twangler); not familiar with ‘the tunes’ or ‘the music’.
They have to learn the tunes and adapt their style to play the traditional way and learn the tunes.

4. Can’t play any instrument; BUT familiar with ‘the tunes’ or ‘the music’.
They have to pick up an instrument from scratch and apply the tunes they know to their learning of the playing.

5. Can already play a NON TRADITIONAL instrument; and familiar with ‘the tunes’ or ‘the music’.
They will have to adapt their playing style to the tunes they know or switch to a more trad instrument taking their musicality with them e.g viola to fiddle; bugle to pipes.

6. Can already play a TRADITIONAL instrument (but not in a traditional way); BUT familiar with ‘the tunes’ or ‘the music’.
Similar to 5 but with less technical turmoil.

So you are learning two things: the playing of the instrument and the tunes. You may have one or other of these categories learnt and so the process would be quicker. I’m not sure if ‘500 tunes’ is some sort of bench mark in your learning curve!

Re: How long

One way of measuring this is being able to play along in a
session without screwing it up with bad rhythm, bad notes and
bad intonation.

Another standard might be the ability to lead off sets of tunes
well enough so that your mates can at least recognise what
tune you’re trying play.

Another might be to play a set of tunes on your own in public
well enough so that people can tap their feet to your music.

Finally, being able to do the last bit well enough so that a good
Trad musician thinks you’ve done well by the tunes.

So pick your level of success. I’d say a lot of people only get
to the first of these "levels". Is that a bad thing if you’re having fun?

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It’s funny how yhaalhouse and I came up with the same sort
of answer at the same time. Are we both bureaucrats? Both
programmers?

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I’m a lover of lists, plans, musicology, maps, chord charts, astronomy, harmony, wig glue and, of course, hot water bottles!

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I find the more different the instrument, the harder it is to transfer, with the exception of the bodhran - I can play all the tunes on that, no problem.
Guitar to bouzouki - the top string is the same, but fingering differences across the fingerboard mean you still need to rethink what you are doing.
Bouzouki to english concertina - very slow.

Re: How long

I think you’d be able to play comfortably at a session far sooner than you’d be able to play 500 tunes. I don’t think I could live long enough to learn 500 tunes! But then, I don’t think I’d want to. I chose long ago to concentrate on a few dozen session tunes; to play them well when they come up, and enjoy the listening when they don’t.

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It’s interesting divorcing the knowing of the tunes with the ability to play them. On a theoretical level I’m not sure it can be done, but then a good fiddle player who’s never touched a whistle would be in that situation if all he had was a whistle.

But what’s more interesting are the feedback loops that occur between what one might loosly refer to knowing tunes and playing them. And especially listening to and playing them on different instruments. Understanding and respecting how the simple mechanics of the more traditional intruments shape the music is very important. And hearing - but not neccesseraly playing - the tunes on the different instruments is vital to a greater understanding of it.

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I’d have thought Hup’s first category is the most useful to consider here, being able to play along well and maybe start a few tunes.

How many of us here have not dabbled with more than one instrument over the years! I last played whistle regularly about thirty years ago but I don’t think it would take long to get some tunes back up to speed.

I’d dabbled with melodeons a similar number of years ago. When I got interested in half-step buttonbox about three years ago it took best part of a year to get a few tunes up to playing comfortably at normal speed with others. Then I changed to concertina…..

(Primarily a fiddler BTW.)

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This thread reminds me of the time a guy in airport security asked me how long it took to learn the pipes.

"Uh… a long time…."

Then he was like, "A year? Five years? Ten years?"

I’m thinking I’d really like to go catch my plane now. "Uh, yeah."

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I thought you had to stop counting tunes learned when you reached 100……

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I agree with Greg that the 500 tunes would take longer to learn that the new instrument. But since I’ve picked up whistle, concertina, and bouzouki in the last couple years, I can say that for me, it takes about a year of working with it everyday before I can play what I hear on an instrument outside of the string family.

when I first tried to play whistle with someone else, I had to cope with the fact that they didn’t stop for a second to let me get a breath. For a string player, this was a very new experience.

Same was true with working the bellows of a concertina. Those things can get away from you, you know

But bouzouki fell right in my lap. It was like Old Home Week.

So I think once you have cracked into a family of instruments, others of that family get easier to pick up.

And I have also noticed that the more instruments I pick up each day, the more my overall musicianship grows, and that translates into better playing even on the other instruments I don’t pick up as frequently, like my old guitars.

