Devil’s Advocate

Devil’s Advocate

When is sheet music useful? When is it acceptable?

Please, let’s not debate old turf wars. I’m hoping to have a meaningful discussion about the use and misuse of notation as it applies to Irish music, learning tunes, playing sessions and sharing trad online, in music camps/workshops and as teaching aids.

Are you ready?

My last discussion was intended to be a pros and cons approach. I’m still aiming for that format. The following are my pros and cons regarding the usefulness of sheet music (and other forms of music notation).

Cons:
- music stands take up valuable space for sessions in small places and can block some of the sound.
- several trad tunes are highly repetitious, easy to learn, use call and response motifs and require little detail when notated.
- tunebooks *in sessions* come with built in limitations if relied on *in a session*. (need I say more?)
- not everyone reads sheet music

Pros:
- thesession.org and other websites have databases of notated traditional music in abc format and staff notation.
- notation whether it is staff notation, traditional forms of abc, modern code or any of the various other systems have been used by trad music instructors. obviously not to the exclusion of learning by ear, but various systems are used depending on the instructor & her or his students’ needs.
- ear training can be improved with the practice of transcribing tunes.

Thanks in advance,
Ben

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Re: Devil’s Advocate

I deeply believe that depending on sheet music in an Irish session isn’t at all about a lack of ability to play by ear; It’s about not memorizing the music. The thing is, ear musicians naturally memorize music, because the "ear" can’t function without knowing the music. Sight readers can practice and learn a tune without memorizing it, because they use their eyes. But when they don’t memorize it, they need the sheet music to play it. With that being said; My sincere, unbiased, opinion is that Irish melodies are too strong and simple to not be memorized, and that sheet music should only be used for learning and studying. Not for informal music sessions. Well, actually… maybe my opinion is thoroughly biased because I memorize relatively much more complex music, from sheet music, being a piano player.

I think sheet music is useful for learning tunes, and studying how those tunes work. For someone like me, who plays piano melody and self-accompaniment, it’s helpful to have a notated bassline for a tune to study and analyze to help build my aural vocabulary and improve my improvising. And I can transcribe piano tunes on a grand staff. Sheet music is also great for having a clear picture of a phrase that you may not be able to hear clearly from it’s source. It’s also great to have access to a sheet if you can’t remember a tune but can’t find a source to listen to it either. Sheet music has many uses, and should be taken advantage of to the full extent of your desire to learn the music. To me, it’s not a question of if or when it’s acceptable or not; The question is are you going to allow it to compromise your ability to play freely?

Re: Devil’s Advocate

I’ve just made a post on the other thread where I said

"There is much that can be conveyed in a written score but that is still the composer/arranger’s view of how the piece should be approached. However, most of the "dots" for our kind of music only give you the very basic information and if one only plays what he or she sees "on the paper", then there is unlikely to be very much in the way of feeling. In fact, you might be as well off playing back a midi programme."

So, if you want to do traditional music (Irish, Scottish, or wherever) any justice at all, then you can’t rely on the use of sheet music alone. Of course, it is very useful but you need to have experience of playing the genre to interpret and "read between the dots" so to speak. Having a "good ear" is essential too.

I don’t want to get into a "turf war" either although I would suggest that there’s room for both methods although, in my opinion, the "ear skills" are essential to develop in the longer term.
As for the "starting point", sheet music may be the best or most convenient option for some people. Others will find things much more natural and easier "by ear". What is important, however, is that we all get to a desirable place in the end.

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Jerone, It’s interesting that you talk about ‘memorizing’ the music, because to me that is the heart of the matter. It’s not about whether you start from sheet music or listening to someone else’s rendition of the tune, it’s about whether you memorize it or learn it. Memorizing a tune is like memorizing the first 100 digits of pi. But learning a tune is like learning a poem: you are learning the sense of what is being said, and the words fit to it. When it comes to playing the music back, if you have memorized it any disruption of the pattern throws you off completely, whereas if you’ve learned it you can change a few words of the poem without changing the sense of it.

Memorizing and playing from music are essential for some forms of music: for an orchestra it is essential that everyone plays exactly what is written, so that the various parts fit together like a jigsaw. Even for something like a fiddle orchestra where everyone is playing in unison, and playing tunes they have all known since childhood, you need sheet music to remind people exactly how to play the tunes, what to repeat, how many times to play each tune in the set, where the key changes are and how to start and end the set cleanly and together.

But in a session or small band situation, much of the life of the music comes from people NOT playing in strict unison, from different people adding different variations in different places. For that to work everyone needs to have learned the tune rather than memorized it, and if they’ve done that then sheet music becomes an unnecessary distraction.

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Most literate, or partly literate, people have probably been jotting down things to help them remember, or help them pass them on to other people, ever since literacy was ‘invented’.

Musicians obviously have, but before paper became affordable I wonder how often notation was used in performance. The manuscripts of dance tunes that turn up from a couple of hundred years ago seem to be personal tunebooks rather than for performance. How different is that to the ring binders and thesession.org tunebooks of today?

AB, your ‘cons’ have been done to death in what you refer to as ‘old turf wars’; the list of ‘pros’ could be much longer, but I don’t entirely agree with all yours. Online databases (which I use a lot) can also lead to loss of variety and promotion of poor settings.

I am not convinced that transcribing tunes does help ear training. It may force one to keep working on the tricky bits, but we can do that without writing it down. My experience is that ear training helps with transcribing; it is normally listen to phrase -> play phrase -> write down phrase. The last step is related to the limitations of memory.

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Sorry - remembering another turf war - ‘in performance’ should have been ‘when playing other than practicing’.

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What is often neglected in this old chestnut of a debate, is that the social communication between the musicians (me for one) is of paramount importance. This communication is person to person via commonly understood and played tunes within musically understood harmonic parameters. When someone is slavishly reading the dots, that communication is largely if not completely absent. I simply don’t understand what people get from playing from dots in sessions, because I believe they are missing (not understanding) 95% of the experience, and they are also blocking people who do understand the other 95% from communicating in the way they need to musically. This is why this argument becomes so heated sometimes - it is to do with mutual blindness to the other’s experience and needs. Dots are great for learning the basics of a tune, but have to be followed up by listening intensely to how someone really good plays it.

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I use notation for learning particularly intricate phrases.

The memorisation of tunes is mystified by those who stick to using sheet music for years - they have to make out like it is some kind of magical ability bestowed upon those chosen by God or some other supernatural force. The longer a musician uses sheet music - the more they will have to increase he myth of the impossibility of remembering tune melodies (even though they will easily admit they remember hundreds of pop music melodies in their head having never ever made the slightest effort to remember).

Traditional tune melodies are simplistic and have been memorised for centuries by all abilities of players. It’s never been taught as some kind of high flyer skill because it’s just a normal human capacity- we remember things when we go over them again and again. The more we memorise tunes - the better we get at it.

If we’ve been playing a tune for years - we’d actually have to work hard to unremembed it - and even then O think it would be impossible.

Notation is a great learning tool - it’s an understandable intermediate phase to feel the placebo that notation is essential for playing at a session - but any good teacher would encourage playing without music in front of you as a normal and essential aspect of playing music.

I’ve seen learners remove these shackles again and again and again - even those coming from the classical tradition. They are convinced that they are the special type who cannot remember tunes (but as mentioned earlier they already do remember hundreds of melodies without even trying).

True - it involves using a different part of the brain and a little effort - but that’s learning - it involves effort. This is something that we are used to being musicians. Putting in some work.

So- for someone beyond the intermediate stage - who has been playing for years and years and years at sessions - not putting in the effort to learn tunes - I see it as nothing but laziness.

But that laziness is fine - as long as it doesn’t get in the way - there is no obligation to play to any standard as long as it fits the session and doesn’t get in the way.

However - to play with music at a session - and make out that it’s normal (i.e. that remembering tunes is abnormal and some sort of miracle skill - not the normal capacity within us all):

That is unnaceptable and morally wrong - why?

Because to hold back learners, to make things more difficult, to make out that memorising is some kind of miracle (and not the natural capacity of us all): that is the antithesis of musicianship.

We should support each other as musicians - though people may feel uncomfortable using sheet music at a session having not put in the (normal) effort to learn tunes - the temptation to make out that people who memorise tunes are abnormal should not be succumbed to.

That doesn’t help anyone.

Re: Devil’s Advocate

"If we’ve been playing a tune for years - we’d actually have to work hard to unremembed it - and even then O think it would be impossible."

That is the only area where those who claim to rely on sheet music might…and I say just might…. have an advantage.
It can sometimes be a bit of an effort to play a slightly different version or variation of a tune when you’ve already been playing your own or another setting for many years. The more experienced musicians will be able to adapt very quickly where and when required. Even I can do so, on most occasions, and certainly if it’s pre-arranged set for a performance etc although slightly trickier if doing it "on the fly".
However, afterwards, we’ll likely just revert to our own previous learned setting of a tune especially if it stands us in good stead for 99% of the rest of the time.

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What people do in the privacy of their own chambers is up to them but in a session sheet music just doesn’t work unless the session is run like hymn practice: "Turn to page number 3 and we’ll play the first and second tune". If you go to a session like that then you have to follow instructions. It’s a workshop, not a session.

A person who goes into a proper session using sheet music wants to know the names of the tunes in the set to look them up to join in. Everything stops while brains are racked and they find sheets or even mess with their phones trying to download stuff. Then often what is played doesn’t match what they have painstakingly collected and everything falls apart. There are cries of "Wrong key!". They can’t do the little bit of shuffling adjustment that musicians listening to each other make to bring together conflicting versions or the slide into the key or even tune the person starting the set is actually playing from the one they said they were going to play.

