Basic bowing patterns for reels

Basic bowing patterns

In this workshop we looked at developing a basic bowing pattern for playing reels. We looked at how to ensure that the stronger down bows fall on the beat. This will automatically make it easier to emphasise the notes that fall on the beat in each bar. The idea of doing this is not that you would always play a down bow on the beat, but that this will happen if you’re playing ‘on autopilot’. Achieving this frees you up to focus on the bits of the tune where you want to push the emphasis onto off-beats and/or the up-beats.

Emphasising the on-beat

We started off by playing long bow strokes on an open A string. Then we changed this to short bow strokes on the open A. We added a rhythm to this, emphasising the first note in each group of 4. This is similar to playing in reel time, where there are 2 sets of 4 quavers in each bar.

We were emphasising the 2 on-beats in each bar. We played the first note in the bar on a down bow each time. So the beat falls on the down bow, which is a naturally stronger bow stroke. To accentuate this, we used a fast long bow stroke on the 2 on-beats in the bar, making these much louder than the other notes. We also worked on getting the hairs of the bow to ‘connect’ with the string at the start of each bow stroke. To do this we used the index finger on the back of the stick of the bow, pushing the stick down into the fiddle at the start of each bow stroke, in a quick pulse.

We worked on tapping the foot on the on beat (2 taps in each ‘bar’ of 8 quavers).

We also tried out adding a chord (playing an open D with the A) on the notes on the on beat, to accentuate the sound further.

We learnt the reel Put Me in the Big Chest.

Developing a ‘default’ bowing pattern

We worked on playing this with a basic bowing pattern that keeps the down bow on the beat. To achieve this, we slurred 2 quavers on an up bow after every crotchet or triplet. The idea is to develop a basic ‘default’ bowing pattern that will ultimately be played with any new tune, without needing to think about it. This frees us up to begin to play around with the pulse in a tune, but focusing on the phrases where we want to emphasise off-beats or up-beats, allowing the subconscious to take care of ensuring that for the rest of the tune, the on-beats will automatically be emphasised.

Shetland bowing patterns – 1 down, 3 up

Then we added in a 1 down 3 up pattern in the A part of the tune. In this bowing pattern, we used a long down bow stroke on the first quaver, to give enough space on the bow to fit in the 3 quavers on the up bow after it. The bow needs to move fast on the up stroke before this pattern (this note is the up-beat), to get the bow into position before the long down bow – so this automatically tends to add emphasis to the upbeat as well. We tried clapping the off beat while the tune was played, tapping the foot on the beat at the same time. We also tried clapping offbeat and singing the tune. If you’re struggling to control the direction of your bow with new bowing patterns, it can be useful to follow the bow direction with your bow off the fiddle, as someone else is playing the tune slowly with the pattern you are learning.

Shetland bowing patterns – 3 up, 1 down

We tried out playing the 3 up 1 down pattern in the B part of the tune. Playing this pattern pushes the emphasis onto the off-beat.

On-beats and off-beats

We added in a rhythm behind the tune, playing an A/E chord, using the first finger on the G/D strings,. We started out by emphasising the beat. This made it much easier for the tunes players to play with a strong pulse. The fiddlers playing the chords switched to emphasising off beat, which changed the effect on the tune.

Listening to our playing

We recorded ourselves playing the tune together with one person playing simple on beat rhythm behind it. We noticed when listening to the recording there was a tendency to be not all hitting the notes on the beat at the same time. Also the emphasis of the notes on the beat were not as obvious as we had thought when we were playing them. We repeated the exercise several times, which made a big improvement to the overall sound. We tried all focusing on following the rhythm set by the person playing accompaniment.

 

Playing with others

Playing with others

There are several things to pay attention to when playing with others.

  • We started this session by looking at the detail – emphases, playing notes cleanly, with a precise start and finish.
  • We also looked at playing with a clear pulse in tunes, making it clearly identifiable, so that others can follow and join in. Our pulse should be the same as others who are are playing.
  • Awareness of other players – what are they doing? Are you in time, in tune, …and playing the same tune?
Fiddlers playing together
Photo ©Ros Gasson

Playing the notes cleanly

We worked on getting the bow connecting with the string. We placed the bow on an open string, and added gradual tension with the bowing arm, making sure we were transferring the weight of the arm into the bow so the bow was fully engaged with the string.

At some point the tension of the pull of the bow overcomes the stickiness of the rosin, and the bow hair loses it’s grip on the string. The string then starts to vibrate, creating the note. This helped us to identify the point where the bow starts to get the string vibrating. We then worked on making sure the bow was really engaging clearly with the string, right at the start of each note. we played an open D, and used the weight of the bowing arm through the index finger to dig the bow into string at the point when string starts to vibrate.  We worked on dynamics within notes, using the bow speed to increase the volume at the start of the note. We worked on both of these playing up a D scale.

Playing with a clear pulse

We learnt Kirsty’s, a strathspey by Charlie McKerron. We played the opening phrase, concentrating on creating strong clear notes, and all playing in time. We used the speed of the bow to increase the volume of the notes on the beat.

We talked about how to start a tune, so that others you are playing with can come in at the same tempo. We tired out counting in – to do this, you need to think about the tempo you want the tune to go, the time signature of the tune, and whether you are starting playing at the start of a bar, or with lead notes before the bar. We worked on counting in and starting confidently and together.

