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:
Then we played a second riff, which would work as a 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’.