As Eiluned points out, someone looking at sheet music isn’t looking round the session and listening to the other players. As well as not picking up the rhythm from the movement of the melodeon bellows, they miss the the mandolin trying to make the flute laugh and the fiddler glaring at the speeding banjo who is gazing dreamily at the ceiling. In a sense, they just aren’t there at all.

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That’s where an over reliance on memorising specific sets can be an obstacle too. Regardless of where or how you may have learned them.
In many sessions, we just expect certain tunes to follow others… e.g. The Atholl Highlanders after Jig of Slurs or Villafjord after Spootiskerry etc. There are many more examples.

You’ll often hear very experienced players saying something "Let’s play the "such and such" set". However, I enjoy the unexpected and even, on occasion, having "fly by the seat of my pants".

So, that’s one reason why I don’t wholly agree with the "put them in sets" suggestion in the "How do you remember tunes?" thread. While it can help, the practice can also be restrictive.

Of course, I make up my own sets but I like to vary things too.

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To my mind, Irish tunes are for the most part dance tunes. Therefore generating rhythm for dancers is it’s primary reason for being. If you’re visually reading notes off a sheet that means you’re not focussing on rhythm, and your music is dead in the water. The swing/charm of this music whether in a session or dance hall derives from this.

Re: Devil’s Advocate

Mark M, no matter what way we spin it, romanticize it, and gratify it, learning and knowing something means in many ways having memorized it. Even though they are essentially not the same thing. Part of knowing and understanding something means having the ability to recall various elements. Memorizing something only means committing those elements to memory.

The ability to play through mistakes, as well as the ability to improvise, are both seperate and independant skills. If someone breaks down whenever they make a mistake, it’s not because they memorized the music, it’s because they haven’t yet learned how to play through mistakes. And if someone can’t improvise and use variations, it’s not because they memorized the music, it’s because they haven’t learned how to restate and rephrase parts of the music.

Likewise, memorizing something does not mean the musician can’t recover from mistakes and it also doesn’t mean the musician can’t improvise if desired. There are pieces that I learned from sheet music, memorized, and can play it through as it is written, from memory, and also play it with my own spontaneous variations and improvisations, mistakes included. Because those are skills I have invested in, and they are not limited by the state in which I learned the music; As written or as heard.

I will say it plainly: A musician is not limited by the state in which they learned the music; They are limited by how much of the music they know and can deliver.

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IMHO, sheet music is only useful/acceptable in private, not at sessions. At least one musician in my session doesn’t read music, and that should never be a barrier. It’s not necessary for learning or playing the music.

Here is my list of pros/cons for use in private.
Pros:
–You can’t remember how to start a tune
—You have forgotten the B part, or are confusing it with another tune
—You have a tune in your head, or a recording, that has a few phrases you can’t quite make out
—You have been playing and listening for long enough to understand rhythm and phrasing, and you are
interested in exploring tunes in a collection.

Cons:
—The tunes are not played like they are written.
—There may not exist a written version of how it is played at your session.
—You can get locked into playing it in the same way, and lose ability for variation.
—It will take you a lot longer to build a repertoire, if you don’t learn to play by ear.
—It takes longer to memorize, since you are adding an extra step.

An amazing thing happens when you start with learning a tune by ear, and by that I mean you can sing it—you listen to it enough times that you can hum/lilt/sing it. Then you just start picking out the notes on your instrument. You’ve only got about two octaves of notes to deal with, and it doesn’t take long at all before you get a feel for where to find them. Pretty soon it becomes an easy thing. It’s so much faster, easier and more fun, and so much more freeing that way. Sure, it’s slow in the beginning, but for a beginning player this is perfect, you literally learn your instrument as you are learning tunes. If you’ve been playing your instrument for years, it shouldn’t be too hard to find the notes either if you just memorize the melodies first in your head, they aren’t that hard to pick out. This amazing synthesis happens between you and your instrument if you do this. If you put in some headphones while you’re at work or the gym or cleaning your house or driving, put the tune on repeat, you can learn tunes while you’re doing other things. All you need then is the time to get them under your fingers. ;)

Music is like language—you all learned to speak before you learned to read.

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Jerone: "The ability to play through mistakes, as well as the ability to improvise, are both seperate and independant skills. " I don’t agree with that at all, I think they are just different manifestations of exactly same skill. And it’s not really about what you can or can’t do - you are a seasoned musician who understands music and knows how to learn it, you’ve gone beyond the stage of just memorizing. This is more about beginner and intermediate players - the sort of people who might want to take sheet music to a session.

Think about learning to sing a song in a foreign language that you do not speak. To begin with the words have no meaning to you, you simply memorize the sequence of sounds. Even if someone explains the story of the song to you, you can’t relate it to the sounds, so it doesn’t help you remember how the song goes. If you forget a bit it’s gone, you’ve no way to recover. But as you learn the language the words start to make sense to you. Now, if you forget a word the context gives you a big clue, it will probably point you to the right word, but even if it doesn’t you will probably be able to substitute another word that makes sense in the sentence. And music is that same. When you are at the stage of just memorizing tunes you are tied to what you’ve memorized, but when you get beyond that, when you understand the language of the music, then you can guess what comes next based on what came before, or substitute phrases without changing the overall sense of the piece.

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Mark M, I see where you’re coming from. Your language analogy is excellent and it’s not something I can argue with. I do have a question though.

As you say, "manifestations of the same skill", what skill would that be? This is something I haven’t been able to figure out on my own, and I would love to hear more of your thoughts. Though, my main point is that sight-readers shouldn’t convince themselves that playing music freely is some special skill, as others have said above.

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I’m a recovering classical flute player. Started playing when I was 6 years old, first chair in my high school orchestra, did the whole solo competition thing, was in the Collegium Musicum at SDSU all during my college years. My teacher until I left for college was the principal flute player of the L.A. Symphony at the time. I can sight read just about anything you put in front of me.

However, I don’t learn tunes from sheet music. I only learn tunes from playing along with recordings using Transcribe! and other audio tools that let me isolate and repeat sections slowly.

I may take a quick look in a tune book (I keep the small version of "Smoke in Your Eyes" in my car) or TunePal to remind me how a tune starts, but that’s the extent to which I use notation for traditional Irish music.

It was my observation about 20 years ago transitioning from being completely dependent on sheet music to learning entirely by ear that it was only the tunes I learned by ear that I fundamentally "owned".

These days, when I teach the occasional workshop, I spend a lot of time working with people to get them past their "Oh, I can’t learn by ear" anxiety and false stories they tell themselves. Those who allow themselves to get past the initial anxiety and just trust their brains almost always find that they are able to learn by ear.

Do I think having the ability to read sheet music is a great asset and life skill, absolutely. Should players learn traditional Irish session tunes off sheet music? Absolutely not.

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Arguing against sheet music is like arguing against ice cream. You might not like it, but I do. I learn by ear and written. One has nothing over the other and no argument can change that. It is what it is, so why talk about it like you can stop a train?

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Ailin, for you, one has nothing over the other. That’s not necessarily true for others. I can tell you that in my experience many, but not all players that I’ve taught advance much faster learning my ear rather than using sheet music. Of course, individual brains are different, what ever works for you to learn tunes.

What doesn’t work is players reading sheet music at sessions, completely inverts the direction of attention from outward to inward and isolates the player in their own time-space bubble.

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Michael, your last sentence in the first paragraph simply restated my argument.

Regarding reading at a session, it works very nicely with our whistle player when I call a tune the group doesn’t know. It sounds fuller and motivates the group to learn it. I’ve never been to a session where someone reads as a practice. I imagine there are few sessions with experienced players where that happens.

I don’t believe anyone learns faster by ear as a rule. As you noted, everyone is different.

You may call yourself a recovering classical player, but I would argue that your training has made you a better ear musician. What do you think?

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Sheet music can be a great tool for learning new tunes.
But it’s a two-step process; a visual interpretation by the conscious brain and neural response to actuate muscle.
It can be real crutch even for the best sight readers if in a session. I’ve seen it hard for some to read AND listen to what everyone else is playing!
If you REALLY know a tune the fingers have little need for the conscious brain! :-)

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Jerone: " "manifestations of the same skill", what skill would that be?" It’s the skill of being able to instantly find, from all the snippets of tunes and phrases stored in your mind, something that will fit with what’s going on around you and get you from where you are now to where you need to be. In the case of mistake recovery you’ve accidentally landed on the wrong note and need something to get you back on track. In the case of improvised variations you deliberately go off-piste and then find something to bring you back.

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I think there are two questions at odds here. Is it culturally acceptable to bring sheets to a session and does it matter how you learn tunes? One is up for debate and one is personal. You can have an opinion about both, but really, I don’t much care how you learn your tunes, just so you can participate fully when we sit down together to play.
Personally, I learn using both…I find that I’m more likely to know a tune name if I learned if off a sheet at some point (I’m a visual learner) and there are tunes, that if I want to play them on my keyless flute, I like the page to give me the space to figure out the folding or the accidentals that aren’t in a pattern my brain has already mastered. I know people who can play a tune and know it at first sight or hearing and I know people who struggle with one method or the other….as musicians the ears matter but reading doesn’t mean you don’t listen. Some people who can’t read sheet music don’t listen very well either.

