Making Music

Making music

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’
  • Tone
  • Tuning
  • Timing

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.


Playing with expression

Playing with expression

Last night we learnt a harmony for Jennifer’s Jig, then spent some time working on playing with expression.

We played a long open A, and tried varying how we were playing the note. We played an  angry A, happy A, sad A, timid A etc. Then we tried playing a long A starting with one emotion and ending with another. We talked about why we want to play the fiddle – there were various different reasons in the class, but a sense of being able to focus so completely on it that you could forget about everything else was a theme that repeated.

We talked about finding ways to shift our approach to playing. We’re aiming to move away from it being a ‘thinking’ process, where we are concerned with the practicalities of where the bow is, what notes we are playing, getting the notes in the right order, and so on, and moving to a much more intuitive and fluid mental state, where we trust our bodies to do what is needed to play the music, and we allow ourselves to express something through the music we’re playing

Then we went back to the jig, and played it in different ways – it sounded strikingly different when we played it with different emotions.

We worked on our tuning for a while, with each person round the room playing one of the notes from the arpeggio of G. We played and listened carefully to the people either side of us, working on blending and tuning. Once the tuning had settled down, we all shifted one note further up the arpeggio, and repeated the exercise.


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


Using the bow for expression

Playing expressively using the full length of the bow

Tonight we worked on using different parts of the length of the fiddle bow to change the quality of our sound. It’s easy to get into a habit of playing in the centre of the bow all the time – it can feel like a comfortable place to play, and the bow might feel easier to control. But moving to the tip or the heel will give a very different quality to our playing sound. It’s another useful skill for helping us to become more expressive when we’re playing.

Using the bow to create expression in tunes
Photo ©Ros Gasson 2013

We started off by playing a G scale, using the bow in our normal playing position, which for most folk in the class tends to be right in the centre of the length of the bow. Then we tried playing the same scale using the tip of the bow, then at the heel of the bow. We noticed that playing at the tip made it harder to feel in control of where the bow was going. It also created a more delicate subtle sound. Using the heel of the bow naturally added more weight to the bow on the string, and allowed us to play louder, with more attack, and with a certain amount of ‘grunge’. We played around with all three of these options. Then we moved on to trying out the different parts of the bow while playing tunes.

We played through Bill Sullivan’s Polka, thinking about how we’d like different parts of the tune to sound. We tried out playing through the A part, using different parts of our bows to create different sound effects for each phrase.

Then we tried the same thing with Braeroy Road. Finally we tried playing the tune just thinking about the sort of sound we wanted to make in each phrase, rather than focusing on which part of our bow we were using. Our playing had much more energy when we did it this way!

After the break we played through a harmony to Her Mantle so Green. Then 2 people had a go at trying to find their own harmonies while the rest of us played the tune.

We spent some time discussing bows, and also talking about how to go about buying a new bow or fiddle.

After this, we tried playing without so much structure. We started with a riff, which we repeated for a while. There’s a range of options for what each individual could do as we played:

  • continue playing the riff
  • stop playing and listen
  • create something new to play along with the riff – harmonies, rhythms, drones…or things that clash.
  • copy what someone else is doing
  • echo what someone else is doing, or play something in response to them
  • sing or make other sounds

It’s a useful exercise to get us more used to playing around with some notes, letting our subconscious brain take charge, rather than playing a learnt structured tune. We found we could also play about with influencing the group through what we played.

At the end of the evening, we played through Road to Banff, Lay Dee at Dee, and the Shetland Molecule


How to play notes cleanly on the fiddle

How to play notes cleanly on the fiddle

At the end of last week, we ended up with a question: “How do you play notes that sound crisp on the fiddle?” We looked at some techniques we can learn that will help with this, in the class tonight. We started off by thinking about what it is about the sound of musical notes that makes them sound crisp and clean to the listener. Some ideas that came up included:

  • the notes are in time
  • the notes aren’t rushed
  • the notes have a definite start and finish
  • there’s a ‘shape’ to the notes
  • there might be a small gap between one note an the next
  • the notes are expressive
  • the notes have a good tone, creating a sound that’s pleasing to listen to

We used the tune we learnt last week to look at some of these attributes. We started off by talking about learning how to play at a steady tempo. Becoming confident that you can hold a tune at whatever tempo you wish to play it is a skill that can be learnt over time.

It can be useful to try to play along with a metronome. If you’re doing this, and you tap your feet while you play, it’s helpful understand what’s happening with your foot tapping before you try this out. If your playing follows the tempo that your foot is tapping, you’ll need to work on tapping your foot in time with the metronome in order to be able to play in time with it. If on the other hand, your foot tapping is following your playing tempo, then you can aim to match your playing directly to the metronome’s speed.

