A Friendly Challenge.

A Friendly Challenge.

I was excited to be back at my local session a few weeks ago. I had been studying a lot of tunes, and practicing a lot, so I felt confident to show what I had put together in the several weeks that I had been absent. So when the time came for me to start a set, I was ready! Or so I thought…

I went into a set of reels, reels I had been working on for months, reels that I had played nearly every day, reels that I just knew I could deliver. And I fumbled. I started off too fast, I tripped up, I wasn’t hitting my articulations, and at points, I had even missed entire phrases. Even on the easier reels in the set! I was too wound up, and it shut me down. This is how I felt anyway. After the fact, everyone told me I did fine and they felt I had improved quite a bit since I had last been there. Whatever the case, I felt unbalanced and out of control, and it was bothering me.

Later into the session when it was my turn again, I played a set of jigs instead that I had been working on for a while, that had been on my "overdue tunes" list. One of the other session members walked into the pub in the middle of the set. At the end of my set, we were bantering about a setting I played one of the tunes in. Later on, we shared a set, and I’ll talk more about that in a future post.

At the end of the night, this gentleman, who I now consider a friend of mine, having listened to his insights for years now, told me that he was impressed by my progress. He said,

"When I walked in, I thought we had a guest visiting! You’re sounding great!"

At this, in the banter, I accused him of flattery. And the session leader, who I also now consider a good friend of mine, stopped me and said,

"No… no… HE doesn’t flatter ANYONE. I’ve known this man for decades and he doesn’t do flattery. If he likes you, he likes you. If he doesn’t like you, he’ll just look at you like… -_- "

We all got a hearty laugh out of the exchange, and after it quieted down, I told my friend about my plight. How, after all of the hours of practicing slow, and practicing at speed, and practicing fast, I still felt so unbalanced and out of control. And this is the challenge he presented to me.

"I have a challenge for you. What I want you to do is, take a tune, one tune, a simple tune that you’ve known for years; and don’t worry about practicing it slow, or practicing it fast. Just really take some time with every single note. And show us what you’ve come up with next time. "

When he said, "…Just really take some time with every single note…" this resonated with me. This is something I read in the forums. It’s been years, and I couldn’t tell you who said this before, but I’ve heard this before. But when I heard it this time, I interpreted it differently than before. Before, I thought "take some time with every note" meant "slow practice". Take a metronome, bump it down to underspeed, and focus. But no, that’s not what it means anymore. Now it means, "relax into the melody". Feel the notes. Be free in time, play with the time, don’t worry about playing at a fixed tempo or a fixed rhythm. Just relax into the melody. And let it penetrate every fiber in your bones. And things have been… different.

I’ve realized a few things and have even had an epiphany or two since I began practicing in this way. I first realized that, as ear musicians, we can learn a tune at speed while never having to slow down and sit with the tune. One of my learning techniques is to learn from a recording. You just listen to the recording and play through it until you have the notes right. But as convenient as this is for learning tunes quickly, it is a one-dimensional practice. In other words, it’s not enough to truly get to know a tune. Because learning a tune at speed doesn’t get it into your deep subconscious memory, it only gets into your reflexive memory. And learning a tune at speed doesn’t give you an opportunity to sit with the phrases and work out how you want to articulate them.

Fast practice seems to only be helpful for reinforcing your reflexive memory. And fast practice only reinforces your current ability, so if your current ability isn’t at a proper standard, it will only reinforce bad habits. Slow practice seems to be mainly helpful for learning the melody and recovering from habitual mistakes, but becomes impractical when you get past that point.

To take time with every single note, it’s like at times you have to go slower than slow. I remember when I started the "Concertina Progressions" course on the Online Academy of Irish Music, taught by Liam O’Brien. The first tune he teaches is, "I Buried My Wife and Danced on Her Grave". I had been listening to the tunes from the course, before getting into it, but when he started teaching it, I couldn’t recognize it. He taught it so slowly, that I would get lost in between phrases and kept having to go back to the recording to find my place. But since learning it, it is certainly one of my more comfortable tunes, because of that time spent "in" the melodies. It’s a "relaxed" tune for me.

Since my friend has challenged me, I’ve been learning all of my new tunes in this way, and have started going back to relearn tunes I’ve been playing for a while. I do feel much more in control now, even on piano and in other musics. There is a command I feel like I’m acquiring that was lost on me before. It’s a wild experience, revisiting an old and almost forgotten lesson, with a new mindset.

Thank you for reading! Any insights or experiences of your own are of course always welcome!

Re: A Friendly Challenge.

A poem is a formal structure in love with itself. As a musician, you should present each piece as a poem, and reveal the love.

Re: A Friendly Challenge.

…goodness postie, is that original? o.o

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Partly.

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Well, it was beautiful, and left me stunned.

Re: A Friendly Challenge.

