Bow control

Bow control when playing the fiddle

We spent this evening looking at ways we can learn more about bow control. We started off by learning a new march – Corriechoillies Welcome to the Northern Meeting.

First of all, we looked at gaining more control of our bows when crossing strings. We played the opening phrase of Soldier’s Joy, using a ‘1 down 3 up’ bowing pattern:

Soldiers Joy riff

Initially we played the run of notes while trying to keep the bow quite close to both strings. Then we added in tapping a foot on each down bow (these fall on the beat in the tune). After this, we played the first 4 quavers as single notes, and added a chord onto both the F# notes in the second 4 quavers (using an open A for the chord). Doing this regularly will help improve bow control when moving from one string to another, as you start to get a feel for when the bow will hit the new string.

Soldiers Joy riff with chords

If the bow is very close to both strings when we play without chords, it only takes a small shift in the angle of the bow to create the chord when we repeat the notes. This small movement comes from the wrist, not the upper arm or shoulder.

We moved on to playing bow strokes on an open A string. Initially we were playing long notes, and tapping our feet as well. Then we played shorter notes, with a gap between each note, focusing on starting and stopping the note cleanly.

After this we played up and down a D scale. To start with, we played with alternate bows on each note:

Bowing patterns - single notes

We worked on playing the notes crisply and cleanly, using the ‘bounce’ in the bow on each bow stroke.

Then we slurred the notes together in pairs:

Bowing patterns - slurring notes in pairs

Finally we played using a 1 down 2 up pattern:

Bowing patterns - 1 down 3 up

To make this work, it’s important to make the down bow long and fast, then play the following 3 quavers using a slower bow speed. This makes the note played on the down bow louder than the other 3 notes. We were tapping our feet on the down bow (which is also on the beat).

Learning bow control when playing the fiddle

We also tried out playing Terribus followed by Corriechoillies. These two marches could be played along with Captain Campbell’s farewell to Redcastle, for dancing a Gay Gordons.




Playing the fiddle for a Gay Gordons

Playing ceilidh dances

Tonight we spent some time working on the march we learnt last week. Terribus is a 2/4 march, and works well for the ceilidh dance the ‘Gay Gordons’. A typical set for a Gay Gordons might consist of 4 two-part 2/4 marches. If you want to add a real lift at the end of the set, you might choose to change into a 6/8 march for the last tune instead. If you’re paying for dancing, it’s important to be in control of the tempo, and to have a really strong rhythm, to direct the dancers. It’s particularly important to start the tune with confidence, so the dancers are really clear what tempo they’ll be dancing at, and where the dance starts. So we looked in detail at the first phrase of the tune, and what we can do to help create that confidence in the sound as we start to play.

The tune starts on an upbeat (the open A) Making sure that the first D (which falls on the beat) is played with complete conviction, will help the dancers be sure where the dance starts. You’re also aiming to create a really clear start to the note, and make it fall cleanly on the beat. So how can we achieve this?

Playing with a ‘bounce’ for dancing

We tried out using a hammer-on, playing a C# just before the D, which has the effect of emphasising the D note. As we played the D, we also added a chord, played with the open D below, played in a really percussive style. This further emphasises the D in the tune. We first learnt this  technique when we were playing Brae Roy Road. To create a bit of variation to the way you play this phrase each time, you can add the hammer on, or the chord, or both, or neither, each time the D appears in the phrase.

We then moved on to thinking about how to play the notes in the tune cleanly. Using the natural bounce in the bow will help with this. We tried out playing an open A, with short up and down bows in a stead6 rhythm. Using your index finger, you can ‘dig in’ to the start of each bow stroke, by pushing the stick of the bow down into the string with the 2nd joint. If you also pull upwards with the thumb at the same time, this emphasises the effect. At the point where the bow is pushed into the string, you can create a very definite start to the note, with a real emphasis. the hand relaxes as you go through the bow stroke, and at the end of the stroke, the bow bounces just clear of the strings, creating a tiny gap between one note and the next.

