How to learn a lot of tunes really fast

YES, I have this down to a science!

I regularly have to cram 50 new fiddle tunes into my head and fingers, to sit in with a new band, or playing in unfamiliar circles. I try not to cram classical music as blatantly, but I have to do that occasionally too. It is regrettable to have to cram like this because it doesn’t leave time to really “develop” the tunes. But that’s life as a performer, we roll with it, and try to go back later and tease out a little more artistry from the tunes.

To be perfectly honest, this is one of my favorite activities because it is intense, exhilarating, and I don’t have to worry about polishing things up! I just hash through as much as I can. Here’s how to learn a huge body of music in as short a time as possible.

Cramming tunes in 5 simple steps

1. Listen: Learn Tunes Aurally
My method requires an investment of time up front….but it pays you back and you come out ahead! First, find reference recordings of all the songs. Make sure they are the same or close to the same version as the one you will play. There are wildly different versions of famous tunes like Cottoneye Joe, and if you were to learn the Southern version, for instance, it would be completely different from the Northern version. Classical music is more standardized with less variation. Just listen through to make sure it’s the familiar version, or check it against your sheet music or tablature so that you have the RIGHT reference recording.

You can find EVERYTHING on YouTube these days, and it is possible to download audio or video off of YouTube with free programs such as the “Ummy Downloader”. (I use Ummy, but download it at your own risk, and make sure you get it directly from Ummy, not a 3rd party, or you are certain to get something nasty on your computer.

Load these recordings onto an MP3 player or burn them to several CDs. Put them in your car, or in your home stereo, wherever you will be spending the most time, and play them ALL THE TIME. Sing along. Memorize the name of the tune, and be able to name it as soon as it starts to play. Memorize the key the tune is in.

In fact, when I make reference recordings for myself, I name each track with the key in it: “Cottoneye Joe A”. Because if you know what key it should be in, it gives you important clues to help with your absorption. By listening to these recordings, you are cramming the tunes into your aural memory. Commuting time is the perfect time to listen, whether you are in a car or train or bus, or walking.

2. Retention Through Visual Reference
If you read music or tablature, find it for the tunes you are learning or write out your own. I have binders full of hand-written cheat sheets which represent the shape and form of tunes I have learned. I save these because it is an investment in time to learn each tune, and it helps me to “resurrect” old tunes more quickly by saving my old notes.

binderHaving a visual aid helps you cram these tunes into your fingers, develop muscle and aural memory, and helps you retain what you learn each day. This takes time, but saves time in the long run.

Whether you read music or not, create a nice neat binder with the tabs or sheet music for the tunes in it. Arrange them alphabetically or by key, whichever serves your needs best. That way, all your hard work is part of a permanent record. Yes, of course we want to have it memorized. Just think of the binder as your own personal “back-up” storage for your brain.

3. Build Continuity Playing Along with Recordings
Practice playing with your recordings at a manageable speed, meaning, you can get 85% of the notes correct at that speed. Absolutely no stopping, no second chances! If you miss a note, learn to hop back on that moving train. Just listen and shadow along until you can jump back in. Nobody cares if you have to drop a few notes here and there. But if you stop playing and have to start all over, that simply will not work in performance. Practice that speed until you are getting at least 95% of the notes, then speed it up. If you do not have recordings of a tune, use a metronome instead.

Now, there are some fabulous tools to help you play with your recordings. “The Amazing Slow-Downer,” software priced at about $40 is…well, amazing. People absolutely love it. I don’t own it. I downloaded the freebie by the reputable Royal Schools of Music. They have it for PC, Mac, or smartphones. It doesn’t have as many features, but it serves my purposes. Finally, every media player such as VLC, Windows Media Player, or whatever Apple uses, has built in speed controls! Most people don’t realize it, but on PCs you can find that feature by RIGHT CLICKING during playback.

Summarizing, play along with your reference recordings at a manageable speed, and practice getting from beginning to end successfully, even if you drop notes. Then, speed it up, over and over, until you are at performance tempo.

4. Build Independence: Wean Yourself From the Recordings
Now you have to learn to do it without the reference recording carrying you along (unless you know you will be playing in a group with strong fiddlers to help carry you).

For this, I recommend getting a back-up track for each tune. You can find lots of these back-up tracks online, or you can create your own using Garage Band (Mac) or Band in a Box (PC).

My favorite site with old time back up tracks is Old Time Jam. Last I heard, they stopped adding new tunes, but you can start there, and I’m sure if you search, you will find other great sites for EVERY style of music.
If you can’t find back up tracks or don’t have time to search, then use your metronome instead. It’s a little bit harder and a little less fun, but just as effective.

Budget your time! Remember, we are CRAMMING. We are not out for perfection and we have to move FAST. If you have 12 tunes and only 1 hour per day, don’t spend 30 minutes on 1 tune. Spend 15 minutes and make sure you knock out 4 tunes in the hour. The next day, do 4 different tunes. Don’t give into the temptation of doing the same tunes again because it makes you feel good.

5. Memorizing
You may or may not be required to have the music memorized, or, it might just be a goal for you to eventually memorize it. Well, frankly, all the steps listed above are the same steps I use for memorization. Namely: listen, sing, use cheat sheets, build continuity with music or cheat sheets, build continuity without music, increase the speed as your continuity builds.

Memorization is a whole topic unto itself. These posts teach you how to memorize more easily, more efficiently and more reliably. You will learn about aural, kinesthetic, and intellectual memory, as well as how to create and utilize memory pillars and memory caches. They are life-savers!

One aspect of memory must be mentioned here because it is absolutely paramount to memorization, and that is SINGING. I cannot emphasize strongly enough the magical power of singing for learning, playing, and memorizing music.

Try to sing the tunes from beginning to end without the recording. If you can sing it by memory, you can play it by memory. (with work) You can do this in the shower, as you fall asleep at night, or anytime throughout the day, while you do housework, having lunch, etc. Part of the beauty of singing is that it can be done any time, any place, without equipment. No more excuses! Sing!