Embellishing tunes

Embellishing tunes

Tonight we learnt the jig Dhu Hill. It’s a 3 part tune, which works really well played quite slowly.

Once we’d got the notes, we decided on some embellishments for the tune. Here’s what we came up with.

A part:

  • hammer-on, from a B to the C#
  • a grace note on the top F#
  • adding dynamics t the top F#
  • adding a chord with an open A, to the final F#

B part:

  • Making the notes in the run up (A,B C#) staccatto
  • adding dynamics to the top F#
  • adding vibrato on the last F#

C part:

  • adding bowed slurs
  • sliding into the top F#

We worked on the bowing hand, thinking about flexibility in the fingers. We played around some more with holding the bow up vertically and using the individual fingers to move the tip of the bow around. We noticed that when one finger moves (in order to move the bow tip), another has to respond to the bow, to allow the bow movement to happen. We played around with the vertical bow for a while, using the thumb as a pivot, and moving the tip in different directions, and noticing the impact that bow movement had on the other fingers in the hand. When we’re playing , having a similar fluidity in the bowing hand will help us to be able to control the bow without needing to have a rigid grip on it.

We tried out playing a long F# (on the D string), thinking abut how the fingers were moving independently on the stick of the bow, keeping it perpendicular to the strings. We played the F# on a long down bow, over a count of 4, then lifted the bow for a count of 4. We played round this pattern together, paying attention to keeping in time with each other. Then we moved on to playing 4 separate notes on the 4 beats. We tried out playing the 4 beats as staccato notes, again paying attention to playing the start and end of each note in time with one another.

We also briefly looked at using the 4th finger. It can be tricky to get notes sounding confidently in tune with the 4th finger. This is partly because we rarely use the finger in day to day life, so it’s considerably weaker than the other fingers. We played an E on the A string using the 4th finger, and checked ur tuning against the open E string. Ding this for a few minutes each day, even for just a week, will make a big difference to the strength on the 4th finger, and help make us more comfortable with using it.

We also revisited the steps to playing with vibrato. I’ve added a new page to the website under the ‘basic techniques’ section, with details of the steps to learning how to play with vibrato,. It includes a video that shows all the steps in some detail.


Adding embellishments to a tune
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

Fiddle bowing with a flexible wrist

Playing fiddle bow strokes with a flexible wrist

Tonight we focused on playing our fiddles with a relaxed and flexible wrist in our bowing arms. We got into pairs and one person played the reel Lay Dee at Dee, while the other held their elbow steady. This pushed us to use the wrist more in moving the bow. One person then held the bow steady in front their partner, so they could move their bowing hand up and down the shaft of the bow, paying particular attention to keeping the wrist supple. The wrist is effectively ‘leading’ the bow’s stroke. As we reach the end of the bow, the wrist leads the change from an up bow to a down bow, so when the arm is still travelling up at the end of the bow stroke, the wrist is already starting to bend to change the bow to a down bow.

We then played through the B part of Lay Dee at Dee, and worked on using our wrist action in the section of the tune which crosses from the E string to the A string and back. With a flexible wrist, it’s possible to use a clockwise circular motion with the hand to keep the bow moving from one string to the other. This will allow us to have much cleaner control over the bow, so we can play the notes more crisply, and have more precise control over our timing. It will ultimately help us to be able to play the tune faster.

After this we worked on our technique for playing percussive chords in the B part of Braeroy Road. We were using the open D string to play a note and octave below the Ds in the tune. We bowed the C# before the D on an up bow, and moved up close towards the heel of the bow. We then allowed the weight of the tip of the bow to drop the bow onto the open D string as we played the D in the tune on a down bow. We spent some time practicing using our index finger to push into the stick of the bow, using the added pressure to create a chord on the adjacent string. We tried this out while playing an F# on the D string (2nd finger), using the open A string to create the chord. We also worked on playing this chord in the B part of Bill Sullivan’s polka.

How to develop a flexible wrist action for bowing when playing the fiddle
Photo @Ros Gasson 2013

To finish off, we reminded ourselves of the steps for learning to play the fiddle with vibrato. Practicing this for a few minutes each day will help to build muscle memory for the vibrato action, making it easier to integrate it into tune playing.

At the end of the class we played trough the Shetland Molecule together.

Learning tone and vibrato

 Learning about tone and vibrato

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.


Learning about tone and vibrato on the fiddle

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.

For wrist vibrato, the forearm is kept fairly still throughout. All the movement in the hand comes from bending at the wrist. Here’s more detailed information on the steps you can take to learn how to play with wrist vibrato.

At the end of the night we played through Leaving Brittany, a waltz we learnt in the class last term. We also played through the reel Roxburgh Castle, and the Eagle’s Whistle.




