Liberating the Ear…
The first time that I learned a tune by ear was one of the most liberating experience of my life. I had been playing the fiddle for about 5 years at that point, learning all of my tunes from sheet music. There were so many instances of feeling frustrated and helpless when I heard a tune that I wanted to learn but couldn’t find the music. I heard a tune called ‘The Dawn’ from one of Natalie MacMaster’s early records and was desperate to learn it. The only place I could find the music to a tune called ‘The Dawn’ was in an Irish collection and it resembled nothing like the tune on Natalie’s record. I knew then, that If I wanted to learn the tune I would have to do it by ear.
At that time, there was no software readily available to slow tunes down. So I sat in my room, constantly hitting the rewind button on the cassette player. I was never going to be a slave to sheet music again. I learned the tune that day, but it pretty much took the entire day. But, the more I did it, the quicker I was able to pick up tunes. It is a very empowering skill.
You become your own teacher when you learn by ear. You begin to internalize things that you don’t even realize. Of course, it is a daunting exercise if you have little experience. So it is important to start off small. Sing a note, then try and match that pitch on the fiddle. Try and sound out a really common simple melody like Mary Had a Little Lamb. If you can do that, there is no reason you can’t learn by ear. But there is much more involved than matching pitches on the fiddle.
One of the more difficult aspects of learning by ear is retaining the melody of the tune you are trying to learn. That is why it is so important to listen to the tune for a while before even trying to pick it out on your instrument. If you can sing it to yourself, then you’ve internalized the tune. It’s like learning the words to a new hit song on the radio. It’s pretty hard to get all the words after the first time you hear it, but once you’ve heard it over and over on every radio station, you magically start to sing along. When you’ve internalized the tune, you begin to realize that there aren’t as many notes to learn as you maybe originally thought. The first phrase probably sounds like the third phrase. That is because it usually is. All good tunes have themes within the melody that usually repeat throughout the tune. So if you can break the tune into distinctive phrases, it’s not so much of a daunting task. The more you do this, the more you adapt to the structure of tunes, and the easier it will be to internalize them. One of the most valuable things you gain from learning by ear is associating melodic intervals to finger shapes. For example, if you hear a big jump in the melody, how big of a jump is it? Do you have to skip one finger to get to the next note? Two fingers? Do you have to cross a string? After a while, when you hear an interval of a third, you will automatically skip a finger playing the two consecutive notes. You might not even know what a third is, but you will still associate the pitch with the shape. So the next time you take a fiddle workshop, do not be discouraged if you the tune doesn’t stick with you after one class. Take the tune home with you and listen – and listen a lot. Sing it to yourself. Break it down into phrases and start learning one phrase at a time. It gets easier. And it will be empowering.