Monday, April 20, 2009

TAB...a blessing or an evil?

If you read online forums about mountain dulcimer playing, it won't be long before you stumble into yet another go-round of the endless debate between people who play from TAB and people who play by ear. Each side tends to think the other is misguided, or that they are being unfairly treated, and the discussion can typically get pretty heated...

What I usually hear from the two sides is-

Those who promote playing and learning tunes by ear are suggesting that anyone can learn tunes by ear and those who claim they can't simply aren't trying hard enough. They look down on groups of dulcimer players who are dependent on TAB and they say that using TAB results in a dry mechanical sounding music that lacks the subtle personal touches of music learned by ear directly from another player or from an audio recording.

Then those who play only from TAB defend their stance by saying that not everyone can learn to play tunes by ear, and that if it weren't for TAB many of them probably wouldn't be playing at all, and why are these other people looking down their noses at them and trying to spoil the joy and fun they get from playing their TAB in a social/club type dulcimer group?

In reality, both sides are right in how they view TAB. There is no all right or all wrong here. Like most things in this world, TAB is both good in some ways and not good in other ways. We should view TAB objectively, without our emotional pre-judging baggage attached.

Personally, I think it is possible for anyone to learn to play a simple tune by ear....if it is presented in a very understandable way, and if they approach it with sincere effort and not give up too easily. Sadly, most people give up on anything that they cannot accomplish in two or three attempts, or they do not have a good teacher or mentor to learn from. They have no idea how to go about doing this on their own.

I also agree with the pro-ear group when they lament the lack of creativity in music that is learned and played only from tabbed versions. I myself find it impossible to include the many subtle nuances in a tune if I am trying to write it into a TAB that can be fairly easily followed. Tabbed versions of tunes 'can' sound mechanical unless the person playing them has also heard the tune actually played by living breathing feeling musicians.

When people play by TAB in a group there is an unfortunate tendency for the group to discourage any individual from adding personal touches to the tune, from deviating from the written TAB. "That's not how it goes." might be heard. Clearly this is not a situation that encourages personal growth in playing music. But when people say that, I don't think they say it in a mean-spirited way- they genuinely believe the 'renegade' is making mistakes or accidentally playing the notes not 'right' ('right' being exactly how it is tabbed out).

Another problem in being totally dependent on your TAB collection is that it pretty much means that you can't play with anyone who doesn't play the same tunes from the same TAB as you do. This means you can't even think about trying to play in fun jams with other types of musicians. I've even seen instances where two dulcimer players who both play only from tab were overjoyed to find each other at a festival and wanted to 'jam' together but they were completely unable since they both were only familiar with their own TAB sheets and had none in common, and they were unable to improvise at all. Now that is indeed a sad situation, and can hardly be called a 'jam'. They wound up taking turns playing their TABs for each other. (!)

On the 'pro TAB' side of the debate...
It is indeed true that many people would not be playing dulcimer today (or any instrument) if it weren't for TAB. Especially in today's society where learning from other local musicians in our community is becoming very uncommon- for isolated beginners there are few choices when it comes to learning to play music, particularly when they have had no muscical background at all. TAB becomes a welcome and non-threatening method of getting a start. It's sort of like those old paint-by-number kits for people who would never be taking 'real' art classes with an artist instructor.
Dulcimer clubs that get together in big groups to all play their TAB books together in unison offer a wonderful welcoming and non-judgmental environment for beginners who would otherwise have no direction and no encouragement at all. In this sense TAB really is a wonderful thing that brings isolated beginners together with a clear purpose, in an accepting environment.
There are players in these clubs and groups who will steadfastly insist that they could never learn to play by ear or to improvise. Perhaps this is really so, perhaps not. In either case, I feel it's unfair to criticize these people- if playing from TAB makes them happy, then why try to make them feel bad about that? That would be both arrogant and negative. They are getting joy from their playing. Yet it should also be remembered that there are many people out there who used to insist they could never learn to play by ear or improvise, but who actually DID wind up starting to play by ear and loving it- they were able to learn new things when the time was right for them, and when they had the right help to guide them.
Respect others' ways of playing. But also, never say never.

I myself have found TAB to be a wonderful way to learn new tunes, both in my dulcimer playing and my banjo playing. I do know how to read standard music notation, but I find TAB to be a great sort of 'shorthand' to help me get a new tune started, to help my students be able to take something home with them to work on, or to jog my own memory when I've forgotten a tune. I use TAB abundantly in this blog on purpose, because I feel TAB as a learning tool really helps make the music immediately accessible to beginners who have no real live mentors nearby to learn from, knee to knee.

I think of books full of TAB as cookbooks with recipes for tunes written in them. Sometimes you can't figure out how to make a dish by yourself, so you read the recipe and it guides you. Once you've made the same dish 25 times you might not need to look at the recipe anymore. And sometimes you can invent a little variation in the recipe and come up with something new. Other times you might figure out what ingredient you can substitute for one you don't have in the pantry. A successful cook slowly gets know how to adjust the recipe when they need to. The cookbook recipe is a tool too.

But perhaps most importantly, we must remember that the 'feeling' of music is just not found in the TAB- you have to put that in. And feeling in a song or tune is maybe the most important ingredient of all. I have seen my share of dry flat 'typist' dulcimer players who play like court stenographers. Some of them have been playing for many years and can play fast, too...but I find it not much fun listening to them. Far more than right or wrong notes, it is feeling and emotion from the player that make the music come alive. When we take that chance and let our emotion out into what we play, it is returned to us many times over as JOY. You get back what you put in.

Tabs are good and very useful to help one get the bare bones of the tune. Then once you can play it, add the feeling, add the spice, make the tune your own. If that seems too hard to do, then try it with a simpler tune. Use whatever methods available to get playing, including tab... but then don't be afraid to experiment and try new things as well!


  1. Nicely put, Lisa. You know I'm an "earful" player *grin* but I don't look down on paper-trained players.

    If they feel a sense of accomplishment playing from paper; more power to 'em.

    Others who take a tune and 'run with it' have their accomplishment gland tickled by taking the basic melody and working in and around it.

  2. I am glad I don't need tabs. Now after saying this. I wish some times I could use tabs.
    Some time I just don't hear a song right and I know it. Some songs seem different each time I hear it. One in particular is Going Down To Maysville. The first part I seem to hear it differently every time I try it. I am not alone on this one. Alva a fiddle player I used to play with says the same as I do on this one. Says he just don't hear it right. There are several song that I can not play because of this.

  3. Lisa,
    Just want to say THANK YOU for writing your Blog. I've been confused by it and trying to play a long with it, but just wasn't getting it. Today i deceided to start all over and read from the begining. Had a Light Bulb moment. DUH: I'm a new player and was confused with witch way i wanted to play. Now i know, Noter Drone. Thanks again.
    aka papabill

  4. Hi Paul,
    There just are some fiddle tunes that are terribly hard to 'get'. Most times you have to hear a fiddler who plays it well, play it about 30 times...then it sort of seeps into the brain and from then on you simply can't play it 'wrong' anymore like you used to. If you can listen to a good recording of the tune, put it on repeat for a couple of hours and that might work. ;D

  5. PapaBill,
    You are such a sweetheart. You make me feel like the girl in the photo of my post titled "Oh My Little Darlin'"!
    You made my day!
    I am SO glad you were able to understand some things that you couldn't before. I took me YEARS to get some of the simple concepts. Once you start to get it though, moving forward becomes a little easier all the time.
    Good for you reading through all that junk all over again! (Not sure *I* could have had the patience to read this whole blog from the beginning again!) :D