Thursday, May 28, 2009

Got Tunes?

People often get confused between 'having' a lot of tunes on paper to play, and being able to play a lot of tunes.
Many players, (and I have done this as well) both beginners and intermediate alike, display big fat looseleaf binders full of TAB they have collected, and say things like "I have 400 tunes!"....or even "I can play 400 tunes!"....old-time fiddlers have boasted to me: "I have over 3000 old-time tunes on my ipod!". This is impressive, even if only logistically! I myself used to feel that the mere fact of 'having' these tunes is somehow an accomplishment akin to being able to play the tunes. This is particularly true with TAB- since obviously if you can read the TAB numbers then you can pick out the tune on your instrument. I used to think that if I could slowly pick out 300 tunes from my tab sheets, note by note, then I was a musician who could play 300 tunes.
But laboriously picking out the TAB numbers note by note on your instrument is not necessarily knowing the tune, in the sense that the tune is coming from the numbers on a page, the 'instruction sheet', so to speak. In a way it's like walking around with a French dictionary in your pocket and telling people that you can speak French.

Playing from TAB is not wrong. TAB is very useful and helpful! TAB is certainly one of the several good ways for beginners to start playing, it's a good way to figure out how to play a tune you haven't heard yet, or to jog your memory when you forget a tune, and a good way to organize your repertoire. I use tab all the time in my practice sessions or in learning new tunes or trying to remember old ones. And I give my tab away here on my blog. Many people get quite nimble and fast while playing exclusively from TAB, and can play beautifully while reading TAB. If you feel happy with voluminous collections of tab and sheet music, then great! But collecting tab and tab books can also become a fever that eventually leaves some people feeling overwhelmed and inadequate. They 'have' hundreds of tunes, but they may get the feeling that they are just playing through them, rather than playing them.

Attempting something scary and new by playing a simple tune without reading tab is a good thing to work on. I encourage everyone to play at least a couple of the very simplest tunes without tab- tunes such as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star or Go Tell Aunt Rhody or Frere Jacques. If you can do that, if you can play just three simple, simple tunes without reading numbers for the notes, why then you can truly say that you know those tunes by heart and that you 'can' play music without looking at TAB. If you can do that one thing without reading the tab, you can be proud in your accomplishment. :) ....No cheating now, by choosing your three simple tunes as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Baa Baa Black Sheep, and the Alphabet Song....because those are actually all the exact same tune!!!!! LOL!

Some people hit a plateau once they have accumulated lots of TAB. They may feel frustrated because they thought that having all these tunes means that they can play them all, and being able to play so many tunes should make them feel accomplished...yet inside they don't feel like they've mastered those reams of tunes and they maybe can't pinpoint why they feel frustrated with their progress. Maybe it's because they are still afraid to play in groups with other instruments, or in public. Maybe they just feel vaguely depressed when they see the massive notebooks full of tab they know they will never work through despite their best intentioins (I can sure relate to that sinking feeling myself). Some people then feel like they have hit a wall and can't get beyond it. And they have hit a wall, yet it's not necessarily the barrier they think it is. If you feel you have hit a wall, then to get beyond this wall you can't just keep bashing against have to back up, turn around and find a new path around it. You have to go back to a simpler place that you perhaps skipped over the first time around.

I would say that if you feel overwhelmed by your volumes of tab you may never get to, if you feel you are drowning hopelessly under the piles and notebooks...then the answer lies in narrowing your focus, not in acquiring more and more tunes and books and tabs.
It's quite possible to collect 500 tunes written in tab, and play through them all note by note, yet still never be able to know those tunes at all, because you might never have played any of those tunes more than maybe once, months ago or even years ago. This happened to me. You maybe can't even hum most of them, or even hear them in your head. When one has 500 tunes to work through, it's hard to really connect with a tune on a personal or intimate level.

You may gain more precious inner musical satisfaction by narrowing down your learning focus. Try getting 2 or 3 cds of your favorite players or singers and LISTENING to them over and over ....and over. Let them sink in and get to know them profoundly. These hours of listening will be time well spent- it's really subconscious brain/ear/spirit training. It's also enjoyable.

