Going back to the beginning and starting over

Learning Tunes by EarAs a traditional Irish fiddler, I have never learned how to improvise on the fiddle. Like most other traditional musicians I know, everything I play, I learned by ear.

This past week I started a class at Berklee College of Music on basic improvisation. It’s only been a week and I can confidently say it’s probably one of the hardest classes I have ever taken. It’s challenging in so many ways. One because I never really learned my scales and most of the time I have no idea what key I’m playing in. And two, because I am starting from the very beginning. I’m doing something I’ve never done before and it’s intimidating and scary.

This week I had to record myself improvising over a blues progression. I had to learn pentatonic scales in C, G and F, which is like a regular scale except you skip the 4th note in the scale and the 7th note. As a traditional fiddler, I don’t really like the keys of C and F. They are hard to play in and you don’t hear too many tunes in those keys. But I practiced them diligently every day all week.

When it came time to record myself playing, I must have recorded and deleted my piece over a dozen times and even the final product that I passed in sounded like a 3 year-old was playing it. It made me realize a few things:

  • Recording – Recording yourself play is probably the best thing a musician can do to get better. When you’re playing or practicing it’s hard to really listen to yourself because you’re too busy focusing on what you’re doing. Recording yourself is scary but you hear so many things about your playing that you miss when you’re actually playing it.
  • Listening – I know this sounds like a given, but a good musician is a good listener. This week I have spent most of the week listening to the nuances of the Blues. You can learn so much just by listening. In Irish music, the more times I listen to a tune before learning it the easier it is to learn. I’m hoping it’s the same with improvising, the more I listen to people improvise the more I can hear the notes and keys and color of the music.
  • Learning – I always say that I just want to be able to play well, I don’t actually want to practice. I have to admit though, learning something new is fun, challenging and extremely rewarding. It’s such a huge accomplishment when you work at something and then one day it just clicks and you don’t remember ever not knowing it. And then you start learning something new.

I think the hardest part of my new venture is that I am a beginner again. And as they say, the hardest part is staring over.

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