In the March fiddle workshop we spent the day exploring different areas of the bow, and how to use the bow to create different effects on the sounds of the notes we play on the fiddle.
We used the tune Benachie Sunrise.
Using the tip or the heel of the bow
We tried playing the tune using just the tip end of the bow, and then using just the heel end, while really listening to the sound of our fiddles. We noticed the differences that using different parts of the bow made to the sound of the notes, and also to how we played the tune:
Tip of the bow – creates a gentler mellow sound. it’s easy to play quietly using the tip. The tune tended to flow well. Heel of the bow – creates a much harsher sound, bringing a choppy and rather aggressive nature to the tune.
The position of the bow on the fiddle
We played around with where we placed the bow on the strings, moving from very close to the bridge, to right down over the end of the fingerboard, and again listened carefully to our own playing to hear the differences in sounds created by different bow positions:
Playing with the bow close to the bridge – created a loud and slightly harsh sound. Playing with the bow over the end of the fingerboard – created a somewhat dry whispy sound.
Speed and weight
We also worked on getting a feel for allowing the weight of the arm to transfer onto the bow. Adding more weight to the bow (rather than pushing down onto the bow) increases the volume, and also helps create a fuller sound from the instrument. moving the bow faster also increases the volume of the note.
Learning to listen
We tried playing the tune Benachie Sunrise, listening closely to our own fiddle sounds as we played. Then we tried playing and hearing the tune in our heads as we played – doing this allows us to access a ‘flow’ state, allowing the subconscious to take over control of what we’re doing physically to achieve the end result.We did this twice – the second time we were listening to analyse our own sound, and to identify any areas of that sound that we wanted to work on.
We tried the exercise one more time, this time hearing the tune in our heads as we played, and focusing on hearing it the way we would like it to sound.
Then we moved on to playing the tune in different ways – happy, angry, sad etc. Doing this made a surprising difference to the nature of the tune each time. We stopped to think about what had happened in each version:
Happy – the tune became bouncier, and we played a bit faster Angry – the tune became noisy, clumpy and grungy Sad – the tune was slower and gentle
We finished of the day by playing Auld Lang Syne together, firstly listening to our own tone, then listening to all the players in the group, then listening and focusing on playing ‘as one’. As we listened more to the music we were creating, our tuning and timing became much closer.
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#)
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.
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.
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.
Tonight we learnt the tune Young Betty by Mairi Campbell. We spent some time working on controlling the volume of our playing, trying out playing long open strings as quietly as possible, taking a lot of the weight of the bow from the string by using a bit of pressure with the pinkie. Then we tried playing really loud notes, using pressure with the first finger on the stick of the bow, and transferring the weight of the arm into the bow.
There are several points in the tune where we tried out separating pairs of the same note with a grace note. We emphasised the second note in the pair when we were doing this. we also worked on a bit of bowing in the B part, bowing this phrase down, up, up, up, down. We made the 3 up bows short staccato notes.
We ended the evening by playing through the tunes we have learnt this term.
In the class last night we learnt the strathspey Iomadh Rud Tha Dhith Orm. This is a Gaelic song, and the title translates as ‘There are Many Things I would need’.
We spent the evening working on our bowing arm and hand tonight, to help play the snaps in this tune crisply, and with a real sense of conviction.
We started off by getting the wrist/hand of the bowing arm really relaxed. We shook out the hand, and let it hang naturally down by our side. We spent a moment feeling how relaxed the hand was in that position. It’s possible to play with this level of relaxation in the bowing hand. Then we brought the bowing hand up, and placed the bow into it, maintaining that same level of relaxation in the hand.
We worked on the hand action for creating a snap in a tune. We played the two notes of the snap on two separate bows – a down bow followed by an up bow. The down bow needs to be a short sharp fast bow stroke. Imagine you’re trying to throw your bow away from you, then stop hand dead. Doing this with a relaxed wrist allows the hand to ‘bounce’, which changes the bow direction from the down bow to the up bow.
We also revisited getting our fingers mowing in relation to the bow, repeating the exercise from a couple of weeks ago where we made circles with the frog end of the bow.
