“Levelling Up”

“Levelling Up”

So I think I am starting to understand the “levels” of playing, and would love to hear what others think of as Levels of playing. Here’s my attempt to mentally organize the levels:

1 > Able to tune and play scales on your instrument
2> Able to play some simple tunes from memory, at a slow speed
3> Able to play a lot of tunes from memory, using some ornament/variation, at session speed
4> Able to compile tunes into good sets and lead sets (& able to swap out tunes as needed)
5> Able to lead sets that continue the musical “ambiance” of a session at the moment
6> Able to do #5 while listening, responding, riffing off the other lead players & creating gorgeous music

I’m a #3, working on #4 (I’ve put together some clunkers! And if the tune has already been played, for now that pretty much kills my entire set) 🙂

Re: “Levelling Up”

cancion, I’m curious how you intend to use such a chart of levels. Is it to track your progress? It’s a decent list, a reasonable starting point.

You’ll likely find that progress goes two steps forward, one step back. Or sometimes two steps forward, three steps back. And sometimes you plateau and it feels like no steps forward, yet plateaus are often when we’re subconsciously consolidating what we’ve learned up to that point.

You already know this, but progress is rarely as well defined as your list of levels implies. There’s overlap between different skills, and some goals turn out to be blurrier than you first imagined. For instance, early in your career as a session player, “a lot of tunes” might mean 20. In 10 years, “a lot of tunes” will more likely mean 300 or 600 or 1,000. The concept of “session speed” is also a moving target.

As a fiddler, when I started out, my first goal was simply to be able to play this music well enough that I could stand listening to myself. That took a while, rising to the challenges of intonation, tone, bow control, creating pulse and lift, learning the tunes, and sorting out cuts, rolls, and bowed triplets, etc.

Then I got hooked on sessions, and my goal shifted to being able to contribute to a good session, enough so that I’d be welcome there.

That meant I needed a complete kit of skills and abilities. I worried less about “levels” and focused more on assembling that kit as a whole. For me, the pieces of that kit are:

- play with pulse and lift, match the groove of my session mates.
- confidently play all the local tunes (there were about 500 when I started, but the list grew every week).
- play relaxed at whatever pace the leaders play.
- pick up tunes and variations by ear on the fly.
- contribute to the flow of a rollicking session.
- be good craic.

Crucially, these are all *social* skills. Yes, they involve woodshedding at home on my fiddle, but always with some aspect of social awareness in mind. It’s not just “learn 500 tunes” but “learn the 500 tunes my session mates play.” And all of them begin with close, attentive *listening.*

My list is pretty similar to yours, cancion. Keep after it, enjoy the journey, and never stop learning.

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Depending on the instrument there could be just weeks between 1 and 2, but there’s a very long gap between 2 and 3.

I’d put Level 3 as ‘able to play examples of all the rhythms used in ITM’. This takes time to learn and polish, even at less than session speed.

There might also be a Level 4 ‘able to memorise tunes relatively quickly’ stage, before we get to the ‘a lot of tunes with ornament and variation at session speed’.

Re: “Levelling Up”

P.S. In the early goings, I did learn many of the “standard” sets (e.g., Tarbolton/Longford Collector/Sailor’s Bonnet), and I made up some of my own. But sooner than later I found it more useful and interesting to create sets on the fly, letting tunes bubble up. If you go that route, it helps to be able to cue the tune change by saying the name of the tune, or at least the key/mode you’re going into. Any backer will appreciate that, and it helps the other melody players, too.

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I think of levels in this way.

Level 1: Can play tunes from memory at session speed.

Level 2: Can create own variations on tunes whilst playing at session speed.

Level 3: Can do solo gigs with a single accompanist.

Level 4: Can sound like a pro (Liz Carrol Matt Molloy Blacky OConnell etc)

Re: “Levelling Up”

Yes, good point about level 2 and level 3 being a long step! “A lot of tunes” to me, I think it means playing able to play along for 50% - 75% of a typical session in your area? (And I’m sure this depends on how advanced the session is, so this is a Very blurry level!)

Gimpy, I agree - I just wanted to be able to stand the sound of myself!

I don’t know where the idea of levels came from…
I think it was about observing good/lead players and hearing what they are doing, and kind of mentally mapping out the necessary journey to get to that point…( however I’m not ambitious about being a lead player anyway, I’m perfectly happy playing away as one of the gang.) Maybe it’s just about trying to capture the beauty of the music, that’s what it’s about.

Organized levels thought: maybe from video games? grades in school? or Suzuki book progression in violin? (We kids used to say to eachother, “I’m on book 3” and another kid would say proudly, “I’m on book 4!” 🙂

Oh yes, and making up sets on the fly is a skill I can dream of!

Re: “Levelling Up”

Setting goals is a good tool for actually working toward the thing you want to accomplish. Without some sort of plan, it’s easy to just faff about.

Knitting tunes together on the fly is my usual approach—when I start a tune at a session, I rarely have any idea what tune will come next. I’m not really even thinking in terms of a “set,” just the tune I’m playing in the moment. The more I get into the feel and mood of that tune, the easier it is to let go and trust that another tune will ask to be played next.

That might sound scary, but because I focus on just one tune at a time (at least until the last few bars of the tune I’m playing), it’s easier than thinking of a whole set.

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This is all fun- I have been evaluating my own playing similarly to this in the original post since I have “been back” playing for about a year now after a long 18 year break. I fall in the neighborhood of “3-” in that I have probably 30+ tunes I have memorized, but only a few at “session speed”. And as other’s have said, I think that session speed would vary quite a bit too.