As to the debate:
Making a few assumptions (tunes are easily found, devices don’t impede access to the loo, everyone reading is exceptionally well-behaved and listening and watching the other musicians closely, or at least at the same level as their neighbors).
As to pros of reading in a session:
It makes the music more accessible for people who struggle with recall (Age, infirmity, disability or even exhaustion can all play a role here, not just laziness). Again, I’m assuming these are people who are part of your community and you want them there, right?
It might make available more tunes, more regularly, if you spend time in the friendly world of everyone wants to play every tune…if you’re not in that world, well, maybe you’re just lucky you found people who are there for the music, or enjoy listening as much as playing.
Cons:
Reading tunes *can be* a crutch that limits development of a musician’s listening and ornamentation. Players might be getting better faster if it wasn’t an option. (Is it really our business?)
It really does make a session more accessible and can require hard conversations if it’s just not working with the space, with a particular musician or changes in culture.
Any chance this is a superficially polite way to fuss about people who ruin our sessions? I had the experience of playing with some elders in their 80’s and 90’s last week who gave me a better sense of perspective; Community and the music matter and sometimes it’s a small victory to be sitting there with instruments in hand week-in week-out. Of course that’ll go out the window the next session I head out to where the group over-plans sets, repeats the same old tunes or there’s crazy tempo phasing.

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So, for those of you advocating for sheet music in actual sessions… What is the advantage?
When someone starts a set of tunes and you don’t know what they are called, or you do know the name but you haven’t learned the tune, how do you find the dots fast enough? How do you do that without distracting and bothering everyone around you?

If you don’t know the tune well enough to play it by memory, how are you not just detracting from people who have put in the time? I mean HOW can you actually do any tune justice if you don’t actually know it?

How are you not clashing with what others are doing? Are you able to ignore what is written when your fellow musicians are playing it differently than the version you printed?

Or are you advocating for everyone playing from a tunebook, and therefore excluding anyone who doesn’t read? If you have to call out page numbers, and everyone has to stop and turn pages, or all the sets are pre-arranged, are you not loosing the creativity, the flow and all those great surprises and synchronicities, and hence losing any semblance of the craic? I could see a group of beginners in a slow session doing this, but again, I think it’s the worst way to go about it. You didn’t learn to read before you learned to talk.

Plus there is always this scenario: https://ganainmcartoon.files.wordpress.com/2008/10/028ganainm-blackout.jpg

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Most people who play folk and popular music don’t want to be lumbered with a lot of written material in a session or jam. If you are lucky enough to have someone around to show you a tune that’s great, but if you don’t, written music is a practical way to get the basics of a tune down. Then we can go and join in, and modify our arrangement where taste, tradition and imagination lead. I believe to be an all around musician, you have to read music, and play by ear, and I have to say that I am convinced that in most cases, the reluctance to learn to read, is more about laziness and than taste or any practical reason.

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Sure, being able to read opens up lots of opportunities, but this music is NOT played the way it is written. You’re better off at least finding a recording, or recording someone playing it, even if you are still using the dots.

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The only successful person I’ve seen used it as a method to process tunes he already ‘knew’ but couldn’t always remember. He would join in on the second repeat after tunepal on his iPad connected and pulled up the notes for him. He knows a lot of tunes but struggles to pull them to the top of his head after some kind of brain trauma. He’s a great musician and it’s not my favorite experience but it does work for him. If the program doesn’t pull it up he doesn’t play and will record it to learn.

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To me, a lot of the enjoyment of playing ITM with others in a session is engaging together in a shared memory - the memory of the tune. This is something that creates common ground among us that is neutral territory - this kind of music is not opinionated or partisan, but something we can share which only exists when we’re all making it happen. This emphasizes the importance of memorizing the tunes, as has been discussed at length here. Memorizing is work, but it represents dedication towards this tradition. Knowing tunes by memory is a measure of how much effort a person is putting towards learning this music.

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OK, if you have a brain trauma, you can use sheet music in a session.

Otherwise, just do the freakin’ work and learn the freakin’ tunes. :-)

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Don’t we all? I mean does anyone actually go from session to session playing the same tunes from a page?

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Yes - if someone is disabled then it would of course be acceptable - this again emphasises the abnormality of it.

But playing at a “traditional” session fully off sheet music is a sign of a lack of commitment in normal circumstances. They’ll learn better without the crutches - little kids do it as a norm - and adults who are committed normally bite the bullet to not rely on paper.

I don’t think I’ve ever met an adult who wants to put in years of commitment to play tunes *from paper* - not when it just takes about the same amount of time to do it without having to rely on sheets…

Having to read it off paper vs literally knowing the tune - there’s no way to spin this dependency as in any way superior - if it is a dependency at a session…

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Correct me if I’m wrong… I believe there is a rule against bringing sheet music to a traditional Irish session. Memorizing all those tunes is part of the fun. I think you take the "traditional" out of Irish Traditional Music when you bring sheet music to a session.

I think the sheet music on this website is intended to be used when practicing at home on your own time. Learning tunes off of sheet music is totally fine. Say, if you dropped by a session while you’re traveling and you hear a really cool tune. Given the name of that tune, you can go home and learn it, even if nobody at your _local_ session plays it.

However, based on the ease at which these tunes can be memorized, a music stand is redundant. Here is a new list based on my (probably flawed) opinion on the subject matter. I hope it demonstrates the impracticality of music stands at sessions.

Pros:
#1:You won’t forget that tune "in Edorian that Monty Campbell loves to play".

Cons:
#1:You upset everybody who puts in lots of time to memorize these tunes.
#2:You reduce the space for other musicians.
#3:You have to carry that music stand to and from your car. It’s an extra thing you have to carry around.
#4:What do you do when you play a set of tunes? You could miss up to one minute of the next tune trying to find it in your horribly unorganized mass of sheet music.
#5:You have to expend money to print off all that music. Tree Killer!!!
#6:Everybody has to watch you go through your horribly unorganized mass of sheet music (aka, your tunebook) whenever you look for a tune.
#7:Every time you have to get up to use the bathroom, that music stand will be in your way…
#8:You will become increasingly reliant on your sheet music. Not good if you lose your precious tune book.
#9:You become impaired in your ability to absorb and learn new ornamentations from others.

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These youngsters and quite a few oldsters now have all their "sheet music" on tablets these days.

I don’t think it’s that bad an idea to use such devices for storage but they are rather "footery" to actually use for sight reading in a concert or even a session. I’m not saying that they should be banned as they will be useful for "reference purposes". You could look up a tune quickly to remind yourself of how it starts when you have a quiet moment so that you can play it later etc.

However, I’ve seen people with the devices attached to their music stands. For a start, my eyesight isn’t good enough unless I had an A4 tablet but they would be too big for anything else! Furthermore, it’s more awkard if you want to make notes, amendments, add instructions on the musical score when you are in a hurry. Nothing beats a pen and paper for that.

And, needless to say, don’t use them in sessions.

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And what about the guy who has his girlfriend sit in front of him holding the phone, so that she can scroll it as he plays?

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First, I would rather play with others who use scored music than not play at all. Many are very good, skilled, musicians. I often invite others to play at some venues, with their music, just because I enjoy playing with them and enjoy their company. That said, I go into it with certain expectations. Spontaneity is not gonna happen and we’re gonna use up a lot of time finding the pages. The number of tunes is going to be limited, not only just at the moment but week after week. the tunes themselves will tend to be repetitive and formulaic. Still social interaction is all about give and take. We all only have a finite amount of space in our lives for the playing of tunes. I am willing to fit in in order to enjoy the company. The experience is just gonna be what I call a session.

Now the hard part. At a session, a real session, leave the score at home. Don’t show up with books, binders, tablets, smart phones, music stands, whatever. My advice is to pay your dues. Learn the tunes, learn the genre. The more tunes you learn, the more you get to play. Enter at your own risk with zero expectations of dragging the session down and keep any complaints about it to yourself. No, I’m not a nazi about it, there is some wiggle room, but be willing to step up your game. Everybody else at the table, in the circle, has done it and continues to do it. It wasn’t easy for them and it’s not easy for you. That doesn’t change anything, you earn your chair. I find it disrespectful of those who have put in the time and effort when somebody shows with music scores and expects to fully participate.

By the way I fan of the well crafted score, and any technology that helps be a better player, but that’s another discussion.

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Okay, I’ve asked before and I’ll ask again: Is this a problem?

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By the way, I just wanted to add something else to this "pay your dues" concept I’m so fond of. I am working very hard to, even at the ripe age of 73, become one of those players who can play well from a score. It’s not easy. If I’m going to be focused on encouraging others to accept my notion of fitting in to what I call a session, I owe others the respect to try and fit in to what they think of as a session. Paying your dues works both ways.

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Without going into details, Ailin, it has become one here.

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There is one session which I visit when I’m in the area which uses sheet music and actually works very well.

https://thesession.org/sessions/2322

It’s held in The British Legion at Dufftown and the procedure is that all the players bring in sheet music with spare copies for all the other players. Each player leads his or her set of tunes in turn and all the other musicians join in and play "from the dots".

I’m sure this doesn’t sound like an ideal scenario for everyone but attendees are all good sight readers and players and the procedure is carried out very efficiently. So everything works out well. There is no "fumbling" about for music and everyone plays competently. The punters also seem to enjoy it.

Generally, the repertoire is Scottish and more of the Strathspey and Reel/Fiddle and Accordion variety but any traditional music is welcome.

As I say, it’s not everyone’s thing and I wouldn’t expect or wish it to become the norm. However, I usually find it very enjoyable.

