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Thread: Process of learning a classical tune

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    Registered User J.C. Bryant's Avatar
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    Default Process of learning a classical tune

    When I attempt to learn other songs or tunes I first try to get the tune in my head, thenm to determine the key, learn the chord structure, the repititions, licks and other indicators of what puts the tune together. What is the process of larning a classical tune? Or is it just pure memory of bar by bar, neasure by measure? What do you look for and in what order do you learn a classical tune? I know this may be very elementary for many of you but it would help me to know how you learn. thanks,

  2. #2

    Default Re: Process of learning a classical tune

    I suppose there's no reason you couldn't learn a "classical" tune using whatever method you use for other tunes in general. However, there's always potential for transcription error if by ear. This, in part, risks diminishing the ordinary reverence given to the intent of a composer in so-called "classical" music. That said, if you listen to composers playing their own music spanning time, it's not uncommon for interpretation to change, revisions to occur to scores, etc.

    The act of composing tends to favor a degree of complexity that's at least different than more commonly improvised or casually performed music. Without a pretty sophisticated ear and substantial experience, it isn't necessarily easy to learn more complex classical pieces by ear. Thus, I personally favor reading classical scores from the written page, internalizing nuances of phrase and articulation markings, ties, dynamics, tempo indications, etc. I will sometimes make notes to myself: adding/changing fingerings that favor my personal approach, clarifying phrasing or pick-direction notation, occasional chord symbols, etc. . . . Until the point that I no longer have to read. Voila: learned.

    There is some music that I don't make any effort at memorizing (I only have so much mental real estate available): arrangements of popular classics to serve wedding ceremonies, a small part in an orchestral score, etc. That kind of stuff I'm not likely to remember how to reproduce accurately without the page in front of me.

    That said, I'm nothing like a professional classical mandolinist, so take the above for what it's worth: the random ramblings of a professional biologist.

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    Registered User J.C. Bryant's Avatar
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    Default Re: Process of learning a classical tune

    Thank you Eugene! I appreciate your thoughts. I, too, am a biologist of sorts. I worked with National Wildlife Refuges for my careeer. That means that I started out doing biology then promoted my self to a point where I did not do any biology at all! Isn't that called the "peter principal"?

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    Default Re: Process of learning a classical tune

    Fantastic! In my current line of work, I've always been employed by academia, but I did a lot of fisheries and wetland ecology research on the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge early in my career.

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    Default Re: Process of learning a classical tune

    Eugene covers this quite well. Unless this is 12-tone or other complex modern music it should work the way that any music would. I also feel though that if you get the piece memorized in your year you will also play it with more soul and fluidity.
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    Default Re: Process of learning a classical tune

    Here's one idea that might help, but first a caution about "learning by ear" if you mean just listening to a recording. Listening to a recording leaves you with the impression "that's how it goes," that tempo, that articulation, phrasing, etc. If you look carefully at the music you might get some ideas of your own, and this is my suggestion that will also help learn a piece: look for patterns, maybe a figure or group of notes that seem to repeat, possibly starting on different notes or parts of the measure. That's a clue to the composer's thinking, and it might suggest ways to play it as well as help you remember a passage--as opposed to just mechanically going through 2 or 3 measures at a time. Even if you didn't read (if you're going to play any classical, it will be difficult without some reading) you can see these groupings in patterns on the page. You can see where a melody begins and ends, where something different happens, or where something from the beginning comes back near the end. All this helps with memory as well as understanding the piece.
    I used to teach conducting and I could tell when a student had just listened to a recording--they would be surprised when the group didn't sound like the recording, and they wouldn't know what to do. They hadn't studied the piece to anticipate problems or come up with their own ideas. The same would happen to you: you probably won't sound like the recording; but if you study the printed music on your own, you can decide "it could go like this... or that." Then, if you must, you can listen to several different recordings: They will probably have different approaches, so you won't be locked into "that's how it goes." And just so you don't misunderstand, I am not saying the printed music is "the real thing," I am saying it's a way to get ideas and to learn things about the music. By the same token, any single recording of a piece is not "the real thing," just one person's ideas about the piece. The real thing is when you play the piece--not just "your way," but a way that you discovered in the music.