Re: “Levelling Up”

Welcome back to playing, Eric! 🙂

For Wodanaz, I’ll add:

Level 7 > Able to perform solo, has gigs, and has fans!
( I honestly don’t know if there’s any level beyond that…)

Re: “Levelling Up”

@cancion: You could decide on ‘levels’ of playing in all sorts of different ways, focusing on different criteria – yours are as good as anyone’s. But what strikes me is that they are not necessarily reached in the order that you set them out in. You could, for example, play a handful of tunes to a very competent standard but be slow at acquiring new tunes, you could be an outstanding solo player but not be good at leading a session, you could be a reasonably good player but not be good at tuning your instrument, or you could put good sets together but be a terrible player. So your ‘levels’ are (in part, at least) really a list of skills needed for being a good trad player, in no particular order. Whether or not you are aware of it, you are probably acquiring all of these skills simultaneously.

Re: “Levelling Up”

“In 10 years, “a lot of tunes” will more likely mean 300 or 600 or 1,000.”

Uh oh, I’m in trouble. 😉

For what it’s worth, I tend to think of music skills in just three levels to make it easier to define where I am, and more importantly be happy where I am. Because I’m probably not going to ever get much better. So I think of it as something like the medieval guild system for craftsmen (and apologies in advance for the gendered nouns):

At the Apprentice level you’re anything from a rank beginner to someone getting close to doing good work, but not there yet. You can use all the help you can get.

At the Journeyman level you’re no longer a beginner. You’re competent to do the everyday work, but you’re not at Master level. Which is okay! The world needs journeyman-level workers.

And then there is the Master Craftsman level, Someone at the absolute top level of skill, qualified to teach the Apprentices and help guide the Journeymen.

It’s not a perfect fit because Journeymen were expected to transition to Master craftsmen and that doesn’t happen that often in ITM. Anyway, translated to ITM we have our Masters in the iconic musicians like Coleman, Burke, Molloy etc. I’m happy to join my session mates at the Journeyman level. I don’t need to be a Master. I’ll be perfectly happy at a Journeyman level of skill in this music for life, where I can hang in there reasonably well in a session as long as it isn’t ultra high-end where only Masters need apply. And I’ll help the Apprentices where I can.

Re: “Levelling Up”

Here’s a simple classification. Everyone is at level 2.

1. Worse than you at your present level
2. You at your present level
3. Better than you at your present level
4. Better than you will ever be


Re: “Levelling Up”

LOL, Conical, my numbers there were meant to be aspirational. 🙂

Of course, not everyone aspires to know a lot of tunes. Some are happy to play fewer tunes well. Some seem to learn tunes at the expense of honing their musical skills. And some do both. We’re all different in ability, motivation, available time, etc.

I like Stiamh’s schema, except that I’m always backsliding toward #1. 😉

Re: “Levelling Up”

When I see “able to do gigs” or similar wording in these “levels”, it assumes that the ultimate goal is to “be a paid performer”. I find that sad.

I do my share of paid gigs, but it’s not even on the radar as far as my goals with the music.

It’s about making music first and foremost. That’s more important than number of tunes or speed.

I think it’s possible to create beautiful music if you’ve been playing a month, a year, a decade, or a lifetime if you focus on what’s important.

These “levels” some have offered are entirely arbitrary and have a lot of assumptions about one’s motivations for being a player of traditional Irish music.

Is it useful to have a lot of tune under your belt?
Sure, it means that you get to play more tunes in a session.

Is it useful to be able to play tunes quickly?
Sure, if you’re having to play with others who play quickly or are playing for dancers.

Does having lots of tunes or being able to play quickly mean you’re a better musician?
In some cases yes, and others no.

I’ll take the new player who can play a few tunes slowly with lovely lift and phrasing over the tune junky who can play 500 tunes at a breakneck speed with a flat affect and no life to the playing.

Some of us (me, for example) play traditional Irish music because of the lifetime of work available. Some are looking to be in the spotlight. Some (me, as well) are escapees from an earlier life in classical music and found a virtuoso music genre that had a more accessible and worldwide community/social dynamic (and free beer). Some enjoy the intricacies and ambiguities of the tunes themselves. Some are academics and revel in the historical and ethomusicological aspect of the music and the players. Some are “collectors” and just are wired to want to learn hundreds/thousands of tunes.

Each of those personas will have their own concept of progress with this music. There is no single model of “levels” that is meaningful or that anyone should feel like they need to judge themselves by.

I’m with Stiamh on this one.

Re: “Levelling Up”

… the ultimate goal is to “be a paid performer”.

Er, no. The ultimate goal is chilling on your front porch or deck with friends, playing your favourite tunes and songs.

Being a “paid performer” can initially be a bit of a wow, but it quickly becomes too much like work. There are certain expectations when being paid. Yup, it’s basically work.

Re: “Levelling Up”

“Level 3: Can do solo gigs with a single accompanist.”

Level 3.5: Can do solo gigs without accompaniment.

Level 3.6: Can play in tune on an instrument which is out of tune.
Level 3.7: Can play anything in the “old style” on an instrument which is perfectly in tune.
Level 3.8: Can play reels in 2/2 with a backer with a less than solid sense of rhythm and a melody player who plays in 4/4. 😉
Level 3.9: Play another set of reels with the opposite approach (4/4, unsteady backing, another melody player in 2/2…)
Level 3.95: Can play jigs with two backers - one who’s doing DUD DUD and one who’s doing DUD UDU.)

Re: “Levelling Up”

Having said that (above), sometimes, given the meagre financial return, it’s more a labour of love.

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LOL, enjoying all the Level ideas!
I like conical’s simple Levels very much.

And very good points…
you can play a few tunes very beautifully, or 1000 tunes badly…I guess my initial levels emphasize too much on quantity / speed (although I think to participate satisfactorily in most sessions, you do need quantity/speed?) (That is, if playing in sessions is even your end goal…)
So Levels are very personal (not a surprising conclusion when it comes to music!)

