Three Phases of Learning a Tune

Think of learning a tune as a relationship. Like an old friend, the relationship will change over time, revealing new things about you, your playing and the tune. Tunes are not something to check off a list before moving on to the next thing. They continue to teach and bring joy in new ways each time you play them.

The relationship goes through three phases:

  • PHASE ONE: Acceptance
    • Just Learn The Melody
  • PHASE TWO: Awareness
    • Make It Sound Good
  • PHASE THREE: Connection
    • Add expression, play with others, perform, review, connect techniques, skills and theory.

Phase One: Acceptance – Just Learn The Melody

In the beginning you are just trying to learn and remember the notes of the tune. Phase one is about acceptance! If you are a beginner, just accept the fact that this new tune is going to sound worse then other things you’ve done.

Slowly learn the first few notes. Perhaps even one note at a time. When you have built up a small 3-6 note phrase, loop it until it’s memorized. Get to the point that you have a little confidence with it.

Tam Lin warm-up exercise

Good! You can do this. Which means you can learn the whole tune if you just keep going. Don’t think you need to the whole thing in one sitting. Go slowly through each part of the tune with ease and joy, not rushing. At this point don’t try to perfect it. Have faith that it will sound better soon enough. Put the small phrases together to make bigger chunks.

Play the whole tune (all parts twice) at a medium speed. Try not to stop, even some notes are missed or out of tune. If you get totally stuck, try setting down your bow and plucking the difficult phrases. Or pluck the whole tune. Then try to stumble your way through the whole tune again.

Be kind to yourself. We’re just trying to get the ball rolling here! In this early phase, don’t even worry about making it sound good! Just get it to the point of being passable. I know that the word “passable” sounds kind of horrible, but…we’ll make it better in the next phase…

Phase Two: Make It Sound Good

At a certain point, beginning fiddlers and violinists can figure out where to put their fingers and scratch their way through a tune. If you never went beyond that phase, but just continued to learn new tunes, it would quickly become unsatisfying. But making something very simple sound good is the most important thing you can do as a musician.

There are four things to work on in this phase:

  • Tone
  • Tuning
  • Timing
  • Flow

Though you can now make it through the whole tune, approach it as if you are learning it for the first time with good sound as your focus. Work on single notes and then small phrases to improve these four elements.

Start by working on your tone (the quality of the sound). Play the first note of the tune with throw-away bow until it starts to sound nice.

Do the same thing with the next few notes until you feel good about that little part. Make it your mission to make every note of the tune sound good. 

Sometimes if you work hard on the sound of the first phrase, the rest of the tune opens up and sounds better. Part of why this happens is that you have become more aware of your sound. In this phase, you remember to sound good.

You can also work on your tuning. Use drone tracks to tune individual notes and play-along tracks to tune phrases.

D drone

To work on timing, start by playing a simple rhythm, like four quarter notes, hoedown or tucka with a simple beat:

More beats in Beat Central.

Then try to play the first quarter of a tune with its exercise loop mp3:

Constant Billy first quarter

If you get the timing and groove of one little piece it can unlock the rest of the tune.

The final thing to practice in this phase is flow. Do you start and stop while playing or does the music sound continuous? The absolute best way to practice flow is looping:

Start by looping just a few notes until you can play them continuously with ease and joy. Then put together a few smaller loops to play a bigger loop, and play them until you feel a sense of flow.

If you practice this way, it will become easier to get a good sound on the next tune. And a little easier on the one after that. 

Phase Three: Connection

The final phase is connection. 

How can you use other skills you’ve learned to make this tune more interesting and fun? How is this tune related to other tunes, scales and genres? What relevant music theory can you understand better through the tune? How can you connect with other people and other cultures with the tune? How can you connect with yourself?

