Learning a tune at a workshop

Learning a tune at a workshop

I went to my monthly piper’s club meeting and we broke up into groups to learn a tune. We all sit in circle and try to play what our instructor plays. One at a time until we get what is being played. I don’t know about all of the rest of you, but I get performance anxiety- can I replicate what is played? I’m the last to get it, I’m in the wrong group, either too low or too advanced…etc. We got to talking about the teaching method for a bit-universally hated, but it seems to work-take it home and work on it, etc.

Anyone else have the same problems? How can you do better?? Is there a better method? What’s it like at Willie Week for instance???

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At the fiddle workshops I’ve attended, the teacher usually plays the tune several times through at a moderate tempo, so everyone hears what the whole thing sounds like. Then s/he breaks the tune down phrase by phrase, played very slowly, and you don’t move on till everyone gets each phrase. But the whole group plays along. The teacher might go one-on-one with someone if they need a little extra help, but everyone else is still making noise. (Maybe the other players have to go quiet in a piping workshop or you’d never hear the teacher, I dunno.)

I use the same sequence when I teach workshops or private lessons.

Recently, Brian Conway gave a small workshop where each of us students had to play each phrase back solo. No big deal, except that Brian was asking us to get the precise bowing as well as the notes, all at once, and that was a lot to think about. By the end of the hour and a half, however, I found I was getting better at learning by ear—not just the notes, but hearing the bow changes and slurs, too.

Performance anxiety tends to work in nasty circles—the more anxious you get, the worse you play, fueling more anxiety. I like to start group classes by having everyone play a tune or two together, just like a session. We try to find something everyone knows, even if it’s an old war horse. I think this helps loosen everyone up and get fingers, brain, etc., working before we launch into learning new stuff. As a teacher, I’ll also sometimes make a few ugly sounds on purpose just to get it out of the way—it’s like giving everyone else permission to trip up. And I’m not shy about jumping in and making mistakes as a student, either. I remember a 10 a.m. fiddle class with Sean Smyth, where all of us were bleary eyed from the night before, and he started in on bowed triplets. Everyone was was reluctant to demonstrate theirs, so I just threw my bow at the strings and got mud. Right away, Sean did several nice, clean triplets, saying, "See, you can hear all three notes if they’re done properly." Well, this way, if I ever get to play around Sean again, he can pat himself on the back for teaching me how to do bowed triplets. ๐Ÿ™‚ It’s just not a big deal—you wouldn’t be there if you didn’t have something you wanted to improve on. Go ahead and make some noise.

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I usually do a question-answer sort of thing when I teach tunes. I break the tune into phrases and teach them one at a time, bit by bit always playing a snippit till they get it and then adding on the next bit till I’ve connected the whole phrase. Then I move on to the next etc. But the best way to learn a tune by far is to get it in your head first.

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Geez Will, I thought I was the only one here and I post my lonely little bit and I look and *WHAM* — you’ve written a book on the subject. ๐Ÿ™‚

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Yes, we broke the tune down into phrases and it wasn’t that painful, just a sense of disquiet… Like you aren’t doing the best you can do and that you are holding up the rest of the class. I agree that a tune needs to get in your head to make sense. We are all different learners-I’m trying to see if anyone has experienced a diffrent method from the one I’ve described and that you both have written about. I do like tossing the bow at the strings…
I can remember about 3 phrases and then its the " can you play that over again, please?’ It seems to take a bit for it to sink in. I remember a computer science major’s remark that " your stack register can only hold about 4 variables till things roll off the stack".

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Lol, my books keep dwindling in size. I’ll be reduced to novels on matchbook covers at this rate. ๐Ÿ™‚

My writing/consulting work gets me thinking alot about ‘instructional design’— how we frame what we expect other people to learn—and trad music workshops are fertile ground for experimentation and reflection on a wide array of approaches. I’ve taught music since I was 15, and the single biggest hurdle is always trying to teach people music they haven’t heard before. Until a piece is in your head, it’s nearly impossible to work on phrasing, timing, tone, ornamenetation, etc. Funny, then, that trad workshops and classes so often insist on starting with a tune that’s new to everyone. I suppose on the theory that no one will have deeply embedded habits with it yet.

