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Dave's Thoughts on Playing by Ear

Some fiddlers ask about playing by ear versus using sheet music at Fiddle Hell...

Since I write fiddle books, I'm certainly not opposed to sheet music in general. And quite a few of the common tunes on the Fiddle Hell 2-CD set are also in my book Anthology of Fiddle Styles. But allow me to suggest that you try to play by ear as much as you can at Fiddle Hell, and that you learn some of the Fiddle Hell repertoire by ear instead of trying to find sheet music.

It's okay to bring sheet music along for occasional reference if you feel you need to do so.  But here's why I suggest playing by ear.

Playing by ear encourages you to:
- Listen more carefully to other players
- Absorb more of the groove, the stylistic nuances and the feel for the tune
- Improve your ability to learn by ear
- Jam and play along with tunes you haven't heard before or not much - there are many fiddlers and many, many tunes played at Fiddle Hell!
- Vary the tune a bit within the style

If you're new to fiddle, I'd guess there are a couple of songs that you can sing or hum, like Happy Birthday, or Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, or others, and that you could play these by ear on fiddle with a little experimentation.  Try it!  It's just a matter of developing this ability with fiddle tunes.  If you listen to and try singing or playing along with your favorite fiddlers or with the Fiddle Hell repertoire CDs (which include slow versions of the tunes), you'll eventually have some of those tunes in your head.  Then you can sound them out on your fiddle.  I know it's hard at the beginning, but it'll get easier over time.

Even if you track down some sheet music for a tune, that may not be the version that's commonly played, so listening and playing by ear is still preferable.  And even if you can play what's on the sheet music perfectly, it may sound mechanical and you'll be tied to it unless you take the additional step of learning it by ear. And don't forget that Fiddle Hell Online events offer months of session replays to help out.

Here's my personal experience.  I've learned some tunes by ear and some from music.  The ones that I'm most comfortable with and that sound the best are almost always the ones I picked up by ear.

- Dave Reiner

Beaumont Rag in D
Inisheer Gravel Walk