How to Better Learn Tunes

It’s July 15th, 2017.  Celtic Week at the Swannanoa Gathering is upon us. There are many tunes to play and many more to learn. As someone who knows a few tunes, and has thousands more to learn, and as a teacher, I’ve got a few ideas on how best to learn AND REMEMBER all the tunes you want.

Tune Learning Tip #1 – Learn Tunes You Really Like

Just because your local session plays many tunes you don’t know, don’t make the mistake of trying to learn every tune from their repertoire, just for the sake of being able to play them. There will be plenty of tunes at your session, that when you hear them, you can feel the groove, and the melody moves you. Focus on these tunes. They will be the ones that are the easiest and most joyful to learn. They will stick in your head and in your fingers easier. Then as you get better, it will become easier to learn the other tunes that everyone else plays.  By learning the tunes you like, you more joyfully and easily learn the language of the music in your instrument. That makes it easier to learn other tunes later, that may not stick in your head so easily.

Tune Learning Tip #2 – Talk Yourself Into The Ability to Remember New Tunes

It can be overwhelming to sit down and think about all the tunes you don’t know. This creates a little psychological wobble in your experience. Rather than sitting down and thinking, “Alright, I got these three new tunes I want to learn… this is going to be great!” most people think…”Only three new tunes?  This is going to take me forever. Everyone else seems to know hundreds of other tunes…”

When this happens you’re less likely to learn well.  The more enthused you are and the more you believe in your ability, the better. I’ve experimented with this. For myself, I’ve tried to learn tunes without much psychological prep. It usually took me longer to learn those tunes. I’ve also tried sitting down and intentionally telling myself…”These tunes are easy to learn.  My fingers know just how to play these tunes. This is great! I’m going to be able to play these next week at the session.” Now you really have to get into this.  You have to talk yourself into it until it feels like you mean it. Then learning new tunes eventually seems to become effortless.

Tune Learning Tip #3 – Hang Around Encouraging Musicians

My main focus here, really, is on having an encouraging teacher, a teacher who inspires you to believe in your abilities.  Or at least try, try, try until your abilities match your enthusiasm. I’ve known many excellent (and professional (meaning you’ve probably bought their CD’s (or vinyl if you remember what that is))) musicians who were terrible teachers. Usually they are terrible for one or two reasons.

  1. They had natural talent and can’t relate to folks who don’t naturally know how to pick up an instrument and do what they do.
  2. They make you think you’ll never be able to play as good as you need to. (Be careful of this! It can be extremely subtle.)

We aren’t going to talk about terrible teacher #1. The best you can do with that kind of teacher is simply admire their abilities, and maybe it will click one day. You know what I’m talking about… when you go to a class and the teacher says “Ok…do this…” and he/she flashes through the most amazing chordal accompaniment, stops, looks at the class and says, “Now you do it…”  Instead of breaking down the simple mechanics of it, so you know how to repeat it in any key at any time.  (And that is possible.)

How do you deal with terrible teacher #2?  Well, let’s first figure out how to recognize that kind of teacher.  Usually, they are a fantastic player. They sound great.  They play great, and everyone loves to listen to them. However, when you start learning from them, they always make you feel a little less than. They always make you think, you probably aren’t ready to play in a session, or you can’t really play up to speed.

The only way you learn is by trying, making mistakes and trying again. This is what makes you an awesome player. I recently played a few sessions in Durham, NC. I met a woman who had been playing fiddle for about 2 years. I knew immediately she had a good teacher. How?

Well, there were five of us. I had my octave mandolin. She was on fiddle.  There was a guitarist, a whistle player, and another fiddler. The Stag’s Head was LOUD! It was crowded. We had to all huddle together, and all I could hear was her, and all she could here was me.  And over the roar of the party going on around us we could hear a little of the guitarist beating out chords. She was not intimidated. Even when we got distracted and she got off a little bit… I kept playing as steady as possible… and she got right back on track.  She wasn’t the most fantastic fiddler I ever heard (yet). But she was ballsy, and she stayed to the tunes, and made it all the way through, even if not completely perfect.  And by God, it was a good time! (After, she specifically said, “My teacher says…’No matter what, keep going…don’t stop!'”)

I love seeing new players, getting in there and giving it their best!  I particularly like it if they stay on tempo, but the joy of the playing and trying is awesome.  I have a feeling this fiddler is going to be really fantastic someday soon.  Why?  Because she tries and she has confidence (and she knows how to stay in the time signature).

If you have a teacher that would not encourage that kind of trying, you need a new teacher, because they are going to drag you down.

Even though I spent the most time here discussing point #3, really focus on Tip #1 and Tip #2, because I know, it’s hard to find good teacher’s (unless of course you are at Celtic Week).  Give these a try and let me know how it works. Give yourself at least 8 weeks of really applying these ideas, and notice how much easier you learn new tunes and how much more fun it is!

