Embellishing tunes

Embellishing tunes

Tonight we learnt the jig Dhu Hill. It’s a 3 part tune, which works really well played quite slowly.

Once we’d got the notes, we decided on some embellishments for the tune. Here’s what we came up with.

A part:

  • hammer-on, from a B to the C#
  • a grace note on the top F#
  • adding dynamics t the top F#
  • adding a chord with an open A, to the final F#

B part:

  • Making the notes in the run up (A,B C#) staccatto
  • adding dynamics to the top F#
  • adding vibrato on the last F#

C part:

  • adding bowed slurs
  • sliding into the top F#

We worked on the bowing hand, thinking about flexibility in the fingers. We played around some more with holding the bow up vertically and using the individual fingers to move the tip of the bow around. We noticed that when one finger moves (in order to move the bow tip), another has to respond to the bow, to allow the bow movement to happen. We played around with the vertical bow for a while, using the thumb as a pivot, and moving the tip in different directions, and noticing the impact that bow movement had on the other fingers in the hand. When we’re playing , having a similar fluidity in the bowing hand will help us to be able to control the bow without needing to have a rigid grip on it.

We tried out playing a long F# (on the D string), thinking abut how the fingers were moving independently on the stick of the bow, keeping it perpendicular to the strings. We played the F# on a long down bow, over a count of 4, then lifted the bow for a count of 4. We played round this pattern together, paying attention to keeping in time with each other. Then we moved on to playing 4 separate notes on the 4 beats. We tried out playing the 4 beats as staccato notes, again paying attention to playing the start and end of each note in time with one another.

We also briefly looked at using the 4th finger. It can be tricky to get notes sounding confidently in tune with the 4th finger. This is partly because we rarely use the finger in day to day life, so it’s considerably weaker than the other fingers. We played an E on the A string using the 4th finger, and checked ur tuning against the open E string. Ding this for a few minutes each day, even for just a week, will make a big difference to the strength on the 4th finger, and help make us more comfortable with using it.

We also revisited the steps to playing with vibrato. I’ve added a new page to the website under the ‘basic techniques’ section, with details of the steps to learning how to play with vibrato,. It includes a video that shows all the steps in some detail.


Adding embellishments to a tune
Photo ©Ros Gasson


Letting go when playing music

Letting go when playing music

Tonight we learnt the four part Irish Jig ‘The Lark in the Morning’. The tune is quite repetitive, with short riffs that are played round several times within each part. Part of the challenge of playing the tune well is to find ways to keep it sounding interesting.

We added rolls right at the end of each part.

We tried making the 3rd part sound like a lark singing. Here’s a short clip of a real lark in full flow. How close did we get?

Letting the subconscious take charge

Part of the trick to making our playing more expressive is to be able to let go, and play from the subconscious. When we learn a new skill that’s difficult to master (like speaking a new language, riding a bike, or writing) there is an initial stage where all the new things seems to be competing for our attention at the same time. As soon as you lose focus on one bit of the skill that you think you’ve just mastered, to pay attention to correcting something else, the first thing seems to slip backwards again. The trick is to get a new skill embedded into your muscle memory to a point where your subconscious brain can manage to control it – at that point your attention can focus in mastering the next bit of the skill. With learning something like the fiddle, there’s a huge amount to take in in the early stages, especially if you’re not particularly familiar with the style of the music as well. On top of grappling with holding the instrument and co-ordinating the bow movements and your left hand fingers, you’re probably also learning how to remember tunes by ear, as well as learning about the patterns and rhythms in the music. No wonder it all can all seem so hard sometimes! It can be easy to get into the habit of playing in a very conscious ‘thinking’ way, because we start off doing this when we’re first learning. So we looked at how to start moving away from this, and finding ways to experience playing in a more subconscious way.

