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The San Francisco Scottish Fiddlers

  • 11 Feb 2020 5:21 PM | Admin (Administrator)

    Some Thoughts on Written Music

    One of the challenges faced by many newcomers to traditional music is the matter of learning by ear. If your previous musical experience is founded on written music, the idea of learning and playing without it may be alarming and confusing. Feelings of being asked to perform a high-wire act without a safety net may start to creep into the back of your mind. Yet, there are many reasons why learning by ear is not just the preferred method in traditional music, but is profoundly essential to what traditional music is.

    First and foremost, this music is part of an aural tradition. Many of the tunes we play have been passed from person to person and across generations for hundreds of years before ever being written down. Like bits of flame passed from candle to candle, torch to torch, carried from one village to another, traditional tunes persist and spread, and yet remain undiminished. When you learn and play and share a tune, you become a part of this tradition. You are participating in an experience shared not just with the people around you now, but with other people across the world and the centuries.

    This is not to say tunes are immutable. They do change, not just over time, but across space as well, carried in the minds and hearts and fingers of travelers across oceans and continents. As they travel, they acquire the distinct accents of the regions they pass through, and this too is fundamental to the nature of the music. A traditional player often will not play a tune in exactly the same way twice in succession. Similarly, in some regions it would be considered odd to offer a tune and play it just the same way that another person plays it. After all, if you're not bringing something new, something of your own style and personality to the party, why are you there?

    Seen in this light, the idea of writing a tune down seems somewhat strange, for how can one hope to capture a living thing on a page? Some would go so far as to say a tune dies as soon as it is written down. This may be a bit of an extreme position, but the thought is worth considering. Playing a tune is a living act, a moment of existence that will never happen again. We strive to let every note be not a duty, but an expression of joy. To try and capture this on a piece of paper is ultimately an exercise in futility that will only distract from our real purpose. The music becomes the object, the musician the objectifier, and in the schism between the two the spirit is lost.

    Another drawback of written music is that our musical notation is fundamentally inadequate to capture all of the nuances and subtleties of this music. If it were, though, this would not be a solution to a problem, but simply a more elaborate cage.

    It has been said, in comparing classical music to traditional music, that classical music is the realm of the composer, and traditional music is the realm of the performer. That is, in the classical world the written music is considered the Truth, as enshrined by the composer, and it is the job of the musician to bring forth, with some interpretation certainly, the intent of the composer. In traditional music, on the other hand, oftentimes the composer is lost in the obscurity of time, there is no written Truth, and the performer is completely free to make of the music what they will. There are of course traditional styles that the performer may wish to adhere to, just as the classical performer will be informed by the styles of the period of their music, so the comparison is not as stark as might be supposed.

    The point of this, though, is not to pit the two realms of music against each other, but to shine a bit of light on the difference in perspective and mindset that a person coming into the traditional world from the classical world may have to contend with. And again, it is to show why freeing oneself from the confines of the written page is so essential to the traditional music experience. Dots on a page are merely the passing shadow of a tune soaring overhead. As it turns out, you are being invited to perform a high-wire act without a net, and therein lies the beauty and the joy.

    All this metaphysics notwithstanding, dots do have their purpose. Once you have absorbed the style of a tradition, the dots are a convenient way to communicate the skeleton of a tune, a rough sketch of what you can make of it. We often use the dots to remind us of tunes we already know.

    With or without dots, you will encounter arguments about what is the right way to play a certain tune. Often these will take the form of, "That's the way so-and-so played it, and she composed it, so that must be the One Correct Way." This argument often collapses when it is pointed out that the same person, in some other setting, played the same tune in a very different way. It is true, though, that sometimes different variations of a tune do not mesh together well, so when a group is playing a tune together it works best if they're playing something like the same version. Here, dots can be a help. In the SFSF, many people learn tunes from the same source at the same time, most often at a camp, a workshop, or as part of the Spring Concert lineup. This becomes the de facto club version of the tune, and there is an effort to get that version into the written archives.

    You can find written music for nearly every tune in the traditional repertoire, and often many different versions of that same tune. There are a number of famous collections dating back hundreds of years, and there are searchable on-line databases that are constantly growing. Again, the point here is not that these should be shunned, or that there is shame in referring to them. They are in fact valuable resources. But remember that all they contain are shadows.

  • 11 Feb 2020 5:19 PM | Admin (Administrator)

    Have you joined the club in the last year or so? Or maybe you’ve been in the club for a while and are still wondering which of the hundreds of club tunes you should learn first? There are numerous sources to help you:

    The club has a binder of printed music which you can order for $69 including shipping (well worth it if you read the “dots”). There’s an index of tunes included with it, with favorite and frequently played tunes marked. This is a treasure trove!

    The club also has CDs for many of the spring concerts with tunes played slowly and moderately for sale ($7 including shipping). These tunes are often favorites that get played frequently. Send email for information on purchasing sheet music or practice CDs.

    Note that you must be a club member to purchase the either the sheet music or the CDs. (Click here for information on joining the SFSF.)

