Music Program

Traditional music is not learned by reading what someone else has written. Many generations of musicians in Ireland learned at a parent's knee, or by hearing the tunes played as they were falling asleep in the next room. The Riley School teaches the same way: by ear. We are convinced through our own experience and the experience of many other excellent traditional musicians that this is the best way to really learn traditional Irish music.

session players

We strongly encourage you to train your ear by listening to the music. It's much easier to learn to play a tune if you already have it in your head. So spend at least some of your practice time just listening to a tune over and over, until you can sing/whistle the notes along with the recording. Listen to the tunes in the car and while you're doing other things.

Each quarter our music committee chooses the tunes we will all try to learn so that we can play together. The committee, with the help of current and previous teachers, records the quarter's tunes. The tunes from the current quarter and past quarters are available for download on the School Tunes and Search pages. We can burn a CD for you if you need it. Please contact to request a CD.

We recommend students bring some kind of recording device to class. Instructors will give you tunes to record and listen to at home as you practice. The tools on the Practice Tools page offer easy ways to slow a tune down, change its pitch, and play a selected section of a tune in a continuous loop.

There are subtleties in rhythm and feel that cannot be put on paper. As you mature as a player, you will learn to hear these variations and to use them in your own playing. So please bear with us while we teach you a new skill: learning by ear. It will open up new worlds for you.

In addition to the Riley recordings, we offer a free CD lending library, available Saturdays in Fellowship Hall.

Some teachers may provide sheet music if you ask. We request that you not use sheet music in class, however.

Tips for Learning by Ear
  • Download the recordings for the quarter as soon as they are available and set up a playlist of the quarter's tunes for yourself.
  • Listen to a tune 100 times before trying to play it. The recordings we provide each quarter contain a band version, an unaccompanied version for guitar and piano students, and slow versions. Listen to the band versions to get the tunes into your head - you do not have to play that fast!
  • You do not have to listen actively. Have the tunes playing in the background while you are doing other things. Bedtime is great, since the tunes stick better while you sleep.
  • Frequency trumps duration. Fifteen minutes a day of either listening or practicing gets you much farther than one hour every four days.
  • Come to class and play the tune phrase by phrase as your teacher directs. This is much easier if you have already been listening to the tunes!
  • Practice the tune at home. Use the slow version to pick up notes you're not sure of. Play it so many times that you can play it all by yourself.
  • Play the tune with other people, either in bands or in sessions.
  • After you've learned the tune, listen to recordings by other performers. You will hear subtle differences that you can incorporate into your own playing. Ask your teacher to show you some more variations.
  • Practice with your eyes closed or distracted. Look out the window, watch the TV with the sound off or a pretty screen saver. In general, don't look at your hands.
  • Record yourself and listen to how you sound. You might be surprised.
  • Try to play carols, jingles and children's songs that you already know.
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