We also talked about keeping a sense of the pulse as we play. An orchestra has a conductor to follow, but with folk music there isn’t an official person doing this. It often happens in a session that the players will end up following the loudest instrument. But what happens if that player has a poor sense of timing? There are various things we can do to prevent the pulse being lost in a group. The first thing is to make sure you have a good sense of where that pulse is. Generally folk musicians do this by tapping a foot on the beat. If you’re used to doing this, and confident your foot tapping can hold a steady tempo, you can then learn to follow that, rather than the loud instrument. Depending on the setting, you might also want to tap that foot a bit louder, if you can feel the tempo in the group is beginning to go out of control. It’s also possible to take visual cues from other players who you know have a good sense of the timing, if you’re unable to hear what they are playing – watching a good player’s bow can be very useful!

We also talked about being able to hear the tune in your head as you’re playing. Learning the fiddle is a complex business, ad it’s easy to get stuck in a very ‘thinking’ mode when playing, as we concentrate on bow direction, where our fingers are going, whether we’re in tune etc etc. Ultimately we need to let go of this and trust our subconscious to take charge of these physical aspects of playing, in order to let the music that we’re playing flow out. When we do this, we can then hear the tune in our heads as we play, and focus on how we want to tune to sound. If something goes awry with our playing, and we continue to hear the tune in our heads, we can very quickly get past the mistake, and slot back into the tune in the correct timing.  This keeps the pulse going. It’s surprising how little someone listening will notice, in terms of errors, if the pulse stays on track!

We worked on focusing on hearing the tune – the group split in half, and played alternate phrases from the tune, keeping a steady tempo as the tune switched from one group to the other. We needed to hear tune through the phrase we weren’t playing, in order to come in at the right point and at the right tempo. We also tried playing a phrase altogether, all missing out several notes in the iddle, and coming back into the rest of the phrase together at the right time/tempo.

Awareness of other players

We stood in a circle and played the tune, focusing on the players either side of us, and blending with them. Then we played focusing on whole group sound, making eye contact, and taking our visual and listening focus off our own playing. Doing this created a big difference in the energy of the group’s sound.
We tried out playing with our eyes shut, focusing only on the sound we could hear. Some people found technique tricky when doing this – eg being confident about the position of the bow on the strings.

We talked about what to do if you can’t hear the others you are playing with. One of the most obvious things is to play a bit quieter yourself. Sometimes in a session, you ca tell the music isn’t ‘gelling’ but it can be hard to hear where the pulse is, and what’s being played. There’s nothing wrong with dropping your own volume right down, or even stopping playing altogether, so you can hear more clearly what’s happening.
Then we played round the A part of the tune, with one person ‘in charge’ of the tempo on each repetition. All the players followed the same person, and the person ‘in charge’ moved on sequentially around the room with each repetition of the part.

Then we tried putting it all into practice, and played the opening phrase of the tune individually, with each person in the group following on from the previous player. We made observations on our own playing after doing this.

We also talked about how to end, or signal an end to a tune so that a group can all end together (and also so an audience knows you’ve come to the end!)

How to make practice effective

It’s tempting when practicing, to play lots of tunes that you know. It can be useful to do this, but if there are elements of technique that you’re struggling with, playing over and over with poor technique is likely to be helping to bed that in! So it’s useful to identify a single thing that you want to work on, and focus on that each time you play. it can be helpful to play something very simple (a single note, a scale, or a short phrase) while you work on that specific technique. As learning a new technique will often take you into a thinking way of playing, it can be easy to miss the effect that the changes you are making have on the sound you’re creating. It’s difficult to focus on listening closely while mastering a new physical skill. It can be really helpful to record yourself playing, and listen back to it.

 

There’s a really useful blog called the Bulletproof Musician, which gives plenty of tips, hints , and information about the psychology of playing well. And a simple guide to how to practice effectively, from Hands Up for Trad

Patsy Reid and Megan Henderosn playing fiddle
©Ros Gasson

 

Tone and tuning

Tone and tuning

Today’s workshop focussed on tone and tuning – looking at how to tune the fiddle, learning to listen to the sound we’re making, and to listen to others, how to learn to hear what ‘in tune’ sounds like, how to create a full tone on the fiddle, and how the resonance of the fiddle is affected by tuning.

Learning how to tune a fiddle by ear

We went through the steps of tuning a fiddle by ear. We started off by tuning our A string to an electronic tuner. Once you are confident with tuning by ear, you will be able to tune your A string to another instrument, or a pitch pipe. Before we started trying to tune the D string, we held the fiddle under the chin, and using the left hand, loosened the fine adjuster to make the D flat. This can feel awkward to start with – you may not be sure which way you need to turn the fine tuner, as everything will feel back to front. but it gets you familiar with using your left hand to turn the adjuster without any other distractions. Loosening the string before you try to tune by ear means you are always going to be tuning the note from flat, up to the correct pitch. This way, you will be hearing the same process each time you tune.