Then pick a tune that is very very SIMPLE on one of those recordings, one that you really like and are familiar with. Perhaps one like Little Maggie or Little Birdie, or Shady Grove, or Cindy, or Sugar Hill.... not a complicated one like Redwing or Summertime, but rather a very simple tune or simple song. Pick a tune you can hum or can at least hear in your head. That's the one you will work on and pour all your efforts into, rather than trying to gather up more and more tunes. This is the backtracking part of your new focus.

Play ONE tune. Learn it on your own by listening to a recording or a live player you like. Keep listening until it's a part of you, until it runs through your head all day, and slowly start to pick out notes for it on the dulcimer. Perhaps get another player to help you initially to figure out the key and the tuning if you are having trouble with that- then go from there on your own. Find the first note, then the second note. If you get lost, go back to the first note again. Try to hear just the single melody line of the tune, and don't worry about adding pretty chords or the harmonies yet. It helps to pick a tune that you already know and can hum- since we usually just hum the plain melody line of a song, we don't hum chords. Then play it until you feel it expresses all the feeling you heard in it. Keep it simple.

One result will be ONE tune that is now truly your own. Far better to play three tunes well than 100 tunes choppily. The other result will be that you have learned a skill of how to create music on your own. Being able to hear music and then absorb it into you and then let it flow out of you directly into your dulcimer is a magical and valuable thing to encourage in yourself. This does not mean you should give up playing from your tab books! It just means that you are expanding your abilities, adding to your musical toolbox, and training your ear and your brain to better listen, solve challenges, and connect.

It'll be worth the time and effort because from then on each new one will get just a little bit easier. It's not unlike learning to ride a bike, or learning to swim. I have done it. I've seen many others do it. None of us were geniuses or musical prodigies.

The other most effective way to learn to play aside from intensive listening, is to sit down with others and just stumble along with what they are playing, trying to pick out notes here and there. This requires you to listen intently too. Play rhythm strums along with what others are playing, mute all your strings with your left hand if necessary! I did this. It's scary at first, but it works. We have too much fear of wrong notes and making mistakes, that's one reason why we sometimes get dependent on TAB and books and classes- to try to ensure we don't make 'mistakes'. But mistakes are really our friends, because we really do learn from them.

Tab and books and classes are all helpers. But let us not allow our helpers to restrict us from other fun things we'd like to explore! Learning new things is what life is all about, even while making mistakes.
Exploring, struggling, making mistakes, being afraid, and learning new things are all GOOD. Feeling uninspired, overwhelmed, inadequate, or frustrated is not good.

If you play only by TAB and you feel happy and inspired and like what you are learning- then you must be doing something right! Keep doing what you are doing and have fun. But -if you feel stuck, frustrated, or overwhelmed then consider exploring a new pathway even if it means you might have to backtrack to a much simpler place or step outside your usual comfort zone.


  1. This blog really makes sense. I live in the heart of Cajun country in South Louisiana and an old time accordion player always people who want to learn how to play an accordion to first listen to a tune 1,000 times before attempting to play it. This sounds like a stretch but knowing a tune before trying to play it makes a lot of sense. Most Cajun tunes might be played 12 different ways by different accordion players. They learned to improvise and about 99% of them do not even know how to read a musical note.

  2. What an excellent article.
    You really are both wise and articulate.
    I'm giving my daughter a dulcimer for Christmas
    (and my family is giving me the wormy chestnut one from Ken Hulme!)
    and in preparation for that
    I was cruising the internet today for tabs.
    In fact, I came HERE looking for noter tabs.
    I had in mind putting together, say, fifty songs
    in a book for each of us to work through.
    You make so much sense, though,
    that I think I'll gather maybe a dozen easy tabs instead.
    We can choose two or maybe five songs from those
    and LEARN them.
    That will be a much more useful beginning.
    Thanks for the advice!!
    can you point me towards a few easy noter tabs to use?
    Thanks SO much!
    I'm REALLY glad I read this first!

  3. Your wisdom came at a perfect time for me. I went to a jam last night that allowed no printed music or iPads. They played a tune multiple times and I caught more of the chords as we went. I could have pulled out the tab and nailed it the first time but listening and figuring out what chord made sense was a way to make it mibe. I wad playing a mandolele. On a dulcimer, I gave better luck learning melodies. Thank you for this article.