Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Learning Irish Music by Ear class with Aaron Olwell

This past winter/spring the Blue Ridge Irish Music School (BRIMS) in Charlottesville offered an 8-week class called Learning Irish Music By Ear, taught by Aaron Olwell.  It was one of many classes BRIMS offers each semester.  I live about 70 miles from Charlottesville so I wasn't ready to make the commitment to this class which met every other Tuesday from January through April, although the idea of such instruction really intrigues me.  Here is the description of the class:

What aspiring musician wouldn't want to be able to pick up melodies on the spot after only hearing them a few times? I believe this is one of the most useful and pertinent skills in any kind of music, and it's practically the foundation that Irish and many other folk musics are based on. Musicians with little or no theoretical understanding of music (often not even knowing a single note by name) have for centuries relied only on their ears to learn hundreds of tunes! 

In this class, which will be open to all instruments and ages, we will surprise ourselves with latent talent and accomplish feats of "learning on the fly" that we previously thought were beyond us. Skill level is not important, although the class will be geared towards students who are already somewhat familiar with their instrument. So, if you have been playing for years but still feel like you struggle with this aspect of music, this class is for you. If you are comfortable as long as you have a page in front of you, but get anxious as soon as it's taken away, this class is for you. If you are musically illiterate and maybe never even touched an instrument until some time within the last year, then you guessed it; this class is for you.

That's exactly the kind of help I need(!), so despite missing his class I recently drove out to paradise-like Nelson County, VA to meet with Aaron Olwell in person and find out more about his approach to teaching this topic - something that he admitted is actually starting to obsess him!

Aaron Olwell
Aaron Olwell is a multi-instrumentalist (flute, whistle, left-handed fiddle, concertina, banjo...) and the son of world-renowned Irish flute-maker Patrick Olwell. He plays both traditional Irish and Old-Time music, which he learned through numerous trips to Ireland and summer camps in North Carolina and West Virginia.  Aaron can be heard on recordings by Hell On The Nine Mile, Light and Hitch, and The Magic Square. In addition to playing and teaching music, he is a Staff Musician at Augusta Heritage's Dance Week and he works with his father making flutes.  I was excited to get his take on this elusive subject.  At the time I wasn't thinking of writing a blog post about it, but for the purposes of gathering my thoughts, and with apologies to Aaron for possibly jumbling or misunderstanding some of the instruction he attempted to give me, here are some of the main points I took away from my 90 minute visit/lesson:

Lilt a tune's melody before trying to play it.  I wasn't exactly familiar with lilting (or why banshees do it!) and had definitely not tried it before, but basically lilting is nonverbally "singing" a tune's melody - similar to humming or whistling.  By doing so not only do you learn how the tune sounds (they say "if you can hum it you can play it"), but when you lilt you automatically go to the right pitches and intervals without even thinking.  As opposed to struggling to play those notes on your instrument, where you're likely to make incorrect assumptions based on whatever limited knowledge you may have regarding scales and arpeggios.  After drilling the tune into your head by lilting, it should be a little easier to find those notes on your instrument.

Call out the names of the notes as you play them.  I had read this same thing in a book regarding scales, but Aaron advised me to play a melody slowly and call out the notes as I play them. Presumably this helps you associate the sound with the note you are playing.

Tap your foot while playing.  While not directly related to learning by ear, concentrating on tapping your foot can have many benefits - improved timing, getting a better sense of a tune's rhythm and structure, helping those playing with you know where you are in the tune, and more.

Transpose a melody to other keys.  Once you have learned a melody in one key, transpose it by ear to all the other keys you play in.  As we all know, a melody can start on any note before ascending or descending on its tuneful path.  Starting a melody on a different note and figuring out how to play it from there is really good ear practice.  I haven't tried this yet, but I think it's something I could do.

Feel where the chord changes.  Aaron says that for years he played without really thinking about chords due to the fact that he primarily plays flute, concertina and fiddle.  But recently he's been trying to associate shifts in the melody with chord changes (or is that chord changes with shifts in the melody?) and it's the basis for his increased interest in aural skills.  Once you determine what key a tune is in (a difficult thing to do in its own right) just drone on the I chord throughout the tune and try to hear where it sounds like you should change to something else - most likely the IV, V or possibly II minor or VI minor.  Thinking about the chords this way will give you clues to help hone in on the melody.  I've never in my life been sure of when a chord should change or what it should change to, so this is going to take a lot of work for me to figure out.

Get in tune with yourself, not with an electronic tuner.  Aaron is a pretty vocal critic of exclusively using electronic tuners to keep your instrument in tune.  They can be helpful in some group situations, but by relying on a tuner all the time you miss out on developing a skill that musicians from previous generations had to learn:  the ability to be in tune with yourself and others.  I must say that up until this day I had never, ever tried to tune my instrument without the help of an electronic tuner.  However, after this lesson I am going to start practicing this a little bit by getting one string in tune and then trying to tune the other strings to it.  I can always use a tuner to check my accuracy.  I tried this last night and got really messed up - when I finally checked by D string was up to Eb - not in harmony with my A string at all!  I guess I'll keep trying.  In truth, tuners actually lie to a certain degree.  Those who are good at tuning by ear can actually get their instrument more in tune by doing it themselves, due to the one-size-fits-all nature of tuners and the way some scales and instruments want to push and pull certain pitches.

Grab onto what you can.  Hopefully you get to take part in jams and sessions where people are OK with noodling around until you start to pick up a tune.  (Or in my case, noodle around until the tune is over and not learn anything about it!)  When you think you've figured out a measure or section, you can refine your understanding by playing along to that part each time it comes around and adding to what you know.  Even if completely baffled by the rest of the tune you may still be able to find a way for your instrument to make a decent contribution.  This could mean just playing a drone or double stop until the part you're comfortable with comes around again.  Find a way for your instrument to still make a contribution to the ensemble sound even while learning the tune.

That's the majority of what we covered.  A lot of this information is still starting to sink in after a couple days and there's probably lots of points I'm forgetting or explaining incorrectly.  Oh yeah - Aaron also played a hop jig in G for me called Cucanandy.  I was unable to pick it up on the spot but I made a recording of it and will try to learn it from that. 

If there's enough interest Aaron plans on teaching the course at BRIMS again later this year or next.  I'm sure you can learn a lot more over 8 weeks than I did in 90 minutes, although I hope to have a follow up meeting with him before too long!

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