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Inspiration Or Perspiration?


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I love my new Marcus – playing every minute I get. My wife is learning the fiddle and between us we can now murder a few songs. My wife is naturally more musical then me but is finding teacher herself the fiddle quite tough. My son plays quite a few instruments and seems to pick up tunes after a few runs through, he is definitely the musical one in the family. I am without doubt the weak link in the family band.


So sort of interested who out there is in the inspired camp when learning a new tune and who is the perspiring camp? My playing is definitely improving bit by bit, the new Marcus has made a great difference, but after a practice session I am still mentally tired out! I have a pretty stressful job working with children with behavioural problems, and I find playing a totally absorbing experience, just wish playing was easier on my grey matter!

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Interesting...I get more physically tired in the arms and shoulders than mentally fatigued...I seem to have the keyboard-position/bellows-direction/tone-produced matrix in my head, and once I can whistle or sing the tune, I can make the instrument produce it without a lot of concerted thought...this works better for familiar tune types, and not for 13/8 Moldovan swing lullabyes or other odd tune types, obviously, but as a rule if I can sing it I can play it.

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Each tune you learn will make learning the next tune a little easier. Each tune you learn will make playing the last tune you learned a lot easier. With practice, you will find your ability to learn new stuff increasing at an exponential rate.


There are lots of ways to learn. The only common factor is practice.


Sometimes I sit and "doodle", just playing slow scales, and fitting the harmonies, improvising without going anywhere in particular. That helps me to learn what certain shapes sound like. It lets my fingers learn the chord shapes without the time pressure of having to be there in time for the next beat of a real tune,


Sometimes I try out a tune I can already play on melodeon or harmonica, or can nearly remember from hearing someone else play it. I sort of know when I'm ready to stary learning the tune, and when it's one for another day.


If I set out to learn a specific tune, I learn the melody first, a phrase at a time. Then when I can play the melody confidently, I start to add the accompaniment. If there's a tricky bit, I practise that bit several times.


A few passes through a tune in one session is enough for brain overload, then I move on, either to try something else new, or to play something I already know.


Keep changing. If you keep doing the same thing before you're ready, your fingers might be learning the mistakes! We do most of our learning in our sleep. Practising puts the tune in your short/medium term memory, but it takes rest to allow it to become completely internalised.


Don't beat yourself up over it. It is not a competition. I'd rather be able to play half a dozen tunes that sound nice than be able to thrash out 500 tunes.


I have a Marcus too. Does yours have the thin layer of sound-deadening sponge behind the metal end? I removed it from mine and the box now sounds brighter and feels more responsive.

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I am in the perspiring plodder camp at this point. But I can appreciate the notion by Mikefule that the patterns gradually burn in and become helpful for more quickly learning other tunes. I am primarily a harpist and that is what happened to me learning that instrument. Riffs on my first dozen O'Carolan tunes that I practiced over and over became the foundation for learning new tunes later on.


But Trotsky's comment about the mental tiredness rings a bell, too. I find that I become totally absorbed in my repetitions of tunes and in sorting out my errors to the point that, when I stop playing, I actually want to take a wee nap. One thing is for sure at this early stage of my learning how to play the concertina--I am using my brain in a whole new way. Developing the peculiar muscle memory that is needed for even a moderate tempo reel is quite a mind-body challenge, at least at my stage. Hang in there Trotsky! We will make it. (at least until they eventually gun us down in Mexico decades from now).


Mike Nielsen

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Thanks for the replies everyone. I guess I have not the 'keyboard-position/bellows-direction/tone-produced matrix in my head' yet and this is causing my mental triedness - but I will keep perserving until I get there.


'A few passes through a tune in one session is enough for brain overload, then I move on, either to try something else new, or to play something I already know.' this looks like good advice - I think I try too long on a new tune at each session.


'I have a Marcus too. Does yours have the thin layer of sound-deadening sponge behind the metal end? I removed it from mine and the box now sounds brighter and feels more responsive.' Great advice, i was laready pleased with the 'tina now it is even better!


'I am using my brain in a whole new way' - this I think is my real problem but will improve with practice.

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With many years of playing, it is almost possible, if you play by ear, to hear the tune a few times then play it. This is not always the case if a pattern of notes is unlike you have come across before. If this is the case I try and pick out the basic tune without the embelishments and then gradually fill in the bits I am missing out. I learn the tune then try and fit the accompaniment,this may mean changing the way I play it initially ,but that is Anglo playing for you. With this method it enables you to play along until you can fully master the tune and the accompaniment.

Hours of practice in one hit is not productive, as the mind cannot cope,short sessions at something you are working on is the way to progress.


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Mikefule is right. The time and practice make easier to learn new tones. I suposse that it happens whith all the instruments. It happens to mi whith the pipe and the tabor.


