Rhythm and tempo

Rhythm and tempo

In today’s workshop we focused on rhythm and tempo. We started by playing an open A, emphasising the note on the on-beat (imagining we were playing in reel time). We talked about ways we can emphasise an individual note to create a steady pulse. As well as playing that note louder, you could consider adding a chord onto the note, or adding a grace note. Then we also tried out playing the notes in between the on-beats as quietly as possible.

We talked some more about tapping our feet on the beat. If you’re not used to doing this, it can seem like an un-necessary complication to add into your playing. But having a steady foot tap can act as a metronome. In an orchestra, the musicians have a conductor to keep the tempo for them, but in traditional music, we need to find a way to access our inner sense of timing. You could chose to follow someone else you are playing with, but without your own sense of what the tempo is, you’d be reliant on other people being able to play steadily, and keep their own tempo under control. Some players move their body with the pulse. The advantage of tapping your foot is that it gives you a very clear ‘moment’ to aim for with your played beat – there’s no doubt as to the moment when your foot makes contact with the floor. If you choose to sway in time to the pulse, or nod your head, the exact moment of the beat isn’t so clearly pinpointed for you. So we worked on tapping a foot on each on-beat. If your tendency is to tap on the on-beats and the off-beats (4 times in the bar, if you’re playing a reel), and you want to switch to tapping just on the on-beats(twice in the bar, in reel time), try keeping foot on the floor until you’re just about to tap again, so you’re not left holding your foot in an elevated position, waiting for the next foot tap to happen – that’s an uncomfortable position, and if you’re going to tap your foot for any length of time, it will be difficult to maintain.

While emphasising the beat, we worked on playing in synchrony within the group. We started off doing this by looking at other peoples’ tapping feet. Then we tried shutting our eyes and listening. It’s useful to be able to hear and see other peoples’ tempos – if you’re in a crowded session, and the session tempo is speeding up, you can help keep it steady if you can follow someone else in the room who has a steady timing. You don’t necessarily need to be able to hear them to do this.

We then played around with taking control of the tempo. We split into 2 groups in the circle. We started off playing our steady tempo together, emphasising the on-beat. One person in each group was responsible for controlling that group’s tempo – everyone else had to follow that person’s playing. While one group aimed to keep a steady tempo, and the other half gradually sped up. We noticed that when we did this, there was a very uncomfortable ‘zone’ as the two speeds began to diverge. The point when they were starting to diverge, but still very similar, was when it was hardest to keep the steady tempo going. We then did the same thing, but this time with our eyes closed, so we were focusing on listening for the moment when the tempos started diverging. Each group was then also focusing on listening to their own group leader to follow their tempo.

We tried going through the same steps as above, while playing the first phrase of the Stone Frigate (which we learnt in the October workshop).

We then learnt the march Campbell’s Farewell to Redcastle, which is often played for the dance the Gay Gordons. A couple of folk in the group danced the Gay Gordons while the rest of us played for them. Playing for dancing can be helpful if you want to improve your sense of tempo. The dancers gave the players feedback on how it was for them to dance to the music. One observation was that although we were emphasising on the beat, an even stronger emphasis would have been better still.

We finished off by playing around with beats, off beats and upbeats. We split into 2 groups and started by all playing an A chord together, (a low A and E played on the D string). We were all emphasising the on-beat, imagining we were playing bars of 8 quavers in reel time. Once we’d settled into our rhythm together, half the group switched to emphasising the off-beat. Each group had a go at this. Then we added in an emphasis on the up-beat before the off-beat. It was a short step to then come up with a 2 chord riff (using the A chord and a G chord) to accompany the A part of the reel ‘Brenda Stubberts’. We played through this a few times, accompanying the first part of Brenda Stubberts reel, and played around with emphasising different beats, to create different rhythms under the tune.

Brenda stubberts - accompaniment

Using the fiddle bow

It was lovely to have a fully booked event for the first one-day fiddle workshop in Portobello yesterday. The focus for this first day was using the bow, and exploring how the bow affects tone and pulse.

Fiddle bow hold

We started off by looking at the bow hold. We gave our hands a good shake out, and noticed how relaxed they felt – we’re aiming for this same relaxed feel in our bow hold.

