Fiddle Sessions®
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June 2007 · Bimonthly

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It is critical that you listen carefully when you play and that you listen in several dimensions. How well you listen will determine how well you play. You need to listen carefully to recordings made by other people and to recordings of your own playing.

Too often, we focus on one aspect of music at the expense of all other aspects. For example, someone will focus on learning notes and getting speed at the expense of the quality of sound. Or, a person might focus on getting certain notes but develop a habit of stopping in certain places which means he or she will play out of rhythm with other people.

In a way, it's like focusing on what is ahead of you when you are driving and forgetting to look in the mirrors-you need to work with a lot of information when you drive and the same goes for music.

Speaking of mirrors, the best way to listen to what you are doing is to use a tape recorder on a regular basis (or, a computer with a microphone and recording software). Not only is it a good idea to listen immediately after you play, but also to put that tape away for a few months and listen again to it when you have more or less forgotten that performance. When you have forgotten what you were thinking about when you played, you will really start to hear yourself as others hear you.

Often what happens is that our brain fills in the things we miss. The same problem occurs when I write. If I have left out a word, my brain fills in that word when I am editing because my mind knows what I want to say. It takes someone else reading my words to edit them. When I am playing, my mind fills in the notes I miss and I don't necessarily hear that I missed them.

What to listen for in a recording of yourself or a professional musician:

  Professional Recording Recording of Yourself
Melody How does the melody go? What are some possible variations? Is the melody recognizable? Does it have the right amount of notes to fill in the timing for the piece?
Chord structure What are the chords? For how long is each chord played? Are there "off" chords? If so, what are they? Do you have the correct chords represented in your playing in the correct order and timing?
Rhythm What notes are long and what notes are short? This is especially critical if you are learning from printed music or tab-are you playing the rhythms correctly? My experience with tab is that the note pitches may be correct but the rhythm may not be notated correctly. You must listen in order to play the rhythm correctly.
Timing What are the qualities of the timing in the piece? Is your playing rhythmically smooth? Do you have all the beats you need or are you leaving something out? Can someone play backup to what you played without having to jump or add a beat? Do you speed up or slow down (check with a metronome)? Do you lay the beats down precisely?
Tone quality What tone qualities do you hear? Are your notes even in quality? Does tone quality indicate a smooth bow with relatively few scratches, crunches, and inadvertent addition of other open strings?
Speed What tempo are they using? Is the speed you use appropriate for the piece-not too fast and not too slow?
Dynamics When are they playing loud, and when are they playing soft? Be sure you listen for differences between backup and solo work as well as within a solo. Are your dynamics appropriate? Do you avoid bad tone quality by playing at a dynamic level appropriate for your instrument? Are singers comfortable around you-they don't have to strain their voices to cover your backup playing?
Form If it is a song, is the break based on the verse or the chorus? How many parts are in the tune? Is the break a whole chorus or verse or just a turnaround? Do players split the break? How often do breaks happen? Is there a time when all backup stops (as in Dear Old Dixie)? Are you prepared to play an appropriate break? Can you follow the piece correctly?
Backup What type of backup is being used (when other players are taking breaks or someone is singing)? Can you do appropriate backup?

About the Author

Carolyn Osborne is the co-director of the Gahanna-Lincoln High School fiddlers, Gahanna, Ohio. She teaches in the Dept. of Education at Capital University.

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