Jerone - your post is incredibly timely for me as I had a similar melt-down this past weekend. As it turns out, when I am playing with really good players, I also seem to play well. My ears are locked in on what they are doing and my fingers move effortlessly through the tunes. However, for reasons that escape me, when I am playing with learners or folks who don’t know many tunes, I struggle to lead a set. My ears have nothing to listen to - nothing to lock in on, except my own rattling about and I flub up tune after tune. Tunes that I’ve know for years and can typically play effortlessly. It’s infuriating. Apparently I lack the ability to concentrate when leading or playing solo. For this reason I have always been impressed with others who can play flat out no matter what the distractions are around them. Noodling? No problem. Drunk argument in the corner? No bother at all. Six bodhrans at once all playing different rhythms? Didn’t notice. Those people are amazing to me. I have also noticed that the people who really excel at blocking out distractions are often folks who grew up playing in competitions. I know many folks are repulsed by the notion of music competitions, but wow, those folks can seemingly play through anything in a noisy session. Much to my frustration I do not have that ability. If my ears don’t have another player to lock in with, I suck. if any one has any tips for improving the ability to concentrate in a session, I am your eager student.

Re: A Friendly Challenge.

When I learn a tune, the playing of each note, or at least each phrase, is informed by what comes immediately before. So my choice of phrasing, ornaments, timing and emphasis sort of cascades out as the tune progresses. This happens gradually as I play the tune over and over. It helps me memorize the tune and makes my rendition an integral part of being able to play the tune without actually thinking about it. The playing of notes and my rendition are one. The rest is playing it enough to lock it in. Over time, I can stray a bit and wiggle around in my playing to keep it fun and interesting, but I start from a solid baseline. If I’m prepared, I don’t mess up. My body knows what to do.

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Re: A Friendly Challenge.

@Jusa Nutter Eejit. I think it may be ‘Flow’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology)) rather than concentration that is needed for what you describe.

I wonder if Jerone’s "Take time with every note" is neither of those and somehow encouraging a more reflective approach to the melody.

Thanks for the suggestion Jerone.

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I think I remember seeing / hearing a clip of Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh somewhere where he spoke about something similar, and I think he mentioned the tune Rolling in the Ryegrass as one of those tunes that he would just play over and over and over and vary it as he went, and see what happened with the tune as he played.

Re: A Friendly Challenge.

Jerone’s point is well taken: "you have to go slower than slow."
I said the following to Jusa in a private email, but thought it might be worth saying here. BTW, Jusa is a highly accomplished banjo player. He can — and does — play with some very highly accomplished players, who are also All-Ireland winners.
In response to your post about playing with great people and f—king up …. one trick I have is to start so slowly that I KNOW I will not make a mistake. If the hotshots come in to support me and play along and speed things up then I can follow them on the tune that I started. If they don’t come in then I know I will be fine since I am playing so slowly that I won’t get self-conscious.
The competition thing does help with nerves. Just as batting the tennis ball against a wall (solo practice) goes only so far, it won’t help when you’re playing against (with) a real person. A hot session with great players engenders a friendly competition over time. It isn’t all about competition but there is that element, friendly (loving!!) though it is. Slow and pretty wins the day.
Background noise doesn’t bother me nearly as much as other players playing along and learning as they go. We want to listen to the players around us and if they are hopeless then it can compromise our ability to play well.
See you down the road — Davy

Re: A Friendly Challenge.

"I wonder if Jerone’s "Take time with every note" is neither of those and somehow encouraging a more reflective approach to the melody.".

This is correct; Certainly a more reflective approach to the melody. We’re not really talking about flow or concentration because this is about practice. This may apply to concentration and flow, but the challenge was presented to me in the context of practice.

The thing is, in the wonder and excitement of learning something new, something beautiful, something we’ve wanted to learn for quite some time, we want to rush the learning process instead of just letting it happen. We learn a phrase and immediately move on to the next one. We learn the melody and immediately want to start throwing in variations and articulations. We feel like we got it down pat, so we consider it done and move on to a new tune. To bring my point home, I am certain I could learn 3 tunes in an hour this way; However, I am also certain that their quality would degrade almost immediately after practice was over. I rushed things, I didn’t take time, I didn’t *reflect on anything. And it’ll show when it comes time to deliver.

Re: A Friendly Challenge.

Jerone, just because you get a tune down, you don’t have to immediately move on to another tune. If you look at how I described learning a tune, which for me is about a two-week process, there follows a much longer process of getting intimate with the tune. I set no time limit on that. I can tell you, though, that my process accounts for why I don’t learn many tunes in a years’ time.

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I have no ritual approach, no mantra-like playing, I don’t consider the process a religious experience, nor a meditative one. But no tune is "mine" until I can do whatever I want with it (highly subjective). It may take a lot of repetitions (however not 10 000, sometimes not even 100), and it’s not about "not making mistakes"* (hey, I won’t play it identically each time anyway), but rather playing with the tune. Having fun. Try it in different keys, on different instruments, as the first/the second/the Nth tune in a set… the list goes on.

* Someone’s mistake is another one’s interpretation/variation.

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Jerone- if just like to say I love your posts. They are poetic and really get the subjective experience of being ‘lost in the music’ across.

Thank you.

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Thank you for your kind words Choons!

Ailin, thanks for giving us a peek into your own learning method. I myself am a strong advocate of playing at a high standard compared to knowing a bunch of tunes at a mediocre standard. I just have a hard time taking the time needed with a tune before moving on. I’m better about it now, but I still have a lot of work to do in that regard.

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Never play a tune so fast in practice that you end up practicing making mistakes. Slow and steady wins the race.