Photo ©Ros Gasson

The thumb is hooked under the stick at the frog end, acting like a hook to hang the bow on. The fingers are laid over the back of the stick, with the stick sitting in the 2nd joint from the tip of the index finger. This position gives the potential for easy control of any movement of the bow if it strays up or down the strings on the fiddle. We also ensured our fingers were spread out on the stick. Doing this enables the first finger and pinkie to pivot the bow around the thumb. This in turn gives the hand real control over how much of the weight of the bow is transferred to the fiddle strings, which is a major part of being able to control the volume and tone of a note. The pinkie is also used to take the full weight of the bow whenever we lift it clear of the strings – having the pinkie right at the end of the bow, as far from the thumb as possible, makes it as easy as it can be for the pinkie to take the weight of the bow.

We also rotated the bowing hand slightly anticlockwise, to allow us to use the natural flexion in the wrist throughout the bow stroke.

We talked about the relationship of the bow hand with the bow. When you’re first learning to play the fiddle, it’s easy to get int a habit of having a fixed hold on the bow, which never varies. As you gain confidence, and want to learn more techniques, such as being able to lift the bow from the fiddle strings cleanly, you’ll find that a fixed bow hold limits what’s possible. It also tends to lead to a certain amount of tension in the hand, which will affect your tone. We explored how the bow hand needs to respond to the stick of the bow, guiding it through the bow stroke, without preventing it from doing the work it’s designed to do.

The bow stroke

Have looked at our bow holds, we then went on to look at what happens when the bow goes through a single stroke. Learning how to keep the bow perpendicular to the fiddle strings is an important component of the tone created when playing. To keep the bow perpendicular, it’s essential to be able to bend the wrist as part of the bow stroke. If the wrist is tense and locked, the bow will follow an arc as it travels from the frog end to the tip, which results in a big loss of the fullness of the sound that’s possible. The tone of the note is also affected by where the bow is placed on the strings. It’s worth playing around with this when you’re practicing at home, to find the ‘sweet spot’ where your fiddle creates the sound you like. In general, you’ll find the fullest sound when the bow is about 1/3rd of the way down the space between the bridge and the end of the fingerboard. Because of the perspective you get on this when you’re playing, it’s hard to judge where this spot is for yourself, so it’s useful to get someone else to help you find this position initially, until you get used to the feel of it in your playing.

We split into pairs, and spent a while giving each other feedback on bow position.


We talked a little about how to increase the volume of a note. The obvious thing might be to push the bow into the strings a bit harder, but doing this is likely to create a very ‘scratchy’ tone. Increasing the speed of the bow will increase the volume – if you play a single note and move the bow faster, it will mean using more of the bow’s length. The volume of a note is always relative to the note before and after it – so another way to enhance the effect of increasing the volume of a note or phrase, is to also decrease the volume of notes/phrases before and after it.

We also looked at the role of the bowing arm in increasing volume. It’s possible to relax the bowing arm, and allow a lot of the weight of the arm to be transferred into the bow. We split into pairs again, and worked on this with a partner.

Later on in the day, we experimented with playing notes using different parts of the bow. The tip of the bow created a lovely ‘sweet’ sound. Using the heel of the bow creates a more ‘scrunchy’ and louder sound. Feeling confident with playing using any part of the bow will increase the options you have for adding expression to your playing.

Rhythm and pulse

We spent a while looking at the role of the bow in creating rhythm and pulse when we play. We started off by playing open Ds, with a reel rhythm imposed. We worked on tapping a foot along with our playing, to get an inner sense of where the beats were. What we’re aiming for is to have an inbuilt sense of the pulse in tunes we are playing, and for a basic beat to be in our playing without us having to think abut it. The more we can ‘delegate’ to the subconscious mind, the more we are freed up to start playing around with the rhythms in tunes, and add accents on other beats, to add interest and lift.

We started by tapping a foot on the on-beat (in a reel rhythm, this is the 1st and 5th quavers, in a bar of 8 quavers), and emphasising the bow stroke on those beats. We moved on to playing a D scale, starting on a down bow on the open D, and using single bow strokes for each note. You can increase the volume of an individual note by speeding up the bow, letting the weight of the arm transfer to the bow, paying attention to where the bow is on the string, playing towards the heel of the bow, using a down bow or adding a chord. There’s plenty of scope for doing any combination of these things as you like.

