Hey, Play Us A Tune!

As a beginning fiddler, it’s exciting to learn your first tune. Once, you learn a few, you start to see how the process works and then you  want to keep charging ahead, consuming one tune after another.

It’s great to be excited about learning, and I would never want to dampen the inspiration and pleasure you get when you are successfully able to play a new tune. BUT, I suggest channeling some of this energy into working on your overall sound: tone, tuning, timing and flow.

A FiddleHed student named David McGowan recently wrote me an email along these with the subject of “Stop learning tunes”:

“I’ve decided to stop learning new tunes recently (until you posted Fairytale of New York) and really work on and enjoy a handful of tunes I already know. Get these to a point where I REALLY know them. The goal is for someone to say “Hey Dave bring your fiddle over here and regale us with that tune, Kerfunken Jig”, not, “Oh no he’s picked that fiddle thing up again…”

Well said!

If you take the time to make something sound good, you get something much greater than the feeling of accomplishment (which doesn’t last). You get the ongoing joy of making music in the present moment. Take a moment to think about that.

Would you rather feel good at some uncertain point in the future, or would you rather feel good right now, moment after moment?

You might be thinking, “I do want my fiddling to sound good right now, but it just doesn’t!”

Can you make the very first note of a tune sound amazing? I bet you can. It follows that you can make the second note sound amazing, and that if you continue with deliberate practice, you can play the first two notes together and they’ll sound amazing.

This may sound like a pain-staking process. But I’m here to say that it’s actually a “joy-staking” process (OK, that term is kind of dumb, but I’m going to let it stand!). Try to change your attitude so that you enjoy the sound of those first few notes played together. Just loop on them and let the increasingly good sound make you happy!

If you can take this attitude, then it only requires a small leap of faith to see that this will eventually lead to the whole tune sounding good, and the next tune will eventually sound good too, and the next! Furthermore, if you practice this way, you’ll start to get them to sound good sooner because you have a better practice technique.

In addition to this deep dive into good sound for already learned tunes, you can have fun making connections. What is the scale of each tune you play? What is the genre of the tune? What other tunes do you know like it? Can you string them together into a set? What other versions can you listen to? This process will enrich the experience of playing a tune you already know and help you to learn it more deeply.

Learn more about making connections in the article Three Phases of Learning A Tune.

So the hidden message of “Stop learning new tunes” is “start learning to love what you’re doing right now”. If you can make this attitude shift, you just might find that the new tunes will come to you more effortlessly.

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14 responses to “Hey, Play Us A Tune!

  1. Super good advice! I picked three early on to work on. Sometimes I will play a new tune just for curiosity but I always go back to my three to actually practice with intent to make them sound nice. Generally it’s those three tunes and scales or learning new techniques as they are offered sequentially. When I can play with flow I’ll add in learning new one for real.

  2. That’s very good. I’ve recently started through my list of known tunes stopping on each one and getting it up to “full speed” before moving on to the next one.

    Here’s what I really do. I have all my tunes that I know or want to know right now written down on small cards in a stack. I shuffled them well, and started through the stack. If I knew a tune, I practiced it with the metronome, working on getting backing tracks for all of them, recording the fastest speed I could play the tune well. I have about 5 of these that I work on at a time. Once a tune reaches “full speed” I move it to just after the group I’m currently working on.

    The whole stack is sorted with the current working group on top, the group that I’ve mastered next. All the tunes I haven’t gotten to yet below that and at the end is where I move all the tunes I haven’t ever learned.

    1. I like how this makes practice into a bit of a game, introducing some randomness.

      I’m a bit confused about one part. You start with a random shuffling of the tune cards. When you know a tune well you move it further back in the deck? Does that mean you don’t re-shuffle the deck until you’ve learned all the tunes well?

      Thanks for sharing…

  3. This is good advice.

    I’d like to thank you for the inspiration you have given me. You have so many fantastic tunes on your site and I want to learn them.
    However, I have resisted your charms.

    I have been laying for just 4 months, using the Scottish Folk Fiddle Tutor book. I’m about to learn the G Major scale and the songs that follow, but I’ve decided to stop where I am for now, sticking with just learning to play the G scale. The songs can wait a while.

    I can play the earlier tunes pretty well and revise them all every week – I just accept Twinkle Twinkle is the price I have to pay to learn this instrument. There are some songs I’ve learned from the book, that to me are important. Jeely Piece Song (that’s a jam sandwich for non-Scots), Coulter’s Candy, Lovely Stornoway and Fairy Lullaby. The first two are childhood songs we all learn in Scotland Matt McGinn videos of these songs are on youtube if anybody wants to go and listen. The other two I hadn’t heard before; I blew myself away with them, so I played around with them and polished them and polished them more. I play the long notes much longer than the note length in the book. I just make it feel right and move on to the next note.

    Just before Christmas I plucked up the courage to take my violin around to my mum – she’s in her 80s – and play for her. When I’d finished those two songs and looked up, she had a tear running down her face. “Oh, lassie! I don’t know why I’m crying. I just am, they’re beautiful. Play them again for me”. I was shocked, but that’s music, that’s what it sometimes does if you play it with polish. And I’d played them. She said Lovely Stornoway makes her feel like she’s at a rocky sea shore with her feet in the sea being gently lapped by the waves, and Fairy Lullaby makes her feel like she’s falling asleep in front of a coal fire with the snow falling down outside.

    I’ve got a lot of learning and polishing to do and one day, I’ll be able to play her some of your tunes. She might get up and dance! Or Coorie Doon if she feels like another dreammy snooze snuggled up in front of a dreamy fire.

    So I know the advice here is very good advice and it’s nice to have someone who knows their stuff say it.

    Thank you Jason, thank you so much.

    1. Dear Mary,
      I chuckled about you resisting Jason’s charms!
      Such a lovely story about your Mum. Thank you for sharing.
      I’m very new at this, but trying to take in all good advice! I Love it!


  4. Exactly what I was thinking. I picked up the fiddle 2 years ago at the age of 40, just for my own amusement, after spending many years regretting not learning a musical instrument from my father, a folk musician. I found I could play passable versions of tunes quite quickly but then I’d move on to another one without trying to get really good at the ones I already learned. Putting the brakes on now and returning to the basics to try and get the foundation right.

  5. In response to, “Hey play us a tune”! Where “is” the appropriate place on the Fiddlehed site to cut and paste fiddle recordings we post on YouTune? Also, I think it would be a wonderful idea to establish a free Google Fiddlehed Chat Room where Fiddleheders could gather to share ideas as is done on BanjoHangOut/FiddleHangOut.

  6. Good advice. I have been fiddlin’ for 2 years as of 10 Jan. Over this time I learned over 60 tunes. Most I learned from Fiddlehed on YouTube. Some I learned from other instructors, and several I learned by just listening. As with David McGowan I recently put on the brakes and am now focusing on quality over quantity. Applying vibrato, slurring, and drones to tunes I know and like. Jason’s advice and approach resonates with me. Listening is practice!