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Johnny Jay, that sounds like a very nice group. I think the bottom line here is if your session doesn’t use sheet music, don’t show up expecting to be able to use sheet music. If it does, go for it. The issue of whether learning by ear or by sheet music is more effective I think completely depends on the individual, what works for me may or may not work for anyone else, but I do see much better outcomes (being able to play/start tunes, ability to pickup tunes "on-the-fly" based on similarities to others) in the long term with students who learn by ear rather than from sheet music. Your mileage may vary.

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Is it a problem? Well, the problem is with a mixed approach, not so much an all-memory session or an all-reading "session" (although I struggle with using the term for that kind of gathering).

Out here where I live in the PNW hinterlands, there are two sessions in town, another session an hour’s drive away, and a private house session that’s also an hour away. None of these sessions are mixed; they’re all people playing tunes from memory. Someone might do a quick lookup on a phone for the first notes during a break, but that’s about as far as it goes.

Any newcomer or temporary visitor who wanted to join in and could hang with these sessions would be welcomed. But I can’t imagine anyone looking at a group of people — every one of them playing from memory — and wanting to drag a pile of sheet music into that environment and read from it. So it isn’t a rule that has to be enforced. It’s just kinda obvious to anyone who isn’t totally oblivious to social interaction (and yeah, there are a few like that around).

The trouble begins when a session of players from memory does let one person sit in and read from sheet music, on a regular basis. Now other sheet music readers will feel free to attend, and the session devolves into an oil-and-water mix of memory players sitting on their hands, while the readers do the agonizing shuffle of paper to find the next tune. That’s when it’s a "problem"… at least for the memory players. At that point, the usual evolution is towards a sheet music only session, with the memory players drifting off to start another session with a more organic flow of the tunes.

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Ailin - there are a big list of problems that can come from using sheet music at sessions - in the posts above.

Some of which:

1. Pretence that dependence on sheet music is normal holds back learners from the superior norm. They might buy into the myths that it is somehow special to be able to remember these simple melodies - though it is a capacity in pretty much all musicians.
2. The norm of remembering tunes makes playing easier and helps musicians play without distraction so the use of sheet music can often produce an inferior session. Reasons can include:
- less engagement with eachother
- the time to find sheet music
- the lack of flexibility
- more equipment needed (space, carry weight)
3. The erosion of one of the key strengths among traditional music players - the ability to play without dependence on paper.
4. The lack of improvisational spontaneity.

For many (like strathspey and reel/fiddle accordion clubs) sheet music tends to a need (maybe the need to play more like an orchestra) - but it’s not possible to argue that dependence on paper is superior. There are niche groups where this is the norm - but attempts to suggest this is normal, or on par with independent playing, only holds people back from a very achievable and superior level of playing.

I think the main problem that ties together objections above is the danger of normalising this inferior play style - especially when it doesn’t take much more effort to just learn tunes (brain injuries etc aside).

Our tradition would be much weaker if dependence on sheet music became the norm.

Re: Devil’s Advocate

To play from dots or to play by ear,
Discourse that’s become quite "dot-ie" I fear!
:-)

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Hi, I just got back and see I have more than a few responses. I may not read it all today, much less digest it, so I’ll post something now then more later.

First, thank you! I have carefully read a few posts from Jerone, Johnny Jay and some other members whose words I consider worth careful consideration. Beyond that I’ve skimmed this page a couple of times trying to
get a gist of the general climate of the scuttlebutt.

I promise to post more as I read through your comments and as time permits. The only thing I want to mention (at this time) is I am becoming more optimistic about having a meaningful discussion in this forum based on the well thought out reponses, your opening the commentary beyond obvious and/or cliched *bullet points* and
my hope the time is right to move above and beyond the tiring din of discontent. In that spirit I don’t want to discourage any response anyone needs to make about the use of sheet music specific to sessions. However I want to remind everyone of the part of the OP where I asked about the use of sheet music in other situations also, "I’m hoping to have a meaningful discussion about the use and misuse of notation as it applies to Irish music, learning tunes, playing sessions and sharing trad online, in music camps/workshops and as teaching aids."

Thank you,
Ben

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Re: Devil’s Advocate

Ross, if you don’t want to open a can of worms, pm me .

To the rest, I’m not asking about pros and cons; I’m asking if tbere are really any participants in experienced sessions that routinely play from sheet music. It seems to me many are ranting about a non-existent issue.

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MarkM, I’m not convinced singing in something other than one’s native tongue (or a language you do not speak) renders a song’s words meaningless and the result is merely a sequential stream of words. As a child I knew the words to Jabberwocky by heart. I obviously would not have been able to give definitions for the words. However
I don’t think my recitation of Jabberwocky was all that flaw. It had a pulse, the general context of the story was conveyed, it rhymes, & it is a murder ballad. Those who comprehend all the words perfectly may be better than me but, if I do say so myself, I don’t think you can judge me solely on the basis of the criteria you are suggesting above.

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Ailin, I’m hoping to discuss mostly pros and cons about the use of sheet music. In that sense it is inevitable that when and where sheet music is used the use in sessions will come up. My experience has been that regardless of where are when sheet music is used it has been helpful or not helpful depending on various intentions of everyone present. Johnny Jay describes a situation above where sheet music has been helpful when all participants are in mutual agreement about it’s presence and the way in which it is used. Having said that I have experienced sessions where sheet music has been used to the detriment of the session (for some of the same reasons others have listed in their responses). It happens.

Posted by .

Re: Devil’s Advocate

-Ha
-Ha
-Ha

It defo happens unfortunately.

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Ailin - sorry - I thought you meant: is it a problem to use sheet music in sessions?

I see you mean: does it ever happen that people do this?

I suppose it’s no surprise that you’re so shocked - but yes - it’s a thing that many above have unfortunately encountered.

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It might be more shocking if this was the first time, Choons.

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On rare occasions, I will use sheet music at a session, but not on music stand. Where I do find it helpful is when familiarising myself with a new three tune set. At a glance, I can remind myself what notes the next tune starts on. Then, I’m away.

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Ben, the fact is there can be no downside to using sheet music unless it becomes a problem for others. Therefore, in listing pros and cons, a problem needs to be identified or else - no cons. I find it hard to believe anyone goes to an established session of competent players and spends the evening playing from sheet music every time they go. Even an expert sight-reader would not do that. Am I wrong?

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There are absolutely cons and downsides for some learning their tunes from sheet music rather than by ear. Those issues have already been listed in several of the previous entries above so I won’t rehash them again.

How about you just accept that what works for you may or may not work for everyone else, or are so entrenched in your position that you are unable to accept any other possibility than your own?

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Ailin,

There are absolutely cons and downsides for some. Learning their tunes from sheet music rather than by ear. Those issues have already been listed in several of the previous entries above so I won’t rehash them again.

How about you just accept that what works for you may or may not work for everyone else, or are so entrenched in your position that you are unable to accept any other possibility than your own?

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Further re the session I mentioned in Banff.
The system only works because the great majority of attendees are good players, good sight readers, and the session is run efficiently. I also know that most of them are capable of playing without music in other situations.
They usually allow an occasional solo turn where no sheet music is involved.

As I say, it’s quite an unique set up which seems to work there. I enjoy it when I go and it’s a great opportunity to play and discover lesser known tunes.

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A piper friend once pointed out that the relationship between the dots and the tune is like google maps compared to the satellite view - and your sheet music may be a very different setting than what everyone else is playing. In our sessions there is a lot of non-verbal interaction and communication going on. If you are focused on your dots you’ll miss out that. And we have a tendency to mix up sets or pick the next tune on the fly - watching someone scramble to find the dots for whatever tune we jumped to is both amusing and quite annoying.

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Here’s a thing. I hear a tune - I look up the dots on here- I sight read it at home and record my efforts - then I learn what I’ve played into the audio recording. This works for me. I don’t play from dots in a session and would not wish to go to a session which is predominantly sight read = orchestral rehearsal, but others enjoy that. Horses for courses!!

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Regarding Ailin’s assertion that there are no downsides to learning tunes from sheet music rather than by ear, here is the biggest one: Difficulty picking up tunes on the fly when sheet music isn’t available. If you have a sufficient repertoire of tunes that you have learned by ear, it’s often the case that when a tune comes along that you don’t know, but has elements of other tunes you do play, it’s possible to play the tune the second or third time around based just on listening, not on notation. This is a very useful skill, and one I suggest more difficult to develop if one is totally reliant on sheet music to learn tunes.

Re: Devil’s Advocate

Michael, I see two major flaws in your argument. You cannot speak for someone else, which is what you are doing when calling out a con. That’s why I said the only con is what affects others. Second, you are treating reading and not reading as mutually exclusive. I do both. I’m certain anyone of experience does, if they read.

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I’m not arguing with you other than to say that when you or I state anything as fact, it’s all a matter of personal experience. I can only speak for what works for me, which is why I say things like "I suggest" or "in my experience". Your posts read like absolute declarations and apparently you are not willing to accept that perhaps your statements represent only your experience, not absolute truth. Anyway, I’ve made my point and provided my input to the discussion. Stick with your paper learning if it works for you. I’m not trying to convince you to change what works for <you>. It’s a huge handicap for some players in my experience, and I think it’s important to consider that some players who have great anxiety moving from visual to aural learning might greatly benefit from the switch in the long run, even if it is difficult at first.