How to play notes cleanly on the fiddle
Photo ©Ros Gasson 2013

In the class, we tried out starting off playing the tune at one tempo, then moving to a new tempo at the start of each tune part. The group was following one person for this exercise. Initially we found that although we all changed quickly to the new tempo, there was a tendency to immediately slide back towards the previous tempo we’d been playing at. We were also working on tapping our feet while playing, to help with establishing the beat.


Playing with ‘bounce’

We then went on to work on using the vertical action of the bow in the bow stroke, to create ‘lift’ in a run of notes. As we draw the bow across the strings, the bow can be slightly compressed downwards, by using the first finger on the back of the stick to transfer the weight of the arm into the bow. Releasing this pressure part way through the bowstroke will make the bow ‘bounce’ out of the  end of the bow stroke. By varying the pressure applied, and the point at which we release that pressure, it’s possible to vary the slight gap in between successive notes, created when the bow lifts just clear of the string.

We concentrated on the B part of the tune, and tried out using bowing patterns to create emphasis on the beat. The Shetland style ‘1 down 3 up’ bowing pattern can be used on the runs in this tune to great effect.

We also had a go at using chords to create emphasis. In the A part we have already tried out creating a percussive chord on the beat, on the opening D in the tune. This week we tried playing a chord in the B part, playing the D and F# (on the E string) together. We played these on the offbeats in the string-crossing section at the start of the B part.

We tried out using various bits of technique together to create a different effect. On the opening D of the tune we used increasing bow speed, hammer on plus a chord with the open D below, to create crescendo in the note, giving it a ‘shape’.

To finish the class we played through Cooley’s Reel together.

Next week we’ll learn a polka, which will give us a chance to do some more work on developing those crisp notes!


Making music expressive


Making music expressive

Tonight we played around with the idea of making music expressive.

We started off by revisiting our bow hold, aiming to work on keeping our bowing arm as relaxed as possible while playing. The fingers of the right hand can be laid onto the stick of the bow, and slightly spread apart. While the bow is being used on the strings, the fiddle will hold the main weight of the bow, allowing our bow hold to be kept relaxed. If we lift the bow off the strings, the pinkie is used to take the bow’s weight briefly, until the bow returns to the strings.

Making music expressive
Photo ©Ros Gasson

We played long slow notes an open string, keeping a relaxed bow hold, and using our wrist action to make the bow strokes flow. We were also thinking about the tone we were making, particularly in relation to where abouts on the string we were using the bow. We then tried lifting our bows off the string at the end of each up bow.  After this, we tried messing around with playing the notes in all sorts of different styles (Rice Crispies was an interesting suggestion – thanks Dave!).

We started learning the tune ‘The Eagles Whistle’, learning the A part this evening. We’ll cover the rest of the tune next week. While we were learning the tune, we tried playing it with different styles, thinking about what we were trying to express through the music. Making music expressive is easier once we’ve learnt a tune thoroughly, and can play if from our subconscious, rather than having to think about where we’re placing our fingers as we play, or which direction we’re moving the bow. We’re aiming to get into a ‘flow’ state while we’re playing, which involves being absorbed in the music, and losing awareness of day to day distractions.

We also explored possibilities for playing chords. The open D string can be played along with the tune, at any  point during the A part.

Once we’d learnt the A part of the tune, we split into two groups. Each group had a go at playing the tune with expression, while the other group worked out what was being expressed. We finished off the evening by playing single long bows on an open string again, following a style that was started by one person within the group.

Playing tunes subconsciously


Playing music subconsciously

Playing fiddle music subconsciously
Photo ©Ros Gasson

We spent some time tonight thinking about making a shift from thinking consciously about the mechanics while we’re playing tunes, to playing music while just thinking about the sound of the tune we are playing, and allowing the subconscious to ‘take charge’ of how that happens. Once we’ve learnt some basic techniques, we need to find a way to start to focus on the sound we are producing. We’re aiming to begin to hear the tune in our head, the way we would like it to sound, as we’re playing it. Ultimately the mechanics of creating the sounds become so automatic that hearing  a tune in this way becomes enough to allow us to automatically play it the way we are hearing it. It’s a process we go through for any new skill we learn. At some point, the new skill becomes a subconscious action, and at that point, the action flows much more smoothly than when we were consciously thinking about how to make it happen. The subconscious brain is an amazing thing when it comes to playing music!

One of the ways we can start to make this shift is to play without looking at our fingers. In the class, we’ve been trying out playing while standing in a circle, thinking about the tune, and looking at the other fiddlers in the group, rather than our own hands.

We learnt the Gordon Duncan tune ‘The High Drive’ in the class tonight. There are several different versions of this tune around. The music for the version we learnt in the class is on the website music page. The original tune is written with 4 parts, but all four parts are rarely played in sessions. It’s commonly played as a two part reel.

