In this workshop we spent the day exploring how to shift from playing a series of notes, to making music.
There are several factors involved:
Relaxation, and getting ‘in the zone’
We learnt a simple round, and the tune ‘I See Mull’
We worked on shifting from a thinking way of playing to playing while really focusing on listening. We played the round, listening to our own sounds and those of the adjacent players, who were playing a different part. Doing this helps us to start to hear harmonies, and hear whether our own notes are in tune with those around us.
We worked on getting the bow to engage with the fiddle strings. We played percussive rhythmic open-string notes, lifting the bow, and using heel of the bow to make contact with the string. Our aim was to create very clear starts and finishes to the notes we played.
We spent some time listening closely to the notes in tunes, and how the dynamics played within individual notes can add to the expressiveness. For long notes, especially those that are at the highest pitches within the tune, we can build the volume throughout the length of the note, by speeding up the bow towards the tip.
Tonight we started by learning a harmony to go with the tune we learnt last week. The written music for the harmony is on the music page. We tried playing the harmony along with the tune, with half the class playing the harmony. Then we switched over, so the other half played it. Once we’d done that, we tried alternate people round the room playing the harmony, and also had a go at playing the harmony down an octave.
Then we revisited the embellishments we added to the tune last week. After that, we spent some time thinking about playing in tune with one another. We played through the tune and harmony (alternate people round the room playing harmony or tune) really focusing on what the person on either side was playing, and concentrating on playing in tune with them.
Then we took the notes D, F#, A, and tried playing any one of these notes, in any octave, again listening to the players on either side, and working on playing in tune with them. We tried moving around the room while we did this too. After that, we did much the same thing, in smaller groups, so it was easier to hear. We started with 4 people who were sitting beside each other in the circle. Each of the four played one of the notes as a drone, using long slow bow strokes, and worked on tuning together with the other 3 people. After a short while, the next person round the room joined in, and the first person dropped out. The drones moved around the circle slowly, as each new person joined in. We noticed that as this went round the circle for the second time, our tuning was much better. It’s a useful exercise in really listening to how we’re making music together.
We also talked briefly about the notes that make up a chord. These are the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 8th notes in a scale (which is also often referred to as an arpeggio). For the notes we picked for the exercise above, they form the chord or arpeggio for the scale of D (D = 1st note, F# = 3rd note, A = 5th Note, and a D at the top of the octave would be the 8th note). For anyone wanting to know more about written music, and some basic theory, the book Beginning to Read Music, written by Sarah Northcott, is a really helpful introduction, which explains things clearly, while managing to avoid jargon.
For practicing at home, one thing that can make a huge difference to learning is to play and record yourself regularly. Spend some time doing this, and then listen back to what you have recorded. When we’re playing, and focusing on learning a new bit of technique, it’s very difficult to give your full attention to also listening to the sounds you’re producing. If you record and listen regularly, you’re giving yourself an opportunity for instant feedback on the effect of any changes you make to your technique.
We finished off the evening by playing through Paddy’s trip to Scotland together
One of the challenges of learning to play the fiddle is learning to play it in tune. The first step in this process is learning to hear what ‘in tune’ sounds like. Start off by learning to tune your fiddle by ear. If you’re not used to doing this, try it, and then use an electronic tuner to check if you’ve got it right. If you regularly try to tune by ear first, you will gradually learn to hear what the notes of the open strings should sound like. Going through the same process each time you do this is also helpful – start with the A string. If you can, tune this to a fixed pitch instrument, or a note from a tuning fork. Once you have the A in tune, tune the other strings using the open A as a reference. Tune the strings in the same order each time you do it (people commonly tune the A, then the D, the G, then the E). You might also find it helpful to always flatten the string before you try to tune up, so you are always tuning the note from flat to sharper. Once you think it sounds in tune, check it against the electronic tuner, to see if you have it right. The more often you do this, the more your ear will learn to hear quite subtle differences in tuning.
We tried out playing through the first part of Professor Delbert’s Birthday, the jig we learnt in the class last week. The jig is in A major.
Then we spent a bit of time working on our tuning. We tried playing some notes from the A scale, against an A drone. Alternate people around the circle played the open A drone, while the people in between played A, B, C#, D, C#, B, A. Then we swapped round. The people playing the drone were concentrating on playing with a clear tone. Those playing up the scale were listening to the tuning of their notes against the drones being played on either side of them.
After this we tried out playing in smaller numbers. One person played a long note from the A arpeggio. The next person round the circle played a different note from the arpeggio along with it. Then the third person round the circle played another note from the arpeggio. The first person dropped out, and the fourth person then joined in with another note. We continued this around the circle, with everyone listening to their tuning in relation to the people playing around them.
The B part of the jig has a lot of string swapping – there are several notes alternating between the A and E strings, which can be tricky to play and keep under control. We looked again at the technique for using a wrist action to move the bow from one string to the next and back again.