The easiest way to do this is to find things to play that need as little concentration as possible to get the notes/rhythm right! So we started off playing a very simple riff in jig time, to practice playing the rhythm without the distraction of having to remember too many notes. Here’s what we played:

A short riff in jig time

Then we played a second riff, which would work as a harmony to the first riff:

A simple harmony to the first riff

Then alternate people round the room played the first riff, while the people in between them played the harmony. Each of us was able to hear our own playing a little more clearly, as the people either side of us were playing the other version. Once we’d done this, we played it again, but this time we stopped watching our fingers, or thinking about how we were playing. We focused instead on hearing how we wanted our own paying to sound, hearing the riff in our head as we played. We tried to hear it in a way that would make someone who walked into the room want to dance or clap along to us.

After this, we added in another option – anyone who wanted to could ‘wander’ from the riff at any time, and play anything they wanted to – another harmony, or a chord or drone. Or we could just stop playing at any time and listen to what other folk were playing. We were aiming to be aware of what others in the group were playing while we were doing this. Doing this for a while was quite hypnotic!

Once we’d done that, we tried playing through the Lark in the Morning again. We talked about what had felt different, in moving from playing around with the riff, and then changing to playing the tune. People found they could relax more when playing the riff, as there were no real ‘rules’, and apart from the rhythm, it didn’t really matter what you played. It felt much less pressured – and maybe more ‘playful’.

Letting go when playing music
Photo ©Ros Gasson 2013


Playing rolls on the fiddle

Playing rolls in a jig

When playing in jig time, you can play a roll any time when there are three quavers played together on the same note, or a dotted crotchet. Once you can play a roll fluidly, you won’t hear any of the individual notes involved in the ornamentation. When you’re first starting to learn to play a roll, you will play the note that’s in the tune, followed rapidly be the note above, the note itself, the note below, and back to the note in the tune. If you want to play a roll where the note in the tune is a B (played with the first finger on the A string), the fingering for this would be 1-2-1-0-1. (To play a roll on an open string note,  you can play 0-1-2-1-0.)

 Learning tunes by ear

We got onto talking about what you can do where you are familiar with a tune, but don’t necessarily have all the notes right under your fingers. When this happens, it can be easy to become tense at the bits of the tune you are unsure about, which generally exacerbates the problem. If you’re playing in a large informal group, such as a busy session, you can try quietly feeling your way around the tune while others play it. If you’re in a slightly more exposed situation, it’s good to have something to fall back on, so you know you can play, but won’t put others off in the bits you’re not certain about. We tried the following exercise:

We played a short riff on the e string:

jig time riff01

Then we split into two groups – alternate people round the room played just the notes in the run down:

jig time riff - on-beats

At the same time, the people in between played just the f sharps from the riff:

Jig time riff - off-beats

Then we tried swapping round, so everyone had had a chance to try each of these two options. People generally found it much easier to play the run down, than the repeating f# notes. When you listen to the riff being played, the notes in the run down all fall on the beat. They therefore all tend to ‘stick out’, and sound more obvious. It’s a useful thing to be aware of, if you’re playing a tune where you’re not entirely sure of all the notes. In this situation, if you aim to get the main notes in the tune, it gives you a skeleton, and an idea of the main shape of the tune. It also helps with keeping a steady rhythm, even if some of the other notes are missing or wrong! If the tune is played round a few times, you can then begin to pick up any of the other notes in between that you’re less sure of.

Playing faster

Once we’d done this, we used the riff to try working on playing faster. We played it round several times together at a steady pace, then took the speed up a bit. Once we had settled into the new speed, we tried taking the speed up a little more. If the riff became too fast for anyone to play, there was always the option to revert to playing just those key notes, as we did in the previous exercise. We tried the same thing again, but this time we avoided looking at our left hand fingers while we were playing.  We were aiming to hear the riff in our head as we played, and to play it in a way that would make someone listening want to clap along or dance. We found that it sounded more fluid when we played it like this.

The Hen’s March

At the end of the evening we went back to the Hen’s March and worked on the opening phrase in the tune. We added in some vibrato on the lead G, along with a crescendo on the G, and a grace note as well. Then we added a hammer on on the D at the start of the first bar (playing from a C# to the D), and a chord with the open D string below.


To finish off we played through Teribus together.


There will be no class on Tuesday 18th February.


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.