Addition to Stiamh’s levels:
“Worse than you’ve ever heard yourself play, and you wonder why…”

Re: “Levelling Up”

I agree with Michael, but most people here aren’t talking about fame and glory, or speed for speed’s sake.

For all the sessions (and gigs) I’ve played since the 1970s, I’ve spent exponentially more time playing at home purely for my own enjoyment, to spend time inside the tunes. And as much as I enjoy a good session, I’m completely happy playing tunes alone in my kitchen. In fact, I’ve done that for years at a time when I’ve lived places not only far from another Irish trad (or any other) musician but well isolated from other people at all.

There are many motivations to make your own music, and we each follow our own muse. But if you start from a love for the tunes, that will shine through.

FWIW, it seems clear that cancion is talking about the stepping stones to becoming a good session musician. With that in mind, speed isn’t about racing at a breakneck pace, but if you can’t get your dance tunes up above 80 bpm, you’ll be left out of many, many sessions, or playing much for dancers. And building a repertoire of tunes isn’t about topping some magical number or just amassing tunes, but if you can play only 30 tunes, then you’ll spend most of your time at most sessions sitting quietly. (You’d also be missing out on playing a shedload of brilliant tunes!)

I suspect people on this thread have mentioned gigging and playing solo because it’s a benchmark for knowing whether or not you can do it and other people will enjoy your music. It’s not necessarily about being in the limelight but finding out whether you can play well without the sonic and emotional camouflage of a session. After doing a gig (or competing in a fleadh, which no one’s mentioned so far), playing among your friends at a session might feel like a walk in the park.

I know people who seem to need the ongoing affirmation that gigging can provide, but I’m not one of them. I quit gigging many years ago because I’d much rather play music for the simple sake of playing music.

Re: “Levelling Up”

Interesting topic, what you’ve described is one dimension of playing. What you see in the comments is that there are many other dimensions in playing that you could develop.

Interesting because the dimension you describe is one I invested quite a lot in. And laying a focus on just this dimension allows you to play in sessions everywhere. Those are worthwhile skills to have and could very well be your main focus.

As you notice, everyone has their own reasons for playing the music
With that comes their own focus.

It’s good to focus when there are so many aspects you could be focusing on. Make sure you lay your focus on what’s the most important to you. Not what anyone else tells you.

Re: “Levelling Up”

dance music. rhythm is king. 3 levels:
0 - can keep up with session/recording/band mates
1 - can play in time with metronome (especially at slow settings)
2 - can play in time without metronome (solo)
(to split hairs, add 0a, 1a, 2a - “with phrasing”)

Re: “Levelling Up”

There is one level to aspire to: your progress should be in balance with your ambition. If you can reach and maintain that level at as many points on your musical journey as possible, you’ll stay realistic and end up happy. And that’s all that matters.

I would add, that it’s not always the case that playing gigs are anathama to pure enjoyment. I get just as much pleasure from playing a gig as I do from playing around a camp fire or a pub table, and I’m still making a living from it after 30 years, so that’s affirmation enough for me!

Re: “Levelling Up”

Gimpy seems to be the one who got what I meant by adding gigging as a level. Gigging is a milestone because as gimpy pointed out you have to stand alone in front of a crowd your tone timing and mistakes will be there out front for the world to hear. All eyes and ears are on you and you alone. You can get away with a lot in a session. Gigging solo is a totally different level. You have to play with variation and energy (which is why I put variation as the level before gigging). None of this has anything to do with money. Also regular gigging will prepare you for the next level which is pro. When I say pro I’m still not referring to money. I’m talking about playing level. It makes you work on your tunes and a regular spot makes you constantly play refine your playing and prepare for long hours. Often the casual and friendly atmosphere of a session won’t provide the pressure needed to push you to the next level.

Re: “Levelling Up”

It wasn’t your remarks I was referring to, Wodanaz! I agree with you.

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I know Jimi. I was clarifying for others who mistook my meaning. As I said Gimpy got it.

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Got it! Bloody internet chatting! 🤦‍♂️

Re: “Levelling Up”

I agree about the “performance level”. For example, if you forget a bit of a tune, there won’t be somebody next to you to cover you up/remind you of the right notes! It’s definitely more demanding…not everybody wants to take it on (including me 🙂

Thanks, this has been a thoughtful (and amusing) thread that has got me thinking!

Re: “Levelling Up”

“Push you to the next level”

I guess if that’s your relationship to the role of music in your life.

I play music to escape from the daily pressure of my work life, not to constantly feel the need to “level up”.

Session playing for me is the end game.

I’m not talking about big sessions where you can hide out, I’m talking small sessions, 5-7 players, that’s the sweet spot for me. Back when classical music (silver flute, baroque/renaissance winds) was my life 40+ years ago, playing in small chamber groups were what I enjoyed most. It requires a high level of competence on your instrument but is very different from being a soloist.

My joy both with playing in chamber groups and small sessions is in the group interaction creating and sharing a collective musical experience.

I don’t enjoy solo playing, even though I’m quite capable of it when required. Reminds me too much of the solo flute competitions when I was younger.

We’re all soloists when practicing at home. I’d never judge anyone as being a lesser player for not aspiring to be a soloist in public.

Re: “Levelling Up”

Indeed, some lovely players all but refused to play without at least one other musician in the mix. P.J. Hayes springs to mind.

But again, I think the shorthand of internet typing (which occasionally turns into actual communication!) is getting in the way of understanding each other. I suspect what people mean by “push you to the next level” is simply improving as a musician. And I’d wager that most of us are mindful of the aspects of our own playing that we’d like to improve. There’s great joy in playing tunes and catching up with a few friends every week for years, but that’s compounded when the music gets better over those years, even incrementally.