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Michael, since we seem to be back on the score vs. ear argument, I might as well chime in.. And please know that I have a lot of respect for all of the contributors here, yourself and Ailin included. Both of you, among other contributors have done a lot to guide me through my journey with Irish melody whether you know it or not. I have a strong sense that the pro’s and con’s of each can easily be turned around. For about 65 years now I’ve been a "by ear" guy with a rather feeble ability to read music. You get no argument from me on the value of ear training. About 25 years ago I became familiar with what I call "music theory 101" and started to understand what my "ear" developed instincts were telling me. The basics at least, like modes, chord building, you know , that sort of thing. And now I am desperately working on sight reading skills. I can say with certainty that the lack of that ability has only held me back. I whole-heartedly agree that learning by ear, on the fly, is a very useful, even mandatory, skill, with a caveat. We do not play what the other guy just played. Our brains don’t work that way. We play what we think we remember hearing the other guy play, the first time through the tune, an hour ago, yesterday, last month, or from Grandad back in the day. Error is inevitable and frequent. Of course the next time around we get to correct that (maybe) but the error is still there. Tunes learned by ear can be just as rigid to us as those learned from notation. (As an aside and in good humor I’ll say that no matter how accurately you reproduce a tune you heard from Grey, there will always be somebody who says "that’s not the way Matt played it!). Let me also add that nearly, if not, all of the tunes we see posted here are transcriptions of what someone thinks he remembers hearing someone play, contributing to all the different settings. Same opportunity for error. My point is that reading learning from a score is absolutely no less useful and certainly not inferior. For sure other errors can also creep in including dependence on sometimes pedestrian scoring of a tune. Are there any of us that have never heard a tune played lifelessly in a session? I believe I could turn my own experience around and imagine that had I been a life-long sight reader I could have been equally challenged but from the other side. The pro-con arguments serve best to learn about the attitudes and beliefs of the one who makes them than to "prove" one way is better. When we start to see how sight reading supports what you hear and how ear training gives voice to what you see we can only be better for it. Maybe the failure is in me, but I just can’t get my head around the notion that either way, sight or ear, is somehow better and that anyone would better off by limiting themselves to one or the other. I suggest that we learn and become skilled in both. It’s not that hard and everything becomes a "pro" argument.

Oh and just last night I was at a one-off session with about a dozen other players (too big a know but we were all friends and that was important) two of which were totally dependent on music books and stands. Both were skilled players, that wasn’t a problem. The issue was that it led to space concerns, page finding, calling out pre-determined sets, a general lack of spontaneity. We worked with it as friends will do. Still, my vote is to leave the stands, books, tablets behind. Pay your dues and learn the tunes. I’ll meet you half-way.

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There is also the tendency, again in my experience, that those who learn from a specific notated version of a tune often tend to adhere to that version when playing and may be less flexible for local variants or deviating from their visual representation of the tune. But, as before, I’m quite certain it works just fine for some people, I just haven’t played with many where it has.

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"I find it hard to believe anyone goes to an established session of competent players and spends the evening playing from sheet music every time they go."

Yet it’s true and now is not the first time it’s been posted on the forum.

Posted by .

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Ben, would you concede it is rare?

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Unfortunately, not rare enough, at least around here, particularly among newer players.

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What happened here? I guess it’s time to throw my (possibly flawed) opinion once more while everybody is engaged in this heated debate.

We should all agree on this: Sheet Music in traditional irish sessions, regardless of what form it is in, IS A SESSION SIN.

As for which method is used for learning tunes, be it by ear, by sheet music, or a mix of both, is totally up to the musician SO LONG AS IT WORKS (yes, if the musician didn’t learn the tune right, then they have some work to do). I cannot, nor can anybody on this website, impose a "correct way" or a "better way" of learning new tunes, because different musicians have different skills.

However, I can give an _example_ of an _acceptable_ way of learning new tunes: my way. I always listen to somebody play the tune, or a recording of the tune, then use the sheet music on this website to practice the tune. Memorizing the tune takes about and hour of practicing it. After which, I no longer need the sheet music.

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Unfortunately, not rare enough, at least around here, particularly among newer players.

# Posted by Michael Eskin

I’m not asking about newer players. With new, I expect that.

Michael, I think we are fundamentally saying the same thing, but using different language to express it. We have already agreed that what works for one does not always work for another. But when you state, for example, that learning tunes from sheet music inhibits picking up tunes on the fly, that is simply and objectively not true. Most ear musicians I know cannot pick up tunes on the fly because they know little about keys, intervals and patterns. It’s a skill and a talent that few possess, in my experience. I credit my own ability in this area to my experience playing jazz and blues. The bottom line for me is that you cannot call something a con unless it is universally (or at least mostly) a problem. It seems to me that to assume limitations on the part of someone other than yourself is more of an absolute than anything I have stated. I think is reasonable to state that there are no cons to learning or playing from written music unless it causes an undesirable result, and I think we agree that this is a highly individual thing.

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Re: Devil’s Advocate

I agree Michael, often tunes learned from a score become, to some, cast in stone. But I believe this is equally true for tunes learned by ear. The way a player learns a tune is, I suspect, less important than their willingness to free themselves from the " way I learned it from the Rolling Stones In the Field" album or the way "Lenard McSkinnerd" played it last night or the way they got it from the "Surfer’s 112 Essential Irish Tune Book". To many the way they learned, or were taught a tune, is the right way and anything else is what they like to call "wrong". It’s not the fault of the score. The problem springs from the willingness of the player to hear something different from what they heard before. Most of my friends are "ear learners" and most of them are quite rigid. Truth be told I tend to that. I’m much quicker to alter a tune learned from score than I am from one I learned live. Go figure. Maybe the problem isn’t because one way to learn is better but from the misguided notion that one way is somehow better. Should we ever play together you may include me as someone who can learn from a score and is willing to take it somewhere else. I think the reason is that I can learn either way without prejudice
over the method. Not an easy lesson for me.

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Glad we all are more or less on the same page!

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"Most ear musicians I know cannot pick up tunes on the fly because they know little about keys, intervals and patterns. " (Ailin)

I can pick tunes up by ear, though not often ‘on the fly’ unless they are simple (song tunes, polkas maybe). I don’t have any practical abilites regarding intervals and patterns.

Is it any more neccessary that a kid knowing grammar in order to learn to talk or read? Can’t people just copy what they hear?

Re: Devil’s Advocate

Is it any more neccessary that a kid knowing grammar in order to learn to talk or read? Can’t people just copy what they hear?

# Posted by David50

It’s not the same skill. Playing by ear involves a lot of hunt and peck. The more you do it, the better you get. However, it is seldom that you can do so at tempo in order to play it on the fly. If you are skilled at being able to anticipate where the tune is going (patterns) and can go from note to note by being able to hear how big the jump up or down is, you can do so at speed and be right more often than you are wrong. You don’t need either skill to play by ear. You mostly just need some time with the tune to pick it up.

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Re: Devil’s Advocate

I can’t believe there any good Irish dance tunes that can be anticipated on first hearing. Music is about playing with expectations. If it does what we expect we lose interest. But this is off topic.

Getting back to the dots. I can’t sight read, but I can follow a score and read ahead with a tune I am learning. I haven’t come across people playing from score at what I would regard as an Irish session. Where I do come across people playing dance tunes from dots they generally lie near two extremes - people who learned to sight read at lessons but rarely ‘perform’ and people who are experienced at playing ‘live’ from score. Most of the latter, but few of the former, are able to listen and read at the same time and adapt to what they are hearing. That doesn’t seem spoil musical gatherings where some people play from dots and some don’t (and I envy the ability).

Contrary to what someone said up the thread I think that most people who can sight read and are experienced at playing for a particular type of dancing can do it from the dots. They know the style and read ahead just as we do whilst reading text out loud. Someone explained that to me a long time ago.

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Spot on, David50-!

Much as I love Irish music, there are indeed many patterns that are used for many, many tunes. I can hear it in an A part (for example) and be able to duplicate it on the repeat. When this is not the case, however, I may need to hear the entire tune through before being able to more or less duplicate it on the next go round. Still, there will be enough of a familiar structure to form a firm impression of what I heard in order to approximate it. The more you play this stuff, the more you find that most tunes fall within a handful of recognizable structures. Most players will talk about how they sometimes find themselves starting the A part of one tune and inadvertently switching to the B part of another.

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Whatever people’s opinions on learning or playing from dots, I would suggest that traditional music of any sort has to have an element of bonhomie and humour in a session. Sessions I have been to which have a large element of reading are, for me, a complete turn off, because there is no give and take - no proper musical conversation. Without the humour and the conversation, I am usually so intensely bored that I am unable to visit the bathroom as ‘twere.

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David50 playing for a dance is a different matter! Even so, if the players are not watching the feet and bodies of the dancers, because they have their head in a book of tunes, there will be no empathy or flexibility to lift the dance.

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Thank you everyone who contributed. I appreciate hearing from so many different members your thoughts and experiences regarding the original post. If it’s okay this is my last response on this thread. My intention is
not an attempt to end the thread or leave anyone hanging. The thread is still open. If anyone wants to know something about my perspective regarding the use of sheet music my suggestion is to begin a new thread.
I will make an effort to respond if I feel it might help your discussion.

Please don’t message me with additional questions about this thread because I will not respond.
I do not have a problem with any member. I just want to be absolutely clear for everyone’s sake.

Ben

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Thanks Ben, it’s an interesting discussion.

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Contrary to the experience of some, apparently, in my experience, ear-players tend to be far better at picking up tunes on the fly.

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meself, that’s my observation as well.