After the break we moved into the big room, where we had space for some of us to dance a Gay Gordons while we played the tune. After we’d done this, the dancers then the players gave some feedback. The dancers felt the music had a good strong rhythm to it, and they also found that knowing the structure of the tune  helped them to know whereabouts they were in the dance. The players noticed that watching the dancers helped with keeping a steady tempo…and that it was sometimes hard to remember whereabouts they were in the tune when they watched the dancing!

Playing the fiddle for the ceilidh dance 'the Gay Gordons'
Photo ©Ros Gasson

To end the evening, we had another go at playing vibrato. We first tried this out a couple of terms ago – there are some useful steps for learning the muscle movements that will create vibrato when we’re playing. Several people in the class are beginning to get a real feel for this!

Using the bow for expression

Playing expressively using the full length of the bow

Tonight we worked on using different parts of the length of the fiddle bow to change the quality of our sound. It’s easy to get into a habit of playing in the centre of the bow all the time – it can feel like a comfortable place to play, and the bow might feel easier to control. But moving to the tip or the heel will give a very different quality to our playing sound. It’s another useful skill for helping us to become more expressive when we’re playing.

Using the bow to create expression in tunes
Photo ©Ros Gasson 2013

We started off by playing a G scale, using the bow in our normal playing position, which for most folk in the class tends to be right in the centre of the length of the bow. Then we tried playing the same scale using the tip of the bow, then at the heel of the bow. We noticed that playing at the tip made it harder to feel in control of where the bow was going. It also created a more delicate subtle sound. Using the heel of the bow naturally added more weight to the bow on the string, and allowed us to play louder, with more attack, and with a certain amount of ‘grunge’. We played around with all three of these options. Then we moved on to trying out the different parts of the bow while playing tunes.

We played through Bill Sullivan’s Polka, thinking about how we’d like different parts of the tune to sound. We tried out playing through the A part, using different parts of our bows to create different sound effects for each phrase.

Then we tried the same thing with Braeroy Road. Finally we tried playing the tune just thinking about the sort of sound we wanted to make in each phrase, rather than focusing on which part of our bow we were using. Our playing had much more energy when we did it this way!

After the break we played through a harmony to Her Mantle so Green. Then 2 people had a go at trying to find their own harmonies while the rest of us played the tune.

We spent some time discussing bows, and also talking about how to go about buying a new bow or fiddle.

After this, we tried playing without so much structure. We started with a riff, which we repeated for a while. There’s a range of options for what each individual could do as we played:

  • continue playing the riff
  • stop playing and listen
  • create something new to play along with the riff – harmonies, rhythms, drones…or things that clash.
  • copy what someone else is doing
  • echo what someone else is doing, or play something in response to them
  • sing or make other sounds

It’s a useful exercise to get us more used to playing around with some notes, letting our subconscious brain take charge, rather than playing a learnt structured tune. We found we could also play about with influencing the group through what we played.

At the end of the evening, we played through Road to Banff, Lay Dee at Dee, and the Shetland Molecule


How to control your speed when playing the fiddle

Controlling your speed when playing fiddle tunes

Tonight we worked on various aspects of technique that will help us to control our speed when playing fiddle tunes. Learning to play faster tunes can be difficult skill to pick up when you’re first learning to play.  Often what happens is that we unconsciously speed up when we’re playing the trickier parts of a tune. The tune then gets out of our control as it reaches speeds beyond our abilities. In the early staged of learning to play the fiddle,  our attention is mainly focused on playing all the right notes in the right order. We tend to pay little attention to the rhythm and timing of the music.

Learning to control your playing speed
Photo ©Ros Gasson

When people are listening to music, tempo and rhythm is really important. A dropped note, or a phrase played differently, often goes completely un-noticed by the audience, if they are engrossed in the rhythms and beat of the music. But if the timing falters, the ‘spell’ is broken.

So how can we ensure we are playing in time, and that we have control over the tempo of the tunes we’re playing?

Part of the answer lies in having strong enough technique that you can be sure exactly when you will hit each note. Having a strong sense of rhythm is a start, but until you have the ability to place the notes exactly when you want them, you won’t be able to play confidently in time.