Solo performing is one way find out what you need to work on. There are other ways. Fortunately, people can try them all out and find what works for them and for their goals.

Michael, I’m with you on the pleasures of smaller sessions, though my ideal is just 2 or 3 melody players. I love being able to hear every nuance, and the interaction can be so immediate and responsive.

Re: “Levelling Up”

I learned how to unicycle a few years ago. A skill I highly recommend as once you know how to unicycle it’s just like riding a unicycle and you can always do it. Anyways, they have a standard set of levels and skills that people here may find interesting. https://uniusa.org/USA-Skill-Levels . What I like about it is it’s not like you have to follow it, but if you pay attention to it and note that you’re on a few level 3 or 4 skills, but missing some 1 or 2 level skills, it’s high time you focus on those fundamentals.

I think this thread is pretty interesting.

I’m still pretty beginner as learning and remembering tunes is slow going, though it’d be better if I could find three hours a day to practice / play.

It does seem that it’s better to know 100 tunes that you can play well at session speed than 20 with ornamentation, but maybe I’m wrong.

Re: “Levelling Up”

Vechey: regarding - “It does seem that it’s better to know 100 tunes that you can play well at session speed than 20 with ornamentation, but maybe I’m wrong.”

The role and meaning of those two words “with ornamentation” in the context of this thread is best left to its own discussion, and I encourage you to seek out previous threads on the subject.

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Vechey that’s a matter of opinion based on your goals. If your goal is to play at a session the more tunes the better because you’ll be able to play more. If your goal is to be a great soloist slowing down to really work on tunes will help you grow as a player. It also gets easier the more you do. So ornamentation or tricks and techniques that you learn on one tune can be transferred to all of some of your new tunes as well. As to finding the time that’s also based on your priorities. In this lifetime we have a time budget. People get what they truly want as opposed to everything they would like. If you want to be the best unicyclist you need to give up music. If you want to be the best musician you need to give up the unicycle. Or if you just want to have casual fun with both or even more things you do them all. You have to give up something to gain something if you want extreme success in any endeavor.

Re: “Levelling Up”

As far as “tune accumulation” - hopefully that doesn’t cause stress!
I think my experience is pretty typical…go to new session knowing just a handful of tunes.
Everybody polite, names exchanged, then sooner or later they’ll ask you for a tune you would like to play. So they play “Maid Behind the Bar” with you and “The Banshee” and then they go on to play their own sets (which you sit out, since you can’t play them). But you inevitably hear a few tunes which you especially like and think, “I want to play that!” and the tunes follow you home, and you find yourself looking them up here…and then you learn them, because it’s fun (and you don’t want to go back every time asking for “Maid Behind the Bar”)… So from there, your tune repertoire slowly grows …

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I don’t buy into this “if you want to be the best X you have to give up everything else” myth.

I think this often is presented as projection by the person giving this advice. Perhaps that’s what they had to do, but it’s not true for everyone.

Maybe if you’re competing in the Olympics, but I’ve heard this advice given to players: “Oh, if you want to be a good flute player you have to give up the whistle” and the many variants on that theme.

Horsepucky! Balderdash!

Everyone has a different ability to acquire and master skills, some struggle to master one instrument, others, and I can think of a bunch of players, are masters of multiple. I won’t name names, but I know several symphony musicians who are also absolute masters of their chosen traditional instruments, as well as traditional players who are masters of several instruments.

I’m somewhere on that spectrum. I apparently have a brain that is wired to switch between multiple instruments and play at a reasonably high level with ease.

I’d get bored out of my mind if I had to just play one.

Take all advice you get from others with a grain of salt, including mine.

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If the average man lives to be approx 80 years there is certainly time to master more than one thing. If you consider hitting an instrument super hard for 20 years practicing multiple hours per day it’s certainly possible and has been done for sure.

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A wise person once said, “When you say, ‘I don’t have time to practice music,’ you actually mean ‘Practicing music isn’t as important as other things I need to do.’” It’s true that we all have to prioritize the things we want to do in life.

Economists talk about opportunity costs—money spent on one thing can’t be used to buy some other thing. This works with time, too. When you’re riding your unicycle, that’s time that you’re *not* playing fiddle (unless you chance carrying your fiddle and bow while atop the unicycle).

It looks like an either/or choice, do one or the other. “ If you want to be the best unicyclist you need to give up music.”

But I’m not convinced it works that way, at least not for everyone.
First off, there are limits to how many hours a day you can physically play an instrument without suffering repetitive strain injuries and/or going mad.
Second, our brains learn best in snippets of 20 minutes (or less) at a time. Every neuro study recommends taking breaks between those bouts of focus. Doing something completely different actually enhances what you can accomplish when you return to the music.
Third, I don’t want to listen to a musician who doesn’t also have a life outside music. Music is about expression, and if you aren’t engaged in the world in other ways, you won’t have much to express. Being a master musician has to be about more than technical virtuosity.

In short, we each have 16 or so hours of wakefulness a day. The best musicians in the world spend 6 to 8 hours a day on their musicianship. That still leaves 8 hours to do other things. Read a book, go for a walk, plant a garden, learn to cook amazing food, ride a unicycle. It’s not a zero-sum game.

And if we’re playing Irish trad music, bear in mind that for generations, nearly all the best players also worked full-time jobs—they were masons, iron mongers, farmers, raised stock, cut turf, worked office jobs. Larry Redican worked in a cosmetics factory for 30 years, Paddy Canny was a farmer, Tommy Peoples was a Garda, Mark Donnellan raises pigs, Sean Smyth is a physician, Brian Conway is a retired attorney, Paddy Glackin was an RTE sports producer, and so on.

