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Thread: Instantly absorbing tunes

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    Registered User misterstormalong's Avatar
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    Default Instantly absorbing tunes

    I've now been to two Sore Fingers Summer Schools (here in the UK). In both courses the tutor taught fiddle tunes by demonstration. The tutor would play a couple of measures at a time, the class would repeat them. Then he would play the whole of the A part, and the class would repeat it. And then he would do the B part. In no time at all, the overwhelming majority of the class would be playing the whole tune at full session speed.

    I know this is the best way to teach and learn. I only question whether such instant absorption is normal and to be expected. Although I could probably similarly absorb most song melodies, I find it impossible to do this for tunes.

    I have various strategies for learning tunes given time, but how can I improve my ability for this sort of instant absorption?
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    Registered User foldedpath's Avatar
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    Default Re: Instantly absorbing tunes

    I've experienced that method (repeating short phrases to build up the tune) in a few workshops. I'm not sure it's the best way to learn, but it's about the only practical way to "teach a tune" in a workshop where time is limited, and the instructor can't know how many attendees can read sheet music.

    I'm actually not a fan of workshops where "teaching a tune" is the main content, unless the tune is then used as a platform to teach deeper elements of expression. But it's still very common in workshops, and that issue of tunes vs. technique in workshops is probably a topic for another thread.

    Anyway, the more time you spend practicing ear learning this way -- breaking down a tune into short segments and repeating each one until you can play it -- the easier it gets, because you're training that part of your ear/brain/finger system. if you see people at workshops who can pick up a tune quickly this way, it's probably because this is how they learn by ear at home, from recordings. Or else they attend a lot of workshops!

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    Registered User misterstormalong's Avatar
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    Default Re: Instantly absorbing tunes

    The first course was very tune orientated. The last one used the tunes as the basis for teaching technique, and despite my handicap on the practical side, it was a very valuable course.

    I use Peghead Nation and Mandolessons which teach in the same way, but my progress has been slow. Just recently I've been flitting about in order to intensify my experience of being faced with new tunes. I'm then attempting to tackle them with as much concentration and speed as I can muster.
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    Default Re: Instantly absorbing tunes

    What song was it? Was it a pretty simple fiddle tune? In a key you are really familiar with?

    I'd suspect that a majority of the people in the workshop were rather experienced, and capable of doing this. If it was Matt Flinner teaching, that is his standard method. For me, I have been on both sides of this. Most of the time, completely confused, not seeing or hearing what the teacher was doing, not sure what string to start a phrase on. When moving onto the B part, completely forgetting what the A part was.

    On the other hand, I have been able to learn a tune (not so complex) this way. Even then, personally I need numerous repetitions through a song before it sticks under my fingers, so sheet music is needed, else the song I just learned and played through several times slips away, or drifts quite a bit if I were to try and come back to it a couple days later.

    I think this method is good for people who are familiar with the mandolin fretboard, and comfortable with the instrument and playing with others. You need a specific amount of knowledge about music and the mandolin in order for this to work in my opinion.

    You say you can do this for song melodies, is this because you know or are singing words with the melody in your head? If you sing the chord changes for a fiddle tune in your head, this can help much like lyrics can. Learn a few more tunes in a key you are comfortable with, and expand from their.
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    Default Re: Instantly absorbing tunes

    We do this in our fiddle orchestra as many can’t read the notation quickly enough to be useful in a rehearsal situation.
    Often the leader will only hand out the music once they've worked through the whole tune.
    My problem there is progress is so slow that I’m in danger of forgetting where we started in the A section by the time I’ve worked through the 2nd part of the B & any beginners are definitely scuppered.

    A we bit of time analysing the tune structure then chunking it up into those mental blocks helps a lot.
    You can do it by ear if someone plays it through a few goes around. It’s even easier if you have a well laid out score or chord chart to make it more obvious.