We played BdBdBdBd round and round (with a down/up bowing pattern), lifting the bow after the up bow on the d. We used the pinkie to take the weight of the bow as it lifted from the string. As soon as the bow returned back onto the string, we let the pinkie relax, in between each lift.
We put the tune onto a set: Iomadh Rud Tha Dhith Orm, the Placebo, and The Barrowburn Reel
We finished off the evening by playing the strathspey together again, focusing on listening closely to one another, and working on playing the notes crisply together. this identified that while the A part of the tune worked well, the timing was trickier on the B part. Once we’d played round the trickier sections a few times, it was much easier to play it together in time.
Here’s a recording of Fiona Kennedy and Karen Matheson singing Iomadh Rud Tha Dhith Orm. Have a listen to the second song too!
We started off tonight’s class by working on our bow control again. We each held our own bow in front of us, using our usual bow hold. We used a little pressure with the little finger on the frog end of the bow to take the weight of the bow and lift the tip, so the bow lifted into a vertical position. Releasing this pressure with the pinkie allows the bow to return to a horizontal position. While we were repeating this action, we focused on the fingers in the bowing hand responding individually to the movement of the bow in the hand.
We repeated the exercise where we made the bottom (frog end) of the bo0w move in a small clockwise circle. The bow should pivot round the thumb, making the tip move in a much bigger circle. We used the fingers to get the circle action happening noting again that the fingers move independently of one another to control the bow. Then we changed direction to anticlockwise.
We learnt the Barrowburn Reel, by Addie Harper, and spent some time working on Shetland bowing patterns in the A and B parts. In the A part, we were using the 3 up 1 down pattern, which emphasises the off-beat. In the B part, we used a 1 down 3 up pattern, emphasising the on-beat. We also tried out some chords and grace notes in both parts of the tune
We focused for a while on a simple short phrase from the B part of the tune. We played it with a clear emphasis on the on-beat. It’s important when working on playing more precisely to be quite sure of exactly when the note should start, and making that start point clear and crisp. play it with conviction!
At the end of the evening, we spent time playing together as a group again, focusing on listening to folk on either side, and playing in time with them
We played the Strathspey form a couple of weeks ago in a set with tonight’s reel. We’ll learn another Strathspey next week to make longer set.
Learning to have good control of the fiddle bow will allow you to create space in tunes, either between phrases or between individual notes. The spaces can help with phrasing, or allow a run of notes to be broken up a bit.
Vertical movement of the bow
We started off this evening by working some more on harnessing the vertical movement of the bow. We each held our bow out in front of us, supporting the tip with our left hand. We tried out the action of the first finger pressing into the stick of the bow, using the thumb to counter this movement. We alternated this with relaxing the hand, then tried doing the same thing while moving the bow through a short bow stroke (still with the bow in front of us, without the fiddle). We then tried this out on the fiddle, playing single bowed open Ds to start with. We broke into pairs, so that we could give each other feedback on the bow movement, and whether the stick was compressing down onto the back of the hairs at the start of the bow stroke. Then we tried the same thing out playing alternate Ds and Es on single bows. We worked on keeping the hand really relaxed as soon as we had created the pulse at the start of the note. As we play the note, we’re aiming to take a little of the weight of the bow in our hand (by pushing lightly on the top of the stick with the pinkie). his allows the bow to naturally ‘bounce’ out of the note. Depending on how much of the weight we take, the bow can bounce a little or enough to come clear of the string for a brief moment. When the bow comes clear of the string, it creates a very short space between the end of the note and the start of the next note.
We learnt the reel Paddy’s Trip to Scotland. We worked on creating a basic ‘default’ bowing pattern which will eventually happen naturally without having to think about it. We’re aiming to start each bar with a down bow, as this will naturally give a pulse on the beat in each bar. Once this pattern is established in our playing, we can vary it whenever we chose to, to create an emphasis in different places in the bar. in this tune, we’ll be putting the emphasis onto the offbeat on the B part, using a ‘3 up 1 down’ bowing pattern for several of the phrases.
