Playing with expression

Playing with expression

Last night we learnt a harmony for Jennifer’s Jig, then spent some time working on playing with expression.

We played a long open A, and tried varying how we were playing the note. We played an  angry A, happy A, sad A, timid A etc. Then we tried playing a long A starting with one emotion and ending with another. We talked about why we want to play the fiddle – there were various different reasons in the class, but a sense of being able to focus so completely on it that you could forget about everything else was a theme that repeated.

We talked about finding ways to shift our approach to playing. We’re aiming to move away from it being a ‘thinking’ process, where we are concerned with the practicalities of where the bow is, what notes we are playing, getting the notes in the right order, and so on, and moving to a much more intuitive and fluid mental state, where we trust our bodies to do what is needed to play the music, and we allow ourselves to express something through the music we’re playing

Then we went back to the jig, and played it in different ways – it sounded strikingly different when we played it with different emotions.

We worked on our tuning for a while, with each person round the room playing one of the notes from the arpeggio of G. We played and listened carefully to the people either side of us, working on blending and tuning. Once the tuning had settled down, we all shifted one note further up the arpeggio, and repeated the exercise.


Chords as drones

Chords as drones

Tonight we learnt Jennifer’s Jig, written by Gordon Wilson. The tune was originally played at jig speed, but we learnt it as a very slow jig. It works nicely with some droned chords played on the open G and D strings, in both parts of the tune. It’s possible to play an open G drone against any of the tune that falls on the D String, and an open G drone with the parts of the tune that are played on the G string.


Chords as harmonies

Chords as harmonies

Chords played on the fiddle throughout a tune can create the effect of a harmony running alongside the tune.

This week we learnt Les Poules Houpées (Crested Hens). The tune is a Bourré, but we played it as a much slower tune.

We revised techniques for controlling how to play chords using the index finger (see the notes on exercises from last week’s class).

We added chords into the tune – I’ve uploaded a copy of the music with the chords added to the music page.

The we looked at putting some of the tunes we’ve learnt recently into sets. This is what we came up with:

Les Poules Houpées, Tolka Polka

Johnstown Reel, Islay (a slow reel that we learnt at the end of last term)

Walter Duglas MBE, The Ale is Dear – this worked well if we slowed the last couple of bars of the march down, then changed into the reel

Playing chords in tunes

Playing chords in tunes

This week we did some more work on playing chords within tunes. We learnt the four-part 2/4 march Walter Douglas MBE. We worked on adding some percussive-style chords using an open A string in various places in the tune. I’ve marked some chords you can try on the music – the phrase repeats throughout the tune. You can try out playing the chords on all the marked notes in the phrase, or just on some of them.

How to control chord playing

Rather than using movements of the arm to change the bow angle, you can control whether or not you play a chord simply by using more weight (which comes from the bowing arm) on the stick of the bow from the index finger. To do this successfully, you need to get into the habit of playing with your bow on the string where the melody notes are, and as close as you can to the string which you want to use to play the accompanying chord or drone notes. So if you want to work on using drones on the G string while you play melody notes D string, start off by focusing on playing cleanly on the D string, with the bow hairs as close as you can get them to the G string without hitting it. Once you can do this, adding a bit of weight on the bow through the index finger will be enough to push the bow hairs down on the the G string as well, creating the chord.

There are several benefits of creating chords in this way:

  • It’s much easier to control a change of weight from the arm than to keep the bow at a very precise angle that would be needed to create a consistent chord along the length of the bow. As well as being used to having fine control of our fingers, the finger is immediately next to the bow stick – whatever you do will transfer to the stick directly. To impact on the bow, a change in the angle of the upper arm  has to be transferred through the elbow, wrist and finger joints, which adds several possibilities for inaccuracies to creep in.
  • The impact on the bow is instantaneous, which makes it easier to be confident with timing of the chords you play – you can be sure the chord will start just when you want it too, which is particularly  important if you’re playing percussive style chords.
  • If you’re playing faster tunes, and wanting to switch between chords/no chords for individual notes, it’s much easier to manage at speed if you’re using a change in the weight of the arm resting on the bow to achieve this effect.