    Check out our list below of favorite tunes for new members with varying ranges of musical experience. These tunes are well enough known in the club that you should be able to start the tune and others will play along with you.

    Get a recording app on your phone or a dedicated audio recorder and become a collector of tunes. Come to a club meeting or go to one of the sessions listed in the newsletter. Record the tunes you would like to learn. At SFSF sessions you will often be able to find someone willing to play a tune slowly for you to record and learn. Just ask.

    Log onto the club related smugmug.com pages and watch concert videos. (See the Member Notices in the monthly newsletter for more information regarding club videos.)

    Really knowing a tune means that you can play it by heart. No sheet music to lean on! There are huge advantages in this – you can take all your tunes with you wherever you go. If this is new to you, there are some creative ways to learn. There’s really no right or wrong way, just the way that works best for you.

    Learning tunes by ear involves different brain pathways from learning to read a tune from sheet music. If you have been devoted to the “dots”, your process may change over time as you acclimate to learning tunes and playing without sheet music. One of the disadvantages of sheet music is that the dots will lead you astray – don't trust them. They are great for sorting out a difficult passage, but if you're new to trad music you will never understand it by reading the dots, and you will almost inevitably get the wrong idea of the tune. Also worth pointing out is that when you learn by ear, you're learning to hear intervals between pitches, whereas the dots tie you to absolute notes. This is why people who learn by ear will sometimes start a tune in the "wrong" key. When you learn the intervals by ear, you can play the tune in any key you like, and it's still the same tune.

    Here are some common techniques. Remember that there is no one right way to learn tunes (or anything else, for that matter). Try different approaches and see what works for you.

    • Listen to the tune a number of times. Sing it aloud a few times; this helps you know where you are going. Then try playing the first few notes or phrase, listen again, and repeat, building as you are able.

    • Try one of the many computer and phone apps or on-line services that allow you to change the tempo of a recording without changing its pitch. This can be very helpful in picking apart a fast tune. Here are just a few examples: You can also slow down YouTube videos by using the controls.

    • If you read music, do listen to recordings also to inform you as you play through a tune. Read the first measure or phrase, turn away from the music, and play the notes or phrase repeatedly until you have it in your fingers. Learn the next few notes, link them to the first phrase, and practice the two parts until you have them and so forth.

    • Another way to approach a tune is not to think of it as a linear progression of notes, but to look for the shape and structure of it, and find landmarks you can recognize. Try to hit the landmarks as you play along with a recording or in a session, and don't worry too much if you miss some of the notes in between. They will come in their own time.

    • Do not be afraid of playing a wrong note. Humans learn by making mistakes and correcting them. If you're playing along with a recording by yourself, no one is going to know. Play all the wrong notes you want! If you're in a club session and you're playing along quietly in the back, no one is going to give you dirty looks because you made a mistake. Don't be too timid, though. If you're playing so softly that you can't hear you own mistakes, you'll never learn from them.

    Regarding sources, the more popular a tune is, the more different versions of it you will find out in the world. Some of these might or might not correspond to the way the club plays it. That's not a problem, but if you pick a version off thesession.org, for example, just be prepared for the differences. It shouldn't be hard to adapt once you have the basic feel of the tune.

    Hopefully you can find something useful here to help you dive more deeply into club music and play more.

    Suggested Tunes for Beginning to Intermediate Musicians


    Title Month and Year Tune Was Added to the Club Binder
    The Air Tune August, 2008
    Birchville August 2015
    The Farley Bridge December 2010 supplement
    La Fée des Dents (The Tooth Fairy) December 2009
    Ice on the Water October 2000
    Josefin’s Waltz December 1996
    The March of the King of Laois February 2011
    My Cape Breton Home July 2007
    Rob Fraser’s Welcome to San Francisco August 2006
    She’s Sweetest When She’s Naked September 2006
    The Sleeping Tune October 2006
    Da Slockit Light March 1995
    Sour Grass and Granite October 1999

    Suggested Tunes for Intermediate to Advanced Musicians

    Title Month and Year Tune Was Added to the Club Binder
    Calliope House April 2001
    Captain Campbell September 1996
    The Flowers of Edinburgh March 1999
    Frank’s Reel November 1999
    Garster’s Dream November 2003
    The High Drive November 2007
    Hughie Shortie’s Reel March 2011
    Ingonish March 2011
    Jenny Dang The Weaver August 1991
    Jig Run Rig June 2009
    Little Donald in the Pigpen December 1991
    Raivlin’ Reel October 2009
    Spootiskerry September 1987
  • 11 Feb 2020 5:19 PM | Admin (Administrator)

    If you’re completely new to traditional music, there are a few aspects of sessions (or “jams”, or “jam sessions”) that might be confusing (or downright bewildering). If you’ve been around the traditional music scene for a while, you have probably observed that every group has its own style and patterns when it comes to sessions. In either case, this short introduction aims to make the SFSF sessions in particular a little less intimidating to the newcomer and less peculiar to the more experienced. It is also meant to serve as a reminder to those who are regulars at the SFSF sessions that a little extra care is necessary to make newcomers feel welcome, and in fact there are some points that we would all do well to keep in mind for everyone’s sake.

