Workshop updates

The left hand

The left hand

In this month’s workshop we looked at issues around the left hand, and how to keep the left hand relaxed, which will help in developing fluid playing.

Avoiding tension in the left hand

The way we support the fiddle neck with the left hand will depend to some extent on whether we use a shoulder rest or not. The neck of the fiddle should be resting on the inside of the index finger. It’s common for tension to build, with the left hand gripping the neck of the fiddle, and the thumb becoming tense and painful. It’s important to find a way to support the neck of the fiddle while keeping the left hand relaxed. There’s more detailed information on supporting the neck of the fiddle in this article.

The palm of the left hand should be kept in a vertical position while playing, with the fingers in a gently curved and relaxed position when not on a string. This allows any of the fingers to be placed onto the strings so that they drop straight down onto the string from above.

It can be tempting to ‘cradle’ the neck of the fiddle in the palm of the hand, as the instrument might feel more secure when holding it in this way. However, if the palm is underneath and supporting the neck of the fiddle, the fingers will be pulled away from the fingerboard, making it necessary to stretch across the fingerboard from the side to reach the strings. This  will cause the fingers to touch adjacent strings, which will cause problems when playing tunes that cross from one string to another.

To move the fingers from one string to another, swing the elbow of the bowing hand across. As the elbow moves from left to right, the hand is moved over the finger board from right to left. This allows us to reach the G string easily without having to stretch individual fingers across the finger board.

We looked at the pressure needed on the string when a finger is placed. You can play a note by pressing the finger hard against the fingerboard, but this immediately puts the left hand in a position of tension. We experimented with using different pressures to play an E, using the 1st finger in the D string. Firstly we just rested the finger on the string – doing this creates a note with very little resonance. Then we pressed the finger hard against the fingerboard, which creates a much crisper-sounding note, but also creates tension in the hand. After this we tried finding an intermediate level of pressure on the string that created a sound we liked, but avoided tension in the left hand.

The reality of playing is that the pressure used will be different for different notes within a tune. Ideally you’re aiming to avoid tension building up in the hand, and keeping the hand relaxed and able to move fluidly over the fingerboard. This fluidity is particularly important as you begin to play faster tunes.

We tried playing up a D scale, starting with long slow bow strokes. We gradually sped up the pace of playing, paying attention to using only a gentle pressure with each finger on the string. We also tried playing alternate D/E notes, taking time to fully relax the hand when we were playing the open D.

We learnt the reel Peerie Weerie

Keeping fingers down on the string

In the tune, there are different places where it’s possible to keep fingers placed on a string while playing the next note in the tune, as the tune will return again to the previous note. So in this phrase in the A part of the tune:4 notes on a stavethe first finger can be placed on the A string to play the B, and kept in place while the G is played with the 3rd finger on the D string. It’s then easy to return to the B straight after the G is played.

Similarly, in this phrase in the B part: 6 notes on a stavethe second finger is placed and kept down while the top A is played with the 3rd finger on the e string, and then the 1st finger is kept down while the top G is played.

Being able to do this is helpful when working on playing tunes faster.

Playing in tune

We looked at ways to help with playing in tune with confidence. Read more about training your ear to hear when notes are in tune.

Co-ordinating the left hand with the bow action

Playing fast tunes can often lead to a disconnect between the bowing action and the fingers moving on the finger board. We looked at using shorter lengths of the bow as we play tunes faster, and developing our own sense of rhythm and pulse. We also worked on how to create a clear crisp start to each note, so we know exactly where that pulse is in the tune. This helps with keeping our own timing really steady, helping with co-ordination between the left and right hands. You can read more here about how to get the bow to fully engage with the string at the start of each note.

Placing a finger across 2 strings

We worked on placing the finger across 2 strings. This is a useful technique when a fast tune moves between 2 strings, playing notes with the same finger on each of those strings (for example where a tune moves from a C on the A string to a G on the E string, which are both played with the 2nd finger). It’s helpful to place the finger down across both strings as the first of the notes (the C) is played. Try to do this so the finger is dropping down onto both strings from above, rather than by placing the finger down  to play the C then flattening the finger across onto the E string to play the G.

Using the 4th finger

The left hand - using the 4th finger
Photo ©Ros Gasson

Many people find it hard to use the 4th finger with confidence. This may be due to the 4th finger sitting below the neck of the fiddle in the ‘resting’ position. Check what your left hand position is when you’re not using the 4th finger. Ideally the 4th finger should be relaxed, slightly bent, and sitting close to the 3rd finger, above the finger board.

Because we’re not used to using the 4th finger independently, it tends to be naturally weaker than the other fingers. So the first step is to practice using it regularly, to begin to build up strength.
This video gives a lot more detail about the 4th finger:

Playing grace notes

We worked on playing grace notes fluidly. The name ‘grace note’ is perhaps misleading, as the finger playing the grace note barely touches the string before it is lifted again. I tend to think of it as more of a flicking action, so that the finger momentarily stops the string vibrating (imagine what would happen if the string was burning hot when you place your grace note finger on it!). The aim is to create a particular sound when the grace note is played. Ultimately you’ll need to be able to hear the sound you’re aiming to create, as you’re playing the note with the grace note.

We also looked at the different effect on the sound of placing the grace note at the start of the note or at the end.

 

How to play tunes faster

Learning how to play tunes faster

In December’s workshop we focused on techniques that would help us  to play tunes faster.

