Jump to content

Learning Tunes On The Fly


Jody Kruskal
 Share

Recommended Posts

Learning tunes on the fly is great fun and I’ve learned many Old-Time and English session tunes that way.

Regardless of the the genre, when trying to learn a new tune at tempo, my strategy is to join in as soon as I can to pick up the harmony, rhythm and melody in that order. That means I can contribute and start playing right away, even if it’s just a few notes.

I prefer to learn tunes from fiddlers, but Lisa Alcott from Up-state New York is such a fine banjo player that Uncle Charlie Lowe’s Tune soon became clear after a few passes. Listen to Lisa teach me this great old American D tune right here. http://jodykruskal.com/uncle_charlie_lowes_tune.html

Notice how I play nothing at first, but soon come in with low chord notes to start. I fill in the chord root notes with guesses, then with more conviction as I get confirmation that my guesses sound good... or not so good with adjustments needed. Then I start getting the rhythm details and melody in snatches. I join her in bits and pieces and over the course of many repetitions I connect the dots and start exploring the contours of the tune on my G/D Jefferies Anglo concertina.

All the time, I’m attempting to make music and join Lisa’s playing. I want my fumbling around in learning the tune to sound plausible as an accompaniment, at the very least. Like the Hippocratic oath, I am trying to learn the tune on the spot while not doing any harm to the music. I remember that at the time of this recording, my main concern was to play quietly enough to keep from drowning her out and to let the banjo lead.

After six minutes, I still didn’t get the whole thing with all the details, only 90% or so. A few melody notes eluded me but I found all sorts of Anglo-centric ways to embellish the tune and play around with it. Lisa and I both traded octaves, playing high and low in turn, that was fun. The next step would have been for me to learn Lisa’s version slowly, note for note, just the way she plays it... but we ran out of time.

Old-Time has become my favorite session genre because the learning curve is so easy. Old-Time musicians rarely play medley's and they are happy to play the same tune over and over ‘till they’re done. This makes learning on the fly so much fun at an Old-Time session. Even a session of two.

Uncle Charlie Lowe’s Tune can be heard on a few youtube pages and I like this one the best:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-emvmP4_BSk

Some interesting discussion about this tune can also be seen here:
http://www.fiddlehangout.com/archive/28906

Edited by Jody Kruskal
  • Like 2
Link to comment
Share on other sites

For a beginner (like me) with limited musical knowledge what would you say the best way to learn on the fly is? I can play from books no problem (I also have a very good teacher ;)), but the idea of playing along to a tune seems impossible right now!

 

If you only know the keys by their number (as I do), is there a way to get involved, or do I need to remember my chords and learn which actual notes the buttons represent?

 

Cheers!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Most CD players and other digital recording /play back devices these days have 'repeat' features, A to B section repeats etc. ; so one can practice picking up tunes as they are being played whilst in the comfort of your own home.

 

I recall doing this by jogging the needle back a few grooves on Vinyl records to learn tunes, which was nothing like as convienent. But I still learn some tunes by playing along or bar by bar repeating on CD's ... it is good training.

Edited by Geoff Wooff
Link to comment
Share on other sites

It helps that most tunes in the British Isles and American folk traditions tend to follow a fairly standard pattern and a lot of phrases are repeated within the tune, although perhaps ending slightly differently. Similar phrases and fingering patterns also tend to occur in different tunes. Once you are familiar with the genre it is often possible to guess which way the tune is likely to go even on first hearing. Some tunes have a distinctive twist which might not be too easy to work out on the fly - if you can't find the right fingering then simply don't play it. In a session it doesn't matter if you fudge a bar or two.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Will Moore,

 

For me, learning basic music theory, specifically chords and progressions, was an immense help. Just knowing what makes a chord, and the major chords in a give key, makes musical life a whole lot easier. In Mr. Kruskal's example above, the tune he was learning was in D major, so the principal chords he would be using are D, G and A. It narrows down the possibilities and enabled him to quickly catch on to the tune.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Will said,
"do I need to remember my chords and learn which actual notes the buttons represent?"