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    Default Re: Process of learning a classical tune

    I learn classical music from the sheet music. I do not think learning a classical tune is the same as memorizing a classical tune. Learning the tune means I can play it well from the music.

    I start from the end more often than not. Many many classical pieces have the harder more brilliant sections in the second half or third third, so I often start there and work that out. Then go back and learn the beginning.

    What has helped me the most is to get a coach (instructor) on skype to help me with the particular piece, or with the exercises and techniques i might need in order to take on the piece.
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    Default Re: Process of learning a classical tune

    Another thing to remember is that some pieces have been edited from the original by other than the composer including fingerings and dynamics. In those cases I prefer to have the urtext versions which don’t have those additions.

    Maybe the OP should tell us what pieces or era of music and also whether he is playing solo or in a group.
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    Default Re: Process of learning a classical tune

    To both Jim’s
    During the initial learning and introduction to a new piece I was wondering if you are against listening to an accomplished player whose interpretation is appealing to you. Wouldn’t learning and developing these nuances right from the beginning be helpful?
    You wouldn’t have to unlearn them later on!
    I am assuming that you could always incorporate your own nuances during all the learning phases.

  14. #10

    Default Re: Process of learning a classical tune

    Quote Originally Posted by JeffD View Post
    I do not think learning a classical tune is the same as memorizing a classical tune.
    Good point. They can be, but those terms aren't necessarily synonymous.

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    Default Re: Process of learning a classical tune

    This thread is of great interest to me as a music education researcher; and although I don't want to sound arrogant, I do want to say my comments (you can call them opinions if you want) are based on 40 years of experience teaching and observing how people learn. The ideas I held starting out in the late 60's are not the same ideas I hold after watching some things--and some students--fail and others succeed.

    JeffD:"I learn classical music from the sheet music. I do not think learning a classical tune is the same as memorizing a classical tune. Learning the tune means I can play it well from the music."
    Agreed, and I think that's my point in not learning from a recording; the printed score might not be pure (Jim G's point) but a good urtext edition is a cleaner starting point.
    Jim Garber:"Another thing to remember is that some pieces have been edited from the original by other than the composer including fingerings and dynamics."
    And how! I have seen editions of Bach keyboard pieces with exaggerated molto espressivo and pedal markings that didn't even exist in Bach's time.

    Barry: "During the initial learning and introduction to a new piece I was wondering if you are against listening to an accomplished player whose interpretation is appealing to you. Wouldn’t learning and developing these nuances right from the beginning be helpful?
    You wouldn’t have to unlearn them later on!"
    Well...... Sounds reasonable enough, but (again from experience) particularly with beginners, the mannerisms tend to stick: they become part of the learner's memory of the piece, unintentionally and almost unconsciously, almost like a habit. This is especially true because of the brain's sensory-motor involvement in playing. Yes, you can unlearn them later on, but only if you are aware of them, and it does take some guidance from a good teacher. I would suggest at least listening to 2 or 3 different recordings if you must, so you don't assume "that's how it goes."

    I have been in bluegrass jams where a far more experienced player would say "That's not how Bill played it!" I would respect their historical knowledge, they know bluegrass far better than I; but they don't understand music. When I was a kid I flipped out over Glenn Gould playing the Bach Well Tempered Clavier. I wanted to play everything the way Glenn Gould did. Wise teachers taught me to study Bach, not imitate another player.

