Ever since returning home from my annual soul-cleansing week at Lark in the Morning Camp out in the California redwoods I’ve been thinking about how one listens when one plays music. Well, to be honest, it started out with me thinking rather uncharitably about how some people do not listen when playing music. And that led to a little thinking about how I personally listen. Which led to my wondering if perhaps it would be as valuable to teach music students how to use their ears as it is to teach them how to use their fingers.
Let’s chat about two kinds of listening: the listening we need to engage in to learn a tune and then the listening we need to master in order to play with others. First, about learning.
Lark Camp is a roiling, chaotic jumble of sessions, some formally constituted, some ad hoc, and most featuring something odd and inviting. The music is from all over the world and it is common for disparate traditions to get mooshed together in unique ways. Lark campers spend a fair amount of time wandering from session to session and from genre to genre, either marinating in the music for a while or making mental note of what they want to do the next day or suddenly dashing off to their cabin for an instrument to join in the fray right that minute.
When I’m learning new stuff, my personal ratio of listening to playing works out to about nine to one. I need to internalize the shape of a tune rather thoroughly before trying to get my fingers to find the notes, so in the musical candy store of Lark Camp I’d find myself lurking off at the edges of a class for two or three days before sitting down and trying to play along. In nearly all the most successful classes, the instructor would play the tune through slowly and up to speed before the students played a note. This may seem obvious, but it’s a crucial part of learning Celtic tunes, as the tunes are not linear, but are cyclic phenomena, each with a narrative arc and each not really ending, but biting itself in the tail and launching off again. Understanding how a tune recycles itself is as necessary as knowing what the first and last notes are. And listening for the narrative arc gives you hugely useful clues about what direction the notes might be in, before you nail each note down.
So the tunes I came away with most confidently were ones I didn’t try to play until halfway through camp. I’d get them in my head and hum them over and over. And when I finally sat down and picked them out with the class, they fell under my fingers quickly and lodged in my memory that much more solidly.
I found myself insisting that my students listen without playing considerably longer than they were used to doing. One regular student could barely contain himself, vibrating in several directions like a dog balancing a biscuit on his nose, waiting for his master to say “Okay, eat!” Those first few listening times through were almost unbearable for him, but when we finally all played together, he learned the tunes quickly and the whole class was happy.
Before going on to listening while playing with others, here’s this issue’s new tune for you. This nameless Irish jig is a glorious example of a tune that caught my imagination through my ears and that I had to listen to dozens of times before trying my hand. It’s a tune played by Seattle-based tenor banjo player Dave Cory and recorded by Dave with uilleann piper Eliot Grasso. I’ll call it “Gam Aimh” (Irish for “some tune I don’t know the name of”) because that’s what they call it.
The first several times I heard the tune go by I was convinced it was a deliberately “crooked” tune, that is, a jig that adds or drops a bar to deviate from the usual traditional dance form that strings together easily countable 8-bar sections. Crooked tunes are common enough in my social set of musical trouble-makers. Also, since many of the Irish enthusiasts at Lark Camp also play some Balkan tunes in odd time signatures and Québecois tunes with deliberately crooked forms, it wasn’t a baseless assumption.
But I was wrong. By simple virtue of listening, I realized after a while that this tune was unique in my experience. Here’s a jig that counts out in exactly the same number of bars and beats as any other normal jig, but that cycles from the first A-part to the repeat A-part in such a way that the expected half-cadence down beat never happens, and yet you find yourself magically back in a familiar melodic pattern before continuing to the B-part. It’s wonderfully disorienting.
I asked Dave where he got the tune and he wasn’t sure, so I sincerely hope I haven’t failed to credit someone with authorship. If anyone knows the provenance of “Gan Aimn” I’ll happily include the information in a future column.
As for playing the tune, there are no technical tricks, though if you’re like me, your fingers and brain will resist that weird little turn-around in the A-part, at least for a while. For the sake of clarity, I’ve notated both 8-bar halves of the A-part in a single 16-bar flow, while the B-part repeats pretty much as expected. When you chord along, you might find D chords that omit the F#, at least for starters, since it’s modal and moody and you might want to save the full-blown major D for the final cadence.
So, back to a final comment on listening while playing with others. I know how ginked up one can get playing in Celtic sessions. In my time I’ve been the worst flailing offender. But now when I play I prefer to play so I can hear everyone else in the session. If I can’t hear the flute player across the Guinness-strewn table, I’m playing too loud and I back off. When I play with a whole band that plays together with this attention to each other, something truly magical happens. I no longer have to play screamingly loud to get my neck hairs standing up. The band becomes a great single living thing and I become one important part of it.
Try it sometime in a pub near you. When the magic happens, even the drunks at the bar will notice, and they’ll get quiet so as not to miss something quite special.
And if you’d like to hear “Gan Aimh” as recorded by Dave Cory and Eliot Grasso, you can visit www.eliotgrasso.com/home/northbynorthwest. Good luck.