    Fiddle tunes are pretty formulaic in that although the melody may be unusual, they usually have a lot of recurring chunks. Instead of memorising the whole tune from start to finish, you memorise these building blocks, and the reassembly instructions. So in you may only need to know A1 A2 x2 different bar leading into B1 then A2 & same again with a different ending & repeat the whole thing.
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    Innocent Bystander JeffD's Avatar
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    Default Re: Instantly absorbing tunes

    If not time pressed into it, I learn a new tune by learning to hum or sing it first. I don't put fingers down until I can sing it correctly.
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    Default Re: Instantly absorbing tunes

    Learning tunes by ear on the fly--either phrase by phrase or entire parts/whole tunes--requires two broad skill sets: (1) knowing your way around your instrument and (2) being able to hear and remember the melody accurately. The more skilled you are at both, the easier it is. If you're technically adept at playing mandolin (particularly at the hand-to-ear coordination of placing fingers on the notes you want to hear), then it's perhaps best to focus on the specifics of following new tunes by ear.

    It helps to spend some time listening closely to the intervals between different pitches. You can start in a common key/mode, say, D major, and play the open D string, then pick the next note up the scale (E), then back to the D, then up a third (F#), back to D, and so on through the whole octave (or more), and then back down, really paying attention to how each interval sounds in relation to the home note (D) and also how the intervals sound different to one another. Then do this in other keys/modes, listening to the intervals again, but also paying attention to how D major, say, sounds different on a mandolin from, say, C major. Is one "brighter" or "more open and ringing" than the other? This will help you more quickly determine what key a tune is being played in.

    The next step might be to play some common note sequences. Many fiddle tunes or trad music feature phrases built around (1) linear scale runs, (2) "folded" scale patterns (e.g., |DEFD EFGE|FGAF GABG|), (3) arpeggios, and (4) pentatonic patterns (e.g., |DEF#A BAF#E|). You'll want to have those on autopilot in all the keys/modes common to the genre(s) of music you play.

    While you're focused on all this, spend lots of time listening to the tunes you'd like to learn. Listen especially to how good players phrase the melody. Learn to hear in phrases, rather than simply random strings of notes. Where are the pauses? Where are the linking runs from one phrase to the next? How do good players change the sense of phrasing as they repeat a tune? How do the phrases build together to form each larger part of a tune? Do the larger parts share (repeat) some phrases? Or turn them inside out? Or alter just one note or two?

    When I teach a tune by ear, I try to remember to first say what type of tune it is (reel, jig, etc.), what key and mode it is, and what the starting note is. That can go a long way to getting people oriented instead of fishing all over the fingerboard just to find the starting point. If you're learning a tune by ear from someone face to face, ask them for this info upfront. Especially in group situations, I guarantee that some of your fellow learners will appreciate it too.
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    Default Re: Instantly absorbing tunes

    P.S. I agree with JeffD that singing the tune, even if just in your head, really helps in learning. You can do this even in the heat of the moment--sing each phrase in your mind's ear as the teacher plays it and again as you pick it.

    In reality, we play music in our brains. You cannot play a tune on your instrument that is not already in your head. So get it there first.

    The more you do this, the easier it gets. It's okay to practice this by learning by ear from recordings. That's also a good way to prepare for a workshop or lesson, especially if you're rusty. Like any skill, it wants regular use to stay sharp.
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    Default Re: Instantly absorbing tunes

    I agree with JeffD, if I get the tune in my head I can eventually figure it out.

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    Registered User Ivan Kelsall's Avatar
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    Default Re: Instantly absorbing tunes

    This is one of the main reasons that so many times on here,i've advocated learning to play by ear as well as any other method.

    There really is no substitute for 'ear playing' if you want to arrive at the spot where you can pick up a melody line almost in seconds. It's one of those techniques that 'builds on itself' = the more that you do it,the more you CAN do it. On banjo,guitar & for the past 13 years on mandolin,it's been my only method of learning. Back in 1963,there was no other way to learn ''Scruggs Style'' banjo anyway. Using I/net radio or CD's,i'd pick a tune that i liked,sort out the key that it was in,work out the chords by ear,& then start to pick out the melody line,note by note. having done that for 50 + years,i can pick up on a melody line very easily,as long as it's not too complex. I suspect that 'maybe' the majority of folk on here have done exactly the same. It helps especially if you're jamming, & almost any tune / song in any key can be thrown into the mix,
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    Default Re: Instantly absorbing tunes

    I learn by ear and find it unlikely to learn a song instantly by ear. If you already know the song in your head but never played it, it will be easy to learn by an experienced player. But music you've never heard will take some serious listening time to get it right, at least that's been my experience. You can't do anything well instantly, even the best have to learn and practice then repeat...