We also revisited the jig rhythm, playing it with a dotted timing. When doing this, the middle note in each group of 3 quavers becomes shorter. It can vary from a little bit shorter than the adjacent quavers, to almost not there at all (we discovered homeopathic fiddle notes!). It’s important to make sure that the tune doesn’t speed up when doing this – if the middle of a group of 3 quavers is shortened, the first note needs to be lengthened by the same amount, to keep the timing of the tune consistent.
We also tried out alternate people round the room playing drones on an open D, while the people in between played a slow D scale. When we did this, we tried it with no one obviously taking charge of the tempo. Everyone playing the scale needed to be aware of what the other scale-players were doing, to try to play in time with one another. People noticed that when no one was ‘in charge’ it could be hard for some people to hear what was happening. So they were aware of watching other people’s feet (if they were tapping their feet), or watching bows or fingers moving, to keep in time. If you’re playing with other people, sometimes you might find yourself in situations where it’s hard to hear what other people are playing, so developing an ability to see what’s going on is a useful skill to help with playing in time.
We have one more class this term, then a week’s break for Easter. It will be possible to enrol for next term at the class next week.
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.
If you’re learning to play as an adult, one of the big challenges is learning how to play the fiddle in tune. If you’ve never played an instrument that needs to be tuned before, there are some things you ca do that will help to make this easier. The first thing to do is to make sure that your fiddle is in tune each time you play it. Get into the habit of tuning before you start to practice. It’s also important to be aware that a fiddle can go out of tune very quickly in some situations. Here’s some situations that might mean you need to re-tune your fiddle more often than usual:
when it’s very warm (fiddle strings tend to go flat)
when it’s very cold (fiddle strings tend to go sharp)
if you’ve replaced any of the strings in the last couple of weeks (fiddle strings tend to go flat)
if you’re fiddle has been knocked or dropped
if any of your pegs are ill-fitting and prone to slipping
Part of the challenge is being able to hear what ‘in tune’ sounds like. With modern electronic tuners it’s very easy to check if your fiddle is in tune. It can be easy to rely on your electronic tuner when you’re tuning your fiddle, but learning to tune by ear is a method to train your ear to hear when notes are in tune. Check back to this post if you want a reminder about learning how to tune your fiddle by ear.
It can be really helpful to have more than just your own note to listen to – if you have another ‘point of reference’ it can make it easier to hear if what you’re playing on your fiddle is in tune or not. Try playing along with an instrument with a fixed pitch (accordion, concertina, melodeon, etc), or a fretted instrument. If you’re playing with other fiddles, it can be helpful if someone is playing a drone on an open (tuned!) string, or a harmony.
Tonight we learnt a very short tune – an Arabian childrens’ song called Yalla Awled (the written music is on the music page). Both the tune and the harmony can be played in the upper or lower register of the fiddle. It also works well with A and E drones. Once we’d learnt the tune and harmony, every second person round the room played tune, while the others played the harmony. We did this while paying careful attention to our tuning and timing. Then half of us played our part up the octave, while the others tried playing it on the bottom octave. After this, we tried playing any part, or a drone, and all wandered around the room, so we could hear what others were playing as well.
After the break we spent some time looking at emphasising up bows. We tried this out on Bill Sullivan’s Polka. We looked at one short phrase in the B part of the tune, and worked on emphasising on up beat within the phrase. Here’s some things we tried out, to increase the emphasis on that one note:
making the rest of the notes quieter
playing a chord on the up beat
using a faster bow stroke
playing towards the heel of the bow
Half the class played the phrase while the other half listened, and then gave feedback. We found it much easier to hear ourselves in a smaller group!
At the end of the class we played through Her Mantle So Green, The Shetland Molecule, and then the True Lovers Lament.
Tonight we learnt the Irish slow air Her Mantle So Green.
We started the evening by working on techniques for beginning to play with vibrato. You can follow the link to remind yourself of the steps involved to practice the action for wrist vibrato. We concentrated on working on the action keeping our forearm still, and using the wrist to generate the vibrato movement in the hand. we tried out the vibrato action in pairs, with one person holding the other person’s forearm steady while they played.
Once we had learnt the tune, we talked about things we can do to improve our tone when we play. We came up with quite a list!
Playing in tune
Keeping the bow perpendicular to the fiddle strings throughout the bow stroke
Keeping the wrist flexible, and allowing the wrist to ‘lead’ the bow stroke. This will also help with keeping the bow perpendicular to the strings throughout the full length of the bow stroke
Keeping both arms and hands relaxed, and avoiding tension in the neck and shoulders
Keeping the bow in the ‘sweet spot’ on the fiddle strings
Using the speed of the bow to add a ‘shape’ or dynamics to the longer notes
We tried playing through the tune again, thinking about the tone we were creating.
We also talked about more effective ways to learn. When we practice, we’ll often pick on something we want to do better, and play it round and round for a long time, until we feel we’ve made some progress. Often learning in this way doesn’t seem to stick well, or get bedded into our playing.
