Learning from Recordings

by Sarah Nagell

One of the beautiful and frustrating aspects of playing a folk instrument such as the Hardanger fiddle, or any instrument for that matter, is that there are a million different ways that it can be played and there is no single right answer for all, but instead many right answers for different players. Thus, the purpose of this article is not to give "the rules" as concrete facts, but instead to suggest a variety of things that one might think about when learning to play the fiddle by ear from a recording. Hopefully some of these suggestions will strike a familiar chord and you, the reader, will be able to make your own decisions about what sounds and feels best in your own music making.

The step-by-step process detailed below is a variation of a technique I learned at the New England Conservatory of Music in the "Development of Long Term Melodic Memory" class in the Contemporary Improvisation program. One of the fundamental tenants of the Contemporary Improvisation program is that the musicians must play, improvise, and compose as much as possible from the music in their heads, rather than reading from a page or relying on finger tricks or muscle-memory. By going through the process listed below, this ability will come naturally the more you practice.

"But I don’t improvise!" I hear you cry…

As a fiddler playing for dancers, you are always interpreting and adapting to the present situation. You are changing your phrasing, your dynamics, your tempo, and often the melodic structure to communicate with and to lead the dancers. Even if you do not play any different pitches, you are still improvising.

Once you have the tune running through your head at a high level and are able to sing or whistle through the whole thing, then you will always have it available for you when playing the fiddle. It is stored in your memory banks and available for use as you play the melody. Knowing the music in depth in your head will also enable you to improvise around the melody and make subtle changes in an informed fashion because your knowledge of the tune will not be based on muscle-memory in the fingers, but rather a deeper understanding of the music in your brain.

Singing softly along with the recording can help to cement the melody in your head. Take care to sing along to the recording in a manner that allows you to hear the recording clearly. Try to be as accurate as you can from the beginning, listening louder than you sing. It saves time and energy later on, as unlearning bad habits takes twice as much energy as learning it right the first time. It is perfectly normal to be confused by tricky passages, or to forget certain melodic lines during these early stages. This is OK. Simply go back to the recording, listen carefully, and sing along with it until things feel comfortable.

It may be tempting for instrumentalists to skip the singing part of the process, but please don’t! The old saying, "if you can sing it, you can play it" is true. Also, its opposite is true, "if you can’t sing it, you can’t play it." Being able to sing a tune from beginning to end correctly and without hesitation proves that you really know the ins and outs of it in your head. If you can only sing through the first few phrases before you forget how it goes, slip out of tune, or lose the rhythm, you do not really know the tune.

Before beginning to play a tune, many fiddlers will hum or whistle the beginning of the tune to themselves before beginning, just to get the melody and the tempo in their heads before they start. During the HFAA’s Workshop in 2007, Monika Antun did this frequently.

Step-By-Step Process of Learning by Ear from a Recording

1. Listen to the whole tune – many times.

2. Listen to the whole tune and try to sing along softly. Notice the places where you feel secure with the tune and also the places where you get lost or confused.

3. Listen to the first phrase only and then rewind the recording.

4. Listen to the first phrase again and sing along, then rewind the recording.

5. Sing the phrase by yourself – without the recording. Sing only that particular phrase. Do not go on to the next phrase yet.

6. Listen to the first phrase again on the recording without singing along. Did it sound the same as what you just sang? If not, go back to steps 3 – 6 and sing until you are sure you have it. If it does sound the same, pick up your fiddle and play it, repeating steps 3 – 6 using your fiddle instead of your voice.

7. Listen for the bow strokes. Listen for places where the bow changes and places where many notes are played on a single bow stroke. Since most of the music for Hardanger fiddle is played on two strings simultaneously, there are actually only 3 choices for bow position (on the lower two, the middle two, or the upper two). Listen and experiment on your fiddle until you are confident about which strings the recorded fiddler is playing. Trying to play on only one string while the recorded fiddler plays on two will sound different and be confusing, so it is best to mimic the recording as best you can from the very beginning. The melody will also be tricky to play on incorrect bow strokes, but easier to play when you’re doing them right. Copying as precisely as you can is pivotal at this stage.

8. When you are confident that you can sing and play the first phrase correctly independently of the recording and with the proper bow strokes, listen again and allow the recording to play through the first phrase and into the next phrase that you wish to learn. Repeat steps 3 – 7 (singing first, playing second) with the inclusion of the new phrase. Pick small bite-sized phrases to learn (even as small as one note at a time), depending on your level.

9. Each time you master a new phrase, play the tune again from the beginning to be sure that you’ve mastered all of the transitions. At this point it is good to play along with the recording as well as playing solo, to be sure that you’re at the same speed and using the same intonation. Continue to learn bite-sized bits of the tune in this manner until you reach the end.

10. Play the whole tune from beginning to end, first with the recording, and then without. Can you do it confidently and without stopping? Can you keep up with the recording? If not, keep practicing and/or go back to the tricky spots and re-work them until you can. Playing the tune without the recording is very important, as it will give you an honest assessment of how you really sound, and expose places in your technique that need a little help.

11. Listen for the ornaments. If you have a computer program like the Amazing Slow Downer (available at http://www.ronimusic.com/), which allows you to slow the speed of the recording, it will help to hear the ornaments exactly. Mimic as best you can.

12. How is your rhythm in comparison to the recording? Tap your feet along to it and make sure that you can play along with it at full speed, confidently and correctly. The Amazing Slow Downer will also help you to hear where the bow changes are, since it is the bow that makes the rhythm.

13. (Optional) Recompose or reinterpret it. If you’ve followed all the steps up until this point, you will hopefully have created a good rendition of the recording. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and it is a great way to build fiddle technique. It is doubtful that you will sound exactly like the recording you’ve learned from, even if you copy all of the bowing, pitches, and ornaments exactly, because your instrument and musical technique will be slightly different. If you want to take it further, listen to several recordings of the tune and notice the different styles and interpretations. Notice where different players repeat or leave out phrases. Make your own decisions as to alternative bowings, alternative forms, alternative harmonies and drone strings, etc. Doing this may possibly take you out of the realm of "traditional" music, but if you are OK with that, than I’m OK with that, as long as you know what the original really was and where it came from.

When you go through this process, I’d like to encourage you not to cut corners or skip steps. Also, please do not write the tune down before you’ve learned it fully and confidently by ear. Learning by reading musical notation is a completely different skill. If the process of learning by ear from a recording seems easy, that is actually a good thing. It means that you’re doing it right. If it is difficult, it is an indication that more practice, or taking it in smaller sections, is required. Be patient with yourself, but stick to your guns and beautiful music will emerge.

Learning from a recording in this manner is similar to learning to drive a car. At first, there are a million different things to remember to do (buckle the seatbelt, check the mirrors, press the clutch, turn the key, release the emergency break, etc…). However, after a short time of focused practice, all of these details become second nature until you only have to think, "drive" and it will all happen on its own. When learning to play by ear, the goal is to eventually forget the numbered steps listed above and simply think, "learn," allowing all the steps to happen naturally.