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    Default Re: Instantly absorbing tunes

    Well .... I greatly enjoy going to music camps for the social / musical interaction as much as the classes. Learning a new tune is difficult for me learning a different version of a tune I know is almost impossible. What is ridiculous is that I am able to "parrot" phrases but then not be able to reproduce them in order as a complete tune or break. < sigh .... So I struggle on. . . . Committing a melody to memory in the middle of a group of people banging and sawing all around me never seems to get easier. Figuring one out from a recording thankfully has. R/
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    Registered User misterstormalong's Avatar
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    Default Re: Instantly absorbing tunes

    Thanks to all for your responses. Some great pointers here and a lot of work to do as time and energy permit.
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    Registered User sblock's Avatar
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    Default Re: Instantly absorbing tunes

    Quote Originally Posted by UsuallyPickin View Post
    Well .... I greatly enjoy going to music camps for the social / musical interaction as much as the classes. Learning a new tune is difficult for me learning a different version of a tune I know is almost impossible. What is ridiculous is that I am able to "parrot" phrases but then not be able to reproduce them in order as a complete tune or break. < sigh .... So I struggle on. . . . Committing a melody to memory in the middle of a group of people banging and sawing all around me never seems to get easier. Figuring one out from a recording thankfully has. R/
    Well, we all have slightly different ways of best learning music. Some learn best by hearing a melody over and over, some by reading it off a page, some by remembering the physical motions used to produce it. Some learn better by experiencing music with others, and watching them -- and learn better some by experiencing music alone, in recorded form. Or slowed down electronically. Or just repeated over and over. And so on. Similarly, some folks prefer tablature, some prefer notation, and some don't need -- or want -- to see anything written down.

    Go with whatever works best for you, I say. But please do try out the other modalities, too, and don't give up on them, or give them short shrift. The more of these learning approaches that you can (at least) familiarize yourself with, the faster and better you will learn, even if some ways appeal more to you than others.

    It's all good.

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    Default Re: Instantly absorbing tunes

    As there's already been outstanding support I'll only offer a couple other things:
    If you want to pick stuff up on the fly at jam or clinics, still be working on a handful for tunes at home at all times. This keeps your pattern recognition skill honed. Many, many tunes are brothers, uncles and cousins. Many, many tunes are A part of this and B part of that. IOW it's easier to learn the fifty-fifth tune than the 3rd.

    Second: Don't be too hard on yourself. Don't kick yourself for what you don't know. Totally and completely enjoy what you do know.

    Went to a clinic. A young fellow that studied at the feet of some authentic player. Same way. We were taught one phrase at a time. Then the whole A part. Then the B part, one phrase at a time. Then throw them together. I couldn't play that tune the very next day if my life depended on it. That's when I thought, "wait a minute. Why am I learning all these tunes when I can just re-learn them?" So truth be told I may know only ten or twenty tunes. Why waste time learning 500 tunes when you don't know what they're going to play at the jam/gig? Disclaimer: Your goals may not be the same as mine. Being a perpetual student, is a reckless approach to Musicianship. No place for ego. One starts out "lost," and one may not be "found" by the end of the tune. Thank goodness for the next tune.

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    Default Re: Instantly absorbing tunes

    Ear training, at least for me, was mostly just time on task. At some point, it just suddenly made sense -- but that was maybe seven or eight years in of playing nearly every day, mostly from music until i got so bored of the tunes i didn't bother looking at the music any more when i was playing the same tunes every week with the same people. That leap of faith from paper to ear is pretty astounding once you realize it's not a one-time deal. Picking up tunes on the fly was just the same. Just playing along one note or two notes for every dozen everybody else was playing gradually expanded to two notes or five notes or whole passages. So if you keep at it, you'll eventually be able to do way more than you'd have expected starting out. at least it worked that way with me.
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    Default Re: Instantly absorbing tunes

    Use a recording device, like a smart phone.

