Dots or No Dots

by Simon Haines

It can be a controversial question in folk circles. Should we play music from notation – the dots – or should we remain true to the tradition and learn everything by ear – in keeping with the so-called “oral tradition”?Screenshot 2021 09 24 at 11.27.51

If you went into a pub session, you be rightly horrified to see accordion players, fiddlers and flautists playing from sheet music. There are those who say sheet music cannot capture the essence of folk music especially dance music. I’ve been to dance events where dancers have been unable to dance “properly” if a tune is played by musicians playing from the dots; it may be too slow, too fast or not quite the best rhythm.

Another angle on the subject is illustrated by this conversation I once had with a fiddle player at a session. It went like this

Fiddler     Do you know Harvest Home?
Me          Yes, of course.
Fiddler    It’s in D
Me          I play it in G.
Fiddler    No, it’s definitely in D – look it says so here. (pointing to sheet music)

So playing from sheet music can lead to people to think that tunes, are in specific keys and that the melody is absolutely fixed. You only have to listen a range of musicians playing their versions of a particular tune to know that this is just not the case. And of course, the truth is that any tune can be played in any key that is within the scope of the instrument - and some instruments are more limited than others!

On the other hand, I also know plenty of great musicians who learn a basic melody from sheet music and then re-interpret the tune in their own style when they play it, adding their own ornamentation, changing notes they don’t like or that don’t work so well on their instrument. As a melodeon player, I have always avoided a particular note in the C part of Horses Brawl, because I don’t have that note on my instrument; even if I did, I would not play it because I don’t like what it does to the sound of the tune. Others will object and insist that if I don’t play that note, I’m not playing the tune correctly.

A situation where sheet music is commonly used and can be very useful is in music workshops where the leader plans to teach specific tunes. Many participants will expect the sheet music to be distributed in advance of the workshop so that they can learn the melody beforehand and then focus on style or ornamentation during the workshop itself. Leaders may also provide simple recordings of their tunes for those who prefer to play by ear. So all participants are catered for

Personally, I don’t read or write music, but I can learn quite quickly by ear. However, I have composed lots of tunes and from time to time people ask me if I can send them the dots. I know someone who can do this for me and I ask them. If it’s a two-row melodeon tune, which it usually is, I ask my scribe to add the chords. This works well for everyone concerned.

This can be a controversial area, but I would plead for tolerance and understanding on both sides of the argument. In fact, when all is said and done, there doesn’t need to be an argument at all.

Lockdown: Don't let it bring you down

Strumming and Dreaming - from Les Ray

On the Crosby Stills Nash & Young album 4 Way Street, when introducing his song, Neil Young says: “Here is a new song, it's guaranteed to bring you right down; it's called ‘Don't Let It Bring You Down’”.

In contrast, this issue’s Strumming and Dreaming is genuinely designed not to bring you down, after all, there are plenty of other things that are doing that right now. That’s the aim, and the means is by telling you about a couple of very positive initiatives intended to bring you live music during the lockdown. Hopefully it will succeed.

Of course, the Mardles website includes lots of other pointers to where to find great music online coming from our region, but I thought I’d focus on a couple of initiatives that are close to my heart... and my home. 

Read more: Lockdown: Don't let it bring you down

Getting a Life

I wrote this article for Living Tradition Magazine in early 2020 - pre-virus. Maybe the prolonged lockdown and cancellation of festivals, folk clubs and related events and the effect this is having on the lives of many folk musicians make my thoughts even more relevant than I had anticipated. (Sorry - you may have to get out a magnfying  glass to read this clearly.)

LT 2020 

Me and my recorder

by Val Haines

There’s a meme going around social media: just when you think parenting can’t get any harder your kid comes home with a recorder. Us recorder players still have a lot of convincing to do.

Flashback to 1969. I’m at primary school and we are told to line up and take a recorder out of a large box. I’m at the back of the queue, as always, as my name is at the back of the Val1recEarly daysalphabet. When I get to the box there is one left, a dark brown one, Bakelite I learned much later. Everybody else has a pale wooden recorder with a white top. Appearance is not the only difference I realise as we all begin to blow. Everybody else’s sound like asthmatic mice – mine sounds like a bird. Nothing I can do can make my recorder wheeze like theirs and this beautiful sound encouraged me on.  

Unlike the current meme my parents never objected to my recorder. We were told don’t take the recorder home. I took it home. We were told don’t tell your parents you have to buy one. I told my parents we had to buy one, after all once a week playing wasn’t enough, but I had to wait until my eleventh birthday. The night before I could hear my dad blowing it and my mum saying shhh, she’ll hear you. I was too excited to sleep.

I found early on that I could play lots of tunes from memory which meant that if I had to read music it slowed me down. There seemed to be an automatic connection from ears to brain to fingers. When I heard Sparky’s Magic Piano on the radio, I thought yes, that’s how it works. My teacher liked my playing and asked me to play in assembly. I refused to play alone and asked a friend to join me. We played together but I didn’t enjoy it at all. She was too loud and blew all wrong and didn’t think about how it could sound nice. I was too shy to play on my own in public so continued to march around the house playing instead: TV adverts, hymns, pop songs, anything. Then it was time to go to secondary school and I got my trumpet, flugel horn and cornet. Recorders became a bit childish, but at least you could hide them in your bag.

Read more: Me and my recorder