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.

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!

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


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.

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.



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.

Slurring notes over bar lines

Playing slurred notes over the bar lines

Play slurred notes over bar lines to add swing
Photo ©Ros Gasson

Tonight we learnt an unusual jig written by the fiddler Sarah Northcott. Sarah wrote the tune for a couple of friends from Brittany, for their wedding day. It’s called ‘Anne et Ludo’. It’s a quirky tune, with notes slurred over the bar lines in both the A and B parts. We worked on speeding the bow up on the second of the slurred notes, which falls at the start of the bar, to emphasise it. This helps to keep a steady rhythm throughout the tune.

We also played through The Shetland Molecule a few times, and reminded ourselves of some of the bowing patterns we tried out last week.

At the end of the night we played through several tunes we’ve learnt in the last two terms:  the Aird Ranters, The road to Banff, Vals, Leaving Brittany, Break your Bass Drone, and the Eagle’s Whistle.

This was the last class of the summer term. We’ve covered a lot of topics, with a focus on using bowing to play around with rhythms in a tune.

The autumn term starts back on Tuesday 10th September. Details are on the website home page.



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