We finished the evening by playing together in a circle, focusing on listening to the players on either side of us
We spent more time tonight on thinking about playing with precision, and how to use control of the bow to achieve this. At the start of the evening, we briefly revisited the bow hold. It’s important that the bowing hand has a comfortable position, where it can be completely relaxed throughout the full length of the bow stroke. We tried giving our bowing arm a good shake out, and let it dangle by our side, being aware of how relaxed the hand is in this position. We’re aiming for that same relaxation when we pick the bow up. Once we have established a comfortable bow hold, the fingers need to be able to move with the bow, minutely adjusting throughout the full bow stroke, to keep the bow moving in a straight line.
We played some long open notes, paying attention to keeping the hand and all the fingers completely relaxed.
Vertical movement of the bow
We then worked on developing our control over the vertical movement of the bow during the bow stroke. Using the centre of the length of the bow, we worked on using the index finger to dig in at the start of the note . The stick of the bow pushes down towards the bow’s hairs at the start of the note when you have this right. At that same moment, the weight of the arm is transferred through the elbow and wrist into the bow, helping us to really ‘dig in’ to the note to give it a clear start point. We then immediately release the pressure with the first finger. If the hand and fingers are completely relaxed at this point, it allows the natural springiness of the stick of the bow to straighten the bow out again, lifting the bow slightly upwards from the strings. It’s possible to use fine control of the amount of pressure used on the bow to control whether the bow lifts right off the string or not at this point. Lifting it just clear of the string will create a tiny space in between individual notes, giving the music a sense of ‘bounce’, and also making each note sound crisp, with a very clear start and finish.
This video shows the action of the first finger on the bow quite clearly
We played through the waltz from last week, and spent some time working on using our bow control to ad expression. We focused on the longer notes, and used bow speed to add an emphasis towards the end of the note. Doing this created a bit of a ‘swing’ to the tune.
We then learnt a new tune – a short strathspey called ‘The Placebo’. (The written music is on the music page).
We tried out playing the strathspey using control of the bow to create some spaces in the tune.
We ended the evening by playing the waltz through a few times again. We played it standing in a circle, without looking at our own hands, and playing it for the person straight across the room. Then we tried playing it while focusing on listening to the 2 people on either side of us – this made a huge difference to how the group played – it was more in tune, and we were much more in time with one another. It felt much more cohesive. We tried out playing the tune again, and this time watching the person to our right. Several people noticed that when they did this ist was hard to focus on listening as well.
We started off the evening with each person in the class sharing 2 things they would like to be able to do better by the end of this term. Something that came up several times, and hasn’t come up in previous terms was ‘playing more tidily’. We’ll spend quite a bit of time investigating it this term.
Here’s a list of the topics that were brought up:
hitting one string cleanly
playing with the pinkie – tuning
controlling the bow when crossing strings
character in tunes
twiddles – having a ‘twiddle model’ (how do you know where to put those grace notes?!)
playing fluidly along with tunes
how to bow tunes
how to remember tunes you’ve learnt
Playing tidily involves being absolutely confident that you can make your bow hit the string at exactly the right time, and that you will hit either 1 or 2 strings as you chose. Most of this is down to having really fine bow control. When you’re first learning to play, the fiddle bow feels like a very long stick that has a mind of its own! So how can we control it with confidence? We started off by revisiting our bow holds. It’s important that the bowing arm, hand, and fingers remain relaxed throughout the bow stroke. Adopting a good fiddle bow hold allows us a surprising amount of control over the bow throughout the length of the bow stroke.
We worked on our bowing action, using the flexing of the wrist to keep the bows troke fluid as it changed direction. We got into pairs – one person held the other person’s bow in front of them, in the position where that person would normally hold it themselves to play. The other person then used the stick of the bow as a guide for their hand, going through the motion of full bow strokes to get the feel of using the hand and arm together, and allowing them to flow in a straight line. We tried this out on our fiddles, bowing a long open D.
Then we tried bowing short notes (using alternating up and down bows) on open D, with pulse on down bow.
