Memorizing Fiddle Tunes

Memorizing Music on Fiddle

Memorize the tune, enjoy the fun

You often hear the advice that we should sing our tunes to memorize them. I would say this advice is ignorable and dismissed by most students, who  do not like to sing, even by themselves.

I use a simple process to memorize tunes. And I teach this to my students. It seems they will not do this drill unless I seriously nag them and also make them do the drill in my presence.

Here it is. After you can play the tune at a comfortable pace, start at the beginning and play two to four bars. Whatever amount you find works best for you. After you play those bars you turn away from the music stand and play them by memory if you can.

If the attempt to play by memory is not successful, go back to the chart. Play the part again. You can play it two or three times if you want. Then do the memory check. By this time you are most likely getting it. Now you go on to the next two or four bars.

Proceed this way through the entire tune. At the end you have achieved a short term memory experience for the whole tune. You are well on your way to playing the tune by heart.

Now increase the amount of bars you play. Go from two to four, or four to eight. Do the same procedure with the larger amount of music to play. Look and play. Turn away and test.

Before long you are ready to play the whole A part and test, then the whole B part and test. Then the whole tune. It was a progressive process that at no time asked you to do the impossible.

Conquer the Tough Part

 What if there is a sticky part that resists getting into memory? You need to look closely at the part and see if you can figure out why it is resistant. I find that more often then not there will be a spot that is one way the first time and then another way the second time. That has to be sorted out with some kind of memory cue. “O yes, it goes to the second finger the first time and the first finger the second time.” That kind of cue. 

The whole process may take more than one session. When I was learning Hanneke Cassel’s Glass Case of Emotions, I took a couple of weeks before I was reliable at playing the tine by memory. But, then, I didn’t push myself or give any pressure to get it done. The real key to success is to do this a little bit every day and learn one tune after another.

Leave the Music Stand at Home

I put it that way because in the various informal groups of string players doing sessions or jams, in my area there is frequent reliance on a music stand and a chart. Sometimes the Fiddler’s Fake Book. It’s a good resource and I have learned many tunes from it, the latest being Falls of Richmond. But if I am in the fiddle circle I prefer struggling with learning by ear. 

After you reach the stage of having the tune memorized, you may find that you have not played it for too long a time and you can’t seem to get it started. This is a regular occurrence in my practice time. You can go to the printed source, but you may not have to. On occasion I’ll find that I can start a different part of the tune and then then hazy part comes back to me. I can’t tell you how many times I have started playing The Luck Penny from the third part because it’s easy to remember.

Other times I might recall just a couple of bars in the middle of things. I’ll play them and the memory of the tune floods back into my awareness. Theoretically it’s encoded in your neuronic pathways. You only need to activate the system.

Persistence of Musical Memory

Another work around, if there’s no pressure to get it back soon, is to try the tune several days in a row. I’ve had tunes come back the third or fourth day. Just show up saying, “Hi! You miss me?” 

If you really want to keep a tune you need to play it often enough. You can find out how often that is. I have a list of over 300 tunes, some of which I may be a little rusty on. That’s why we need to have a list and look at it every now and then.

There is another level of learning with tunes, bowing the chord structure or changes. This is not required. But, if you are a Bluegrass player it’s highly recommended. Bluegrass is the strongest improv driven form of fiddle music. That means you need to know your chord chart. I can only rate myself about a B+ on this, but it gets me by. You don’t have to be perfect, just willing to get cranking on that fiddle.

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