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The Year of Ward Jarvis: Using Technology

I love the stories of people who learned to play old-time music by slowing down their record players to figure out passages from tunes on vinyl, or even shellac. Those of us learning today have it so easy by comparison.

In addition to the great instructional resources available by the likes of Brad Leftwich, Bruce Molsky, Erynn Marshall, Wayne Erbsen, Mike Seeger, Ken Perlman and Dan Levenson — just to name the few I've used myself — we also have a treasure trove of written documentation, recordings and videos available on traditional media and online to help us learn technique and tunes.

On top of these source materials, there is a wide variety of software and technology tools that we can harness to improve learning. Not to mention, the internet makes it far easier to connect with other people who share similar passions and can help by providing one-on-one instruction or feedback on our playing.

While I have taken one paid lesson and attended a few different workshops, I've primarily taught myself banjo and fiddle through books and videos by those named above, as well as by listening to recordings through software to slow the music down to a more discernible tempo. Once I got the basics down, I started playing my instruments at local jams to hone my skills.

This year, as you readers know, I have embarked on a quest to learn some of the repertoire of Athens County, Ohio-based fiddler Ward Jarvis. Throughout this process, I have employed a combination of written notation and field recordings to learn six of his tunes, "Head of the Creek," "Icy Mountain," "Tomahawk," "Pretty Little Indian," "Three Forks of Reedy" and "Cattle in the Cane."

The Milliner-Koken Collection of American Fiddle Tunes contains written notation for the first four tunes that I then transcribed into my own sort of fiddle tab, as I can't sightread music. This provided me with a general map to understand the notes better.

Then I used BestPractice, a free software program similar to the popular Amazing Slow Downer, which allows you to slow down the music without affecting the pitch (like our predecessors endured when slowing down records on their turntables).

This setup requires that I play my fiddle at home with my written notes in front of me while listening to the tune at half speed through headphones plugged into my computer.

Unfortunately, my home playing time is limited because I'd rather play with my kid and spend time with my wife. Instead, I practice mostly during my lunch hour at work. It's nice, because there's a park just down the road from my office, but it's not exactly an ideal setting for learning new tunes with my aforementioned setup.

However, with the weather cooling down as winter approaches, a new opportunity has emerged as I'm relegated to playing in my car. This week, I had a brilliant plan to get back to honing my skills by playing along to recordings and attempting to parse new tunes by ear.

Enter the smartphone.

Little speaker, big improvement.
Now, I've been using apps on my phone for quite some time to improve my banjo and fiddle playing, whether by downloading a metronome to improve my timing or by using the voice recorder function so I can hear my own playing and to post files online to get feedback from others. But now, I'm taking it a step further.

I have my Year of Ward Jarvis playlist on my phone just to listen to, but I've never been able to play along to the tunes that way because the external speaker isn't powerful enough to hear over my fiddle. This spring, I won a contest at work and received a small Vivitar Bluetooth speaker. After toying around with it at home, it has sat in a drawer ever since. Not anymore!

This week, I brought the speaker with me to work, paired it to my phone and started playing my Ward Jarvis playlist through it. Behold! It was loud enough for me to hear over my fiddle, and I've been hearing noticeable improvements on my intonation and phrasing.

Furthermore, as the playlist continued on beyond the four tunes I've learned so far, I started noodling along to the next tune I plan to learn, "Three Forks of Reedy." I have no written notation for this tune, but I'm already starting to pick out notes, even without the use of slowdown software.

How do you use technology to improve your playing? What software and hardware have you found helpful? What's your setup for learning new tunes? If you aren't using technology, why not?

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