We spent some time playing a simple note sequence on the D string (DEF#G), and adding an open G drone below it. We used separate bows for each note, starting on a down bow on the D. To start with, we focused on playing long slow notes, and getting the G drone to really resonate . It helps to watch the strings while doing this. On the G string, you can clearly see it vibrating. Played up the DEF#G, then left a 1 beat rest before returning to the D again. We aimed to have the open G ringing out through the length of that rest beat.

Then we worked on controlling which notes we chose to accompany with a drone. We played an open G only with the notes on the down bows (so with the D and the F#), and then switched to just playing the open G with the notes on up bows (the E and 3rd finger G). We tried splitting the class in two, and one half payed the chords on the up bows, while the other half played the chords on the down bows.

How to become more confident playing in sessions

How to become more confident playing in sessions

At the start of this term, several people in the class said they would like to become more confident playing in sessions, particularly with starting tunes on their own. We started off by looking at some of the things that can get in the way of playing on your own in a session. Here’s the things we came up with:

  • Not remembering the start of the tune I want to play
  • No one else joins in with the tune
  • Other people speed the tune up when they join in, and it becomes too fast to play
  • Nerves!
  • Lack of confidence – what if I don’t play in time or in tune? What if my tone doesn’t sound good?
  • Not knowing what to play after the first tune
  • Not being able to think of a tune to play – lack of preparation
  • What will other people think of what I play? is the tune too simple? Too slow?…


Ultimately the best way to get confident with starting tunes is to do it, and the best way to feel confident about doing it is to reduce or eliminate as many of the problems as possible. So we took each of the points on this list in turn, and looked at things we could do to make it easier to take the plunge. We also talked briefly about session etiquette – each session will have its own character, and (often unspoken) rules regarding how the session functions. Having some understanding of the session you are joining and how it works, will make it easier to ‘fit in’.

Forgetting how a tune starts

One easy way around this is to carry a small notebook where you write down the first bar or two of tunes you know you might want to play in a session.

No one else joins in when you start a tune

Going to a session with another player, who has plenty of tunes in common with you, is an easy way around this. It’s also ok to ask another player in a session if they know the tune you’re about to play, before you launch into it. Understanding the way the session you are in functions is also useful – is there someone running the session, and if so, is it ok for anyone else in the group to start a tune any time? Breaking the unwritten ‘rules’ of the session may affect other people’s willingness to join in playing tunes with you.

Someone else speeds the tune up once you’ve started it

There are a few things you can do to become confident at dealing with this. Being able to control the speed you are playing at is key. Try learning to tap your foot when you’re playing, and practice using your foot tapping to slow your own tempo down. If you can do this when you’re playing alone, it will give you more confidence that you can control the tempo when a group is playing together. Often all it takes is to tap your foot with a little more confidence if the tempo in the session appears to be becoming unstable. when you play your tune, starting it with a really clear tempo and beat will also help – if your own tempo is unclear, it’s much more likely that another player will impose some other tempo on it that you didn’t intend. Practice staring tunes with real confidence and conviction. Get into the habit of thinking about what tempo you want to play a tune at, before you start playing it. Try humming the tune (out loud, or in your head) to get a tempo, then get your foot tapping at that tempo, then join in with playing at that speed.

In the class we tried out playing long open Ds on a down bow, concentrating on starting the note at exactly the point in time we intended. We started off by placing the bow on the string, waiting a moment, then starting the note. One we were all doing this in time, we turned this into a fluid movement, lifting the bow, placing it and playing the note immediately.


Reducing that nervous feeling before doing something new is all about doing as much preparation for an activity as you can, and then trying the activity out in the least stressful way possible to start with. We talked about steps we could take to make it as easy as possible to start a tune alone in a session for the first time:

  • Pick a tune that you feel really confident playing
  • Pick a tune that doesn’t get played very fast
  • Pick a tune that you know some others in the session will be familiar with
  • Get familiar with the session and how it functions, before you try starting a tune on your own

Lack of confidence

Feeling un-confident is likely to affect how you play – lacking confidence can create a downward spiral – you don’t play at your best, so your confidence goes down, and you play worse because you lack confidence. Starting a tune on your own for the first time in a session can feel really daunting. The scariest part is those first few bars at the start of the tune, when  no one else is playing along. It can feel very exposed. If you’re working on being able to start a tune on your own, this is where to focus your energy – if you can feel confident that you can play those first few bars well, it will make a huge difference. Work on your tone, tuning and timing.

