Learning On The Fly

Learning On The Fly

I’m just curious.

I myself can’t even fathom learning a tune on the fly, that is, attempting it for the first time in a session, picking it up after a round or two, and actually playing it passably before the last round. Are there members here who can actually do this?

I have to learn a new tune very slowly, practice and practice and then practice some more and then I might be ready to break it out at a session.

Then again, I’m limited in my ability right now to make it out to sessions. If I eventually get to where I can join sessions frequently, can I ever get to the point of learning on the fly? Or, at least be able to pick up a new tune and maybe after practicing only a few times have it down for next week? Just kind of curious for input from those that are far more experienced in session than myself.

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I am probably less qualified than most to attempt an answer, but this is what I have experienced, so far:

If I’ve heard a tune a hundred times and know how it goes, if it comes up at a session I occasionally am shocked to find that I know how to play it even though I’ve never played it a day in my life.

If I’ve never heard the tune - forget it, I’m out.

I’ve seen others, however, who seem to be able to pick up a tune on the fly, at least by the third round.

I’ve also noticed that the more I play, there are recurring finger patterns that become familiar and learning new tunes becomes easier.

It takes me LOTS longer than a week of knowing a tune before I’m comfortable playing it at a session.

I had a fiddle teacher briefly who is quite accomplished and enjoys a degree of renown in my part of the world who told me she needs a month with a tune before she’ll play it at a session.

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There are many people that claim they can do this, but only a few that can do it with any real success. Often people who attempt this can be annoying to other players and listeners alike, unless they can honestly stay beneath being audible. In many cases it’s an Emperor’s New Clothes sort of affair and few people have the guts to complain to noodlers, (people claiming to learn tunes on the fly).

Some tunes are structured very simply and an experienced player can suss it out and join in on the second or third time with some success, but many tunes have parts that aren’t so predictable and are cleverly arranged and it is impossible to learn it on the fly without screwing those bits up and mucking the tune up for the people trying to play it or nearby listeners.

I personally find I learn tunes faster by just listening at first and after they come up a few more times in consecutive sessions I might give it a shot if I’m familiar enough with what’s coming. But for the most part, the more times I listen to a tune the better the chances that I will be able to play along when I do finally join in.

Often I ask people where they got the tune or what they know of it to track the source down, or if that fails I try to get a clear recording of the person playing it. Then I can expedite the listening at home and play along there before trying it in public at the local session.

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If you eventually get to where you can join sessions frequently you may indeed find you can do this, though probably not with every tune that comes round. Some tunes almost instantly make sense. I’ve found that watching the fingers of those that know the tune helps greatly.

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It depends on the tune, of course. Very rarely I hear something that I can more or less join in around the middle somewhere. Usually, though, I am like you: I once spent about six hours learning a tune that I showed to a friend of mine who was playing along with me the second time through. He had it off pat by the third time, then upped the tempo and changed key, leaving me floundering. I couldn’t possibly achieve that sort of rate of learning; but not many people can, in my opinion.

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I don’t think there’s any correlation between being able to pick up tunes “on the fly” very quickly and being a good musician. Best thing is to not be in too much of a hurry. The nicest thing is to find that, when you finally have a go at a tune you thought you couldn’t play, it’s actually almost a cinch - because you’ve heard it so many times.

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I hear after going to sessions for a couple of decades or so, it becomes easier! 😉

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Familiarity with the tune can help greatly. There are times when I’ll play something that I know in my head, only to learn afterwards that I never sat down and learned the tune, and that was the first time I’d ever played it.

But there are times when I will pick up a tune on the fly without knowing it ahead of time. It really depends on the tune. If it is a predictable tune, without too many twists and turns that take you by surprise, it can be fairly easy to do. I find that certain jigs and polkas will appear under my fingers pretty easily, while others really don’t. A lot of that is familiarity with the music in general, combined with familiarity with your instrument.

But PB is right. It can be really annoying. Part of the trick is being able to do it in such a way that it doesn’t annoy. A general rule of thumb for myself is that I don’t try if the tune is being played solo or by two people. If there is a solid group of people playing then it is easier to play quietly, and not annoy. There’s nothing more disconcerting to me than to be playing a tune solo, and have somebody doing the hunt and peck method of picking up the tune.

The other thing I would point out is that it is essential to develop your listening ability. It’s a skill, and you should practice it. You can practice picking up tunes “on the fly” while listening to recordings, where you won’t annoy anyone (except yourself). And you can practice listening, even if you don’t have your instrument with you. Try lilting along to tunes in your car, for instance…

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sometimes I find the ‘B’ part of tune is the same or pretty close
to something I know already. So that one is already half
learned after one time around. Then maybe there is a phrase
in the ‘A’ part that I also know. Now it’s about 2/3rd learned.
So you can get through it on the third time.

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Sometimes you can make the mistake of learning a tune too hastily and make it sound like all the tunes you already know if you don’t first listen closely to pick out the subtle and unique differences.

