Thursday, May 2, 2013

Learning Traditional Music As An Adult

Piggybacking on my post the other day inspired by an article on the ways the Irish learn music, I’ve also found a study on How Adult Learners Learn Celtic Traditional Music, by Janice Waldron.  This paper is written in a more academic fashion, but basically the study was based on interviews and observations of ten adult learners at the 2005 Goderich CelticCollege (GCC) summer camp in Goderich, Ontario, Canada.  GCC provides musical instruction on various instruments and types of Celtic music for adult learners.
The ten participants were asked to describe (a) the circumstances under which they began to play, (b) their early musical experiences, (c) how they learn traditional music, (d) their comfort with notation, and (e) their comfort with playing by ear.  This got me to thinking about how I relate to those questions.

I didn't learn an instrument in school, or play one growing up, or have musical siblings or parents.  When I decided all of a sudden at age 32 that I wanted to get a tenor banjo, I was starting completely from scratch.  I was able to find two professional musicians giving lessons on GDAE tuned banjo within a 30-50 minute drive from where I lived - one an expert on Irish music and the other an expert on American oldtime.  Both played and understood 4-string banjo well enough to teach it from the perspective of their respective styles.
I took about a dozen lessons off and on with each teacher over that first year or two, but because I was so new to playing any kind of music or instrument (and ignorant of traditional music), a lot of it went over my head.  Instead of really learning the way the teachers would have liked me to, I taught myself how to read mandolin tablature, which also works for tenor banjo, and learned enough about standard notation to be able to convert it to tab.  When I started going to jams I would get the names of the tunes being played and spent many hours creating tablature arrangements from various written sources, until I had a tab version that was playable and sounded like it matched. I would then go back to the session and play along by reading the tab.

With no previous classical music or sight-reading experience, reading tab was a skill I also had to learn from scratch, but it came very easy to me.  Meanwhile, playing by ear was this big mysterious concept I couldn't grasp - completely random and frustrating.  I was uncomfortable with even attempting to play any tune without having the tablature.  I may have missed an opportunity to play by ear from the start, but I was afraid that if I just played by ear I'd be so frustrated that I'd give up playing altogether, especially when you can instantly churn out a tune by looking at the tab. But, without the tab I couldn't play anything.
What I'm trying to do now is focus on the listening skills required to play a tune and not the sight-reading skills.  I'll take a recording - usually one I recorded at a session, converted to mp3 off YouTube, or got from a play along CD - and slow it down (or speed it up) using the Amazing Slowdowner app.  I may refer to notation to give me an outline of the tune, but when playing along I try not to look at the music.  I'll also use a call and response method to learn tunes.  I'll record myself playing it phrase by phrase, pausing between each phrase long enough so that I can play it back live while listening to the recording later when not looking at the tab.

For an adult trying to learn traditional music, it comes down to three important things: learning your instrument, learning the characteristics of the musical genre, and learning by ear/aural skills (learning how to listen).  As I develop, I hope to be able to interpret tunes in a way that allows for influences across Irish and Appalachian traditions to merge into one musical voice.

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