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My experience: I first started playing traditional tunes on guitar - tunes that is , not accompaniment. I soon realised that guitar wasn’t a great instrument to play tunes on in sessions, so switched to OM, tuned ADAD (but that’s another story). Once I’d found my way round the instrument - sort of tuned in to it - I found that tunes I had played on the guitar just came to my fingers without much conscious effort.

Trouble is now I’ve decided to change the OM tuning to GDAE (part of the same other story). I’m finding that this transition is nowhere near as easy as from guitar to OM. I’m having to make much more conscious effort to relearn fingerings , or forget old fingerings. I think it’s because the two ‘different instruments’ (i.e. the OM in different string tunings) are just too similar. After all it’s the same actual instrument sitting on my lap and only two of the courses are retuned.

And oddly when I pick up a friend’s banjo (GDAE) I find I can retrieve tunes more easily than on my retuned OM.

To this extent I disagree with Guernsey Pete, when he says that "the more different the instrument, the harder it is to transfer".

I think I’m heading for Banjoland.

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OM?

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As usual, Michael’s questions are actually much more interesting than they’re taken to be. He’s demanding a certain intellectual rigor in this discussion, which is uncomfortable for some, but worth pursuing.
I share his discomfort with the glib "we all know what we mean" attitude that underlies some of these questions, so here’s an attempt to repair the question.

For this discussion, would it be fair to say playing an instrument "at session level" means sufficient mastery* of an instrument that you can bring it to the session and play whatever tunes you know on that instrument, without mucking up the tune for everyone else?

"Knowing a tune" then would mean being able to play it on any instrument you "play at session level", again well enough to fit in at your session. It’s very different from being able to move your fingers in the right patterns to bring out the tune on the fiddle or the box or the flute.

That’s two pretty high bars for "knowing", but they would give the question some form that it’s currently lacking.
Any takers? Any refinements to this?


*If you don’t like mastery, try "skill", "ability", "facility", "know-how", or whatever similar word works. This is not an interesting place to quibble.

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To me playing at session level is more about awareness then ability. Know when to play and when not to play. Be aware of the personalities of those with whom you make music. Most are friendly and helpful. A few are surly and unsociable, if you run across these cats then it’s time to move on.

If you enjoy learning new tunes and new instruments then keep on doing it. And don’t take it too seriously—it’s just music after all.

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Surly and unsociable musicians are often the most helpful, Dzia. It’s not care in the community, it’s music. Sometimes it can be really good. Those who take it seriously are usually a lot better than those who think it’s all about ‘joining in’.

OM = Octave mandolin I guess, Henk. In response to your original post, I know a middle-aged lady who has been dancing to Irish music since she was a wee lass. She’s recently taken up the box, and despite her limited technical ability she plays the few tunes she knows with a far greater musicality than many people I know who have been playing for years.

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A similar question could be asked about languages, and the variation there is really tremendous. In one of my jobs, I talk to a lot of people who are learning English, coming from various other languages. The other night, I was talking to a French speaker from Canadia, who was complaining, in strongly-accented but quite serviceable English, that it was taking her so long to get comfortable speaking. I asked her how long she’d been studying for, and she said "three months".
I assured her that if she was having a conversation with me in English, after three months, she was doing very well indeed.
(if I could learn a language to conversational level in three months, I’d learn four languages a year!)

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Good man Jon, well done.

I think Llig means that mastering a tune sounds like you’re going to kill it and take it to the taxidermist. Maybe encase it in a museum. "I now have MASTERED this tune and nothing will change it! MOO HOO HA HA HA!"

…which is bad, so point of order there.

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When I took up the fiddle, I had been playing the guitar for about twenty years and was competent at flatpicking and fingerstyle. Apart from the general benefit of mature musicianship, I’m still not sure whether the guitar history – flatpicking, in particular - was a net help or hindrance. The balance and tonus of the muscles that develops from heavy plectrum work is very different from what the bow arm wants for fiddling. The interference may be subtle - I only recognized it after years of fiddling – but a couple of my friends have reported the same thing.

As for the noting hand, I’m pretty sure the guitar work was helpful.

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Sorry, and now to your post, Henk.

I’ve played fiddle for a while now. I played as a child, took a break, came back to it about 10+ years ago now.

I thought I’d be nifty and play tenor banjo, mandolin, whistle, low whistle and guitar.

I quickly realized that I could slave away on those other instruments for a long time and never have the proficiency I’d have on the fiddle. Even the mandolin and banjo, with the GDAE tuning, it’s the picking. I simply can’t pick as well as I can bow.

I messed around, tried to be one of those poor pack animals you see at a session trudging in with 47 instrument cases, can hardly play a single one, etc. So no, I went back to basics, simplified. Quite happy now.