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I think anyone can learn to pick up tunes on the fly if they’re willing to try. How did we all learn to sing along to Happy Birthday, Danny Boy, or Take Me out to the Ball Game? I have yet to meet a person who does not have a head full of music they’ve learned simply by hearing it on the radio or an mp3 player. Raise you hands--how many of you can hum the riff from the Beatles Day Tripper or ACDCs Thunderstruck even though you’ve never played it or seen the dots for it?

Sure, our jigs and reel tend to feature rapid-fire strings of 1/8th notes hurrying by, and some interesting and perhaps counterintuitive twists and turns. But they’re all fairly short, repetitive pieces of music built for the most part out of idiomatic building blocks. It’s not like trying to acquire and then recall a symphony score or recite the Iliad in Greek from memory.

All it takes is a lot of doing it, with active, attentive listening. Best at first to practice with a friend willing to play while you suss out the tunes, slow and phrase by phrase at first, and then in larger clumps and nearer session speeds. But eventually you have to plunge in and try it at a session. It helps if you can play quietly, which is easier on some instruments (fiddle, mando) than others (pipes, whistle, flute). But you can always just finger the notes as you follow the melody and add volume as you find the tune.

If you keep after it, you’ll get better and better at it, and one day you’ll find yourself playing along on a tune you’ve never played before. Likely you’ll have heard that tune enough that it’s already in your head, and it rolls off the fingers fairly easily. But (if you’re really at home on your instrument) it may be a tune you’ve never heard before and it still unfurls effortlessly.

That’s a big turning point. From there on, you’ll no longer regurgitate familiar tunes the same old static way. Instead, you’ll be playing them fresh every time, hearing them unfurl in your mind a millisecond ahead of your fingers and going on fun detours and conjuring up variations on the fly.

In short, being able to pick up tunes on the fly is the same mindset and process as being able to vary how you play the tune every time through. Which is a skill that most Irish traditional musicians place a high value on and tend to think of as an integral part of playing this music well.

In my experience, the people who believe that picking up tunes on the fly is too difficult or beyond them, or the provence of only a few unnaturally talented musicians, have never really dedicated themselves to doing it. So it *is* beyond them and will remain so until they give it a good effort.

Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re probably right.

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P.S. I hear rumors that some sessions frown on players picking up tunes by ear, but I’ve never met such a session. When I pick up a new tune and I’m playing it by the second or third time around, the usual response is someone who wasn’t playing it turns and asks me what the name was. And then I have to ask someone else because I don’t have a clue.

That said, many if not most sessions frown on random noodling. Picking up a tune on the fly isn’t noodling or faffing around searching for notes that might work. Picking up a tune on the fly is playing *the tune,* not some approximation of it. So avoid noodling, but *do* give yourself permission to learn how to listen accurately and immediately, and let what you hear roll out of your instrument.

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For me, it’s like watching a photographic print developing in the tray. I get the important notes almost immediately. The other stuff takes an extra repeat or so. Tunes with really weird cadences take a LOT longer.

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If there’s someone starting a tune that’s new to you (maybe you think you know where they’re going with it), but you just have this feeling that it could go wrong anyway, that’s when to hold back, contemplate the ceiling, restrain yourself. If you’re quietly playing along and it all crashes and burns, guess what? It was all your fault! Mind you, I’ve only been shouted at once, but it did teach me a lesson. When the tunes are flying along and the players are rock solid, surely no reasonable person is going to be upset if you stick your ear on your fiddle and play along very lightly. Some tunes you can pick up almost instantly. Others you soon detect that you’d best go back to contemplating the ceiling. I do not think that plinking along pizzicato is a good option (it comes over very distinctly through all the background noise, especially on a good fiddle), or playing loud drone strings just so people know you’re still there. Loud instruments such as banjos project outwards and might not be best for learning tunes on the fly. Similarly pipes, hammered dulcimers (q.v.), cornets, trombones etc.

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I always called this ‘Learning on the hoof ’ and of course it depends on the speed that the tune is been played and the degree of difficulty. From a B/C box players perspective it depends on the key. I’m often surprised how easy it is to learn some tunes ‘on the hoof ’ if they are in G - C - D. On the other hand there are some tunes in more difficult keys that I never really got to grips with even after practice. I’m sure we have all sat in as a stranger in a clicky type session where they play tune after tune that you don’t know and leave you sitting there like a lemon. Thankfully that hasn’t happened to me for some years, but if it happened nowadays I think I’d probably throw the session into confusion by pretending I’m ‘having a bad turn’.

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Yes If you have alot of tune’s in you head - You can make this Passable - I use to do it years ago at big Fleadh session - Its good for Learning, at easier tune’s - But I found after years of playing you picked up many note’s wrong - and I had to releard many of those - There Ok in session’s, but when asked to play those tunes on you own - you can get caught out - Bluffing -- lol..
Best is to do what your doing, get the name of the tune. write it down and go find and learn it right - It’s easier that way for you have already the bare bone’s of that tune, which you picked up in that session,, or two…
jim,,,

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“Learning On The Fly”

I think the thread title and expression itself is misleading.

Depending on the tune and the experience of the player, it certainly is possible to be able to play along fairly well on the second or third time around. Particularly so if it’s a fairly straight forward tune and if sounds familiar.

