In today’s workshop we worked on tone and tuning. We started off by looking at our instruments.
Aspects of the fiddle which can affect tone/tuning
Quality of the instrument
Set-up of the instrument, esp soundpost
Damage to the instrument
What might cause a fiddle to go out of tune
Passage of time
Change of humidity
Change of temperature
Fiddle being knocked/dropped
If you want to be able to play in tune with more confidence, it’s important to tune your fiddle every time before you play, and to check the tuning regularly while you’re playing as well. Find out how to tune your fiddle.
People who can play confidently in tune have learnt a number of skills:
Hearing what the in tune notes should sound like
The ability to have the hand in the same place on the neck of the fiddle each time they play
Familiarity with different hand ‘shapes’ that will place the fingers in the correct position to play the notes in tune
Familiarity with the sound of the open strings when they are in tune, so they can quickly identify when any string needs to be tuned
Learning to hear what in-tune notes sound like
The first step to being able to play in tune is to learn to hear what an in tune note sounds like. If you’re not sure what the pitch of an individual note should be, it will be impossible to tell if your tuning is OK while you’re playing.
There are several things you can do to start to train your ear to hear pitch more accurately:
Learning to listen while you’re playing. We tried playing a ;long open note, then playing it focusing on listening, then playing it with our eyes closed and focusing on listening. The less distractions you have from listening to your own playing, the more detail you will be able to hear.
Recording and listening back, paying attention to the tuning.
Playing chords with (in tune) open strings to aid hearing in/out of tune notes.
Using a tuner to find the pitch, then playing the note and listening until we have the sound of the note. lift the finger, then try to find the note in tune, using the note you hear in your head. Check with the tuner if you have it in tune. Repeat as often as needed to get the in tune note into your head.
We tried playing up the first few notes of the D scale. When we played the G (3rd finger) we also played the open G string below it, forming and octave chord. It’s fairly easy to hear when a note is out of tune with the note an octave below. What tends to happen when we’re learning is that as the fingers go down, if we play notes slightly out of tune we are unable to hear that they’re not in tune. So imagine someone who is learning to play the fiddle, playing the first 4 notes of the scale of D. They hear the open D, which is in tune (assuming the fiddle is in tune!). The first finger goes down to play the E. If this note is slightly out of tune, they don’t notice it. So their ear hears the E as being in tune, and as the second finger goes down, they’re hearing the F# note relative to the previous note. If this pattern continues, by the time they play the G it can be significantly out of tune, without it sounding out of tune to an inexperienced ear. Plying the chord with the 3rd finger G and the octave-down open G string will help reveal if this is an issue in your own playing.
Learning hand shapes and relative positions
It’s important to get into the habit of having your left hand in the same place on the neck of the fiddle each time you pick it up. If the hand is slightly further up the neck than usual, you will need to put your hand into slightly different shapes to play the notes in tune. Learning the relative hand shapes needed to get each finger in the correct position to play the notes in tune takes time, but can be learnt through repetition.
We learnt the mazurka ‘Capitaine’ in the workshop.
In the March fiddle workshop we spent the day exploring different areas of the bow, and how to use the bow to create different effects on the sounds of the notes we play on the fiddle.
We used the tune Benachie Sunrise.
Using the tip or the heel of the bow
We tried playing the tune using just the tip end of the bow, and then using just the heel end, while really listening to the sound of our fiddles. We noticed the differences that using different parts of the bow made to the sound of the notes, and also to how we played the tune:
Tip of the bow – creates a gentler mellow sound. it’s easy to play quietly using the tip. The tune tended to flow well. Heel of the bow – creates a much harsher sound, bringing a choppy and rather aggressive nature to the tune.
The position of the bow on the fiddle
We played around with where we placed the bow on the strings, moving from very close to the bridge, to right down over the end of the fingerboard, and again listened carefully to our own playing to hear the differences in sounds created by different bow positions:
Playing with the bow close to the bridge – created a loud and slightly harsh sound. Playing with the bow over the end of the fingerboard – created a somewhat dry whispy sound.
Speed and weight
We also worked on getting a feel for allowing the weight of the arm to transfer onto the bow. Adding more weight to the bow (rather than pushing down onto the bow) increases the volume, and also helps create a fuller sound from the instrument. moving the bow faster also increases the volume of the note.
