The importance of review and listening in learning to play traditional music

Systematic review and daily listening can improve your playing dramatically. I will explain here how to use a repertoire chart and recordings to speed your learning and to make our lesson time more fun and efficient. Another benefit of review is that it gives you a satisfying way to warm up, and ensures that you are ready to play several tunes when any sort of opportunity arises, be it a jam session, visit with relatives, talent show or recital.

I developed these ideas while mulling over ways to help aspiring fiddlers play more skillfully and make faster progress, and while reading some of the Suzuki violin literature. (Suzuki is a very successful method for learning violin by ear.) I'm particularly inspired by a book called Teaching from the Balance Point by Edward Kreitman. I decided to write these ideas out for all my students since they apply to people of all ages and at all skill levels. I use these methods myself for learning to play new instruments and to prepare for gigs on the fiddle.

How to use a repertoire chart

The chart is a way to keep track of what tunes you are working on and to make sure old tunes don't get neglected. After all, it is a lot of work to learn a tune; you might as well enjoy it once you know it! The chart also helps you to begin any tune easily and to communicate with other people (say at a session) about your repertoire.
  • Write down on scrap paper all the tunes you know (or sort of know). If you have a large repertoire, start with 5 to 20 of your best tunes or tunes you are particularly interested in. You may eventually keep separate lists for different instruments or different styles (old-time, Swedish, etc.). By all means include the tunes you will be performing or jamming on in the foreseeable future. If you have a hard time remembering how the tunes start, listen to your recordings and jot down the first few notes of the tune, either in music notation on a bit of staff paper, or by using letter names or fingering numbers.
  • Play through the tunes and sort them to A and B lists. The A list is for tunes you can play through pretty well and steadily, even if slowly. Put tunes on the B list if you forget some of the notes, don't know the rhythm, or lack technique to play accurately.
  • Write down your A list tunes on a sheet of lined paper, including the starting notes if needed. Review all the A list tunes several times a week, daily if at all possible. Play each tune three times through. This doesn't take very long: one time through a typical tune takes only half a minute at speed. Always follow the tune's repeat structure. This ensures that you know the transitions between the parts and from the end to the beginning. Put a check mark next to the title each time you review a tune at home between lessons. Keep the list in your fiddle case so we can use it at each lesson.
  • Jot down your B list on the bottom or back of the chart. Pick just one tune from your B list, and work on it over several days (see practice tips below) until you can add it to the A list. Then start on a new B list tune. Recopy your list whenever it gets filled with checkmarks. By then you'll probably have new favorite tunes anyway.
  • Even though fiddle tunes sound great at any speed, if you intend to play with others or for dancing, you'll need to gradually increase the speed of the tunes on your A list until you reach target speed. Target speed for reels and jigs is 116-120 beats per minute for the half note. Ask me about target speeds for other types of tunes. Note on your chart what speed is comfortable for you for each tune on your A list, using a metronome. Then move the metronome up a notch and see if you can hold the tune together. Use the practice tips in the sidebar to go over the rough spots until the whole tune can be played at the faster tempo.

How to make use of recordings

The idea is to spend time every day listening to great fiddling and to the tunes you are working on so you get the form, style, tone, pitches and rhythms in your ear. With today's portable devices you should be able to listen in your car, while exercising, in different rooms of your house, at your computer and perhaps at work.
  • Copy your fiddle CDs onto your computer. You can also download single tracks of great fiddlers playing your tunes from the iTunes store, Amazon, etc. When you take lessons from me, I will send you recordings of myself playing the tunes we are working on, and I'm happy to record other tunes for you as well. Use iTunes or Windows Media Player to label the tunes so you can find them easily, and organize your recordings into playlists which match your A and B lists.
  • Use an iPod/mp3-player or make CDs of the resulting playlists so you can listen to them easily. Go ahead and mix in inspirational recordings of good players on any instrument, not just fiddle. For example, for learning Irish music it is helpful to listen to uillean pipers and flute-players, and for learning bluegrass, to listen to banjo and guitar breaks.
  • Passive listening: Listen in the car, while eating or doing chores or homework, before sleeping, at work and anytime. Also get out to concerts, dances, sessions, music camps and festivals as much as possible. I can't describe how fun and inspirational this can be! Listen to a couple hours a day of great fiddling in the style you want to focus on. This means commercial recordings as well as your lesson tunes. I can help you decide what recordings to buy.
  • Active listening: This takes place with fiddle in hand to help you work on the details of a tune, and also away from the fiddle as you study your recordings and become an authority on the tunes you play and the tunes you plan to learn next. Listen to your tunes until you can sing, hum or whistle them accurately (shift octaves if it goes past your range). Even if singing is not your strong point, listen until you can show what direction the notes move with your hand, and until you can tap the rhythm of the notes or bow the tune in the air. You should also be able to find the downbeats, distinguish whether a tune is in 3/4 or 4/4 time, tap your foot steadily while listening, count the beats and measures, and walk around the room to the beat.

I hope you'll give these ideas a try, so we can spend lesson time learning how to improve the danceability and beauty of your tunes, and in ear training and learning bowing and other skills, rather than in reconstructing lost tunes or learning unfamiliar tunes by rote. Come to your next lesson with several tunes all ready to play for me, and through listening become an authority on the next tune you plan to learn!

Practice tips for most fun and best progress

  • Slow down! Most people tend to practice tricky spots too fast. You must be able to play a passage slowly before you speed it up.
  • Don't just practice UNTIL you get it right, and then move on to something else. Instead, practice WHEN you get it right. Repeat the passage ten times correctly to wipe out all the times you muffed it. Then you have a prayer of getting it right tomorrow on the first try.
  • Record yourself. Listen for what's good about your playing, and also listen for passages to improve (missed notes, tone, intonation, rhythm, etc.). Recording is a way to document and take pride in your progress and to get used to performing.
  • Keep the practice of reviewing tunes rewarding and interesting by focussing on one aspect on each tune, or on a different aspect each time through the tune.
Beginner-advanced beginner players might think about these aspects (but not all at once!)
  • your posture and how you hold the fiddle
  • releasing tension in the hands or shoulders
  • keeping your bow perpendicular to the strings
  • staying in the middle of the bow
  • making clean string crossings
  • getting your high and low 2nd fingers placed just right
  • tapping your foot while you play
Intermediate-advanced players might focus on these points (one at a time!)
  • making a beautiful tone
  • playing with perfect intonation (in tune)
  • keeping a steady rhythm
  • rhythmic accents and lift
  • applying bow patterns
  • crisp ornaments
  • adding drones and double stops