In the class, we spent some time working on creating a full tone. We revisited the exercise in pairs where we felt the weight of our bowing arm, and worked on transferring that weight down the arm and into the bow. The we picked up our fiddles, and tried plucking a single open note, using the weight of the bowing arm to make the plucking action. Then we played long open Ds, focusing on engaging the bow with the string, and letting the instrument really resonate.

Not knowing what to play

Most sessions will have tunes that are commonly played most weeks. So if you’re in a session you’re familiar with, you’ll have an idea of what tunes other players are likely to know. You may also be familiar with some sets of tunes that are regularly played in the same order in that session. If you’re joining a session you’ve never been to before, it can be hard to know what tunes the other players might know. There are some tunes that seem to be pretty much universally known by session players, so it’s worth being aware of these if you are joining a session for the first time. Tunes such as Spootiskerry, The High Road to Linton, The Atholl Highlanders, and Midnight on the Water, are all a pretty safe bet to play in any session if you ant to be sure other folk will join in with you.

What will others think about what you chose to play

It’s very easy to assume that other people will be judgemental. One thing to remember is that every confident player you come across in a session will have been through the nerves of starting their first tune in a session at some point. Most people are really understanding, having been there themselves. If you’re concerned that a tune you want to play might not seem right for that particular session, take your time before starting tunes yourself. get used to the session, and the sort of tunes that are played there. Start with a tune that you have heard someone else play in a previous week.

It’s also helpful to think about what tunes you might want to play in a set together. It’s also fine to play a single tune on it’s own – doing this is anther way to simplify what you’re doing in the early stages of becoming more confident with playing in sessions.

At the end of the evening, several people in the class tried leading a session tune. We played through The Ale is Dear, Islay, The Sleeping Tune, and Shetland Times and Tatties.




We learnt the Tolka Polka tonight, which is a 3 part tune with some interesting syncopation, particularly in the 3rd part. We spent some time tapping our feet on the on beats only while playing in reel time, and worked on finding and emphasising the on beats and off beats. Tapping your foot on just the onbeats gives a distinction between on and off beats – when you want to play around with rhythms within a tune, it can be helpful to have this ‘anchor’ in your body so you know where those offbeats are.

Here’s a rather blurry video of Kevin Burke playing the Tolka Polka:


We also played through the 2 tunes we have already learnt this term, working on the triplets, thinking abut the sound we were creating. We revisited getting the weight of the bowing arm in behind the bow right at the start of the triplet.

Gaining confidence playing in front of others


Tonight we learnt the Johnstown Reel, a slow reel written by the flute player Rebecca Knorr.

We also worked on bowing the tripet (or is it a birl?) at the start of the tune. After the discussion we had in the class tonight, I thought I’d do a quick Google search for the difference between a triplet and a birl. Unfortunately Google was determined that I was really looking for the difference between a triplet and a girl, so that was interesting, but not particularly helpful! Thanks to Pamela for this link, which gives some info on naming, in the section on bowed ornamentation.

We worked on making the bow really connect with the string at the start of the down bow going into the triplet, putting pressure on with the index finger, to get the bow hairs to ‘bite’ into the string at the very start of the note. The second note is a very short up bow. It’s so short, the note pretty much disappears. There’s more information on playing triplets here.

Gaining confidence

Several people in the class wanted to work on gaining confidence when playing in front of other people, either at sessions, or on their own,. So tonight, we tried out having a small group playing the tune we’d learnt tonight to the rest of the class. there are several things you can do to help lessen the nerves if you’re not used to playing in front of other people.

  • Play tunes you are very familiar with
  • If you’re playing with anyone else, make sure you’re all clear how you will start and end the tune or set of tunes, and how many repetitions you’ll play for each tune
  • Decide before you start playing what speed you will play at. You might want to start your foot tapping at that speed before you play, or count in, if you’re playing with other people

We also spent some time working on tone, getting individual open strings to resonate and ring out after playing a long note. Playing in tune will help your tone, and knowing that you can reliably play with a good strong tone will help your confidence.