We started out by revisiting our fiddle bow hold. One of the things that makes it difficult to speed up tunes when we’re learning is where there are fast runs of notes that we’re playing on single bows. It becomes important when trying to play tunes faster to have a relaxed wrist, so the wrist action can become an integral part of the action we use to move the bow rapidly.

We practiced playing a dotted jig rhythm on an open A string, then playing the same rhythm on these notes:

Short riff in jig time

We learnt a 4 part jig called The Duck

In order to play tunes faster, we have to be able to play notes using short lengths of the bow, minimising the amount of work the forearm puts into bowing. More of the action comes from the wrist as we play the tune faster. We worked on the bowing hand wrist action. Remember to keep the wrist of the bowing hand slightly rotated (anticlockwise) so the wrist is in a plane where it can easily flex at either end of the bow stroke.

We looked at what happens with the left hand as we play faster. Keeping the fingers close to the fingerboard when they’re not being used, reduces the time it takes to get them back in place when we next need to use them. It also makes it easier to be precise about where the fingers fall o the strings, making it more likely we will keep notes in tune as we speed up. Practice keeping fingers down on the fingerboard where possible – often you’ll find that in tunes you go straight back to a note you’ve just played. Leaving the finger in place on the string after playing the note the first time helps when it comes to playing faster. It’s also not necessary to push the string down hard onto the fingerboard – the fingers need to ‘dance’ over the strings.

All of these things help with economy of movement which will help us to be able to increase the speed of playing tunes, and keep our playing under control.

To play at speed, you need to be able to keep the tune/rhythm going even if errors happen. To be able to do this with confidence, you need to hear the tune in your head, as you’re playing it. We’re aiming for the mechanics of our playing to become much more subconscious, so we’re no longer having to focus on which way the bow is moving, or which order our fingers need to go down to play that quick run of notes. The notes are played because we hear them in the tune. We tried plucking the first phrase of the tune, and missing random notes out, while still staying in the rhythm. We had to focus on hearing the tune for this to work.

Then we played this riff from the A part of the tune

Short riff in Jig time

We started slowly at first, then lifted the speed a bit in stages, working on holding the speed steady each time we picked it up. Everyone in the group focused on their own playing, pinpointing the speed that their playing became a problem, and analysing what issues were contributing to the difficulty.

It’s important to learn to control own speed if you want to play faster. There’s a tendency for tunes to speed up when we hit tricky bits, so playing faster often results in the speed careering out of control, unless we understand how to control it. Work out whether own foot tapping is driving/controlling your playing speed (some people play along to the tempo of their tapping foot, while others tap their foot in time with their playing). If your playing is following your foot tapping tempo, then you will need to learn to control the foot tapping speed to control your playing speed.

If you’re playing in a group, learn to listen closely not only to yourself, but to the others you’re playing with, and work out what’s happening. This is especially important if the  group is struggling with playing together well. Playing fast is much easier when you are confident you can control your own paying speed, and keep it steady at whatever speed you are aiming for.

Getting over performance nerves

Performance nerves

We looked at how to get over performance nerves in this month’s fiddle workshop. There’s a lot of factors that can make us nervous about playing in front of others. Fortunately there’s a lot a of strategies, and tips for overcoming the problem, too!

Building confidence

Part of building confidence is about improving your playing to a level you are happy with. If you’re working on a particular tune that you want to play well (perhaps you want to be able to start a set of tunes on your own in a session), it can be really helpful to make sure you feel completely confident about playing the opening few bars of the first tune.

We worked on developing a confident start to the note, by getting the bow to really engage with the string. There’s a knack to transferring the weight of the arm through the hand and into the bow right at the start of the note. Te weight is transferred through the index finger, with the thumb acting as a ‘pivot’ at the moment where the weight is transferred.

We played long open As, and worked on creating that engagement of the bow hair with the string at the start of the note. We focused on listening to the sound we were making, as we need to be able to feel and hear the moment when the bow hair engages with the string, and instantly relax the hand to let the string resonate fully as the bow stroke continues. Once you’ve mastered doing this, the effect on the sound of the start of the note is obvious. Have a listen to this recording – the first notes are bowed without this effect, and the second with:

Being able to play with a crisp start to the note can be really helpful with tidying up issues with timing – if it’s really clear exactly where the note starts (to both the player and the listener!), it will help define the pulse in the tune.

We learnt the slow air Theid Mi Dhachaig Chro Chinn T-Saile (I Will go Home to Kintail)

Preparation

There’s a lot we can do to prepare ourselves for a performance (or any situation where others might be listening to our playing. It can be useful to have a few tunes that you know you can play really confidently any time, whether or not you’re playing them on your own.

We talked about various things that will affect how confident you feel about playing a tune:

  • Knowing the notes: Being able to sing through the tune is a useful way to work out if you are certain how it should sound. Singing the start of tune in your head before you start to play can help with reminding you exactly how it goes.
  • Timing: tapping your foot when you’re playing tunes with a regular pulse can help establish a tempo before you start playing.
  • Tuning: There are various things you can do to build your confidence with playing in tune.  Make sure and check your fiddle is in tune before you play in front of other people. It’s surprising how quickly a fiddle can drift out of tune, so do this even if you tuned up when you first arrived.
  • Playing with dynamics in the tune: this might be dynamics in a phrase or part of a tune, or dynamics within a single note. Working on the dynamics in your playing will help your music to become more expressive.
  • Being confident about bowing: being certain that you have a way to bow the tune that sits well, and that you can manage even when you’re not thinking about it will also help.
  • Practicing recovering from errors: We tried this out while playing a scale. We did so, focusing on the sound rather than thinking about what our fingers and bows were doing. Then we tried throwing in a random wrong note for the third note in the  scale, and continuing on with the rest of the scale straight afterwards.
  • Practice in the performance space: if you’re planning a performance, and can have a run through in the performance space before the event, this can be really helpful, as the space, and acoustics will be familiar to you before you perform. If you can’t perform in the space itself, can you create something similar? If you’re going to be playing with others, can you practice in the same formation that you will use to perform? It’s also helpful to give some thought to any speaking any of the performers might do in between playing, if this is relevant. We tried this in the workshop, lining up and playing to an imaginary audience. It gave us an idea of the importance of ensuring that everyone in the group can see/hear the other performers (particularly someone who is in charge of setting the tempo for a tune).
Fiddlers playing at a ceilidh
Photo ©Ros Gasson

Developing routines to calm nerves

Building habits that you go through before you play can help you to feel centred.

  • Try taking some slow breaths, breathing from the diaphragm. You might want to try the 4-7-8 breathing exercise.
  • Developing  routine of stretching exercises to do just before perming can help you to stay relaxed

What’s happening?

When we have stage fright, there are several physical changes that happen:

  • Physical changes: sweating, increased pulse rate, rapid shallow breathing from high in the chest, trembling
  • Mental changes: self-doubt, worrying, visualising failure, blank memory
  • Emotional changes: panic, apprehension, fear

It can be helpful to simulate some of these ‘symptoms’, and practice playing through them. Try going for a jog, and then playing your fiddle while you’re still out of breath. Or try setting up a camera and videoing yourself playing, to add a bit of pressure! If you do this, it can also be a useful tool for watching your own responses to stress when you’re playing, so you can develop your own effective strategies to combat it.

Dealing with ‘gremlins’

We’ve all found ourselves in that place where we ‘fall off’ a tune we’re playing. Very commonly this happens when we start paying attention to the wee voice that whispers ‘This isn’t going to work’ ‘It’s too fast’ ‘Here comes that tricky bit that you can’t play’ ‘That sounds DREADFUL!’ and similarly unhelpful things.

Part of the trick to getting beyond this is to understand what’s happening when we perform as opposed to when we practice. Practicing as an adult learner, especially with the fiddle, which is a tricky instrument to play well, often happens with our brains very focused on thinking and analysing what we are doing. To perform well, you need to access a different state, allowing your subconscious to take over. This is sometimes referred to as playing ‘in the zone’. It allows our playing to become much more expressive and fluid.

If you’ve never done this before playing in front of other people, it’s unlikely to just happen. So as you are learning, spending time switching from playing with your thinking head on, to playing ‘in the zone’ is an important part of your practice, if you want to play confidently. The gremlin voices interrupting our playing are a sign that we’ve slipped back into ‘thinking’ mode. If you’re aware of this, and able to switch easily back into playing ‘in the zone’, you can take evasive action when the gremlins strike!

Getting in the ‘zone’

There are many things we can do to start playing ‘in the zone’, including:

  • Practicing while playing something really easy (it can be as simple as a single note!) while focusing solely on listening to the sound you are making.
  • Focusing on interacting with other players while you are playing
  • Find a gentle visual distraction (such as watching TV with the sound turned down) while playing something simple

Find out more about playing ‘in the zone’

Creating manageable steps to your goal

Supposing you’ve decided your goal is to be able to start a tune on your own in a session. It can be a great help to find ways to reduce the level of anxiety about taking this leap into the unknown! So you might arrange to get together with some supportive friends who play, and try starting a tune on your own with them. If this seems too daunting, check before you play if there is a tune that other players on the group definitely know, and will join in with quickly. Once you’ve done this a few times you might find a friendly session where you can try it out. If it still seems very daunting, get familiar with the session, and the people who play there, before you play on your own. Check the etiquette of the session (can anyone start a tune any time? Some sessions are much more structured about who can start tunes, and when).

Are the other players in the session supportive of people who aren’t seasoned session players? If you have any choice about where you go, it makes a huge difference to find one that is open to folk who are starting out with session playing. It can be pretty daunting to stat a tune at a sensible speed, only to find that the regular players take off with it, and speed it up to a point where you’re unable to play!

It can also be helpful to go along to a session with a friend who also plays, especially if you have repertoire in common. If you don’t have anyone to take with you, ask the players near to you if they know the tune you’re about to start, before you play. That way, they are likely to join in to support you.

And it’s also worth paying attention to the abilities of other players, especially the people you end up sitting beside. It can be hard even for a seasoned player to keep a tune going if they have a loud player beside them who is out of tune, out of time, or playing something only loosely related to the tune they’re playing. If you’re making your first foray into starting a tune, pick a time when the players around you are able to play in a way that supports what you’re doing!

Improving tone on the fiddle

Improving tone

In the October workshop we worked on improving tone on the fiddle.
We started off by getting an better understanding of how the bow functions to create a sound from the fiddle. The hairs on the bow have tiny scales along their length (rather like fish scales). When we put rosin on the bow, tiny flakes of the rosin lodge under the scales, along the length of the hair. This rosin creates a slight ‘stickiness’. As the bow is pulled across the string, the hair sticks, pulling the string sideways. At some point, the tension created overcomes this stickiness, and the string and hair part company, which sets the string vibrating.