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    Default Re: Process of learning a classical tune

    Jim,
    I tend to agree with much of what you have to say. Personally I usually listen to different reputable versions of classical players and choose to learn stylistic approaches which would not necessarily come to me without accessing recordings as references. For example Bach Cello Suites. I use this tool similarly for learning jazz and other styles. Recently I presented Jethro Burns style of Over the Rainbow to a group of interested mando players. Having YouTube available to loop, slow down, and permit active listening and mimicking was an outstanding learning tool. Even though it was time consuming. Furthermore it increased my appreciation of Mr. Burns! My local jazz teacher, a Berkeley graduate and well recognized teacher will always say if you want to know how to swing it listen to so and so...... Right now I am working on a Django jazz and Jacob de Bandolin Choro piece. There is no way I would or could learn them as these artists composed, expressed and recorded their pieces! To me The nuances and compositional expression are not replaceable by merely a scriptural representation. How would one notate the Blues......
    Wouldn’t it be handy, if not great, to have readily available recordings of Bach and players he composed for as reference sources expressing what he scored and really wanted his scores to sound like? Don’t get me wrong as I do learn pieces without the above methodology. It is essential for discovering my own sound: I guess I just end up playing an audible genetic combination of all of who I happen to listen to!
    GREAT CONVERSATION! Best, Barry

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    Default Re: Process of learning a classical tune

    I love reading your thoughts and comments. But let's say, you are relateively new and someone hands you a piece of music or you turn to it in a book. How do you look at it? How do you judge it relative to your experience and abilities? How do you review it and set the stage for your attack on learnng? How do you determine how it is built (without chords, etc)? If it is tab how do lyou luse tabd with notation? Thank you all, I appreciate your knowledge.

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    Default Re: Process of learning a classical tune

    Quote Originally Posted by J.C. Bryant View Post
    I love reading your thoughts and comments. But let's say, you are relateively new and someone hands you a piece of music or you turn to it in a book. How do you look at it? How do you judge it relative to your experience and abilities? How do you review it and set the stage for your attack on learnng? How do you determine how it is built (without chords, etc)? If it is tab how do lyou luse tabd with notation? Thank you all, I appreciate your knowledge.
    I still say look for patterns: let's say the piece begins with a rising scalar figure (as in C E F A or Do Mi Fa La..); then what? Does it come back down, or extend at the higher range? Does it do a completely new pattern right after that, or later on? Does that same patter appear in the next couple measures? Maybe same pattern starting on a different note, or even upside down--descending?
    Of course some music just wanders and patterns are not obvious, but most pieces playable by a beginner have a fairly simple structure. Look at the Bach G major Prelude, it does the same pattern for measure after measure, only on different notes/chord arpeggios; then all at once it does something completely different--an ascending scalar pattern or such. You can see these like graphic representations, even if you didn't read a note of music.

    There is also a sort-of theory of the "golden mean" where at just the right point (often about 2/3rds of the way through), a composer does something significant--maybe a return of the opening theme, a key change, or a big wind-up to the ending. I found this true conducting the Mozart Requiem, at "just the right measure" about two thirds in, he brings back the opening theme and adds chromatics for intensity, leading to a dramatic ending.
    Number the measures (write in every one--not just every 10 or beginning lines) and see of there are numerical patterns. Bach was famous for numerological ideas in his music. Do things seem to change every 2 or 4 measures? When does an opening figure return? When does it look and feel like "here comes the ending...?"
    All these ways of looking at a piece give you some understanding of what the composer was thinking when writing the piece. They also help you learn (whether by memory or not) the piece because our memories grasp things in chunks--neuroscience says "chunks of 7, plus-or-minus-2" items; but as we make larger and larger chunks, we remember larger and larger sections. To a master conductor, maybe each movement of a symphony is one big chunk because they study it so intensively. But to start, we chunk a few notes, measures or phrases at a time.
    I guess you can do the same thing listening--do you hear a figure repeating, does it sound like "the same thing but different," does something you hear in the beginning come back near the end?
    Don't think of this as work or "study" --it's more like talking with another person to get to know them better.

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    Default Re: Process of learning a classical tune

    Regarding tablature, I use it all the time for lute and baroque guitar music (because that's the storage medium in which that music was originally composed, albeit earlier incarnations of tab). I use it very rarely for classical guitar (typically in the rare cases that I'm not provided standard notation). Not at all for mandolin. Notation systems all have limitations, and I'm simply less comfortable with the limitations of tablature than I am with those of standard notation. (Sidenote: fifth-tuned mandolin is a little unusual among necked chordophones in that its historic dedicated repertoire never made common use of tablature.)

