Achieving a ‘flow state’
The focus for today’s workshop was finding ways to move away from playing tunes as a series of notes, and find ways to access our subconscious fiddle player. There is a big difference to hearing someone play when they are mentally trying to stay in control of their physical actions, and listening to player who is in the zone, and accessing a ‘flow state’ while playing.
Whenever we’ve mastered a skill, it’s possible for us to let our body take over executing that skill, so the brain isn’t consciously thinking about the detail of what we are doing physically. The action then becomes more fluid, and automatic. When you first learn to drive, there’s a lot of concentration required to keep the car on the road, keep within the speed limit, change gears smoothly, and so on. As these skills become subconscious, you no longer need to think about how to physically apply the brakes when you see a red light ahead. There’s no pause as you wonder which foot to put down – the lights change to red, and your foot responds. It’s an example of how we trust our subconscious to deal with day to day actions – we’ve done them so often that we no longer need to think through the process each time.
This is what we’re aiming to achieve when we’re playing – we hear a tune, and the tune comes out of our own fiddle, because we have developed a connection between hearing a certain note, and the correct finger falling onto the fingerboard, in just the right place for that note to sound in tune. This frees us up to be much more involved in focusing on the music we’re playing – how we want it to sound, how we’re expressing ourselves through playing, and interacting with other players around us. Playing in this way can be referred to as being in a flow state. If you’ve ever enjoyed an activity so much that you’ve been utterly absorbed in that enjoyment, and not noticed the time passing, it’s likely you were experiencing that flow state.
We started off the day by looking at what happens when we’re playing, particularly when other people are around, and why reaching that flow state can seem elusive. It’s very common to find that you have a wee judgmental inner voice that’s regularly carping on the sidelines as you play: “oh no, here comes that tricky bit I always mess up” … “yukkk…that last phrase was horribly out of tune” … “I’ll never be able to play as well as she does” … on and on it goes, undermining your confidence as you play. So how can you stop this happening? How can you find your own flow state, and sustain it while you play?
Feeling confident that when you play it will sound the way you want, makes a big difference. When you’re first learning to play the fiddle, as with any instrument, there are all manner of things to try to learn. Memorising tunes, reading music, where the notes are, understanding the rhythms…it’s a long list! But unlike many other instruments, the fiddle has extra complications, in that you are unlikely to find that the first notes you play are in tune. Creating a pleasing tone can also be a big challenge. In the rush to learn to play some tunes with other people, learning the skills of tune and tone can often be forgotten, resulting in us lacking confidence that we can rely on our playing sounding good.
We looked at how to control the bow to create a good tone. It’s important to keep the bow perpendicular to the strings throughout the length of the bow stroke. Having some flexibility in the wrist is essential to this – without any flexion of the wrist the bow will move in an arc rather than a straight line, creating a thin and scrapy sound.
Play around with where your bow is placed on the fiddle strings – there’s a spot around 1/3rd of the way from the bridge to the end of the fingerboard, where you will hear a pleasing full sound from your fiddle.
We can physically push the bow down into the strings when we want to play louder, but this tends to create a harsh sound from the instrument. If you want to learn how to make a more mellow sound when you’re playing loudly, learning to transferring the weight of the arm into the fiddle bow is helpful. We split into pairs: one took the role of helper, and the other the player. The helper took the weight of the player’s bowing arm in a cupped hand supporting the player’s bowing arm at the elbow. The player then focused on relaxing to allow more weight to transfer into their elbow. Then the helper moved their supporting hand to under the wrist. The player focused on relaxing again, and transferring the weight of the arm down to the wrist. Finally, the helper moved their support to the fingers of the bowing arm. We did some stretches, then repeated this exercise, and noted that it helped us with transferring weight down the bowing arm more readily. When you’re ding this exercise you may become aware of particular areas in the arm, shoulder or neck where you tend to have tension when you’re playing.
Here’s a link to more information on working on your fiddle tone.