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I_fel, I’ve also sat in on classes that put sheet music in front of you and expected you to play the whole thing through, at tempo, right off the bat. And classes where the teacher never played, just urged the students to play their showpieces and then critiqued them, one broken shard at a time. (Ouch.) And one workshop where the students never played a note, just sat there listening to the teacher talk, with a brief demonstration of a phrase here or there, for two hours.

Give me the phrase-by-phrase style any time.

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This came up, sort of, at a flute workshop that Gray and I were doing at Lark Camp. Gray and I decided to make the workshop more about technique than just learning tunes. In other words — we didn’t teach any tunes start to finish. We only worked on bits of tunes that showed up in questions. I personally enjoyed the class and it seemed to me that flute players might get a lot out of it, but people were unsatisfied because they felt they didn’t come away with enough tunes. What do you guys think about this?

Having said that, we’ve decided this year that Gray will give the technique class, and I’ll do a repertoire class separately from his. This way folks will get both.

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"but people were unsatisfied because they felt they didn’t come away with enough tunes. What do you guys think about this?" I think you had students who didn’t have my teacher. Shannon always taught us to learn what was in front of us, whether it was tunes or technique, and challenged us to have a good enough attitude to be able to find value in either approach…

Damn. I was so lucky to have Shannon as a teacher. I just wish she was still in Colorado…

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Hallo I_fel, I’ve also suffered in workshops in the past, and I think my problem was the public visibility thing, and once you make a couple of mistakes, you invent a monster that says you’re not as good as most of the other people around you. A good teacher at this point will step in and nurture you, by going back a step or two, slowing things down, and focussing on positives, and should give you praise for the good bits. Unfortunately, many workshop leaders are great musicians, but crap teachers, even though they might be ever so nice guys themselves.

I’m blessed with a good and quick musical ear (thanks Dad!), but I know many others struggle to get a tune in their head, and again, I reckon a good teacher should spot this and slow things down, short, manageable steps etc. I can also read from the dots, which makes me lucky (thanks, 10 years’ a youth in the church choir) but I’m not so good at doing this quickly, and I once went to a French music workshop where they gave us a great sheaf of music and went instantly into a ‘Grand Orchestre’ experience. Totally naff, and I learned pretty much nothing!

I don’t know if anyone else suffers the same in public performance, but the extra nerves (from public visibility and a new tune) often make me speed up, even when I’m playing a new tune out in a session, amongst friends. It’s a nerves thing, and the more nervous I am, the faster I go, the more mistakes I make, and the worse it sounds, the more nervous I get! Telling myself in my head to slow down seems to have no effect. This is even after playing it perfectly many times on my own in my kitchen. Grrr!

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I always feel that I come away with far less from a workshop when the tune has had to be taught phrase by phrase. You spend half the workshop learning the tune when I’d rather be working on techniques etc. At Fiddles at Witney, the music for some of the workshops are sent out a couple of weeks in advance so you can get familiar with the tunes and come away having learnt far more. I tend to pick these classes over those where the tunes are taught by ear - however, there are some brilliant tutors who only teach by ear so I just have to grin and bear it sometimes. I find learning by ear takes so much concentration!

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Petemay wrote: "I don’t know if anyone else suffers the same in public performance." Hey Pete, by "public performance" do you mean in a session like?

I find that I lose about 15-20% of my ability when I play in front of people rather than alone at home.

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Jack, you and Pete clearly aren’t drinking enough. Or maybe you should try thinking of playing in public as something other than a ‘performance’ to help take the pressure off. *grin*

In classes, one of the things I like to do is take one or two phrases of a widely known tune and really work them over. Dig into all the possible permutations and nuances. I think, doing that, people learn more than they realize. But some are resistant—they just want to learn more tunes. My answer for that is to ask them a question: "Ten years from now, would you rather be playing totally new tunes with the same technique and style you have now, or the same tunes you play now, but with totally new (and improved) technique and style?" I’ve never had anyone choose the former—the real reason most people take a class is to improve their playing, not expand their repertoire.

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P.S. I like Jack and Grey’s idea of offering both options—technique and repertoire—within distinct classes during the same week at camp.