We started off tonight’s class by playing through a couple of the tunes we have learnt this term. Then we spent some time working on Lay Dee at Dee. We worked on the B part of the tune, reminding ourselves of the technique of using  a clockwise circling action with the wrist to move the bow from one string to the other. We also focused on really emphasising the notes that are on the beat. By using the wrist action for the section of the tune where we’re crossing from the E to the A string, the notes on the beat fall on a down bow each time, which helps us to accentuate them.

Then we moved on to working on the run in the B part (A B C# D E D C# B A). We tried out playing this while tapping our feet on the beat, and really emphasising the note that fell on each foot tap (which is the the A, E and A in this run). We played this run using individual bow strokes for each note. We also tried out tapping one foot on the beat, and the other foot on the off beat. We worked on using a strong bowing action for the notes on the beat, using a little pressure with our first finger to dig the bow into the strings at the start of the notes on the beat. To make as big a distinction as possible between the notes on the beat and the other notes in the run, we played the remaining notes very quietly, using a very small length of the bow, and playing them much more lightly.Shetland bowing pattern for a reel

In the last phrase of the B part, we worked on adding in some Shetland bowing, playing a 1 down and 3 up pattern in the 2nd last bar.

After this, we tried playing the first run in the B part again, but this time we all closed our eyes, and concentrated on listening to everyone else in the class, while we aimed to play the notes on the beat exactly in time with each other. Initially we were tending to speed up, but after a few goes at it, we were able to control our speed, and were playing much more in time as a group. We did the same thing while playing the whole tune, which was definitely more of a challenge!

We finished off the night by playing through the jig Brae Roy Road together.

Fiddle bowing with a flexible wrist

Playing fiddle bow strokes with a flexible wrist

Tonight we focused on playing our fiddles with a relaxed and flexible wrist in our bowing arms. We got into pairs and one person played the reel Lay Dee at Dee, while the other held their elbow steady. This pushed us to use the wrist more in moving the bow. One person then held the bow steady in front their partner, so they could move their bowing hand up and down the shaft of the bow, paying particular attention to keeping the wrist supple. The wrist is effectively ‘leading’ the bow’s stroke. As we reach the end of the bow, the wrist leads the change from an up bow to a down bow, so when the arm is still travelling up at the end of the bow stroke, the wrist is already starting to bend to change the bow to a down bow.

We then played through the B part of Lay Dee at Dee, and worked on using our wrist action in the section of the tune which crosses from the E string to the A string and back. With a flexible wrist, it’s possible to use a clockwise circular motion with the hand to keep the bow moving from one string to the other. This will allow us to have much cleaner control over the bow, so we can play the notes more crisply, and have more precise control over our timing. It will ultimately help us to be able to play the tune faster.

After this we worked on our technique for playing percussive chords in the B part of Braeroy Road. We were using the open D string to play a note and octave below the Ds in the tune. We bowed the C# before the D on an up bow, and moved up close towards the heel of the bow. We then allowed the weight of the tip of the bow to drop the bow onto the open D string as we played the D in the tune on a down bow. We spent some time practicing using our index finger to push into the stick of the bow, using the added pressure to create a chord on the adjacent string. We tried this out while playing an F# on the D string (2nd finger), using the open A string to create the chord. We also worked on playing this chord in the B part of Bill Sullivan’s polka.

How to develop a flexible wrist action for bowing when playing the fiddle
Photo @Ros Gasson 2013

To finish off, we reminded ourselves of the steps for learning to play the fiddle with vibrato. Practicing this for a few minutes each day will help to build muscle memory for the vibrato action, making it easier to integrate it into tune playing.

At the end of the class we played trough the Shetland Molecule together.

Playing polkas with bounce

Playing polkas with a bounce

Tonight we learnt Bill Sullivan’s Polka, and spent the evening working on techniques for playing polkas with a ‘bouncy’ rhythm. We were using our first finger to push down into the notes, allowing the bow to bounce just clear of the string in between notes in the tune.

Playing polkas with bounce on the fiddle
Photo ©Ros Gasson

We also played around with a chord version of the B part of the tune – it can be played as a variation on the tune, or as an accompaniment along with the tune. We tried experimenting with different rhythms.