We rise to our potential not through the sheer quantity of hours in a given pursuit but in the *quality* of those hours. Yes, you have to put time in to get good at anything. But what really matters is the focus, self-awareness, and heart you give it.

It’s also true that the more time you spend in online forums, the less time you have for making music. 😉

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“Everyone has a different ability to acquire and master skills”….

I agree. There’s all sorts of factors involved… opportunity, exposure to the music, good health, youth(time is on your side) and I still believe that some people are more naturally talented than others although we’re not supposed to say such things these days. Certainly, the other aspects plus lots of hard work can make up for most of the disadvantages which might be due to a lack of the latter.

As Gimpy suggests(He posted as I was typing), you have to *want* to learn and practise and music needs to be high up on your list of priorities.
It is possible to excel on more that one thing in life and in different areas of music too. It all depends how focused you are really. Unfortunately, I tend to have a bit of grasshopper mind at times which doesn’t help.

There is always a limit though and many people who claim to have multiple interests and skills are often just trying to kid themselves and the rest of us on. You read about them achieving high promotions in their careers and so on. Yet, they also find enough time to excel in golf, sailing, amateur dramatics, music, mountaineering and goodness knows what else!
I might be wrong but I can’t see how they have enough hours in the day and/or focus to manage to do all of these things justice especially if they also see themselves as “high flyers” in their careers.

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With all due respect to masters of yesteryear there is a higher level of playing today. Paddy Glackin was wonderful but he’s no Liz Carrol or Cathal Hayden. Sean McGuire was though but he was a pro musician I believe.

The unicycle is great though. It’s important to have balance in life.


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Wodanaz, have you ever listened to Larry Redican? Willie Clancy? Willie was a carpenter, and remains a paragon of uilleann piping.

Johnny Jay, in my experience, the highest achievers in any one field are also highly accomplished in other areas. They may have one exceptional talent, but their enthusiasm and focus spill over into nearly everything they do.

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So my assumption was that us average people already will have to work a full work week. With the time left over we do have time to become a master of one thing. You could work a full week and still fit several hours of practice in per day. Or dedicate entire weekends or one full day per weekend and get very good over the course of twenty years. However if you split that limited free time that the average person had after work it will be less likely that they will master a mix of different pursuits.

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Actually, studies show that it’s far, far better to put in three 20-minute stints every day than to lump all your practice time into a weekend. Our brains consolidate new skills during rest and when those synapses are reactivated at regular (daily) intervals.

As for mastering several different pursuits, yes, people who plop down in front of the telly or surf their phones after work every day aren’t going to accomplish much in life. But there are still hours in a day to hone your skills in more than one pursuit.

I found that the parenting years were a challenge—work an 8+ hour day, make meals, do house chores, play with kids, be available for school work questions, etc. But I still found time every day to play music, and in the meantime did volunteer work in my community, published in journals (outside my work field), and learned two sports I’d never participated in before. Importantly, we did not own a television.

You only live once. Don’t waste it being a spectator.

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“With the time left over we do have time to become a master of one thing.”

That may be true for you, Wodanaz, but not necessarily for everyone.

I do agree with gimpy and others that the best (but not the only way) way, at least for me, to truly learn anything is in small incremental chunks, repeated over time. Practicing 8 hours a day I have found isn’t any more effective for me than an hour or even 20 minutes, the key is the constant reinforcement and (hopefully) honest self-evaluation of the issues in one’s playing. That second one can be brutally challenging at times.

There’s lot of time in a day for many small incremental chunks for a variety of tasks, whether it’s learning a tune set or riding a unicycle.

In my life I spend my work day learning about and working with complex software systems to be able to determine if they are of value for our product, and at the same time, I’m constantly working on tunes on all of the instruments I play. These two activities are both about attaining mastery, and somehow, I can keep them quite separate in my brain.

Again, what I keep driving home is that what’s true for any one of us isn’t necessarily true for all of us. Brains are funny things and we’re often wired quite differently.

Some of us will master one thing, some will master many, and I see no problem with that. The challenge is knowing what’s possible for yourself and tuning out the noise from others who tell you what you can’t accomplish.

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I agree with gimpy’s last comment. Much of this is “mindset”, for lack of a better word. For five years, I have worked an intensive post-doctoral position in a new country, but I’m amazed to think I’ve had almost 3 hours of practice per day on my chosen instruments -- plural -- in that time, most days of the week, while also learning a number of languages, feeding myself, paying the bills and being social (and playing in lots of sessions!). Long before that, I became a fairly accomplished oboe player while being in high school and secondary school, with all that that entails, without ever really feeling I was running out of time.

An average Netflix episode is what, one hour. Taking the 20-minute-rule above, this is three of those chunks. Even taking 10 minutes to work on a tricky triplet or a tune will help you progress.

Also, the upside of this music is that *listening* to it increases our ability, once you’ve reached a baseline ability on your instrument. Thus, you can get things like tune learning “for free” (sometimes), if you’re lucky enough to be able to listen to music while you work or go for walks or whatever.

*Edit* To reflect Michael’s valuable comments above, the brain is indeed adept at keeping separate modalities (as it were) separate. Juggling or unicycle skills in no way push out whistling or Welsh skills from our brains.

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I don’t think that we disagree that much. I think the main disagreement is the definition of mastery. You can good at a lot of things.

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I think in particular instrument-specific social media groups that feature an endless stream of videos of all-Ireland champions and the top 1% of the top 1% of players have set an unattainable high expectation bar and distorted the definition of what many players may consider to be “mastery”. It certainly has had a chilling “star factor” effect in my experience in some players who feel like they’ll never be good enough.

What is mastery anyway? Is it just technical prowess? Is it also knowing the composer and history the setting of every tune you play? Is it being able to make your own reeds for pipes, tune your own reeds for concertinas and accordions? Who decides what is mastery?

