Does anyone know where April went? Between moving, starting to transition jobs, future house hunting and wedding planning, by the end of the month I was finding it extremely hard to prioritize time with my fiddle. Fortunately my latest project is both specific and motivating for me, so most days I was still able to get the instruments out for a little while!
Ever since mid-late March, I’ve selected one fiddle player each month to focus on studying. For April I chose David Doocey, an Irish fiddler/multi-instrumentalist, who released an album in 2013 called “Changing Time.” My self-imposed challenge was to learn every single tune on the album. The goal was not to sound exactly like David Doocey — although he is a great fiddle player and I really do admire his style! Rather, I wanted to absorb a few influences of his while expanding my tune repertoire. Whenever I am over in Ireland or at an advanced Irish session in the states, I like to be able to pick up new tunes quickly from master musicians. So this exercise was meant to help me train my ear to absorb phrasing, tune structure, and variations all within a limited amount of time.
I spent the last month listening to David’s album over and over again, while attempting to play along with him. Each time got a little better, and I gradually caught on to each of the tracks one by one. I kept a checklist handy of all the tunes I didn’t know yet, and after the first couple of days I was able to start crossing them off. In this month’s tune recap, I dive into three of my favorite tracks from this album — each of which required a different learning approach!
When I first recorded this video with the intro, my fiddle was reacting to the new environment and was slightly out of tune. It wasn’t terrible, but it was enough to bother me, and I didn’t want to put that kind of musical content that I’m not completely satisfied with out there. So my “brilliant” plan was to record the tunes on their own once I adjusted my strings, and then put both the intro and video clips into iMovie on my phone! At first I thought I needed the computer, which would have been a problem due to my full iCloud storage, but fortunately I thought to check out the apps I never use on my phone — and voila! Some of you with experience in video editing may be shaking your heads at me for this incredibly basic skill I just acquired, but y’all this is a HUGE step for me! I don’t like to video edit at all! I just want to focus on playing tunes, not fine tuning the format that I share them in… but I will say it’s a useful skill to have and maybe once I learn more and get better at it, I will find it more enjoyable!
This next set of tunes posed a different kind of challenge. A top resource for many Irish traditional musician is The Session, which provides sheet music for a multitude of tunes. Another nice feature is that you can research a particular artist, and the search engine comes up with a list of all of the tunes on their albums. However, not every single tune is transcribed into the database, so sometimes you only get a name with no link attached! This was the case for David Doocey’s track “Up Braid/Tory Fort Lane.” Maybe some day I will sit down and submit a transcription for these tunes, but that wasn’t the focus of this month’s project. Instead, I saw it as an opportunity to learn these two tunes entirely by ear — a preferred traditional learning method anyway!
The fun thing for me with these tunes is that they’re in unusual keys: c minor and f minor where the key signature contains three and four flats! Definitely an advanced key to play in on the fiddle as you can’t use three of your four open strings. As I mentioned in the video, some fiddlers get around this obstacle by using alternate tunings on their instrument. In this case, you would tune the strings down by a half step, so that the A would become A flat, and so on. Occasionally, I do like to experiment with alternate tunings because they create a whole new open and resonant tone that my ear is not adjusted to! You can imagine it opens a whole new world of musical possibilities. However there is value in both methods, and this month I chose to stay in standard tuning while adjusting my fingers into a trickier pattern — I believe David does the same thing. It was a good review from my classical music days and reminded me how much I love playing in both of these keys!
Lastly, I chose to record this beautiful slow jig called Inis Bearachain. I have heard some of my friends in Cork play this tune before, but at a regular jig tempo, which is much faster. So the challenge with this tune was to slow it down and explore the possibilities of playing it at a completely different tempo! It may seem odd, but playing slow is much harder than playing fast. When we play fast, we are speeding through the notes, not paying as much attention to precision and intonation, and getting ourselves in this mindset of rushing ahead and thinking more about what is next than what is at hand. Trust me, this is me in so many ways… so using this practice time to slow down and be present in a more mellow tempo turned out to be a great mindset exercise for me too! Learning how to be present yet proactive, centered yet conscious of what’s coming next… it’s not just a music skill, y’all, it’s a life skill!
One of many reasons I love playing music is that I can tie my practicing into life skills and lessons. Patience with learning new tunes in a repetitive aural method, revisiting old lessons as needed to make progress, and slowing down to appreciate the moment… these are all things I can apply to my life beyond my music. It’s why playing an instrument is so much more than entertaining an audience. The reason why I have gone down this musical path in my education is not just for acquiring technical skills in performance and teaching — it is for the mindset that learning an instrument teaches us. It’s more than learning how to be a good musician. It’s also learning how to be a good person. How to be fully present, centered and connected to our lives and how we interact with others. Music is a conduit through which we as human beings can learn to enter into that flow that makes our lives worth living. Be present, my friends. Be connected. Be musical.