Thursday, December 4, 2014

Sound Advice from Clyde Curley, Co-Author of the Portland Collection Books

When I first got an instrument and discovered fiddle tunes, I felt like I needed some kind of written music - tab or notation - in order to play these melodies.  Even though I had no prior music experience, I remember somehow being able to understand and read mandolin tab from, literally, day one, but it's taken me years to come around to trying to play anything by ear.
One of my primary sources for written music is/was The Portland Collection tunebooks, volumes 1 and 2, by Susan Songer and Clyde Curley.  I preferred these books over, say the ubiquitous Fiddler's Fakebook, because of Susan and Clyde's clean arrangements and excellent variety of tunes. Thankfully, I would always listen to various different recordings to get the feel of whatever tune I was learning from those books, but the written page was primarily where I got the notes themselves.

In hindsight, I wish that I had focused more on aural skills early on rather than just rely on tab reading because I feel like I would be a lot farther along now if I had persevered through those initial stages of frustration.  I always avoided deciphering by ear because A) it seemed impossible, and B) you could instantly start to play a tune by reading the tab, and eventually memorize the notes through repetition.
Due to a sprinkle of ear training and a major paradigm shift, I'm now trying to learn some tunes completely by ear without ever looking at the music, if I can help it.  So, it's a little ironic that I turned to some comments that Clyde Curley had written in the introduction to The Portland Collection Volume 2, and in the liner notes of the A Portland Play Along Selection CDs, for inspiration.
If you want to feel the living pulse of traditional music, you need to learn to play these tunes out of your memory as the first priority.  This allows you to interact directly with the other musicians in the session or at the party.  It helps you pay more attention to the technical challenges of playing your instrument.  Essentially, learning the music removes what I believe is an artificial wall between you and what's going on around you and within you.  The roots of folk music are in the aural domain, person to person.  These roots must be honored and strengthened, I believe, if the spirit of folk music is to survive. The music in this book comes from the people who passed it directly to us, not from other books.  It was selected largely because of the pleasure it gives in the playing.  I urge you to pass it on by scraping it out on your fiddle or squeezing it through your bellows.  Make some noise!  This tune book will have served its best purposes if it encourages you to embark on wider, more personal searches that will result in connecting with the vibrating heart of the real thing. (Clyde Curley, from "About this Music" in the Introduction to The Portland Collection Volume 2).  
Our goal here is to encourage learning this music by ear.  Learning from a printed page may seem quick and easy, but it's not necessarily a fast track to mastering a tune.  It may provide instant gratification, but less long-term satisfaction.  That comes from storing these beguiling, pleasing arrangements of sounds in your memory banks via the appropriate avenue for sound, namely, the ear.  This involves an investment of time and effort, but the rewards will be deep and enduring.  (Clyde Curley, from the liner notes to A Portland Play Along Selection).

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