My definition of mastery for myself in the context of the performance of this music is the ability to, with deliberate conscious intent and complete ease, put every note in a tune exactly in time, pitch, duration, and expression of your choosing with the purpose of evoking a specific intentional emotional contour in both myself and those listening.

I’ve got a long way to go, and I think I’ll always have a long way to go until I probably drop dead with an instrument in my hand.

This lifelong pursuit of mastery, at least in my personal definition of it, is what really appeals to me about this music. There is no end to the work.

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And you can also attain genuine mastery at more than one thing.

Honestly Wodanaz, it’s not as rare or difficult as you’re making it out to be. To excel in any given pursuit, or more than one:

- it helps if you have natural aptitude.
- you have to be vigilant about making efficient use of your time.
- you have to understand how you best learn and apply that understanding every day.
- you have to develop honest, accurate, well-calibrated feedback loops to regularly check your progress.
- ideally, you find top-flight mentors to help you make the most of your time and work through specific challenges.
- you have to be able to focus with clarity on immediate goals.
-you have to enjoy the pursuit (even when it’s frustrating).

Some people may not know how to do these things, may not have the habits of doing them. Some such people think that their own limits apply to everyone else. But these skills and mindset are all learnable.

There are two key concepts when pursuing excellence:

Where am I? Here. What time is it? Now. (Billie Jean King’s advice to Martina Navratilova)

Don’t let the people who say it can’t be done get in the way of the people doing it.

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Well, I never thought this thread would lead to a clip of somebody riding a unicycle while fiddling Irish Trad….but it makes perfect sense! 🙂

I like the very specific step-by-step levels of unicycling. There is something reassuring about it to me…maybe because the detailed breakdown of skills makes it seem so attainable. (It’s also probably saved a lot of people from serious injuries!). In violin, the Suzuki books are also a step-by-step acquisition of skills, starting with songs like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and moving on towards Vivaldi concertos, which don’t seem hard to play at all, because the skills have been so incrementally learned.

I’m not saying that Irish fiddlers need Suzuki (!) but just musing that taking an “incremental” approach in music/Trad is comfortable, consistent, and should probably yield good results….
And, inspiring advice above about time management!

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Matt Molly said it best. “By the time I’m good enough I’ll be too old.”

I think all-Ireland is a reasonable mark for the definition of a master of the instrument although a Sylvain Barou or a Liz Carrol would be even better than that level.

Anyway I made two assumptions when I said to be the best (not good, not great, not able to lead a session) one should limit oneself to a single instrument.

Those two assumptions were as follows:

1.) The fact that most people on this board would need to work a full time job unless retired.

2.) Are already adults. So you didn’t grow up in Comhaltas and didn’t already spend 20 or so years already playing an instrument.

So as an adult I still believe it is possible to work full time and reach the very top level as a musician (not good, not competent, not proficient) but you’d have to work hard and limit yourself to focus on a single goal.

Of course there is no reason one should do that. It’s perfectly fine to have a casual hobby or many and just have fun.

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Many of us work full time and also spend high quality time and energy practicing daily. You seem to assume that working full time makes it impossible to achieve mastery because, in your mind more time practicing = better musician.

Maybe that’s what you need to feel like you’re making progress, and that’s fine for you, but it’s absolutely not true for everyone as several of us have talked about earlier in the thread.

Practicing many hours of the day for me is not more effective than 20 quality minutes in the morning and 20 quality minutes in the evening, and in fact would probably be detrimental to my body, risking RSI and other issues.

We’ve already talked about the efficacy of short duration, regular daily reinforcement practice as, for many of us, being the most effective way to progress, not sitting in a chair 12 hours a day practicing.

Some of us weren’t in Comhaltas but have been playing and actively working on traditional Irish music for well over 20 years, and some of us, like me, over 50 years as musicians overall. It’s way beyond the “casual hobby” stage for many of us, it’s as much a part of our identity as our work and family, and we’re all on a road to “mastery” however we define it. Maybe some of us will reach our goals, but they are our goals. Your goals and definition of “mastery” are your own.

How will you know for yourself that you have achieved “mastery”? You must have some measure since you have some strong beliefs about what it would take to achieve it. How will you know when you’ve arrived?

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Thinking about it more, in my mind mastery is about a continuous commitment to being on a journey, not about having arrived.

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Frankie Gavin is a master Irish trad fiddler. Top tier. Agreed?

Stephane Grappelli plays circles around him here because Frankie’s out of his element:

I’m guessing Mr. Grappelli might’ve struggled to sound pure drop trad if they’d ripped into Jenny’s Welcome to Charlie. But his variations would’ve been mighty. 🙂

So what’s “mastery”? You can assuredly be an acknowledged master and not be “the best.”

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“… mastery is about a continuous commitment to being on a journey, not about having arrived.”

Well said, Michael, couldn’t agree more.

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Again every level of play is great. The only reason I said anything about cutting anything was when the poster said something to the effect of finding time to practice while mentioning other hobbies. So my simple answer was to decide which hobbies took precedent and take the time from the others.

But I learned some good news today. All you have to do is practice for 20 minutes per day no matter your age and as many instruments and other things as you like and you’ll be a master of everything. That’s great news indeed!

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Yep, that’s it! Happy to be of assistance! 🤓

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Hi gimpy - what you’ve posted there is only half the story. I may still have that programme on VHS tape, but I seem to remember that Messrs G & G have a go at “Farewell To Ireland” later on, and the shoe is on the other foot.
Both are great at what they do, certainly “masters”, but fair play to them both for moving out of their comfort zone into each others’ genre. As is usual in these situations, the results can be mixed.

