Playing jigs and reels up to speed

How to play tunes at speed

In the  November workshop we worked on techniques that help with playing reels and jigs up to speed.

We started off by playing the notes of the D scale.  We worked on how to control the length of bow that we used for each note, which affects the volume of the note. We focused on emphasising the notes on the beat, playing these on a downbow. Once we’d played the scale round a few times doing this, we switched our focus to listening to the sound of our own fiddle, and the sound the group made together, paying particular attention to the detail of each note. When our focus was on the sound of the group, we played much more tightly together.

To play closely in time with one another, it’s important to be able to control exactly when the bow connects with the string and starts each note. We also have to be in control of exactly when each note stops as this will affect when the following note starts.

We learnt the reel Roxburgh Castle. The B part of the tune involves some rapid string-crossing, which all the workshop participants identified as something they struggle with when tunes start to go a bit faster. We worked on slurring pairs of quavers after each crotchet in the tune, to make sure we were playing with a down bow on the beat. We also worked on tapping a foot on the on-beats (2 taps/bar) to help create a steady tempo.

Using short bow strokes

To be able to pay tunes at speed, it’s important to be able to control how much of the bow you use for playing an individual note. Runs of notes become impossible to play at speed if you’re driving the bow from the arm and

Playing notes from the wrist or the arm

As a tunes speeds up it’s important to be able to play individual notes without involving too much arm movement. We worked on distinguishing between the wrist or hand leading the bow stroke and the forearm leading. To drive the notes from the wrist, playing with you bowing arm rotated slightly anticlockwise on the bow will put your wrist in the plane where it can easily flex as you make a bow stroke.

Have a look at this video of Hanneke Cassel teaching a simple riff. At 2m30s you can see that she’s using her arm to drive the bigger notes, but the small notes are coming from her hand/fingers

This video of Alasdair White playing a couple of reels is a great demonstration of the fluidity of arm movement involved in playing fast reels. You’ll see that a huge variation in how much/little his forearm is involved in the bow strokes for different notes in these tunes:

You’ll also notice in the video above that Alasdair plays with his pinkie completely off the bow.

Which part of the bow to use

We also looked at which part of the bow to use when playing. There’s a tendency when you first start playing to stick to playing using only a small part of the bow. Often people will stick to the centre of the bow, as the bow feels easier to control in that position. You’ll see both of the players above are moving around the bow – the part of the bow you chose to play on at any given time will depend on the sound you want to make, and will also be affected by your next bow stroke.

Analysing your own playing

We played through the reel, speeding it up each time through. Each person in the group focused on the point where it felt to fast for them, and what they were aware of in their own playing that was holding the back. This identified a number of problems such as posture, focusing on the fingers rather than the sound, and worrying that it was all about to go wrong!

Staying in control of the tempo

We worked on how to stay in control of the tempo when playing the tune at a faster speed. Often the problem with playing faster is that we don’t know how to ‘apply the brakes’, and as soon as the tune starts to speed up, it carries on doing so until it’s going at a speed that’s beyond our ability to play. tapping your foot can be a useful way to establish a tempo before you start playing. You might want to diddle the tune in your head, to set the tempo, and tap your foot along, then start to play along with the tempo you’ve set. It’s useful to work out  when tapping your foot whether you are playing to your foot tapping, or tapping along t your playing. If your foot is driving the tempo, that’s where your focus needs to be if you want to change the tempo in mid tune.

Playing jigs at speed

We worked briefly on jig time, getting the rhythm of tunes in 6/8 timing. Find out more about playing tunes in jig rhythm. We focused on being able to put the emphasis on the  down bow at the start of the bar, and the up bow on the second beat.