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!