We tried playing and emphasising the off-beats in the bar instead (the 3rd and 7th quavers in the bar). We then split into 2 groups, and half of us emphasised the on-beat, while the other half emphasised the off-beat. We also tried playing and emphasisng the upbeat as well as the on beat (the up beat is the 8th quaver in the bar).

We looked at creating a basic bowing structure, when playing rhythmic tunes such as reels. It’s possible to works out patterns to ensure that you will naturally play a down bow on the beats in a tune. This is all part of the process of getting the subconscious mind to take responsibility for as much of our playing as possible. If you have a basic pattern, or habit, for bowing tunes in a way that will automatically emphasise the beat without you having to think about it, all you then need to focus on is where and how you will vary this to create interest or swing or lift, or whatever effect you’re after.


We tried out some of the tips from above to improve our tone, while playing the D scale. We split into 2 groups again, and half of the group played a harmony (still playing the D scale, but starting when the other group had reached the F# in their scale so the ‘harmony’ group were playing a third below the ‘tune’ group). We switched around so both groups had a go at playing the harmony, then tried the same thing, with alternate people around the room playing ‘tune’ or ‘harmony’. Then we moved on to playing different notes in the arpeggio of D (D, F#, A), so each person was playing a different note to the person either side of them.

We tried out playing without looking at our left hands, and paying more attention to the other players around us. Doing this helps to get a feel for playing ‘in the zone’ rather than in the more ‘thinking’ mode that we are used to using when we’re learning to play. There was definitely more energy in the sound we made when we did this.

Shetland reel

We learnt the Shetland reel Hamar Ower da Taing. The music is available to download from the written music page of the website. We looked at slurs we could add to keep the bow hitting a down bow on the beat. I’ll upload another copy of the music with the slurs included, sometime during this coming week.

We also looked at a number of chords we could add to the A and B parts.


We started by looking at how to play triplets, as there’s one in the first bar of the tune. Again, it’s helpful to find one standard way that you can do this without thinking about it. Once it’s in your muscle memory as a habit, it will free you up to try out other ways of playing it, to vary what you’re doing. We looked at playing the triplet using a down-up-down bowing pattern.

Percussive and droning chords

In the A part we added a percussive style open D along with the D we play in the tune. We spent some time looking at how to achieve this effect. The note you wish to add the chord to is played on a down bow. In this instance, the percussive drone note we want to add is the open D string, played over the 3rd finger D played on the A string. So we’re aiming to get the bow to ‘drop’ onto the open D string, and immediately come off the string, to allow it to ring out. This is achieved by bringing the bow up towards the heel area as we play the preceding C# (2nd finger on the A string). The whole balance of the bow will be affected when we move away from the centre area of the bow. In order to stop the tip of the bow from dropping as we play the C#, the pinkie is called into action, taking some of the weight of the bow as we move towards the heel. So we approach the D with the pinkie bearing a fair bit of the weight of the tip of bow, which is now over to the left of the string we’re playing. It is then easy to release the pinkie, and the bow will automatically drop onto the open D string without us having to change the position of the arm at all. If you have a relaxed hold on the bow at this point, it will naturally hit the string and bounce off it. All you need to do is to then take the weight of the bow again to keep it clear of the ringing open D string as you finish playing the D note in the tune.

In the B part, you can add a ‘droning’ style open A along with the first phrase in the part, which is played on the E string. As you reach the end of the B part, you can also add this same drone on the A string to the last phrase in the B part, so the drone continues from the last phrase of the first B part into the first phrase of the 2nd B part.

We looked at how to achieve a ‘droning’ style chord, and be confident that it will happen when you intend to play it, by using a combination of the positioning of the bow in relation to the strings, along with a little pressure from the index finger on the stick of the bow.

Plying around with harmony and rhythms

Harmonies and rhythms

This week we learnt a harmony to Jock Broon’s 70th. (The written music for it is on the music page). We spent some time working on getting the rhythm to the A part harmony swinging along. We were emphasising the first 2  and the 4th semiquavers, in each group of 4, and making the third semiquaver so light that it became almost inaudible. It’s helpful to still play the 3rd semiquaver, though. That way if you want to change the emphasis to change the rhythm at any point, you don’t need to alter the bowing pattern.

We also looked at a way of varying the rhythm in the A part of the tune (moving away from pushing the rhythm into 3s). And we played around a bit with the C part harmony, leaving a spaces in the tune. When played alongside the tune, some of the tune pushes fall in the spaces in the harmony, which creates an interesting effect.