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    Default Re: Instantly absorbing tunes

    Quote Originally Posted by JonZ View Post
    Use a recording device, like a smart phone.
    Yes, it helps to have a memory aid when you come back to the tune the next day, or a month later. It's also good to catch what the teacher says while teaching the tune (before, during, and after).

    BUT...in my experience, too many people rely on a recording device to get the tune, to the point that they skip really learning the tune from the human being right in front of them. That's a shame. Music can be an amazing shared experience if you let it connect you to other people. And then you have the rich memory and sensory associations of what it was like to sit in a room with a talented musician (famous or not) and learn that piece of music.

    In contrast, recording the tune is mostly passive and the machine does all the work for you. When you replay the tune from the machine, you're then learning the tune *from the machine.* Maybe I'm old school, but I prefer to learn tunes from *people* and become friends with them in the process.

    I was once the B-side fiddle teacher at a music camp that had a "big name" Irish fiddler as the headliner. Over lunch one day, he told me that at a camp the previous year, none of the students would uncase their fiddles. Instead, they all just recorded him on their phones. As someone who had learned within a community of great fiddlers--his friends, family members, and neighbors--he said that facing a sea of phones was disheartening and felt like a disservice to the music.

    I'm not saying "Don't use a recording device." But I am saying think about what you want your musical experience to be, and how you want it to resonate each time you play that tune for the rest of your life. If you do use a recorder, try to make it unobtrusive for you and the teacher. Focus on being present with the person and the music.
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    Default Re: Instantly absorbing tunes

    Quote Originally Posted by Miss Lonelyhearts View Post
    I was once the B-side fiddle teacher at a music camp that had a "big name" Irish fiddler as the headliner. Over lunch one day, he told me that at a camp the previous year, none of the students would uncase their fiddles. Instead, they all just recorded him on their phones. As someone who had learned within a community of great fiddlers--his friends, family members, and neighbors--facing a sea of phones was, he said, disheartening and felt like a disservice to the music.

    I'm not saying "Don't use a recording device." But I am saying think about what you want your musical experience to be, and how you want it to resonate each time you play that tune for the rest of your life. If you do use a recorder, try to make it unobtrusive for you and the teacher. Focus on being present with the person and the music.
    I taught a week-long workshop focused on technique. I think it's a waste of time and money to make the whole band sit in the studio when one member hasn't practiced, and I feel the same when it comes to classes, so I made it a prerequisite of the class that people be willing to learn the music itself beforehand, in order to then use the music as a basis for the classwork. I sent out the PDFs of yhe lead sheets.

    Just about everyone came in ready, and we took off, working on reharmonizations (new chords!) and then writing contrafacts (new melodies on the new chords!).

    The one person who felt I didn't cover enough ground was a teacher who was hoping to mine my class for her students, but she never actually tried the techniques as everyone else did, and so she never internalized the ideas. It was weird... like someone thinking they can learn tennis by just reading a book, with no actual time with racket in hand.

    I've never taken a class where the goal was just to learn tunes. Is that common?

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    Default Re: Instantly absorbing tunes

    I attended a repertoire workshop. We learned 3-4 tunes a day for three days straight. I was overwhelmed after the first day. Others in the class caught on much quicker. Several were professional, others were amateurs with years of experience. For me, I have to practice repeatedly after learning a tune to nail it down. Otherwise all is lost. 10-12 tunes in 3 days was too much for me.
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    Registered User misterstormalong's Avatar
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    Default Re: Instantly absorbing tunes

    Oddly enough I don't really 'need' to learn fiddle tunes, and nor do I play in Old Time instrumental sessions. I enjoy fiddle tunes and it will be good to add some to my repertoire. It would also be good to be able to participate in tune sessions from time to time.