However, you haven’t really “LEARNED” the tune and it’s highly probable that it wouldn’t be possible to remember it well enough to start it yourself even a short time later.

Of course, one doesn’t have to make a conscious effort to learn every tune “at home” or outwith a session. Many tunes will “seep in by osmosis” over a period of time.
However, I’d suggest that truly “learning” a tune just from one hearing would be a very rare event.

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I think you’re right there John, I find many tunes I can play with someone else but would be at a loss to carry on alone.

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A lot of good comments, and Will has some good observations above. I joked about decades in my previous comment, but in all seriousness, time does have a lot to do with it, as does the number of tunes you know. You will encounter phrases that are building blocks for many tunes, which come easier when you encounter them again in a different place. You will get a feel for the shape of tunes as you hear different ones that are in the same mode.
There are some caveats, however. Listen carefully, because what may sound like a familar phrase might be slightly different in a new tune, and if you impose that familar phrase on the tune, and learn it incorrectly, you end up with an unpleasant hybrid tune. Also, there can be a tendency when learning by ear to just get the ‘big notes’ of the tune, and shave off a lot of details.
John J, for me, learning a tune all at once is indeed rare. I have learned a number of tunes by hearing them repeated over time, but only learned one tune, “The Road to Lisdoonvarna,” at the first setting, after hearing it at a single session. Not sure why…

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Al, I agree with your comment about time, and John’s mention of seeping in by osmosis - for me, time and osmosis are almost as important as the playing, as I do know there is some kind of processing of the tunes going on the background of my brain even when I am not playing or listening.

As for believing you can do stuff - that’s half the battle with most things in life, I find, with many more things possible than we at first think.

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i did it when i heard the concertina reel and sporting paddy for the first time, such wonderful simple tunes

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Many if not most of these tunes are simple, compared to other genres of music. They’re not that hard to learn, at tempo. And I do mean *learn* and really play, not just bluff through.

Sure it helps to have years or decades of listening to and playing this music under your belt, but I’d encourage anyone to start learning on the fly as soon as they feel comfortable on their instrument.

Yes, sometimes what seems to be a familiar stock phrase turns out to have a unique twist or a different note or two. That’s why it’s so important to improve your listening abilities, which learning on the fly can help to do more than almost any other “method.” Being able to hear the music in real time, fully and accurately, is what makes a truly good musician, and certainly is a desirable skill for any session musician.

It may look and sound like magic when you’re new to the game and some experienced player learns a tune on the fly. Take a breath and realize that this skill didn’t appear overnight. That player has spent no small number of hours honing his/her listening skills and sussing out how to be instantly responsive on the instrument. That’s not magic--it’s just another (vital) musical skill gained through sheer doing.

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Sometimes during a session I find it relatively easy to play almost anything if I don’t try to do more than I am ready to do. For instance, I can listen to just one phrase & get that much in my head. That phrase will tend to be repeated. So, I have listened without playing, have a phrase in my head, played when it repeats.
It might seem like the tune would sound fragmented; playing a phrase, skipping a phrase or two, playing a phrase … maybe it is, you tell me. It’s working for me now. When I go in & out like this I try to blend. The tunes actually are not just a continuous stream of notes. Even tunes have a bit of space with their phrasing, articulation, rhythm …

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“Yes, sometimes what seems to be a familiar stock phrase turns out to have a unique twist or a different note or two.”

… like the 5th part of “Kid on the Mountain” with ‘edB =cBA G2…| instead of the more common |edB dBA G2’

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Yep, one of those singular, sweet notes. Which, if you’re really listening to someone play, you’ll hear it. And if you know your instrument, you’ll instantly go there and play that note.

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Jimmy - since I already know you’re a serious student of this music, I have no doubt you’ll be able to do this someday. Lot’s of great advice above from the usual suspects, however, I can give you a specific example of a circumstance where I learned a tune “on-the-fly” in a session. One of our local flute players (I think you know him, Jimmy) always plays Golden Keyboard at some point during the night. I didn’t know the name of the tune at the time, but after hearing it in a session setting repeatedly for nearly a year, I could lilt along quietly with the melody as soon as he would start it. Once the melody was firmly in my gray matter, I decided to play along one night - and to my pleasant surprise, I nearly had the whole tune after the first pass. The flute player turned to me and said - “Cool! when did you learn that tune?”

Little did he know, that was the first time I’d ever tried to play it! LOL. Now that may not be a classic example of learning a tune on the fly because the tune was technically already in my noggin. But it’s a step in the direction towards “instant tune acquisition” - a condition I hope to have someday…

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There are many many variables in this. and the most important of these, of course, is that it depends on the tune. Some are so simple and predictable that getting them after a pass or two is a doddle. But there lies the rub. What value is there in a tune that is so predictable?

It goes without saying that the best tunes are not predictable. So of course you can’t predict them. And noodling is an absolute no no. Never ever ever try and guess where a tune is going. Listen for anchor notes, Listen for bits, phrases, anchors that you know are right. Play those. Then listen for notes you know are right in between. Gradually fill in the gaps and eventually you will have it.

But I can’t stress more that you should never ever guess.

