Wednesday, October 17, 2012

2 things I love about playing Irish traditional music and old-time Appalachian tunes

Number 1:  It provides nearly all the musical satisfaction I crave.  Although I had never tried to play any sort of music until I was in my 30’s, I did develop a music listening obsession during my college years and beyond that led me to artists such as Phish, Medeski Martin and Wood, The Grateful Dead, Ween, The Flaming Lips, Dr. Dog, Camper Van Beethoven, The Meat Puppets and more.  I was way more into listening to music than the average person, I suppose.  I was never driven to attempt to play any of it though.

It wasn’t until a series of successive trips to Ireland in 2004, 2005 and 2006 that I discovered and gradually began to appreciate the melodic, instrumental music they call trad – with its jigs, reels, hornpipes, polkas, slides, slip jigs, slow airs, and so on.  I eventually made the connection from this more ancient Celtic music to our less ancient old-time fiddle music, which still thrives in the Southern Appalachians and beyond.

So, after a while I got a tenor banjo and after a few unsuccessful attempts to transfer the music by the above-mentioned contemporary artists to that half-barbaric instrument, I began to investigate what it might be like to play these more simplistic yet more musically satisfying tunes from Celtic and old-time traditions.  Having not listened to much trad or fiddle music before starting to play it, a lofty learning curve was in order, and will remain so for years to come. 

I may never master these traditions, but it is a type of music that a person can almost immediately begin receiving enjoyment and fulfillment from, without the need for years of training.  I have now effectively channeled that obsession (or void) which was previously sated by listening to music, and have transferred that to a music playing obsession.  The option of continuously improving is right there in front of you.  All you have to do is pursue it.
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Number 2:  They are both melodic, primarily instrumental styles of music.  Individual notes in sequence.  No harmonies required.  No strumming.  No singing.  No complex arrangements.  No need for theory.  That might be why some folks don’t find it interesting, but it’s precisely what entices me about it.  It’s the same as whistling, except you’re playing the notes with your fingers on your instrument.

At first I was most concerned with playing the tunes by any means possible, so I taught myself how to read tab and notation without developing my ear.  Now, I am at the point where I want move from associating the act of playing the instrument with reading off a page to associating the action of playing with hearing the sound.  It is much easier to do this with melodic music.  Trial and error eventually gets you there…I hope!

For a while I was also bogged down with music theory and scales.  Lately, I’ve realized that this intellectual pursuit is not that useful for traditional music, and can even cause you to hear what you think should be there rather than what is actually there.  Your ears tell you whether you're playing the right note, not the tab, dots or theory behind it.

I don’t want to be the guy who can’t even play Brother John unless I have the sheet music.  Rather, I want to be the guy who, when a new tune comes up, listens to it a couple times through and then plays along without knowing the name of it, what key it might be in, or even whether I had previously learned it or not.   

They say if you learn any random 10 tunes by ear, without the intervention of notation at any point in the process, then you will have acquired an understanding of intervals and a stock pile of phrases that will allow you to construct almost any other tune there is.

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