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.


The Ups and Downs of 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.


  • 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


  • 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.


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.

Shetland bowing patterns

Shetland bowing patterns

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.


Here’s an interesting article on effective practicing

Bowing patterns in reels
Photo ©Ros Gasson

Creating space in tunes

Creating space in tunes

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.

Bowing patterns

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


Shetland bowing patterns

Shetland bowing patterns for playing reels

Last night we learnt the Shetland tune Sleep Soond i’ Da Morning. It’s a simple 16 bar reel.

Shetland players have distinctive bowing patterns used in playing reels. Patterns have a big influence on the sound, particularly the rhythms within the tune. The 1 down 3 up bowing pattern puts the emphasis on the on beat. The 3 up 1 down pattern puts emphasis on the off beat. We used both patterns in this tune, to shift the emphasis from the beat to the offbeat.

We worked on tapping foot when playing the 3 up one down bowing pattern. With this pattern, the bow emphasis falls on the off beat, while the foot continues to tap on on beat. It can feel a bit disconcerting when you first try it!

To get the best effect of these bowing patterns, we were speeding the bow up when playing the down bow, to add a strong emphasis to the note.

We also spent some time in the class talking about how to change the strings on a fiddle. I’ve started creating a new resource on the website, with some information on basic fiddle maintenance. If there’s any other areas you’d like me to cover with this, let me know!

Shetland bowing patterns for reels played on the fiddle
Photo ©Ros Gasson

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 3 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.




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.

Bowing patterns in reels

Bowing patterns for playing reels on the fiddle

Tonight we spent some time working on developing a basic pattern for bowing reels, and also looked at a couple of variations for this, to shift the emphasis from the beat to the off beat.

Learning how to control the bow
Photo ©Ros Gasson 2013

We started off by playing through some bowing exercises for reels. We played up a D scale, playing each note twice, using single bows. If we start on a down bow, each full scale becomes the equivalent of 2 bars played in reel time. When all the notes in the pattern are quavers, playing a simple pattern of alternating down bows and up bows will always bring us back to a down bow on each on-beat and off-beat in the tune. If we add either a crotchet or a triplet into the notes, we need to slur two notes to get our bow back into the ‘down bow on the beat’ pattern. In the exercise we worked on slurring the two notes immediately after the crochet or triplet.

We learnt the reel ‘The Shetland Molecule’ by John McKusker, and worked on slurring 2 quavers together after each triplet or crotchet in the tune. Once this bowing pattern was established, we tried varying the pattern in a few places, to move the emphasis onto the off beat.

We revisited our bow hold, looking at the importance of keeping the bowing fingers, hand and arm relaxed. It’s particularly important to make sure that the thumb is slightly bent throughout the bowstroke, to prevent tension creeping into the bowing arm.

At the end of the evening we played through Jig Runrig and the Road to Banff

Bowing patterns and grace notes

Bowing patterns and grace notes

Tonight we worked on bowing reels with a down bow on the beat. We’re aiming to develop a ‘default’ bowing pattern, so that we can play reels emphasising the on beat naturally, and completely subconsciously. Once this pattern is ingrained, it becomes much easier to learn techniques and bowing patterns that will enable us to play around with rhythms in the tune.

Bowing reels

We looked at Coolies Reel as an example. Each time there is a crotchet or triplet in the tune, we slurred the following 2 quavers. (It’s possible to slur the preceding 2 quavers instead, if you prefer).

We also looked at an option for adding an extra slur in the B part, to push the emphasis onto the offbeat.

Grace notes

Bowing patterns on the fiddle
Photo ©Ros Gasson

Grace notes and rolls have a percussive effect on a note in a tune. Although often written as playing extra notes, you don’t hear grace notes as individual notes. They are an embellishment of the note in the tune. A simple grace note acts by briefly stopping the string from vibrating. You can use the finger above the note, or the 2nd finger above the note to create a simple grace note. The hand needs to be really relaxed. The finger action is a very short tap on the string, and is just enough to stop the string vibrating for a moment.


Rolls have more fingers involved! They can be played as 5 or 4 note rolls. As with grace notes, once you can play these fluidly, you won’t hear any of the individual notes of the ornamentation. When you’re first starting to learn to play a roll, you will play the note (already in the tune), followed rapidly be the note above, the note itself, the note below, and back to the note in the tune. For a 5 note roll on a B (played with the first finger on the A string), the fingering for this would be 1-2-1-0-1. A 4 note  roll starts on the note above the note in the tune (fingering 2-1-0-1 if played on a B). Rolls on an open string can be played 0-1-2-1-0.