A simple place to start is dynamics or changes in the sound. Try to play the tune loud with big bow strokes. Then reduce it to a whisper with microscopic bows. Then experiment with accent patterns, like accenting downbeats (the first and third beats) or accenting offbeats (second and fourth beats). Another dynamic is tempo. Try to play the tune at your fastest speed with a metronome and write down the beats per minute. Then play it RIDICULOUSLY SLOW with a metronome and note that speed. Observe how your perception of the tune is different with dynamics, how it affects the emotional impact of the music.

Connect the tune to different scales you know by transposing it. Start with easy keys where the fingering doesn’t change. For example, if you learn Oh Susannah starting on the open D string (D major), then try starting it on the open G string (G major). Then try a harder transposition in which the fingerings change, like starting Oh Susannah on D1 (E major).

Connect the tune to your voice. Try to sing the melody, even if it has no words (la la la). Alternate between singing and then fiddling the melody. Eventually, try to sing and play at the same time. If you’ve been practicing double stops, then try to play the chords on fiddle and sing the melody. Alternate this with playing the melody.

Add bowing variations like slurs and double stops.

  • Slur patterns
    • Slur two
    • Slur three
    • Slur four
    • Slur two, separate two
    • Georgia shuffle
  • Double stops
    • Droning open strings
    • Two-fingered double stops

Create sets or medleys of tunes. For example, a nice polka set could be Ballydesmond Polka / Kerry Polka / Britches Full of Stitches. Play each tune twice through (AABB).

Try adding fiddle variations:

  • Rhythmic (addition and subtraction)
  • Melodic
    • How to make scales fun
  • Double stops
  • Slides
  • Trill family: mordents, turns, grace notes, 16th note triplets
  • Combine variations
  • Golden Rule of Variation: After you add something, take it away and compare how it sounds. Go back and forth.

Try to improvise over the chords of the melody. Use the play-along tracks to practice this.

Alternate a solo with a straight rendition of the melody. Use backing tracks or have a friend who plays guitar or piano back you up. 

As you learn and use the phases of practice you’ll see that there is no clear line dividing them. They all contain each other in some way. When you are just learning a tune (phase one) you will try to make the first few notes sound good (phase two) before moving on to the next piece. If you are working to perfect a difficult interval, then you might try adding a rhythm to it like hoedown as a way to practice (adding variation is phase three). If you are struggling with something complicated, just return to something really simple, like bowing on an open string (phase one).

The three phases of learning a tune is just a useful mental model to aid the learning process. Use whatever part of the strategy that is helpful to you. The ultimate goal is for you to have an amazing time in the present moment with fiddling or whatever you may doing.

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19 responses to “Three Phases of Learning a Tune

  1. This is really helpful. I’m fairly good at the first 2 phases, it’s the 3rd one that has given me trouble. Now I have some exercises to help me smooth that part out. Looking forward to applying it to tunes I already know!

  2. Of the tunes that I’ve played, there are many that I find I can’t hum in the shower by just remembering the name of the tune. I have to play a note or two, and then can remember at least a good part of the tune, but maybe not the name of it! I wonder why?? I can hum “Take me out to the ballgame,”and “Yesterday,” by the Beatles. Is it not enough repetition? I can not sit down and say, “now I am going to play Bill Cheatham.

  3. I wish you’d been around when I was in my 60’s when I started learning to play fiddle. Over the past 20 plus years (I’m 83 now) if I hadn’t made such hard work of it and given up, I’d be a fair fiddler by now. But no regrets—every day is a new beginning! I appreciate your reminding us to make the process of practice fun and the encouragement in your blogs on taking the time to enjoy experimenting with a tune instead of racing to learn a passel of new ones—as I use to without learning them well.

  4. Hi Jason,
    I’ve been trying to play double stops and have them sound good for some time now. Actually the very first lesson I watched from Fiddlehed last year was on double stops and I became a big fan of your teaching ever since. Anyhow I’ve been working on Midnight on the Water with double stops and got the A part down pretty well, but had trouble with the E and A string double stop so I took it a part in the true Fiddlehed way and voila’ ! even my mom (who is almost 95) was impressed. Thank you Jason for your thoughtful and fun lessons.