How to improve your fiddle tone

Improve your fiddle tone

Tonight we started off talking about where people would like to be with their playing in 5 year’s time. Several people in the class wanted to be able to feel more confident, either playing or starting up tunes in sessions. A general confidence in your playing can help this. Being able to play in tune and in time, with a reliable tone can make a huge difference.

Bow hold

We revisited the bow hold. If you rotate the hand slightly anticlockwise it helps by putting the hand in the correct position to develop a flexible bowing wrist. Keep the bowing hand relaxed.


There are a number of things you can work on to improve your fiddle tone.

We placed the heel of the bow, on an open A string, then lifted it, and placed it back down at the tip of the bow. We focused on keeping bow straight at both positions. Then we played single long down bows, keeping the bow straight throughout the bow stroke.

Keeping the bow positioned slightly closer to the bridge than the end of the finger board will also help the tone. Try playing around with the position of your bow on your own fiddle, when you’re playing alone. Listen out for the spot where you hear the best tone.

Then we tried keeping tone of the note even throughout the bow stroke. To do this, you’ll need to take a bit of the weight of the bow off the string at the frog, and add a bit of weight at the tip.

We learnt the reel The Ale is Dear. It’s a simple 16 bar reel, with 2nd time ending to the B part.

We looked at ornamentation we could add to the tune, and some bowing in B part to change the rhythm. We added a 3up, 1 down right at the start f the B part, and added an up bow emphasis in the final phrase. We also included staccato run up – we worked on used the index finger to dig the bow in at the start of each bow stroke t achieve this effect. It’s. important to allow the hand to relax between each note when doing this.




A tricky wee tune

Tonight we learnt a tricky tune called ‘Islay’, composed by Tina Jordan Rees. It’s a slow reel with some quirky variations  within it, and shifts in the rhythm giving it a syncopated feel. I’ve added the original recording that I learnt the tune from on the music page.

We played through some of the tunes from this term – Young Betty, Sitting in the Stern of a Boat,  and Paddy’s Trip to Scotland. We tried out tapping our foot through Paddy’s Trip, tapping only on the beat, and keeping that going in the B part of the tune when the rhythm of the tune shifted to the offbeat.

We finished the evening by plucking some improvised riffs, and then working on tone and tuning playing long notes from the D arpeggio, and focusing on blending our sound with others around us.

The Diggers session will be running through the holidays, starting at the earlier time of 7.30pm. The spring term restarts on  Tuesday 13th January.



Tonight we focused on our tuning. We started off by playing a G scale, played in lower octave. We played long slow notes, concentrating on blending and playing in tune with the others around us. Then we did the same thing playing the G scale in the upper octave. We played both octaves together, with alternate people round the room playing each octave, so we could hear our own sound more clearly. We followed this by playing both octaves of the G scale with the players in between playing the G scale in harmony. the we added in a couple of people playing an open G drone. The fiddlers playing drone worked on tone, and keeping smooth transitions between down and up bows, while those playing the scale and harmony were focusing on playing in tune.

We played the G arpeggio in both octaves, to identify the notes – G,B, D and G. Then we created a plucked riff, using just the notes from the arpeggio. One person started with a 4 beat riff, then each person round the circle added their own riff on top. We tried the same thing again, using bowed notes from the scale of G.

We played Sitting in the Stern of a boat, thinking about tuning

Then we moved into the large room, without our fiddles, and did a short Interplay exercise. We started off by walking around the room, exploring the space. Then we tried either walking or stopping, so we had 2 choices. We added in walking fast or slow, and played around with these options. The we added in the option of following what someone else was doing. This was an easy way to explore some of the options that are open to us when we start improvising with music.

Playing around with walking

We returned to our fiddles and tried a new riff, with each person in the circle adding to the basic starting riff. We tried stopping for 4 beats, then starting the riff again – that took a bit of concentration if your own riff didn’t start on the first of the 4 beats. People also tried following what someone else was playing, then varying it. We fed back in pairs, then to the group.

We played through Sitting in the Stern of a Boat again, and also had time to play Young Betty before heading off to the pub.

Next week is the last week of term.