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Chris Smith: Words & Music

Instruction: Source materials for learning tunes

(Chris Smith)
Source Materials for Learning tunes

Suggestions for strengths and weaknesses of various types of
audio sources for building repertoire

I love session tapes, and I like learning tunes from them because
they remind me of being there, but session tapes are usually NOT
too precise--multiple players, multiple settings, all colliding
in that glorious noise. By contrast, recordings of unaccompanied
soloists, or 1 soloist plus 1 accompanist, or two soloists in
duet with 1 accompanist, tend to be a lot more precise and
specific about the details of specific settings of tunes. My own
preference is for box-plus-fiddle recordings; I just find those
especially easy to hear, as opposed to flutists jumping octaves,
and pipers with their huge repertoire of bends and slurs and
slides and other articulations. That repertoire of special
idiomatic things make the pipes the great instrument they are,
but can also be difficult to transcribe.

I basically have a small stack of CDs, maybe 4 or 5, sitting on
my music stand with a discman. On any given morning, I'll try to
work through 2 or 3 tunes for the first time in the above
fashion, learning them by ear (as described in other articles on
this site) and then revisiting other tune sets on the same discs
which have already been put through the grinder. It's pretty
focusing ('specially at 4AM).

One suggestion: when you're buying discs specifically for the
purposes of learning repertoire, try to select ones that
facilitate the above process: useful parameters for this include
small groups, seminal/influential players, clear and simple

Being a tightwad, I also like to prioritize discs that have a
large preponderance of tunes I want to learn. When I'm really
lucky, I'll find a disc everything on which is something I want
to learn, and I'll just learn my way through the disc from top to

Current or recent discs in this stack:

  • Chulrua, Barefoot on the Altar
  • Seamus Creagh and Aidan Coffey
  • Dear Old Erin's Isle: London Irish fiddlers in concert in
  • Cork My Love is in America: Irish-American players in Cork
  • Fiddlesticks: Donegal fiddlers in Cork
  • Cran: Black Black Black
  • Andy McGann and Joe Burke: Tribute to Michael Coleman
  • Jackie Daly: Music from Sliabh Luachra
  • Clare Concertinas
  • Gearoid o hAllmhurain and Patrick Ourceau: Tracin'
  • Trian I and II (Liz Carroll, Billy McComiskey, Daithi
  • Liz Carroll solo discs
  • Gaelic Roots 2 CD set
  • James Kelly, Traditional Irish Music
  • James Kelly, The Ring Sessions
  • Molloy/Peoples/Brady
  • The Big Squeeze (Green Linnet box compilation)
  • Sliabh Notes (Matt Cranitch et al)
  • Kerry Fiddles (O'Keefe, Clifford, Murphy)
  • Arcady, Many Happy Returns
  • Kieran Hanrahan, Plays the Irish Tenor Banjo
  • Moloney/Kean/O'Donnell, several discs
  • Moloney, Strings Attached
  • Kennedy/Ni Mhaonaigh, Altan
  • Joe Cooley Cooley
  • Conor Keane, Cooley's House
  • Paddy Keenan, Port an Piobaire
  • Music at Matt Molloy's
  • Milestone at the Garden & From Galway to Dublin (period
  • The Complete Michael Coleman
  • various minidiscs from Catskills Irish Arts Week sessions
  • various other session tapes


    The above list is not intended to be comprehensive or didactic. I
    select discs from which to learn tunes based on the personal
    priorities I've laid out at the beginning of this article (and
    see other articles on this site, especially "Playing
    Idiomatically on Other Instruments"). However, I do
    think that one should be thoughtful, critical, and methodical
    about what specific recordings and types of sources one learns
    from. The right sources can drastically accelerate one's ability
    to make progress. There are many sources for discographic
    recommendations on the web; start at this site or at