In general fiddles have a tendency to go flat as the temperature goes up. There is also a tendency for players to play flat rather than sharp, particularly in the early stages of learning. It’s possible this is partly related to feeling tense – any tension in the hand on the fingerboard will result in the fingers not stretching as far down the fingerboard, making notes flatter than expected.
We worked on how to get your left hand fingers not just on the right notes, but in tune as well. We played different long notes from the G arpeggio (G, B and D) together, listening to the harmonies we were creating, and adjusting our tuning as we played.
If you’re struggling with playing in tune, playing with someone who is playing a fixed pitch instrument can be really helpful. A concertina is ideal, as it will still be easy to hear your fiddle, and adjust your tuning to the concertina’s notes. If you are new to music, you will almost certainly also need to train your ear to be able to hear what ‘in tune’ sounds like.
If you’re playing in sessions regularly, it’s also useful to be aware that flutes have a tendency to get sharper as the temperature goes up. As this is the opposite to a fiddle, it creates an interesting challenge to be able play in tune with a flute player!
Knowing you can deal with inevitable mistakes
It’s also helpful to build your confidence that if something does go wrong while you’re playing, you have the skills to keep hold of the tune, and get past the mistake. We learnt a French mazurka called Capitaine. We tried playing round the first phrase of the tune, substituting a different ‘bum note’ at the end of the phrase each time, so we were having to recover and find our way back into the tune. I loved the fact that the person who wandered through the door just after we’d done this exercise complemented us on the sound of the music. That was a perfect example of the fact that many people will be oblivious to many mistakes, even if they sound glaringly obvious to us!
One thing that is important, though, is to keep playing in the rhythm – if you stumble over a tune, and come back into it out of time, it’s one thing that is likely to be very noticeable to a listener. If you are in the habit of hearing the tune in your head as you play, it makes it quite possible to get back into the tune and keep your timing on track. To practise the skill of hearing the tune playing in our head, we played the phrase round a few times, then, while keeping the timing going, we stopped playing for once through the phrase. We came back playing in on the next repetition of the phrase. We carried on playing alternate times through the phrase, and hearing it played through in our heads for the times in between.
Staying within your comfort zone
If you’re working on playing in the zone, it’s easier to find that state if you are playing material you are very comfortable with. We talked about the difficulties of sustaining a flow state when you’re playing in new and perhaps somewhat stressful situations. It might be easy to feel relaxed when practicing at home alone, but if you try to start a tune on your own in a session, it’s can feel like a much bigger challenge to access a flow state, or stay in the zone. We talked abut some strategies that can help in pacing the level of new challenges you set yourself – you might choose to go to a new session and just listen the first week, then go along with a friend who you know shares a common repertoire with you.
How to access a flow state
Play something very easy
We learnt a very straightforward riff to accompany the first phrase of the mazurka. We split into two groups, and one group played the accompaniment while the other played the tune. Playing something very simple allows us to move away from concentrating on the mechanics of what we are doing and let the subconscious mind take over that function.
Focus on interacting with other players
We continued playing the accompaniment while focusing on the sound we were making together as a group. We then played Margaret’s Waltz, and while we played we aimed to make a musical connection with the person opposite us in the circle. We noticed that there was a real difference in the quality of the sound we made as a group when we did this.
One thing that is fundamental to being able to get into and sustain a flow state, is feeling relaxed while you play. Staying relaxed while we play will also have a big impact on our tone. We revisited our fiddle bow hold. We tensed each of the fingers in the bowing hand, one by one, to see and feel the effect this had on the muscles up the forearm. It made it clear that any tension in the hand will bring tension right up the bowing arm. Here’s some more information on keeping a relaxed bowing hand. Regular stretching before playing can be really helpful in staying relaxed.
Moving into a flow state will free us up to make our playing more expressive. We played the mazurka and began thinking about the dynamics in the tune, and how we might chose to play it more expressively.