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Isn’t that kinda obvious, the definition of ear players/learners? How else will they do it. Still it doesn’t make that the superior way of learning, just one, useful, way of picking up a tune. I know more than a few players who can look at a score and, after a couple of times through, play it every bit as well, with, I might add, the lift that fits the tune. They do it because they can sight read with skill and understand what an Irish tune is supposed to sound like. I might turn that around and say that ear players really suck at playing from a score when they’ve never heard the tune. In my experience those who can’t play from a score, myself included, are the less skilled musicians, no matter how well they play, just as is a sight reader who can’t listen and learn. I fail to see why anyone would actively toss out any useful skill. Learning by ear without the benefit of written music may make a better ear learner, but what it doesn’t do is make a better musician, just as learning by score doesn’t accomplish the same. Frankly I’m getting a bit annoyed by the implication that learning/playing from music is "O.K. if one must". I can just as accurately say that "learning/playing by ear is O.K. if that’ all you can do". Arguing that one is some how superior to another is a fool’s game and I’m done with it.

Oh and leave the books and tablets at home, However you learn, learn the tunes.

Re: Devil’s Advocate

I wonder how many people who regularly take dots to a session are actually sight-reading. I suspect it is often more of a safety net than a crutch.

The few times I have played for dancers (not Irish) it has been post-workshop, with newly-learned tunes, and there have been other people’s scores around. It’s quite nice near the end of the A part or before the change to be able to look over someone’s shoulder and get a reminder. In a session I am most likely to screw up in the last few bars of the tune if I am thinking about what comes next. Tha would not be helpful for dancers.

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" I might turn that around and say that ear players really suck at playing from a score when they’ve never heard the tune."

Many of us regard ITM as primarily an aural/oral tradition. You don’t, obviously. And, yes, O’Neill and others collected tunes from aur/oral tradition and wrote them down, and some note-readers learned them. So … we’ll have to agree to disagree, I suppose.

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" I might turn that around and say that ear players really suck at playing from a score when they’ve never heard the tune."

Well, those musicians who can look at a very simple score such as the dots on this site or many of the Irish tune books and interpret it with that certaing feeling or "lift" can do so only because they have experience of playing Irish music and knowing how it *should* sound and not because they are brilliant sight readers.
So, whether or not they consider themselves to be "ear players" or not, they obviously DO have good listening skills.
Not all sight readers will possess these skills and, of course, ear players may not manage this either but that’s more likely to be because they aren’t quite as adept at reading sheet music.

In short, we’re generalising a lot here and there are actually several explanations and possible outcomes.

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Thank you all for the comments on this topic. I came to traditional, later on into Irish, music from a still active career at the harpsichord - so of course, I too am "paper trained." However, when given the choice between continuing into solo work or learning "continuo" - improvised accompaniment - I chose the latter, mainly because I don’t really like playing alone.
Now, learning continuo just happened to give me many of the skills I need for session playing, in that I had to learn the piece and where it was going beforehand—in other words, memorize it; I had to pay close attention to what the other musicians were doing (watching and listening closely), anticipating the music, and fitting in with what I was doing. I still mainly accompany at Irish sessions, and to me the same rules apply - watching, listening, knowing the general patterns and modes but most of all paying close attention to the others.
The other big thing about learning continuo was the intensive ear training - since this is mostly improvised anyway, I was mostly able to leave the notation behind (or use the cello’s part) and play by ear - which any continuo-harpsichordist of any skill can do as well. So I can learn many trad tunes easily by ear, and since to me, good backup requires knowing how to play the lead, I will join in with the melody for a round or two before dropping back into the bass.
I also remember a young man, quite a few years ago, coming into - or, rather, barging into - a session. Before the rest of us came in and without a by-your-leave, he had set up a music stand in the center and had a pile of books. Not only had he not introduced himself and asked to sit in, he assumed in everything else. It did him no good, for he didn’t know the common tunes, and sets messed him up, because he had to stop and look for the new tune. And we didn’t have to say a damn word, either; he quickly realized those things he’d done (and left undone), and pulled out after two sets to listen from a table.
With today’s technology, I see no harm in getting a quick look from online sources (ABC, this site, and all that), but I’m on the side of keeping the notated sheets out of the session circle and working on learning by ear and memorizing. I think that the dot sheets make for a barrier between the reader and the rest of the group.
Oh, by the way, I use a 5-octave double-bass hammer-dulcimer (gasp!) at sessions…

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Ailin, you said:
"Most ear musicians I know cannot pick up tunes on the fly because they know little about keys, intervals and patterns."
—This just seems like a bizarre statement to me. The whole beauty of playing by ear, is that you don’t need to know, or care about any of that.

"Playing by ear involves a lot of hunt and peck. The more you do it, the better you get. However, it is seldom that you can do so at tempo in order to play it on the fly."
—I completely disagree. Think about improvisation for a minute. When musicians improvise, they aren’t hunting and pecking, nor are they making mental gymnastics to quickly calculate, keys, modes and chord inversions. They simply know their instruments well enough to play what they are hearing in their heads. Yes, in the beginning, on your own, you hunt and peck—that is how you get acquainted with your instrument. It can be quite a feat to attain in classical/jazz, but Irish trad is mostly limited to two octaves (give or take a little), and is totally doable. Not saying I’m there yet, but I think it’s much more accessible than some people think.

And by "playing by ear" I don’t mean musicians who can’t read. Playing by ear is not exclusive to non-readers. Reading music is a helpful skill, but I have my doubts how well it really helps one learn their instrument in that way where you can just play what you are hearing in your head.

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I take your point, reelsweet, but the trad musician that I know can’t improvise to save their lives. Playing by ear is only loosely connected to the ability to improvise. Some folks said earlier that more ear musicians can play the fly. That stands to reason only because they far outnumber the readers.

Lastly, reading, which is by necessity accompanied by some knowledge of musical theory, adds more to your toolbox. The more you know, the more you can do, and with greater ease. It is a law of nature. Hunting and pecking may get you there, but it is the hard way.

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Ailin, I know plenty of players who can’t read music yet know more about music theory in actual performance practice than many of the readers I know. The two skills aren’t necessarily tied together.

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"Playing by ear is only loosely connected to the ability to improvise."

As others have said, neither sight reading or playing by ear exlude the other. It’s still possible to have a "good ear" and sight read. However, that’s still where much of the skill to "play on the fly" comes from…. having a good ear. It doesn’t mean that you always learn and play by ear, of course.
When I’m learning most of the straight forward tunes from the dots and playing with others, I’m actually picking them up by ear at the same time. Sometimes, I find that I’m even learning them by ear..from myself…. as I’m reading the dots.

Oh, by the way, I’m not sure if "improvising" is the right term for what we usually would do in a session. I prefer to say "adapt".

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And I know of plenty of non readers that are just plain boring because they haven’t got to the guts of the stuff that they are playing. Same old style, same old routine, just play the next tune the way they learnt the last one, because they just seem to not be able to pick up the different nuances that are written into the music.
And of course it does help to have a great deal of experience, but I find that the best way to learn a new tune is to read it, and, before I go too far with it - play with my mentors and pick up the ‘feeling’ so to speak, then move along to commit it to memory (practice, practice, practice).
Suffice to say, I don’t play by memory - I play by heart!

Dots at sessions? Well our sessions are obviously not of the real traditional Irish pub type. We have many sessions that cater for anyone (reasonably competent) that wants to learn new stuff, the idea being that it is not closed, but inclusive, no prima-donnas around here, because people have to start somewhere, and there is not a great deal of other opportunities around this neck of the woods. So bring along your dots, and if one is not sure about something, ask when the set is over. Listen to recordings as much as you like, but there is no better learning method than playing with others.

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I don’t agree with the idea that it’s best to play with dots and then start commiting tunes to memory after some unspecified time.

If sessions promote the expectations that new learners can easily memorise tunes then we’d have less people dependent on paper in front of them.

As said above - the idea that you first learn lots and of tunes - and then you spend effort to learn them to memory- this is an innovation that holds people back.

It must be enjoyable to meet up with similar people and play music off paper (because that’s what many people do as we’ve seen before).

However- the idea that this promotes learning is a false one.

Learners - from young children to older adults - are able to commit tunes to memory from the beginning of their musical journey.

The reality is that sheet music sessions, rather than promote learning, hold people back from the very normal process of commiting a tune to memory. At a learners session this should be dealt with sensitively - but it shouldn’t be seen as a normal step.

I’m all for innovation - but this is not one that preserves or promotes the strengths of the tradition.

In fact, it makes it more difficult to attain the normal completency of playing one’s tunes from memory.

Without the dependency on sheet music.

For those who play using sheet music- I’d say start commiting some tunes to memory - it doesn’t take long and only gets easier! You can do it - believe in yourself - lots of others do!

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Being able to hear a melody in your head and simultaneously play it on your instrument, is the exact same skill that improvisers use. It really has nothing to do with how well you do, or don’t, read music or understand theory. It is all about knowing your instrument. That skill isn’t necessary to be able to play tunes. However, if you have picked out enough tunes by ear that way, eventually you just know where the notes are. You can play whatever comes into your head.

I first discovered this the long slow way, not by ear. I used to play Highland Pipes, and had to learn all the music from the dots, as the band had to play everything exactly the same. I never even considered playing by ear. The GHB only has 9 notes to learn. After 8 years I suddenly discovered that I could listen to a recording of a piper, and know exactly how to play it in real time, because by that time I just new the instrument so well. It does not have to take anywhere near that long, especially if you listen to a lot of tunes. If you start out with a tune memorized in your head, and start finding notes, you get to know your instrument very well. It takes time, but not as much as one might think, and it’s totally attainable. In terms of real time, I’m not quite there yet, but I will be. I can easily pick up tunes without the need of dots though. If you care about that kind of thing, it’s absolutely worth the time investment. Listen. Listen more. Build a repertoire in your head. I apologize for beating this horse to death, I obviously have strong feelings about it.