We had a bit of a chocolate-fest in the break!

We ended the evening playing through a number of tunes together.

Thanks to everyone who has been in the class this term. It’s been a lot of fun, and a lovely group to teach.

Enrolment for the spring term starts on 10th December. Contact the office at St Bride’s for more information. The new term will start on Tuesday 8th January 2013, and will run for 12 weeks (without a mid-term break) until Tuesday 26th March. I hope to see you then!

Working on tone on the fiddle

Developing tone on the fiddle

We spent tonight’s lesson doing some more work on our tone. We started by playing through the tune from last week – I See Mull. Then we learnt a new waltz – Dance des Petit Filles (The Dance of the little Girls). The written music is on the music page. It’s an unusual tune, and turned out to be quite a challenge to learn!

After the break, we did some more work on our tone on the fiddle. We split into pairs, and gave each other feedback about our bows. We started off focusing on keeping the bow perpendicular to the fiddle strings, then worked on playing with the bow closer to the bridge.

Bow hold

Developing a relaxed and comfortable bow holdwill also help us play with a more mellow tone.

Fiddle lessons in Edinburgh - improving tone in the String Circle fiddle class

We put down our fiddles for a while, and worked on our bow holds. If you drop your bowing arm down by your side (without holding the bow!), and shake it out, your hand relaxes. You can keep the hand in this relaxed position, and raise it up in front of you, and place the bow into it. It gives an idea of how relaxed the bow hold can be when you’re playing. Getting into a habit of doing this before picking up the bow to play will help develop a more relaxed bow hold when playing.

It’s particularly important to keep the thumb relaxed and slightly bent.

We tried out moving the bow through long bow strokes, to get the feel of having a flexible wrist when we play.

The we talked about how the 1st finger and the pinkie are important for helping to keep control over our volume when we’re playing. The thumb acts as a pivot for the bow. If we put a bit of pressure on the pinkie when we play a bow stroke, it takes some of the weight of the bow off the fiddle strings. The lighter bow plays much more quietly, with a delicate tone. We tried this out on out fiddles. Conversely, pushing down with the forefinger pushes the bow into the strings, giving a scrunchier louder sound to the note.

Creating dynamics

We went back to the waltz we learnt earlier, and tried thinking about where we might change the volume of our playing, to help it to become more expressive. We also tried out changing our bow speed to help create a crescendo within some of the longer notes in the tune.

At the end of the evening we played through a few tunes – we played Mrs MacLeod of Raasay, Willafiord and Roxburgh Castle as a set. We also played Fionn’s, a tune by Charlie McKerron which we’ve learnt previously in the class.



How to improve your fiddle tone

Techniques for improving fiddle tone

Tonight we spent most of the class working on creating a clear tone on the fiddle. We started off by learning the tune I See Mull (Chi Mi Muile). Once we had the notes under our fingers, we moved onto thinking about ways we could improve our tone on the fiddle while playing.

We practiced playing an open A string, concentrating on keeping the bow perpendicular to the strings throughout the full bow stroke. We worked in pairs so we could get feedback from the other person. It can be very difficult to tell if your own bow is perpendicular to the strings or not! It’s important to keep the wrist flexible, and the hand, arm shoulders and neck relaxed, throughout the complete bow stroke. A flexible wrist helps us to keep the bow in a straight straight line at the beginning at end of the bow stroke.

We tried out playing the tune again thinking about keeping the bow at right angles to the fiddle strings. It made a noticeable difference to the sound we created.

Next we moved on to thinking about whereabouts on the fiddle we were placing the bow. Keeping the bow fairly close to the bridge throughout the bow stroke helps to create a fuller sound and a mellow tone. We split into pairs again to give each other feedback on this.

After that, we tried playing more from our subconscious. As we were quite familiar with the tune, we stood in a circle, and tried playing the whole tune down an octave. We focused on thinking about the tune itself rather than where our fingers were going. Once we’d done that, we tried out alternating round the circle, with one person playing down an octave and the next person playing up the octave.

Fiddle lessons in Edinburgh  - working on tone on the fiddle
©Ros Gasson


We briefly looked at how to add vibrato to notes.The left hand needs to be very relaxed to achieve this. We started out by placing the 3rd finger on the A string. Using the wrist, we are aiming to rock the hand backwards and forwards. We’ll come back to this again later on in the term. Here’s some more detailed  information on learning to play with vibrato.


We finished off the evening by playing through the march and 2 reels we have learnt so far in the class, as a single set of tunes. The B part of Ramnee Ceilidh is quite a challenge to play at speed. We went back over this, slowing it down a bit to remind ourselves of the notes. We also looked at how to play the triplet, which is a bit awkward as it appears on an upbeat in the tune.