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There is nothing uglier than the sound of trial and error experimentation from someone who doesn’t have a feel for where the tune is going…

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Which is why players who want to be able to accurately follow a tune as it unfurls will grow good at this only if they *do* it and gain experience at it.

Following a recording in private is one way to gain some experience without annoying anyone else. But following another player, in person, is far better. And eventually you have to go for it at a session, no different than any other session skill.

(Actually, I can think of lots of alleged music making that strikes me as uglier than trial-and-error noodling. If someone is making an earnest effort at learning a tune on the fly, I don’t find that annoying at all. If they’re randomly noodling at half volume, I can live with it. And I’d sooner play with that going on than someone playing the tune with uneven rhythm or more than 30 cents out of tune. And I’d tolerate all that above someone who plays every note beautifully but never varies the timing, phrasing, and feel for the music.)

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Good points.

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It is definitely possible, and the only way to do it is to try it (though don’t p*ss people off in the session). I try to get tunes into my head by listening hard and at the same time putting my fingers down on the finger board without actually playing. Once I can mentally play the tune in my head I’ll pick up the fiddle and play. If i’ve got it, then great, if I make one fluff I’ll back out and start listening again. For some tunes, I can play after a couple of times through, i.e. I can come in on the third time. Tie the bonnet is an example of a tune I learnt this way in a session in Edinburgh with a few good tune players playing it:
https://thesession.org/tunes/136
But in contrast it took me four or five separate times of hearing it played by the same players to get this tune:
https://thesession.org/tunes/2430
I’ve no idea why the difference!
For me, if its noisy in the b/g or there’s too many people playing, it totally fecks up my ability to learn a tune this way. Furthermore, there are plenty of tunes which stubbonly refuse to yield to this method, usually ones with odd sequences or partial repetitions at different places in the tune. But it just brings my attention on to them all the more, and they usually turn into my favourites.

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I remember jumping into Cliff’s of Moher with someone and I never practiced the tune, and the tune was in my head even though I might have heard it only a few times. I even mentioned at the time I (like john did above) I must have learned it from osmosis. One of my favorite tunes now.

This wasn’t learning on the fly, but it did make an impression on me on how some tunes can sneak up on you. I’ve tried learning tunes in sessions, but I think it just makes me both look and feel like a fool for trying it.

Honestly, I would prefer learning by ear from playing along with another player one on one than from recordings, sessions, or even beginner sessions.

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VlaMike, yeah, one-on-one is great, especially in the early goings. But eventually you’ll want to learn how to listen specifically and accurately in the typical session environment--lots of noise, musical and otherwise, and other “distractions.”

For me, a big part of the fun and magic of a session is responding to what the other players are doing. If everyone is listening to each other and varying the tune each time round, you have to be listening actively and attentive to every detail. And you have to be able to play responsively. It’s great fun, and overall, it’s the same as learning tunes on the fly--listening closely and instantly playing what you hear. The tunes are built for this--usually a thematic measure will repeat within the same half of the tune, so you can hear a variation in measure 2 and play it back in measure 4.

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Yup. It’s not habit yet, but I’ve noticed when I step back from being focused on myself and my own playing and pay attention to the group, it can be almost like clouds lifting and a ray of sunshine comes in. my playing gets a bit easier and start synching up with some of the other players a bit better. If I can’t do this it is one of my signs to note that I’m not quite up to speed with the tune yet.

It’s odd though, because of my years of orchestra experience. Using my ear to learn music is really hard, but using it to listen to the group is something I’ve gotten a lot of practice with. Because in orchestra, if you can’t listen, you can’t play together, and if you don’t play together, it hurts the music.

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“…if you can’t listen, you can’t play together, and if you don’t play together, it hurts the music.”

As true in sessions as in orchestras. More so, because there’s no conductor, no written dots, nothing but our ears to keep us together.

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This is also why I feel that learning tunes by ear at tempo is a logical extension of all the essential skills for playing in sessions at all. To “play well with others” you have to listen. You have to listen to yourself and to others. You have to grok what you’re hearing, in whatever way that works for you (intuitively, analytically, whatever). And then you have to play responsively to what you’re hearing.

Some sessions suffer from playing the same thing the same way, week in, week out. The predictability makes it easy to play together, but over time it will dull your listening and response skills.

I prefer sessions where people are playful and inventive (within the traditional norms, whatever they are) with the music. You can still play together, tightly even, but listening well and responding are essential. Such sessions help hone these skills.

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I have learned about 1/2 my session favorites in the session… none of which “on the fly”, more of the osmosis, and repetition I often don’t know the names, I’d never start them, but I know them.. in that environmen with those players. And yes then I get to look smart and say ?what was that one? and probably to a newbie, I look like some kind of on the fly genius but fact is I’m not. I’m not even close to that smart not afraid to admit it either. The smartest musical genius I know still carefully prepares his session tunes because it matters to him. It matters alot, and this guy is a genius, and capable of picking up tunes on the fly, and often does in non-public places but never in a good public session. I wouldn’t place too much weight on it, I think the notion is almost mythic. Now if you were at a dance or in a wall of sound or other situation where the tune could go around 5-6 times….. go for it! When I do that I keep my expectations realistic because tunes learned within a wall of sound are often truncated, and missing much of the character building string crossings and ornaments.

