Learning fiddle tunes

With cider season wound down, I’ve got more time for playing fiddle, and I’ve been learning some new music, so I thought I’d write a post about resources for learning tunes.  The stuff I play is a mixed bag centered roughly around  traditional New England dance music, which has Irish, Scots, Quebec, Cape Breton, and Appalachian influences.  I started off learning by ear, but I’ve gradually gotten better at decoding “dots” and learning tunes from books, to the point where learning from written music feels like cheating – learning by ear is generally considered by hardcore trad music types to be a superior way to internalize music.  Anyway, here are some books that I consult regularly:

  • The Portland Collection #1 and #2 – a huge amount of contradance music in two volumes, with comments, versions are reliable for the most part, except old time players snark about the settings of old time tunes
  • Fiddler’s Fakebook – lots of tunes from various traditions.  Over half  of the time a tune I’m looking for will be in this or one of the Portland books.
  • Waltz books, #1,2,3 – all waltzes, all the time.
  • New England Fiddler’s Repertoire – “NEFR” thin book, lots of good tunes, mostly older I think.
  • Along the River – Collection of tunes from w. MA and s. VT; I don’t use it much
  • Jerry Holland’s Collection, volumes 1 and 2 – not just Jerry Holland’s (recently departed) compositions, a lot of music that’s played up Cape Breton way;  good stuff
  • Appalachian Fiddle, Miles Krassen – includes helpful material on learning, chording and double stops, 58 tunes.
  • Beginning Old Time Fiddle, Alan Kaufman – also has useful intro material, 38 tunes

At least as useful as books are online tune collections:

  • thesession.org – extensive collection of mostly celtic tunes (dots, ABC, MIDI), with active and useful discussion
  • http://www.mustrad.udenap.org/lerepertoire.html – an extensive collection of French-Canadian tunes (dots, also plays MIDI I think)

Accessing and modifying tunes digitally is fairly straightforward nowadays thanks to the abc format, which is pretty much what it sounds like – there’s a header that describes the type of tune, key signature, etc., then you type letters (and other characters to indicate timing), and software (for instance freeware ABCexplorer) converts it into nicely formatted sheet music, and plays a sterile but recognizable midi version back to you.  Using these tools, I transcribed my first tune, Cracked Pot by Maine fiddler Greg Boardman, and put it up on thesession (see http://www.thesession.org/tunes/display/10016 )

As for learning by ear, I recently shelled out $50 for The Amazing Slow Downer, a piece of software that processes mp3s and other music files, to change the tempo without changing the pitch; this is really handy for trying to decode what musicians are doing on fast-paced recordings.

YouTube is great for finding recordings (widely varying in quality of course) of a new tune I’m trying to pick up. Pandora.com and last.fm have fragmentary but useful collections of traditional celt stuff, which is great for picking up new tunes, and I’m told that Rhapsody is pretty good, but haven’t gone that route.

Between all these resources and tools, the only thing keeping me from improving on the fiddle is time!


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