By ViolinB0W – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6JeyiM0YNo4, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27025733

The bridge transfers this string vibration to the body of the fiddle. The body of the fiddle acts as a “sound box” which amplifies the sound produced from the string.

We worked on getting the bow to fully engage with the string. Playing on an open A, we placed the bow on the string very close to the frog end. We allowed the weight of the bowing hand to rest fully on the bow. Once in this position, we gradually added an increasing ‘pull’ on the bow. At some point, this pull overcame the stickiness of the rosin, and the bow moved, setting the string vibrating (albeit it with a very scrunchy noise!). We were aiming to get a sense of the feeling in the bowing hand, at the moment the string starts to move. When we’re playing notes on the fiddle, the hand is responding to that moment when the bow engages with the string, and immediately relaxing, to allow the string to ring out, and resonate beneath the bow as it continues to move.

We also worked on using the index finger of the bowing hand on the back of the stick, to help really dig the bow into the string at the start of the note. When playing the fiddle, this action feels like a short pulse in the hand. The index finger pushes into the back of the stick, helping the hair to really engage with the string. Doing this helps to add a dynamic to individual notes we play, so the note doesn’t have the same volume throughout its length.

To be in control of the sounds we make on the fiddle, we need to be in control of what we are doing with the bow throughout the bow stroke. There’s a number of things that will affect the tone of the notes we play. Follow the link to find out more about improving your tone on the fiddle.

We worked in pairs, and gave each other feedback about bowing action, noting whether the bow stayed perpendicular to the strings throughout the bow stroke, and also whether it stayed close to the bridge.

We tried playing long bows on an open string, using the action of our index finger on the stick to create a pulse at the start of each note.

We tried playing on different open strings, to get a feel for the effect of using the bow lightly or with more weight behind it. On the G string there’s a tendency to let the hand add weight to the bow, to create a full resonant sound. When doing this, it will feel more natural to add weight when we’re using the frog end of the bow, as the hand is immediately on top of the bow where it’s making contact with the string. As we move towards the tip of the bow, the weight is transferred into the bow by pushing down with the index finger o the back of the stick.
When we’re playing on the E string, we generally need to hold back a bit on the weight of the bow. As we move towards the frog end of the bow, this involves taking a bit of the weight of the bow in the hand, by pushing down very gently with the pinkie on the back of the stick. The thumb acts as a pivot, so pushing on the stick effectively lifts to tip of the bow. This is a very subtle action, as we don’t want to lift the bow off the string.

The bowing hand in action
Photo ©Ros Gasson

Then we tried playing a long note on an open string, focusing fully on listening to the sound we were making. Learning to play the fiddle can seem like a pretty complicated business in the early stages. There’s a lot of different aspects of technique to work on, and it’s very easy to get into a habit of always playing while thinking – about whether we are in tune, what note comes next, which direction our bow is going, and so on and so on. It’s important to keep practicing playing while really listening to the sounds we are creating. Ultimately we need to be able to play while hearing the tune we are playing in our head – the fact we hear it, means it automatically comes out of the fiddle. Until we can get to a point where we can play in this subconscious way, our playing is likely to be stilted, and lack a sense of flow or connection with others. We also need to be free to focus on listening to what we and others around us are playing, so we can learn about the quality of the sounds we are making, and learn to interact with others we are playing music with.

We learnt the waltz ‘Valse des Pastouriaux’ (written by Jackie Molard).

We played around with the notes in the arpeggio of the D scale (D F# A and D). We all found these notes on our fiddles (and they can be in any octave, so we could go as low as the bottom A, right up to a top A on the E string). We then played around, creating riffs and drones using any combination of any of these notes. We could chose to follow what another person was doing, and play something that worked with what they were playing, or we could chose to play something that cut against what others were doing. While we were doing this, we were fully focused on listening, both to our own playing, and the playing of the fiddlers around us.

We also tried playing some basic chords, working on controlling the bow position so we could confidently chose whether to play a chord or a single string. We tried playing an open G, followed by a G/D chord, then the open D string, followed by a D/A chord, and so on across all the fiddle strings. Playing chords across 2 open strings, for the full length of the bow, helps us to practice listening, and learning from what we hear – in order to play the chord throughout the bow stroke, we must keep the bow travelling in a straight line (on the vertical axis). We should immediately be able to hear if the bow moves off this straight line, as we will no longer hear both notes playing.

Basic bowing patterns for reels

Basic bowing patterns

In this workshop we looked at developing a basic bowing pattern for playing reels. We looked at how to ensure that the stronger down bows fall on the beat. This will automatically make it easier to emphasise the notes that fall on the beat in each bar. The idea of doing this is not that you would always play a down bow on the beat, but that this will happen if you’re playing ‘on autopilot’. Achieving this frees you up to focus on the bits of the tune where you want to push the emphasis onto off-beats and/or the up-beats.

Emphasising the on-beat

We started off by playing long bow strokes on an open A string. Then we changed this to short bow strokes on the open A. We added a rhythm to this, emphasising the first note in each group of 4. This is similar to playing in reel time, where there are 2 sets of 4 quavers in each bar.

We were emphasising the 2 on-beats in each bar. We played the first note in the bar on a down bow each time. So the beat falls on the down bow, which is a naturally stronger bow stroke. To accentuate this, we used a fast long bow stroke on the 2 on-beats in the bar, making these much louder than the other notes. We also worked on getting the hairs of the bow to ‘connect’ with the string at the start of each bow stroke. To do this we used the index finger on the back of the stick of the bow, pushing the stick down into the fiddle at the start of each bow stroke, in a quick pulse.

