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!

Advertisements

Weber Yellowstone Traditional Octave Mandolin Review

At Celtic Week I noticed a post on the wall by the cafeteria announcing the sale of a 2010 Weber Yellowstone Octave Mandolin for $2740.00, or something close to that. Sounded interesting. Since I had only really ever played my Trinity College Octave Mandolin, or one of Tom Fellenbaum’s (of Acoustic Corner in Black Mountain, NC) I figured I’d like to see what kind of quality you get spending 5 times what I spent, or twice as much as what Tom charges.

yellowstone traditional octave mandolinFirst thing I noticed was that the neck felt like a baseball bat. It was pretty thick and chunky. The strings were at a good height, but I did notice the bridge wasn’t sitting completely flat on the body. (That may have just been a poor setup?)

As you know I’m primarily a flat top player (Although I did play 4 stellar archtop mandos this week. One was a late teens Gibson F-2; another was an early 20’s Gibson F-4; then my roomate had an A and an F Stonebridge. I would’ve bought the F Stonebridge right then if I could’ve.), sometimes archtops sound too tight and compact in their sound to me. This too was the case with this Weber Yellowstone Octave Mandolin. It had nice intense projection, but it certainly did not have a sound I wanted to pay over 2K for. There wasn’t any sweetness to the sound. It was harsh and metallic, too much for my preferences.

It was a beautiful instrument to look at, but I’m still a fan of the wide open smoother sound of my economy Trinity College. (With heavier gauge strings to make it sing like that, of course!)

yellowstone traditional octave mandolin

Tunes from Mandolin II

In the Mandolin II class at Celtic week, with David Surette, we learned a few tunes by ear, a few by tab, and also focused on how to make accompaniment with the mandolin interesting. I had to leave “the gathering” earlier today, to visit the in-laws, and so have had some time in the car to tab a few of the tunes for you. Click on the links below for the mandolin tablature for the irish tunes of (reel) Devanney’s Goat, (reel) Poor Old Woman, and (slip jig) Hardiman the fiddler.

Dorm Room at Celtic Week 2011 - Guitar, Mandolins and Kettlebells, what else do you need?

Mandolin (tab) tablature & standard notation

Devanney’s Goat

Poor Old Woman

Hardiman the Fiddler

Now that I’ve found myself exploring the guitar again, I’ve also created flat picking tablature for the tunes above. Here they are:

Guitar (tab) tablature and Standard Notation for Flat picking

Devanney’s Goat in Standard Tuning

Poor Old Woman in Standard Tuning

Hardiman the Fiddler in Standard Tuning

Devanney’s Goat DADGAD

Poor Old Woman DADGAD

Hardiman the Fiddler DADGAD

We also learned a great tune called The Reverend Brother’s Jig (called the Monk’s Jig on thesession.org) and a number of Breton Tunes. Great class, good teacher, learned a lot.

Celtic Week 2011

Trip to Breakfast on Monday Morning

The Swannanoa Gathering Celtic Week 2011 began with 4 classes: Session guitar 1, with David Surette; Mandolin 2, with David Surette; Session Guitar 2, with John Doyle; Bazouki, with Eamon O’Leary.  I made it through all of the first day, missed first period on the second day, decided to scratch the Bazouki class on the third day, and made it to all three classes today.  The brain is awash with musical, guitar, and mandolin knowledge, and I am looking forward to letting it sink in tonight, during the all night jam sessions.

David’s classes are excellent.  He is a knowledgeable patient and easy-to-follow teacher. He’s also very good about staying after class to answer questions and a joy to chat with after a late night jam.  Today he obligingly gave me some ideas on how to play some interesting chordal backup to Peter Byrne’s Fancy, and Creeping Docken.  (I’ll post those tabs soon, since they are my favorite, and they turn up a lot on this site!)  Coincidentally, during the session guitar 2 class, John Doyle, decided to also pull out Peter Byrne’s Fancy and give us a nice run through of some rhythmic grooves.  (If you see me tonight at the jam sessions, and you want to play those tunes, pull me aside.  I’m all for it.)

D Chord Family Substitutions from David Surrette's Guitar Session 1 Class

John’s class started out great. He went over his basic techniques, in regards to how to use your arm and not your wrist, and also how you keep your arm swinging in time, non-stop, and use more accents on volume to get different rhythmic patterns.  I’m trying out his advise for a .73 mm dunlop nylon pick (yuck), and it’s working so far, but we’ll see if I stick with it.

Eamon’s class was good, but I had already had enough to absorb from those first three classes, that getting into bazouki was just too much for my brain at present.  Besides, I want to become a better rhythmic player anyway, and he’s very good on timing, but his initial approach was a bit more melodic.

Last night was a night of rest, so skipped the jamming.  But Thursday…I’m rested, revved up and ready to go.  Tonight’s forecast:

Scattered thunderstorms this evening followed by a few showers overnight. Low 66F. Winds ENE at 5 to 10 mph. Chance of rain 40%.

Good thing there are tents!

Tuesday Night Early Evening

 

Two new tunes from Celtic Week 2008 with Donal Clancy

 

I first attended the Swannanoa Gathering as a volunteer for Celtic week back in 2008. I had the pleasure of taking a great DADGAD class with Eamon O’Leary. If I still played guitar often enough, I’d like to have that laid back approach that he does.


Eamon O'Leary - Swannanoa Gathering, Celtic Week Instructor

Donal Clancy led a flat picking guitar class that was waaaayyy laid back.  So laid back in fact that on one of the class days, he even left the room half way through the class and didn’t return. No problem though, because I did learn a few fantastic tunes the first two days I attended his class.

I’ve had some time to convert the first two we learned into mandolin tablature and standard notation. I’m aiming to get around to the last two in a while.  They are, all four, nice grooving irish trad tunes.

Since I wasn’t sure if Mr. Clancy was going to show up for future classes, luckily, Robin Bullock allowed me to sneak into an octave mandolin class of his. Also, a great experience. Even though he tuned his octave mandolin GDAD, I learned some great tips on how to hear the ‘corners’ of a song, to be able to better figure out tunes on the fly.  Thank Robin!