 

Hi Will, no you do not need to know these labels to play well but it does help.

 

Brian, you are very right in what you say, but knowing the chords by ear and finger position is essential knowledge too. Theory knowledge and ear knowledge are very different things and it is best when they can compliment each other. Often, when I'm playing a new tune, I don't think so much about the letter names, D, G and A as you state, but rather the scale degree chord numbers 1, 4, and 5. In the key of D... 1, 4, 5 and D, G, A mean the same thing.

 

So as I heard the tune my first thought was... it's in D. Since I'm playing a G/D, that's a nice big push on the near row, and I've got a great pull D too. So now my fingers are settled into their places. I like to trust my fingers and rather than thinking about letters or numbers I'm mostly thinking about where my fingers need to go to play the tune.

 

The next thing that I heard was that the end of every phrase was a 4 chord. That's a G chord and I have a very nice push G chord push middle row. The melody note at that 4 chord is the third of the chord triad G, B, D. The fact that the third of the triad note is called a B never crossed my mind... but I played it none the less... by ear as it were.

 

So, my opinion is that theory is very useful but listening carefully and playing by ear is best.

Edited by Jody Kruskal
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Jody introduces an interesting subject here. For what its worth this is how I approach learning a tune on the fly



My first rule is to play softly. Its hard to control the bellows when unsure and my tendency is to play to loudly.



Second I don't play long notes unless I know the melody - to me long notes sound like a bleating sheep and dominate the sound of the session. I play the notes short, no more than an 1/8th note at most. Of, course when I know the tune there are places for 1/4 notes. If you have ever played with a pedal steel you know that their long notes dominate the space with little room for other instruments. If they are the wrong notes, it is a distraction.



Next , as has been pointed out, understanding the chordal structure is essential I play them softly but in good clean beats or offbeats - either works - for old timey I prefer the offbeats played staccato and rhythmically. You might want to refer to my video at Galax Festival presently on this forum. I am playing on the fly in part but to be fair, i have played these pieces on the fiddle and know where the music is going and where it rocks. It’s particularly interesting to see how I play chords behind Eddie’s singing - staccato.



I listen to the tune for three elements - thematic phrases, moving lines and stationary lines.


The thematic lines are usually the hook that distinguishes the tune -Most often they are the first and third measures. I start by playing the notes simply - sparse is ok but preserving the intention of the phrase is important. For example the singing of the first line Go tell aunt Rhodie is a thematic line. It is counted one, two and, three, four 1/4 1/8 1/8 1/4 1/4



The moving lines are those that connect thematic statements to stationary lines. They provide direction which services the intention of the tune. They may go up or they may go down. These phrases are the most difficult part of playing on the fly. If you watch harmonica players they will often play with 2 harps: one in the key so they can play on the row and another harmonica in a different key so that they can switch to playing cross- row. In the anglo the same applies but here all the harps are contained in one box. For example in the key of G in the C/G, you can play the tonic either on the third row or cross row scales and arpeggios in two different directions . For the dominant D chord in the key of G there is also a closing scale and opening scale to provide moving lines. I find the one that best fits each moving line and in this way avoid stumbling (too much) It is the same approach as on the banjo where I move the chord positions up and down the neck to where the inversion best fits the melodic line.



Stationary lines are easy. They usually are on a chord which allows either a double stop or vamp. It is here that the concertina can really rock.



Finally playing on the fly depends on the genre. I would never play an Irish tune on the fly - to me it feels disrespectful to the musicians that have worked so hard to get it exactly right which is so much in the style and aesthetic.


  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

I can't claim the same level of expertise as either Jody or Bertam but this is more or less exactly the way I pick up tunes in a session. Unlike Bertram, I will try with Irish tunes, but then I've been steeped (soused?) in that culture for a long time. I have to say that I don't find the majority of Irish (or some Scottish for that matter) tunes as easy to pick up by ear as I do English, Quebecois and some Swedish tunes; the pace they are played at and the structure of a lot of Irish tunes doesn't always fit easily with my brain and fingers.

