Playing at speed

Playing at speed

In this workshop, we focussed on tips and techniques for playing faster, and keeping our playing speed under control. There’s a natural tendency when playing faster tunes for the tune speed to gradually increase, until it gets to a speed where it’s impossible to play. We worked on developing our confidence with playing at a steady tempo, and finding ways to keep our playing precise and in time as we took the tempo up.

The left hand

We started the workshop by looking at what the left hand is doing. It’s important to keep the hand relaxed, and to allow it to move fluidly when changing positions. There are a few things we can think about doing to keep the left hand action as as efficient as possible. We looked at how the fingers move from one string to another. We placed the third finger on the G string, and used movement in the left elbow to change the hand position over the strings, allowing us to lift the finger, and place in on the D string, then the A string, then E string. As we move the finger one string to the right on the fiddle, the elbow is swinging further over to the left underneath the neck of the fiddle, taking the hand across the fingerboard.

We then looked at keeping the movement of the fingers as economical as possible when moving from one note to another. When we lift a finger from the string to move it, we can keep it very close to the string when it’s in between notes – it just needs to be lifted clear of the string and no more. The closer the finger stays to the string, the easier it will be to place it down quickly for the next note. We also tried out using minimal pressure on the string with the fingers of the left hand. The string doesn’t need to be pushed hard down onto the fingerboard (doing so will create a lot of tension in the left arm). Avoiding pushing down hard into the fingerboard helps us to keep the left hand and arm relaxed when we’re playing, which will also help us to develop faster playing.

Using the 3rd finger on the G string, we played a C, then moved to 3rd finger on the D string (playing a G), then moved to 3rd finger on the A string (playing a D), then moved to 3rd finger on the E string (playing an A), practicing the above points. We tried a similar thing using the first finger on each string (playing A, E, B, F#)

Foot tapping

One thing that can help with keeping your playing speed under control is to be able to tap your foot to a steady timing, while you are playing. It helps us to develop an awareness of where the beats are in a tune. Tapping your foot only on the onbeat (in a reel) also helps with developing an inner sense where the onbeat is, and distinguishes it from the offbeats.

We played open As, in reel time, adding a pulse on the beat by playing a long fast bowstroke on a downbow for each onbeat. We played all the other notes very quietly, using short bows.

The we shut our eyes, and concentrated on the sound we were making. We listened closely to how we were playing together, and tried to play exactly in time with one another. We tapped our feet on the onbeat while we played, emphasisng the notes as we tapped outr feet. we focussed on keeping the sound of the foot tapping, and the sound of the emphasised notes in time with one another. We shut our eyes again, and listened closely to the feet tapping and the pulse of the notes on the fiddle. It was a challenge to do this and all remain exactly in time with one another.  We put our fiddles down, and tried out clapping on the beat, and tapping our feet on the beat at same time. Then we tried tapping foot, and tapping our right hand on our right leg. Then tapping our feet, and switching to tapping our left hand on our left leg. At each switch from right to left hand, we noticed tempo had a tendency to speed up briefly.

Playing the fiddle for ceilidh dancers
Photo ©Ros Gasson

We picked up our fiddles again, and switched to playing the notes A, D, D, A (on the A string), with the emphasis on the first A (which would be the onbeat, if these notes are part of a reel), while tapping foot on the same beat. we split into pairs. One person observed while the other played this exercise. Then we fed back  in our pairs, on bow position, tapping, pulse, fingers etc. We switched round roles and and repeated this.

Bow hold

We re-visited the bow hold. we held the bow out in front of us horizontally, using our ordinary bowhold to support the bow. We allowed the bow to pivot around the bent thumb, exploring the role of the index finger (which pushes the tip down) and pinkie (which raises the tip up). We moved the bow like a windscreen wiper, using just the pinkie and index finger to make the bow move. When doing this the hand responds to the changes in bow position. We’re aiming to develop a bow hold that is responsive to the movements of the bow, rather than a rigid grip on the bow. using our bowing hand, we held the bow out vertically in front of us,then ‘walked’ fingers up the stick of the bow to the tip, and back down again. This helps develop independent movement of the fingers in the bowing hand.

The Stone Frigate

We learnt a reel called The Stone Frigate. We played first phrase round, and added a pulse on the beat. We focussed on getting the beat really strong, with a fast moving bow on a down bow for emphasis, and we made the remaining notes very quiet, using very short bow lengths. Ros played the first phrase  round several times  while the group sang the notes, including the emphasis. Once we were familiar with the sound of the phrase, we tried playing it while just thinking of the sound of the phrase, and not worrying about the notes. The group’s sound had a changed sense of energy about it when we did this.

We added chords into the A part, starting with an open D string played along with the notes on the beat. We revisited how to play chords with confidence. We also added in chord on the upbeat.

We played the tune round several times, with each repeat of the tune played slightly faster.

We tried playing the tune using different parts of the bow – once round only playing using the tip of the bow, then using only the middle of the bow for the next repetition, and down at the heel of the bow for the last time through the tune.

Onbeats and offbeats

We went back to playing beats on an open A, in reel time, and tapping our feet on the beat. Half of the group did this, and set a rhythm going. The other half of the group also started tapping their feet on the beat, then played the open A while emphasising the offbeat. Then we switched round roles.

We played the tune again, emphasising the on beat, then tried out switching the emphasis to the off beat in the opening phrase. I’ve added a couple of versions of the tune on the written music page of the site with some of the on beats and off beats marked, so you can see where they are.

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