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I promise, make that try not to make this lengthy. That would require writing words on paper which ironically is the way every response has been posted. It’s what we call " literacy" as opposed to the "traditional" way of communicating, spreading useful information, telling stories, governing our village, arguing, plotting our wars, trading our goods, raising our children, and accurately saving that information over time and space. Literacy applies equally to music. Irish trad does not exist in some parallel universe. It’s no different from any other information/entertainment. Literacy, reading/learning from the written page can only make us better. For sure, there are other useful skills that need to accompany sight-reading, listening and ear training among them (which experience tells us can accomplish much), but failure to acquire them is not the fault of the score. Equally, literacy can only enhance aural skills. Neither is a substitute for the other. I can only say that by learning something about music and working to learn how to read it well, has only made me a better player with a deeper understanding. Though I’m glad to have been able tp play so much music over my years, I deeply regret the decades I spent unable to sight-read skillfully. There are many, many, human behaviors that I’ll probably never understand. Voluntarily abandoning a clear path to learning (anything), and defending that by disrespecting it, is only one of them. To paraphrase a very skilled musician I know "in my family we grew literate"! I invite everyone to improve. If you can only read then learn to listen. If you can only listen, learn to read. I do promise to not be dismissive of your beliefs, if you are not condescending toward mine.

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The most succinct way I can put it is to say you can never be less by knowing more.

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Thanks Ailin. I could have saved a lot of time by saying it that way first!

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If only poor Homer had been able to read and write ……

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reelsweet says: "Being able to hear a melody in your head and simultaneously play it on your instrument, is the exact same skill that improvisers use."

IMO, that’s exactly right. You don’t improvise sheet music on the fly. We once had a fiddler in our band who was an excellent sight reader but if you asked her to play a counter melody, ornament, drone or anything not on the sheet you had to write it out! Improvisation is a product of what’s in your head and well trained fingers.
In our Nashville community we have many great musicians. Many, if not most, do not read music. Most session musicians, (by "session", I mean recording session artists,) rely on the Nashville numbering system during recording sessions. If you’re interested in what that looks like here’s a link: https://www.premierguitar.com/articles/The_Nashville_Number_System_Demystified

The ability to read music is a great tool for learning tunes. I use it often. However, it is no substitute for a good listening ear and happily most of us have developed that at an early age, long before we were able to read! It aural response to music that stirs the soul, (Unless you’re a Taylor Swift fan and that’s mostly visual!) :-)

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"The most succinct way I can put it is to say you can never be less by knowing more."

Tell that to the pop artists who spent the time figuring out how to use auto-tune. :-)

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I agree with BillScates. Although it must be said that playing a symphony by ear would be a challenge without written music, even if the soloist knows their parts. As for the "Nashville" system, do you think Charlie Parker called it that? But one thing that I find remarkable in the Irish and Folk scene, is how many players learn their tunes in a linear fashion, without any knowledge of chord structure or progression. The tune starts on this note and ends when you get to this note.

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I’ve done my best to stay away from this topic.

Some thoughts:

I feel that each tune I learn makes me a better musican, whatever method I use. The important thing is that I do my best to keep the tunes in my memory. To me, that’s what counts. I don’t care if some people can play thousands of tunes, if they need sheet music. Sorry.

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Hey jeff.
Don’t be sorry.
You nailed it!
Perfectly!

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It seems like Devil’s Advocate is a good title for this thread…

>>>:"If sessions promote the expectations that new learners can easily memorise tunes then we’d have less people dependent on paper in front of them… I’m all for innovation - but this is not one that preserves or promotes the strengths of the tradition."

Exactly!!! And if we _demand_ that you need to memorize the tune, then we’d have _no_ people dependent on paper in front of them. Sheet music at ITM sessions = BAD.

Though, I have one question… What is the proper course of action if somebody shows up at your session with sheet music?

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Smile.
Keep on playin’ :)

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A wise man and deep thinker that Homer. Great stories. He must have drawn a large crowd. Still, literacy is why WE know of him after 27 hundred years or so. Surely by now he’d have faded from talk around the campfire.

And, by the way, to get back to the OP, encourage others to "pay their dues" and learn the tunes (the how really isn’t all that important regardless of our bickering) just like the rest of us. If they don’t want to do that and your session avoids stands and books, ya gotta ask if you really want them at your session. It’s a matter of respect. For me I won’t bring a book even if your session uses them but I’ll gladly be patient and respect your practice in your house.

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"But one thing that I find remarkable in the Irish and Folk scene, is how many players learn their tunes in a linear fashion,"
I disagree with this. I play only by ear but I learn by patterns within the musical structure. I believe that most trad players must do that. But didn’t we only recently have that discussion?
Speaking of dead horses, by the way, R.I.P. Cliffs of Moher, the Irish horse who died in the Melbourne Cup horse-race yesterday. Very Sad.

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haha, Michael, I would pay $$ to see you do that to a guy at a session!

OK, I’ve tried to avoid this discussion, because it really is a re-hash of old arguments that at best can be solved by agreeing to disagree… But I’ll humor Ben and point out what I think the pros and cons of the usefulness of notation and sheet music in Irish traditional music are.

PROS

- Handy to give someone your setting of a tune without having to give them an audio file
- Notation has the potential to outlast your memory (and you as a person, in fact), helping preserve and pass on the tunes to future generations, even if you never meet in person
- Notation gives us a somewhat easier way to spot differences between different settings of tunes
- Written music usually keeps the melody and the tune name together, reducing the issues with not being able to remember tune names
- Notation can make it possible to discover older, or more obscure tunes that don’t generally get played or recorded
- Can be more useful for "visual learners"

CONS

- Many people come to this music knowing how to read, but not comfortable learning by ear, and they sometimes expect to be able to learn the music simply by learning tunes from notation.
- The vast majority of what makes the music sound "right" is not notated, so people unfamiliar with the style will struggle to play it well just from the notation
- People often complain about having a harder time retaining tunes learned from notation
- Players often have more rigid settings of tunes when they learned from notation, giving them less likelihood of being able to play interesting and eloquent variations
- Most sessions don’t have predetermined sets of tunes and play a large variety of tunes, which makes using sheet music almost impossible in a session because changes come too quickly, and its impossible to carry around notation for every possible tune that might arise (even with internet devices - there are tunes that aren’t notated)
- Notation often acts as a crutch for people that are afraid of trying to learn by ear because they’re afraid they can’t do it
- Relying solely on notation means that you can’t learn tunes just by hearing them repeatedly (or even "on the fly" in a session)
- Music is about our ears, not our eyes…

Most people know that I fall pretty squarely on the ear side of things… I find notation useful occasionally, but not nearly as useful as my ears.

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>>>"-Notation can make it possible to discover older, or more obscure tunes that don’t generally get played or recorded."

Wait, I’m confused. Are you saying that this is an advantage for using sheet music at home, at a session, or both? There is a HUGE differences between using sheet music when learning new tunes at home and bringing it to a session. Using sheet music at a session is unarguably a session sin, while using sheet music to practice at home is not. I noticed quite a few of your pros and cons in your most recent list are still in the context of using sheet music at sessions. Could we instead discuss the pros and cons of something that’s allowed (sheet music for practice at home) rather than fighting over the pros and cons of something that’s typically forbidden (sheet music at sessions)?

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Anyone who mentions staff notation is barred, not only from my session, but from playing music ever again. I’ve had people try to regain admission in disguise (false beard, glasses, etc), but they’re usually taken out the back and beaten senseless. I can’t tell you the number of instruments I’ve confiscated because someone had the temerity to ask whether "that note" was "dotted" or not (whatever that means). I’m not without a heart, however, and once a year I have an amnesty when people can absolve themselves by burning a tune book which I supply (at a discount). If they feel very guilty they can burn two.

I’m positive nobody used musical notation in 18th Century Irish pub sessions, so why would you now? Just why? Oh, why? But why? It’s evil. Don’t talk to me.

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What to do if someone turns up with sheet music?
Don’t announce what you are going to play and only play each time twice. Hopefully a gentle hint.
By the way, we rarely announce the tunes anyway, although we do usually play each tune three times through - except when we don’t………..

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I agree with Gobby about the patterns and reference to the previous discussion.

When attempting to learn to read rhythms from the score, and the chords marked on some of them, I get frustrated that- at the introductory level - the presentation does not fit well with dance music. At a couple of workshops it was pointed out that in traditional dance music (and military march music) "everything is leading up to the beat when a foot lands, then it starts again". In beginner presentations of notation things are normally presented in chunks between the bar lines. That not what this music does - think of all those discussions about whistle players breathing after the beat and fiddlers bowing onto the downbeat. Similarly at a workshop on accompaniment the advantage of "anticipating the chord change" was mentioned.

I gave up going to an ‘improver session’ where some people were reading dots because of their bar-to-bar phrasing and chunky chord changes. As I said above experienced ‘trained’ musicians normally have good enough ears not to do that.

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"Though, I have one question… What is the proper course of action if somebody shows up at your session with sheet music?"
You live with it - as I had to do on several occasions this past weekend. But I would observe that those who did have sheet music on the table in front of them were very much poorer players than those who didn’t.
The singers who had their words and guitar chords in a big folder, and even iPad [ worried about whether the battery would run out ! - what do you do then ? ] - were even worse.