We learnt La Valse des Pastoriaux (The Waltz of the Young Shepherds) which was written by the Breton fiddler Jacky Molard. We looked at cuts, and grace notes in the first couple of phrases in the tune. We put a grace note in between the 2 Bs. You’ll commonly hear grace notes played in between 2 identical notes – it helps to separate them distinctly. You can play the 2 identical note on a single bow or a slurred bow – each gives a slightly different sound. You can also speed the bow up significantly at the start of the second note in the pair, which helps to give a really clear distinct change from the first note to the second
Tonight we worked on techniques to help us learn how to play at speed, and also looked at gaining more control over playing chords where we want them in tunes.
We played through Miss Miffy Finlay, working on gaining more control over playing chords just when we choose to in the tune. It can be difficult to be confident that you will play a chord exactly when you want to. We tried playing a run of notes on the E string (E, F#, G, A, A, G, F#, E), while keeping the bow very close to the A string, but without playing any chords on the A string. Then we did the same thing with our eyes closed, so we weren’t getting any visual feedback about our bow position. Once we’d done this, we worked on playing a chord with an open A, just on alternate notes in the run. We started the run in a down bow, and played all the notes on single bows, which meant all the chords fell on down bows.
Once the bow is in this position, the chord can be controlled simply by applying a little pressure to the stick of the bow with the index finger at the start of the note, ‘digging’ the bow into the string. As the bow compresses down onto the E string, it will also come in contact with the A string (f it’s positioned close enough to the A string), creating the chord. As soon as the pressure is released, the bow comes clear of the A string. So the control over whether we are playing a chord or not is coming purely from the index finger, and not by using the the bowing arm to change the angle of the bow. As it’s much easier to control a small movement of the index finger than a movement in the bowing arm, this gives a very fine control over whether or not we play a chord at any given point.
Then we tried playing the same run of notes, and only playing the chord on each up bow – this was quite a lot harder to do!
Playing reels at speed
Then we moved on to the reel we learnt a couple of weeks ago (In and Out the Harbour), and worked on techniques we can use for playing reels up to speed. We’ll come back to this tune a few times during this term.
Learning to play reels faster requires moving away from thinking too much about the specifics of how we are playing, and ‘getting into the zone’ – allowing our subconscious to take over. We also need to have control over the tempo of the tune we’re playing. One of the difficulties with trying to increase the speed of a tune is loosing control of the timing. This might happen because there’s a part of the tune we stumble over, or because we panic at trying to fit all the notes in – tension creeps in, and before we know it, the tune has sped up and spiraled out of control. If there’s a part of a tune you’re struggling to play, it’s worth spending time working out what is happening with your bowing, and, at least initially, finding a consistent bowing pattern that allows you to play any tricky phrases as easily as possible.
To keep control of tempo, it’s really helpful to tap into your own inner sense of timing. In folk music, there’s no conductor taking control of timing, so we need to do this ourselves. Tapping a foot, or moving in some other way in time with the music, is likely to help us keep playing to a consistent beat. The advantage of foot tapping is that as the foot hits the floor it gives us a distinct reference point as to where the beat is. Getting into the habit of tapping on each on-beat in reels (two taps in each bar) also gives a distinction between the on-beat and the off-beat. When we start to play around with the rhythms in the tune, this creates a distinct advantage over tapping the foot on every beat in the bar (ie 4 taps per bar).
Some people tap all 4 beats in the bar, but alternate between tapping the heel and toe, or the left and right foot. This has the same effect as tapping only the on-beats, in terms of providing a distinction between on-beat and off-beat. Try out different variations, and see which feels most comfortable when you’re playing.
Foot tapping can also drive the tune, or follow it. If your playing tempo follows the tempo of your foot tapping, it becomes easy to control the tempo of the tune by keeping control of the speed the foot is tapping. If the foot is following the tempo of the tune, it doesn’t allow the same level of ‘external’ control over the playing tempo. You can find out which you are doing by playing along in time with a metronome. Try doing this first by playing the notes in time with the metronome, then try it again while keeping your foot taping in time with the metronome. Which did you find easiest?