 

One note of caution is to be sensitive to the type of session and the other musicians. One pub I played at regularly in Scotland was led by an extremely "procedural" musician whose view was that one should not join in at all if you didn't know the tune. Sessions were for playing in his view rather than learning and practising. This is not the typical culture in southern England, nor in the sessions I've been fortunate to attend in Quebec.

 

Alex West

Edited by Alex West
Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 2 years later...

Last Sunday, I had the chance to try this tune again with banjo player Lisa Alcott at her legendary old-time pot-luck party up-state New York. This time I was prepared and knew the tune.

 

It's so much fun to learn a tune on the fly, but knowing it ahead of time ends up making much better music.

 

We had fiddlers Sam Zygmuntowicz (luthier) and Lisa Gutkin (Klezmatics) and a few other local players. Good times! Then we played Coon Dog....

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Jody,

thanks for reviving this thread. Since I came here about a year later, I completely missed it.

The original recording of the process of you learning the tune is fascinating and is just the kind of skill I wish to attain some day!

Although I love the music very much, the bluegrass/old-timey music is sadly pretty much non-existent in my part of Europe, so sessions like you described don't happen. I will probably start to apply more pressure on my music-playing friends to experiment with this (or maybe find out if there was any session traditions in Slovenia way back).

Thanks for the inspiration!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 2 months later...

Dear Timv,

 

Any luck yet in finding someone to play with together with in Slovenia?

 

When you find your new playing friend or friends, learn their tunes. That's what I did. Or what about exploring Slovenian traditional music or fiddle tunes or dance tunes or songs on the concertina? That's what I did here where I live.

 

I followed my ear in search of the good sounds and learned the oldest dance music I could find that was active here. Then I looked for like minded musicians. I never would have found them if it were not for the vital traditional dance scene here.

 

Don't you have social dance groups doing Slovenian folkloric presentations or just dancing for fun at local parties and gatherings?

 

For a start, here is what wikipedia has to say about Slovenian traditions:

Vocal

Rural harmony singing is a deep rooted tradition in Slovenia, and is at least three-part singing (four voices), while in some regions even up to eight-part singing (nine voices). Slovenian folk songs, thus, usually resounds soft and harmonious, and are very seldom in minor.

Instrumental

Typical Slovenian folk music is performed on Styrian harmonica (the oldest type of accordion), fiddle, clarinet, zithers, flute, and by brass bands of alpine type. In eastern Slovenia, fiddle and cimbalon bands are called velike goslarije.

 

Folk music revivalists include Volk Volk, Kurja Koža, Marko Banda, Katice, Bogdana Herman, Ljoba Jenče, Vruja, Trinajsto praše, Šavrinske pupe en ragacone, Musicante Istriani, and Tolovaj Mataj.

One of the best Slovenian diatonic accordionists is Nejc Pačnik who won the accordion world-championship twice, in 2009 and 2015.

Slovenian country music

From 1952 on, the Slavko Avsenik's band began to appear in broadcasts, movies, and concerts all over the West Germany, inventing the original "Oberkrainer" sound that has become the primary vehicle of ethnic musical expression not only in Slovenia, but also in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and in the Benelux, spawning hundreds of Alpine orchestras in the process. The band produced nearly 1000 original compositions, an integral part of the Slovenian-style polka legacy. Avsenik's most popular instrumental composition is the polka that is titled "Na Golici" (in Slovene), or "Trompetenecho" (in German), and "Trumpet Echoes" (in English). Oberkrainer music, which the Avsenik Ensemble popularized, is always a strong candidate for country (folk) music awards in Slovenia and Austria. Slavko and his brother, Vilko, are usually credited as the pioneers of Slovenian folk music, having solidified its style in the 1950s.

Many musicians followed Avsenik's steps, one of the most famous being Lojze Slak.