Learning to listen
We tried playing the tune Benachie Sunrise, listening closely to our own fiddle sounds as we played. Then we tried playing and hearing the tune in our heads as we played – doing this allows us to access a ‘flow’ state, allowing the subconscious to take over control of what we’re doing physically to achieve the end result.We did this twice – the second time we were listening to analyse our own sound, and to identify any areas of that sound that we wanted to work on.
We tried the exercise one more time, this time hearing the tune in our heads as we played, and focusing on hearing it the way we would like it to sound.
Then we moved on to playing the tune in different ways – happy, angry, sad etc. Doing this made a surprising difference to the nature of the tune each time. We stopped to think about what had happened in each version:
Happy – the tune became bouncier, and we played a bit faster Angry – the tune became noisy, clumpy and grungy Sad – the tune was slower and gentle
We finished of the day by playing Auld Lang Syne together, firstly listening to our own tone, then listening to all the players in the group, then listening and focusing on playing ‘as one’. As we listened more to the music we were creating, our tuning and timing became much closer.
In the October workshop we worked on improving tone on the fiddle.
We started off by getting an better understanding of how the bow functions to create a sound from the fiddle. The hairs on the bow have tiny scales along their length (rather like fish scales). When we put rosin on the bow, tiny flakes of the rosin lodge under the scales, along the length of the hair. This rosin creates a slight ‘stickiness’. As the bow is pulled across the string, the hair sticks, pulling the string sideways. At some point, the tension created overcomes this stickiness, and the string and hair part company, which sets the string vibrating.
The bridge transfers this string vibration to the body of the fiddle. The body of the fiddle acts as a “sound box” which amplifies the sound produced from the string.
We worked on getting the bow to fully engage with the string. Playing on an open A, we placed the bow on the string very close to the frog end. We allowed the weight of the bowing hand to rest fully on the bow. Once in this position, we gradually added an increasing ‘pull’ on the bow. At some point, this pull overcame the stickiness of the rosin, and the bow moved, setting the string vibrating (albeit it with a very scrunchy noise!). We were aiming to get a sense of the feeling in the bowing hand, at the moment the string starts to move. When we’re playing notes on the fiddle, the hand is responding to that moment when the bow engages with the string, and immediately relaxing, to allow the string to ring out, and resonate beneath the bow as it continues to move.
We also worked on using the index finger of the bowing hand on the back of the stick, to help really dig the bow into the string at the start of the note. When playing the fiddle, this action feels like a short pulse in the hand. The index finger pushes into the back of the stick, helping the hair to really engage with the string. Doing this helps to add a dynamic to individual notes we play, so the note doesn’t have the same volume throughout its length.
To be in control of the sounds we make on the fiddle, we need to be in control of what we are doing with the bow throughout the bow stroke. There’s a number of things that will affect the tone of the notes we play. Follow the link to find out more about improving your tone on the fiddle.
We worked in pairs, and gave each other feedback about bowing action, noting whether the bow stayed perpendicular to the strings throughout the bow stroke, and also whether it stayed close to the bridge.
We tried playing long bows on an open string, using the action of our index finger on the stick to create a pulse at the start of each note.
We tried playing on different open strings, to get a feel for the effect of using the bow lightly or with more weight behind it. On the G string there’s a tendency to let the hand add weight to the bow, to create a full resonant sound. When doing this, it will feel more natural to add weight when we’re using the frog end of the bow, as the hand is immediately on top of the bow where it’s making contact with the string. As we move towards the tip of the bow, the weight is transferred into the bow by pushing down with the index finger o the back of the stick.
When we’re playing on the E string, we generally need to hold back a bit on the weight of the bow. As we move towards the frog end of the bow, this involves taking a bit of the weight of the bow in the hand, by pushing down very gently with the pinkie on the back of the stick. The thumb acts as a pivot, so pushing on the stick effectively lifts to tip of the bow. This is a very subtle action, as we don’t want to lift the bow off the string.
Then we tried playing a long note on an open string, focusing fully on listening to the sound we were making. Learning to play the fiddle can seem like a pretty complicated business in the early stages. There’s a lot of different aspects of technique to work on, and it’s very easy to get into a habit of always playing while thinking – about whether we are in tune, what note comes next, which direction our bow is going, and so on and so on. It’s important to keep practicing playing while really listening to the sounds we are creating. Ultimately we need to be able to play while hearing the tune we are playing in our head – the fact we hear it, means it automatically comes out of the fiddle. Until we can get to a point where we can play in this subconscious way, our playing is likely to be stilted, and lack a sense of flow or connection with others. We also need to be free to focus on listening to what we and others around us are playing, so we can learn about the quality of the sounds we are making, and learn to interact with others we are playing music with.
