Workshop updates

Playing jigs and reels up to speed

How to play tunes at speed

In the  November workshop we worked on techniques that help with playing reels and jigs up to speed.

We started off by playing the notes of the D scale.  We worked on how to control the length of bow that we used for each note, which affects the volume of the note. We focused on emphasising the notes on the beat, playing these on a downbow. Once we’d played the scale round a few times doing this, we switched our focus to listening to the sound of our own fiddle, and the sound the group made together, paying particular attention to the detail of each note. When our focus was on the sound of the group, we played much more tightly together.

To play closely in time with one another, it’s important to be able to control exactly when the bow connects with the string and starts each note. We also have to be in control of exactly when each note stops as this will affect when the following note starts.

We learnt the reel Roxburgh Castle. The B part of the tune involves some rapid string-crossing, which all the workshop participants identified as something they struggle with when tunes start to go a bit faster. We worked on slurring pairs of quavers after each crotchet in the tune, to make sure we were playing with a down bow on the beat. We also worked on tapping a foot on the on-beats (2 taps/bar) to help create a steady tempo.

Using short bow strokes

To be able to pay tunes at speed, it’s important to be able to control how much of the bow you use for playing an individual note. Runs of notes become impossible to play at speed if you’re driving the bow from the arm and

Playing notes from the wrist or the arm

As a tunes speeds up it’s important to be able to play individual notes without involving too much arm movement. We worked on distinguishing between the wrist or hand leading the bow stroke and the forearm leading. To drive the notes from the wrist, playing with you bowing arm rotated slightly anticlockwise on the bow will put your wrist in the plane where it can easily flex as you make a bow stroke.

Have a look at this video of Hanneke Cassel teaching a simple riff. At 2m30s you can see that she’s using her arm to drive the bigger notes, but the small notes are coming from her hand/fingers

This video of Alasdair White playing a couple of reels is a great demonstration of the fluidity of arm movement involved in playing fast reels. You’ll see that a huge variation in how much/little his forearm is involved in the bow strokes for different notes in these tunes:

You’ll also notice in the video above that Alasdair plays with his pinkie completely off the bow.

Which part of the bow to use

We also looked at which part of the bow to use when playing. There’s a tendency when you first start playing to stick to playing using only a small part of the bow. Often people will stick to the centre of the bow, as the bow feels easier to control in that position. You’ll see both of the players above are moving around the bow – the part of the bow you chose to play on at any given time will depend on the sound you want to make, and will also be affected by your next bow stroke.

Analysing your own playing

We played through the reel, speeding it up each time through. Each person in the group focused on the point where it felt to fast for them, and what they were aware of in their own playing that was holding the back. This identified a number of problems such as posture, focusing on the fingers rather than the sound, and worrying that it was all about to go wrong!

Staying in control of the tempo

We worked on how to stay in control of the tempo when playing the tune at a faster speed. Often the problem with playing faster is that we don’t know how to ‘apply the brakes’, and as soon as the tune starts to speed up, it carries on doing so until it’s going at a speed that’s beyond our ability to play. tapping your foot can be a useful way to establish a tempo before you start playing. You might want to diddle the tune in your head, to set the tempo, and tap your foot along, then start to play along with the tempo you’ve set. It’s useful to work out  when tapping your foot whether you are playing to your foot tapping, or tapping along t your playing. If your foot is driving the tempo, that’s where your focus needs to be if you want to change the tempo in mid tune.

Playing jigs at speed

We worked briefly on jig time, getting the rhythm of tunes in 6/8 timing. Find out more about playing tunes in jig rhythm. We focused on being able to put the emphasis on the  down bow at the start of the bar, and the up bow on the second beat.

 

How to make your practicing effective

Effective practicing

We spent the day looking at how to make the most of the time you have to practice playing your fiddle. If you want to make noticeable improvements in your playing, you need to start to become your own teacher. You’re the only person who knows exactly what sound you want to achieve from your instrument.

We started off by looking at our current practice habits. For many people this will involve playing through tunes that we know well, and trying to play them better. Some people might practice scales, or try adding specific bits of new technique into tunes they’re learning.

What else can you do, if you want to improve your fiddle playing, or to learn new techniques and bed them into your playing? There are a number of general points about practicing that can help, methods to help you to become more analytical about your playing, and ways you can structure your practice to help you work on the aspects that you identify you want to improve.

