Day 246: Building Your ITM Repertoire Thru Active Listening

A few days of illness and a total lack of hands-on practice, and we're back where we left off: at Part II of ITM Repertoire: Quantity or Quality: Building your tune repertoire through active listening. We're talking about what to do with yourself when you're sitting in a session and don't know the tunes. You feel a little silly, maybe, because you're just sitting there, and also, it can be very frustrating, because you want to play... and also intimidating, because it is flooring to realize just how many tunes there are out there. And even to an involved player, they do start to blur after a while.

On this one, I can only tell you what I've done. That is, if I don't know a tune, I adopt a posture of active listening. That means paying attention as much as possible to all that is being played. Even when you don't know the tune, remain tuned in.

What I haven't done is set a goal, like "a tune a day" or "a tune a week," etc. That sort of goal doesn't work for me, probably because I'm more fluffy and artsy than I am rigid and scheduled. (Oh... you noticed?)

So instead, I try to get as many tunes as possible into my head. Many, many teachers tell their students that before you start learning a tune, you should be able to sing it. Once you can sing the tune, then you know the melody, and it's an easier step to then find those notes on your instrument. Then, your next step ideally would be to learn it by ear. Painful, for many, especially those who are accustomed to learning off a page. I’ll save “The Woes of Paper Training” for another day but for now, I can only share with you what has worked for me, as I’m on the same road that you are.

Ideas about how to build your tunebase:

1) Listen mostly to the ones that appeal to you. If a tune doesn’t speak to you, don’t worry about it. Move on. Go to the potty. Get a beer.

2) Listen especially closely to the tunes you like most. Ask someone for the name of it so you can learn it at home, or with the help of a teacher. Write down a list of tunes you really like. I have often carried a little note-sized bound book with me to sessions, and I still have these books all over my music room; I’ve only learned about half the tunes on these lists. (At tax time when I’m going through receipts, I find tune names scribbled on the backs of twenty different crumpled receipts.) Hint: You’ll forget half the tunes you want to learn before you learn them. So, just an idea, one that I don’t follow: keep your wishlist short… one or two tunes per session is often enough to keep you motivated but not overwhelmed.

3) Play along, very quietly. Try to find the notes, if you’re on a relatively quiet instrument. Some sessions frown on this, while others will take no notice of you. Be sure that you’re doing this unobtrusively, of course. If you play whistle, consider bringing along a Clarke for those tunes that you want to learn, because Clarkes are generally barely audible in most sessions. If you only know the first few notes of the tune, just play them every time they come around, and try to add a few notes with each repeat. There are many people who feel very strongly that if you don’t know the tune, don’t play it. Judge for yourself, and be sensitive to the body language around you. If you’re on a very quiet instrument or are in a learning session that welcomes learners, then you are probably okay to venture out.

4) Lilt along. I try to sing the tune while it’s being played. My voice isn’t loud so I don’t think I’m disturbing anyone. I admit, I do get looks sometimes. But I don’t think they’re funny looks—just the person next to me responding to the sound of a human voice and wondering if someone just spoke to them. Once they realize it’s just the freak next to them singing along, they ignore me for the rest of the night.

5) Outside of sessions, listen, listen, listen. I have an earthy crunchy belief that the more you listen, even if inactively, it’s all going in there. Over time, you’ll find that you’re recognizing and singing along with tunes you didn’t know that you knew. The other day, I was watching The Secret of Roan Inish and found that I could lilt along with every single tune in the soundtrack, and I only play about half of them. This tells me that years of being around the music has resulted in something: it has filled up my inner iPod.

6) Learn the basic tunes first. Don’t try to start with fancy or novel tunes, if you really want to build your vocabulary. The “language” of Irish music is built on a more or less finite set of musical ideas, and learning the most well-known tunes—like the ones that appear in the Comhaltas Foinn Seisiun books—will get the basic shapes into your head. These shapes will later appear in a thousand other tunes, though rearranged.

7) Force yourself to learn by ear, and use the notation only as an aid, to jog your memory or demystify a particulary tricky passage. Irish traditional music is not just about the notes on paper; it’s also about the way you play the notes, the way you phrase, and the rhythm and lift. You can’t learn that from any book. You can only learn it from listening closely to experienced players in the genre, whether you listen to their recordings, attend a performance, or sit next to them at a session.

8) As often as possible, play with musicians who are much better than you. It will be humbling, but you’ll learn a ton by listening to them closely.

9) Be patient. Enjoy the process, because it takes time… more time than you think it will. And as soon as you think you’re starting to get it in your own session, you’ll attend a different session and not know a single tune they play. Get used to it.

10) Study with the best player you can find, on your instrument. A teacher is just the outward manifestation of our inner teacher. And sometimes the outward teacher sees more than the inner teacher is able to recognize at this very moment.

11) Find friends who share your passion, and who are willing to help you along.

Because, of course, misery loves company.