Playing with others

Playing with others

There are several things to pay attention to when playing with others.

  • We started this session by looking at the detail – emphases, playing notes cleanly, with a precise start and finish.
  • We also looked at playing with a clear pulse in tunes, making it clearly identifiable, so that others can follow and join in. Our pulse should be the same as others who are are playing.
  • Awareness of other players – what are they doing? Are you in time, in tune, …and playing the same tune?
Fiddlers playing together
Photo ©Ros Gasson

Playing the notes cleanly

We worked on getting the bow connecting with the string. We placed the bow on an open string, and added gradual tension with the bowing arm, making sure we were transferring the weight of the arm into the bow so the bow was fully engaged with the string.

At some point the tension of the pull of the bow overcomes the stickiness of the rosin, and the bow hair loses it’s grip on the string. The string then starts to vibrate, creating the note. This helped us to identify the point where the bow starts to get the string vibrating. We then worked on making sure the bow was really engaging clearly with the string, right at the start of each note. we played an open D, and used the weight of the bowing arm through the index finger to dig the bow into string at the point when string starts to vibrate.  We worked on dynamics within notes, using the bow speed to increase the volume at the start of the note. We worked on both of these playing up a D scale.

Playing with a clear pulse

We learnt Kirsty’s, a strathspey by Charlie McKerron. We played the opening phrase, concentrating on creating strong clear notes, and all playing in time. We used the speed of the bow to increase the volume of the notes on the beat.

We talked about how to start a tune, so that others you are playing with can come in at the same tempo. We tired out counting in – to do this, you need to think about the tempo you want the tune to go, the time signature of the tune, and whether you are starting playing at the start of a bar, or with lead notes before the bar. We worked on counting in and starting confidently and together.

We also talked about keeping a sense of the pulse as we play. An orchestra has a conductor to follow, but with folk music there isn’t an official person doing this. It often happens in a session that the players will end up following the loudest instrument. But what happens if that player has a poor sense of timing? There are various things we can do to prevent the pulse being lost in a group. The first thing is to make sure you have a good sense of where that pulse is. Generally folk musicians do this by tapping a foot on the beat. If you’re used to doing this, and confident your foot tapping can hold a steady tempo, you can then learn to follow that, rather than the loud instrument. Depending on the setting, you might also want to tap that foot a bit louder, if you can feel the tempo in the group is beginning to go out of control. It’s also possible to take visual cues from other players who you know have a good sense of the timing, if you’re unable to hear what they are playing – watching a good player’s bow can be very useful!

We also talked about being able to hear the tune in your head as you’re playing. Learning the fiddle is a complex business, ad it’s easy to get stuck in a very ‘thinking’ mode when playing, as we concentrate on bow direction, where our fingers are going, whether we’re in tune etc etc. Ultimately we need to let go of this and trust our subconscious to take charge of these physical aspects of playing, in order to let the music that we’re playing flow out. When we do this, we can then hear the tune in our heads as we play, and focus on how we want to tune to sound. If something goes awry with our playing, and we continue to hear the tune in our heads, we can very quickly get past the mistake, and slot back into the tune in the correct timing.  This keeps the pulse going. It’s surprising how little someone listening will notice, in terms of errors, if the pulse stays on track!

We worked on focusing on hearing the tune – the group split in half, and played alternate phrases from the tune, keeping a steady tempo as the tune switched from one group to the other. We needed to hear tune through the phrase we weren’t playing, in order to come in at the right point and at the right tempo. We also tried playing a phrase altogether, all missing out several notes in the iddle, and coming back into the rest of the phrase together at the right time/tempo.

Awareness of other players

We stood in a circle and played the tune, focusing on the players either side of us, and blending with them. Then we played focusing on whole group sound, making eye contact, and taking our visual and listening focus off our own playing. Doing this created a big difference in the energy of the group’s sound.
We tried out playing with our eyes shut, focusing only on the sound we could hear. Some people found technique tricky when doing this – eg being confident about the position of the bow on the strings.

We talked about what to do if you can’t hear the others you are playing with. One of the most obvious things is to play a bit quieter yourself. Sometimes in a session, you ca tell the music isn’t ‘gelling’ but it can be hard to hear where the pulse is, and what’s being played. There’s nothing wrong with dropping your own volume right down, or even stopping playing altogether, so you can hear more clearly what’s happening.
Then we played round the A part of the tune, with one person ‘in charge’ of the tempo on each repetition. All the players followed the same person, and the person ‘in charge’ moved on sequentially around the room with each repetition of the part.

Then we tried putting it all into practice, and played the opening phrase of the tune individually, with each person in the group following on from the previous player. We made observations on our own playing after doing this.

We also talked about how to end, or signal an end to a tune so that a group can all end together (and also so an audience knows you’ve come to the end!)

How to make practice effective

It’s tempting when practicing, to play lots of tunes that you know. It can be useful to do this, but if there are elements of technique that you’re struggling with, playing over and over with poor technique is likely to be helping to bed that in! So it’s useful to identify a single thing that you want to work on, and focus on that each time you play. it can be helpful to play something very simple (a single note, a scale, or a short phrase) while you work on that specific technique. As learning a new technique will often take you into a thinking way of playing, it can be easy to miss the effect that the changes you are making have on the sound you’re creating. It’s difficult to focus on listening closely while mastering a new physical skill. It can be really helpful to record yourself playing, and listen back to it.


There’s a really useful blog called the Bulletproof Musician, which gives plenty of tips, hints , and information about the psychology of playing well. And a simple guide to how to practice effectively, from Hands Up for Trad

Patsy Reid and Megan Henderosn playing fiddle
©Ros Gasson