General tips:

  • Try leaving your fiddle out of its case – you’re more likely to pick it up and play it if you see it. Practicing for 10 minutes a couple of times a day often seems less daunting than having one big long practice session at the end of the working week.
  • Aim to practice at the times of day when you’re most alert. If you don’t know when this is, try keeping note every hour over 2 or 3 days of how alert you feel. You could do this using a scale of 1 (almost asleep) to 10 (fully alert).
  • Practice by focusing on any one thing for small chunks of time, then move on to something new. Our brains stay more alert when presented with new things regularly. Endlessly repeating the same thing will probably result in some improvement by the time you reach the nth repetition. But practicing by repeating the same thing endlessly isn’t teaching you to get it right the first time. If you’re practicing for a performance (using that term loosely – it may be that you’d like to be able to start a tune in the session with confidence, or play ‘Happy Birthday’ for your best pal) the best way to do this is to play the tune once, then do something else, and come back and play the tune once. If you want to learn to play it at your best the first time through, that’s just what you should practice doing.So you might identify 4 things you want to work on in a 2 hour practice session. Perhaps you want to A: perfect that performance piece, B: work on your tone, C: learn to play grace notes better, and D: learn a new bowing pattern. You could divide your practice hour into 4 x 30 minute chunks, and devote each chunk to one of these topics. Or you could spend 5 minutes on A, 5 minutes on B, 5 minutes on C and 5 minutes on D, then repeat this cycle several times. Doing it the second way will help avoid your brain becoming bored and switching off. It will keep you much more engaged in what you’re doing.
  • Get yourself a ‘practice notebook’. Use it for jotting down your observations from your practice sessions. You can start to create a list of things you notice that you would like to improve on
  • Try practicing something in the evening before you go to bed, and then practice the same thing first thing the following morning. Learning in the evening, then recapping in the morning after you’ve slept results in dramatic improvement of recall compared to learning for 2 sessions without sleep in between. It also results in better recall of memorised items over time.
  • Visualising yourself practicing (if it’s done mindfully) is as effective as actually practicing.
  • Mindless practicing can embed bad habits, and undermine your confidence, because you don’t understand the mechanics of playing well, and are therefore not confident you can reproduce them reliably.

Choosing your state

Our mental processes while we are playing will have a big impact on what we can achieve. When you pick up your fiddle it’s important to be aware of what your aim is, and choose the state you need to achieve that aim. We need to learn to choose the state we need for practicing, and become analytical, (rather than the creative state we need for performing). We also need to learn to be able to flip from one state to another, depending on what we’re doing.

When you’re learning a brand new technique, you need to be accessing a ‘thinking state’. Suppose you want to learn how to play chords on the fiddle. You’ll need to be actively thinking about how your bow is positioned, and how you move it, to hit the chord at exactly the time you want. Your brain is pretty much focused on your physical movements, and how those work with the bow to create the chord.

Once you’ve become familiar with the movements, you can move in to a ‘listening state’, where your focus is on listening to the sound you’re making as you execute the technique, and analysing what is happening. Being able to flip between the thinking and listening state easily is an immensely useful skill to help your learning.

Once you’ve embedded the new technique into your playing, and you want to play the tune with chords in a session, or on stage, you need to access a ‘creative state’ where your focus is purely on creating the music. As you play, you hear the music in your head in a certain way, with your own interpretation. Because through mindful practice you’ve been building the pathways connecting sound and action, you can hear the tune in your head, and it comes out of the instrument without your conscious brain needing to be involved. You can be completely relaxed, knowing that your subconscious will direct your movements without your ‘thinking’ brain needing to be involved.

Effective practicing
Photo ©Ros Gasson

Becoming aware of our own ‘self-talk

If you want to improve your fiddle playing, it’s easy to see the solution as being simply a matter of learning new techniques. There’s another side to creating the sounds we want, that is about understanding the inner dialogue that goes on while you’re practicing/playing. If you want to know more about this, the book ‘The Inner Game of Music‘ is a helpful place to start. Ultimately our ability to perform in the way we want to is a combination of our technical skill, and our ability to manage our own self doubts, and self-sabotaging talk.

The first step towards managing your inner dialogue is in recognising that it happens, and what your own habits and patterns are. from there you can start to work on more constructive thinking patterns that will support your playing rather than sabotage it.

Making it easy

When you’re learning a new technique you’re more likely to be able to ‘nail it’ if you simplify whatever you’re playing as far as you can while you learn the new physical movements you need to make. So if you wanted to add some chords you’d just been shown into say The Barrowburn Reel, you might start the process by learning to play one chord on 2 open strings.