We worked on tapping the foot on the on beat (2 taps in each ‘bar’ of 8 quavers).

We also tried out adding a chord (playing an open D with the A) on the notes on the on beat, to accentuate the sound further.

We learnt the reel Put Me in the Big Chest.

developing a ‘default’ bowing pattern

We worked on playing this with a basic bowing pattern that keeps the down bow on the beat. To achieve this, we slurred 2 quavers on an up bow after every crotchet or triplet. The idea is to develop a basic ‘default’ bowing pattern that will ultimately be played with any new tune, without needing to think about it. This frees us up to begin to play around with the pulse in a tune, but focusing on the phrases where we want to emphasise off-beats or up-beats, allowing the subconscious to take care of ensuring that for the rest of the tune, the on-beats will automatically be emphasised.

Shetland bowing patterns – 1 down, 3 up

Then we added in a 1 down 3 up pattern in the A part of the tune. In this bowing pattern, we used a long down bow stroke on the first quaver, to give enough space on the bow to fit in the 3 quavers on the up bow after it. The bow needs to move fast on the up stroke before this pattern (this note is the up-beat), to get the bow into position before the long down bow – so this automatically tends to add emphasis to the upbeat as well. We tried clapping the off beat while the tune was played, tapping the foot on the beat at the same time. We also tried clapping offbeat and singing the tune. If you’re struggling to control the direction of your bow with new bowing patterns, it can be useful to follow the bow direction with your bow off the fiddle, as someone else is playing the tune slowly with the pattern you are learning.

Shetland bowing patterns – 3 up, 1 down

We tried out playing the 3 up 1 down pattern in the B part of the tune. Playing this pattern pushes the emphasis onto the off-beat.

On-beats and off-beats

We added in a rhythm behind the tune, playing an A/E chord, using the first finger on the G/D strings,. We started out by emphasising the beat. This made it much easier for the tunes players to play with a strong pulse. The fiddlers playing the chords switched to emphasising off beat, which changed the effect on the tune.

Listening to our playing

We recorded ourselves playing the tune together with one person playing simple on beat rhythm behind it. We noticed when listening to the recording there was a tendency to be not all hitting the notes on the beat at the same time. Also the emphasis of the notes on the beat were not as obvious as we had thought when we were playing them. We repeated the exercise several times, which made a big improvement to the overall sound. We tried all focusing on following the rhythm set by the person playing accompaniment.

 

Playing with others

Playing with others

There are several things to pay attention to when playing with others.

  • We started this session by looking at the detail – emphases, playing notes cleanly, with a precise start and finish.
  • We also looked at playing with a clear pulse in tunes, making it clearly identifiable, so that others can follow and join in. Our pulse should be the same as others who are are playing.
  • Awareness of other players – what are they doing? Are you in time, in tune, …and playing the same tune?
Fiddlers playing together
Photo ©Ros Gasson

Playing the notes cleanly

We worked on getting the bow connecting with the string. We placed the bow on an open string, and added gradual tension with the bowing arm, making sure we were transferring the weight of the arm into the bow so the bow was fully engaged with the string.

At some point the tension of the pull of the bow overcomes the stickiness of the rosin, and the bow hair loses it’s grip on the string. The string then starts to vibrate, creating the note. This helped us to identify the point where the bow starts to get the string vibrating. We then worked on making sure the bow was really engaging clearly with the string, right at the start of each note. we played an open D, and used the weight of the bowing arm through the index finger to dig the bow into string at the point when string starts to vibrate.  We worked on dynamics within notes, using the bow speed to increase the volume at the start of the note. We worked on both of these playing up a D scale.

Playing with a clear pulse

We learnt Kirsty’s, a strathspey by Charlie McKerron. We played the opening phrase, concentrating on creating strong clear notes, and all playing in time. We used the speed of the bow to increase the volume of the notes on the beat.

We talked about how to start a tune, so that others you are playing with can come in at the same tempo. We tired out counting in – to do this, you need to think about the tempo you want the tune to go, the time signature of the tune, and whether you are starting playing at the start of a bar, or with lead notes before the bar. We worked on counting in and starting confidently and together.

We also talked about keeping a sense of the pulse as we play. An orchestra has a conductor to follow, but with folk music there isn’t an official person doing this. It often happens in a session that the players will end up following the loudest instrument. But what happens if that player has a poor sense of timing? There are various things we can do to prevent the pulse being lost in a group. The first thing is to make sure you have a good sense of where that pulse is. Generally folk musicians do this by tapping a foot on the beat. If you’re used to doing this, and confident your foot tapping can hold a steady tempo, you can then learn to follow that, rather than the loud instrument. Depending on the setting, you might also want to tap that foot a bit louder, if you can feel the tempo in the group is beginning to go out of control. It’s also possible to take visual cues from other players who you know have a good sense of the timing, if you’re unable to hear what they are playing – watching a good player’s bow can be very useful!

We also talked about being able to hear the tune in your head as you’re playing. Learning the fiddle is a complex business, ad it’s easy to get stuck in a very ‘thinking’ mode when playing, as we concentrate on bow direction, where our fingers are going, whether we’re in tune etc etc. Ultimately we need to let go of this and trust our subconscious to take charge of these physical aspects of playing, in order to let the music that we’re playing flow out. When we do this, we can then hear the tune in our heads as we play, and focus on how we want to tune to sound. If something goes awry with our playing, and we continue to hear the tune in our heads, we can very quickly get past the mistake, and slot back into the tune in the correct timing.  This keeps the pulse going. It’s surprising how little someone listening will notice, in terms of errors, if the pulse stays on track!