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About focusing on more than one thing. When I was working I had no difficulty focusing on practice for a period two or three times a day and focusing just as hard on the puzzles and details of work, much as Michael Eskin describes. But I tended, and still do, to only focus on one instrument at a time.

Having retired I still get engrossed in the more interesting parts of what I did for work, to help a nonprofit organization, but most of the time without much time pressure. Now that both are ‘hobbies’ I find that and practicing music tend to displace each other for periods of time. There is a certain daily ‘need’ that either can meet.

OK, I notice multitasking gets harder as I get older, but that may be because I can mainly avoid ‘practicing’ it. However, I suspect I couldn’t have focused enough on an instrument to get far when focused on school work, but there are plenty if kids who can. I’m different to them.

@Michael Eskin. When you were developing your ABC tools, which at one point said you were setting aside for a time but actually continued and added more features, and then more, and still more, did it steal any music playing time?

@gimpy. Great observations thanks. However, I learn most of my tunes as a ‘spectator’ whilst applying no conscious effort or focus. By listening. Much as Piwomer (who seems to be a one of the ‘can focus on multiple things people’) suggested.

Oh yes, and to the OP. Levels sounds a bit too much like ‘project milestones’ to me. As people suggested way up thread, I don’t find most things so one dimensional. There are multiple skills to improve in parallel and at times they get ahead of or behind one another.

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Hmm that is very true, David50!

However I think the very reason I was thinking of “levels” was because my natural state is to drift around in my playing, absorbing tunes here and there, messing around joyfully on my fiddle/violin every morning, playing whatever I feel like. So was trying to organize myself a bit…but will think how helpful that actually is! I do need to practice playing tunes more in sets though 🙂 I tried Gimpy’s relaxed “bubbling up” approach but for me what bubbles up over and over again, is the last tune that I learned…bit tedious of me!

As far as mastering of multiple instruments/time…I also play classical guitar and during my intense learning time I did not pick up my violin at all. I was just very absorbed in the learning for guitar. I think I’m the type that likes to do a few chosen things, but do them well…there’s an infinite amount of time one could spend on anything (how clean does the house have to be? how elaborate does dinner have to be? how good does this work project have to be? ) so - decisions/priorities have to be made!

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David50, it did, and then it didn’t and hasn’t since. 🙂

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Gimpy, the Gavin/Grappeli video reminds me of one of those dance battles or mic drop contests! So fun to see the two Masters.

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kenny, I’d love to see the Farewell to Erin part of that duet!

Of course, that’s me point—people can attain mastery of something, but it’s bound to be within a fairly narrow niche. Mastery doesn’t make a person “the best,” just masterful at what they do.

David50, good point about absorbing tunes through osmosis. That may well be a case where being a spectator is productive. Yet you’d probably learn the tune more accurately, in greater detail, and more quickly if you were *actively* listening to it (perhaps lilting along). And I’d argue you don’t really *know* the tune—for the purposes of playing it at a session—until you’ve played it on your instrument.

So yes, you can learn some things by observing others doing them, but you won’t get good at doing them until you get off the sidelines and onto the pitch and foot the ball yourself.

Somewhere (maybe his memoir) I’ve read Martin Hayes talking about the value and joy of playing for good listeners, and that he knew people who’d listened deeply to this music all their lives though they did not play an instrument. In that sense, they knew it very well and were masters of appreciation for the music. Their presence and interaction with the tunes could make you play better. But they were not master musicians.

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( but notice that he doesn’t ride in a figure 8, or play a fast reel…so there is still level X, heh heh 🙂

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cancion, in the early goings everybody struggles with building and leading sets. It’s a tricky skill to think of how a tune goes (so you can start it) while you’re still playing the tune before. Like anything, the more you do it, the easier it gets.

It’s absolutely fine to line up some premeditated sets and practice them so you can play them well at your next session. Over time, if those start to feel stale to you (or your session mates), work on swapping in a different tune into the middle of three, say. This not only gives you a slightly different set, but you’ll also gain experience in having options and making choices on the fly. That’s a stepping stone to creating sets completely on the the fly.

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Good idea, thanks! Taking my “prefab” sets and swapping/jiggering with them, is a small step forward that I think I could work on.

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Yep, “prefab” sets are also “modular,” in that you can replace one tune with another. Of course, some tunes will fit better than others, but that’s how you learn what works and what doesn’t.

One way to do this is to find a replacement tune that starts on the same note as the tune you’re swapping out.

Say your prefab set starts with the jig The Haunted House in G. From there, you usually go into Mist Covered Mountain in Ador, starting on the first finger E on the D string. To replace it, think of other jigs that start on that E: Mug of Brown Ale (aka Old Man Dillon), Fair-haired Boy, Whelan’s Fancy, Morrison’s, the Market Town, Spotted Dog, the Sanctuary, Sandy M’Gaff, and so on.

Some of these (Mug of Brown Ale, Fair-haired Boy) start very similarly to Mist Covered Mountain, so you might find it a challenge to go into the tune you want. That’s a good thing to practice! Others are different enough to minimize that confusion.

The cool thing is that some of these tunes are in the same key/mode as Mist Covered Mountain (Ador), and others are in Edor or Amaj, giving your set a completely different feel.

If you pick a tune you already know, the set will still feel comfortable. If you pick a tune you don’t know, you’ll expand your repertoire and maybe that of your session as well.

Of course there are many other ways to choose a replacement tune, so consider those other options and see where they lead you. Regardless, it doesn’t hurt, at least in the beginning, to have a “system” in mind to guide you.

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Gavin and Grappelli - “Farewell To Ireland” - gimpy, I’ll see what I can do. I have the tape and “Farewell To Erin” [sic ]* - follows “Sweet Georgia Brown”, the second last track.

