Letting go when playing music

Letting go when playing music

Tonight we learnt the four part Irish Jig ‘The Lark in the Morning’. The tune is quite repetitive, with short riffs that are played round several times within each part. Part of the challenge of playing the tune well is to find ways to keep it sounding interesting.

We added rolls right at the end of each part.

We tried making the 3rd part sound like a lark singing. Here’s a short clip of a real lark in full flow. How close did we get?

Letting the subconscious take charge

Part of the trick to making our playing more expressive is to be able to let go, and play from the subconscious. When we learn a new skill that’s difficult to master (like speaking a new language, riding a bike, or writing) there is an initial stage where all the new things seems to be competing for our attention at the same time. As soon as you lose focus on one bit of the skill that you think you’ve just mastered, to pay attention to correcting something else, the first thing seems to slip backwards again. The trick is to get a new skill embedded into your muscle memory to a point where your subconscious brain can manage to control it – at that point your attention can focus in mastering the next bit of the skill. With learning something like the fiddle, there’s a huge amount to take in in the early stages, especially if you’re not particularly familiar with the style of the music as well. On top of grappling with holding the instrument and co-ordinating the bow movements and your left hand fingers, you’re probably also learning how to remember tunes by ear, as well as learning about the patterns and rhythms in the music. No wonder it all can all seem so hard sometimes! It can be easy to get into the habit of playing in a very conscious ‘thinking’ way, because we start off doing this when we’re first learning. So we looked at how to start moving away from this, and finding ways to experience playing in a more subconscious way.

The easiest way to do this is to find things to play that need as little concentration as possible to get the notes/rhythm right! So we started off playing a very simple riff in jig time, to practice playing the rhythm without the distraction of having to remember too many notes. Here’s what we played:

A short riff in jig time

Then we played a second riff, which would work as a harmony to the first riff:

A simple harmony to the first riff

Then alternate people round the room played the first riff, while the people in between them played the harmony. Each of us was able to hear our own playing a little more clearly, as the people either side of us were playing the other version. Once we’d done this, we played it again, but this time we stopped watching our fingers, or thinking about how we were playing. We focused instead on hearing how we wanted our own paying to sound, hearing the riff in our head as we played. We tried to hear it in a way that would make someone who walked into the room want to dance or clap along to us.

After this, we added in another option – anyone who wanted to could ‘wander’ from the riff at any time, and play anything they wanted to – another harmony, or a chord or drone. Or we could just stop playing at any time and listen to what other folk were playing. We were aiming to be aware of what others in the group were playing while we were doing this. Doing this for a while was quite hypnotic!

Once we’d done that, we tried playing through the Lark in the Morning again. We talked about what had felt different, in moving from playing around with the riff, and then changing to playing the tune. People found they could relax more when playing the riff, as there were no real ‘rules’, and apart from the rhythm, it didn’t really matter what you played. It felt much less pressured – and maybe more ‘playful’.

Letting go when playing music
Photo ©Ros Gasson 2013


Playing tunes in your own style


Playing tunes in your own style

Tonight we spent time going over the last two tunes we’ve learnt in the class (Vals and Aird Ranters), and thinking about ways to begin to play tunes in our own individual style. We started off by consolidating the Vals, and then looking at what issues people were finding with playing the tune the way they want.

We did a quick recap of things we can do to help with tone, and played through the tune a couple of times while focusing on these.

Learning to play while hearing the tune in our head is a helpful way to start to play more from our subconscious mind, which helps with learning to play more fluidly. It’s common that when we’re first learning to play that we focus on looking at our fingers, as we learn to get familiar with where to position them for the different notes on each string. If this becomes a habit, we’re reinforcing using visual cues to inform our playing. As we progress through learning skills, it’s helpful to move away from being reliant on using these visual cues, and to begin to learn to rely more on listening to what we are playing. As we start to do this, we can also be thinking about hearing the tune in the style we want to play it.

Several people were struggling with adding dynamics into the tune. We started off working on this by talking about where in the tune we felt we wanted to build the volume up. There were a couple of obvious notes in the A part where we could hear a natural crescendo, and we felt we wanted the last phrase to be quieter. We tried out playing a long D on the A string, and building the note to a crescendo as we played it. The we tried playing the opening phrase of the tune, and building the long D in a similar way. We played round the A an B parts of the tune several times, thinking about the dynamics we wanted in the tune.

We also talked about phrasing in the tune. It’s useful to think about this as playing in a similar way to  the way we speak. It would be hard to follow someone who talked without breaking their sentences down into phrases. If all the words came out in a steady stream, with no obvious punctuation, or pauses, it would be difficult to make sense of what the person was saying. Music is another form of communication – it makes it much easier to listen to if it has some sort of structure to it. You can think of this in terms of musical phrases, or questions and answers throughout the tune.

Tuning was something that was mentioned by several people, particularly keeping the top A (4th finger) in tune . We’ll continue to work on this throughout the term.

Playing tunes in your own style
©Ros Gasson

After the break, we played through the three options we have for the Aird Ranters – playing it in the top octave, down an octave, and playing the accompanying bass line. The we split up so that a few people were playing each part. We tried that out again, and everyone sat in a different place, so we were playing alongside people who were playing a different part. We focused on listening to the people beside us, and trying to play together as a group.

Once we’d got really familiar with the different parts, a group of 3 people sat in the middle of the circle,  and played the tune through together, with one person playing each part. The first time through, the three were sitting with their backs to each other. The group realised that although it focused them on listening to each other, they really missed the visual cues from being able to see one another while they were playing. We also had some feedback from the rest of the class who had been listening and observing.

We finished the evening by playing through The Road to Banff, Fionn’s, and Midnight on the Water.

There will be no class next week. We agreed tonight to reschedule next week’s class to Tuesday 9th April, which is the 2nd Tuesday after the end of term.

Playing tunes subconsciously


Playing music subconsciously

Playing fiddle music subconsciously
Photo ©Ros Gasson

We spent some time tonight thinking about making a shift from thinking consciously about the mechanics while we’re playing tunes, to playing music while just thinking about the sound of the tune we are playing, and allowing the subconscious to ‘take charge’ of how that happens. Once we’ve learnt some basic techniques, we need to find a way to start to focus on the sound we are producing. We’re aiming to begin to hear the tune in our head, the way we would like it to sound, as we’re playing it. Ultimately the mechanics of creating the sounds become so automatic that hearing  a tune in this way becomes enough to allow us to automatically play it the way we are hearing it. It’s a process we go through for any new skill we learn. At some point, the new skill becomes a subconscious action, and at that point, the action flows much more smoothly than when we were consciously thinking about how to make it happen. The subconscious brain is an amazing thing when it comes to playing music!

One of the ways we can start to make this shift is to play without looking at our fingers. In the class, we’ve been trying out playing while standing in a circle, thinking about the tune, and looking at the other fiddlers in the group, rather than our own hands.

We learnt the Gordon Duncan tune ‘The High Drive’ in the class tonight. There are several different versions of this tune around. The music for the version we learnt in the class is on the website music page. The original tune is written with 4 parts, but all four parts are rarely played in sessions. It’s commonly played as a two part reel.

We had a bit of a chocolate-fest in the break!

We ended the evening playing through a number of tunes together.

Thanks to everyone who has been in the class this term. It’s been a lot of fun, and a lovely group to teach.

Enrolment for the spring term starts on 10th December. Contact the office at St Bride’s for more information. The new term will start on Tuesday 8th January 2013, and will run for 12 weeks (without a mid-term break) until Tuesday 26th March. I hope to see you then!