In Praise of Simple Tunes

image ©Judy Minot 2018

When we practice, we mostly work on things that are hard to do. I might work on unisons on the fiddle, or fingering triplets on the accordion, or just practice a tune I love that has a hard passage or is in a weird key. When we do this, we’re working in a space where even playing the notes correctly is an effort.

When we play something easy, we usually lapse into a kind of “ahh” mode, where we just enjoy what we can do. I think of this as like getting a massage: I just relax and let it happen. A lot of the mental anguish goes away (although there’s some!) but we can usually calm all that down.

That “ahh” mode, where you feel confident you can play the tune, is actually a really great state to start from when you’re practicing. We may actually try to start there, but we seldom stay there long, because we work on things that are hard, and it’s difficult to feel relaxed when you’re struggling.

We can get a lot of benefit from practicing tunes that are easy to play. I’m not trying to ruin the times you play for fun, and turn them into practice sessions. I’m saying that making room in your practice time for something that’s easy can be really worthwhile.

Staying relaxed as we play is a foundation of the Practice Pyramid.* Quite simply, the more relaxed we can be while playing, the better we can play — not just by playing the “correct” notes, but by playing them in a way that someone would want to listen to. Playing a simple tune allows us to start from that more relaxed state.

The most obvious benefit of playing a simple tune is that it lets us move beyond a focus on playing the notes, to listen for tone, phrasing, and the rhythmic qualities to our playing.

When you play a simple tune you can listen deeply. Listen to the notes, and listen to the silences. Listen to the scritchy, oddball noises the instrument makes (Do you like them? Do you not like them?), the ringy, bell-like sounds, the overtones, the attack and decay, the sound bouncing off the walls of the room you’re in.

When you play a simple tune, you can feel it resonate in your body. You can pay attention to the stretch of a finger, the loosening of a hip, the deepening of your breath, the relaxing of your shoulders.

When you play a simple tune, you can get lost in the music. Let it inhabit you, let it play you instead of you playing it. Where is this tune coming from? Is it really coming from your instrument? Or from you? Or from somewhere else, a place that encompasses your experience, your life story, the tree your instrument was made from, a cultural and historical environment, the place you are right now, the universe?

Yes, those moments can happen. But they’re unlikely to happen if you only practice things that you can’t actually play.

Here are some examples of simple tunes played masterfully:

Martin Hayes plays “The Britches Full of Stitches” — the first tune my 8-year-old nephew learned on the fiddle — on his eponymous album. Martin has a talent for upending our concept of simple. Here’s another example: “Lucy Farr’s”.

“Cache tes Fesses” is a traditional Québécois tune that’s pretty easy to play. Listen to André Brunet give it life on solo fiddle.

Concertina player Rob Harbroun’s simple tune “Not Basingstoke” is based on a scale fragment of five notes, and is transformed here by the band Leveret (Rob, Andy Cutting, and Sam Sweeney).

That’s enough from me. I’m sure you can find your own examples in the styles and instrumentation that you prefer. Feel free to share them in the comments.

*I explain the Practice Pyramid in my book Best Practice: Inspiration and Ideas for Traditional Musicians, (Chapter 5 and Appendix A). Here are a few places in Best Practice where you’ll find more about the benefits of playing simple tunes:

88 — Play What You Know
138 — Set Yourself Up for Success
195 — Overlearning

Judy Minot is a musician and the author of the book Best Practice: Inspiration and Ideas for Traditional Musicians.

Judy has played and practiced piano since she could reach the keys, training in classical playing until age 16. She now plays traditional music in various settings on a number of instruments, and gives workshops and classes on Best Practice ideas all over the U.S. and virtually.

Judy spent her working life in broadcast television and digital marketing. She holds a 4th degree black belt in the martial art of Kokikai Aikido.

For more information visit: www.judyminot.com/bestpractice

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Judy Minot

A musician and author of the book Best Practice: Inspiration and Ideas for Traditional Musicians