Tidy playing

Tidy playing

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.


How to keep your bowing hand relaxed

How to keep your bowing hand relaxed

Tonight we worked on keeping the bowing hand really relaxed while playing, and focused on getting the fingers to become responsive to the stick of the bow. Have a look at Ian Walsh playing at the start of this video, and watch the fingers in his bowing hand. You’ll see that his right hand is very relaxed, and his fingers are moving around, interacting and responding to the stick of the bow. You can click on the gear symbol o the bottom right of the video and change the settings to slow the video down so you can really see how much his fingers are moving in relation to the bow.

Flexible fingers

This is what we worked on tonight. We’re aiming to get the right hand relaxed, and allow the fingers to move individually in response to the bow moving. The fingers work to keep the bow moving in a straight line throughout the bow stroke, and the first finger and the pinkie will also be used to increase or reduce pressure on the bow.

We started off by holding our bow horizontally in front of us (with the frog on the right, and bow tip to the left), holding the bow with our usual bow hold.  Letting the thumb act as a pivot, we used pressure on the pinkie to raise the tip of the bow up until the bow was vertical in front of us, then gradually relaxed the pinkie pressure to let the bow come back down to the horizontal position in a controlled manner.

We also tried  holding the bow vertically, and making the bottom (frog end) move in a small clockwise circle. We were aiming to get the bow to pivot round the thumb while we did this, making the tip move in a much bigger circle. We used the fingers to get the circle action happening. Then we changed direction to anticlockwise.

We tried playing round the notes A B C D, playing on long single bows (starting on a down bow). On each down bow (The A and the C) we also played an open percussive D string. We used our first finger to achieve this – as the bow reaches the ‘tipping point’ in the bow stroke (above the middle of the bow length), we let it drop to hit the open D string, giving a wee push with the first finger at the same time, so it ‘digs in’ to the string. As soon as the bow hit the D string, we relaxed the hand, allowing it to almost bounce back off the open D, which let the D ring out. We worked in pairs, so we could give each other feedback on when it was working.

We played a short riff D E G G using the bowing pattern D – down, E – up, G – down, [lift bow] G – down. We worked on using the pinkie to take the weight of the bow as we lifted it off the strings, and focused on making sure the pinkie relaxed again as soon as the bow returned onto the string.

Then we tried string crossing, playing from from an open A to an E (first finger on the D string). Rather than arm movement, we were aiming to use a combination of wrist and fingers to move the bow from one string to the other. We worked on keeping the vertical movement of the tip of the bow to a minimum. To do this, we were only moving the bow just clear of the A string when we were playing the E, and only just clear of the D string when we were playing the A. Being able to switch between strings confidently with minimal movement makes a big difference when trying to play faster tunes.

We played a D scale starting on the open D, and playing up to the 3rd finger d on the A string. Starting on the 3rd finger D, we played back down the scale again. (So we were playing 8 quavers on the way up, and 8 on way back down, equivalent to 2 bars played in reel time). We played this using single bows, and emphasised all the on beats (on down bows).  Then we shifted to emphasising all off beats (also on down bows).  We worked on tapping a foot just on on beat all the way through. It’s helpful when tapping your foot to have some sort of distinction between what you’re doing for the on and off beats. as you start to play around with rhythms in tunes, it makes it easier to be clear where the on and off beats are if we are doing different things for each. You can try tapping the other foot on the off beat, or tap your heel and toe alternately for the on beat/off beat, or tap your foot on the beat, and lift it on off beat. Try to find a way that works for you that distinguishes between the taps on the on and off beat. After this, some of the class played a harmony to the scale (starting on the D when the people playing the scale were playing the F#). The people playing the harmony tried shifting from emphasising the on beats to the off beats.

We played through the reel  we learnt last week, while some people were clapping on the beat in the A part, and on the off beats in the B part, which mirrored the bowing and emphases we were using in the tune. Then the people clapping tried clapping on the off beat in the A part, and the on beat in the B part.

And now here’s a wee bit of light relief!