That being said, it’s quite informative to play whistle from a fiddler’s perspective, and I’ve learned so much just from discussing the music with my good friend, a fluter. The different things these instruments do in relation to the music are a great learning experience. I still dabble with a whistle, and I even enjoy trying to flatpick out tunes on the guitar in the safety of my home when no one is looking. (Ha!)

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Great point Bob. It’s damn frustrating too. "Why the heck do I have to pick so damn much when I could do all this one a few bow strokes!" 😉

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one = with when you’re in a hurry. [hangs head in grammatical shame]

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Hey, let’s try an experiment.
I play guitar, box, bouzouki, mandolin, and whistle, all tolerably well but none exceptionally well.

I’ll volunteer to learn the flute, and we’ll see how long it takes me to get to "session level" (whatever we decide that means). All I need is for someone to send me a flute… 🙂

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After reading through all of the comments, I agree with llig leahcim because I think he actually said something helpful.
Ramblingpitchfork, Guernsey Pete, Hup, and Yhaalhouse (except for his obsession with wig glue and hot water bottles) also offered useful advice, comments, and insight on this subject.

Were you able to "catch" your plane, SilverSpear? Who was throwing the plane to you? Superman?
As for that crazy fiddler in southwestern Florida….."I now have MASTERED this tune and nothing will change it!" My reply is: "Yesss, Mahssster. Shall I throw the switch to feed electricity to the tune and bring it to life now?’

For the record, speaking as someone who plays piano and bass, at first it was difficult to translate from one instrument to the other but I have gotten better at it over the years.

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If you already know 500+ tunes on another instrument, you only have to learn to play the new instrument don’t you?

I also know a number of technically, very good musicians who can play at session level (i.e. very fast), but are either as deaf as a post, or play heads-down with total disregard to the session. When they move on to new instruments, they carry on playing in exactly the same way.

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A few years.

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Fauxcelt, you can only throw the switch when you have the kite correctly flying in the thundercloud.

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Dr. Frankenreel!

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Listening is more important than playing
Taste is more important than technique
Constructive criticism and taking the music seriously are good things.
However, when one treats others poorly, takes things too seriously, insists on joining in, doesn’t listen, etc., it just makes the session into a dysfunction junction.

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Intellectual rigger. I ran into one of those on a construction site once. He had a PhD in some obscure philosphical esoterica.

He was hanging steel because it paid better.

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A difficult problem for any musician in traditional music is to assess when they’ve got a target of 500 (or whatever) tunes under their belt. When I started learning to play the fiddle I went to regular tune workshops where the tutor would usually hand out the ABC or even dots to tide us over for when we would discover that we’d forgotten the tune the next day. Anyway, most people would also record the tutor’s play-through. Under those conditions I had a good idea of how many tunes I knew (and their names!). But, for me, keeping tally fell apart when I started learning tunes by ear at sessions - often without getting the name of the tune - so I gave up keeping count. This happened when I was somewhere into double figures from workshop tunes. I suppose I’m now well into 3 figures (I hope!), but how far in I have no idea. It doesn’t matter to me because I know that in any session there will always be tunes that I’ve either never heard before, or which I don’t know well enough to play, so I just sit and listen. If it’s a tune that grabs me I’ll ask its name (not necessarily always getting an accurate or even useful answer), and I’ll write it down, if I remember - which I frequently don’t 🙂

I’ve been going to English sessions regularly now for the last four years (as well as going to Irish, of course). The result there is that I know pretty well most of the English session tunes (which includes French, Scottish and Irish tunes as well as English), but only a few of the names, and the number of tunes where I’ve seen the dots must be in single figures.

Incidentally, I go to English sessions not only because I enjoy playing music of a different, although perhaps related, tradition but because I firmly believe that the English tradition of folk music needs to be supported on a regular basis if it is to survive. The English session I go to is, as far as I know, the only weekly one in my town or within a reasonable travelling distance.

Re: How long

At my session there is a fiddler who s picked up the concertina a few years back. He has been dedicated and putting several hours into the new instrument every day, and it has started to bear fruit… For some of the tunes he knows he will still pick up the fiddle, but for most tunes he is now up to qualty and just about up to speed on the new instrument.

I´d say the answer to Henk´s question is 42 divided by 12.

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I was going to talk about how slowly I am making progress on my second melody instrument, the accordion, when the definition of "mastering 500 tunes" was established, and I realized I don’t even play my first melody instrument, the whistle, at "session level." Oh well, back to the woodshed for me! 😉

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Well, Al, remember that my proposed definition was only meant as a proposal - it’s not authoritative by any maens. If it doesn’t make sense, maybe another definition would.
Or, if we can’t come up with a sensible definition, maybe Michael’s right and the idea of "session level" is just another daft idea, and we’d all do better to just go play tunes.