Holding the fiddle to tune it by ear
Photo ©Ros Gasson

Once you’ve done this, you can use the bow in your right hand to play the open D and open A together, using long bow strokes. As you play, you can use your left hand to tune up the D string, while listening to the pitch in relation to the tuned A string. When you first try this, if you’ve never tried to hear the in tune note in this way, you may well be unsure when the D string is in tune. Make your best guess, and then use an electronic tuner to check if you have it right or not. If the D string pitch is out, it’s worth tuning it using the tuner, then playing the chord of the open A & D again. Doing this with your eyes shut can help with really focusing on the sound the 2 strings make when they are in tune. Then loosen the D string adjuster again, and try to re-tune it again by ear. It may seem obvious, but if you can’t hear what the in tune note sounds like, it will be impossible to tune the instrument by ear. Equally, just because you can’t hear it now, it doesn’t mean that it’s not possible to learn to do so. Going through the same steps each time you tune the fiddle, and always trying by ear, then once you’re done, checking the tuning with the electronic tuner, will help to train you rear to hear the how the ‘in tune’ notes should sound. Once you’ve got this, you can tune the G string by playing it with the tuned D string, and then the E string by playing it with the A string. Follow the link to see more tips for tuning your fiddle.

You’ll find that learning to tune your fiddle by ear, in training you to hear the note being in tune, will also help with learning to hear whether the fingered notes you play are in tune.

Hearing whether an individual string is in tune is easier if the note is really resonating. There’s a balance between the bow making a strong connection with the string, and being light enough to allow the string to resonate. A heavily handled bow will result in a ‘dead’ sound to the notes produced. If the bow hairs don’t really connect with the string, the sound will be erratic and thin.

Moving from playing ‘mechanically’ to focusing on the sound of the fiddle

When you start to learn to play the fiddle, there’s a huge amount to take in – while you’re tussling with how to hold the bow, and how to keep it perpendicular to the strings throughout the bow stroke, you’re also trying to play in tune, and to work on creating a pleasing tone with the instrument. And on top of this, for most learners, they will also be trying to learn tunes as they go, remembering the tune, and working out what order to place the fingers to play it.

It’s no wonder that many beginners end up tense and playing in a very mechanical fashion. With all the concentration required, relaxing and getting in to the flow of the music can seem an impossible step. As it takes a lot of playing to get a grasp of the mechanics of playing, many people find that the tension is an inbuilt habit of their playing. One thing that regularly happens in the early stages of learning is that the payer looks at their fiddle – working out where the fingers and bow need to go. This focus on visual clues can quickly become an ingrained habit. And it’s a habit that often gets in the way of really listening closely to the sound you are making as you play – the brain struggles to concentrate well on both visual and auditory input at the same time. If you can begin to focus more on listening rather than looking, you’ll find that you are able to gain valuable feedback on the effects of your playing habits. And focusing on the sound also begins to allow the subconscious to take over control of the mechanics of playing, allowing the player to focus on the quality of your music, ad how you want it to sound. For this reason, I often suggest people try things out with their eyes shut, as it will push them to focus on listening rather than looking.

We tried out playing an open A to get the string really resonating. Then we played a short phrase on the E string (ef#gaagf#e), focusing purely on the quality of the sound we were making individually as we played. After this we tried having one person playing the same phrase in a certain style, then one other person joining in with them to play in the same way. If you’re trying this, it is helpful for the person who is trying to follow to close their eyes, so they can really focus on the sounds they’re hearing.

We learnt the slow air Ross Memorial Hospital by Phil Cunningham.

 

Playing the fiddle in tune

We tried out playing some long slow notes in the arpeggio of D. We checked our fiddles were still in tune before doing this exercise. With four people sitting in a circle, we had one person playing each of the notes in the arpeggio (D F# A and top D). Starting with one player playing the open D string, the next person round the circle played the F#, the next person played the open A, and the last person played the top D. So round the circle, alternate notes are being played on the open string, and should automatically be in tune. The 2 people  playing fingered notes have someone on either side playing an open-stringed note. We played the same note for a while, focusing on getting the notes blending and harmonising together. Once we had this, we all moved to the next note up the arpeggio (with the person who was playing the top D moving on to the bottom open string D). If you don’t have other people to play with, you can do this exercise all on one fiddle, by playing chords as you go. The chord sequence would be:

D/A (both open strings)

F#(2nd finger on D string)/A (open string)

A/D (both open strings)

D/D (3rd finger on A string)

When you’re playing the F#/A or D/D combination, focus on listening to whether the fingered note is really in tune and harmonising with the open string.

Connecting the bow with the string

We tried out placing the frog end of the bow on the D string. Letting the weight of the arm sit on the bow to dig the bow into the string, we pulled the bow downwards. Initially nothing seems to happen, as the stickiness of the rosin keeps the bow on the string as the string is being pulled sideways. There’s a sudden moment where the downward pressure releases the string from the bow, and the string starts to vibrate, creating a sound. We played around with keeping the bow heavily in contact with the string (which stops the string resonating), and lightening the bow stroke, or lifting the bow clear of the string, both of which allow the string to resonate.

Names of the parts of a fiddle bow
Photo ©Ros Gasson

Making Music

Making music

In this workshop we spent the day exploring how to shift from playing a series of notes, to making music.

  • There are several factors involved:
  • Relaxation, and getting ‘in the zone’
  • Tone
  • Tuning
  • Timing

We learnt a simple round, and the tune ‘I See Mull’

Tuning

We worked on shifting from a thinking way of playing to playing while really focusing on listening. We played the round, listening to our own sounds and those of the adjacent players, who were playing a different part. Doing this helps us to start to hear harmonies, and hear whether our own notes are in tune with those around us.

Timing

We worked on getting the bow to engage with the fiddle strings. We played percussive rhythmic open-string notes, lifting the bow, and using heel of the bow to make contact with the string. Our aim was to create very clear starts and finishes to the notes we played.

