The right equipment and the right technique can make it a lot easier to learn to play a tune.
Originally published 2002
A good set of recording equipment can make it a world easier to learn music. One day, it would be wonderful to be able to listen to an entire tune once, and then play it back flawlessly, as the old time masters are said to have done in Ireland and in other musical cultures.
It takes time to build up that kind of skill, though. In the meantime, I find that I’m capable of picking out short phrases, but not much more than that. That’s what makes teachers so helpful — they break a tune down into phrases, teach them one at a time, and link them together with previous segments, until at last you have the whole tune.
Even then, I find it takes me most of a week to get it!
You see, I like group classes the best. Even with the teacher breaking down the tune, I only get bits and pieces of the tune as it’s being taught. But it’s relatively painless. I’m developing my ear. I look forward to the day that I’ll be able to learn the tune in real time, as it’s being taught. But in the meantime, with my 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes in the evening schedule (also pretty painless) it takes a few days to learn the tune thoroughly.
That’s where recording equipment comes in.
(Just to set the record straight: I’ve had private instruction, too. I *can* learn a tune from start to finish that way, but it’s a very demanding process, even though it’s fun. Musically, I’ve just learned to count from 1 to 10. A tune is like an algebra problem. With a lot of concentration on my part, and a lot of patience on the teacher’s part, we can get there, but it’s a fairly demanding process. So I like to use private instruction for feedback on technique, and learn tunes in group sessions. It’s just more fun.)
There are three ways to record music for learning, roughly corresponding to the size of the recording you make, You can record bits, renditions, or classes.
Recording Little Bits
- Some starts playing a tune you like, or something cool pops into your head. When all you want or a need is a small bit of it to refresh your memory later on, then you only need record enough of it to remember how it goes.
For a popular song, that might mean recording one verse and a chorus. For traditional tunes, which are generally played several times in succession, it means recording the tune once, without the repeats. For songs and things that pop into your head, it means recording enough that you can remember what you had in mind later on.
For this kind of recording, the smallest, lightest, most easily accessible recorder you can find is the one you want. High-quality sound is not that much of an issue. Mainly, you want something you can carry with you all the time, so its there when that unexpected tune comes lilting into your life.
- A “rendition” consists of someone or some group of musicians playing the tune, all out. Whether in practice, in public, or in a pub session, a “rendition” generally consists of the highest caliber of musicianship that the players are capable of. You get all the verses of the song, or all the repetitions of a traditional tune, but they’re all up to speed — or as close to it full speed as the musicians can manage.
In a class, the “rendition” is the part where the teacher plays the tune first, so everyone can hear how it goes. No one else is playing, because they haven’t learned it yet, so it’s a good time to get a “pure” rendition of the tune.
Renditions make great compilation CDs. They’re perfect to “set the tune in the ear”. You play them as background music, until you find yourself hearing it in your head, or humming it unconsciously. At that point, you know the tune well enough to start picking it out on your instrument, whether or not you have a recording to learn from.
- The best way to learn by ear that I’ve found is to record the entire teaching segment of a class, from start to finish (minus the pauses for refreshment). Then when you replay it, you have the phrases broken down and repeated, then joined with other phrases, until you work up to the full tune. You also have the teacher’s hints, like “It starts on a D”, which helps enormously.
Recording the full teaching session uses up a lot more of the recording media, if you have not yet got to the point that you can learn easily learn the tune on the spot, the recording makes it possible to complete the learning at home.
It is extremely difficult to learn a tune played all the way through, even if it is played multiple times, because you continually have to stop and rewind to hear a phrase. This is especially true for tunes played at speed. But when the teacher’s phrases are repeated multiple times on your recording, you can listen to it a couple of times, then stop the playback and pick out the phrase. Then, when you continue the playback, you can play along with the recording to check yourself, and integrate the phrase into ever larger segments, right along with the class.
Using Sheet Music with a Recording
- Oddly enough, when you are learning from a recording it really helps to have sheet music! When you get to a spot where the recording is just too garbled, or ear is playing tricks on you, you can check that section of the tune against the sheet music. (The process is frequently enlightening. It can be surprising to find that what you think you hear is far off the mark, and there is a real feeling of relief when you start playing the right notes, and hear it fall into place.)
- Ideally, you should read the sheet music and hear the sounds in your head, rather than playing it on your instrument. For a tune you have just been working on for 15 minutes or so, that’s pretty easy to do, even with a rudimentary ability to read music. You might have a hard time picking up a piece at random and “hearing it”, but its a lot easier to do when you pick up notation for a tune that’s in your ear at that very moment.
- If the sheet music doesn’t make sense right off, play the first couple of bars on your instrument while reading from the page. The note-to-sound connection should fall into place pretty quickly after that.
- As soon as you’ve figured out the trouble spot, put the sheet music down and go back to learning from and playing with the recording. Don’t continuously play from the page, because doing that creates a sight-to-fingering connection that, while useful for concert musicians and professional studio musicians, is of little value to the traditional musician, composer, or improvisionalist. Working with the recording, on the other hand, builds an ear-to-brain-to-fingering connection that develops your ability to compose or improvise, play variations, and the ability to learn by listening to what others are doing.
The various kinds of recording you can make tend to favor different kinds of equipment. This section reviews some of the choices you can make.
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