Sunday, March 31, 2013

Prairieland Strings April 2 - "Be Thou My Vision" and learning tunes by ear

At our last session of the Prairieland Strings, we made a lot of progress learning a couple of difficult tunes. But it was kind of a hard slog after a while, and some of us decided -- let's have a little fun at our next jam. That's coming up Tuesday (7 p.m. at Atonement Lutheran Church in Springfield), and we've selected some tunes we want to play that are:
  1. Fun to play; and
  2. Easy for beginners to pick up by ear.
By ear? He say what? Did he really say "by ear?" How can anybody learn a song by ear? Especially beginners! Well, don't be intimidated. Tuesday's session is especially for beginners. But it's also for more experienced players who want to be less dependent on printed tablature.

You see, we're modeling some of what we do in our sessions -- especially the learning jams out at Clayville -- on the Small Circle Tune Learning Session in Colorado's Denver-Boulder metro area. They're a "friendly and supportive group of musicians," and they "welcome all skill levels to play at a moderate and steady pace." They're able to bring the beginners up to speed by stressing "aural learning" -- learning by ear. It's especially important in Irish trad music, the type they play at Small Circle sessions, since Irish musicians tend to have an attitude about printed music. But it can help us, too, especially when we're playing at a moderately brisk tempo.

A couple of tips from the Small Circle folks on how to "pick up tunes in a session, with everyone roaring away but you." There's more at

  • "Well, first of all, remember that listening IS practicing in Irish traditional music. It's not unheard of to spend 75% or more of your time in a session listening rather than playing, and it's generally considered a good thing, because when you're playing, it's much harder to listen, and listening and paying attention to what's going on musically (and otherwise) is key to becoming a good session player."
  • If everybody else is playing up to speed, start to join in softly, one or two notes at a time, "... try to pick up just one phrase in the part, or even just a piece of a phrase. Every time that piece comes around, play it. Once you have it solid, try adding a note or two to that each time it comes round. After a while, you'll have the entire tune."
  • "Never, ever, feel uncomfortable about putting your instrument in your lap and just listening to the tune everyone else is playing. Nor should you ever feel uncomfortable about humming the tune along with them until you know it. (Don't sing so loud that you put off anyone, though.) In actual fact, many players will respect your evident ability to respect the music and learn the tune ..."
  • "Most importantly, remember -- this is supposed to be fun! Relax, give yourself a break and some time to get used to this. It'll pay off big in the future!
Here are the tunes for Tuesday night's session. Two of the three you already know, and the third is a fiddle tune that's so easy it practically plays itself:

"Be Thou My Vision" (SLANE)

I'll introduce the song Tuesday, but it needs no introduction. The text is ancient Irish, dating from the 6th century, but the tune -- called SLANE -- was first paired with it in a 1919 Irish hymnal. The CyberHymnal, a very popular website, explains the legend behind the tune's title like this: "It was on Slane Hill around 433 AD that St. Pat­rick de­fied a roy­al edict by light­ing can­dles on East­er Eve. High King Lo­gaire of Ta­ra had de­creed that no one could light a fire be­fore Lo­gaire be­gan the pa­gan spring fes­ti­val by light­ing a fire on Ta­ra Hill. Lo­gaire was so im­pressed by Pat­rick’s de­vo­tion that, de­spite his de­fi­ance (or per­haps be­cause of it­), he let him con­tin­ue his mis­sion­ary work. The rest is his­to­ry." However, Wikipedia weighs the evidence and concludes, "the folk song has little prior connection to the text."

Benjamin Esh, who has compiled a two-volume "Dulcimer Hymnal" (info on his Facebook page at, has a nice flatpicked mountain dulcimer version ...

And the song, unlike a lot of hymns, is in the public domain. So the music is freely available on the Internet:

You'll need both the tablature and the chords, at least till you learn the song aurally, since the chords aren't indicated on the tab.

Another song that's easy for beginners to pick up is "Shall We Gather at the River." We've been playing it forever, but I have no evidence that we have permission to use the tab in our folders. And a very good arrangment for dulcimer in DAD with backup (i.e. guitar) chords by Benjamin Esh is available at

Four-part harmony in D, for voice, on the website (click on "view PDF sheet music [.pdf]") at

And "Coleman's March" is a nice fiddle tune that's usually played at a slow tempo. (It's a march instead of a reel.) Different members of our group have different versions of the written tab -- the "dots" -- and they all work together. (To get a really very good explanation of why, go back to the Small Circle Tune Learning Session's page on learning tunes by ear. It's just about the best thing I've read anywhere on how a fiddle tune, Irish or American either one, is structured.) To get DAD ducimer tab by Terry Lewis of the North Georgia Foothills Dulcimer Association, follow this link ...

No comments: