Ten Steps for Learning Tunes on Your Own
First, before you even start to learn any tune, you need to be able to listen to it repeatedly. That means, listen until you can distinguish the parts and tell the difference between one recording of it and another. You’ll need to have (1) a real recording of the tune — which does NOT mean midi or any other computer generated sounds, or (2) a friend willing to record it for you, or (3) access to this website (and I suggest starting with the short list).
Second, listen to the tune so often that you can hum the WHOLE TUNE to yourself. If you can only hum a bit of it, then you need to listen more. This is a very important step, and by putting in the time up front to listen repeatedly you will reduce the time it takes to learn to play the tune. (This is the step that too many potential players don’t take seriously.)
Third, now that you can hum the WHOLE TUNE to yourself, you can start to learn it. If you don’t have a slow version, then use a slowdown program that will reduce the tempo without altering the pitch: “The Amazing Slowdowner,” “SlowMP3,” “Speedshifter,” or something else (there are LOTS of programs that do this available for free). When you start to play, begin by finding the home note, what’s called the tonal center of the tune.
Fourth, begin to chunk the tune. That is, break it up into phrases, and work on those phrases. Because you can hum the whole thing, you’ll have a better idea how the chunks fit together.
Fifth, when you play parts of the tune or the whole tune, you will need to listen to yourself. You need to be able to hear what your doing and compare it to the tune you can hum in your head. It may help at this stage, but will definitely help later to be able to record yourself playing and to listen to it so that you can correct your mistakes.
- If you play the fiddle (or other bowed instrument) you will need to think about your bowing. You may just want to start by using a single bow stroke for each note, and alternating directions, but be careful not to lock this in as different tunes require different kinds of bowing.
- If you are playing mandolin or banjo (or other plectrum instrument) you will need to think about your pic pattern. You may want to start by picking stroke for each note, and alternating directions, but be careful not to lock this in as different tunes require different kinds of pic patterns — for example, tunes in the Jig family (double jigs, slides, slip jigs, etc.) do best with a DUD DUD pick pattern.
- If you play whistle or flute (or other wind instrument) you will need to think about your breath, tonguing, and in some cases embouchure. To give the tune the right lift, you will need to focus on phrasing. Different types of tunes have different phrasing.
Sixth, be sure you are playing the notes cleanly and clearly, regardless of tempo. Play through the tune, record yourself, play it back, and listen for places you need to work on.
Seventh, work on your trouble spots repeatedly.
Eighth, learn to play through the tune with confidence. This means put away the sheet music, MP3 players, and anything else that might be a crutch. If you have trouble, first spend time trying to remember how the parts go together before you run to the music or the MP3.
Nine, gradually increase the tempo of the tune, but maintain the pulse, and keep the notes clean and clear.
Tenth, I say elsewhere, keep your ears on your toes! That is, start working on variations. Listen to other versions and hear how they differ. Then try to introduce a variation into your own playing. Being able to play a tune in more than one way is very useful. Tunes are not always played the same across sessions, but by having some variations under your belt you can better pick up a different way of playing the tune.
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Use these steps for each tune you try to learn. The more you go through these steps, the easier and faster you will progress. You will, in fact, come to understand which of the steps you tend to stumble over and which come more easily. The result will help you to define your learning style.
If you are in the Kansas City, Missouri area and you are interested in classes on Irish Traditional Music, please follow this link to the Kansas City School of Irish Music: http://kcschoolofirishmusic.com/classes/