You might start by choosing to play this on the 2 strings you generally feel most comfortable with, and where you create your best tone. Once you have a feel for this, you could move to different strings, or try a chord with an open string and the first finger on the string below. Once this skill has bedded in, you  might move on to chords where you have fingers down on both strings.

With most new skills it’s possible to find a simple place to start, and gradually layer up the complexity of what you’re doing. The aim is to bed in the basic skill to a point where you can play it in its simplest form without actively thinking about what you’re doing physically – your subconscious can take over at this point, freeing up your ‘thinking space’ for working on learning the next level of the new skill.

Learning to listen

We started off the workshop by playing an open D. Each person played and focused on listening to their own sound. We then each noted things about the sound we created that we wanted to work on. We aimed to phrase this in terms of a sound (a goal) that we wanted to achieve, rather than something we wanted to stop. So rather than “I’d like to stop it sounding wobbly” you might say “I’d like to create a smooth sound that’s controlled and even”. We tried to be as specific as possible about this goal.

We then repeated the exercise with our eyes shut. Doing this allows you to listen more closely to the sound of your fiddle, as you’re removing any visual distractions, which allows your brain to be much more focused on the sound. You can move on to a third step at this point, and record yourself and then listen back. This often reveals how little detail we hear when we’re involved in playing!

So the steps to developing your ability to listen are:

  • Play
  • Play and focus on listening
  • Play with your eyes shut, focusing more deeply on listening
  • Record your playing, and listen back with out distractions

Using recordings:

When you’re learning to play an instrument, it can be daunting to record yourself, and many people shy away from doing it. Feeling ‘under the spotlight’ can make us tense and nervous, resulting in not being able to play at our best. But recordings are a surprisingly useful tool. It allows you to carefully listen, without any distractions, to the sound you make. You can also listen as many times as you like, focusing on different aspects each time you listen. You might listen through once paying attention to the tone of your playing, then a second time listening to the tuning, and a third with your focus on tempo or rhythm, and so on. The important thing in using recordings to improve your playing is learning to listen with a view to diagnosing problems in your playing. You need to have an idea in your mind of the sound you’re aiming to make, and your listening is focused on any areas that you don’t feel are achieving that aim yet.

If you keep your recordings, you can also use them over time to get a sense of the progress you are making in different areas of your fiddle playing.

Structuring your practice:

Practicing mindfully involves several steps. The first stage is the analysis. We  start by analysing what’s happening, and identifying possible changes we want to try making.

  • be clear what sound you’re aiming for – be as specific and detailed as you can about exactly how you want your playing to sound. Think about tone, dynamics, precision, tempo, timing, tuning, bowing, energy etc
  • focus on listening to your own sound using the steps outlined above
  • analyse what you’re already achieving and what you feel you still need to work on
  • identify specific changes you could try to help achieve the goals
  • test the possible solutions – what works and helps towards achieving the sound you’re after?

Once you’ve identified the changes you want to introduce into your playing, your aim is to get to a point where you no longer need to consciously think about what you’re physically doing for that new technique to be used. It should be possible to use it purely because you hear the desired sound as you’re playing – your subconscious will make the link, and lets you execute the technique naturally.

You can bed new techniques into your playing through mindful repetition, using following steps –

  • Break any changes you want to make down into the simplest possible manageable chunks.
  • Focus on one area of technique at a time.
  • Try the new technique in it’s simplest form (on an open string/single note or simple run, if possible). You’ll need to be in the thinking state to achieve this step.
  • Once it feels physically comfortable, repeat it, but move into your listening state, and focus on listening to the sound you’re making. Make sure your listening is focused on what improvements you want to make in the sound you’re creating.
  • Repeat, with your eyes shut, to focus more deeply.
  • Repeat it and record it. Listen back to the recording. Notice if there are things you didn’t hear while you were playing. Is it helping achieve the desired sound? If not, go back to the analysis stage, and see if you can identify any different changes to work on. If it’s working, go on to the next step.
  • Put the new technique into a phrase of a tune or riff. Repeat the last 4 steps above
  • Move on to the next area of technique
  • Repeat the cycle

Memory

One issue you may have is around managing to remember things. How do you learn a new tune and commit it to memory?

What’s your current method of learning a new tune? For many people, they will play it round and round for some time, going over any tricky bits, and gradually familiarising themselves with the patterns in the tune. it can be disconcerting to find that having done this, an hour later you have no idea how the tune starts, and you therefore can’t play it at all. If you go back to a recording at this point, or find the written music, you’ll usually find that in fact you do remember most of the tune. So what happened?

