Fiddle Forays Simplify Learning Irish Fiddle Tunes by Ear

Simplify Learning Irish Fiddle Tunes by Ear


Have you been hearing all about how you should learn Irish fiddle tunes by ear, but are still feeling nervous about giving it a try? I get it! It's a tricky skill to work on, and it doesn't give us the instant gratification of being able to read the notes on the page and immediately play them on our fiddle.

But here are a couple of benefits to learning by ear:

  • Even though it takes longer in the moment to play note after note correctly, it actually gets absorbed into our brains at a deeper level and we retain the tune for longer. (I can't tell you how many tunes I have sight read in a collection like O'Neill's, then totally forgot about just days later!)
  • We are natural mimics, and if you are listening to a good recording where the fiddler is playing with a genuine lilt then you are going to start phrasing your tunes the way they do!

So here's a little secret... learning a tune by ear doesn't need to be as hard as you think it seems.

Both my students and I have used a 3-step system to develop this skill. As a kid, I never liked word problems in math, but my dad would help me simplify the process by showing me to break each element of the problem down into steps. We're going to take this strategy and apply it directly to our ear training situation -- aka taking a tricky concept and separating it into manageable parts. Let's get to it!

Step 1: Make listening to Irish traditional fiddling a daily habit.

I get it -- most of us lead full (read "busy") lives! But while you may not have the opportunity to take your fiddle out and practice every day, you should be able to find time to listen to your favorite fiddlers. Even if it’s one tune a day while you’re brushing your teeth, you’ll want to really get used to hearing the rhythm and phrasing within this style. Let the feel of the music sink in as much as possible. Better yet, find a recording of a tune you want to memorize and listen to it religiously!

If you need some ideas of who to listen to, I created a couple of playlists of my favorite fiddlers. Here's one for Spotify and one for YouTube depending on your listening platform preference!

Step 2: Learn the tune slowly phrase-by-phrase.

You can do this a couple of different ways:

  • Using a recording from the listening playlist you created in step 1 and either slowing it down on YouTube (not ideal for tone quality, but it does work) or on an app like The Amazing Slow Downer
  • Ask your teacher to make an audio or video recording of the tune broken down to these phrases (if you want help with this, book a call with me and let's chat about private lessons)!

Play along with these recordings regularly!

Step 3: Pause the recording and see how much of the tune you can retain on your own.

I find that I can play a tune more easily if I'm playing along with someone, but it doesn't always draw attention to the parts that need further examination. So pause the recording and try to play the tune completely by yourself. Notice any areas where you forget a note or the rhythm sounds off, and immediately check back in with the recording (or a version of sheet music that you trust) to give yourself a reminder. It's always good to reference the tricky passages and avoid picking up bad habits in the tune!

And there you have it! A simple but effect 3-step system to get you from point A: relying on sheet music to point B: learning a tune by ear. Remember, you can use both sheet music and audio recordings as tools to help you learn, but if a note on the page just isn't lining up with what you're hearing consistently across recordings you should trust your ear over your eye.

Which step resonated with you the most?


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