Playing with precision

Playing with precision

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.

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

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.



Tips for improving tone

Tips for improving tone

We started tonight talking about various things we can do to improve our tone when playing the fiddle.

Bow hold

We looked at our bow holds – it’s important to be able to keep the hand, arm and shoulders really relaxed when playing, right throughout the bow stroke.

We also looked at the role of the first finger and the pinkie. We can increase the volume by ‘digging in’ to the bow with the joint of the first finger, or play more quietly by using a little pressure on the pinkie, on the end of the bow, to take some of the weight of the bow from the strings. We tried both of these options out while playing a long drone on the A string,

We tried playing a D scale, with alternate people in the class playing an open D drone. We all paid attention to our tone while doing this. The fiddlers playing the scale also focused on tuning, listening to the D drone either side of them for reference. Then we switched round, so those who had been playing the scale played a drone, while the others moved to playing the scale.

Tone and the bowing arm

We also talked about transferring the weight of the bowing arm into the bow. We can use pressure on the forefinger to dig the bow into the fiddle. If we have the weight of the arm behind this, it adds a lot more impact, and allows us to really round out the tone of the instrument, making a much fuller sound. We put down our fiddles and split into pairs again. The first person acted as the ‘player’, and held their bowing arm out. They were aiming to get the feel of letting the full weight of their arm fall on their bow. The second person supported the player’s bowing arm at the elbow. The player let their shoulders fully relax, and allowed the full weight of their arm to be supported by their partner. It’s surprising how heavy an arm is! Once this felt natural, the person supporting the arm moved their supporting hand to the player’s wrist. The player then relaxed to allow the weight of the arm to transfer down to the wrist. Once this had happened, the 2nd person moved their support to the player’s fingers, so they could transfer the weight of their arm to there. Then we tried to use the weight of the arm through the bow, while playing an open A string.

Rolling the bow slightly away from you, so the hairs are not lying flat on the strings, will help create a slightly purer tone, as less of the bow hair is in contact with the fiddle strings. The bow should be rolled so the the stick is pushed slightly away from you, with the hairs slightly towards you.


To help with tuning, we played different notes from the D arpeggio. Alternate people in the circle droned on an open D, while others found a note from the arpeggio, and paid attention to getting it in tune with the drone either side of them. Then we played through a D scale, with alternate people playing a harmony a third below.

We also learnt the first part of the jig Professor Delbert’s Birthday – we’ll learn the B part next week. We tried playing the tune as a slow jig, with slurred down bows over the bar lines, which makes it sound very laid back. The music for the tune is on the written music page.




How to control the fiddle bow

How to control the fiddle bow

Tonight we spent some time working on our bow holds, and how to control the fiddle bow when playing chords, or adding dynamics to a tune.

We started the evening by learning the jig Braeroy Road (which is also known as Barney from Killarney). It’s a jig that works well played at a slow and mellow speed. Once we’d learnt the notes, we looked at some of the ornamentation we could add into the tune. We can add simple grace notes (played with either the 2nd or 3rd finger) on the long A and E at the beginning of the tune. There’s also enough time to play a roll on either of those notes if you prefer. You can read more information on playing rolls in this previous post on bowing patterns and grace notes.

How to control the fiddle bow when playing tunes
Photo ©Ros Gasson 2012


We also looked at some chords we could play in the A part of the tune. By using single bow strokes when we’re playing chords, we can add a rhythmic accompaniment to parts of the tune with chords. Using the techniques we looked at in the class last week, it’s possible to have fine control over whether you play a chord or not on each individual note.

Bow hold

We looked again at our bow holds. By using the thumb as a pivot, pushing down on the stick of the bow with the first finger will add pressure to a bow stroke. We tried out using this to increase the volume in a note, and to add a bit of a  ‘scrunch’ to the quality of the note’s sound. It can also be used to create chords (see last week’s post for details). We also tried out using a little pressure on the pinkie to take a little of the bow’s weight off the string. Doing this will reduce the volume of a note. With a little practice, we can develop the ability to create quite a range of sounds using these 2 methods when playing tunes on the fiddle. The 2nd and 3rd fingers will stay in position, helping to control any lateral movement of the bow, and preventing it from sliding off at an angle across the fiddle strings.

