Salt Creek: 1, Kat: 0, and what you can learn from my epic fail.

I tried to teach “Salt Creek” to one of my students the other day. I totally failed.


Maybe you’ve heard this old chestnut:

Q: Why do fiddle tunes have names?
A: How would you tell them apart, if they didn’t?

I picked up “Salt Creek” by ear in a jam session at some point over the twelve years I’ve lived in Bellingham.  It was not a commonly played tune in Eastern Washington while I was growing up there, but around here most bluegrassers and old time players know it.  Several bands I’ve played with have reinforced it in my memory–in fact, I played it just a couple of weeks ago when I sat in with David’s Drinking Band at Honey Moon. DDB plays a cool, complexly arranged medley of “Salt Creek” and “Red Haired Boy”, which makes sense because both tunes are in the key of A mixolydian.

When I wanted to give “Salt Creek” to my student, I first looked through all the books I had close at hand, but for some reason none of them contained a usable version of the song. So I decided to teach it by ear….

Perhaps you see where this is going. No matter how far into my memory I dug, I could only remember one or two bars of “Salt Creek,” after which it would morph into “Red Haired Boy,” a tune I’ve known much longer and have taught many more times. Finally I had to give up on “Salt Creek” and teach a different tune. Embarrassing, and wasteful of the student’s time. Darn it.

After she left, I looked up “Salt Creek” on YouTube. The first video I found was an excellent one of guitarist Doc Watson. I didn’t need it to be a fiddler in the video, since my goal was just to remember how the tune went in order to jog my muscle memory of how to play it. Forty seconds into the video, I was ready to notate the song.



The moral of this story for you.

Given a choice between learning a tune by ear or learning it from sheet music, do you have a strong preference? If you do, I highly recommend putting some time into getting more comfortable with the thing you avoid.


Consider some pros and cons of each method, using my “Salt Creek” story as an example:

Learning the tune by ear meant…

…I could pick it up in the moment from musicians around me in a casual setting, instead of being limited by the lack of available sheet music. I didn’t have to sit glumly watching everyone else play a tune I didn’t know.

…my version fit the way my friends were playing the tune. Sometimes if you learn a tune from sheet music, you’ll find that the people you around you know it radically differently, to the point that it can be difficult to play it together. This is especially true if you and the person who notated the tune are in different parts of the country or world.

…I didn’t need to learn from another fiddle player or from fiddle-specific sheet music. I don’t remember who first taught me the tune, but it was probably a banjo, guitar or mandolin player, since I am usually the only fiddle player in a given band or jam group.

…once I’d learned it, it was forever in my muscle memory (somewhere). It is much, much easier to memorize a tune learned by ear—in fact, if you can’t yet play from memory a tune you’re learning by ear, you haven’t learned finished learning it. On the other hand, to learn a tune from sheet music, then memorize it, is a two-step process. Most people don’t really complete the second step for the majority of the tunes they learn this way, so as time passes tunes are more likely to pass out of memory entirely.

But did learning “Salt Creek” by ear help me call up the tune when I needed it? Clearly, it did not. So having it in a book would have been super handy.

Reading sheet music would have meant…

…that it would have taken me under a minute to find the spot in the tune where I was going off track, and see at a glance what I was supposed to be playing instead.

…that I could send the music home with the student, so she would have a reference to help her remember the tune later, too. Anytime you don’t have time to adequately memorize a tune, you will need the music. (Or a recording, I guess, but that’s often less practical for a variety of reasons: you can’t make a recording unless you have a gadget with you, and you won’t be able to use it later unless you put time into sorting and labeling your recordings. Recordings also don’t help you if you’re trying to play along with others who already know the tune, whereas sheet music gives you the option of sight reading.)  Sheet music is easily and quickly shared, not only between teachers and students, but also among friends.

You need both skills: learning by ear and reading notes. Start doing whichever thing you’ve been avoiding.

If you’re phobic of learning by ear, get someone patient to teach you a tune (even if that “patient someone” is just a YouTube video that you can rewind and replay as much as you want).

If you’re need to develop competence at notereading: here’s “Salt Creek” and “Red Haired Boy” so you can practice hacking your way through the tangle of dots and lines. I’m sure you’ll do much better than I do with not getting the two tunes mixed up. If you don’t know where to begin with reading notes, start with, and mark the name of each note on the sheet music as it comes up in the flashcards. ( might be more useful to you if you’re not a fiddle player.)

If you’re a guitar player who needs to work on reading tablature, Google “xxxxxxx tabs”, but replace “xxxxxxx” with the name of a pop or rock song you like. You should also be able to use Google to find a tutorial that helps you understand what the numbers and lines and letters mean.

Of course, if you want a less self-directed approach to any of these projects, I would love to help you with any of the above.



You might also like:

How to practice when you don’t have time.

Megan Lynch Chowning on Texas Style vs. Bluegrass.

Wanna learn a pretty waltz I wrote?

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