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I have probably more than half my tunes from the pub. And though some are “on the fly”, they are not the good ones. I agree with sandy bottoms. If you can get a tune after two listenings and play it right on the third, it’s either a crap tune or you have a truncated version.

All the best tunes I know continue to surprise me, even after years and years of playing them. It’s important to really think about what “knowing” a tune really means.

I like to think it terms of the analogy of knowing people. You can meet or be introduced to someone down the pub, chat to them for a bit and if someone asks you a few days later if you know such and such a person you’ll say yeah, I know him, met him last week. And over the course, you might get to know them better. etc etc. And how well do you know the people you’ve known for thirty forty years and see every other week?

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So in reviewing the thread I can see that just about every aspect has been stated and restated, but there’s one that I haven’t noticed so far, and that is when “learning a tune on the fly” is confused with the compulsion to play on every tune. As I have stated in this thread, I tend to listen to tunes many times on consecutive nights until I have a pretty clear idea of what the tune is doing to determine whether or not I might succeed in playing it if I join in before I actually attempt to do so. On the occasions where I’m in this listening process, I will look around and notice that often only half or less of the crowd seems to actually know the tune and the rest are “learning it on the fly.” I remember once sharing this observation with a fiddler friend of mine and we were both entertained with his knee-jerk responses lifting his fiddle to his shoulder when tunes he didn’t know came up. It was entertaining for us the rest of the night, and then he just gave up and went with his normal route of noodling along at the next session.

I remember when a certain local piper would come in and try to capture tunes on his recorder, and he would entertain us by sussing out who actually knew the tune and going to great lengths placing his recorder in close proximity to the person. The effect that noodling has on the session is why I began asking people what their source for a new tune was so I could get a listening to the tune sans cacophonous fly learning that I too was attempting to capture on recording devises.

Another point I raised early on in this thread is how fly learning has a tenancy to allow you to superimpose tune phrases you already know over unique tune phrases in the new tune, thus rewriting the new tune and making it sound more like all the others with similar phrases. The aforementioned fiddler I was mentioning in this post taught me many of my first tunes, but later when I came across the original sources I discovered this tune-learning process had corrupted many of the bits and I had to relearn them.

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Sorry for the poor editing and redundancies in my previous post… I was distracted by multi- million dollar military super jets buzzing my house and rattling my windows in a display of wasted money for an air show where they try to make war seem pretty..

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Yes, the tendancy to allow you to superimpose tune phrases you already know over unique tune phrases in the new tune, thus rewriting the new tune and making it sound more like all the others with similar phrases is the product of guessing. And As I said, you should never ever guess.

I must say though, Mr Button, Your session sounds really really crap.

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You’ve never heard nor been to our session, Michael, so any impression you have has no basis.

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Sorry mate, you are right, the only impression I have is: “I will look around and notice that often only half or less of the crowd seems to actually know the tune and the rest are learning it on the fly. The effect that noodling has on the session is why I began asking people what their source for a new tune was so I could get a listening to the tune sans cacophony.”

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I’ve heard you describe certain aspects of your session in similar ways, Michael, but I’ve never taken the opportunity to exploit it as a personal attack against you.

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I’ve been attending our local session regularly since the mid 80s and I’ve seen it change over the decades. I’d say that many of the old habits are fading, but they do resurface from time to time. The fiddler I mentioned in this post never comes to sessions anymore and the incident I described was from the mid 90s.

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Yeah, there’s the odd occasion when where I play is really really crap - but thankfully, very rarely on the nights I play (due mostly I must say to a programme of zero tollerance).

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anyway, it’s a bit odd if you are relating to a story that’s 15 years old and you write it in the present tense: “I will look around and notice that …”

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Interesting. The tunes I’ve learned on the fly are the really good ones that catch my ear. Some of them are simple, short and sweet, like Within A Mile of Dublin, and some of them are a bit more nuanced, like Rakish Paddy (where you want to really hear how the ending is different than, say, The Old Bush, which I also learned on the fly), Dinny O’Brien’s, Hunter’s House, and Tatter Jack Walsh.

The notion of playing along on every tune may not have come up earlier, probably in part because that would be such a silly thing to do, especially if you don’t know those tunes. I certainly wouldn’t try to learn more than two or three tunes on the fly in one session.

When I learn tunes on the fly at a session, they stick with me, so I end up playing them, and playing around with them, at home, and then later with other players. I know these tunes as well as I know any tunes--can start them, can solo them if no one else knows them, can vary them, and often end up learning several settings of each tune (once you know a tune, a different setting is relatively easy to pick up on the fly).

I know that some people seem to really struggle to pick up an unfamiliar tune at speed and really play it, accurately, and retain it. And I can understand how someone struggling with that would be dubious--“oh, he’s not really learning the tune, he’s missing nuances, he won’t remember it, doesn’t really *know* it.” But this just hasn’t been my experience. I’ve learned nearly all of my music by listening to players and recordings at tempo. Do that for enough years, and it becomes fairly easy. Sure, I can still get tripped up by an odd twist of a phrase now and then, but asking for 6 or 8 notes out of a whole tune, just to be sure I’ve got it “right” is easy enough to slip in during a lull in tunes, or at the end of the night.