The issue is not so much about not being able to remember the tune, but more a case of not being able to access the memory we have created. if you struggle with remembering tunes it’s worth devoting some of your practice time to practicing the art retrieving tunes from your memory.

If you want to commit a new tune to your long-term memory, there is evidence that if you can learn it, then play it an hour or so later, and then a day later, it will help lodge it more firmly into your mind.

 

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Improving tone and tuning

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

    • Old strings
    • 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
    • New strings
    • Fiddle being knocked/dropped
    • Damaged instrument

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

A fiddler's left hand
Photo ©Ros Gasson

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.

More tips on learning to play in tune

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Using different parts of the fiddle bow

Using different parts of the fiddle bow

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.

 

 

The left hand

The left hand

In this month’s workshop we looked at issues around the left hand, and how to keep the left hand relaxed, which will help in developing fluid playing.

Avoiding tension in the left hand

The way we support the fiddle neck with the left hand will depend to some extent on whether we use a shoulder rest or not. The neck of the fiddle should be resting on the inside of the index finger. It’s common for tension to build, with the left hand gripping the neck of the fiddle, and the thumb becoming tense and painful. It’s important to find a way to support the neck of the fiddle while keeping the left hand relaxed. There’s more detailed information on supporting the neck of the fiddle in this article.

The palm of the left hand should be kept in a vertical position while playing, with the fingers in a gently curved and relaxed position when not on a string. This allows any of the fingers to be placed onto the strings so that they drop straight down onto the string from above.

It can be tempting to ‘cradle’ the neck of the fiddle in the palm of the hand, as the instrument might feel more secure when holding it in this way. However, if the palm is underneath and supporting the neck of the fiddle, the fingers will be pulled away from the fingerboard, making it necessary to stretch across the fingerboard from the side to reach the strings. This  will cause the fingers to touch adjacent strings, which will cause problems when playing tunes that cross from one string to another.

To move the fingers from one string to another, swing the elbow of the bowing hand across. As the elbow moves from left to right, the hand is moved over the finger board from right to left. This allows us to reach the G string easily without having to stretch individual fingers across the finger board.

We looked at the pressure needed on the string when a finger is placed. You can play a note by pressing the finger hard against the fingerboard, but this immediately puts the left hand in a position of tension. We experimented with using different pressures to play an E, using the 1st finger in the D string. Firstly we just rested the finger on the string – doing this creates a note with very little resonance. Then we pressed the finger hard against the fingerboard, which creates a much crisper-sounding note, but also creates tension in the hand. After this we tried finding an intermediate level of pressure on the string that created a sound we liked, but avoided tension in the left hand.

The reality of playing is that the pressure used will be different for different notes within a tune. Ideally you’re aiming to avoid tension building up in the hand, and keeping the hand relaxed and able to move fluidly over the fingerboard. This fluidity is particularly important as you begin to play faster tunes.

We tried playing up a D scale, starting with long slow bow strokes. We gradually sped up the pace of playing, paying attention to using only a gentle pressure with each finger on the string. We also tried playing alternate D/E notes, taking time to fully relax the hand when we were playing the open D.

We learnt the reel Peerie Weerie

Keeping fingers down on the string

In the tune, there are different places where it’s possible to keep fingers placed on a string while playing the next note in the tune, as the tune will return again to the previous note. So in this phrase in the A part of the tune:4 notes on a stavethe first finger can be placed on the A string to play the B, and kept in place while the G is played with the 3rd finger on the D string. It’s then easy to return to the B straight after the G is played.

Similarly, in this phrase in the B part: 6 notes on a stavethe second finger is placed and kept down while the top A is played with the 3rd finger on the e string, and then the 1st finger is kept down while the top G is played.

Being able to do this is helpful when working on playing tunes faster.

Playing in tune

We looked at ways to help with playing in tune with confidence. Read more about training your ear to hear when notes are in tune.

Co-ordinating the left hand with the bow action

Playing fast tunes can often lead to a disconnect between the bowing action and the fingers moving on the finger board. We looked at using shorter lengths of the bow as we play tunes faster, and developing our own sense of rhythm and pulse. We also worked on how to create a clear crisp start to each note, so we know exactly where that pulse is in the tune. This helps with keeping our own timing really steady, helping with co-ordination between the left and right hands. You can read more here about how to get the bow to fully engage with the string at the start of each note.

