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.
In this workshop, we focussed on tips and techniques for playing faster, and keeping our playing speed under control. There’s a natural tendency when playing faster tunes for the tune speed to gradually increase, until it gets to a speed where it’s impossible to play. We worked on developing our confidence with playing at a steady tempo, and finding ways to keep our playing precise and in time as we took the tempo up.
The left hand
We started the workshop by looking at what the left hand is doing. It’s important to keep the hand relaxed, and to allow it to move fluidly when changing positions. There are a few things we can think about doing to keep the left hand action as as efficient as possible. We looked at how the fingers move from one string to another. We placed the third finger on the G string, and used movement in the left elbow to change the hand position over the strings, allowing us to lift the finger, and place in on the D string, then the A string, then E string. As we move the finger one string to the right on the fiddle, the elbow is swinging further over to the left underneath the neck of the fiddle, taking the hand across the fingerboard.
We then looked at keeping the movement of the fingers as economical as possible when moving from one note to another. When we lift a finger from the string to move it, we can keep it very close to the string when it’s in between notes – it just needs to be lifted clear of the string and no more. The closer the finger stays to the string, the easier it will be to place it down quickly for the next note. We also tried out using minimal pressure on the string with the fingers of the left hand. The string doesn’t need to be pushed hard down onto the fingerboard (doing so will create a lot of tension in the left arm). Avoiding pushing down hard into the fingerboard helps us to keep the left hand and arm relaxed when we’re playing, which will also help us to develop faster playing.
Using the 3rd finger on the G string, we played a C, then moved to 3rd finger on the D string (playing a G), then moved to 3rd finger on the A string (playing a D), then moved to 3rd finger on the E string (playing an A), practicing the above points. We tried a similar thing using the first finger on each string (playing A, E, B, F#)
One thing that can help with keeping your playing speed under control is to be able to tap your foot to a steady timing, while you are playing. It helps us to develop an awareness of where the beats are in a tune. Tapping your foot only on the onbeat (in a reel) also helps with developing an inner sense where the onbeat is, and distinguishes it from the offbeats.
We played open As, in reel time, adding a pulse on the beat by playing a long fast bowstroke on a downbow for each onbeat. We played all the other notes very quietly, using short bows.
The we shut our eyes, and concentrated on the sound we were making. We listened closely to how we were playing together, and tried to play exactly in time with one another. We tapped our feet on the onbeat while we played, emphasisng the notes as we tapped outr feet. we focussed on keeping the sound of the foot tapping, and the sound of the emphasised notes in time with one another. We shut our eyes again, and listened closely to the feet tapping and the pulse of the notes on the fiddle. It was a challenge to do this and all remain exactly in time with one another. We put our fiddles down, and tried out clapping on the beat, and tapping our feet on the beat at same time. Then we tried tapping foot, and tapping our right hand on our right leg. Then tapping our feet, and switching to tapping our left hand on our left leg. At each switch from right to left hand, we noticed tempo had a tendency to speed up briefly.
We picked up our fiddles again, and switched to playing the notes A, D, D, A (on the A string), with the emphasis on the first A (which would be the onbeat, if these notes are part of a reel), while tapping foot on the same beat. we split into pairs. One person observed while the other played this exercise. Then we fed back in our pairs, on bow position, tapping, pulse, fingers etc. We switched round roles and and repeated this.
We re-visited the bow hold. we held the bow out in front of us horizontally, using our ordinary bowhold to support the bow. We allowed the bow to pivot around the bent thumb, exploring the role of the index finger (which pushes the tip down) and pinkie (which raises the tip up). We moved the bow like a windscreen wiper, using just the pinkie and index finger to make the bow move. When doing this the hand responds to the changes in bow position. We’re aiming to develop a bow hold that is responsive to the movements of the bow, rather than a rigid grip on the bow. using our bowing hand, we held the bow out vertically in front of us,then ‘walked’ fingers up the stick of the bow to the tip, and back down again. This helps develop independent movement of the fingers in the bowing hand.
The Stone Frigate
We learnt a reel called The Stone Frigate. We played first phrase round, and added a pulse on the beat. We focussed on getting the beat really strong, with a fast moving bow on a down bow for emphasis, and we made the remaining notes very quiet, using very short bow lengths. Ros played the first phrase round several times while the group sang the notes, including the emphasis. Once we were familiar with the sound of the phrase, we tried playing it while just thinking of the sound of the phrase, and not worrying about the notes. The group’s sound had a changed sense of energy about it when we did this.
We added chords into the A part, starting with an open D string played along with the notes on the beat. We revisited how to play chords with confidence. We also added in chord on the upbeat.
We played the tune round several times, with each repeat of the tune played slightly faster.
We tried playing the tune using different parts of the bow – once round only playing using the tip of the bow, then using only the middle of the bow for the next repetition, and down at the heel of the bow for the last time through the tune.
Onbeats and offbeats
We went back to playing beats on an open A, in reel time, and tapping our feet on the beat. Half of the group did this, and set a rhythm going. The other half of the group also started tapping their feet on the beat, then played the open A while emphasising the offbeat. Then we switched round roles.
We played the tune again, emphasising the on beat, then tried out switching the emphasis to the off beat in the opening phrase. I’ve added a couple of versions of the tune on the written music page of the site with some of the on beats and off beats marked, so you can see where they are.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tonight we worked on rhythms in marches and reel. We started the class by going over the 2/4 march Campbell’s Farewell to Redcastle, and reminded ourselves where some of the grace notes were. We also got our feet tapping on the beat, and emphasised all the notes on the beat, keeping a steady tempo.
Tone and tuning
We tried playing long bows on an open A string, paying attention to getting our bows perpendicular to the fiddle strings to help with tone. Then we played different notes and chords from the A arpeggio (A, C#, E and A), listening to our tuning while we were playing, and working on our tone at the same time. After that, we tried walking around the room while we were playing long notes from the arpeggio. While we did this, we were listening to other people around us, and working on playing in tune with one another.
Onbeats and offbeats
Then we moved on to playing the notes E A C# E A E C# A in reel rhythm, tapping our feet while we emphasised the notes on the beat. Some of the class then played a chord beneath this, playing a low A and E, in an offbeat rhythm. We tried varying the run of notes over the top, and changed to emphasising the offbeats along with the chords.
We learnt the reel Roxburgh Castle (the music is on the tunes page), and played around with different rhythms, emphasising beats or offbeats in the second part.
We also tried playing Campbell’s Farewell to Redcastle with the reel after it. We finished off the evening by playing a set of tunes together: Captain Campbell, a strathspey, followed by 2 reels – Brenda Stubbert, and Jenny Dang the Weaver.