We learnt the waltz ‘Valse des Pastouriaux’ (written by Jackie Molard).
We played around with the notes in the arpeggio of the D scale (D F# A and D). We all found these notes on our fiddles (and they can be in any octave, so we could go as low as the bottom A, right up to a top A on the E string). We then played around, creating riffs and drones using any combination of any of these notes. We could chose to follow what another person was doing, and play something that worked with what they were playing, or we could chose to play something that cut against what others were doing. While we were doing this, we were fully focused on listening, both to our own playing, and the playing of the fiddlers around us.
We also tried playing some basic chords, working on controlling the bow position so we could confidently chose whether to play a chord or a single string. We tried playing an open G, followed by a G/D chord, then the open D string, followed by a D/A chord, and so on across all the fiddle strings. Playing chords across 2 open strings, for the full length of the bow, helps us to practice listening, and learning from what we hear – in order to play the chord throughout the bow stroke, we must keep the bow travelling in a straight line (on the vertical axis). We should immediately be able to hear if the bow moves off this straight line, as we will no longer hear both notes playing.
Today’s workshop focussed on tone and tuning – looking at how to tune the fiddle, learning to listen to the sound we’re making, and to listen to others, how to learn to hear what ‘in tune’ sounds like, how to create a full tone on the fiddle, and how the resonance of the fiddle is affected by tuning.
Learning how to tune a fiddle by ear
We went through the steps of tuning a fiddle by ear. We started off by tuning our A string to an electronic tuner. Once you are confident with tuning by ear, you will be able to tune your A string to another instrument, or a pitch pipe. Before we started trying to tune the D string, we held the fiddle under the chin, and using the left hand, loosened the fine adjuster to make the D flat. This can feel awkward to start with – you may not be sure which way you need to turn the fine tuner, as everything will feel back to front. but it gets you familiar with using your left hand to turn the adjuster without any other distractions. Loosening the string before you try to tune by ear means you are always going to be tuning the note from flat, up to the correct pitch. This way, you will be hearing the same process each time you tune.
Once you’ve done this, you can use the bow in your right hand to play the open D and open A together, using long bow strokes. As you play, you can use your left hand to tune up the D string, while listening to the pitch in relation to the tuned A string. When you first try this, if you’ve never tried to hear the in tune note in this way, you may well be unsure when the D string is in tune. Make your best guess, and then use an electronic tuner to check if you have it right or not. If the D string pitch is out, it’s worth tuning it using the tuner, then playing the chord of the open A & D again. Doing this with your eyes shut can help with really focusing on the sound the 2 strings make when they are in tune. Then loosen the D string adjuster again, and try to re-tune it again by ear. It may seem obvious, but if you can’t hear what the in tune note sounds like, it will be impossible to tune the instrument by ear. Equally, just because you can’t hear it now, it doesn’t mean that it’s not possible to learn to do so. Going through the same steps each time you tune the fiddle, and always trying by ear, then once you’re done, checking the tuning with the electronic tuner, will help to train you rear to hear the how the ‘in tune’ notes should sound. Once you’ve got this, you can tune the G string by playing it with the tuned D string, and then the E string by playing it with the A string. Follow the link to see more tips for tuning your fiddle.
You’ll find that learning to tune your fiddle by ear, in training you to hear the note being in tune, will also help with learning to hear whether the fingered notes you play are in tune.
Hearing whether an individual string is in tune is easier if the note is really resonating. There’s a balance between the bow making a strong connection with the string, and being light enough to allow the string to resonate. A heavily handled bow will result in a ‘dead’ sound to the notes produced. If the bow hairs don’t really connect with the string, the sound will be erratic and thin.
Moving from playing ‘mechanically’ to focusing on the sound of the fiddle
When you start to learn to play the fiddle, there’s a huge amount to take in – while you’re tussling with how to hold the bow, and how to keep it perpendicular to the strings throughout the bow stroke, you’re also trying to play in tune, and to work on creating a pleasing tone with the instrument. And on top of this, for most learners, they will also be trying to learn tunes as they go, remembering the tune, and working out what order to place the fingers to play it.