We worked on technique for playing chords within the tune in the A part. We were playing an open A along with parts of the tune that were played on the D string. We tried out playing the tune on the D string while keeping the bow just clear of the A string, but very close to it. By pushing down on the stick of the bow with the first finger, the bow hairs  are compressed so they also touch the A string. This can be done without changing the angle of the bow on the strings at all, and allows a lot of control over which of the notes in the tune the chords are played on.

We played through several tunes at the end of the class – Road to Banff, Leaving Brittany, The Eagle’s Whistle, and finished off playing through Lay Dee at Dee.

How to play notes cleanly on the fiddle

How to play notes cleanly on the fiddle

At the end of last week, we ended up with a question: “How do you play notes that sound crisp on the fiddle?” We looked at some techniques we can learn that will help with this, in the class tonight. We started off by thinking about what it is about the sound of musical notes that makes them sound crisp and clean to the listener. Some ideas that came up included:

  • the notes are in time
  • the notes aren’t rushed
  • the notes have a definite start and finish
  • there’s a ‘shape’ to the notes
  • there might be a small gap between one note an the next
  • the notes are expressive
  • the notes have a good tone, creating a sound that’s pleasing to listen to

We used the tune we learnt last week to look at some of these attributes. We started off by talking about learning how to play at a steady tempo. Becoming confident that you can hold a tune at whatever tempo you wish to play it is a skill that can be learnt over time.

It can be useful to try to play along with a metronome. If you’re doing this, and you tap your feet while you play, it’s helpful understand what’s happening with your foot tapping before you try this out. If your playing follows the tempo that your foot is tapping, you’ll need to work on tapping your foot in time with the metronome in order to be able to play in time with it. If on the other hand, your foot tapping is following your playing tempo, then you can aim to match your playing directly to the metronome’s speed.

How to play notes cleanly on the fiddle
Photo ©Ros Gasson 2013

In the class, we tried out starting off playing the tune at one tempo, then moving to a new tempo at the start of each tune part. The group was following one person for this exercise. Initially we found that although we all changed quickly to the new tempo, there was a tendency to immediately slide back towards the previous tempo we’d been playing at. We were also working on tapping our feet while playing, to help with establishing the beat.


Playing with ‘bounce’

We then went on to work on using the vertical action of the bow in the bow stroke, to create ‘lift’ in a run of notes. As we draw the bow across the strings, the bow can be slightly compressed downwards, by using the first finger on the back of the stick to transfer the weight of the arm into the bow. Releasing this pressure part way through the bowstroke will make the bow ‘bounce’ out of the  end of the bow stroke. By varying the pressure applied, and the point at which we release that pressure, it’s possible to vary the slight gap in between successive notes, created when the bow lifts just clear of the string.

We concentrated on the B part of the tune, and tried out using bowing patterns to create emphasis on the beat. The Shetland style ‘1 down 3 up’ bowing pattern can be used on the runs in this tune to great effect.

We also had a go at using chords to create emphasis. In the A part we have already tried out creating a percussive chord on the beat, on the opening D in the tune. This week we tried playing a chord in the B part, playing the D and F# (on the E string) together. We played these on the offbeats in the string-crossing section at the start of the B part.

We tried out using various bits of technique together to create a different effect. On the opening D of the tune we used increasing bow speed, hammer on plus a chord with the open D below, to create crescendo in the note, giving it a ‘shape’.

To finish the class we played through Cooley’s Reel together.

Next week we’ll learn a polka, which will give us a chance to do some more work on developing those crisp notes!


Learning about bow control

Fiddle bow control

Learning to control the bow is partly about creating a relaxed and confident bow hold. Tonight we learnt the second half of My Cape Breton Home. We looked at how to start playing more from our subconscious, rather than concentrating on exactly what our fingers are doing. Ultimately we’re aiming to be able to play what we are hearing, rather than consciously remembering learnt finger patterns.

We tried playing the waltz down an octave without learning the finger positions first, and alternated playing up and down the octave.

Learning about bow control
Photo ©Ros Gasson

We also spent some more time playing individually, repeating the exercise where individuals listened to a phrase and then tried to play it back exactly as they heard it.

And to round off the night, we practiced playing and smiling at the same time 🙂