Friday, June 22, 2012

Music Practice - What To Work On?

In the beginning of 2012 I vowed to immerse myself in traditional Irish and Appalachian music as it occurs in and around Richmond, VA by attending as many local jams and sessions as possible.  By doing so, not only have I gained a deeper appreciation and devotion to the music, but I think it has caused me to get over some humps and beyond the semi-beginner’s plateau that I had hit.  Furthering this immersion, later this summer I will attend Irish Week at Augusta Heritage in Elkins, WV, and hopefully make it to some old-time campout festivals like Clifftop and Rockbridge.
However, this participation in the traditional music community has also made me painfully aware of my biggest musical shortcoming – an inability, or rather unwillingness, to play by ear.  I’ve now realized that playing by ear is crucial to the complete participation and understanding of this aural form of music that has been passed along from person to person for generations. 

Beyond simply attending jams and learning by experience I’m not really sure how a person learns to play by ear – especially someone who started playing at age 32 like I did.  But I at least want to start putting forth a concentrated effort during my at home practice to focus on becoming a better ear player.  Below are some specific areas I’ve identified as needing the most improvement, and below that is a practice checklist that I hope will help me make those improvements!

Areas Most In Need of Improvement
- Ear Training.  I should be able to learn tunes by ear instead of needing to use sheet music/tab.
- Ornamentation.  Because I’ve learned mostly skeletal/tune book arrangements my versions tend to lack the essential variation and ornamentation that adds interest to a person’s playing.
- Backup/Accompaniment.  Every once in a while I’m in a “jamming” situation where I have to alternate lead and backup/harmony with another soloist.  When it’s my turn to provide this backup I have no idea what to do, how to do it well, or what chords to use unless I am reading from a chart.
- Hearing chord changes.  See above.  I’m not convinced that a melody player in Irish or even old-time music needs to be aware of the (implied) chord changes/harmony to play the tunes effectively – but such knowledge definitely can’t hurt.
 Practice Ideas
- Start each practice session with a series of exercises – scales, arpeggios, et cetera – as a warm up, always keeping in mind how these exercises apply to and function in an actual musical context.  If done right this warm up exercise can also become a meditation.
- Try figuring out simple, familiar melodies by ear, such as Mary Had a Little Lamb, Twinkle Little Star, and Happy Birthday...eventually applying this to a fairly simple traditional tune and beyond.
- Take another look at some of the instructional videos I’ve accumulated but not utilized much (DVDs by Norman Blake, Brad Leftwich, Zan McLeod).
- Technique work:  the trebles, triplets and other ornamentation covered in Enda Scahill’s Irish Banjo Tutors would be a good place to start.
- Compare the chord changes in a play along book/recording like the Portland Collection with shifts in the melody that necessitated the chord change.  Then play through the tune and add double-stops whenever the chord is changing to bring attention to what's happening musically.  Then, try to hear chord changes on my own in a different tune just by listening and discern if the change was to the IV or the V, et cetera.
- Examine the “shapes” of tunes to look for patterns or assumptions that can be made about what a tune is doing.
- Learn double stop options for the keys/modes associated with old-time and Irish music and try and implement these as a form of harmonizing the melody.
- Improvise arpeggios over common chord changes.  Duh.
- Play a tune very slowly and focus on getting the technique exactly right.  Isolate the part of a tune causing trouble and play it over and over at a slow, controlled pace until you can do it several times in a row without messing up.
- Finish each practice with a “flow” exercise where you play/improvise a tune with a who-cares, non-critical attitude.  Fill in the blanks of the melody - should they happen - with whatever notes flow out of you at the time.

At the end of the day relax and savor your accomplishments..

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