We worked on focusing on hearing the tune – the group split in half, and played alternate phrases from the tune, keeping a steady tempo as the tune switched from one group to the other. We needed to hear tune through the phrase we weren’t playing, in order to come in at the right point and at the right tempo. We also tried playing a phrase altogether, all missing out several notes in the iddle, and coming back into the rest of the phrase together at the right time/tempo.

Awareness of other players

We stood in a circle and played the tune, focusing on the players either side of us, and blending with them. Then we played focusing on whole group sound, making eye contact, and taking our visual and listening focus off our own playing. Doing this created a big difference in the energy of the group’s sound.
We tried out playing with our eyes shut, focusing only on the sound we could hear. Some people found technique tricky when doing this – eg being confident about the position of the bow on the strings.

We talked about what to do if you can’t hear the others you are playing with. One of the most obvious things is to play a bit quieter yourself. Sometimes in a session, you ca tell the music isn’t ‘gelling’ but it can be hard to hear where the pulse is, and what’s being played. There’s nothing wrong with dropping your own volume right down, or even stopping playing altogether, so you can hear more clearly what’s happening.
Then we played round the A part of the tune, with one person ‘in charge’ of the tempo on each repetition. All the players followed the same person, and the person ‘in charge’ moved on sequentially around the room with each repetition of the part.

Then we tried putting it all into practice, and played the opening phrase of the tune individually, with each person in the group following on from the previous player. We made observations on our own playing after doing this.

We also talked about how to end, or signal an end to a tune so that a group can all end together (and also so an audience knows you’ve come to the end!)

How to make practice effective

It’s tempting when practicing, to play lots of tunes that you know. It can be useful to do this, but if there are elements of technique that you’re struggling with, playing over and over with poor technique is likely to be helping to bed that in! So it’s useful to identify a single thing that you want to work on, and focus on that each time you play. it can be helpful to play something very simple (a single note, a scale, or a short phrase) while you work on that specific technique. As learning a new technique will often take you into a thinking way of playing, it can be easy to miss the effect that the changes you are making have on the sound you’re creating. It’s difficult to focus on listening closely while mastering a new physical skill. It can be really helpful to record yourself playing, and listen back to it.

 

There’s a really useful blog called the Bulletproof Musician, which gives plenty of tips, hints , and information about the psychology of playing well. And a simple guide to how to practice effectively, from Hands Up for Trad

Patsy Reid and Megan Henderosn playing fiddle
©Ros Gasson

 

Tone and tuning

Tone and tuning

Today’s workshop focussed on tone and tuning – looking at how to tune the fiddle, learning to listen to the sound we’re making, and to listen to others, how to learn to hear what ‘in tune’ sounds like, how to create a full tone on the fiddle, and how the resonance of the fiddle is affected by tuning.

Learning how to tune a fiddle by ear

We went through the steps of tuning a fiddle by ear. We started off by tuning our A string to an electronic tuner. Once you are confident with tuning by ear, you will be able to tune your A string to another instrument, or a pitch pipe. Before we started trying to tune the D string, we held the fiddle under the chin, and using the left hand, loosened the fine adjuster to make the D flat. This can feel awkward to start with – you may not be sure which way you need to turn the fine tuner, as everything will feel back to front. but it gets you familiar with using your left hand to turn the adjuster without any other distractions. Loosening the string before you try to tune by ear means you are always going to be tuning the note from flat, up to the correct pitch. This way, you will be hearing the same process each time you tune.

Holding the fiddle to tune it by ear
Photo ©Ros Gasson

Once you’ve done this, you can use the bow in your right hand to play the open D and open A together, using long bow strokes. As you play, you can use your left hand to tune up the D string, while listening to the pitch in relation to the tuned A string. When you first try this, if you’ve never tried to hear the in tune note in this way, you may well be unsure when the D string is in tune. Make your best guess, and then use an electronic tuner to check if you have it right or not. If the D string pitch is out, it’s worth tuning it using the tuner, then playing the chord of the open A & D again. Doing this with your eyes shut can help with really focusing on the sound the 2 strings make when they are in tune. Then loosen the D string adjuster again, and try to re-tune it again by ear. It may seem obvious, but if you can’t hear what the in tune note sounds like, it will be impossible to tune the instrument by ear. Equally, just because you can’t hear it now, it doesn’t mean that it’s not possible to learn to do so. Going through the same steps each time you tune the fiddle, and always trying by ear, then once you’re done, checking the tuning with the electronic tuner, will help to train you rear to hear the how the ‘in tune’ notes should sound. Once you’ve got this, you can tune the G string by playing it with the tuned D string, and then the E string by playing it with the A string. Follow the link to see more tips for tuning your fiddle.

You’ll find that learning to tune your fiddle by ear, in training you to hear the note being in tune, will also help with learning to hear whether the fingered notes you play are in tune.

Hearing whether an individual string is in tune is easier if the note is really resonating. There’s a balance between the bow making a strong connection with the string, and being light enough to allow the string to resonate. A heavily handled bow will result in a ‘dead’ sound to the notes produced. If the bow hairs don’t really connect with the string, the sound will be erratic and thin.