Slovenian song festival

A similarly high standing in Slovene culture, like the Sanremo Music Festival has had in Italian culture, was attributed to the coastal Melodies of Sea and Sun (In Slovene: Melodije morja in sonca) and Slovenian song festival (In Slovene: Slovenska popevka), dedicated to a specific genre of popular Slovene music.[10]

-------------------------------------------------

 

Best of luck!

 

Edited by Jody Kruskal
Link to comment
Share on other sites

59 minutes ago, Jody Kruskal said:

Dear Timv,

 

Any luck yet in finding someone to play with together with in Slovenia?

 

Jody, wow what an exhaustive list! Thank you so much for taking the time.

although I have a friend with a banjo and another with an electric bass, we just can't seem to find a timeslot where we could get together at this time.

 

In the meantime, I started to arrange some popular music from the 60s (we call them evergreens), but it's slow work. I will post some recordings once I'm proficient enough.

 

1 hour ago, Jody Kruskal said:

Or what about exploring Slovenian traditional music or fiddle tunes or dance tunes or songs on the concertina? That's what I did here where I live.

 

The problem here is that it's very hard to find anything written down, and as far as I know there are no music events where that kind of music can be heard, but I will keep my eyes open.

 

1 hour ago, Jody Kruskal said:

Don't you have social dance groups doing Slovenian folkloric presentations or just dancing for fun at local parties and gatherings

 

Folkloric dancing is very strong here in Slovenia, and I've found recordings, plus I have some friends who are into it, but I need to explore this a bit more.

A friend however sent me this video:

 

A nice dancing tune is played from around 5 minute mark onwards, which could be nice to play, but I haven't tried it yet. This recording is from Rezija, which is culturally Slovenian, but is now a part of Italy.

 

1 hour ago, Jody Kruskal said:

Folk music revivalists include Volk Volk, Kurja Koža, Marko Banda, Katice, Bogdana Herman, Ljoba Jenče, Vruja, Trinajsto praše, Šavrinske pupe en ragacone, Musicante Istriani, and Tolovaj Mataj.

One of the best Slovenian diatonic accordionists is Nejc Pačnik who won the accordion world-championship twice, in 2009 and 2015.

 

This is a very good list that I haven't seen yet. I will check them out, thanks!

 

1 hour ago, Jody Kruskal said:

Slovenian country music

From 1952 on, the Slavko Avsenik's band began to appear in broadcasts, movies, and concerts all over the West Germany, inventing the original "Oberkrainer" sound that has become the primary vehicle of ethnic musical expression not only in Slovenia, but also in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and in the Benelux, spawning hundreds of Alpine orchestras in the process. The band produced nearly 1000 original compositions, an integral part of the Slovenian-style polka legacy. Avsenik's most popular instrumental composition is the polka that is titled "Na Golici" (in Slovene), or "Trompetenecho" (in German), and "Trumpet Echoes" (in English). Oberkrainer music, which the Avsenik Ensemble popularized, is always a strong candidate for country (folk) music awards in Slovenia and Austria. Slavko and his brother, Vilko, are usually credited as the pioneers of Slovenian folk music, having solidified its style in the 1950s.

Many musicians followed Avsenik's steps, one of the most famous being Lojze Slak.

 

As for this specific style of music, it's something I (and many young people here) am not interested in. It's overplayed and sadly you get sick of it from hearing it everywhere. There are, of course, exceptions here, and I will attach one of my favorite songs:

 

Thank you for your effort, Jody. I will keep on working towards finding songs I enjoy playing and will report back with recordings once I get satisfying results (although this might take a while).

Link to comment
Share on other sites

59 minutes ago, Jody Kruskal said:

 

 

This type of accordion is more or less the national instrument of Slovenia. How this music could be played on a concertina I have no idea. The playing is fast, but luckily I think most songs are in the key of C, which should work perfectly with the C/G anglo.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

1 hour ago, Jody Kruskal said:

 

A youtube search brought me to this page:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCvREJUMEC9tG4kGtPKL_1yQ/videos

which has a huge number of videos and looks very promising.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Guest
Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

 Share

×
×
  • Create New...