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I don’t think Ipad batteries would last the length of some of these really long songs.
You would always miss the ending.
:-)

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"But I would observe that those who did have sheet music on the table in front of them were very much poorer players than those who didn’t."

My experience too. I once played in band with one sheet music dependent musician. We decided to transpose one song, and were asked "Which note does it start on now?".

"The singers who had their words and guitar chords in a big folder, and even iPad [ worried about whether the battery would run out ! - what do you do then ? ] - were even worse."

The horror!

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At one point I played with these people (a Scottish orchestra): http://www.srsnh.org/about
Most of them had music stands in front of them and read from their sheets.
Is this more common with Scottish musicians than with Irish or English "bands"? Never mind the fact that I can’t imagine Irish musicians in a group larger than a ceili band — and they would never use the dots.

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@Monty - "Wait, I’m confused. Are you saying that this is an advantage for using sheet music at home, at a session, or both?"

In that instance, I was talking about it not in the context of a session…

"I noticed quite a few of your pros and cons in your most recent list are still in the context of using sheet music at sessions."

If you were still referring to my list, nope, only two of my pros/cons was talking about using notation in a session, and they were both ‘cons’. ("Most sessions don’t have predetermined sets…" and "Relying solely on notation means…")

We’re on the same page, here, Monty. I also think using notation at a session is a sin. And I barely use it at home either… But this is why I was trying to avoid this discussion, because people get really edgy about the topic (even when they agree, apparently ;-)).

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David, I went to a session of Norfolk music in Norwich, England once, and they all had sheet music. Also (off-topic) they played no reels whatsoever! Generally slower than an Irish session.

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I honestly don’t think I’m a session snob but if I saw music stands and books open I’d be moving on pretty quickly. It’s about playing with and responding to other people. Replicating what’s on a page in the presence of others does not a session make in my book .

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Ha-ha! Just loving Nigel Gatherer’s last post!! The very devil’s advocate indeed! He should be burned at the stake himself! But no, I could never do that! Yes, he does host sessions where people use ssssssshhhhhh sheet music, but at least some, like me, later progress on to playing without. Without his slow sessions, many people would not make it on to the faster sessions. And as he has said before himself, each person has their own way of learning: there is no right or wrong way. And you just cannot be "black and white" about "no sheet music ever" for reasons that others have outlined.
I have watched this post evolve, sometimes with abject horror and other times with great agreement, and so far desisted from posting, as it’s pretty well all deja vu, deja dit, deja discute! (Apologies for absence of proper French accents on e, a, e, a, e,a and e again!)

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"And you just cannot be "black and white" about "no sheet music ever" . Of course you can.

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I used to play the keyboard "organ" in my church as a teen. I usually did it by ear without any sheet music - or with just a melody line and to improvise accompaniment to - because every rehearsal, someone in the choir complained that the key was too high or too low even though I was playing the same key we did it in last week. I also used sheet music at times, eg for famous classically pieces like Mozart’s Ave Verum, because people wanted to hear the "real deal", and I had so pieces memorised from the score to play as filler/as voluntaries at the end of Mass.

One day, I was asked to play for a funeral, and informed that the choir wasn’t going to be there, but family and friends of the deceased were musicians who would join me, and here’s a list of songs they want etc. I was given no preferred key for the singer, so I went along with just a list of songs and hymns. I arrive, set up, plonk my list in of me, and wait. Some musicians arrive with a guitar and I think a mandolin or other strummed instrument. I walk over with my hand out to say hi, and before I even open my mouth one of them barks at me "We don’t NEED sheet music!" And steps back to look at me with a big smirk on his face. I’m standing there baffled, then I realise he’s bracing because he thinks there’s a score on that single sheet of paper on my music stand. I then smile and ask him what keys he plays the songs in, and he appears to choke on his own witness and mumbles A major. I say ok, smile and return to my keyboard, hoping A isn’t too low for the singer. It all works fine, I start each song and they join in with some extra accompaniment that all sounds nice enough.

I remain to this day amazed that someone would brag about not having a skill, and that they were rude and self-important enough to start an interaction with a rather confrontational rubbing-it-in-my-face, especially given the circumstances when I’m there purely voluntarily to help with their friend’s funeral music, a person I never knew in my life!

If anyone here identifies with this guy’s mentality, I’d be very grateful for an explanation! Because it still baffles me now!

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Smugness, not witness, geez I ought to proof read…

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Interesting story, Heydiddle. Of course there’s no excuse for being rude.
Mind you, it sounds more like the guy was bragging about "having a skill" (in his opinion).. being able to play without sheet music. However, as others have said, and you yourself will agree, neither skill "ear or dots" is exclusive. Most sight readers can do both either if they don’t realise it.

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To Kenny and Trish…

Yes, there certainly can be "black and white" if that’s the accepted norm in a particular session and is what those who attend there regularly want. If you insist on bringing sheet music to a session where it’s not welcome, that’s your fault. Not that of the other players.

Now, re Nigel’s sessions.
These sessions are an extension of his "slow session" class in Edinburgh and set up with his students in mind although others usually attend too. Usually, these will be former students or other "learners" but everyone is welcome.
The converse applies here. "Ear players" and more advanced musicians should accept the format of the session and the fact that sheet music or, more usually, Nigel’s books are used or they can choose to go elsewhere.

When I have gone along, I usually still play by ear but just "sit out" the tunes I don’t know. It’s easier for me to just learn them(There’s not usually that many) later but others will have a different approach.
The drawback for visitors here though is knowing which tunes to lead so as the other players might know them.
I think if I was going regularly, I would probably bring along a few spare sheets for the other players.

Anyway, I’m a firm believer in the "go with the flow" approach in sessions. If the format doesn’t suit, there’s no obligation to stay.

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"Anyway, I’m a firm believer in the "go with the flow" approach in sessions. If the format doesn’t suit, there’s no obligation to stay".
Exactly - just as there is no "right of expectation" that people should change the regular format of their session to accomodate you if you are the visitor.

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Talking to a jazz-banjo player once - he was indignant that he had recently played a gig with an Irish band - and they didn’t have ‘charts’! (Just to counter-balance the anecdote about the ‘rude’ ear-player).

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That’s not as unusual as you might expect. Many jazz bands hire a new, replacement or fill in players. They play from their "book". You get a copy of it play through a few times and better play your part, play it right, and play it good. Your job is to make a space for the front-man. You may or may not get a chance to solo. That’s the job you were hired for. Just like an actor, it’s the part you play. You may or may not get to improvise. Every professional musician understands that. Often a touring band (not limited to jazz bands) travels with a limited, number of members, checks in with the union at the venue, and hires what they need. Same expectation. I’d wonder what the jazz-banjo thought was gonna happen. Conversely the Irish band that hired him should be aware of the expectations. The fact that an Irish band hired a jazz player is suspect. I don’t know about the circumstances in this incident but it sounds like one or both parties just didn’t know how things work.

Same happens with session (recording not Irish) musicians. Many think it’s take after take, for hours, even days.
What really happens is a lot of professionals get the charts, and have the skill to make it work almost immediately. If they can’t they don’t work much. Nothing personal it’s just the business. I wish I was good enough to be in it.

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Regarding Strathspey and Reel Societies, as mentioned by David Levine a few posts up, it’s usual I think (in my, admittedly, limited experience) for learning of repertoire to be done from sheet music. If you’ve got, let’s say, forty fiddlers playing St Anne’s reel you would want them all to be playing the same version and it’s easier to ensure that happens by having a written definitive version. It’s also the case, though, that members of Strathspey and Reel Societies (at least in my neck of the woods) tend to be players who have had some classical training.

But I could be wrong. Usually am.

Regarding the original post, for me, sheet music is useful if someone at our session plays a (new to us) tune and we like it. Far easier to email round or hand out dots than waste time playing it over and over until everyone has learnt it by ear (and promptly forgets once they get home). Playing from sheets in a session is different though, as I don’t think you can be so aware of what’s going on around you, like where parts gets missed or repeated or alternative endings are dropped, etc.

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Re the S and R societies,

While the majority of players do have a previous knowledge of reading musical notation and/or received ssome musical training, they are not necessarily "classical players" as such. Many people in the fiddle and accordion scene will also have learned "the dots" and so on especially if they received private tuition from childhood.
Of course, there are others, like myself who started to "read" at a later stage.

Donald is right about the importance of everyone playing the same version if it is intended for a performance. However, most S and R societies also feature other instruments in their number(Some are less inclusive) and the conductor/leader will often arrange parts to suit them and even 2nd and 3rd parts for the fiddlers themselves on occasion.

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"Playing from sheets in a session is different though, as I don’t think you can be so aware of what’s going on around you, like where parts gets missed or repeated or alternative endings are dropped, etc."

DonaldK, I can only speak for myself and a few other people I have played with. I can read sheet music.
I can sight read. I can follow scores with parts for more than one instrument in real time as the music is played.
I can play up to speed *in session with sheet music in front of me. I am aware of what is going on around me.
I am not exclusively dependent on what I see on the page. I can play it literally but I can also pay attention to the musicians next to me. I can also count. So I know if a part is dropped or repeated. I can hear when the part changes and/or when an alternative ending is played. I don’t use sheet music in a way which prevents me from listening and paying attention to other musicians when I am playing with them.

*For the record I don’t use sheet music when I am in session. But I do know how I play when it comes to sheet music and I don’t tune out what is going on around me; with or without notation.

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