I have my concertina a week a week ago (I bouth "she" last week), and I have learned... I will say four (not completly). But I don't learn all the tunes in one day. My particular sistem is:

- First, I start whith the songs I know

- Then, I practice the new tune (but not one tune per day! It's too much!)

- After this, I have a rest: I'm going to drink, or to eat, or to walk, or to watch TV,... Some times I rest for 30 minutes, others for an hour,... It's depends on you.

- Finally, start the first step again.


I do this two or tree times a day, no more because you can finish very tired. I think it's a good sistem for learning, but not when you know a lot of songs.

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Welcome to the sweet madness!


As a strictly by ear player, I have found that it helps to immerse myself into a tune as often as possible; to keep my wife from murdering me I listen mostly while driving to and from work. This way I can hear it as often as necessary.

As Al and others pointed out, you will find lots of "tropes", beginnings, endings, etc that are similar enough to tell you that they can be used or modified to fit the current tune. This, I guess, is what delineates a "style."

If it comes out a little differently than the source...well, that's folk!


I, too, work with difficult kids, and have found that the listening then playing when I get home helps to put into place the emotional distance that I need in order to keep my heart from being shattered on a daily basis. Even a few licks tends to ease the mind away from the moil.

Tough job; thanks for doing it.

I hope that the music and the concertina treat you well.



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For those of us less accomplished in picking up tunes by ear alone, my solution to learning tunes from written music is based on repetition. I think this has cropped up in an earlier thread but I cannot find it at the moment, so I will try to recreate what I posted then.


My principal tool is repetition. Make a note of the key, to identify which sharps/flats you need to play. Read out the first few notes so that you can say, eg, this tune starts with A B. Play through a tune WITHOUT specifically trying to memorise it, and play it a dozen times, or up to 20 if you can manage that. Then set it aside. Come back to it some time later, or even a few days later, and see how far you can get without referring to the notation. Ideally, each time you come back to the tune you will go a bit farther before you need to check. Eventually, you will only need to check for specific bars which are tricky passages.


Best wishes


John Wild

Edited by John Wild
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There are two methods of learning a poetry: read the whole thing, try to repeat, read again...

And read it bit by easy bit, repeating each.

The first one is more difficutl, but takes actually less time to memorize the whole thing.

Second seems easier, but takes longer.

However, it deals with the learner, profficient in Language (or musical technuque).

If a language (or musical ability) is not developed yet, learner is concerned not with memorizing the poem (song), but first with developing the skills: prononciation, grammar, bits of useful phrazes (or scales, phrazes, finding the right buttons).

In my learning of English I found that grammar, conjugations, memorizing words, variations of verbs (scales, harmony theory) was not helpful, to put it mildly. I find memorizing little bits of useful dialog (licks, simple songs, simplified popular tunes) to be of exceptional value. Then your verbal (musical) responce will not be dependant on memorized texts and grammatical preparations (playing a piece of music as written or heard), but instead it will be instantenious. Often grammatically incorrect (wrong chord), but recognizeable by listeners. In time it will become more correct and, what's more important, creatively flexible.

Having said that, people's use of language is impovisational, but many older music learners don't care about becoming Luis Armstrongs. Their goal may be just been able to play a few (like 100) pieces, rigidly learned in shortest time possible.

Ability to recognize it divides clever teacher from, mm... unclever.

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I'm an ear player so I have to get the tune into my head first - by listening to recordings, playing it on recorder (which I can just about play from dots), or copying it into notation software and playing it back.


Once it's in my head I can usually play most of it straight off. There are common phrases which crop up in a lot of tunes, and most British folk tunes follow a similar repetitive structure, so it's quite easy to pick up about 80% of a tune straight away. The remaining 20% - the unusual phrases with tricky fingering- may take a bit longer to work out.


I play anglo, harmonic style, and learn tune and chords together - 3 chord trick to begin with. Once I've got the basic tune I start experimenting with different fingerings, bellows directions, and more interesting chords. Often the chords I want to play in the left hand dictate the bellows direction, and therefore the fingering of the tune in the right hand.


With a tricky phrase it's tempting to practice it over and over again. But I find it helpful to also play the preceding and following phrases - you need to learn the lead-in and lead-out from the phrase as well as the phrase itself. Again, these can help to decide on the final fingering.


Then play it lots, and start to explore its possibilities. Make it your own.

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Its easiest to learn "sticky" tunes - if you hear a tune and some of it is still in your head the next day, thats a "sticky" tune.

(As opposed to Shooting, Adderbury - thats a "stick" tune).


Learning tunes tunes away from the instrument i.e. memorising, is one thing - learning how to cross-finger tunes you have already memorised is a separate exercise again.

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