Playing with relaxed hand – we tried out playing with a very light bow hold, holding the bow  with just the thumb and first finger. It’s possible to play the whole tune like this, as long as we don’t try to lift the bow off the strings at any point. This is purely an exercise! It gives an idea of how little pressure you need from your 3rd & 4th finger, and pinkie, while playing most of the tune. Those fingers are generally relaxed, and laid over the bow, giving it a bit of stability during the bow stroke, and keeping the bow running in a straight line, perpendicular to the strings. The pinkie will be used a lot more if we’re lifting the bow off the strings.

We worked on techniques for playing chords in the tune. If we’re playing part of the tune on the A string, and want to create chords on the D string, we can make this much easier by keeping the bow as close as possible to the D string throughout the bow stroke. When we want to include a chord, a small bit of pressure on the stick of the bow will then be enough to bring the bow hairs in contact with the D string as well.

We also tried out playing an open A, with a more percussive style of chord on the open D, on each down bow. Playing close to the heel on the up bow results in there being plenty of weight in the tip of the bow at the top of the bow stroke. Keep a little bit of pressure on the heel of the bow with the pinkie during the up bow. At the top of the up bow stroke, release the pressure with the pinkie, which allows gravity to drop the bow briefly onto the D string just as the bow direction changes.

At the end of the evening we played through Brenda Stubbert’s Reel, then Captain Campbell (Strathspey) followed by Coolie’s Reel. We ended off with the Eagle’s Whistle.


Learn to play reels faster

 Learn to play reels faster

Learn to play reels faster
Photo ©Ros Gasson

At the start of term several people in the class asked about learning to play tunes faster. Reels are often the tunes where speed is a problem, particularly if you want to be able to play for dancing. There are several aspects to learning to play reels faster – being able to get your fingers around the notes is one of them, but generally not the thing that is tripping folk up when they are learning. Having techniques that enable you to keep a steady rhythm with the bow is crucial – if the tempo and rhythm stay strong, straying off the tune doesn’t necessarily cause a problem. If the notes are right but the tempo or rhythm falters, the musical spell is definitely broken! Having our bowing under control will allow us to develop a strong beat in our playing. Learning to hear the tune in our heads as we play (whether or not we’re playing the tune!) allows us to move away from concentrating on fitting in individual notes, and to focus more on the rhythms and patterns within the music. It will allow the conscious brain to give up being in control, letting the subconscious take charge This is when we can experience the ‘flow’ state, where we’re open to developing a more fluid way of playing.

We learnt Cooleys reel, which is an Irish tune that sounds great at a good pace. We’ll spend some time working on this tune as a way to look at some of the things we can do to start playing reels faster and with confidence.

Once we’d learnt the tune we looked at what’s happening with the bowing. One thing that can make an enormous difference to being able to play tunes well at speed is having a basic ‘structure’ to the way we will bow a tune. We’re aiming to develop an underlying pattern that will naturally emphasise the beat (so generally we’d be playing a down bow on the beat). In these early stages, we’re also looking for ways to make it as easy as possible to get our bow around the tune. Once the basic pattern is ingrained, you’ll play new tunes with that pattern without thinking about it. At that point, you can turn your attention to adding different bowing patterns to tunes at points where you want to vary the rhythm away from emphasisng the beat.

Developing a basic pattern to our bowing also means that when we first learn a new tune, each time we play it we’ll be playing it with the same bowing pattern. Doing this greatly reduces the amount you need to learn to play that tune well. If you have no idea what direction your bow is going in, the chances are that each time you play the tune, your bowing pattern will vary, which makes it a much more complicated job to learn to play the tune with complete confidence.

We worked on starting the reel on a down bow, and playing a down bow on each on beat in the tune. For reels that are all quavers, if you wanted to establish this basic bowing pattern, it would work fine to play every note on alternating down and up bows – we’d always end up palying a down bow on the beat. Not many reels are that simple! Crotchets or triplets will disrupt the flow of up and down bows, unless we find a way to bring the bow back into the basic pattern.

So our basic pattern could involve slurring 2 quavers together either before or after any crotchets or triplets in the bar. Cooley’s Reel is a great tune for working on this, as there are crotchets and triplets in both parts of the tune. I’ve added slurs onto the written music to show where we were playing them in the class tonight.

We’ll do some more work on this tune next week, looking at ways we can vary this basic pattern to add interest to the rhythm. So – shock horror…we’ve ended up with some homework! Feel free to work on being able to play the tune with this basic bowing pattern for the class next week.

At the end of the night we played through Fionn’s and the Eagles Whistle