Breadth or Depth?

Breadth or Depth?

How do you balance learning more tunes or perfecting the tunes you know?

More broadly, what is your strategy for improving your tune base, your musical skill and mastering your instrument?

Theoretically, I side with the "deeper" rather than "broader", and I try to resist the temptation to learn the latest cool tunes I heard at the last session; my prime directive is to continually improve my core tunes. Of course, I regularly fall off that wagon.

Some random thoughts:

Learning more tunes is necessary to playing in Sessions.
I could play Kesh jig and Maid Behind the Bar until they were coming out my ears.
Learning more tunes lets you practice similar things in different ways, and it builds knowledge of common elements.
I could focus on a particularly challenging tune like Red Crow, which is the bane of my life as a flute player.
I could spend more time working on scales, arpeggios, technical exercises, etc…
I could work on speed, tone quality or expression.
I could spend time adding tunes in another key signature, let’s say A or F.

I guess it depends on how you balance or define breadth & depth.

Re: Breadth or Depth?

As I am now regularly playing for dances (mainly contra style), it is necessary to keep learning new tunes, so that is my main focus when practising. However it is essential for me to keep rolling through the list of tunes that I already have, so that I don’t *sweat* so much on performance night. Also, I have to constantly go through the sets so that I get the transition from tune to tune correct, which can cause grief on dance night, because I can’t stop, say "oops", and come in later, which is a big deal for me, for as I learn new tunes, I seem to need to change the sets to suit.

So it is:
Learn a new tune.
Practise the known tunes.
Practise the sets.
(Then confer with our sensational whistle player to make sure that the music & sets meet her approval)

That’s me.
P.

Re: Breadth or Depth?

Yes, it’s all about winging it with confidence. It can only come from having the guts to do it.

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Re: Breadth or Depth?

"How do you balance learning more tunes or perfecting the tunes you know?"

My first mentor, back in the 1970s, told me "it’s better to learn 20 ways of playing one tune, than to learn 20 tunes."

And that’s how I was taught. He would play a basic version of a tune, and I would follow along.

Then he would say "you have the tune, now let’s f*ck with it" and he would play a variation and I would follow, then another variation, and another. I feel it was the best way to learn about the structure of Irish dance music, the plasticity of it.

What that method is not good for is equipping somebody for an ITM session! Where you need only the common session version of a thousand tunes.

Still to this day, when I practice, I’ll play the same tune for weeks, for months, finding new things to do with it. It’s why I’m worthless as a session player.

Though I learn a pile of tunes when I need to: I learned about 20 new tunes for a St Patricks Day gig this year.

Re: Breadth or Depth?

I agree that it’s a bit of a balancing act, but in my case, I just let it happen organically. If I hear a tune I want to learn, I learn it. If I hear someone doing some interesting ornament or technique, I figure out how they do it and try to do it myself. If I feel like I need to work on speed, I try to play a bit faster than my current comfort zone on some sets in sessions.

I don’t tend to do a lot of drills, but if there’s something in particular that I’m struggling with, I might make up a drill to try and work on it. When I’m practicing (which is usually just playing by myself at home), I may be working on some or all of those at once. I may be working on getting a new tune I learned up to speed, while trying the cool new ornament I learned from listening to a recording of that tune…

But for me, the real improvement comes from playing with other people as much as I can. I learn a lot of my tunes, expression, speed, and style from playing very regularly in sessions.

Re: Breadth or Depth?

"Theoretically, I side with the ‘deeper’ rather than ‘broader’"

That’s me, too. Theoretically.

The reality re: depth… I tend not play a bunch of wild variations to tunes — I try to get them to a place where I can ornament them at will, depending on how I want to articulate the rhythm at any given time. Maybe with a couple variations of an entire phrase pulled from different sources. But for session playing I keep the bones of the tune pretty consistent. There are a some tunes like Bonnie Kate where I can do all the Michael Coleman variations, but depending on who I’m playing with I might not throw them in, and save that sort of thing for playing in my kitchen. I don’t do Comhaltas competitions or performance for an audience, so having a bunch of variations for each tune isn’t a priority.

Re: broader… Sometimes I do feel like a puppy chasing a butterfly, with fantastic new tunes that I just have to get.

So it really is a continual balancing act for me. Sometimes I find myself in a place where I’ve got a bunch of tunes half-learned, and a bunch of neglected tunes that need sprucing up, and then I’m no good to anyone!

Re: Breadth or Depth?