Many, many good players I’ve met over the years are capable of the same thing. I’ve watched and heard them pick up tunes on the fly, catching all the nuances and details. I’ve seen this so often over the years, I think of it as commonplace among good players in this music (and also in Appalachian and bluegrass music). I’m a little surprised by the resistance to it voiced here, every time it comes up. To me, learning by ear at tempo is just part of being a good ear musician.

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As far as the problem of musician’s trying to play on every tune, it’s not a good thing. However, the original post is by Jimmy B. IMHO he is a good listener, not a compulsive noodler. I say this because I’ve read his comments. I haven’t had the pleasure of playing with him.

Cheers Papa!

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It kind of comes down to there being a tiny minority of extraordinary players who have a knack to learn tunes at tempo on the fly, and the rest of us that either think we can or are unable to put our instruments down and listen when we don’t know a tune. There are also people who defend the concept because they don’t want to have to sit and listen when at a session and are compelled to always be playing or appear to know all the tunes. I think sessions would be more enjoyable for all if people behaved less selfishly and more responsibly… but that’s just me.

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And Jack, I’d say your notion of why some people--at least me--“defend the concept” is far, far off the mark.

I’d also be surprised to learn that so many of the people I’ve sessioned with over the years comprise a “tiny minority of extraordinairy players.” To me, they seem neither a minority, nor extraordinary.

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P.S. Ascribing fabricated motivations of selfishness, compulsiveness, and session-annoying tendencies to me (as a defender of the concept) or anyone else you’ve never played with strikes me as less than helpful to the conversation here.

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Not everyone needs to play on every tune.
At a recent session, I sat with my guitar silent in my lap, as everyone played a great set of tunes I was not terribly familiar with. Someone called out a key, but I just shook my head. Why, when some mighty players who knew the tune were roaring along at the top of their game, would you want me chugging along trying to find my way? It just would have interfered with something that was well worth listening to!

I do so enjoy hearing good music in a session.
~ Good night.

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“Not everyone needs to play on every tune.”

Agreed. I’m surprised some people actually need to be told this?

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I’m sorry that if, when I wrote the word “your” in that sentence, you thought I meant the session belonged to you. I meant it in the sense that it was the session that you were refereing to. The session that you refered to as: “I will look around and notice that often only half or less of the crowd seems to actually know the tune and the rest are learning it on the fly. The effect that noodling has on the session is why I began asking people what their source for a new tune was so I could get a listening to the tune sans cacophony.”

I’m sorry, but it’s that description of the session that made me say it sounds like a really crap session. For god’s sake … how much more straight forward can I be? No, I’ve no other information about that session. But based on that description it sounds crap. That’s all I said.

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I don’t have any sort of bias towards Michael. I read what he said. It’s clear to me that he was describing his impression of your description of your session. I’m completely at a loss as to how that could be construed as a personal attack on you, PB. That would be like if I were to say that I live on a run-down housing estate in the badlands of Bristol, and I’m in constant fear of crime, and you were to say “That sounds awful, eb” and I were to say “How dare you attack me?!!”

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Cross-post. Though I wasn’t particularly cross.

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It is possible to learn on the fly but it depends on the company and especially the instrument. The fiddle, where you can play almost silently is fine, but on the whistle, for example, try and play quietly and you’re out of tune. On the pipes you’d have to be mad or have a huge ego to try and learn on the fly.

The problem for me is that it sets a president. The ability to learn on the fly is largely down to emersion in the music. If one person, who may have a deep understanding of the music, does it then it spreads through the session and you end up with a racket, even more of a racket than most bigger sessions are in the first place.

If you’re in a smaller session where everyone nows each other and are aware someone is trying to pick up a tune then it’s different. Is what you’re doing detracting from others playing, or is it encouraging others who don’t know the tune from detracting from others playing? IMO, learning on the fly more often than not can be very annoying so I prefer folk to learn tunes they don’t know at home. You can easily play it the following week, and without weakening anyone.

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Except if you can’t be arsed learning tunes at home, like me.

Often all it takes is a slight pleading glance to get someone to go through one more time. And you keep your ears open to someone who’s almost got it and you hold back a bit and play it more simply for them. And if there’s a little bit you just missed, ask. And you might specifically request a tune you got half of the week before. Or you might deliberately play a slower set with tunes that you know your mates only have half of. ect etc. Not all night of course, but I’d say a session is a poor session indeed if there isn’t at least a bit of this going on, certainly early on anyway.

I think a distinction should be made between learning tunes on the fly, which is not difficult and is friendly (provided you never ever ever try and guess where it’s going) and noodling. To me, noodling is all about that constant dribble of drivel where people are trying to get tunes by trial and error. That’s the thing that’s really really annoying.

Will says he prefers this - provided the dibble of drivel has good timing and lift - over someone who does play the notes but has awful timing. It’s just a rock and a hard place, I could never choose. But the reality is that if you do come across people who are prone to one of these, the likelihood is that they’ll be prone to the other also.