We finished the evening by playing through the 3 tunes we have learnt so far this term.



Working on tone on the fiddle

Developing tone on the fiddle

We spent tonight’s lesson doing some more work on our tone. We started by playing through the tune from last week – I See Mull. Then we learnt a new waltz – Dance des Petit Filles (The Dance of the little Girls). The written music is on the music page. It’s an unusual tune, and turned out to be quite a challenge to learn!

After the break, we did some more work on our tone on the fiddle. We split into pairs, and gave each other feedback about our bows. We started off focusing on keeping the bow perpendicular to the fiddle strings, then worked on playing with the bow closer to the bridge.

Bow hold

Developing a relaxed and comfortable bow holdwill also help us play with a more mellow tone.

Fiddle lessons in Edinburgh - improving tone in the String Circle fiddle class

We put down our fiddles for a while, and worked on our bow holds. If you drop your bowing arm down by your side (without holding the bow!), and shake it out, your hand relaxes. You can keep the hand in this relaxed position, and raise it up in front of you, and place the bow into it. It gives an idea of how relaxed the bow hold can be when you’re playing. Getting into a habit of doing this before picking up the bow to play will help develop a more relaxed bow hold when playing.

It’s particularly important to keep the thumb relaxed and slightly bent.

We tried out moving the bow through long bow strokes, to get the feel of having a flexible wrist when we play.

The we talked about how the 1st finger and the pinkie are important for helping to keep control over our volume when we’re playing. The thumb acts as a pivot for the bow. If we put a bit of pressure on the pinkie when we play a bow stroke, it takes some of the weight of the bow off the fiddle strings. The lighter bow plays much more quietly, with a delicate tone. We tried this out on out fiddles. Conversely, pushing down with the forefinger pushes the bow into the strings, giving a scrunchier louder sound to the note.

Creating dynamics

We went back to the waltz we learnt earlier, and tried thinking about where we might change the volume of our playing, to help it to become more expressive. We also tried out changing our bow speed to help create a crescendo within some of the longer notes in the tune.

At the end of the evening we played through a few tunes – we played Mrs MacLeod of Raasay, Willafiord and Roxburgh Castle as a set. We also played Fionn’s, a tune by Charlie McKerron which we’ve learnt previously in the class.



Fiddle bow hold and bowing patterns

 Relaxing the bow hold

Tonight we looked at our fiddle bow hold, and how to keep the hand really relaxed while we’re playing. It’s particularly important to keep the thumb relaxed and slightly bent, to avoid tension creeping into the muscles in the forearm. We tried out using the pinkie and first finger to help us change the pressure of the bow on the strings. With a relaxed hold on the bow, they can be used along with the thumb, which acts as a ‘pivot’ for the bow. We also worked in pairs, helping each other to work on keeping our bows perpendicular to the strings while playing long bow strokes.

A fiddle player's bow hold, seen from underneath, showing the thumb slightly bent
Photo © Ros Gasson

We played through Campbell’s Farewell to Redcastle several times, and looked at possible chords we could play throughout the tune. The chords can be placed to emphasise either the onbeats or the offbeats in the tune. We also looked at playing  some grace notes in both parts of the tune.

It’s important to keep the left hand really relaxed when playing grace notes, to allow the finger to effectively flick on and off the string really fast. We’re aiming to turn this into a fast fluid movement.

Bowing patterns

We spent some time towards the end of the evening playing with different bowing patterns. While we played up and down a D scale we tried mixing up single bow strokes, slurring pairs of notes, and a one-down-three-up pattern. We discovered that it’s much easier to emphasise the note on the up beat when you’re playing single bow strokes than when you’re slurring notes together.

We finished off the evening by playing a few tunes together.

“Without music, life would be a mistake”
                                                               Friedrich Nietzsche