    Regarding the influence of recorded interpretations, I think I was at much greater risk of frankly superficial emulation when I was much newer to the genre. As I grow older, more experienced, more curmudgeonly, I'm much more likely to take inspiration in more piecemeal fashion from recorded interpretations . . . if at all. Even among those performer–interpreters/pluckers whom I revere—Julian Bream, Hopkinson Smith, Gertrud Weyhofen, Nunzio Reina, Carlo Aonzo, etc.—I'm more likely to listen for where I'd like the interpretation to be different than for direct inspiration. I was fortunate to recently play Respighi's Roman Festivals, e.g. I couldn't find any recordings that I would want to emulate in toto. Some were just plain bad, I'm guessing full-time violinists begrudgingly taking up a mandolin out of temporary necessity.

    I also have a hunger for unfamiliar repertoire. I'm frankly more likely to take up a piece of music that hasn't been (or has only rarely been) recorded (or that has been recorded but with recordings unavailable to me) because I simply want to hear and assess something I haven't had the opportunity to. I have a dozen or so recordings of Vivaldi's RV 425 on my shelves, many excellent. What more could I offer that music? But I took up G. B. Sammartini's mandolin sonata, e.g., precisely because (1) I was familiar with Sammartini's contributions to art music and (2) this particular sonata had never been recorded to that time (I now have three professional recordings on my shelves: Aonzo on modern mandolin and Capucci and Galfetti on period instruments). Hearing it for the first time at my own hands, hearing how the Classical-era sonata form was growing from Baroque-ish proto-efforts like this modest-but-fantastic work for 6-course mandolin, was super rewarding.

    Regarding assessing a piece for whether or not I want to take (or am capable of taking) it on, I don't have the virtuosic oneness of facility with my instruments to do so on sight of score (other than in cases of extreme ease or difficulty). Assessment for me typically begins as simple curiosity when I discover some piece of music exists; my assessment is developed with both instrument and score in hand. I can then reject or accept the challenge with some initial experimentation at doing.
    Last edited by Eugene; Jul-26-2020 at 3:50pm.

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    Default Re: Process of learning a classical tune

    RE:
    Quote Originally Posted by J.C. Bryant View Post
    How do you determine how it is built (without chords, etc)?

    Chords are usually inherent in western art music, at least in tonal music from the Renaissance on, even if "Gmaj7" or the like isn't explicitly written on the score. You pretty quickly come to grips with what common intervals look like as note heads.
    Last edited by Eugene; Jul-26-2020 at 5:04pm.

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    Default Re: Process of learning a classical tune

    I am no master of classical music or pedagogy but the prime thing is to realize that in general these pieces that we play on mandolin are not so different from the fiddle tunes many of us folk types play. Yes, they are usually longer and may explore many different keys but in essence and for the earlier stuff work similarly. For instance, take Beethoven’s mandolin pieces originally composed for an amateur player. The CMajor Sonatina is relatively simple and resembles the reel-like rhythmic feel of a folkish tune.

    I think I may have asked this already of the OP: What classical music do you want to explore specifically? I am sure we can all make some suggestions. And are you working on your own or playing with others or working with a teacher?
    Last edited by Jim Garber; Jul-26-2020 at 5:31pm.
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    Default Re: Process of learning a classical tune

    Quote Originally Posted by J.C. Bryant View Post
    When I attempt to learn other songs or tunes I first try to get the tune in my head, then to determine the key, learn the chord structure, the repititions, licks and other indicators of what puts the tune together. What is the process of learning a classical tune? Or is it just pure memory of bar by bar, neasure by measure? What do you look for and in what order do you learn a classical tune? I know this may be very elementary for many of you but it would help me to know how you learn. thanks,
    In re-reading this, I think J.C. Bryant is just looking for other methods in learning. Not necessarily for a classical piece.

