The Oxford Slow Session was formed to provide an opportunity to learn how to play folk music and this website is aimed at helping this process.
I started learning to play the fiddle late in life and it’s been an enjoyable process if not an easy one, and so these points are things I have found have helped me. I hope they might help you, but do add other suggestions in the comments below.
Learning a new tune by heart is a great motivation. If you like a tune, it makes you want to practise it and that is a good starting point. However, take it slowly. I learn only the first phrase until I can play it straight off with no recourse to music or listening. And that needs to be at least a day following, that is, I need to have at least one night’s sleep on the learning, and sometimes it needs many more than one practice and sleep to get that fixed in my memory. The importance of sleeping on something you have learned is backed up by Matthew Walker’s book, Why We Sleep. But the excitement of a new tune keeps you re-trying, perhaps even more than once a day for a few days.
Once you have the first phrase established, you can add another phrase or perhaps a whole part at a time, depending on how well you feel you know the tune. Singing it can help and certainly listening is always useful. This is where the links to hearing it being played on Youtube can help a great deal. I’ve tried to add several so that you can choose the one you like best. There is also a playlist of the majority of the Slow Session tunes on Youtube if you want to listen to them one after another. And now I’ve created a playlist on Spotify which is a great way to build familiarity with the tunes.
The good news is that you can work on many tunes at once especially if they are in different stages in the process. So normally, I have one tune where I am learning the beginning, another where I am working on the B part, and several others where I can play all the notes but they need consolidation. It is useful to think about the techniques you are using, how you are phrasing the tune (bowing or tonguing it depending on your instrument) at an early stage if possible because it is hard to un-learn a way of playing it to play it better. This is where a real teacher really helps (I recommend Jane Griffiths of the Owl Light Trio for fiddle and Jon Fletcher for guitar). Certainly listening carefully to good recordings is a help here.
To help you to listen (and play alongside), I recommend using a slowing down app on your phone. Amazing Slow Downer (about £8) is very clear and simple to use. Capo (also about £8) is very elegant but less user friendly to find all its controls (and only works on iphones or Macs). You can slow down Youtube videos by clicking on the three dots (on a phone) or the cog sign (on a computer) and choosing 0.75 or 0.5 playback speed. All of these can be really helpful. I have enjoyed playing along to many recordings of Martin Hayes at about 60% of his normal speed, it makes me feel like a much better player! Note, however, that you will need headphones so that you can hear the recording as well as your own playing (especially if playing a violin).
Another useful trick is to try playing tunes in odd places or with more distractions or with a new flavour in your mouth. Adding to your associations helps to bring your mind onto the job and so entrenches the memory of your actions and the melody in a firmer way. For more evidence on this point, have a read of Benedict Carey, How We Learn. This is one of the reasons that playing together really tests your knowledge of a tune. Listening to others, maintaining the pulse with them, hearing interesting harmonies while playing yourself makes your brain work harder. When you have played a tune in a session, at first you may discover you play many mistakes but gradually, the experience firms up your grip on it and develops your ability to play it.
Also, having noticed your mistakes, either in a session or at home, try not to keep playing the same mistakes. Try to play it much much slower or perhaps return to the music and isolate those two or three tricky notes that are causing you problems. Try to play those notes on their own for a day or two (with some sleep in between) and only after a time play the whole tune again. This can often help. Meanwhile, practise some other tunes.
And this is why having a list of tunes to keep working on is so very useful. Returning again and again to the same tunes, you can hear your progress.
And this is possibly the most important point. While your motivation is to play better, it can be very dispiriting at first (and sometimes later too) when you find something difficult, particularly as you were looking forward to being able to do it. So, rather than looking forward (which is tempting but discouraging), please look backwards and see where you have come. Commit to a certain amount of practice each and every day (say one tune a day) or 15 mins or something very small and manageable, and don’t think about what you can’t yet do, but look back to a week ago or better still a month ago and notice what has changed in your playing.
So each month, I practice every tune that we have collected together and notice how they feel. Some get a little rusty if not practiced and others have improved with time and a little extra focus, but most of all I remember how they all held some tricky bit at the start which has become so much easier with practice and that gives me much reward.
Where to start.
This list is very approximate and varies a great deal between instruments. Some intervals are easy on one instrument and tricky on another, so this list has been drawn from my experience of learning to play the violin and I need some others to contribute for other instruments.
Easier tunes to start learning:
Do You Love an Apple
(I really recommend learning to sing this song first and then it is a short repetitive sequence with few large intervals to learn to play. Sing it in your head as you play and you will play better)
The Christmas tunes
If you know these already, you might find these very easy to learn especially Good King Wenceslas and God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman.
We have created a tradition that we always start our session with Bear Dance. It is pretty straightforward to play and yet has interesting chords and great harmonies. If you are an experienced player, try to work out some of your own variations.
Hunt the squirrel
It’s another simple tune but I remember a great deal of satisfaction of learning to play this tune as it is also tune played by Martin Hayes – although in a different key!
Elegant and simple. What’s not to love about Lucy Farr’s?
If you are playing on a violin, the B part of Rusty Gully is the same finger pattern on one string then repeated on another. Before I could confidently sing a tune in my head, a straightforward finger pattern was very reassuring.
Spirit of the Dance
This is a simple English jig to learn and really helps to feel the rhythm and keep the notes quite short so you feel the pulse (two beats to a bar) especially in the B part.
Salmon Tails is much easier to play than it looks on the page. It is a good lesson in learning to sing a tune before playing it and then it turns out to be quite simple.
This is one of my favourite tunes as I still love listening to Martin Hayes play it. However, it starts with the same five notes as Salmon Tails and only goes to a new note on note 6, so you have to remember which note to play at that point or you end up in the wrong tune.
This is a tune in 3/4 which most people find a little bit harder than a tune in 4/4, but it is not hard to sing which helps learning to play it and it’s not usually played very fast so lots of beginners like this tune.
This is another short tune that has pretty simple notes but can be played with extra emphasis on the rhythm which makes it fun and satisfying to learn.
This tune starts to introduce you to the joy of arpeggios in a tune and since they crop up everywhere, this is an easy place to start, as well as been a good tune in itself.
Some slightly harder tunes with some specific techniques to practice
The Clare Reel
This is a lovely easy tune to play but is really improved by slurring over the barlines.
Jump at the Sun
Mostly quite easy, Jump at the Sun taught me how to pull back my first finger to play A# (aka Bb) and also to use my little finger to play the A in the last bar of the A part and the B part. I still use it to practice this fingering when I feel I need some reminding.
If you are learning to play fiddle, Nantwich is overall not terribly difficult but is useful for practicing to use your fourth (little) finger to reach an A (on a D string) (in the A part) or an E (on an A string) (in the B part). It is a good stretch and avoids an unnecessary string crossing.
Trip to Pakistan
Very satisfying tune to play. Has three parts so a little longer to learn, and you really need to practice keeping the first finger down across two strings (playing E and B) so that you can switch between these notes easily.
So list of easy tunes to start learning:
Do you love an apple?
Hunt the Squirrel
Old Tom of Oxford
Pride of Petravore
Spirit of the Dance
Medium tunes (most of them!)
Cavers of Kirdcudbright
Farewell to Walley Range
The Good Natured Man
The Hills of Kaitoke
Paddy Fahy’s reel
Tell Her I am
250 to Vigo