    But my main reason for learning fiddle tunes is to develop my picking so I can play melodic breaks for the songs I do. The banjo player I perform with covers some of these but often we just play through the chord progression. I'm not after fancy, grassy solos. Just playing the basic melodies filled out with drones, double stops and shuffling will do.
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    Default Re: Instantly absorbing tunes

    Explorer, my previous posts were in response to the OP's request for "strategies for instant absorption" to learn by ear. I agree with you that teaching tunes from scratch at workshops tends to be a waste of time. I helped organize Portal Irish Music Week, now in it's 7th or 8th year and we started out by pre-selecting a handful of tunes that all instructors (mando, fiddle, banjo, flute, whistle, guitar) would use to teach technique and variation development and more. Then we provided recordings and sheet music for those tunes months before camp kicked off. The goal was to have students comfortable with the tunes so class time could be better spent on bowing, picking, twiddly bits, etc. Turned out to be a very popular approach--the camp gets a huge amount of repeat students year after year.

    Misterstormalong, learning fiddle tunes on mando is indeed a good way to build picking (and fingering) skills that come in handy for breaks on songs. It also helps to simply pick the basic melody line of the song and suss out how it fits over the chord progression. You can do that on your own time, at your own pace. That's also the sort of thing that you can learn a great deal about in just a few lessons one on one with a good teacher who can give you the building blocks for developing breaks, intros, and outros. In the long run, that may be a less expensive and less frustrating approach than attending group tune-learning workshops.
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    Default Re: Instantly absorbing tunes

    Quote Originally Posted by Miss Lonelyhearts View Post
    ... none of the students would uncase their fiddles. Instead, they all just recorded him on their phones. ...
    Times must have changed?? Last time I was at a bunch of workshops (eons ago), there was playing by both leaders and attendees, talk, plenty of questions & answers, *while* simultaneously many people had their tape recorders sitting unobtrusively on the floor recording the entire proceedings. If you used a thin tape and a slow recording speed for uninterrupted recording, and (in the days before automatic level control) if you were good at guessing which sound level to use, the recorder didn't require any tinkering once it was turned on. It was expected that people would be recording stuff, and this was in the 1960s and 1970s, so it's not anything new. What is new, apparently, is *only* recording and *not* playing - that seems weird.

    Later on when cassette tapes took over and world+dog was packing around little Sony Walkman etc cassette recorders to music workshops, I vaguely recall around the 45-minute mark where workshop leaders often took a time-out for everyone to flip their cassette tapes over to the other side and resume recording. (90 minute tapes were common back then, 45 minutes per side. There were also 120-minute tapes but they weren't necessarily very reliable and tended to get wrapped around the pinch-roller during playback, especially if played back on car tape decks.)

    Of course there were always the perpetual annoyances completely unrelated to recorders, such as the inevitable "What brand of strings do you use?" which gets the leader talking about strings for 10 minutes when they could have been talking about something more important instead.

    Quote Originally Posted by misterstormalong View Post
    I've now been to two Sore Fingers Summer Schools (here in the UK). In both courses the tutor taught fiddle tunes by demonstration. The tutor would play a couple of measures at a time, the class would repeat them. Then he would play the whole of the A part, and the class would repeat it. And then he would do the B part. In no time at all, the overwhelming majority of the class would be playing the whole tune at full session speed.

    I know this is the best way to teach and learn. I only question whether such instant absorption is normal and to be expected. Although I could probably similarly absorb most song melodies, I find it impossible to do this for tunes.

    I have various strategies for learning tunes given time, but how can I improve my ability for this sort of instant absorption?
    That technique was used at a fiddle class I took for a few months.

    However, the teacher also really encouraged all of us to record each entire class as well, take it home and work on it more later. I thought it was a good combination and worked well. He also handed out mimeographed (ha! showing my age) sheet music for each tune as a visual reference, so students could get a visual reminder of the timing/rhythm and 'see' the notes going up and down in pitch, even if they didn't know how to read music yet.

    But if I'd had *only* the class, and not been allowed to record it as well, I would have needed a lot of in-person tutoring to make any progress. I only learn something by repetition - either hearing it a whole bunch of times, or (later on) transcribing it to paper and seeing the notes while silently 'hearing' the flow of the tune (useful for learning tunes when an instrument isn't readily available). A more-recent way I sometimes learn tunes, is to write the tune in the free MuseScore app on PC and have the app playback the tune while I (a) get acquainted with the tune, and then (b) try playing along with it. It's kind of like having a recording, except you've personally put each note into the app so you get to learn a little bit about the structure of the tune as well as the sound. It's good to have a variety of options to choose from, mix-and-match them to suit, when learning music.


