Playing slow airs on the fiddle

Playing a slow air

Tonight we learnt the Irish slow air Her Mantle So Green.

We started the evening by working on techniques for beginning to play with vibrato. You can follow the link to remind yourself of the steps involved to practice the action for wrist vibrato. We concentrated on working on the action keeping our forearm still, and using the wrist to generate the vibrato movement in the hand. we tried out the vibrato action in pairs, with one person holding the other person’s forearm steady while they played.

Once we had learnt the tune, we talked about things we can do to improve our tone when we play. We came up with quite a list!

  • Playing in tune
  • Keeping the bow perpendicular to the fiddle strings throughout the bow stroke
  • Keeping the wrist flexible, and allowing the wrist to ‘lead’ the bow stroke. This will also help with keeping the bow perpendicular to the strings throughout the full length of the bow stroke
  • Keeping both arms and hands relaxed, and avoiding tension in the neck and shoulders
  • Keeping the bow in the ‘sweet spot’ on the fiddle strings
  • Using the speed of the bow to add a ‘shape’ or dynamics to the longer notes
  • Using slurs

We tried playing through the tune again, thinking about the tone we were creating.

We also talked about more effective ways to learn. When we practice, we’ll often pick on something we want to do better, and play it round and round for a long time, until we feel we’ve made some progress. Often learning in this way doesn’t seem to stick well, or get bedded into our playing.

Our brains are more likely to focus on things that are new or different. When we repeat one thing for a long time, we tend to be less stimulated, and start to lose concentration. Practicing a few different things, and rotating from one to another after a short spell, is likely to keep us more engaged, as we’re keeping ourselves interested with new material. You can read about this in more depth in an article written by Dr Noa Kageyama, performance psychologist.

When playing slow airs, tuning is really important. It may seem obvious, but it’s important to be able to hear when a note is in or out of tune – if we can’t hear it, it will be impossible to learn to play consistently in tune. We talked through things we can do to help us learn to hear what is in tune.

Playing slow airs together in an informal session
Photo ©Ros Gasson 2013

Tuning the fiddle:

  • Tune  your fiddle by ear whenever possible. Check it with an electronic tuner afterwards, if you’re not sure if you have it in tune. This helps to train your ear to hear when notes are in tune. Find out more about tuning your fiddle.
  • Get into the habit of tuning your fiddle in the same way each time. Tune the A string first (either to a tuner, or to a fixed pitch instrument, pitch pipe  or tuning fork). Then loosen each string in turn before tuning it, so you are always tuning from flat to in tune. Play a chord with the adjacent open A string while you are tuning the D string. Once the D is in tune, play a chord with the open D string while you are tuning the G. The A string can also be used for a chord while tuning the E string.
  • Play the start of a tune that you know really well, that begins with a fifth jump. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star works well! Listen to that opening interval, and see if you can hear if it’s right or not

Playing in tune

  • Playing chords in tunes also helps with hearing when particular notes are in pitch.
  • Play tunes and check any suspect notes against an electronic tuner.
  • If you can sing in tune, try singing while you play.

We tried out playing the tune together in the group, all following one person’s timing.

We finished off by playing through Ramnee Ceilidh, then Lay Dee at Dee together