Expression

We spent some time listening closely to the notes in tunes, and how the dynamics played within individual notes can add to the expressiveness. For long notes, especially those that are at the highest pitches within the tune, we can build the volume throughout the length of the note, by speeding up the bow towards the tip.

 

The ups and Downs of Bowing

Bowing

In this month’s workshop, we looked at bowing action, and some bowing patterns for a simple reel.

 

We started off by looking at the bow hold, and did some exercises to work on the flexibility of the wrist and fingers.

Fingers

  • Hold the bow horizontally in front of you, using the left hand to support the bow tip. Lift each of the fingers of the right hand one at a time, and replace on the stick of the bow.
  • Hold the bow at the frog end, and hold it vertically in front of you. Using the fingers, ‘walk’ the hand up to the tip of the bow. Then ‘walk’ the hand back down to the frog end.
  • Hold the bow vertically in front of you, using your usual bow hold. Use the first finger and pinkie to rotate the tip of the bow backwards and forwards (like a windscreen wiper). The bow should be rotating around the thumb, which acts as a pivot. Try to do this without moving the wrist at all

Wrist

  • Hold the bow at the balance point of the stick, so it doesn’t tip in either direction. Hold it out in front of you horizontally, using your usual bowing arm. Do a ‘kiddy wave’ with the bowing hand, using just the wrist, so the bow moves up and down, staying parallel to the floor throughout.
  • Repeat the ‘windscreen wiper’ action in the finger exercises about, but this time use just the wrist to move the bow.
  • Hold the bow with your usual bow hold. Hold it vertically in front of you, and slowly move it upwards towards the ceiling like a rocket launching. Keep the bow perpendicular to the floor all the time. Bring it back down again, still keeping it vertical. It will be essential to use the flexibility in the wrist at the highest and lowest points to keep the bow tip moving in a straight line up and down.

We played up the A scale a few times, starting on the open A string. We were playing the eight notes of the scale as 8 quavers in a single bar of a reel.

We tried out using single bow strokes for each of the notes, then tried slurring the notes together in pairs. We then moved on to bowing a 1 down 3 up pattern, starting on a down bow on the open A. Because the notes are equal lengths, and we were fitting 3 notes on the up bow and only one note on the down bow, the bow has to move much further and faster to play the notes on each down bow. This has the effect of emphasising the note on the down bow.

It’s also possible to play a 3 up 1 down pattern, with the down bows falling on the 3rd and 7th note in the scale. This pattern has the effect of emphasising the offbeat when played in a reel. To get into this pattern, start playing the octave or bar on an up bow, and slur the first 2 quavers together, then play a downbow. From then on, the pattern is 3 up 1 down.

We then tried out playing each of these patterns while tapping our feet on the beat. We worked on getting a clean start/end to individual notes, and then played while focusing on what the person on either side of us was playing, aiming to blend our playing together with one another.

We learnt the reel Buntata Sgadan (Tatties and Herring). We started off learning the tune with a basic bowing pattern that put down bows on the beat throughout the tune. I’ve added the music to the music page, with this basic bowing pattern marked. We then tried adding a 3 up 1 down bowing pattern in the B part of the tune.  I’ve uploaded a second copy of the music  with this bowing marked.

We played through the reel several times, tapping our feet on the beat, and focusing on playing in time with one another. We tried out playing with our eyes shut, so we could really focus on listening to the others in the group as we played.

We went back to playing a scale, and tried out playing it using just the tip of the bow. Then we played the scale using the heel end of the bow. There’s a big difference in the tone between the two.

Weight

We also worked on transferring the weight of the arm into the bow and fiddle strings. We started off by putting our bows down and plucking an open note on the fiddle. We hooked a finger over the string, and used the weight of the arm to pull the finger  downwards, until the tension caused the finger to come off the string. Then we moved to digging the heel of the bow into an open string, and allowing the weight of the arm to transfer through the index finger and into the bow. Eventually the tension causes the bow to move on the string. Doing this creates a seriously scrunchy noise! It helps give a feeling for the ‘bite’ when the bow really connects with the string.

We split into pairs, and continued to work on how to transfer the weight of the bowing arm into the bow. You can see the details of how we did this exercise in this post from a previous workshop, under the heading ‘Tone and the bowing arm’.

We tried out playing the A scale using just the frog end of the bow, and getting the bow to ‘bite’ into the string with each note, creating a very distinct scrunchy start to the note. Then we tried playing the scale delicately, using only the tip of the bow, and taking a little of the weight of the bow using the pinkie in a ‘pivot’ action against the thumb. This  helps with exploring the extremes of sound that are possible with a fiddle! Having control over the volume/tone of each note will give a basis for introducing dynamics into our playing.

We went back to playing Buntata Sgadan, exploring possible dynamics in the tune.

The bowing hand - how to play snaps
Photo ©Ros Gasson

Playing chords on the fiddle

Playing chords

In this workshop we looked at several different ways of playing chords on the fiddle – either as an accompaniment to someone else playing a tune,  or with a tune you’re playing yourself, when they can be played as a long ‘drone’, as a short accompaniment to a phrase within the tune, or as a percussive accompaniment.

