Learning to Play Aussie Tunes


Walcha Road

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Australian Folk Music

Old Time Musicians



Learning to play Aussie Tunes

Old Instruments



If you'd like to get started playing Aussie tunes, here's some advice, and some information you might be able to use. Compliments of Julie and Jeff.

 Both of us play by ear, but we can also read music (up to a point!) We're lucky ... we can do both. But perhaps you can't. For this reason,  we have compiled this page in two sections. Feel free to read both, but please also scan the "Food for Thought" part towards the end.

For People Who Can Read Music 

If you can read music, you've got it easy. Lots of people have worked hard to get this music down on paper, and there  tune collections available to suit different interests.  For example, every year at the National Folk Festival a fiddle orchestra performs after workshopping the tunes throughout the weekend: the tunes are printed and distributed prior to this event, but sight readers just appear and start playing! People like Ray Mulligan (see the Bush Traditions Gathering link) have produced a series of tunebooks they want to share. Tunes also continue to be published in "Trad and Now" and in the Bush Music Club's publications, whilst for the true enthusiast there is a 3-volume set of dance tunes that would take most of us a lifetime to learn, compliments of Peter Ellis from Victoria!

However,  just as there are pitfalls associated with learning to play by ear, there is one major drawback with learning from the printed sheet: written music is a series of notes on paper. The "dots" cannot convey the player's style or the true rythmic feel of a tune. In addition, the skill of the person(s) who writes the tune down determines  the success of the transcription process. Interesting variations played in the original setting are mostly left out. .. compromises must be made to get the essential tune down on paper. Mistakes are passed on in poor transcriptions. It is good to remember that learning from this source has some very serious drawbacks....there is no way to get a feeling for the tunes until you've heard them played well by musicians steeped in that genre.

Nevertheless you don't NEED to learn tunes by ear. The written music is easily available, and you can start playing Aussie tunes as soon as you get hold of the music. However, try to find opportunities to listen to traditional tunes played well by others (on recordings,  at concert performances) and by attending workshops and sessions hosted by different folk bodies. You will gradually develop a feel for the music just as we have. If you want to start  playing right now, go to the links page and click on the  WongawilliColonialDance link (then click on Dance Tunes, Free Sheet Music) ...this organisation actually supplies free sheet music on line, apart from their many publications!

You will benefit greatly if you can commit tunes to memory, and leave the sheet music behind. If you're used to playing complicated pieces of orchestral music, you may well have forgotten that you have this faculty. If this is a skill you're not very good at, you can practice it while you're learning to play Aussie tunes. Even if you end up with a very small repertoire of tunes you can play from memory, its a great feeling to have them there when the musician sitting next to you strikes up one that you know! 

 Going to folk festivals and folk clubs to make contact with other people who play these tunes is a good idea. In a few areas there are special workshops run regularly to teach Aussie music. When you have a few tunes under your belt, most players are more than happy to sit down and play with you (when they have time). If they're playing too fast and don't want to slow down to your  speed, find someone else or tell them quite clearly that you can't keep up and would like them to slow down. For people who play fast, this can be quite difficult, but its a great musicial excercise ...they'll benefit from the experience!


For People Who Play By Ear

 We have spent countless hours with our ears glued to the speakers...listening to old, scratchy tape recordings of 78's, loud music sessions with lots of chatter, old time players with their fiddles tuned down to a pitch we couldn't quite pin down (!!!). The rewind buttons on our tape gear suffered, and so did our cassette recordings. Thank heavens for new technology. Tunes can now be downloaded onto C.D.'s and the pitch altered for those of us with access to the right equipment (Jeff  now enjoys enjoys his cassette tape collection in a new way, using the free programme called Audacity).  Yes ... there are drawbacks to playing by ear, but the pleasures make it more than worthwhile.

If you're new to this music and haven't played a similar form of music before, you will find that the best approach is to split tunes into parts. Most tunes have two parts (sometimes more). Start with a simple tune and break it into its components. Enjoy the tune as you learn it ...if you've learned the A part & its a lot of fun, keep playing it (the B part will still be there tomorrow).