It’s no wonder that many beginners end up tense and playing in a very mechanical fashion. With all the concentration required, relaxing and getting in to the flow of the music can seem an impossible step. As it takes a lot of playing to get a grasp of the mechanics of playing, many people find that the tension is an inbuilt habit of their playing. One thing that regularly happens in the early stages of learning is that the payer looks at their fiddle – working out where the fingers and bow need to go. This focus on visual clues can quickly become an ingrained habit. And it’s a habit that often gets in the way of really listening closely to the sound you are making as you play – the brain struggles to concentrate well on both visual and auditory input at the same time. If you can begin to focus more on listening rather than looking, you’ll find that you are able to gain valuable feedback on the effects of your playing habits. And focusing on the sound also begins to allow the subconscious to take over control of the mechanics of playing, allowing the player to focus on the quality of your music, ad how you want it to sound. For this reason, I often suggest people try things out with their eyes shut, as it will push them to focus on listening rather than looking.
We tried out playing an open A to get the string really resonating. Then we played a short phrase on the E string (ef#gaagf#e), focusing purely on the quality of the sound we were making individually as we played. After this we tried having one person playing the same phrase in a certain style, then one other person joining in with them to play in the same way. If you’re trying this, it is helpful for the person who is trying to follow to close their eyes, so they can really focus on the sounds they’re hearing.
We learnt the slow air Ross Memorial Hospital by Phil Cunningham.
Playing the fiddle in tune
We tried out playing some long slow notes in the arpeggio of D. We checked our fiddles were still in tune before doing this exercise. With four people sitting in a circle, we had one person playing each of the notes in the arpeggio (D F# A and top D). Starting with one player playing the open D string, the next person round the circle played the F#, the next person played the open A, and the last person played the top D. So round the circle, alternate notes are being played on the open string, and should automatically be in tune. The 2 people playing fingered notes have someone on either side playing an open-stringed note. We played the same note for a while, focusing on getting the notes blending and harmonising together. Once we had this, we all moved to the next note up the arpeggio (with the person who was playing the top D moving on to the bottom open string D). If you don’t have other people to play with, you can do this exercise all on one fiddle, by playing chords as you go. The chord sequence would be:
D/A (both open strings)
F#(2nd finger on D string)/A (open string)
A/D (both open strings)
D/D (3rd finger on A string)
When you’re playing the F#/A or D/D combination, focus on listening to whether the fingered note is really in tune and harmonising with the open string.
Connecting the bow with the string
We tried out placing the frog end of the bow on the D string. Letting the weight of the arm sit on the bow to dig the bow into the string, we pulled the bow downwards. Initially nothing seems to happen, as the stickiness of the rosin keeps the bow on the string as the string is being pulled sideways. There’s a sudden moment where the downward pressure releases the string from the bow, and the string starts to vibrate, creating a sound. We played around with keeping the bow heavily in contact with the string (which stops the string resonating), and lightening the bow stroke, or lifting the bow clear of the string, both of which allow the string to resonate.
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.
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.
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.
Tonight we learnt the Johnstown Reel, a slow reel written by the flute player Rebecca Knorr.
We also worked on bowing the tripet (or is it a birl?) at the start of the tune. After the discussion we had in the class tonight, I thought I’d do a quick Google search for the difference between a triplet and a birl. Unfortunately Google was determined that I was really looking for the difference between a triplet and a girl, so that was interesting, but not particularly helpful! Thanks to Pamela for this link, which gives some info on naming, in the section on bowed ornamentation.
We worked on making the bow really connect with the string at the start of the down bow going into the triplet, putting pressure on with the index finger, to get the bow hairs to ‘bite’ into the string at the very start of the note. The second note is a very short up bow. It’s so short, the note pretty much disappears. There’s more information on playing triplets here.
Several people in the class wanted to work on gaining confidence when playing in front of other people, either at sessions, or on their own,. So tonight, we tried out having a small group playing the tune we’d learnt tonight to the rest of the class. there are several things you can do to help lessen the nerves if you’re not used to playing in front of other people.
Play tunes you are very familiar with
If you’re playing with anyone else, make sure you’re all clear how you will start and end the tune or set of tunes, and how many repetitions you’ll play for each tune
Decide before you start playing what speed you will play at. You might want to start your foot tapping at that speed before you play, or count in, if you’re playing with other people
We also spent some time working on tone, getting individual open strings to resonate and ring out after playing a long note. Playing in tune will help your tone, and knowing that you can reliably play with a good strong tone will help your confidence.
Tonight we started off talking about where people would like to be with their playing in 5 year’s time. Several people in the class wanted to be able to feel more confident, either playing or starting up tunes in sessions. A general confidence in your playing can help this. Being able to play in tune and in time, with a reliable tone can make a huge difference.