    So skills in reading and in understanding musical structure, and theory bring more insights in taking on a new project. Just being a more informed musician contributes to better learning, and that includes listening and reproducing the sounds one hears.
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    Default Re: Process of learning a classical tune

    I so very much apprecitae all your comments!! Eugene, readig your comments is like being in a class. Thanks. I have messed around with the mandolin for years, never accomplished in any area, though. I like to hear Bach and have recently obtained Robin Bullock's J.S. Bach, Volume One. Wow! I love it and am exploring how, at my advanced age, to pursue a begining on playing it in some way. I find that my playing is kind of like my observation of people "jigging". I see them and I am moved, I think I can do it, I am motivated then.....I get up... then I set back down. I know it is a process. I suppose that I am too often in a situation of "geting ready to get ready". thanks to you all, again

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    Default Re: Process of learning a classical tune

    Quote Originally Posted by J.C. Bryant View Post
    I so very much apprecitae all your comments!! Eugene, readig your comments is like being in a class. Thanks. I have messed around with the mandolin for years, never accomplished in any area, though. I like to hear Bach and have recently obtained Robin Bullock's J.S. Bach, Volume One. Wow! I love it and am exploring how, at my advanced age, to pursue a begining on playing it in some way. I find that my playing is kind of like my observation of people "jigging". I see them and I am moved, I think I can do it, I am motivated then.....I get up... then I set back down. I know it is a process. I suppose that I am too often in a situation of "geting ready to get ready". thanks to you all, again

    The 'trick' is in seeing that there is gradual progress. Some people record themselves and listen to it months or even years later. Personally I just tell myself to 'stuff the criticism' and have fun working. I know you can do it J.C. !
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    Default Re: Process of learning a classical tune

    I think DougC (I love that cat in the case) sums it all up well!! Play and enjoy it, don't be too critical of yourself, make it fun and in my case be thankful that I have never had to depend upon my ability to make a living. Wow! the thought of that is amazing. It has to be the journey and not just the destination. Blessings to you all in your music and in your willingness to share and advise.

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    Default Re: Process of learning a classical tune

    J. C.: your clarifying what your musical background and experience makes a big difference. I think many of us were assuming a deep dive into classical playing on a serious level. A lot may apply anyway but if you want to play Vivaldi, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Bartok, etc. learn it the best way you can as with any music. The more you get into it the more the subtleties will present itself to you.

    I heard an interview with Yo Yo Ma about his playing a Bach piece daily. I recall he said that even though he had played each piece multiple times he approached it each time as a new experience. It really doesn’t matter if it’s simple fiddle tunes or more complex classical pieces or jazz. I think working with phrasing tonality and trying to imbue your playing with feeling is the most important thing and the most rewarding.
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    Default Re: Process of learning a classical tune

    Quote Originally Posted by Jim Garber View Post
    . It really doesn’t matter if it’s simple fiddle tunes or more complex classical pieces or jazz. I think working with phrasing tonality and trying to imbue your playing with feeling is the most important thing and the most rewarding.
    Very well said!!!

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    Default Re: Process of learning a classical tune

    This is a great thread for me right now. I am trying to work out an arrangement for Asto Piazolla's "Libertango" for string band instruments. I got my first ideas from his recording and Yo Yo Ma's version. then I purchased the sheet music for a string quartet arrangement. I don't really read notation in real time, so I have been using some of the techniques mentioned here. Translating the first violin to mandolin was pretty straight forward, but the tuning differences between electric bass and cello, and guitar and viola have led in to different inversions of the notes in the notation to make the fingering of chords s possible. I really wish I had more music theory, but its an interesting challenge. thanks for all the viewpoints put forth here, they've given me ideas on how to approach this project!
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    Default Re: Process of learning a classical tune

    Quote Originally Posted by Steve Lavelle View Post
    thanks for all the viewpoints put forth here, they've given me ideas on how to approach this project!
    Cool. Good luck with it!

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