Moving from playing ‘mechanically’ to focusing on the sound of the fiddle

When you start to learn to play the fiddle, there’s a huge amount to take in – while you’re tussling with how to hold the bow, and how to keep it perpendicular to the strings throughout the bow stroke, you’re also trying to play in tune, and to work on creating a pleasing tone with the instrument. And on top of this, for most learners, they will also be trying to learn tunes as they go, remembering the tune, and working out what order to place the fingers to play it.

It’s no wonder that many beginners end up tense and playing in a very mechanical fashion. With all the concentration required, relaxing and getting in to the flow of the music can seem an impossible step. As it takes a lot of playing to get a grasp of the mechanics of playing, many people find that the tension is an inbuilt habit of their playing. One thing that regularly happens in the early stages of learning is that the payer looks at their fiddle – working out where the fingers and bow need to go. This focus on visual clues can quickly become an ingrained habit. And it’s a habit that often gets in the way of really listening closely to the sound you are making as you play – the brain struggles to concentrate well on both visual and auditory input at the same time. If you can begin to focus more on listening rather than looking, you’ll find that you are able to gain valuable feedback on the effects of your playing habits. And focusing on the sound also begins to allow the subconscious to take over control of the mechanics of playing, allowing the player to focus on the quality of your music, ad how you want it to sound. For this reason, I often suggest people try things out with their eyes shut, as it will push them to focus on listening rather than looking.

We tried out playing an open A to get the string really resonating. Then we played a short phrase on the E string (ef#gaagf#e), focusing purely on the quality of the sound we were making individually as we played. After this we tried having one person playing the same phrase in a certain style, then one other person joining in with them to play in the same way. If you’re trying this, it is helpful for the person who is trying to follow to close their eyes, so they can really focus on the sounds they’re hearing.

We learnt the slow air Ross Memorial Hospital by Phil Cunningham.

 

Playing the fiddle in tune

We tried out playing some long slow notes in the arpeggio of D. We checked our fiddles were still in tune before doing this exercise. With four people sitting in a circle, we had one person playing each of the notes in the arpeggio (D F# A and top D). Starting with one player playing the open D string, the next person round the circle played the F#, the next person played the open A, and the last person played the top D. So round the circle, alternate notes are being played on the open string, and should automatically be in tune. The 2 people  playing fingered notes have someone on either side playing an open-stringed note. We played the same note for a while, focusing on getting the notes blending and harmonising together. Once we had this, we all moved to the next note up the arpeggio (with the person who was playing the top D moving on to the bottom open string D). If you don’t have other people to play with, you can do this exercise all on one fiddle, by playing chords as you go. The chord sequence would be:

D/A (both open strings)

F#(2nd finger on D string)/A (open string)

A/D (both open strings)

D/D (3rd finger on A string)

When you’re playing the F#/A or D/D combination, focus on listening to whether the fingered note is really in tune and harmonising with the open string.

Connecting the bow with the string

We tried out placing the frog end of the bow on the D string. Letting the weight of the arm sit on the bow to dig the bow into the string, we pulled the bow downwards. Initially nothing seems to happen, as the stickiness of the rosin keeps the bow on the string as the string is being pulled sideways. There’s a sudden moment where the downward pressure releases the string from the bow, and the string starts to vibrate, creating a sound. We played around with keeping the bow heavily in contact with the string (which stops the string resonating), and lightening the bow stroke, or lifting the bow clear of the string, both of which allow the string to resonate.

Names of the parts of a fiddle bow
Photo ©Ros Gasson

Making Music

Making music

In this workshop we spent the day exploring how to shift from playing a series of notes, to making music.

  • There are several factors involved:
  • Relaxation, and getting ‘in the zone’
  • Tone
  • Tuning
  • Timing

We learnt a simple round, and the tune ‘I See Mull’

Tuning

We worked on shifting from a thinking way of playing to playing while really focusing on listening. We played the round, listening to our own sounds and those of the adjacent players, who were playing a different part. Doing this helps us to start to hear harmonies, and hear whether our own notes are in tune with those around us.

Timing

We worked on getting the bow to engage with the fiddle strings. We played percussive rhythmic open-string notes, lifting the bow, and using heel of the bow to make contact with the string. Our aim was to create very clear starts and finishes to the notes we played.

Expression

We spent some time listening closely to the notes in tunes, and how the dynamics played within individual notes can add to the expressiveness. For long notes, especially those that are at the highest pitches within the tune, we can build the volume throughout the length of the note, by speeding up the bow towards the tip.

 

The ups and Downs of Bowing

Bowing

In this month’s workshop, we looked at bowing action, and some bowing patterns for a simple reel.

 

We started off by looking at the bow hold, and did some exercises to work on the flexibility of the wrist and fingers.

Fingers

  • Hold the bow horizontally in front of you, using the left hand to support the bow tip. Lift each of the fingers of the right hand one at a time, and replace on the stick of the bow.
  • Hold the bow at the frog end, and hold it vertically in front of you. Using the fingers, ‘walk’ the hand up to the tip of the bow. Then ‘walk’ the hand back down to the frog end.
  • Hold the bow vertically in front of you, using your usual bow hold. Use the first finger and pinkie to rotate the tip of the bow backwards and forwards (like a windscreen wiper). The bow should be rotating around the thumb, which acts as a pivot. Try to do this without moving the wrist at all

Wrist

  • Hold the bow at the balance point of the stick, so it doesn’t tip in either direction. Hold it out in front of you horizontally, using your usual bowing arm. Do a ‘kiddy wave’ with the bowing hand, using just the wrist, so the bow moves up and down, staying parallel to the floor throughout.
  • Repeat the ‘windscreen wiper’ action in the finger exercises about, but this time use just the wrist to move the bow.
  • Hold the bow with your usual bow hold. Hold it vertically in front of you, and slowly move it upwards towards the ceiling like a rocket launching. Keep the bow perpendicular to the floor all the time. Bring it back down again, still keeping it vertical. It will be essential to use the flexibility in the wrist at the highest and lowest points to keep the bow tip moving in a straight line up and down.

