How to play at speed

How to play at speed

Tonight we worked on techniques to help us learn how to play at speed, and also looked at gaining more control over playing chords where we want them in tunes.

Double stopping

We played through Miss Miffy Finlay, working on gaining more control over playing chords just when we choose to in the tune. It can be difficult to be confident that you will play a chord exactly when you want to. We tried playing a run of notes on the E string (E, F#, G, A, A, G, F#, E), while keeping the bow very close to the A string, but without playing any chords on the A string. Then we did the same thing with our eyes closed, so we weren’t getting any visual feedback about our bow position. Once we’d done this, we worked on playing a chord with an open A, just on alternate notes in the run. We started the run in a down bow, and played all the notes on single bows, which meant all the chords fell on down bows.

Once the bow is in this position, the chord can be controlled simply by applying a little pressure to the stick of the bow with the index finger at the start of the note, ‘digging’ the bow into the string. As the bow compresses down onto the E string, it will also come in contact with the A string (f it’s positioned close enough to the A string), creating the chord. As soon as the pressure is released, the bow comes clear of the A string. So the control over whether we are playing a chord or not is coming purely from the index finger, and not by using the  the bowing arm to change the angle of the bow. As it’s much easier to control a small movement of the index finger than a movement in the bowing arm, this gives a very fine control over whether or not we play a chord at any given point.

Then we tried playing the same run of notes, and only playing the chord on each up bow – this was quite a lot harder to do!

Playing reels at speed

Then we moved on to the reel we learnt a couple of weeks ago (In and Out the Harbour), and worked on techniques we can use for playing reels up to speed. We’ll come back to this tune a few times during this term.

Learning to play reels faster requires moving away from thinking too much about the specifics of how we are playing, and ‘getting into the zone’ – allowing our subconscious to take over. We also need to have control over the tempo of the tune we’re playing.  One of the difficulties with trying to increase the speed of a tune is loosing control of the timing. This might happen because there’s a part of the tune we stumble over, or because we panic at trying to fit all the notes in – tension creeps in, and before we know it, the tune has sped up and spiraled out of control. If there’s a part of a tune you’re struggling to play, it’s worth spending time working out what is happening with your bowing, and, at least initially, finding a consistent bowing pattern that allows you to play any tricky phrases as easily as possible.

Playing at speed
Photo ©Ros Gasson

Foot tapping

To keep control of tempo, it’s really helpful to tap into your own inner sense of timing. In folk music, there’s no conductor taking control of timing, so we need to do this ourselves. Tapping a foot, or moving in some other way in time with the music, is likely to help us keep playing to a consistent beat. The advantage of foot tapping is that as the foot hits the floor it gives us a distinct reference point as to where the beat is. Getting into the habit of tapping on  each on-beat in reels (two taps in each bar) also gives a distinction between the on-beat and the off-beat. When we start to play around with the rhythms in the tune, this creates a distinct advantage over  tapping the foot on every beat in the bar (ie 4 taps per bar).

Some people tap all 4 beats in the bar, but alternate between tapping the heel and toe, or the left and right foot. This has the same effect as tapping only the on-beats, in terms of providing a distinction between on-beat and off-beat. Try out different variations, and see which feels most comfortable when you’re playing.

Foot tapping can also drive the tune, or follow it. If your playing tempo follows the tempo of your foot tapping, it becomes easy to control the tempo of the tune by keeping control of the speed the foot is tapping. If the foot is following the tempo of the tune, it doesn’t allow the same level of ‘external’ control over the playing tempo. You can find out which you are doing by playing along in time with a metronome. Try doing this first by playing the notes in time with the metronome, then try it again while keeping your foot taping in time with the metronome. Which did you find easiest?

 Playing ‘in the zone’

Playing from the subconscious allows us to fully relax into the music, creating fluidity in our playing. It’s an essential skill for being able to play at speed with confidence. When we’re learning to play the fiddle, there’s a lot to think about. It’s easy to get into the habit of playing in a very ‘conscious’ way, as we struggle to learn how to control the bow, learn tunes, play with good tone and tuning, and understand the rhythms and the music. It’s a lot to take in, and it can feel as if it’s impossible to switch the thinking part of our brain off while we’re playing! In the class, we worked on finding distractions, so our subconscious was pushed into to taking over the playing, helping us to develop a sense of how it feels to play in this way. We worked on the reel In and Out the Harbour. To start with we payed the exercise for practicing triplets, slurring the 2 quavers in between the triplets on an up bow. Triplet exercise for fiddle players While we were doing this, we wandered around the room and chatted to other folk (while still playing!).  Another thing you can try at home is to watch what’s happening out of the window while you’re playing, or put the TV on with the sound down, and watch that while playing. All these things have the same effect of making if impossible for us to think too much about what we’re playing, encouraging the subconscious to take over.

Keeping the tune going

Playing from the subconscious has one other important benefit. It free us up to hear the tune in our head as we play (this is different from listening to what you’re actually playing). If we have a ‘soundtrack’ in our head, of the tune we are playing, it has some interesting effects. One of the main benefits is that if we do stumble over playing a part of the tune, we will still be able to come back into it in time, if we continue hearing the tune even when we’re not playing it. Being able to do this helps reduce the fear of ‘falling off’ a tune in the middle, and grinding to a halt. As time goes on, you’ll find that you can generally pick up a tune within a note or two if you make a mistake, and many people listening will barely be aware there was a problem.

We experimented with doing this by splitting the class in two. One half of the class played the first ‘question’ phrase of the tune, and the other half played back the response. We switched back and forth, so that between us we were paying the whole tune, in time. While we were doing this, we tried  to hear the entire tune in our heads, continuing on while we  weren’t playing, so we knew exactly when to come back in. Then we tried all playing the ‘question’ phrases in the tune, with no-one playing the answer. This meant we really had to keep the tune running in our head to know where to come back in. The next step was to all play the response phrases only – that was much harder, partly because of the structure of this particular tune, which doesn’t always repeat exactly the same in those response sections.