Going "broad" is mandatory if I want to play in local sessions instead of sitting out most of the tunes. It’s not really optional. It’s even worse when I’m attending two sessions with almost completely non-overlapping repertoire. One is almost exclusively Irish, the other a mix of Scottish/Cape Breton with a few Irish stepchildren tunes.

I balance that with tunes I learn and play at home that I enjoy, and aren’t good candidates for introducing to the sessions for one reason or another. I’d go nuts if I couldn’t mix "personal favorites" with local session repertoire, because I don’t actually enjoy every tune in the local sessions. I learn and play them anyway, to be sociable and contribute something.

As far as "Depth" goes… I guess that’s related to the personal tunes I play at home (not just solo, my fiddler S.O. and I play them together). I work harder at digging into the meat of those; finding variations, or just using them as a platform to work on instrument technique. I’m on more of an autopilot when playing in sessions. It’s more of a "go with the flow" than personal expression, and fun in its own way, or I wouldn’t be going there.

Re: Breadth or Depth?

Personally I go for both. Depth because it’s fun (and sometimes necessary!) to go through old material. Breadth because it’s fun to play in sessions.

For me, there are several levels of depth, e.g. being able to play a tune by heart, play it in public, play it in a planned set, play it in a set of random tunes, play it in another position in a set (some tunes are good starters, others good middles, others good finals), to play it another key… to TEACH it to someone else.

Re: Breadth or Depth?

You do both over the course of a lifetime.

Re: Breadth or Depth?

I would love to say I focus my energies on depth; doing as Richard does and exploring a tune in multiple ways until you truly have a relationship with that melody. But I don’t. I focus on breadth. As much as I’d love to have the skill, time and knowledge to make a deeper connection with the melodies, I find I am more interested in making a quick connection with another musician. Therefore my energies are directed towards learning as many bog-standard versions of session tunes as my head will hold so that when I meet another musician, we hopefully have lots of tunes in common. I wish I had the time to commit to both depth and breadth, but I’m never going to be anybody’s recording artist, so loading up on simple versions of tunes it is.

Re: Breadth or Depth?

Hmmm, learning lot’s of tunes (including an "on the fly" ability)… playing tunes better (or with more variation)…improving skills (what I call "chops)…Which is more important? Which leg on a three legged stool is the most important one? For me it’s always the shortest one.

Re: Breadth or Depth?

I agree with Jeff: BOTH breadth and depth!
Actually I find that learning more tunes means that I have more note figures "under my fingers" and thus can play the tunes I know well better.

Re: Breadth or Depth?

As a certain despot once said, quantity has a quality all of its own, and learning many tunes does eventually give you the same things that studying a few tunes carefully would yield, with the bonus that you know a lot more tunes.

I tell my (GHB) students that you don’t really start to get an appreciation for learning and practising until you’ve got your first fifty or so tunes memorised. Once you get to that point, it all starts to come together more quickly even when you have new and weird technical challenges.

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Re: Breadth or Depth?

This from Joe Fidkid sounds familiar:

"So it really is a continual balancing act for me. Sometimes I find myself in a place where I’ve got a bunch of tunes half-learned, and a bunch of neglected tunes that need sprucing up, and then I’m no good to anyone!"

I liked this from Jeff Lindqvist:

"For me, there are several levels of depth, e.g. being able to play a tune by heart, play it in public, play it in a planned set, play it in a set of random tunes, play it in another position in a set (some tunes are good starters, others good middles, others good finals), to play it another key… to TEACH it to someone else."

It’s interesting that so many votes come down on the breadth side. I would have expected more advice on the side of perfecting a smaller set of tunes. I mean, if I show you a small set of my best photographs (http://photokinesis.info) you’d think I was a great photographer. I don’t know if that metaphor carries over to my skills in ITM.

And, unless it’s just too obvious to mention, I didn’t hear many comments in favor of mastering your instrument or becoming a great musician: Learning tunes in other keys, Intuitive skills, Expressiveness, Drive, Authenticity (whatever that is).

Re: Breadth or Depth?

Somebody mentioned "wild variations" above, and someone else mentioned picking up variations he hears someone else doing.

To me it’s not about either of those things, but playing a tune over and over and finding possibilities that present themselves.

And I believe that there’s no dichotomy between "the tune" and "variations" but rather that a tune is a notion and there are practically endless functions that can be generated to create "the tune".