    In some groups, sessions have a leader and a formal structure, such as a strict round-robin where each person gets a turn to start a tune or perhaps a pair of tunes that the group plays through twice and then moves on. SFSF sessions are nowhere near as formal. Generally there is no leader and little or no structure, and anyone who has a tune in mind will start it whenever there is a gap to jump into. This makes for a very relaxed and friendly session, and we hope a welcoming one. There are, however, pitfalls to be aware of.

    One of those problems is a situation where one or two people monopolize the session and start tune after tune without leaving gaps for others. It’s perfectly fine to start a set of several tunes, but one should be aware of how many tune starting opportunities one has taken, and leave some space for the rest of the players to jump in.

    At times, someone will have a tune in mind but has trouble remembering how it starts, and will ask if anyone else can start it. Sometimes someone else knows it and can start right off. Other times there follows a collective memory searching that sometimes succeeds and sometimes fails completely. This is all part of the fun, but it can get tiresome if it happens too much, so as a general rule you should know how a tune goes, or at least be able to get it started, if you want to play it.

    Fairly commonly, two people on opposite sides of the room will try to start two different tunes at the same time. This is fine, and generally sorts itself out within a minute or so and one tune prevails. If you are on the losing end of one of these collisions, don’t take it personally. When this happens, after the prevailing tune is finished it is polite to go back to the other person and see if they would still like to start the other tune. This problem is particularly acute when a large group is crowded into a small, irregularly shaped space. In this situation there tends to be an inner circle of players facing each other, and many other players several rows back or stuck in far corners. It can be very difficult to start a tune from the back unless those at the center are particularly attentive and make sure to leave opportunities for those on the outskirts to be heard. If you find yourself in this situation, it is often effective to enlist one or two of your neighbors to jump in with you at the next opportunity.

    Another point of etiquette concerns the tempo of a tune. The person starting the tune should set a tempo they are comfortable with, and the group should respect that and not speed it up. However, if a beginner starts a tune quite slowly, it is not unreasonable, after the tune has been played a few times at that tempo, to politely ask if they would mind if the group played it again a bit faster. Also bear in mind that a beginner may be nervous and tend to start the tune faster than is actually comfortable for them, and it is not amiss to suggest slowing it down a little if they seem to be struggling.

    There is an almost universal urge to play fast, because it is exciting. Remember, though, that speed is a cheap high, and often it will be a more rewarding experience for all if things are slowed down just a bit and the quality of the playing is improved. Energy achieved through expressiveness is of a higher order than the thrill of lightning-fast sloppy playing.

    Another point to keep in mind about tempo is that every session has its own ebb and flow, and if there is a groove going, go with it. If the mood seems to be for fast reels, perhaps it would be best to wait a bit before dropping in your favorite mournful air.

    As a newcomer to this sort of session, you might be surprised when the group immediately dives into another tune or succession of tunes after the one you started. We often play tunes in sets as they have been arranged in past concerts or gigs. If you’ve been around the trad scene for a while, these sets may not be the same as the groupings you’re used to. There will often also be discussions along the lines of, “Wait, what did we play after (or before) that tune?” Think of this as an opportunity to pick up some of the lore and history of the club.

    When playing a set, it is most common to play each tune two or three times before moving on to the next tune. Whether is a known set or a single tune, after a few times through there may creep in a collective uncertainty about whether to stop this time or go around again. A common stop signal is to hold up one foot, though of course this only works for those that can see it. Sometimes the person who started the tune, or anyone else, may manage to say, “One more time!” to keep it going. This works but can become tedious if it happens on every tune, especially if the same person is doing it every time. Often the best way to keep a tune going is to simply keep playing, and others will take the cue. When playing a set, if the number of repetitions of each tune isn’t commonly understood, people will use various facial gestures, nods, or a vocalized “Hup!” to indicate that it’s time to move on to the next tune at the end of this time through.

    A distinctly different sort of session is one that is designated as a Slow Session. SFSF monthly meetings almost always incorporate a slow session concurrent with the unstructured open jam. The point of a slow session is to provide an environment where less experienced players can learn and practice tunes, often ones that would normally be played at alarming speeds, in a relaxed and convivial atmosphere. Unlike the anarchy of our open jams, the slow sessions generally have a designated leader who will have some particular ideas on how to structure the session. Printed music is not considered out of place at our slow sessions, whereas it is not likely to appear in the open jam. The danger that printed music brings with it is that the session can devolve into a tuneless trudge through the dots. If you find yourself at a slow session having come from the world of written music, look at it as your first step on a journey of liberation from the tyranny of the page. Use the dots, but don’t let the dots use you.

    Doubtless there is much more that could be said about all of this, but by now the basic message should be clear. If you’re a newcomer, don’t be afraid to dive in, and if you’re unsure of the accepted ways, just ask. If you’re an old hand, budge up a bit and make room for another chair in the circle.

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