How to play tunes up to speed

How to play tunes up to speed

In this workshop we focused on techniques that would help us  to play tunes faster.

We started out by revisiting our fiddle bow hold. Bow control is an important part of playing at speed, and having an effective bow hold will help us to feel in control of the bow. It’s also important to learn to play with your bowing hand kept very relaxed.

If you struggle with keeping your bowing hand relaxed, put down your bow and give the hand a good shake out. Let the hand drop down by your side and feel how relaxed it is. You’re aiming to get this same feeling of relaxation in your hand when you play.

We learnt a short reel called Al’s Reel

The wrist and forearm

One of the things that makes it difficult to speed up tunes is fast runs of notes that we’re playing on single bows. It becomes important when trying to play tunes faster to have a relaxed wrist, so the wrist action can become an integral part of the action we use to move the bow rapidly. If you are trying to play fast and your bowing action comes from your shoulder and upper arm, you’ll find your arm and hand become very tense as the speed increases.

In order to play tunes faster, we have to be able to play notes using short lengths of the bow, minimising the amount of work the forearm needs to put into bowing. The action comes from the wrist and forearm as we play the tune faster.  It’s important that your bow hold keeps the wrist of the bowing hand slightly rotated (anticlockwise) so the wrist is in a plane where it can easily flex at either end of the bow stroke. To get a feel for this action of the wrist, we tried playing long notes on an open A string, letting the wrist ‘lead’ the change of direction of the bowing arm at each end of the bow stroke.

If you struggle to get a feel for how the wrist action works put down your bow, and pretend you are painting a wall using vertical brush strokes. As your imaginary paintbrush reaches the  bottom of the brush stroke, you’ll see your wrist naturally flexes as you turn to bring the brush back up again. It will flex again (in the opposite direction) as you get to the top end of the brush stroke. Once you’ve got this action, gradually change the angle of the line you’re ‘painting’, so the top is further over to the left, and the bottom further over to the right. Keep changing the angle until your imaginary line is horizontal instead of vertical. If you’ve done this keeping the same wrist action, you’re now moving your wrist in the same way as you’re aiming for when you make a bow stroke

Creating a pulse

We changed to playing  a rhythm of 8 quavers (still on the open A string), emphasising the first and 5th notes. We all instinctively played this with a down bow on the first note, which helps to create that emphasis, as a down bow is naturally stronger than an up bow. While doing this we worked on keeping the bowing hand relaxed and keeping the bowing arm action in the wrist and forearm.

Tapping the foot

We continued playing the rhythm of 8 notes, with an emphasis on the 1st and 5th notes. We then tapped our foot on the the notes we were emphasising. If we imagine these 8 notes are one bar in a reel, we are then tapping the 1st and 3rd beats in the bar – these are the on-beats. There are advantages to learning to tap just the on-beats rather than tapping all four beats in the bar:

  • Once you have learnt to play tunes with an emphasis on the beat without having to consciously think about it, you can start to play around with emphasising off beats or upbeats to make the tune more interesting. If your feet are identifying the on beats, it is easier to work out where those off beats are
  • When tunes are played fast there’s a natural tendency for the tempo to speed up. If you’re trying to control the speed you’re playing at it’s music easier to do this with your feet, when you’re only tapping the on-beats

We tried playing a scale of D as 8 quavers. We played the 8 notes with an emphasis on the beat, tapping our foot where we played the emphasis. We worked on using the tempo of our foot tapping to control the tempo of our playing.

Bowing patterns

We looked at how to establish a basic ‘default’ bowing pattern for reels, with a down bow on the beat. Doing this helps to create a structure for our playing so that ultimately we will be able to play with a natural emphasis on the beat without thinking about it

The left hand

We looked at what happens with the left hand as we play faster. Keeping the fingers light on the strings will allow them to ‘dance’ as we play. We played a long note with the first finger on the A string. We started with the finger placed very lightly on the string and gradually increased the finger pressure as we played. What you’ll notice when you do this is that the tone of the note sounds very feeble when you have a very light finger pressure, and that the tone gradually fills out as you add more pressure. It’s not a linear rate of change, though – the improvement in the tone is marked as you first start to add more pressure on the string, but the rate of improvement drops off  as the string gets close to touching the fingerboard. So when we’re playing tunes faster we can aim for a slightly lighter touch with the fingers with very little effect on the tone of the notes.