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I find not wanting to learn tunes at home a strange one, but different strokes I suppose.

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I get in from work, cook the kids their tea, etc etc, homework, baths (I like to play my whistle in the bathroom) get them to bed, and then can’t be arsed (let alone it’s too noisy to get the fiddle out). If I’m lucky, I’ll take the fiddle to the pub.

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You have to be able to -

play by ear - you have a tune in your head and just play it (in any key)

hear a 4 bar phrase and be able to play it back

have enough harmony theory to automatically know what is a wrong note (there might be quite a few right ones)

pick up rhythms by watching other peoples fingers

and lastly
have listened to enough ITM to half-guess what is coming next

with the proviso, that some ITM tunes will baffle you, and you might not be able to pick up tunes from other traditions unless you are used to the idiom.

And there is a difference in playing on the fly, where you can play the tune perfectly then forget it an hour later, and learning on the fly, where you can actually learn the tune and remember it later.

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“… pick up rhythms by watching other peoples’ fingers”? What’s that about?

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This is a good thread, so I want to make sure it stays on topic and doesn’t wander off into the weeds. This isn’t a noodling thread or a knock on the compulsive types who feel the need to try and play on every tune - especially the ones they’re hearing for the first time.

It’s about how to learn a tune most effectively at a session. I’ve played with Jimmy B, he’s a class gentleman, an eager scholar of the music and a good listener. We should craft our advice to that type of person.

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Sometimes in a noisy pub, watching fingers can help keep all in synch. And I have found it useful to watch fingers as they shape chords, and can even glean information from fingers on a fiddle neck. No substitute for ears of course, but every source of information is helpful!

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If you cannot hear very well due to a noisy pub you won’t be learning anything on the fly. You cannot listen to something if you cannot hear what is being played.

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The problem for me is that it sets a president. quote bogman
precedent not president.
as for the rest ask a Fifer, they are supposed to be fly.

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Bogman:
> Is what you’re doing detracting from others playing, or is it >encouraging others who don’t know the tune from detracting from >others playing? IMO, learning on the fly more often than not can be >very annoying so I prefer folk to learn tunes they don’t know at home. >You can easily play it the following week, and without weakening >anyone.

Yeah I’m with Bogman. I’d also extend what Bogman says to playing on tunes that you do “know”. Sometimes what you’re playing isn’t adding, but detracting from the set. Maybe you don’t know the tune quite as well as you thought, maybe you have a different version or understanding of the rythm and can’t quite catch what the tune leader is doing. In that case drop out. No shame in doing so. Carrying on regardless is a diservice to the music. And what’s the problem with just listening sometimes?

Knowing when not to play is possibly the most important social skill at a session (IMHO).

@ Jusa, I read your comment above, but disagree. These are related, overlaping issues, and if the people want to discuss them, the people shall 🙂

- chris

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No. By far the most important social skill at a session, streets and streets ahead of anything to do with music, is to not be precious.

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There’s a fine line between being precious and wanting what’s best for the overall company Llig - thinks bodhrans at Sandy Bells 😉

On another note - my spelling corrected by Dick Miles. lol.

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Just be thankful he’s sticking to stuff he know’s about.

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Chris and bogman’s posts raise good points.

I suppose that I’m arguing *for* setting just that precedent, of encouraging people to develop their ear learning skills and *occasionally* trotting them out at a session. Again, I’m not endorsing noodling, and I’m not suggesting that people should “play along” on every tune, whether or not they know it.

When I first started learning tunes on the fly at sessions, I’d already spent years learning a lot of tunes on the fly, at tempo, while listening to radio programs. (I didn’t own a tape recorder, and I lived in the back of beyond of the boonies with no other musicians around, so the only way I could pick up tunes by ear was to play along with the radio.) So my ear was up to the task. In the beginning, I’d wait for one fairly short, easy tune. I’d listen the first time round, getting both the melody and the harmonic outline behind the tune. Then I’d play along, skipping bits where I would’ve had to guess. If I didn’t have the whole thing by the third or fourth time, I’d ask for “one more time.”

Maybe I’ve been lucky. Most of the sessions I’ve played in have been small-ish, not big brawls of a dozen or more people. Most have been sessions among good friends, not just one-night-a-week acquaintances. Most have put a premium on having fun making decent music, not on tight ensemble perfection. So the precedent of learning on the fly was readily understood and taken on board with discretion, not wild abandon. One of my fiddle students learns tunes on the fly at our local session. It’s not a bother to anyone (she’s asked, and everyone’s been encouraging), and she’s rapidly grown her stock of tunes, while developing a very good ear and deft responsive playing. It’s a benefit to her, and a boon to the session that another player knows more of the tunes and can lead them if need be.

Jimmy B, if you’re still with us, has *any* of this discussion been helpful?

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Your session sounds similar to ours Will, we rarely have more than three or four leads and a couple of accompanists. These type of threads often turn into misunderstandings as not only is each session different but they differ from night to night as well. I’ve learned tunes on the fly and taught tunes at our session when the situation was right. What gives me the horrors are these big 10 lead session with noodling, 2 or 3 folk trying to learn on the fly and other hideous nightmares. But if you know and understand the folk at your session, and it’s not too big, then the parameters of enjoying it are wider.