We revisited the bow hold. If you rotate the hand slightly anticlockwise it helps by putting the hand in the correct position to develop a flexible bowing wrist. Keep the bowing hand relaxed.
We placed the heel of the bow, on an open A string, then lifted it, and placed it back down at the tip of the bow. We focused on keeping bow straight at both positions. Then we played single long down bows, keeping the bow straight throughout the bow stroke.
Keeping the bow positioned slightly closer to the bridge than the end of the finger board will also help the tone. Try playing around with the position of your bow on your own fiddle, when you’re playing alone. Listen out for the spot where you hear the best tone.
Then we tried keeping tone of the note even throughout the bow stroke. To do this, you’ll need to take a bit of the weight of the bow off the string at the frog, and add a bit of weight at the tip.
We learnt the reel The Ale is Dear. It’s a simple 16 bar reel, with 2nd time ending to the B part.
We looked at ornamentation we could add to the tune, and some bowing in B part to change the rhythm. We added a 3up, 1 down right at the start f the B part, and added an up bow emphasis in the final phrase. We also included staccato run up – we worked on used the index finger to dig the bow in at the start of each bow stroke t achieve this effect. It’s. important to allow the hand to relax between each note when doing this.
We looked at our bow holds – it’s important to be able to keep the hand, arm and shoulders really relaxed when playing, right throughout the bow stroke.
We also looked at the role of the first finger and the pinkie. We can increase the volume by ‘digging in’ to the bow with the joint of the first finger, or play more quietly by using a little pressure on the pinkie, on the end of the bow, to take some of the weight of the bow from the strings. We tried both of these options out while playing a long drone on the A string,
We tried playing a D scale, with alternate people in the class playing an open D drone. We all paid attention to our tone while doing this. The fiddlers playing the scale also focused on tuning, listening to the D drone either side of them for reference. Then we switched round, so those who had been playing the scale played a drone, while the others moved to playing the scale.
Tone and the bowing arm
We also talked about transferring the weight of the bowing arm into the bow. We can use pressure on the forefinger to dig the bow into the fiddle. If we have the weight of the arm behind this, it adds a lot more impact, and allows us to really round out the tone of the instrument, making a much fuller sound. We put down our fiddles and split into pairs again. The first person acted as the ‘player’, and held their bowing arm out. They were aiming to get the feel of letting the full weight of their arm fall on their bow. The second person supported the player’s bowing arm at the elbow. The player let their shoulders fully relax, and allowed the full weight of their arm to be supported by their partner. It’s surprising how heavy an arm is! Once this felt natural, the person supporting the arm moved their supporting hand to the player’s wrist. The player then relaxed to allow the weight of the arm to transfer down to the wrist. Once this had happened, the 2nd person moved their support to the player’s fingers, so they could transfer the weight of their arm to there. Then we tried to use the weight of the arm through the bow, while playing an open A string.
Rolling the bow slightly away from you, so the hairs are not lying flat on the strings, will help create a slightly purer tone, as less of the bow hair is in contact with the fiddle strings. The bow should be rolled so the the stick is pushed slightly away from you, with the hairs slightly towards you.
To help with tuning, we played different notes from the D arpeggio. Alternate people in the circle droned on an open D, while others found a note from the arpeggio, and paid attention to getting it in tune with the drone either side of them. Then we played through a D scale, with alternate people playing a harmony a third below.
We also learnt the first part of the jig Professor Delbert’s Birthday – we’ll learn the B part next week. We tried playing the tune as a slow jig, with slurred down bows over the bar lines, which makes it sound very laid back. The music for the tune is on the written music page.
Tonight we learnt the Irish slow air Her Mantle So Green.
We started the evening by working on techniques for beginning to play with vibrato. You can follow the link to remind yourself of the steps involved to practice the action for wrist vibrato. We concentrated on working on the action keeping our forearm still, and using the wrist to generate the vibrato movement in the hand. we tried out the vibrato action in pairs, with one person holding the other person’s forearm steady while they played.
Once we had learnt the tune, we talked about things we can do to improve our tone when we play. We came up with quite a list!
Playing in tune
Keeping the bow perpendicular to the fiddle strings throughout the bow stroke
Keeping the wrist flexible, and allowing the wrist to ‘lead’ the bow stroke. This will also help with keeping the bow perpendicular to the strings throughout the full length of the bow stroke
Keeping both arms and hands relaxed, and avoiding tension in the neck and shoulders
Keeping the bow in the ‘sweet spot’ on the fiddle strings
Using the speed of the bow to add a ‘shape’ or dynamics to the longer notes
We tried playing through the tune again, thinking about the tone we were creating.