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we have a flute-workshop every other thursday.
and we work as follows (in ideal circumstances):
1 or 2 weeks before the workshop, i record the tune to be learned on a slow/moderate pace and distribute it through e-mail, so everyone can get the tune in their ears.
then, at the workshop, after warming up (2-3 sets of tunes played) the tune is stripped down into phrases which are then played in group till everyone gets it, and then each fluter plays that phrase plus the phrases before that solo, till we get the whole tune. to teach the tune, we use a version freed of most ornaments (an accidental roll/cut left in there) and after the tune is known by all, we work on ornaments and possible variations.
i do prepare sheetmusic, but i only hand it out after teh tune is learned, as e reminder …

so, this is the working-order in the ideal situation. sometimes i haven’t got time to record a tune, so we just get a tune most have heard before but haven’t come round to actually learning it.
we then work on it in the same way, and though this is harder for the fluters that haven’t heard the tune before, it does work.

the whole process takes about 1,5 - 2 hours, so after there’s still plenty o time left to play some more sets.

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I hate trying to learn a tune like that, especially if it’s one I’ve previously been unfamiliar with. I find that even if I make progress at it like that, as soon as I leave the lesson it’s gone right out of my head.

Luckily I have a very understanding teacher who is always happy to accomadate my approach to learning. Normally I will have a couple of tunes that I’ve been tinkering around with on my own, I play then play these for her, or ask her to help me with bits that are causing me trouble (usually bowing… and variations in the ornamentation). For me it makes the lessons much more productive, often I’ll leave a tune for a couple of months and return to it finding I’m better able to cope with it having set it aside for a while.

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Practising learning tunes by ear can be helped by using some sort of ABC-player or CD-Slower-down software, either of which can play a tune really slowly.
It is an aquired skill.

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In most of the workshops/classes I used to attend, the tutor would play the tune at regular speed, then slowly and teach it to us phrase by phrase. The better workshops concentrate on technique too and you also have to work on the ornamentation. That’s why one or two tunes at the most is quite sufficient. I’ve been to some workshops where we’ve been given 5 or 6 tunes but that’s a waste of time. You could learn them to the same standard on your own in the same time.
When I went to a Kevin Burke workshop last year, we got no tunes at all-in fact, we didn’t even get to play—but it was still more beneficial than many’s a workshop I’d ever been to and I picked up loads of good tips.

I never worry if I don’t get all of the tune at a workshop as it’s easy enough to catch up at home as long as I’ve picked up some good points re technique. In many cases, those who appear to pick up a tune straight away don’t always retain it. Just listen to some of them the following week, if you don’t believe this. ๐Ÿ™‚

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I’ve attended umpteen workshops/classes in my life as a late starter musician. Nowadays I am usually the oldest person in the class and definitely not the best but I’ve given up caring. I feel there is always something to learn, the teachers are there to pass the music on to whoever is interested and for the money of course. There will always be someone who picks up things faster or at least you always feel that this is true. My worst nightmare was in Michael Tubridy’s class in Drumshanbo some years ago there was a Japanese gentleman who knew every tune Michael proposed teaching and could write it out in perfect notation. WE all got pretty fed up because really he should have been teaching at that stage himself. When Joe Skelton had a class in Drumshanbo his method was to go around each person individually, pull up his chair directly in front of them and get you to play. It was one to one with an audience, quiet daunting but after a while you forgot about the others and I’ve never forgotten his tunes that week, Molly Ban and 3 Scones of Boxty, yes he only taught those for the whole week concentrating on technique, blowing etc., Best week’s work ever and what fun!

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Yes Jack, when I say public performance, I mean, in front of anybody, family, friends, busking even, but I wouldn’t try and busk tunes I didn’t really know. I suppose I really mean in sessions, or maybe in a workshop, where all of us will eventually play out a new tune we’ve learned The first two or three times I usually make a fairly good cods of it. The only blessing is that it reminds anyone who might have thought I was relatively flawless that I am in fact a mere humble human being.

‘Public performance’ in the way of a pub gig is not the same business I feel, since I’ve practised the repertoire long and hard (usually), and there’s a couple of other musicians to support me. Playing a new tune/singing a new song first time ever in a gig IS anxiety provoking, but it’s healthy nerves, which gives a fresh edge to the performance.

