Learning Tunes | Bowing Down Home

Most Island fiddlers already had a substantial stock of tunes committed to memory before they even took up the instrument. They were exposed to fiddling and jigging as part of growing up in the old Island districts, and the tunes had stuck. In fact, many youngsters were capable of jigging a substantial portion of the local repertoire long before they were old enough to successfully manipulate a fiddle.

Although youngsters born to musical households had a distinct advantage in acquiring their first tunes, those not so blessed were often able to learn tunes by absorbing the music emanating from the homes of neighbors.

Once youngsters had sorted out the initial problem of finding melodies on fiddle, older family members and neighbors would often coach and correct them on the correctness of their melodies – either by helping to fill in the blanks, or by intervening when they had gone astray.

These formative musical experiences fostered a highly effective style of music learning. The process always begins with hearing a new tune played at a house party, frolic, benefit dance, informal gathering, or on the radio or gramophone. Some fiddlers would have the tune in mind after its initial hearing; they would then go home and immediately attempt to work out the melody. In other cases, the tune later simply re-surfaces. Many fiddlers reported that tunes would come to them while they were dreaming or awakening from sleep; in such cases they had to quickly play the tune on the spot, or it would be lost.

At first, only one turn (section) of a tune might spring to mind, or perhaps just one theme from a single turn. To fill in the rest, a fiddler would have to wait to hear the tune again—something that might require his seizing the moment when the tune-source came within range.

At the next stage, the fiddler has assimilated all the tune's major themes but still must fill in around them. In other words, short musical phrases must be inserted between the themes to stitch them together, and a suitable ending must be found for each turn. Each fiddler has amassed a stock of such phrases and endings in memory over the course of a lifetime, and in any given case he or she then simply selects the ones that first come to mind or seem to fit best.

Since each fiddler stitches tunes together in his or her own way and according to personal tastes, the resulting versions will be to some degree unique. As Islanders express it, each fiddler has his own twist on the tunes he plays.

Adding further to diversity is that most fiddlers continually tinker with their tunes, either to make them more playable, or in hopes of improving their overall sound. Island fiddlers generally take great pride in their twists, and most feel that there is no point in copying their colleagues' tune-versions wholesale. On the other hand, when other fiddlers do borrow one of your twists on a particular phrase and incorporate it into their own playing, this is seen as personally validating.

The Composing Paradox

There seems to be a strong parallel between the processes involved in recalling pre-existing tunes and composing new ones. As many Island fiddlers describe it, new tunes often spontaneously spring to mind in whole or part; the fiddler then has to quickly play the tune on an instrument or it may disappear forever. This similarity often leads to two dilemmas. First, has the "composer" come up with a totally new tune, or is he or she merely recalling one that had been dormant in the subconscious? Another issue comes up when the moment of creation coincides with dreaming or awakening from sleep: is the new tune the spontaneous product of the awakener's imagination, or was it placed there in or whole or part by some external, presumably supernatural agent? Here is one Island story along these lines, in which an early settler is gifted with a tune by a water sprite.

See also: Getting Started