Learning vibrato

Learning vibrato

Learning vibrato can seem like a huge hurdle when you’re first learning  to play the fiddle. In the early stages of fiddle playing, everything feels alien – the fiddle hold, the bow hold, and trying to move your fingers independently of each other on the fingerboard, are all things that take time to feel natural.

Tonight we tried out a series of steps that help with beginning to play ‘wrist style’ vibrato. Going through each of the steps helps to break the movements down into manageable chunks. As we become more relaxed with our playing, these vibrato movements will start to feel much more fluid and natural. Regularly going though the steps help us to build up ‘muscle memory’, and to get a better sense of how the vibrato movements work.

Bowing patterns

As this was our last evening of the spring term we spent a very sociable evening going over some aspects of fiddle technique that we’ve been learning in the class throughout the term.
We started off by looking at some possible bowing patterns for Spootiskerry, in a bit more depth. We tried using a ‘1 down 3 up’ bowing pattern on the B part of the tune, which emphasises the beat. Then we added a ‘3 up 1 down’ pattern at the start of each phrase in the A part. This pattern emphasises the off beat in the tune, which adds quite a different swing to the tune.


Changing from a march to a reel

We went over the Glencoe March and Iggy and Squiggy a couple of times, then practiced putting them together in a set. We also spent a bit more time working on the join between the two tunes, changing the rhythm and tempo of the last 4 bars of the march into reel time. Doing this adds a real lift to the tune change.

At the end of the evening we played through all the tunes we’ve learnt in the class this term., plus a few other common session tunes (and one or two from Anne’s ever-lengthening tune list!).

Thanks everyone for another really enjoyable term. See you in the summer term!

Learning vibrato in the string Circle fiddle class, Edinburgh
Photo ©Ros Gasson

Playing vibrato on the fiddle

 Playing vibrato on the fiddle

Tonight we tried playing vibrato again. We started off holding our fiddles supported on our lap (a bit like a guitar). We used our right arm and hand to hold the fiddle steady, and tried out 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.

For wrist vibrato, the forearm is kept fairly still, and the movement in the hand comes from bending at the wrist. Here’s a separate page with details of the steps to playing ‘wrist’ style vibrato.

We played through the parts of the slow reel we learnt last week. The written music is now up on the music page.

We spent some time working on tone, and varying the sounds we make when playing a long note. We tried out playing long down bows on an open D. Then we tried playing the D loudly for 4 beats, followed by a 4 beat gap, then playing it very quietly for 4 beats. After this, we added in playing with scrunch. Then we moved on to playing up and down a D scale, first loudly, then quietly, then scrunchily.

We finished off the class by playing a few tunes together. We played through Vals, then a set of reels: The High Drive, High Road to Linton, Spootiskerry and Ramnee Ceilidh.

Learn to play the fiddle in Edinburgh



How to improve your fiddle tone

Techniques for improving fiddle tone

Tonight we spent most of the class working on creating a clear tone on the fiddle. We started off by learning the tune I See Mull (Chi Mi Muile). Once we had the notes under our fingers, we moved onto thinking about ways we could improve our tone on the fiddle while playing.

We practiced playing an open A string, concentrating on keeping the bow perpendicular to the strings throughout the full bow stroke. We worked in pairs so we could get feedback from the other person. It can be very difficult to tell if your own bow is perpendicular to the strings or not! It’s important to keep the wrist flexible, and the hand, arm shoulders and neck relaxed, throughout the complete bow stroke. A flexible wrist helps us to keep the bow in a straight straight line at the beginning at end of the bow stroke.

We tried out playing the tune again thinking about keeping the bow at right angles to the fiddle strings. It made a noticeable difference to the sound we created.

Next we moved on to thinking about whereabouts on the fiddle we were placing the bow. Keeping the bow fairly close to the bridge throughout the bow stroke helps to create a fuller sound and a mellow tone. We split into pairs again to give each other feedback on this.

After that, we tried playing more from our subconscious. As we were quite familiar with the tune, we stood in a circle, and tried playing the whole tune down an octave. We focused on thinking about the tune itself rather than where our fingers were going. Once we’d done that, we tried out alternating round the circle, with one person playing down an octave and the next person playing up the octave.

Fiddle lessons in Edinburgh  - working on tone on the fiddle
©Ros Gasson


We briefly looked at how to add vibrato to notes.The left hand needs to be very relaxed to achieve this. We started out by placing the 3rd finger on the A string. Using the wrist, we are aiming to rock the hand backwards and forwards. We’ll come back to this again later on in the term. Here’s some more detailed  information on learning to play with vibrato.


We finished off the evening by playing through the march and 2 reels we have learnt so far in the class, as a single set of tunes. The B part of Ramnee Ceilidh is quite a challenge to play at speed. We went back over this, slowing it down a bit to remind ourselves of the notes. We also looked at how to play the triplet, which is a bit awkward as it appears on an upbeat in the tune.