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Grappelli is one of my favourite fiddlers—so natural and effortless—and it’d be grand to hear what he does with a trad reel. But please don’t put yourself out on my account.

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Thanks for your guidance Gimpy, always appreciate it! 🙂

As far as “mastery” / accomplishments on this thread…rereading some of the posts…I think everybody is operating based on different scenarios. For example, being able to participate more in a session, vs being a very accomplished top player, vs playing on the level of a Jascha Heifetz…
I am pretty sure Jascha Heifetz practiced for hours every day, and the pro musicians I know, do play for at least several hours daily - learning new music, polishing their material for touring & concerts, rehearsing with group or accompanist, etc. I doubt that many people could work a full-time job on top of putting that much physical and mental energy into music! (Although some teach, but not 8h/day.)

But I don’t aspire to be a Great One…so that level of practice/play is not necessary (phew).

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I’ve only been playing three years, with a one year distraction in that for guitar/health. As an adult (44) I’m proud of where I’ve come in that time on the fiddle, and take it a day at a time while enjoying the journey, but there are some external milestones I’d like to have for my own personal satisfaction.

It’s my personal dream to find a few years where I can really dedicate to the music. The ideal scenario I’d like to is have a two year stint where I can dedicate (time and energy wise) three hours a day to music with at least an hour a day to exercise and health.

I think this level of focus is attainable (which makes me super privileged) in a couple of years.

This thread has been personally very interesting to read and has only increased my inspiration to find that level of extended focus.

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I’m in a lucky position, because I’m 20 years older and retired, where I do have the time to dedicate several hours a day to music. But I only play one instrument, and I soon discovered that spending more time playing wasn’t actually increasing my rate of progress much. When I’m practising on my own, I can rarely manage several hours’-worth of high quality concentration a day even if I split up the sessions, and quality is a lot more productive than quantity.

Quality listening time is just as important as playing time though. I probably do at least another hour of that every day, and I regard it as part of my practice.

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> quality listening time is …

as I tell new Contra and English dancers, “relax, [dancing] is just a way to listen to the music”, so I should tell musicians, “relax, [playing music] is just a way to listen to the music”

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I practice for 12 to 14 hours per day on weekends and then perhaps an hour or two during work day time permitting. In the past I’ve taken up to a year off from work in order to practice form 12 to 14 hrs per day. I have made great breakthroughs as a result of these long sessions. In addition to the breakthroughs one builds endurance. My gigs are 3 hours long. So it’s important for me not to gas out. There’s a huge difference between sitting in a session where you can take breaks and sit out tunes and having to play constantly and elaborately for 3 hours straight. In addition it gives me stronger lungs which makes a huge difference I mean a night and day difference in tone and volume in flute playing. I can’t recommend it enough.

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What’s your band Wodanaz? I’m assuming you’re not playing solo flute for 3 hours. Any videos?

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Yes. Solo flute for 3 hrs on some days. Other times musicians sit in with me on shifts. No band as such.

I’m not putting myself out there as a great fluter. So no vids. I’m only charting my progress as a fluter. I’m not there yet. Just working hard.

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Wodanaz, I get the general sense from some your previous posts that you’re in the L.A. area. If that’s still the case, very curious about where in L.A. there is live trad other than at the seemingly fewer and fewer sessions. I co-host the Sunday session at The Auld Dubliner in Long Beach once a month, of course, you’re most welcome to join us!

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Thanks for the offer!

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ad ho·mi·nem
/ˌad ˈhämənəm/
(of an argument or reaction) directed against a person rather than the position they are maintaining.
“vicious ad hominem attacks”
in a way that is directed against a person rather than the position they are maintaining.
“these points come from some of our best information sources, who realize they’ll be attacked ad hominem”

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Who’s being attacked here? We’re just talking about how there isn’t a “one size fits all” answer to the path to mastery.

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Having played flute for 20+ years (until an old injury flared up), I agree that it helps to build stamina so that you can play for a long gig or session. For me, that wasn’t about lung power. Sure it helps to keep your diaphragm and other breathing muscles in reasonable shape, but fluting needs far less of that than, say, hiking in the hills. What really allowed me to honk a flute was an efficient, durable embouchure, and those muscles needed regular maintenance. It definitely helped me to play flute several hours a day, daily, if I wanted tone, volume, and embouchure muscles that would last for my twice-a-week six hour sessions (that were mostly endless sets of tunes, not a lot of chatting and breaks). Of course, those marathon sessions also kept my embouchure in good shape.

Fiddle requires far less stamina, so how much time I play over the course of a week is more a matter of churning through the repertoire, keeping tunes fresh, and learning new ones.

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Small humorous interlude-
Driving home from flute lesson, my daughter said sadly, “There is something wrong with my embouchere.”
I said, “Do we need to drop in at the music store and ask them to take a look at it?”

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LOL, a little tweak to the lip plate and off you go! Were it only that easy to fix our faces! 😉

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Ha ha! Yes, I thought “embouchere” was probably “small intricate part of the flute, made in France”. My daughter had to explain…it sounds like a difficult part of playing flute!

Well, it has been a thought-provoking thread and I actually am thinking about musicianship/quality vs the rush to accumulate more tunes…did my attention to my own “musicianship” fall when I began to focus on learning new tunes every week? I think maybe it did. Maybe it’s time to back off and pay more attention to the quality of my playing, and not on tune count (as gratifying as it is to be able to join in on everything, maybe that should not be one’s Goal).

Wodanaz, you sound like a young person…but with your long weekend stints, be careful of RSI and injury. ( I learned this the hard way…not being able to play for a year made me sad. There was a point when I would play 7 minutes and my hand would go tingling and numb, and I had to stop. So I am careful now. )

Cheers to making progress with our music, all!