 

We started off by looking at the bow hold, and its role in giving you control over whether to play one string or two at any given moment. We learnt the Irish tune ‘The Eagle’s Whistle’ playing with an open string played throughout the A part. We looked at playing the tune with slurred bow strokes, so the open string became an accompanying drone. Then we played with mainly individual bow strokes, which created a rhythmic accompaniment on the open string. It’s possible to add pushes on some of the up bows to add interesting rhythms. We also played around with leaving spaces in the tune. Then we tried out playing the tune up an octave. We focused on hearing the tune while doing this, and letting it come out of the fiddle without thinking about the different fingerings in the higher octave. Basic chords are formed from the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 8th notes in any octave (known as the arpeggio). Fiddlers only need to find 2 of these notes! Having found drones to accompany the tune, we split into 2 groups, and one group played the tune up an octave, while the other group tried to find chords to play as an accompaniment to the tune.

 

We learnt the tune ‘Egan’s Polka’. We added a percussive chord on an open D below the D in the tune. This involves letting the bow hit the open D, then ‘bounce’ off it almost straight away, allowing the D string to ring out. We also played around with emphasising up bows in the tune, and leaving spaces.

 

Playing chords on the fiddle
©Ros Gasson

We looked at common chord shapes. Where the first number is the finger on the lower string, and the second number is the finger on the next string up,  0-0, 1-1, 2-0 and 3-1 all create basic chords with notes a third or a fifth apart. 2-3 and 1-0 are other variations on notes from the arpeggio. Getting familiar with the hand shapes needed to create these chords allows us to make them readily while playing tunes.

 

We played through Spootiskerry, Leaving Lismore, and the Barrowburn Reel, looking at possible chords we could play

Accessing a ‘flow state’

Achieving a ‘flow state’

The focus for today’s workshop was finding ways to move away from playing tunes as a series of notes, and find ways to access our subconscious fiddle player. There is a big difference to hearing someone play when they are mentally trying to stay in control of their physical actions, and listening to player who is in the zone, and accessing a ‘flow state’ while playing.

Whenever we’ve mastered a skill, it’s possible for us to let our body take over executing that skill, so the brain isn’t consciously thinking about the detail of what we are doing physically. The action then becomes more fluid, and automatic. When you first learn to drive, there’s a lot of concentration required to keep the car on the road, keep within the speed limit, change gears smoothly, and so on. As these skills become subconscious, you no longer need to think about how to physically apply the brakes when you see a red light ahead. There’s no pause as you wonder which foot to put down – the lights change to red, and your foot responds. It’s an example of how we trust our subconscious to deal with day to day actions – we’ve done them so often that we no longer need to think through the process each time.

This is what we’re aiming to achieve when we’re playing – we hear a tune, and the tune comes out of our own fiddle, because we have developed a connection between hearing a certain note, and the correct finger falling onto the fingerboard, in just the right place for that note to sound in tune. This frees us up to be much more involved in focusing on the music we’re playing – how we want it to sound, how we’re expressing ourselves through playing, and interacting with other players around us. Playing in this way can be referred to as being in a flow state. If you’ve ever enjoyed an activity so much that you’ve been utterly absorbed in that enjoyment, and not noticed the time passing, it’s likely you were experiencing that flow state.

We started off the day by looking at what happens when we’re playing, particularly when other people are around, and why reaching that flow state can seem elusive. It’s very common to find that you have a wee judgmental inner voice that’s regularly carping on the sidelines as you play: “oh no, here comes that tricky bit I always mess up” … “yukkk…that last phrase was horribly out of tune” … “I’ll never be able to play as well as she does” … on and on it goes, undermining your confidence as you play. So how can you stop this happening? How can you find your own flow state, and sustain it while you play?

Building confidence

Feeling confident that when you play it will sound the way you want, makes a big difference. When you’re first learning to play the fiddle, as with any instrument, there are all manner of things to try to learn. Memorising tunes, reading music, where the notes are, understanding the rhythms…it’s a long list! But unlike many other instruments, the fiddle has extra complications, in that you are unlikely to find that the first notes you play are in tune. Creating a pleasing tone can also be a big challenge. In the rush to learn to play some tunes with other people, learning the skills of tune and tone can often be forgotten, resulting in us lacking confidence that we can rely on our playing sounding good.

Tone

We looked at how to control the bow to create a good tone. It’s important to keep the bow perpendicular to the strings throughout the length of the bow stroke. Having some flexibility in the wrist is essential to this – without any flexion of the wrist the bow will move in an arc rather than a straight line, creating a thin and scrapy sound.

Play around with where your bow is placed on the fiddle strings – there’s a spot around 1/3rd of the way from the bridge to the end of the fingerboard, where you will hear a pleasing full sound from your fiddle.

We can physically push the bow down into the strings when we want to play louder, but this tends to create a harsh sound from the instrument. If you want to learn how to make a more mellow sound when you’re playing loudly, learning to transferring the weight of the arm into the fiddle bow is helpful. We split into pairs: one took the role of helper, and the other the player.  The helper took the weight of the player’s bowing arm in a cupped hand supporting the player’s bowing arm at the elbow. The player then focused on relaxing to allow more weight to transfer into their elbow. Then the helper moved their supporting hand to under the wrist. The player focused on relaxing again, and transferring the weight of the arm down to the wrist. Finally, the helper moved their support to the fingers of the bowing arm. We did some stretches, then repeated this exercise, and noted that it helped us with transferring weight down the bowing arm more readily. When you’re ding this exercise you may become aware of particular areas in the arm, shoulder or neck where you tend to have tension when you’re playing.

Here’s a link to more information on working on your fiddle tone.