Some Australian tunes have strange bar structures. If you're used to playing Irish or British music, they may sound peculiar. If you listen to a lot of the old musicians, you'll see that these oddities  can sometimes be due to a musical mistake (a lapse in an elderly player's memory) but are quite often integral to the tunes. For a good example, listen to the waltz "Wild Paddy" (Track 12 of Charlie Batchelor's "Your Good Self"). This tune has 15 bars in part A and 16 in part B, but sounds wonderful. Tunes like "The Nine Buckets" schottische (Track 15 on the same C.D.) leave many new listeners scratching their heads. This is an excellent example of the "wierd" or "strange" tunes featured in the repertoire of many traditional musicians. Tunes like this one take some figuring out... and a lot of listening! If you love the tune,  you'll love learning it...don't be put off it it sounds odd.

 If you hear a musician whose style of playing appeals to you, copy it and learn from it. Listen to a wide range of old time musicians if you get the chance, and try out different ways of playing a tune.  All the good old time musicians played with a strong rythmic emphasis, each using their own techniques to express that in their playing. Mastering a lot of melodies in a short time can stop you from exploring the inner pleasures of a tune...the "phrasing", and from developing a strong rythmic style. Music learned this way can be lifeless: apart from their skill, the best  musicians are those who really know their music and play each tune individually, getting the most out of it. They play a single tune over a period of time, learning how to best express each feature in the music. For readers, flicking through a tune book and simply playing the notes will never get you there. Tunes need to be learned and loved...individually.

 If you're learning by ear, don't hold back when you get an opportunity to hear a favourite tune played live ...if you're at a relaxed gathering you can ask for a tune to be played, or repeated.  Most musicians, in the right circumstances, will be happy to give you the "B" part over again, or to play a tune over with you several times. If you're learning at sessions, however, your tape recorder or mini-disc player is your best friend. Ask beforehand to check whether anyone minds you recording them ... many people are unnerved by this, and its only fair that you don't put them off ... they're playing for their own enjoyment, after all.  

 If you are lucky enough to live in Sydney, the Illawarra region or the A.C.T. then you're close to a group of enthusiasts (contacts through our Links page).  However, if not, then you might be the person in your region who ends up getting other people involved in this great music. Whatever you do, don't give up. Good luck. Email us if you have a question about any of this and we'll help out if we can.

 Food for Thought

Seek inspiration. If you're playing in isolation, you can get frustrated through the lack of other people to play with. This is not uncommon in a music genre that is not widely practiced. Its important that more people learn about our traditional music, so its really important that you don't give up playing Aussie music because you feel isolated. Try to get to a festival or a venue where you can link up with other musicians (look at the Bush Traditions link, for instance). Contact us if you're passing this way. Sharing your music and being inspired by others is a big part of what this music is all about.

 You may find it helpful to subscribe to the  magazine, "Trad and Now". Apart from the featured articles, this magazine will let you know about folk events around the country, other folk organisations etc. At present they have a generous package of back issue avaliable cheaply.

 There is no right or wrong way to play, except to do it with passion. However, bear in mind that we are all engaged in passing on tunes to others ... change very much of what you heard, and the tune is changed. When you realise that you've added your own little bits and pieces to a tune, what's important is to tell people if you're actually teaching them that tune so that they have the option of searching out the original source if they want to. Change is an important part of the folk tradition, but remember what happens in a game of "Chinese Whispers"... there's a good reason why some players are almost pedantic about playing tunes as they heard them from the old timers. They want to pass them on without changing them for just that reason.  Interpretation is personal, but the flavour of a great tune can not only be embellished...it can also be watered down e.g.  a new variation can sound sweet and tuneful, but can also over-ride a special feature within a melody. Experiment and use your musical judgement.

Whatever you do, remember that our music has a special value... be proud that you're part of the growing Australian Folk Tradition.


Manuscripts: A few sources of written music to get you started.

 Go to the Wongawilli Colonial Dance Inc link on our links page then click on "Publications and Recordings" ... all the Pioneer Performer Series is available here, as well as larger collections of sheet music, and some C.D.'s with accompanying tune books.

Go to the Bush Traditions Gathering site through our Links page. Contact Ray Mulligan through this site for the very extensive "Settlers Music" tunebooks.

Purchase Folk Songs of Australia Volume 2 (out of stock via the site quoted above ... try the Bush Music Club). Although the music is not in manuscript form, this is a good way to get started on some tunes whilst reading about traditional music... and its a great read, with some terrific pics. 

Go to the Trad & Now link and order Australian Dance Tunes for Fiddle ... a C.D. of dance sets comprised of "authentic" tunes with sheet music... ideal if you want to start a bush band or get your bush band playing real Australian music.