Practice keeping fingers down on the fingerboard where possible – often you’ll find that in tunes you go straight back to a note you’ve just played. Leaving the finger in place on the string after playing the note the first time helps when it comes to playing faster. There’s plenty of opportunities to do this in Al’s Reel

Economy of movement will help us to increase the speed we play at. One other thing you can try is keeping the fingers as close to the string as possible when you lift them off in between notes.

What happens when it goes wrong?

To play at speed, you need to be able to keep the tune/rhythm going even if you play a wrong note. To be able to do this with confidence, you need to hear the tune in your head as you’re playing it. We’re aiming for all the mechanics of our playing to become completely subconscious so we’re not thinking about which way the bow is moving, or which order our fingers need to go down to play the notes. The notes are played because we hear them in the tune. You might hear this referred to as being ‘in the zone’.

Once your playing is happening because you are hearing the tune in your head as you play, you can learn to let that tune continue even when you hit a wrong note – the next finger then goes down to play the next note because we hear that note in the tune. As well as learning to hear the tune as we play, we also need to learn to trust that we will play the right notes when we hear them in the tune.


Playing in the zone

We played through this short phrase (a run of quavers) from the A part of the tune: e d c# d e f# g e

We played the notes using separate bow strokes for each note, and focused on using just a short length of the bow. we tried playing it in a different place on the bow each time – either third near the the tip, or the middle, or the third near the heel. Most of us will find we gravitate towards using the middle section of the bow when we’re playing – it feels easier to play there. When you play towards the heel of the bow, it will feel harder to control the bow – there’s suddenly a lot of it waggling about, on the left side of the strings!

We played the phrase round at a steady tempo 4 times, then then lifted the speed a bit. We aimed to hold the speed steady each time we picked it up. We lifted the tempo again after another 4 repetitions. At the 4th increase in tempo, it was too fast for most of us to play.

We tried the same process again, but this time focused completely on hearing the sound of the phrase as we played. This time, our playing after the 4th tempo hike was much ore under control.

Controlling the tempo

It’s important to learn to control your own speed if you want to play faster. There’s a tendency for tunes to speed up when we hit tricky bits, so playing faster often results in the speed careering out of control unless we understand how to control it.

We can use our foot tapping to driving or control our playing speed. To be able to do this, you need to let your playing follow the speed of your foot tapping rather than the other way round! If your playing is following your foot tapping tempo, you can learn to control the foot tapping speed to control your playing speed.

Learning strategies

The fiddle is a complicated instrument – it’s easy to get into a habit of playing while thinking about what we’re doing physically. There are so many elements to technique that we can become overwhelmed with trying to get everything right at once. I’ve found it much more effective if I decide what aspects of my technique I want to work on, and work on just one thing at any time.  So I might play a particular phrase in a tune several times , just working on getting a bowing pattern that works, then I might move on to playing the same phrase but thinking about getting particular grace note where I want it. When I’m going through this process, I’ll start off by trying the technique out a few times in it’s simplest possible form.

So if I’m working on playing a grace note, I’ll  try just playing s single note the grace note embellishing it. I start by really focusing on what’s going on physically to make it work the way I want to, than once I have that, I shift to hearing the sound as I play. I’m aiming to hear the sound I want, and noticing whether that’s what I’m achieving with my playing. Once I’m happy with this step, I’ll try the same process, but with the grace note in the tune.

The aim of going through these steps is that I’m working to get the new technique embedded in my playing so it will happen purely because I hear the sound of it in the tune as I’m playing.

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