When I just learn one way to play a tune, such as when I’m cramming for a gig, I don’t feel that I "know" the tune. Memorising a string of fixed notes gets you through a gig but you’ve not interfaced with the tune; it hasn’t told you anything about itself, and you’ve not added any of yourself to it. That takes time.

Re: Breadth or Depth?

I notice that even good players who learn a lot of completely new tunes all the time tend to forget them very quickly. I learn new tunes - because playing the same ones all the time is dull - but usually the "new" tune is a melody I already know but haven’t previously taken the time to get the trick of. I think of it as new to me.

Re: Breadth or Depth?

I seem to know too many tunes that none of my friends play. Those were learned mostly because I heard them on some recording, then later found them rolling around in my mind until I was compelled to work them out.

Occasionally those locally "odd" tunes are handy if I drop in on a strange session. But I did get frustrated about never playing them with friends. Eventually I resolved not to work on any tune I didn’t learn in person from another musician.

I was able to stick to that scheme for a short while, but lately I’ve failed miserably. 🙁

Re: Breadth or Depth?

This is so nice conversation. The thing I see myself doing and getting annoyed is to play in a rush or really not articulating well. When I think I know the tune is the moment when I get distracted and stop being present with it. But it starts to feel and sound better when I really listen, focus, relax and investigate the tune. So yeah, depth over breadth.

I tend to find a tune that I love and then obsess over it and pair it with some another groovy piece. Right now I’m really organising my tunes and making sets of jigs I’ve played for years in the session but never at home or never started them in the session. Making them mine and carrying them myself properly.

Last year all of my old tunes became new when I really started to practice making rolls/ornamentation. So yeah, I guess I agree with the argument that the tunes are the skeleton and we make what we make about them. 🙂 variations are never ending!

Re: Breadth or Depth?

Both! I think the assumption that one or the other is better is false. You need both in order to be a good musician. I am always learning new tunes on flute and whistle because I play with a group of friends who have many more tunes than I do (20-45 years worth). I also listen to a lot of music and new tunes keep me energized to practice.
I also work on known tunes, work out variations that I’ve heard at a session or on a CD or just improve a pattern that’s a persistent challenge. I play long tones, arpeggios, scales and other regular patterns. I sight read to keep those skills sharp, and free play, putting together familiar patterns into new things. I’m revising old tunes too by learning them on concertina or finger-picked on guitar and trying to master new basic skills on them as well.

Re: Breadth or Depth?

I think sooner or later both factors will come into play. In my experience there is a significant difference between tunes you just pick up along the way and tunes you carefully learn, work out, take for a walk, develop arrangements for etc…
the latter are tunes you really get to know. In the meantime you pick up the rough outline of tunes in sessions or just from listening to lots of recordings. But those rough outlines get more and more fleshed out as time goes by.
Maybe you hear lots of different variations from other musicians at sessions. Maybe you learn to play the tune in two different keys. Maybe eventually it just sits in your head for so long that you pull out an instrument and mess around with it until you really get to grips with it. Maybe a friend wants to play it at a gig and you work out exactly what he’s doing with it so it’ll be good and tight. Maybe you hear it on an album and want to try out all the twiddles and ideas on the track.
Sooner or later it becomes a tune you really understand on a fundamental level. So that’s your depth covered. Coming from breadth.
On the other end of things it should be blindingly obvious that as you learn more and more tunes in exacting detail and with wide variation, you’re still learning more and more tunes. Maybe it’s a slower process but the end result is still knowing lots of tunes.
As to what to prioritize, well whatever seems important at the time I guess. For myself I’d say learning lots of tunes will get you going to sessions quicker. And sessions will improve your playing in ways practice might not. And if you get lots of tunes early on, you can choose the ones you most like to take home and mess around with and really develop a relationship with them. So breadth early on makes sense to me. Otherwise you’re relying on some outside source to tell you what tunes you should be getting to grips with. Which might ultimately be better for you, but is unlikely to be as satisfying.
But in the end, all roads lead to Rome, and anything that keeps you playing and listening and appreciating the music, and advancing your ability to play it is a good thing.

Re: Breadth or Depth?

Thanks so much for the interesting comments. I like what outwesht just said:

"As to what to prioritize, well whatever seems important at the time I guess. For myself I’d say learning lots of tunes will get you going to sessions quicker. And sessions will improve your playing in ways practice might not. And if you get lots of tunes early on, you can choose the ones you most like to take home and mess around with and really develop a relationship with them."