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Thread: ear training for contra dance/fiddle tunes

  1. #1
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    Default ear training for contra dance/fiddle tunes

    We have weekly contra dances in my area, and once a month there's an Open Band, where any musician can come and play. It's a lot of fun. I have a couple of books with contra dance tunes in them, and I've been using them to learn the tunes played most often. But I'd like to break away from the books, and learn these tunes by ear.

    Are there any web sites that are good for someone trying to learn these tunes by ear? At the moment my plan (such that it is) is just to find the tunes on youtube, and learn from that. But I'm wondering if there's a better site? Thanks. bb

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    poor excuse for anything Charlieshafer's Avatar
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    Default Re: ear training for contra dance/fiddle tunes

    I don't believe there is specifically. What many people do is get an mp3 of a tune they want to learn, and then use the amazing slow-downer or a similar speed reducing program to practice the tune at a lower speed. Gradually, they work up. Personally, i like to try to learn tunes at speed. Most Contra and old-time tunes are fairly simple melodies with a predominate pattern to the fingering. Once you pick out the important notes that make up the actual tune, get those down, and then adding the fills is fairly easy.

    In time, when joining in a session or jam or whatever and you need to learn tunes by ear, that ability to strip a tune down to the basic notes, then add back in the fills, makes being able to catch on a lot easier. But to get the hang of it, the Amazing Slow downer is great. There are a few others which are apparently good (and free) as well, and maybe others will chime in with those.

    So, get in touch with the leader of the contra session, get 2-3 tunes that will be on the list that month, and just listen and repeat,playing along with a recording. In a bit, you'll have a good 15 or 20 tunes down to memory.

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    Registered User foldedpath's Avatar
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    Default Re: ear training for contra dance/fiddle tunes

    In addition to what Charlie said above, I strongly recommend using a portable recorder like the Zoom H2n or your smartphone to record the tunes the Contradance band is playing. Ask first at the Open Band to make sure this is okay, but it usually is, at a learning session.

    You'll find a lot of material in things like the Portland Collection for contradance, but there is no substitute for learning what the actual group is doing in your area. These tunes are a mix of old and modern ones, and the old ones can have many different versions. You'll need to know the exact setting your local group is playing. So record as much as you can for learning at home, with or without a slowdown utility.

    You may want to use something like the free Audacity editor for breaking out individual tunes from a long session recording.

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    Unfamous String Buster Beanzy's Avatar
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    Default Re: ear training for contra dance/fiddle tunes

    I had a rummage through a site called Bite Your Own Elbow a few years back, when there was talk of a local contradance setting up.
    They're at http://www.biteyourownelbow.com
    Somewhere in there I found a reference to an app called TuneBook which I now have on my iPad.
    With that I cut and paste whole pages of collections as text and drop it into a new tune.
    (Other ways of importing are still a bit buggy for my liking).
    On saving it asks if I want to import the rest (it assumes one to begin with)
    Anyway on clicking yes I end up with the whole bunch in my tune list. From there I can assign them to sets or playlists.
    The good bit is you can select instrument sounds and their flute & piano sounds are decent, with the banjo and whistle being tolerable, the accordion sound is awful (but we know that anyway )
    So I can choose the speed and read or not read along as required with it plugged into some headphones, or the amp aux in if the family are out. It's good for getting up to speed, but you wouldn't listen to it instead of the records.
    Eoin



    "Forget that anyone is listening to you and always listen to yourself" - Fryderyk Chopin

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    music with whales Jim Nollman's Avatar
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    Default Re: ear training for contra dance/fiddle tunes

    Contra dance music at speed can sometimes make it quite difficult for a mandolin to play all the notes the fiddle is playing. When you do it awhile, you start to know intuitively when to skip a few passing notes, but keep hitting the chord change note right on the beat.

    One tune that comes to mind for no special reason is Reel San Antoine. It contains so many notes sliding into each other that it's rather obvious that it was composed to be played with a bow. Sometimes i can finger all those sliding notes every bit as well as my fiddle player. Other times, I tend to leave out quite a few notes. As every contra dance player knows well, it's all about the dancers and they are listening most closely to the rhythm.