Tuning

In general fiddles have a tendency to go flat as the temperature goes up. There is also a tendency for players to play flat rather than sharp, particularly in the early stages of learning. It’s possible this is partly related to feeling tense – any tension in the hand on the fingerboard will result in the fingers  not stretching as far down the fingerboard, making notes flatter than expected.

We worked on how to get your left hand fingers not just on the right notes, but in tune as well. We played different long notes from the G arpeggio (G, B and D) together, listening to the harmonies we were creating, and adjusting our tuning as we played.

If you’re struggling with playing in tune, playing with someone who is playing a fixed pitch instrument can be really helpful. A concertina is ideal, as it will still be easy to hear your fiddle, and adjust your tuning to the concertina’s notes. If you are new to music, you will almost certainly also need to train your ear to be able to hear what ‘in tune’ sounds like.

If you’re playing in sessions regularly, it’s also useful to aware that flutes have a tendency to get sharper as the temperature goes up. As this is the opposite to a fiddle, it creates an interesting challenge to be able play in tune with a flute player!

Knowing you can deal with inevitable mistakes

It’s also helpful to build your confidence that if something does go wrong while you’re playing, you have the skills to keep hold of the tune, and get past the mistake. We learnt a French mazurka called Capitaine. We tried playing round the first phrase of the tune, substituting a different ‘bum note’ at the end of the phrase each time, so we were having to recover and find our way back into the tune. I loved the fact that the person who wandered through the door just after we’d done this exercise complemented us on the sound of the music. That was a perfect example of the fact that many people will be oblivious to many mistakes, even if they sound glaringly obvious to us!

One thing that is important, though, is to keep playing in the rhythm – if you stumble over a tune, and come back into it out of time, it’s one thing that is likely to be very noticeable to a listener. If you are in the habit of hearing the tune in your head as you play, it makes it quite possible to get back into the tune and keep your timing on track. To practise the skill of hearing the tune playing in our head, we played the phrase round a few times, then, while keeping the timing going, we stopped playing for once through the phrase. We came back playing in on the next repetition of the phrase. We carried on playing alternate times through the phrase, and hearing it played through in  our heads for the times in between.

Staying within your comfort zone

If you’re working on playing in the zone, it’s easier to find that state if you are playing material you are very comfortable with. We talked about the difficulties of sustaining a flow state when you’re playing in new and perhaps somewhat stressful situations. It might be easy to feel relaxed when practicing at home alone, but if you try to start a tune on your own in a session, it’s can feel like a much bigger challenge to access a flow state, or stay in the zone. We talked abut some strategies that can help in pacing the level of new challenges you set yourself – you might choose to go to a new session and just listen the first week, then go along with a friend who you know shares a common repertoire with you.Playing in the zone

How to access a flow state

Play something very easy

We learnt a very straightforward riff to accompany the first phrase of the mazurka. We split into two groups, and one group played the accompaniment while the other played the tune. Playing something very simple allows us to move away from concentrating on the mechanics of what we are doing, letting our subconscious mind take over that function.

Focus on interacting with other players

We continued playing the accompaniment while focusing on the sound we were making together as a group. We then played Margaret’s Waltz, and while we played we aimed to make a musical connection with the person opposite us in the circle. We noticed that there was a real difference in the quality of the sound we made as a group when we did this.

Relaxation

One thing that is fundamental to being able to get into and sustain a flow state, is feeling relaxed while you play. Staying relaxed while we play will also have a big impact on our tone. We revisited our fiddle bow hold. We tensed each of the fingers in the bowing hand, one by one, to see and feel the effect this had on the muscles up the forearm. It made it clear that any tension in the hand will bring tension right up the bowing arm. Here’s some more information on keeping a relaxed bowing hand. Regular stretching before playing can be really helpful in staying relaxed.

Dynamics

Moving into a flow state will free us up to make our playing more expressive. We played the mazurka and began thinking about the dynamics in the tune, and how we might chose to play it more expressively.

Rhythm and tempo

Rhythm and tempo

In today’s workshop we focused on rhythm and tempo. We started by playing an open A, emphasising the note on the on-beat (imagining we were playing in reel time). We talked about ways we can emphasise an individual note to create a steady pulse. As well as playing that note louder, you could consider adding a chord onto the note, or adding a grace note. Then we also tried out playing the notes in between the on-beats as quietly as possible.

We talked some more about tapping our feet on the beat. If you’re not used to doing this, it can seem like an un-necessary complication to add into your playing. But having a steady foot tap can act as a metronome. In an orchestra, the musicians have a conductor to keep the tempo for them, but in traditional music, we need to find a way to access our inner sense of timing. You could chose to follow someone else you are playing with, but without your own sense of what the tempo is, you’d be reliant on other people being able to play steadily, and keep their own tempo under control. Some players move their body with the pulse. The advantage of tapping your foot is that it gives you a very clear ‘moment’ to aim for with your played beat – there’s no doubt as to the moment when your foot makes contact with the floor. If you choose to sway in time to the pulse, or nod your head, the exact moment of the beat isn’t so clearly pinpointed for you. So we worked on tapping a foot on each on-beat. If your tendency is to tap on the on-beats and the off-beats (4 times in the bar, if you’re playing a reel), and you want to switch to tapping just on the on-beats(twice in the bar, in reel time), try keeping foot on the floor until you’re just about to tap again, so you’re not left holding your foot in an elevated position, waiting for the next foot tap to happen – that’s an uncomfortable position, and if you’re going to tap your foot for any length of time, it will be difficult to maintain.

