Many years ago I was lucky enough to head to Cape Breton for a week with a group of musicians from Vermont and study with the late Jerry Holland. We were there with a mix of children and adult musicians and learned some great tunes from the master himself.
I remember listening to one of the kids playing one of Jerry’s tunes (sorry but I can’t remember the name of the tune). He was playing it so confidently and it sounded more like an American version of a Cape Breton tune with a slight swing to it and some fun double-stops. When he was done playing, he looked at me and said: “I like to play it that way even though that’s not the right way to play it.”
Gerry Holland was standing behind us at the time and chimed in with “there is no right way to play, you made it your own and that’s the point.”
When learning tunes by ear, it’s easy to listen to a recording and mimic exactly what you hear. But the goal is to sound like you, not someone else, which is not always easy. To really make the tune your own takes some discipline, practice and some serious listening.
I recently learned the tune, Miss Thornton’s. It’s a reel in the key of G and is the starting tune set on one of my favorite albums, Live at Mona’s. I love playing the A part of this tune but the B part for me gets a little repetitive so I started searching for different versions to see if I could pick up a nice little nugget or two of something sweet and make the tune my own.
While searching for other versions of the tune, I found some amazing interpretations like this one by The Fretless who not only play it in a different key, they added all sorts of rhythm to it with the cello, viola and 5-string backup.
And then there is the more traditional version from Billy McComisky. His version is very similar to the version I learned with the exception of a small walk-up in the B section that is a little different and some fun ornamentation throughout the tune.
And then there is John Carty‘s version. Aside from being way faster than I’ll ever play it, the A part is slightly different with this nice little high part that starts it out.
Here it is in the key of Bb by Fergal Scahill, fast, furious and fun with some great walkdowns:
One tune, four musicians, three keys, countless variations and this is only the tip of the iceberg. The more we listen to different variations and different musicians, the more we hear the little nuances in their playing. We can pick and choose the ones we like and add them to our own playing to make the tune more colorful and more our own. As long as you keep the bones of the tune intact, the options are endless. One tune with a million ways to play it.