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Pete, that’s what I mean by "public performance" as well — any place outside of my house when I’m not alone. When I do play in public it’s easier when you have someone playing with you because it adds support. When I’m introducing a new tune at my local sesh my abilities seem to go down a few notches from how I was able to get the tune out at home earlier in the day or evening. I get particularly nervous playing for fellow musicians. Also, I tend to be over anxious in wanting to share new tunes and end up playing them before they’ve had time to sink into my unconscious. The result sounds uh… well, not as I intended. And then I wonder why no one seems interested in learning them. :-\

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Snap! That’s precisely what I do too… though I do try to be a little more careful these days, and leave a new tune until I’ve had it in my fingers for at least a week before giving it to the session. The most annoying thing is when I’ve had a tune just fine before going to the session, and under the influence of all those other tunes, I can’t remember a note of it when it comes to trying to play it! Most embarassing: "Hey, listen to this cool new tune [raises fiddle, realises there’s nothing there] erm, maybe next week…".

Of course, with a few notable exceptions, no one seems interested in learning them regardless of how they’re played… I guess everyone goes for different tunes. Response seems to be much better if I’ve learnt a new tune with someone else: "Well, if *two* people know it, it *must* be a good tune…".

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oops, i was responding to jack’s post there.

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hey jim, you’re looking mighty strange hiding under that beermat.

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Geezz jim, you sound like a Jewish mother. hahahaha

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"Well, if *two* people know it, it *must* be a good tune…". Yeah, Rog, I’ve noticed that too…what’s up with THAT?!?

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LOL — oh, I have to remember that one, Jim…!

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I’m new to workshops. I got to take my first ones at the festival I went to a couple weeks ago. (No, you haven’t heard the last of it yet!) The one that I liked best was one by Sean Cleland where he played the tune quickly, then slowly, and then took it apart phrase by phrase. I also learn tunes this way with my fiddle teacher and like it very much. I have found that recording the workshop was very useful for referring back to.

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The workshop I’ve been going to for the past couple of years is a play-by-ear workshop at Harpers Ferry, WV, US. Mornings are spent learning new tunes, afternoons having a go at new instruments for a break or doing your own thang, evenings reviewing, then arranging & medleying tunes learned earlier in the week. There’s a "field trip" to a mixed session in Shepardstown, WV on Thursday. The workshop is open to all instruments, so there is not much focus on technique, although most of the students are recorder players & the teachers can work with them on ornamentation pretty well. The rep is a mix of OT, ITM, Ren, Medieval, with maybe some Sephardic or Andean thrown in for good measure.

The tunes themselves get taught pretty much the same way by the folks giving the workshop: play the tune once at tempo (but maybe with performance repeats & variations), play it a second time slowly for the tape & MP3 recorders, then ask questions about it. What’s the structure? (If it’s medieval, it may well not be AA-BB.) Are there "internal" repeats, aka "open" and "closed" endings? What’s the rhythm? Can you figure out the key, or the mode? If modal, is it major or minor? What are the "key" notes that the tune wants to revolve around? (Not necessarily the root, or the 5th.) The idea is to train the ear on what to pick out when you don’t know a tune to get a head start on it. Then, break the tune down into short phrases, play & play back. Combine the short pieces into longer pieces. Get the entire A/B/whatever section down. Do the next section the same way, then run through the whole piece a few times. *Don’t* even think about speed until the fingers seem to have a grasp on what is happening.

The first workshop we tried to learn about 15-18 songs in 5.5 days; our brains fried by the end. Now, we work on about 10-12 & get them much more solidly in the brain & hands—also gives us much more time to consider how to arrange them in a simple fashion. For me, it’s also a chance to try to teach/arrange tunes I’ve been composing on my hammered dulcimer, and about the only time of the year I have to play them with others.

My biggest problem is that I never had ear straining or sight screaming as a kid, so picking out notes from midair is very difficult for me. i’d love to be able to catch tunes on the fly, but for now, it must take me 30 or 40 times through a tune to even pretend to know it—more, if it’s OT & I have to "de-banjo-ize" it. At 50% speed no less, courtesy of my pitch-correcting MP3 recorder. But I love it.