Learning a new tune in a flash

My dulcimer student Angie came for her weekly lesson a couple nights ago.  Because her day job required her to work over the previous weekend, plus the weekdays on either side of it as well, she didn’t have time to set up the new fiddle tune I’d given her (“On the Road to Boston”), beyond listening to the tune on the CDs that go with Striking Out and Winning.  So we used the time to “fill in the blanks.”   I always find something to do when a student’s real life gets too busy.

We reviewed a couple of the tunes Angie already plays well (“St. Anne’s Reel” and “Over the Waterfall”), and increased their tempos.  She was a little nervous about playing faster, but because she’s well-seasoned now on how to move her hammers between strikes, I assured her she’ll be fine playing at any tempo as long as her hammers–really her arms–keep moving (with arm moves becoming smaller as the tune goes faster, of course).  She can now play both tunes close to dance tempo.

With 15 minutes remaining, I decided to get her going on “Boston,” not knowing how far we’d progress.  It took shape like this:

  • I started by creating a simple exercise based on the beginning of the B section that plays on two courses (F#-A) and includes a two-stoke roll (she’s getting really good with rolls now).  We played this much together several times.*
  • The two-course exercise expanded to five.  After several repetitions, we played this little motif as a sequence down the dulcimer’s second position (II).
  • Three rounds of sequence motif happen to be part of the tune(!), so to them we tasked on the remaining notes to complete the B section, which we then played a few times nonstop.
  • We looked at the score to see if anything in the B section repeats in the A section.  The second half of both the A and B sections are exactly the same.  Angie now knows how to play 3/4 of the tune!
  • Of the first four bars, measure 4 holds what I call “the Petronella pattern” (the first three notes of the tune by that name), a tune Angie  already plays.  She hammered out the pattern and then we played it using the rhythm shown in “Boston.”
  • A little singing of the first three bars helped us complete the tune.  After playing the entire A section a few times, we then played the entire tune a few times.

We nailed the tune down in 15 minutes!  I sometimes wonder how long it takes a student to learn a tune on his or her own.  It doesn’t have to go on forever.  “Boston” is an easy tune, so we’ll have to do this again with a trickier tune soon.

As follow-up, I asked Angie to take five minutes to play the tune when she got home (that’s at least five play-through nonstop!), and then continue with the rest of her evening.  Other students say that tunes “stick” better when they do this.

Overall, a really good lesson.  Next week we’ll take time to review “Boston” together, then we’ll jam to other tunes she knows, perhaps with me playing guitar.


*When Angie began lessons with me about a year ago, I can’t explain why, but I decided to play along, something I’d never done with a private student before.  This does more than replicate the jam-session experience (the student has to keep going no matter what mistakes crop up along the way).  It gives the student constant, peripheral-vision feedback about how to perform between-note moves that are essential to easy, resonant hammering.  A lot more playing goes on this way during the lesson than when the student plays alone; it’s a great aerobic workout for both teacher and student.  (We were both a little draggy when this lesson began, but invigorated by the time it was over.)  Lessons are a lot more fun now, as they should be!  –LR