    After you play contra dances awhile, I can just about guarantee that your ear will begin to get better and better at picking out the chord changes on the fly. This is not the mark of genius, since a vast majority of the tunes are structured around the one, the four and the five chord. What happens in practice, is that eventually, you can sit it on any session and, whether you know the tunes or not, you can vamp the correct chord structure after the first round of 2 A parts and 2 B parts. That's because the lion's share of contra tunes are represented by only four keys: D, A, G, and C.

    It may take a bit longer to properly parse a tune that holds a minor chord. But still, you will know there is a minor chord there. It's usually the relative minor — Em if the tune is in G — but it it may slow you down a bit so you don't ruin the feel of the tune for the dancers.

    I have all but stopped playing contra dances over this past year. For a long time I kept doing it, learning new tunes, because it gave me a sense of achievement simply to play all the notes the bow was playing with a lilting syncopation. Then at some point I realized that because the tunes were flying by so furiously, it wasn't possible for me to explore their internal subtlety. After an evening of playing 15 contra dance tunes to three lines of enthusiastic dancers, I'd feel it was all just variants of the same tune. I was also losing interest in Celtic" tunes which felt "jittery" to me, when compared with the more organic flow of old time. I had become interested in so-called "crooked tunes" that don't follow the standard 2 A/2 B form. These days I feel I'm a much better player and also a better listener which has followed from my current focus on tunes possessing more sophisticated structure and more varied rhythm and chord structure. It's almost all old time, and includes rags, as well as some wild and crazy breakdowns.
    Explore some of my published music here

    óJim

    BRW 3-point #65 (2009)
    Altman 2-point (2007)
    Portuguese fado cittern (1965)

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    Default Re: ear training for contra dance/fiddle tunes

    Thanks everyone; I appreciate all the insights.

    I have started learning a few tunes with the ASD on my phone. Years ago I bought a book of sheet music with 16 old time tunes, and it came with a CD, and those tunes are now on my phone. I was doing Soldier's Joy by ear a couple nights ago, and I noticed the guy on the CD was playing a G# (1st string, 4th fret) in the B part, whereas the sheet music showed a G natural. I'm not sure which is "right", but it felt like such a victory just to identify the difference. I can see it will be a long, but worthwhile, process. bb

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  12. #7
    Registered User foldedpath's Avatar
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    Default Re: ear training for contra dance/fiddle tunes

    Quote Originally Posted by bohemianbiker View Post
    Thanks everyone; I appreciate all the insights.

    I have started learning a few tunes with the ASD on my phone. Years ago I bought a book of sheet music with 16 old time tunes, and it came with a CD, and those tunes are now on my phone. I was doing Soldier's Joy by ear a couple nights ago, and I noticed the guy on the CD was playing a G# (1st string, 4th fret) in the B part, whereas the sheet music showed a G natural. I'm not sure which is "right", but it felt like such a victory just to identify the difference. I can see it will be a long, but worthwhile, process. bb
    It sounds like you're advancing, great!

    A side note on that G vs. G# thing. It's fairly common with fiddle tunes, especially old ones, to find different versions with either G nat or G# notes. The "right" version is basically whatever is played in local jams and contra dances, but there is probably a historical reason for the difference.

    Tunes that were originally, or commonly, played on pipes, whistles, keyless flutes, and fifes don't have an open hole for the G# note (or the equivalent note for Bb instruments like GHB pipes and marching band fifes). The note can be played with half-holing or cross-fingering but it isn't always easy. So when the music was written down for bands featuring those instruments, like a marching fife and drum band playing Soldiers Joy, the note is typically natural and not sharped.

    Then fiddlers came along with their chromatic instruments playing the same tune, and they'd sharp the G note if it sounded better to someone's ear. And so you end up with two different versions -- the ones fiddlers like to play with G#'s, and the ones pipers, whistlers, flute players, and fife players might prefer with G nats, because the fingering isn't as tricky.

    I've seen this in a modern context, when I'm in a session with mixed fiddles and pipes (indoor border pipes and smallpipes). A good way to upset the pipers, is to call a tune with a lot of G sharps in it. Sometimes we'll do that on purpose if the pipers have been dominating the session.

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