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Dumb.
*Mastering* 500 tunes on a second instrument? Anyway what does mastering mean?
Been on D/G box as a 2nd……no probably 3rd instrument — 4th if you include bodhran, 5th if you include guitar 6th piano, and so on…..for a no of years.
What does up to session speed mean?
There are quite a lot of sh!te players out there who can play fast but without any feeling does fast and at session speed mean mastering - not in my book. I prefer medium to slow paced relatively unornamented playing with just enough feeling to bring a tune to life, that;s all - wholesome strong playing with feeling, not too much to ask is it?

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I started playing Trad on the hardest of all Trad instruments -
the fiddle. Pipers may want to argue, but I think I’m right. Fiddles
don’t have reeds though - thank God.

Llig - lilters and whistlers can know tunes and make them
audible to others without knowing any instrument. I reckon your
dad was one of the those people? Just guessing.

On flute I got up to "session standard" - the ability to play along without screwing things up too much - in about 3 weeks, but only
with a very small group of tunes. In contrast it’s taken maybe
three years to get to that same point on fiddle. Arguably I am still
not there. On concertina I am nowhere near that point after
about a year

Re: How long

It depends on the person. I have met people who have only been playing for three years and sound excellent. On the other hand, I have met people who have played for 20+years and sound like a newbie. There really is no answer, it all depends on your determination and love of the music, and whether you have "it" or not.

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Hup:
>On flute I got up to "session standard" - the ability to play along >without screwing things up too much - in about 3 weeks, but >only


!! 3 weeks !! :-0

Is this after being a whistle player for a number of years?
I find it very hard to imagine anyone completely new to any instrument type being "up to session speed"* in three weeks.

*Not sure I like this phrase, although you can read "speed" as ability /skill /knowlege rather than simply pace as in the phrase "bringing someone/thing up to speed".

- chris

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I must admit, this sort of thing just makes me feel really inadequate. I’ve been huffing and puffing into the thing (flute) for the past 16 months, and I’m definitely not "up to session speed", whatever that means.

🙁

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ethical, do not feel inadequate by that or anything else you read on this board.

1. Three weeks is ridiculously unrealistic - three weeks will not bring anyone anywhere near what most people would accept as a reasonable standard to play with others.
2. Session ‘standard’ varies massively
3. You can’t judge by years, it’s down hours playing and listening and how you focus on that
4. Talk of 500 tunes to someone starting out is beyond crazy. That’s how to dishearten someone completely. Have an initial target of somewhere like 20 tunes played as well as you can. If you keep to small realistic targets then one day you’ll suddenly realize that you don’t know how many tunes you know but that it’s hundreds.

Henk - surely if starting another instrument you would carry on playing your regular instrument and maybe try out just one or two new sets per month on your new instrument. It’s not like your moving house or anything.

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By number 3 I mean that one persons year might include 50 hours practicing and 100 hours listening to tunes. another persons year might include 1000 hours playing and 500 listening - for example. That’s why you can never listen to things like "I’ve been playing trad for 25 years" - It just doesn’t mean anything.

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Chris - you’re right - I had a lot of background. Whistle and fiddle
in sessions, decades on the clarinet and a bit of Boehm flute.
I found the simple wood flute significantly different though. But
really it’s a piece of cake compared to fiddle.

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Counting the number of tunes you know is as pointless, and as fruitless, an exercise as trying to count, or even estimate, the number of words you know in a language.

When learning a foreign language you eventually get to the stage where you rarely need to look up an unknown word in a dictionary - it’s meaning is usually picked up from the context. I think you can set up a close comparison between learning traditional tunes and a foreign language. Keep at it long enough and you’ll be "thinking" (i.e. playing and learning tunes) in the language of traditional music as fluently as you’ll be thinking in that foreign language.

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That’s a rather… personal question.

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I have no problem with definitions that were offered above to give shape to (difficult to pin down) terms like ‘mastering’ and ‘session speed.’ What bothered me was that 500 number. I am a slow learner, and at the rate I am going, I will need another decade or so to get that far!

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You know, I could really have used a hot water bottle these last few days.

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The number is nonsense. It’s like "10,000 hours" - it’s just a big number someone grabbed out of the air. As various people have pointed out, by the time you know anything iike 500 tunes, you’re going to be well beyond the point of knowing how many tunes you know. So don’t sweat it.

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Thank you for the advice Guernsey Pete. I will try to remember it the next time I am flying a kite in a thunderstorm which has plenty of lightning.