Do you really know that tune?

​food for thought

You don’t know a tune until…

I had been building up my repertoire of fiddle tunes, getting them clean and up to speed, when my mandolin teacher (who I sit with every other month) proved to me, after a serious of thought-provoking questions and experiments, that I really didn’t know any of those fiddle tunes as well as I thought. 

Here’s what I’m slowly discovering to be a rubric for really knowing a fiddle tune:
– Can you play it slowly, with a metronome and with clean, buzz-free notes, strong timing, and strict alternate picking (DUDU)?
– Can you play it equally well with reverse alternate picking (UDUD)?
– Can you play it up-to-speed, with relaxed hands, wrists, arms, and neck, without needing to stare at the fingerboard?
– Can you consistently control the amount of swing/shuffle in your playing?
– Can you “stay in your lane” — that is, play the tune with another player or backing track without getting distracted by what they’re playing?
– Can you easily play the tune three to four times through without stopping, flubbing, or tensing up?
– Can you transpose it to a different octave?
– Can you transpose it to a different key?
– Can you play it in both open and closed positions?
– Can you play all the chords of the tune and maintain a strong rhythm part for another player?
– Can you easily alternate between rhythm and lead without a break in rhythm?
– Can you play at least one melodic variant of the tune?
– Can you integrate double-stops or drones into the tune and still be on the right chord?
– Can you play a tag intro or tag ending to the tune?
– Have you listened to at least two different recordings of the tune?
– Have you attempted to learn and/or transcribe one of those recordings?
– Have you attempted to translate the way a different instrument (such as fiddle, guitar, banjo, pennywhistle) plays the tune to mandolin?

With all of these learning possibilities, suddenly a tune like “Red Haired Boy” seems like an a full-blown etude. Now the trick is to decide when to learn a new tune instead of digging deeper into one I already “know”.

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