September-October 2013

Fakebooks and Tune Collections

By Roland Sturm

King Street Sessions TunebookFakebooks and tune collections are a great way to jog your memory about forgotten tunes and even help with learning new ones. I have a good number of such books, including both new compilations and historical classics, but my favorite one is available free: The King Street Sessions Tunebook, compiled by Santa Cruz musician Mike Long. It is available on his website. Mike plays many string instruments and is the guitarist in the Santa Cruz dance band Dance Around Molly.

The King Street Sessions Tunebook is a collection of about 1000 tunes, primarily Irish, but with a good selection of Scottish tunes and a few American ones. It is a fakebook, not a transcription of performances, so the tunes are stripped down to their essentials with little to distract (ornamentations, bowings), making them very accessible to beginners. In contrast, the Fiddler’s Fakebook has a large fraction of more detailed transcriptions and arrangements, so it is a mix of fakebook and performance settings. I like Mike’s settings of tunes, even if they are not identical to how I play them. There are very few typos or what would be more likely to be mistakes than a musical variation. This was done much more carefully than a Mel Bay book. Mike Long also provides chord symbols, very helpful for beginning guitarists or groups with multiple chord players. Many traditional tune collections, including the classic O'Neill's Music of Ireland: Over 1,000 Fiddle Tunes, do not have chords.

There is a long debate among traditional musician about the use of sheet music. Most traditional musicians would agree that the best way to learn tunes is by ear. Recognizing the aural nature of traditional music, how should one use tune collections or transcriptions, especially tunes one has never heard before?

Tune collections are a useful source of information, but one should be wary using them as the ultimate reference. The main reasons why I pull out the King Street Sessions book (my spiral bound printed version) is as a memory refresher. Often the first few notes will do and it doesn’t matter too much what is written on the page. Most of the time, my version will differ, although I found that Mike’s settings are generally compatible variations. Some variants are making it into my playing, too. As with all traditional music, there is no single “true” version.

The other, and probably more debated use, is for learning new material. I do that as well, most commonly prompted by a recording or performance and I use the fake book as a short cut to see the big picture. But I certainly also play through tunes I may not have heard before. However, any printed source needs to be approached with some skepticism, not limited to things downloaded for free from the internet.

For beginners, a fake book is probably a better starting point than a detailed transcription that captures more of the stylistic nuances and they cannot go wrong with Mike’s book. When reading through a book that way, one needs to bring some background knowledge about a style to it, though. Playing even 8th notes won’t make a jig, nor will runs of 8th notes without any enunciation sound like a reel. Without adding stylistic nuances that are not notated, it is not musical. Fake book provide the minimal information needed by a musician to create a performance version on the spot. Unless you provide the style, it becomes a dead end and I recently witnessed one example.

A regular slow/intermediate session in Santa Monica has adopted Mike’s book with gusto. When I attended a few weeks ago, people were no longer starting sets by playing or by announcing a tune title, but by calling out numbers. And sometimes not because it is a tune they liked, but “I don’t know what it is but number 474 looks easy”. And the room turns to number 474 and sight reads through it - a mechanical replication of a sketched out melody, including a faithful rendering of any typo on the page. Mike seemed dismayed about this use of his book when I e-mailed him about it.

This may be an extreme example why many more experienced musicians disparage sheet music. However, discouraging any type of sheet music is not helpful either. Leaders of slow sessions need to find a middle ground. That can include setting the expectation that if people want to start a tune, they need to know it really well, not read it from sheet music. Another expectation is that not playing on every tune is better than struggling through everything. In advanced sessions – and especially if you are not a core member – more time is spent listening than actual playing. There are many different versions of the same tune and good session etiquette means to play a compatible version. So if somebody else starts a tune, it may be a good idea to lay out during the first repetition to listen and see if the printed version is compatible. Finally, while there are very few mistakes in the King Street Sessions Tunebook, let’s use our ears and not play possible typos.

Roland Sturm is Professor of Policy Analysis at the RAND Graduate School and usually writes on health policy, not music. He is the talent coordinator of the Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest. These days he mainly plays upright bass and mandolin.


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