While emphasising the beat, we worked on playing in synchrony within the group. We started off doing this by looking at other peoples’ tapping feet. Then we tried shutting our eyes and listening. It’s useful to be able to hear and see other peoples’ tempos – if you’re in a crowded session, and the session tempo is speeding up, you can help keep it steady if you can follow someone else in the room who has a steady timing. You don’t necessarily need to be able to hear them to do this.

We then played around with taking control of the tempo. We split into 2 groups in the circle. We started off playing our steady tempo together, emphasising the on-beat. One person in each group was responsible for controlling that group’s tempo – everyone else had to follow that person’s playing. While one group aimed to keep a steady tempo, and the other half gradually sped up. We noticed that when we did this, there was a very uncomfortable ‘zone’ as the two speeds began to diverge. The point when they were starting to diverge, but still very similar, was when it was hardest to keep the steady tempo going. We then did the same thing, but this time with our eyes closed, so we were focusing on listening for the moment when the tempos started diverging. Each group was then also focusing on listening to their own group leader to follow their tempo.

We tried going through the same steps as above, while playing the first phrase of the Stone Frigate (which we learnt in the October workshop).

We then learnt the march Campbell’s Farewell to Redcastle, which is often played for the dance the Gay Gordons. A couple of folk in the group danced the Gay Gordons while the rest of us played for them. Playing for dancing can be helpful if you want to improve your sense of tempo. The dancers gave the players feedback on how it was for them to dance to the music. One observation was that although we were emphasising on the beat, an even stronger emphasis would have been better still.

We finished off by playing around with beats, off beats and upbeats. We split into 2 groups and started by all playing an A chord together, (a low A and E played on the D string). We were all emphasising the on-beat, imagining we were playing bars of 8 quavers in reel time. Once we’d settled into our rhythm together, half the group switched to emphasising the off-beat. Each group had a go at this. Then we added in an emphasis on the up-beat before the off-beat. It was a short step to then come up with a 2 chord riff (using the A chord and a G chord) to accompany the A part of the reel ‘Brenda Stubberts’. We played through this a few times, accompanying the first part of Brenda Stubberts reel, and played around with emphasising different beats, to create different rhythms under the tune.

Brenda stubberts - accompaniment

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.

Using the fiddle bow

It was lovely to have a fully booked event for the first one-day fiddle workshop in Portobello yesterday. The focus for this first day was using the bow, and exploring how the bow affects tone and pulse.

Fiddle bow hold

We started off by looking at the bow hold. We gave our hands a good shake out, and noticed how relaxed they felt – we’re aiming for this same relaxed feel in our bow hold.

A fiddle player's bow hold, seen from underneath
Photo ©Ros Gasson

The thumb is hooked under the stick at the frog end, acting like a hook to hang the bow on. The fingers are laid over the back of the stick, with the stick sitting in the 2nd joint from the tip of the index finger. This position gives the potential for easy control of any movement of the bow if it strays up or down the strings on the fiddle. We also ensured our fingers were spread out on the stick. Doing this enables the first finger and pinkie to pivot the bow around the thumb. This in turn gives the hand real control over how much of the weight of the bow is transferred to the fiddle strings, which is a major part of being able to control the volume and tone of a note. The pinkie is also used to take the full weight of the bow whenever we lift it clear of the strings – having the pinkie right at the end of the bow, as far from the thumb as possible, makes it as easy as it can be for the pinkie to take the weight of the bow.

We also rotated the bowing hand slightly anticlockwise, to allow us to use the natural flexion in the wrist throughout the bow stroke.

We talked about the relationship of the bow hand with the bow. When you’re first learning to play the fiddle, it’s easy to get int a habit of having a fixed hold on the bow, which never varies. As you gain confidence, and want to learn more techniques, such as being able to lift the bow from the fiddle strings cleanly, you’ll find that a fixed bow hold limits what’s possible. It also tends to lead to a certain amount of tension in the hand, which will affect your tone. We explored how the bow hand needs to respond to the stick of the bow, guiding it through the bow stroke, without preventing it from doing the work it’s designed to do.

The bow stroke

Have looked at our bow holds, we then went on to look at what happens when the bow goes through a single stroke. Learning how to keep the bow perpendicular to the fiddle strings is an important component of the tone created when playing. To keep the bow perpendicular, it’s essential to be able to bend the wrist as part of the bow stroke. If the wrist is tense and locked, the bow will follow an arc as it travels from the frog end to the tip, which results in a big loss of the fullness of the sound that’s possible. The tone of the note is also affected by where the bow is placed on the strings. It’s worth playing around with this when you’re practicing at home, to find the ‘sweet spot’ where your fiddle creates the sound you like. In general, you’ll find the fullest sound when the bow is about 1/3rd of the way down the space between the bridge and the end of the fingerboard. Because of the perspective you get on this when you’re playing, it’s hard to judge where this spot is for yourself, so it’s useful to get someone else to help you find this position initially, until you get used to the feel of it in your playing.

We split into pairs, and spent a while giving each other feedback on bow position.

Volume

We talked a little about how to increase the volume of a note. The obvious thing might be to push the bow into the strings a bit harder, but doing this is likely to create a very ‘scratchy’ tone. Increasing the speed of the bow will increase the volume – if you play a single note and move the bow faster, it will mean using more of the bow’s length. The volume of a note is always relative to the note before and after it – so another way to enhance the effect of increasing the volume of a note or phrase, is to also decrease the volume of notes/phrases before and after it.