We had a go at playing the tune and harmony together. After this we played through Huntingtone Castle a few times. Once we’d played through it once, we tried playing standing up, while not looking at our hands, and focusing on hearing the tune for ourselves. The difference in the quality of the sound we made was huge – it sounded much more confident, and we made a lovely big sound together! Then we did the same thing again, but this time also imagined someone was waltzing around the room, and we were playing for them. This had another big impact on the sound.

We’re aiming to keep the Tuesday session at the Diggers going over the summer. i’ll be updating the session page soon!


Syncopation in reels

Some tunes have inherent syncopation in their rhythms, which are created by certain patterns of notes. In reels, a run of notes split up by repeating pairs of the same note in between them creates a syncopated rhythm for that section of the tune.

Tonight we learnt The Mouth of the Tobique, which is a French Canadian three part reel. The third part of the tune has this syncopated rhythm.

Once we’d learnt the tune we looked at a couple of bowing options in the first and second parts, using a 1 down 3 up bowing pattern to help to break up the long runs of notes. We also tried playing around with chords in the syncopated part of the tune.

We did some more work on playing Crabbit Shona, the jig that we learnt last week. We worked on the first part of the tune, looking at where to place the emphases in the syncopated bars of the tune.

Syncopation in reels
Photo ©Ros Gasson




Shetland bowing patterns

Shetland bowing patterns for playing reels

Last night we learnt the Shetland tune Sleep Soond i’ Da Morning. It’s a simple 16 bar reel.

Shetland players have distinctive bowing patterns used in playing reels. Patterns have a big influence on the sound, particularly the rhythms within the tune. The 1 down 3 up bowing pattern puts the emphasis on the on beat. The 3 up 1 down pattern puts emphasis on the off beat. We used both patterns in this tune, to shift the emphasis from the beat to the offbeat.

We worked on tapping foot when playing the 3 up one down bowing pattern. With this pattern, the bow emphasis falls on the off beat, while the foot continues to tap on on beat. It can feel a bit disconcerting when you first try it!

To get the best effect of these bowing patterns, we were speeding the bow up when playing the down bow, to add a strong emphasis to the note.

We also spent some time in the class talking about how to change the strings on a fiddle. I’ve started creating a new resource on the website, with some information on basic fiddle maintenance. If there’s any other areas you’d like me to cover with this, let me know!

Shetland bowing patterns for reels played on the fiddle
Photo ©Ros Gasson

Playing in the zone

Playing in the zone

Tonight we spent some time working on playing ‘in the zone’ – letting our subconscious take over from our conscious thinking brain.

We played the run D, E, F#, G, F#, E, D on an open D string. Then we played the same run with an open A making a chord with each D, E, and F#, and a B (first finger on the a string) making a chord along with the G. We tried out alternating the run on the open d string followed by the run with the chords. We were working on keeping our bow very close to the A string, even when we weren’t playing on it, so that it only took a small movement to change from not playing a chord to playing a chord. After that we tried playing the run on the open string, and added just  the G/B chord in. When we repeated it, we played all the chords with the open A, and played the G without a chord. Then we tried playing the chords on the way up the run, and the single open string on the way back down.

It was pretty loud with so many folk playing chords at the same time!

We learnt the strathspey Cameron’s Got His Wife Again. The tune is in D. It’s got a number of unusual jumps in it, and plenty of snaps that kept us on our toes. We’ll spend some more time working on the tune next week.

Getting into the zone

After the break we played around with the notes in the D scale. To get a sense of how it feels to play without using your conscious brain, it can be helpful to find something very simple and repetitive to play. Once you’ve got the pattern under your fingers, it’s easy to let go, and get into the zone. We are aiming to be hearing the music as we want it to sound when we’re doing this.

We started off by playing up and down a D scale several times together. Then alternate people in the circle played a chord with the bottom A (first finger on the G string) and an open D. They played this in reel time, and emphasised the beat. Everyone else joined in with playing the D scale, also emphasising the notes that fell on each beat. After this, we tried every third person in the circle playing a harmony to the D scale – they did this by playing a D scale as well, starting on the D when the ‘tune’ players reached the F#, so it was a third below the original D scale. The harmony players were emphasising the offbeat. Once we’d done that, we had one more go, where anyone could wander from their original part, and find harmonies or rhythms to play along with what was happening.

