By App and Ear

By App and Ear

One of the things I did while I was in Limerick was go to as many sessions as I could. This did not turn out to be a huge number — I think I went to four or five, and mostly didn’t stay too long — but it was a learning experience nonetheless, and one that made me realise I need to take a different approach to my tin whistle playing.

Last year, in Co. Donegal, I went to a lot of sessions — at the Reel Inn in Donegal Town and at Roarty’s in Glencolumbkille. They were one of the highlights of my trip, even if it’s funny to reflect on how much time I spent in the pub despite being a non-drinker. I found that my repertoire didn’t always overlap with the people I was playing with, but I could play the egg shakers during the tunes I didn’t know, and muddle through some of the others if they were at least vaguely familiar. Roarty’s was particularly great because the players were such a mixed group, bringing tunes from all over the world, and sometimes songs too.

Session at Roarty’s last July.

This year, though, I struggled a bit. I found that the tunes I knew seemed almost never to correspond with the tunes played — evidently the Cambridge repertoire and the Limerick repertoire aren’t the same. I was relegated to the eggs for 90% of most sessions, and didn’t feel able to contribute much. When asked on occasion to start a tune, I either found that I couldn’t remember any, or that nobody knew the ones I played. People were still appreciative (a waltz called Rosza went down well), but they didn’t leap to join in.

I’ve played a few sessions with the ceilidh band in Cambridge, but the thing about ceilidh band sessions is that they tend to be 90% tunes and sets from our rehearsal folders, so everyone has the exact same repertoire, and you can even look it up if you’re not sure how the tune goes. Our folders are huge, so it’s by no means a small pool of tunes, but it means I’m unused to realising I’ve never even heard half the tunes being played.

On my last night in Limerick, I went to a pub called Dolan’s and lingered very awkwardly at the table next to the musicians’ table, afraid to ask if I could join in. I was painfully aware that I’m not a great whistle player, and the two musicians there were not only good, but also appeared to have a box of CDs, making it hard to tell how open the session really was. Partway through the evening, though, they asked if I played and when I confessed I had my whistles with me, they invited me to join them. (They must’ve noticed how intently I watched them play.)

After we’d played a few sets, they invited me to start a tune. So, I played part of one of the ceilidh band’s favourite sets, just the last two tunes of it: Dribbles of Brandy and one of our favourite tunes, Jump at the Sun. The musicians knew neither of them. But, because they’re folk musicians who learn by ear, by the time I’d played each of them through once they were already joining in.

And that’s the problem, you see. I’m a classically trained musician. I played violin for ten years and flute for eight, and I’ve been reading sheet music practically as long as I’ve been reading at all. After years in orchestras and bands, I can sight-read like nobody’s business. But I absolutely suck at learning by ear, so the only tunes I know by heart are the ones I’ve played a lot of times. This leads to a very small session repertoire, and also an inability to pick up new tunes there and then.

A thick folder of sheet music on a music stand, with an accordion visible in the background.
Not exactly a trad approach to folk

The other problem is that I’m currently living in an area where there are zero folk musicians to learn tunes from. The nearest sessions are in New Cross and Blackheath, and I don’t think I feel confident enough to travel all that distance to play with strangers, especially since I feel I’ve got so little to offer. Learning from CDs is impossible when you’re as inexperienced as me; I need someone to go through the tunes a couple of bars at a time until I’ve got them in my head. Nuances I can learn from listening, but the rest is going to be a slow process.

If I want to be able to play properly in sessions, I need to learn a lot more tunes, and I need to develop the skills to join in even when I don’t know those tunes. This isn’t easy, living where I live. Folk music is an inherently social activity, and as I discovered ten years ago when I first started playing trad, there’s not a whole lot of it around here.

But I found an app that I think might change things. It’s called Learn Irish Tunes*, and I found it by accident while looking for language resources. It does exactly what I said above — it plays each tune a couple of bars a time, gradually combining bars into longer and longer phrases, with adjustable speed so that you can speed up once you know the basic notes. It displays the sheet music on screen to help you out, but since I’m trying to train myself out of relying on that, I’ve been keeping my eyes shut.

The app has a few disadvantages. For a start, it was free to download, but you only get 10 tunes (2 reels, 2 jigs, etc etc) unless you pay 1.99 for the full version (100 tunes). And it can’t teach the nuance and ornamentation and variants that a real teacher could, nor does it help you learn to construct sets; each tune is taught by itself.

But having used it to learn more thoroughly a tune I’ve played a few times (Cooley’s Reel) and having started a brand new jig (Banish Misfortune), I think this might be a temporary solution to some of my problems. It will take me a fair while to work through all 100 tunes, if I decide to pay for the full version. Okay, I know a few of them already, but there are lots that I don’t. And 100 tunes would exponentially expand my repertoire.

But mostly, I hope it will teach me to learn without relying on sheet music, to recognise patterns in fingerings so that I can predict what’ll happen next, to hear intervals and know how to play them. So that next time I’m at a session, even if I find that the Venn diagram of my tunes and the other players’ tunes doesn’t have much overlap (the app should also help a bit with that), I can still join in, and learn more.

Action shot: I'm in the centre, holding two coloured egg shakers which are blurred from movement, while on the left an accordion player pulls a funny face because she's concentrating.
An unusually lively ceilidh band session!

It’s not the same as having a group of local musicians to play with, but it’s a good start, I think. And hopefully it’ll encourage me to build up my pitiful tin whistle stamina as well as my repertoire, so that I go from a mediocre player to a semi-decent one. That’d be nice.

If any of you are classical-turned-trad musicians or have tips on how to learn in a new way, please let me know! And if you’re local and want to play a few tunes some time, absolutely hit me up for that, I would be delighted.


*I’d just like to add that this is in no way a sponsored post or an ad, I’m just pretty excited about this app because I’ve needed something like this for a while.

8 thoughts on “By App and Ear

  1. Your posts always Renee my hereto unfulfilled desire to get into irish music. I have found that my local session does a slow session and posts recordings which can be slowed down and sheet music online, and this app sounds great and I absolutely don’t have time to practice but could make it happen anyway and I’m running out of excuses….thanks for being inspiring and #real

  2. Oooh I totally understand your pain! I learnt the violin in the same way you did, and so I always found the Irish version of the fiddle, so, soooo much harder! I can’t even get the hang of the way they hold their bows!!

    I don’t have any advice for you, but I am super impressed that you are getting involved in the sessions, even if you don’t feel confident! I never dared to play, so I’d just clap along and enjoy the music!

    1. Haha yeah, I play with very Classical technique (wrt how I hold the bow and so on), but I know some legit folk players who do that too, so I don’t think the other hold is compulsory…

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