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Yep, small session is small towns can be wonderful. If that video of the Plough and Stars session is typical in terms of sheer number of players and the overall volume level, I think I’d go looking for a smaller, cozier session. Just not my cuppa tea to play every week in a crowd.

Maybe learning by ear is a bit like learning to drink. If the local custom and precedent is binge drinking, thats what you’ll likely do, too. But if the local precedent is reasonable and in moderation, you’re likely to pick up on that, eh? But where total abstinence is preached, someone usually goes way over the line in the opposite direction, and then all bets are off. I guess I prefer the moderation approach myself.

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I continue to be amazed how different our local session is, week to week. Some nights it’s just four of us, some it’s 8 or 10, and some bring surprise visitors from out of town. Some nights feature a number of songs, some nights are just tunes. Some nights the pace rips right along most of the evening, others it has peaks and valleys. Some nights we have step or ceili dancers, other nights punters hooting at the music, others a near empty pub, nice and quiet. I love the chameleon nature of this session.

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The thing that exasperates me is that some players simply don’t know when they’re noodling. On the one hand they criticise “noodling” and on the other, they do exactly what to me constitutes noodling in sessions.

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That clip of the Plough session posted in this thread was filmed on the Sunday following Lark Camp when a lot of people from out of town came in for one last hurrah. There are other clips of Plough sessions in the margin on the YouTube page that show 5 or 6 people. The sessions at the Plough vary from night to night because of many factors; there’s a large community of musicians that ebb and flow, it’s an international city with lots of visitors passing through, there are major Irish music events that happen in the area bringing large numbers of players into the area, and in the case of last night’s session, a 3-day weekend brought out a large number since Monday is a holiday. So the Plough session, with its rotating hosts and other aforementioned conditions, can fluctuate between a small handful and a huge crowd on any given night. Often it’s the luck of the draw as to whether it’s small or large.

Over the last 26 years that I have participated I’ve seen the session evolve in many positive ways. People are becoming more respectful and behaving more responsibly over the years… including yours truly. I think the sort of debate in this thread, that has also been discussed among frequent participants at Plough sessions, has contributed positively to that development.

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A lot of good stuff to think about in this thread!

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Rambling Pitchfork - you’re absolutely correct, people can chime in and take this thread anyway they want too. However, as far as I can tell, only Harmon tried to actually answer the question for Jimmy B. The rest seemed to be the usual hyperbole about what makes their session “so special”, or how noodlers ruin other sessions. No sh!t. I’m here to tell you Jimmy B isn’t that dude. I am befuddled as to how these little spats keep popping up between some quality players who clearly love the music, but somehow feel compelled to snip at each other and take posts and phrases out of context. Some of you folks are wound a little too tight.

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Yep, having a good conversation helps clarify what sort of session the participants want to have, what sorts of behaviors fit their expectations, and what doesn’t fit.

It also helps just to hear the *reasons* behind different opinions--why people think the way they do about this stuff, and the experiences they’ve had that shaped their views and preferences.

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Jusa, bear in mind that it isn’t just Jimmy who’ll be reading this thread. I think it’s healthy that people here voice divergent views. Sure, it’s be better if it wasn’t done in snarky ways. But we seem to have come around to a happy enough closure here anyway.

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True. I’m just in a p*ssy mood today. Didn’t get to session last week. Carry on.

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Nutter writes: “However, as far as I can tell, only Harmon tried to actually answer the question for Jimmy B.”

Selective reading perhaps?

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Selective indeed! I feel slighted! 😉

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FWIW, I see plenty of helpful input from lots of folks on this thread. I just ran on about it more because learning by ear on the fly is so much fun and such a handy skill, whether learning new tunes or riffing back and forth with other players on an old standard.

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“precious” is kind of in the eye of the beholder llig

- chris

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I completely agree chris, that’s why not being precious is a social skill

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Yes - apologies PB and Al. Don’t know why I got so indignant all of a sudden.

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😉

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Yes, Nutter… lots of good contributions addressing the OP in this thread… cheers.

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“I myself can’t even fathom learning a tune on the fly, that is, attempting it for the first time in a session, picking it up after a round or two, and actually playing it passably before the last round.”
Just listen, at least 2 times through, if you’re lucky they’ll play it 4xs. Be patient for at least twice through. If you can get just the 1st phrase in your head while listening … that’s how you start. Don’t let it mystify you. Take your time, & listen to tunes every waking moment. Then listen again.

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We’re talking about the lost art of listening.

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Spot on Reverend Pete: “… A lot of that is familiarity with the music in general, combined with familiarity with your instrument.”

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Yes, the art of listening, which is both musical and social or interpersonal, and also the art of responding musically on your chosen instrument. Together that sums up what a traditional musician is. No other skills needed (though some other skills have their uses).

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Yes, Will… exactly… responding responsibly and not mucking up the music by trying to play a tune you don’t know while someone else who actually knows the tune is trying to play it and others are trying to listen.

Learning

WH: “Yes, the art of listening”
PB: “Yes, Will… exactly”

🙂

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