We also looked at the role of the bowing arm in increasing volume. It’s possible to relax the bowing arm, and allow a lot of the weight of the arm to be transferred into the bow. We split into pairs again, and worked on this with a partner.

Later on in the day, we experimented with playing notes using different parts of the bow. The tip of the bow created a lovely ‘sweet’ sound. Using the heel of the bow creates a more ‘scrunchy’ and louder sound. Feeling confident with playing using any part of the bow will increase the options you have for adding expression to your playing.

Rhythm and pulse

We spent a while looking at the role of the bow in creating rhythm and pulse when we play. We started off by playing open Ds, with a reel rhythm imposed. We worked on tapping a foot along with our playing, to get an inner sense of where the beats were. What we’re aiming for is to have an inbuilt sense of the pulse in tunes we are playing, and for a basic beat to be in our playing without us having to think abut it. The more we can ‘delegate’ to the subconscious mind, the more we are freed up to start playing around with the rhythms in tunes, and add accents on other beats, to add interest and lift.

We started by tapping a foot on the on-beat (in a reel rhythm, this is the 1st and 5th quavers, in a bar of 8 quavers), and emphasising the bow stroke on those beats. We moved on to playing a D scale, starting on a down bow on the open D, and using single bow strokes for each note. You can increase the volume of an individual note by speeding up the bow, letting the weight of the arm transfer to the bow, paying attention to where the bow is on the string, playing towards the heel of the bow, using a down bow or adding a chord. There’s plenty of scope for doing any combination of these things as you like.

We tried playing and emphasising the off-beats in the bar instead (the 3rd and 7th quavers in the bar). We then split into 2 groups, and half of us emphasised the on-beat, while the other half emphasised the off-beat. We also tried playing and emphasisng the upbeat as well as the on beat (the up beat is the 8th quaver in the bar).

We looked at creating a basic bowing structure, when playing rhythmic tunes such as reels. It’s possible to works out patterns to ensure that you will naturally play a down bow on the beats in a tune. This is all part of the process of getting the subconscious mind to take responsibility for as much of our playing as possible. If you have a basic pattern, or habit, for bowing tunes in a way that will automatically emphasise the beat without you having to think about it, all you then need to focus on is where and how you will vary this to create interest or swing or lift, or whatever effect you’re after.

Tone

We tried out some of the tips from above to improve our tone, while playing the D scale. We split into 2 groups again, and half of the group played a harmony (still playing the D scale, but starting when the other group had reached the F# in their scale so the ‘harmony’ group were playing a third below the ‘tune’ group). We switched around so both groups had a go at playing the harmony, then tried the same thing, with alternate people around the room playing ‘tune’ or ‘harmony’. Then we moved on to playing different notes in the arpeggio of D (D, F#, A), so each person was playing a different note to the person either side of them.

We tried out playing without looking at our left hands, and paying more attention to the other players around us. Doing this helps to get a feel for playing ‘in the zone’ rather than in the more ‘thinking’ mode that we are used to using when we’re learning to play. There was definitely more energy in the sound we made when we did this.

Shetland reel

We learnt the Shetland reel Hamar Ower da Taing. The music is available to download from the written music page of the website. We looked at slurs we could add to keep the bow hitting a down bow on the beat. I’ll upload another copy of the music with the slurs included, sometime during this coming week.

We also looked at a number of chords we could add to the A and B parts.

Triplets

We started by looking at how to play triplets, as there’s one in the first bar of the tune. Again, it’s helpful to find one standard way that you can do this without thinking about it. Once it’s in your muscle memory as a habit, it will free you up to try out other ways of playing it, to vary what you’re doing. We looked at playing the triplet using a down-up-down bowing pattern.

Percussive and droning chords

In the A part we added a percussive style open D along with the D we play in the tune. We spent some time looking at how to achieve this effect. The note you wish to add the chord to is played on a down bow. In this instance, the percussive drone note we want to add is the open D string, played over the 3rd finger D played on the A string. So we’re aiming to get the bow to ‘drop’ onto the open D string, and immediately come off the string, to allow it to ring out. This is achieved by bringing the bow up towards the heel area as we play the preceding C# (2nd finger on the A string). The whole balance of the bow will be affected when we move away from the centre area of the bow. In order to stop the tip of the bow from dropping as we play the C#, the pinkie is called into action, taking some of the weight of the bow as we move towards the heel. So we approach the D with the pinkie bearing a fair bit of the weight of the tip of bow, which is now over to the left of the string we’re playing. It is then easy to release the pinkie, and the bow will automatically drop onto the open D string without us having to change the position of the arm at all. If you have a relaxed hold on the bow at this point, it will naturally hit the string and bounce off it. All you need to do is to then take the weight of the bow again to keep it clear of the ringing open D string as you finish playing the D note in the tune.

In the B part, you can add a ‘droning’ style open A along with the first phrase in the part, which is played on the E string. As you reach the end of the B part, you can also add this same drone on the A string to the last phrase in the B part, so the drone continues from the last phrase of the first B part into the first phrase of the 2nd B part.

We looked at how to achieve a ‘droning’ style chord, and be confident that it will happen when you intend to play it, by using a combination of the positioning of the bow in relation to the strings, along with a little pressure from the index finger on the stick of the bow.