Our brains are more likely to focus on things that are new or different. When we repeat one thing for a long time, we tend to be less stimulated, and start to lose concentration. Practicing a few different things, and rotating from one to another after a short spell, is likely to keep us more engaged, as we’re keeping ourselves interested with new material. You can read about this in more depth in an article written by Dr Noa Kageyama, performance psychologist.
When playing slow airs, tuning is really important. It may seem obvious, but it’s important to be able to hear when a note is in or out of tune – if we can’t hear it, it will be impossible to learn to play consistently in tune. We talked through things we can do to help us learn to hear what is in tune.
Tuning the fiddle:
Tune your fiddle by ear whenever possible. Check it with an electronic tuner afterwards, if you’re not sure if you have it in tune. This helps to train your ear to hear when notes are in tune. Find out more about tuning your fiddle.
Get into the habit of tuning your fiddle in the same way each time. Tune the A string first (either to a tuner, or to a fixed pitch instrument, pitch pipe or tuning fork). Then loosen each string in turn before tuning it, so you are always tuning from flat to in tune. Play a chord with the adjacent open A string while you are tuning the D string. Once the D is in tune, play a chord with the open D string while you are tuning the G. The A string can also be used for a chord while tuning the E string.
Play the start of a tune that you know really well, that begins with a fifth jump. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star works well! Listen to that opening interval, and see if you can hear if it’s right or not
Playing in tune
Playing chords in tunes also helps with hearing when particular notes are in pitch.
Play tunes and check any suspect notes against an electronic tuner.
If you can sing in tune, try singing while you play.
We tried out playing the tune together in the group, all following one person’s timing.
We finished off by playing through Ramnee Ceilidh, then Lay Dee at Dee together
This week we learnt the second past of the waltz Leaving Brittany.
We spent some time familiarising ourselves with some of the unusual notes in the tune, by playing through the following run of notes a few times, while focusing on playing in tune:
A (open string)
B flat (first finger)
B natural (first finger)
C natural (second finger)
C sharp (second finger)
D (third finger)
It’s worth doing this sort of thing before playing tunes that are in unfamiliar keys, until you can play the sharps and flats in tune.
We also learnt a short new tune. I’m still struggling to remember the name of it – hopefully it will come back to me!
We spent some time working on vibrato. We tried out using our third finger, sliding it backwards and forwards up and down the string a short distance. As we continued the motion with our hand, we gradually reduced the distance the finger was sliding, until it came to a stop on the string.
We played through the Road to Banff and the Aird Ranters for a quick reminder of playing in more common key signatures!
Tonight we spent some time looking at what happens when we start playing tunes in less commonly used key signatures, and what we can do to learn to play more reliably in tune. Up until now, we’ve learnt tunes that have been in the commoner keys such as D, A, A minor, and G. It has helped us to get very familiar with where the notes are in those keys.
Tonight we learnt the A part of a waltz by Johnny Cunningham, called Leaving Brittany. The tune is in D Minor, which uses B flats and F naturals. So we need to move the first finger back towards the nut when we’re playing on the A string and the E string. (If you’re not sure where the nut is on your fiddle, here’s a labelled photo). The tune also has B naturals, and a mixture of C naturals and C sharps. We started off by playing all the semi-tones from an open A string to the D on the third finger. Here’s how it works:
B flat (1st finger close to the nut)
B natural (slide 1st finger up to its usual position)
C natural (2nd finger, placed close to the 1st finger)
C sharp (slide 2nd finger up close to the 3rd finger position)
D (3rd finger in its usual position)
Once we’d played this run of notes through a few times, we had a sense of where the notes would be. We talked about ways to help with playing in tune. It’s very common when people are learning to play the fiddle that notes are played slightly flat. If you’re playing on your own, it can be difficult to hear slight differences in pitch if you’re not used to hearing what an ‘in tune’ note sounds like. We tried playing the same series of semi-tones from A to D, and played the open D along with out 3rd finger D. This helps us to hear if the D we’ve arrived at is in tune!
It can also be really helpful to play along with an instrument which has a fixed pitch (such as an accordion, concertina, or piano), to help to learn to play in tune. If you’re playing with other people who are also learning to play the fiddle, it can be difficult to work out whether you’re in or out of tune, when you can hear that you’re not playing quite the same pitch as the person next to you in the group. Making sure that you have tuned your fiddle each time you play it is also important.
Once we’d done this, we spent some time learning the A part of the waltz. The written music is on the tunes page. We’ll be learning the B part next week, and consolidating the tune.
We also played through the Vals, and gave some thought to where we might put grace notes and ornamentation to add shape to the tune. We played through the Aird ranters, and also tried playing it in reel time. Because we’re familiar with where the notes are in this tune, we were aiming to play this more subconsciously, hearing the new rhythm as we played.
We played through several reels together at the end of the evening – the Barrowburn Reel, the High Road to Linton, Spootiskerry, the Islay Rant, and Ramnee Ceilidh. we finished off with the march Dorothy and John Livingston (which is a lovely tune to play for a Gay Gordons).
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