If you want to learn the secrets behind the glamorous world of Irish trad rhythm accompaniment, Chris Smith’s book on that subject - Celtic Back-Up for all Instrumentalists – is the place to go. Not surprisingly, the book also contains information germane to melody players and for those with a general interest in accompaniment for any genre of music. It was in Celtic Back-Up that I came across a music tip that I’d like to share here. This tip is for people who can read notation/tab but aren’t yet comfortable with playing by ear.
What you do is find good, reliable notation for a tune you want to learn. Play through the notation to make sure it sounds the way you want the tune to sound, or have heard others at your local session play it. Once you’re confident you’ve got a good version, break the tune down into 2-measure phrases. Assuming that your tune is an 8-measure A-part (repeated) and an 8-measure B-part (repeated), that means that each part will have four phrases.
Get out your preferred recording device (most likely your smart phone’s recording App), and record yourself playing Phrase 1. Then leave enough silence for Phrase 1 to be played later when you are listening to the recording. Play Phrase 1 again if you like, again leaving room after the audio. Then move on to Phrase 2, Phrase 3 and Phrase 4…leaving enough silent space after each phrase for it to be repeated once or twice. After that, move on to the B-part and do the same thing.
Once you’ve made your way through the whole tune, broken down into 2-measure phrases with space after each phrase, you may want to record yourself playing the tune in-full, with both parts repeated as you would normally play it, to reinforce the overall sound of the tune. As soon as you are done recording put away the notation (forever!) and listen to the recording with instrument in hand. Try and duplicate the phrases you are hearing by playing them in real time over the dead-air you left on the recording between each phrase.
Phrase-by-phrase teaching of a tune like this is traditionally how this music is passed on. By recording yourself playing it and then listening back, you are essentially teaching the tune to yourself! There are some risks involved – your playing of the phrases will more than likely not contain all the nuances that a master player’s would. But at this point you’re just trying to nurture your ability to recreate sounds on your instrument. You definitely want to continue to listen to recordings of the masters so that all the other ornamentation and characteristics that make the music so special sink in as well.
Besides good ear training, when you break a tune down into phrases you start to notice patterns. Such as: Phrase 3 being the same as Phrase 1; Phrase 2 asking a question that is later answered by Phrase 4; sections from Part A that are duplicated in Part B, and so on. When you grasp a tune this way you also retain it better, because you realize that there isn't as much to "memorize" as you first thought. For the record, Chris Smith emphasizes that the best way to learn a tune is entirely by ear without notation ever entering the equation, but for those of us with a notation addiction, quitting cold turkey is kinda hard. This tip offers one pathway in that direction.