Tone and tuning

Tone and tuning

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.

Holding the fiddle to tune it by ear
Photo ©Ros Gasson

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.

Names of the parts of a fiddle bow
Photo ©Ros Gasson

Playing slow airs on the fiddle

Playing a slow air

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
  • Using slurs

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.

Playing slow airs together in an informal session
Photo ©Ros Gasson 2013

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