Working the Tune List

Using Your Tune List to Build Strength in Your Fiddle Playing

The List in Your Violin Case…and you do have one don’t you? My tune list rides very nicely in the music pocket of my case cover. For a long time it was in a three ring binder that pertained to the band I was in. Before that it was inside the case. Now it’s back with the case.

When I first began fiddling and meeting other musicians, they would often have a list, too. It was a time saver to compare and see corresponding tunes. For the players that had no list, they had to look at my list first before recommending a tune. That’s just normal.



I encourage my students to keep a list of tunes they are active with. Even if they can only play the tune from looking at the tab chart, it goes on the list. When they play it from memory, then the tune gets a gold star on their list. That encourages them much better than nagging.

The first serious list I ever saw was published by a bluegrass newsletter called The Grassometer. It was the Top Ten Fiddle-Banjo Tunes. It included Bilem Cabbage Down, Cripple Creek, Blackberry Blossom, Salt Creek, Soldier’s Joy, Old Joe Clark, Red Haired Boy, Bill Cheathum, Sally Gooden, Mississippi Sawyer.

The upgrade for that list was the one published by Fiddler magazine. They did a survey in 1995 of the most popular tunes played. When they ranked them they got the top 18, but with all the ties, they had a list of 61 tunes!

Today, 20 years down the road, the list might be different, but 70 to 80% of the same tunes would likely still be on the list.

I recall an older fiddler advising me, just after I totally blew my chances at a contest, that it would be a good idea to master a repertory of 50 tunes. That’s sound thinking, especially regarding contest playing. At the time I was so into learning new tunes I wasn’t paying attention to numbers.

One year I did a long project of playing 100 tunes, each one on a given day, 100 times. The goal was to get to 10,000 repetitions.  Some tunes I knew. Some tunes were new. It was a powerful discipline, and it raised my performance level.

The winner of the repertory contest, such as it is, would have to be Jean Carignan. He is said to have known more that 600 fiddle tunes. [Since writing that, I see Wikipedia says 7000. I believe the 600 number.]

My current list project is to cull and shape my list to a final state. As I gathered the candidate tunes I saw it was going to be about 300. Well, maybe I could be half the fiddler Jean Carignan was. On receiving thoughtful advice, I expanded to 365, a number we all know and respect.

The tunes are mostly old time and Irish fiddle tunes, with some bluegrass and Texas contest tunes included. Swing, blues and jazz tunes are also represented with a very few world music tunes. My goal is to have the list shaped up by the end of summer, Sept 23rd, so that I know all the tunes well enough to lead them in a session.

Now, let’s take a look at your list. It can include tunes you know, and tunes you are learning. You may even have tunes you fully intend to learn. But the “wouldn’t-it-be-nice-if-I-could-play” tunes do not belong on the list.

With the list in hand you can ask yourself:

  •  how often you have to play known tunes to keep them fresh and ready to go.
  • which tune is almost there.
  • which tune is coming up real soon.

You can work the list for your benefit And while you work it, be open to a spot in familiar tune that needs work. I wrote about that for my playing of Tam Lin here.

To sum up: whether your list is ten to fifteen or less, twenty to fifty, or even one hundred or more…Work the List!