We played up the A scale a few times, starting on the open A string. We were playing the eight notes of the scale as 8 quavers in a single bar of a reel.

We tried out using single bow strokes for each of the notes, then tried slurring the notes together in pairs. We then moved on to bowing a 1 down 3 up pattern, starting on a down bow on the open A. Because the notes are equal lengths, and we were fitting 3 notes on the up bow and only one note on the down bow, the bow has to move much further and faster to play the notes on each down bow. This has the effect of emphasising the note on the down bow.

It’s also possible to play a 3 up 1 down pattern, with the down bows falling on the 3rd and 7th note in the scale. This pattern has the effect of emphasising the offbeat when played in a reel. To get into this pattern, start playing the octave or bar on an up bow, and slur the first 2 quavers together, then play a downbow. From then on, the pattern is 3 up 1 down.

We then tried out playing each of these patterns while tapping our feet on the beat. We worked on getting a clean start/end to individual notes, and then played while focusing on what the person on either side of us was playing, aiming to blend our playing together with one another.

We learnt the reel Buntata Sgadan (Tatties and Herring). We started off learning the tune with a basic bowing pattern that put down bows on the beat throughout the tune. I’ve added the music to the music page, with this basic bowing pattern marked. We then tried adding a 3 up 1 down bowing pattern in the B part of the tune.  I’ve uploaded a second copy of the music  with this bowing marked.

We played through the reel several times, tapping our feet on the beat, and focusing on playing in time with one another. We tried out playing with our eyes shut, so we could really focus on listening to the others in the group as we played.

We went back to playing a scale, and tried out playing it using just the tip of the bow. Then we played the scale using the heel end of the bow. There’s a big difference in the tone between the two.

Weight

We also worked on transferring the weight of the arm into the bow and fiddle strings. We started off by putting our bows down and plucking an open note on the fiddle. We hooked a finger over the string, and used the weight of the arm to pull the finger  downwards, until the tension caused the finger to come off the string. Then we moved to digging the heel of the bow into an open string, and allowing the weight of the arm to transfer through the index finger and into the bow. Eventually the tension causes the bow to move on the string. Doing this creates a seriously scrunchy noise! It helps give a feeling for the ‘bite’ when the bow really connects with the string.

We split into pairs, and continued to work on how to transfer the weight of the bowing arm into the bow. You can see the details of how we did this exercise in this post from a previous workshop, under the heading ‘Tone and the bowing arm’.

We tried out playing the A scale using just the frog end of the bow, and getting the bow to ‘bite’ into the string with each note, creating a very distinct scrunchy start to the note. Then we tried playing the scale delicately, using only the tip of the bow, and taking a little of the weight of the bow using the pinkie in a ‘pivot’ action against the thumb. This  helps with exploring the extremes of sound that are possible with a fiddle! Having control over the volume/tone of each note will give a basis for introducing dynamics into our playing.

We went back to playing Buntata Sgadan, exploring possible dynamics in the tune.

The bowing hand - how to play snaps
Photo ©Ros Gasson

Playing chords on the fiddle

Playing chords

In this workshop we looked at several different ways of playing chords on the fiddle – either as an accompaniment to someone else playing a tune,  or with a tune you’re playing yourself, when they can be played as a long ‘drone’, as a short accompaniment to a phrase within the tune, or as a percussive accompaniment.

 

We started off by looking at the bow hold, and its role in giving you control over whether to play one string or two at any given moment. We learnt the Irish tune ‘The Eagle’s Whistle’ playing with an open string played throughout the A part. We looked at playing the tune with slurred bow strokes, so the open string became an accompanying drone. Then we played with mainly individual bow strokes, which created a rhythmic accompaniment on the open string. It’s possible to add pushes on some of the up bows to add interesting rhythms. We also played around with leaving spaces in the tune. Then we tried out playing the tune up an octave. We focused on hearing the tune while doing this, and letting it come out of the fiddle without thinking about the different fingerings in the higher octave. Basic chords are formed from the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 8th notes in any octave (known as the arpeggio). Fiddlers only need to find 2 of these notes! Having found drones to accompany the tune, we split into 2 groups, and one group played the tune up an octave, while the other group tried to find chords to play as an accompaniment to the tune.

 

We learnt the tune ‘Egan’s Polka’. We added a percussive chord on an open D below the D in the tune. This involves letting the bow hit the open D, then ‘bounce’ off it almost straight away, allowing the D string to ring out. We also played around with emphasising up bows in the tune, and leaving spaces.

 

Playing chords on the fiddle
©Ros Gasson

We looked at common chord shapes. Where the first number is the finger on the lower string, and the second number is the finger on the next string up,  0-0, 1-1, 2-0 and 3-1 all create basic chords with notes a third or a fifth apart. 2-3 and 1-0 are other variations on notes from the arpeggio. Getting familiar with the hand shapes needed to create these chords allows us to make them readily while playing tunes.

 

We played through Spootiskerry, Leaving Lismore, and the Barrowburn Reel, looking at possible chords we could play