    Quote Originally Posted by Miss Lonelyhearts View Post
    ... in my experience, too many people rely on a recording device to get the tune, to the point that they skip really learning the tune from the human being right in front of them. ...
    Probably time limitations and access/availability.

    I didn't need to record my dad's playing to learn from it, because I heard him play literally every day ever since I was born. Constant exposure to something reduces the need for documentation and recording. It was *already* stored in memory, could be accessed anytime just by thinking about it. No recorders necessary to retrieve stuff you hear all the time.

    However, I *did* often record good musicians from outside of my region, because for all I knew it might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear them. The chance might not come again. One of those "get it while you can" things. So again, turn on the recorder, then get back to the jam.

    (Ended up with many large cartons filled with 7-inch open-reel tapes that way. Almost none of them indexed and very few even adequately labeled.)

    The other thing about making recordings, is that some excellent musicians' playing is so complex and intricate that they themselves don't even know how they're getting those sounds, and some of the best musicians I've heard aren't able to effectively slow down their own playing (without leaving out a bunch of important stuff) to a slow enough speed for someone else to quickly pick up on the fine details that differentiate great playing from mediocre playing. I've seen many well-respected musicians when you ask them how they played such-and-such a passage, they'll say something like "Well I don't know, let's see here," and then they try to recreate their own playing at a slower speed which usually isn't even close to their normal version as far as notes, ornamentation, phrasing, and other important stuff.

    This is where a recording can be useful. If you don't have real-life access to that person's music on an everyday basis for months or years at a time required to thoroughly learn the old-fashioned way, then a recording might be the only way to really get a bead on how they play the way they do.


    Quote Originally Posted by Miss Lonelyhearts View Post
    ... Music can be an amazing shared experience if you let it connect you to other people. And then you have the rich memory and sensory associations of what it was like to sit in a room with a talented musician (famous or not) and learn that piece of music. ...
    That's true.


    Quote Originally Posted by Miss Lonelyhearts View Post
    ... If you do use a recorder, try to make it unobtrusive for you and the teacher. Focus on being present with the person and the music.
    Absolutely. That's a very good point.

    Similar concept to family outings that get ruined because of someone trying to capture the perfect photo/video documentary of the entire trip (I did that *once*, learned my lesson). Too much emphasis on capturing and preserving and documenting, and not enough thought given to enjoying the moment. "You talked! You ruined my shot! blah blah blah!" Ugh! Becomes a performance event focused on capturing stuff for the future, rather than a shared living experience right now.

    Shortly after acquiring my first camcorder about 3 years ago (didn't have a smartphone yet), I figured out to use it when it's mutually beneficial (to the other people you're with) but don't let it dominate the event. Turn it on, set it and forget it, then enjoy the trip.

    As I mentioned that's how we used to do it with workshops and other music events. Turn on the recorder and just let it run, then proceed to ignore the recorders and pay attention to what's going on in the room. You get more out of it (learn more) that way.

  30. #24

    Default Re: Instantly absorbing tunes

    Quote Originally Posted by Miss Lonelyhearts View Post
    ... we provided recordings and sheet music for those tunes months before camp kicked off. The goal was to have students comfortable with the tunes so class time could be better spent on bowing, picking, twiddly bits, etc. ...
    That sounds like a great idea, I like that!

  31. #25

    Default Re: Instantly absorbing tunes

    There are a lot of theories about how to best initially learn something—by ear, by watching, by reading sheet music, etc.—but most memories become permanent by recalling them over time. The initial learning of anything is just the tip of the iceberg.

    So, right after class, go out on the lawn and play through all of the tunes you just learned. Use your recordings if you get stuck. Then go through them again after dinner. Then the next day...

    “Elaboration” is supposed to aide memory. So that might mean playing the tune in a different position or key, or improvising on the melody. Figure out where you could use a double stop or drone. Play around with what you have learned, instead of just repeating it the same way.
    Last edited by JonZ; Apr-22-2018 at 11:08am.
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