We also talked about more effective ways to learn. When we practice, we’ll often pick on something we want to do better, and play it round and round for a long time, until we feel we’ve made some progress. Often learning in this way doesn’t seem to stick well, or get bedded into our playing.
Our brains are more likely to focus on things that are new or different. When we repeat one thing for a long time, we tend to be less stimulated, and start to lose concentration. Practicing a few different things, and rotating from one to another after a short spell, is likely to keep us more engaged, as we’re keeping ourselves interested with new material. You can read about this in more depth in an article written by Dr Noa Kageyama, performance psychologist.
When playing slow airs, tuning is really important. It may seem obvious, but it’s important to be able to hear when a note is in or out of tune – if we can’t hear it, it will be impossible to learn to play consistently in tune. We talked through things we can do to help us learn to hear what is in tune.
Tuning the fiddle:
Tune your fiddle by ear whenever possible. Check it with an electronic tuner afterwards, if you’re not sure if you have it in tune. This helps to train your ear to hear when notes are in tune. Find out more about tuning your fiddle.
Get into the habit of tuning your fiddle in the same way each time. Tune the A string first (either to a tuner, or to a fixed pitch instrument, pitch pipe or tuning fork). Then loosen each string in turn before tuning it, so you are always tuning from flat to in tune. Play a chord with the adjacent open A string while you are tuning the D string. Once the D is in tune, play a chord with the open D string while you are tuning the G. The A string can also be used for a chord while tuning the E string.
Play the start of a tune that you know really well, that begins with a fifth jump. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star works well! Listen to that opening interval, and see if you can hear if it’s right or not
Playing in tune
Playing chords in tunes also helps with hearing when particular notes are in pitch.
Play tunes and check any suspect notes against an electronic tuner.
If you can sing in tune, try singing while you play.
We tried out playing the tune together in the group, all following one person’s timing.
We finished off by playing through Ramnee Ceilidh, then Lay Dee at Dee together
Tonight we spent some time thinking about tone and vibrato when we are playing, particularly with respect to getting a sound we like from the fiddle’s E string.
We started the evening by playing through Rocking the Baby, then had a go at playing the two jigs from this term together in a set. The change into Rocking the Baby is worth practicing, as it takes you by surprise!
We learnt a new tune – The Arran Boat Song, which seems to have a hoard of other names and spellings, including ‘The Aran Boat’, ‘The Aran Boat Song’, ‘The Arran Boat’, ‘Erin Boat Song’, ‘Highland Boat Song’, ‘Push Off, Push Off’, ‘Put Off And Row Wi’ Speed’, and ‘Queen Mary’s Escape From Loch Leven Castle’ – phew! The tune has been written down in waltz time, and is commonly played as a waltz or slow air. I’ve also seen it written in jig time.
We worked on playing on the E string with a sweeter tone. E strings can be pretty unforgiving! We tried out carrying a little more weight of the bow in the hand, so the bow is lighter on the string. We also experimented with playing the long notes in the tune with some dynamics, by using our bow speed to add a crescendo to the middle of the note.
We also had a go at playing the Arran Boat Song in jig time
Fiddle hold and bow hold
After the break we went back to look at how we are holding the fiddle and bow. It’s important to keep both hands relaxed while playing, and avoid tension building up in the arms or across the shoulders. A relaxed playing position will help in developing good tone on the fiddle. Keeping the palm of the left hand nearly perpendicular to the floor, allows us plenty of space for the fingers to work on the fingerboard. The elbow can then be used to swing the whole hand across the fingerboard when we want to move from one string to another. In this position, our fingers drop down onto the string from above, making it easier to position them cleanly on one string.
We also worked on the different stages of developing a relaxed ‘wrist’ vibrato. We started off holding our fiddles a bit like a guitar. Using the right hand to hold the fiddle steady, we can work on the vibrato action with our left hand on the neck of the fiddle. It’s easier to keep your right hand and arm really relaxed in this position, as there’s no sense that it needs to support the fiddle in any way. We placed the left hand on the fiddle neck, hard up against the top of the body of the fiddle, with the hand in a playing position.
By building up each stage, we’re beginning to develop the muscle memory which will allow us to play with vibrato subconsciously. There are several steps to the process. It’s helpful to go through each of these steps on a regular basis, so your hand can begin to learn how to make each movement. Ultimately it will become a relaxed and fluid movement, which you can execute without thinking about it.