Playing ‘in the zone’
Playing from the subconscious allows us to fully relax into the music, creating fluidity in our playing. It’s an essential skill for being able to play at speed with confidence. When we’re learning to play the fiddle, there’s a lot to think about. It’s easy to get into the habit of playing in a very ‘conscious’ way, as we struggle to learn how to control the bow, learn tunes, play with good tone and tuning, and understand the rhythms and the music. It’s a lot to take in, and it can feel as if it’s impossible to switch the thinking part of our brain off while we’re playing! In the class, we worked on finding distractions, so our subconscious was pushed into to taking over the playing, helping us to develop a sense of how it feels to play in this way. We worked on the reel In and Out the Harbour. To start with we payed the exercise for practicing triplets, slurring the 2 quavers in between the triplets on an up bow. While we were doing this, we wandered around the room and chatted to other folk (while still playing!). Another thing you can try at home is to watch what’s happening out of the window while you’re playing, or put the TV on with the sound down, and watch that while playing. All these things have the same effect of making if impossible for us to think too much about what we’re playing, encouraging the subconscious to take over.
Keeping the tune going
Playing from the subconscious has one other important benefit. It free us up to hear the tune in our head as we play (this is different from listening to what you’re actually playing). If we have a ‘soundtrack’ in our head, of the tune we are playing, it has some interesting effects. One of the main benefits is that if we do stumble over playing a part of the tune, we will still be able to come back into it in time, if we continue hearing the tune even when we’re not playing it. Being able to do this helps reduce the fear of ‘falling off’ a tune in the middle, and grinding to a halt. As time goes on, you’ll find that you can generally pick up a tune within a note or two if you make a mistake, and many people listening will barely be aware there was a problem.
We experimented with doing this by splitting the class in two. One half of the class played the first ‘question’ phrase of the tune, and the other half played back the response. We switched back and forth, so that between us we were paying the whole tune, in time. While we were doing this, we tried to hear the entire tune in our heads, continuing on while we weren’t playing, so we knew exactly when to come back in. Then we tried all playing the ‘question’ phrases in the tune, with no-one playing the answer. This meant we really had to keep the tune running in our head to know where to come back in. The next step was to all play the response phrases only – that was much harder, partly because of the structure of this particular tune, which doesn’t always repeat exactly the same in those response sections.
For the start of the term, we began by looking at what areas each person wanted to work on in their own playing. Many of the issues (how to play faster, how to play chords, playing tunes with lift, and making tunes more ‘listenable’ when playing alone) have a common theme. Learning to control of the fiddle bow, and being confident that it will do what you expect, will make a big difference to your playing. Adding character to the tunes we play involves learning to create variations within the notes themselves, through dynamics and precise bow control.
So we started tonight’s class by looking at how to control the bow. With a good bow hold, the first finger and pinkie can be used for fine control of the bow. We can use pressure on the pinkie to take some of the weight of the bow, so it is lighter on the string, or to take the weight of the bow when we lift it right off the string. During a bow stroke, we can also push with the first finger on the stick of the bow to add weight, giving scrunch and extra grip to the string. Use a brief ‘pulse’, pushing into the stick, at the start of a note. It gives the note more strength, intention and clarity.
We tried some of these actions while holding just the bow. pushing gently on the pinkie to raise the bow tip. This action should be possible without turning the wrist at all. While holding up the tip of the bow with the left hand, we tried pushing down into the stick with the first finger. You’ll see the sick compress downwards, reducing the gap between the underside of the stick and the back of the bow hairs, if you’re getting this action.
Then we played short bow strokes on an open A, digging in at the start of each down bow. We worked on releasing the pressure as soon as the note had started, to avoid creating a big scrunchy scrapey note! Then we tried out adding in a chord on each down bow, using the open D
We learnt the E minor waltz Huntingtone Castle – the music is on the music page for people in the class to download.
After the class several of us went along to the session in the Diggers pub. The session is on Tuesday evenings from 9pm , in the back room of the pub. You’re welcome to join us!