PS- Sorry, to miss you at Celtic Week this year. Doing some traveling, and won’t be back in time.  But I do hope to see you in 2018!


Learning New Tunes

A woman recently sent a message, saying, she’d be interested in hearing the process of learning a new tune.

What Makes A Tune Easy to Learn

This has been on my mind lately, because I’ve found that learning by ear has many benefits over learning from tab or standard notation. Tab and standard notation allows you to correctly learn the tune from the beginning.  However, it can draw out the amount of time one takes to learn a tune.  When learning by ear, we have to listen to the tune repeatedly, which helps us get the tune stuck in our mind. I’ve found that tunes are much easier to learn when we know how they sound by heart. When learning a tune by ear, most of the time, we are learning from a recording or from someone else playing for us. Usually, this makes the tune more interesting. Tablature and written tunes usually lack life until a player inflects it with that life. Hearing tunes with “lift” and the stylistic human quality makes them more interesting, and also inspires us to learn them quicker.  (You can tell the difference between someone who’s learned by ear versus through sheet music or tab. The ear trained musician will know many songs, but not the names of them.  The sheet music musician often requires that they hear the name of a tune before they can jump right in. That’s interesting, no?)

Once we’ve figured all this out, then what?

Figuring Out the Key

The Key and the Scale Used for Various Tunes Sets the Tone. Learning to hear what the tone feels like, helps you pick the right key instinctively.

Once we’ve found a tune we enjoy, the next step is usually to figure out the key a tune is in. Why? Because this tells us what notes will be within that

tune, and we don’t have to waste time randomly fretting notes on our mandolin fretboard, hoping we hit a correct note.

The usual keys in Irish Celtic Music are D, G, and A, with variations on those keys. This is not to say that all tunes fall into these three categories, but most of the time they will. To figure out which key a tune is in, repeatedly pluck the D string, in rhythm with the tune in 8th notes. Start with D. If that does not sound correct, try G, and so on. Eventually you will be plucking a string that makes a good drone for the tune you are trying to learn. This droning string should sound good throughout the entire tune. Although again, keep in mind some tunes change keys from the A to the B section.

Examples of tunes in these three keys are as follows.You can pluck the notes of these tune’s Keys, throughout the entire tune as a drone.

D = Rose in the Heather, Merry Blacksmith, or Maid Behind the Bar.

G = Kesh Jig, Jim Ward’s, Swallowtail Jig (Em),  or Out on the Ocean.

A = Tenpenny Bit(Am), Bill Sullivan’s, Islay Ranter’s Reel (Am to A major in the B part).

Now if you were going to figure these tunes out for your self, you would know that in the D tunes you would probably only be using the notes, D, E, F#, G, A, B, C# , because those are the notes in the D scale. Similarly, in the G tune, you would be using the notes, G, A, B, C, D, E, F#.  If you were going to figure tunes out in the key of A, you would use these notes, A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G#.  This information is no way meant to be exhaustive. Figure out the scales for Em, Am, Dm, F, C, etc., as well.  But to get you started, learning tunes in these three keys will suffice.

The Mist Covered Mountain is now available as Tablature on the "Tunes and Tab" page.

What Chords Do You Use

Say you want to back someone up who knows a melody because you haven’t learned the tune yet. It’s good to know what chords may be used to do that, once you know the key.

If you find the tune is in D, often the chords you will use will be D, G, A. If the tune is in G, try out G, C, D. If the tune is in A, try A, D, E. If it is in Am, try Am to G, or Am to G to Em to Am.  If the tune is in Em, often you can bounce back and forth from Em for a 2-4 bars, and then D.  Or for Em, you can do a classic, Em, D, E, C, D pattern.  Try the chords in these orders first. If you are certain of the key yet, these chords don’t sound correct, try a different order of the same chords.

Once you can figure this out, you are on your way to having a process for learning a tune by ear. If you have any questions, feel free to comment on this post, and I’ll answer them.

By the way, if you aren’t up for learning tunes by ear, I’ve just tabbed Mist Covered Mountain!

In a bit, we can discuss how to begin hearing the tenor of a tone, to instinctively know what key to play in. We can also discuss how to begin learning a song by ear, more efficiently.

Mandolin Practice Schedule Tip

In college, in my Theories of Learning class, I remember reading that most of the knowledge you lose after studying occurs in the first 20 minutes after you put your books down.

So it was advised, that after you have studied something, it’s best to go somewhere quiet and not engage your mind for 20 minutes.  Or you could just go take a nap.  This would encourage more effective learning and storage of information.

So I advise practicing before you go to sleep, or to spend 20-30 minutes meditating in a quiet peaceful place, or go for a walk in nature, after you have practiced your tunes.  Doing this daily will increase your comprehension and memorization of the countless Irish tunes you have to learn.