At the end of the evening we played through the strathspey again. Sometimes with fast runs of notes in a tune, playing in time can be tricky. It’s helpful to be really precise and definite with where each note starts, to help keep the timing under control. We worked on the phrase at the end of the B part, and tried out using the bounce in the bow to make the notes stacatto and crisp.

Playing in the zone
Photo ©Ros Gasson

How to control your speed when playing the fiddle

Controlling your speed when playing fiddle tunes

Tonight we worked on various aspects of technique that will help us to control our speed when playing fiddle tunes. Learning to play faster tunes can be difficult skill to pick up when you’re first learning to play.  Often what happens is that we unconsciously speed up when we’re playing the trickier parts of a tune. The tune then gets out of our control as it reaches speeds beyond our abilities. In the early staged of learning to play the fiddle,  our attention is mainly focused on playing all the right notes in the right order. We tend to pay little attention to the rhythm and timing of the music.

Learning to control your playing speed
Photo ©Ros Gasson

When people are listening to music, tempo and rhythm is really important. A dropped note, or a phrase played differently, often goes completely un-noticed by the audience, if they are engrossed in the rhythms and beat of the music. But if the timing falters, the ‘spell’ is broken.

So how can we ensure we are playing in time, and that we have control over the tempo of the tunes we’re playing?

Part of the answer lies in having strong enough technique that you can be sure exactly when you will hit each note. Having a strong sense of rhythm is a start, but until you have the ability to place the notes exactly when you want them, you won’t be able to play confidently in time.

We started off tonight’s class by playing through a couple of the tunes we have learnt this term. Then we spent some time working on Lay Dee at Dee. We worked on the B part of the tune, reminding ourselves of the technique of using  a clockwise circling action with the wrist to move the bow from one string to the other. We also focused on really emphasising the notes that are on the beat. By using the wrist action for the section of the tune where we’re crossing from the E to the A string, the notes on the beat fall on a down bow each time, which helps us to accentuate them.

Then we moved on to working on the run in the B part (A B C# D E D C# B A). We tried out playing this while tapping our feet on the beat, and really emphasising the note that fell on each foot tap (which is the the A, E and A in this run). We played this run using individual bow strokes for each note. We also tried out tapping one foot on the beat, and the other foot on the off beat. We worked on using a strong bowing action for the notes on the beat, using a little pressure with our first finger to dig the bow into the strings at the start of the notes on the beat. To make as big a distinction as possible between the notes on the beat and the other notes in the run, we played the remaining notes very quietly, using a very small length of the bow, and playing them much more lightly.Shetland bowing pattern for a reel

In the last phrase of the B part, we worked on adding in some Shetland bowing, playing a 1 down and 3 up pattern in the 2nd last bar.

After this, we tried playing the first run in the B part again, but this time we all closed our eyes, and concentrated on listening to everyone else in the class, while we aimed to play the notes on the beat exactly in time with each other. Initially we were tending to speed up, but after a few goes at it, we were able to control our speed, and were playing much more in time as a group. We did the same thing while playing the whole tune, which was definitely more of a challenge!

We finished off the night by playing through the jig Brae Roy Road together.

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!


Slurring notes over bar lines

Playing slurred notes over the bar lines

Play slurred notes over bar lines to add swing
Photo ©Ros Gasson

Tonight we learnt an unusual jig written by the fiddler Sarah Northcott. Sarah wrote the tune for a couple of friends from Brittany, for their wedding day. It’s called ‘Anne et Ludo’. It’s a quirky tune, with notes slurred over the bar lines in both the A and B parts. We worked on speeding the bow up on the second of the slurred notes, which falls at the start of the bar, to emphasise it. This helps to keep a steady rhythm throughout the tune.

We also played through The Shetland Molecule a few times, and reminded ourselves of some of the bowing patterns we tried out last week.

At the end of the night we played through several tunes we’ve learnt in the last two terms:  the Aird Ranters, The road to Banff, Vals, Leaving Brittany, Break your Bass Drone, and the Eagle’s Whistle.

This was the last class of the summer term. We’ve covered a lot of topics, with a focus on using bowing to play around with rhythms in a tune.

The autumn term starts back on Tuesday 10th September. Details are on the website home page.