Placing a finger across 2 strings

We worked on placing the finger across 2 strings. This is a useful technique when a fast tune moves between 2 strings, playing notes with the same finger on each of those strings (for example where a tune moves from a C on the A string to a G on the E string, which are both played with the 2nd finger). It’s helpful to place the finger down across both strings as the first of the notes (the C) is played. Try to do this so the finger is dropping down onto both strings from above, rather than by placing the finger down  to play the C then flattening the finger across onto the E string to play the G.

Using the 4th finger

The left hand - using the 4th finger
Photo ©Ros Gasson

Many people find it hard to use the 4th finger with confidence. This may be due to the 4th finger sitting below the neck of the fiddle in the ‘resting’ position. Check what your left hand position is when you’re not using the 4th finger. Ideally the 4th finger should be relaxed, slightly bent, and sitting close to the 3rd finger, above the finger board.

Because we’re not used to using the 4th finger independently, it tends to be naturally weaker than the other fingers. So the first step is to practice using it regularly, to begin to build up strength.
This video gives a lot more detail about the 4th finger:

Playing grace notes

We worked on playing grace notes fluidly. The name ‘grace note’ is perhaps misleading, as the finger playing the grace note barely touches the string before it is lifted again. I tend to think of it as more of a flicking action, so that the finger momentarily stops the string vibrating (imagine what would happen if the string was burning hot when you place your grace note finger on it!). The aim is to create a particular sound when the grace note is played. Ultimately you’ll need to be able to hear the sound you’re aiming to create, as you’re playing the note with the grace note.

We also looked at the different effect on the sound of placing the grace note at the start of the note or at the end.

 

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How to play tunes faster

Learning how to play tunes faster

In December’s workshop we focused on techniques that would help us  to play tunes faster.

We started out by revisiting our fiddle bow hold. One of the things that makes it difficult to speed up tunes when we’re learning is where there are 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.

We practiced playing a dotted jig rhythm on an open A string, then playing the same rhythm on these notes:

Short riff in jig time

We learnt a 4 part jig called The Duck

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 puts into bowing. More of the action comes from the wrist as we play the tune faster. We worked on the bowing hand wrist action. Remember to keep 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.

We looked at what happens with the left hand as we play faster. Keeping the fingers close to the fingerboard when they’re not being used, reduces the time it takes to get them back in place when we next need to use them. It also makes it easier to be precise about where the fingers fall o the strings, making it more likely we will keep notes in tune as we speed up. 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. It’s also not necessary to push the string down hard onto the fingerboard – the fingers need to ‘dance’ over the strings.

All of these things help with economy of movement which will help us to be able to increase the speed of playing tunes, and keep our playing under control.

To play at speed, you need to be able to keep the tune/rhythm going even if errors happen. 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 the mechanics of our playing to become much more subconscious, so we’re no longer having to focus on which way the bow is moving, or which order our fingers need to go down to play that quick run of notes. The notes are played because we hear them in the tune. We tried plucking the first phrase of the tune, and missing random notes out, while still staying in the rhythm. We had to focus on hearing the tune for this to work.

Then we played this riff from the A part of the tune

Short riff in Jig time

We started slowly at first, then lifted the speed a bit in stages, working on holding the speed steady each time we picked it up. Everyone in the group focused on their own playing, pinpointing the speed that their playing became a problem, and analysing what issues were contributing to the difficulty.

It’s important to learn to control 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. Work out whether own foot tapping is driving/controlling your playing speed (some people play along to the tempo of their tapping foot, while others tap their foot in time with their playing). If your playing is following your foot tapping tempo, then you will need to learn to control the foot tapping speed to control your playing speed.

If you’re playing in a group, learn to listen closely not only to yourself, but to the others you’re playing with, and work out what’s happening. This is especially important if the  group is struggling with playing together well. Playing fast is much easier when you are confident you can control your own paying speed, and keep it steady at whatever speed you are aiming for.

Getting over performance nerves

Performance nerves

We looked at how to get over performance nerves in this month’s fiddle workshop. There’s a lot of factors that can make us nervous about playing in front of others. Fortunately there’s a lot a of strategies, and tips for overcoming the problem, too!

Building confidence

Part of building confidence is about improving your playing to a level you are happy with. If you’re working on a particular tune that you want to play well (perhaps you want to be able to start a set of tunes on your own in a session), it can be really helpful to make sure you feel completely confident about playing the opening few bars of the first tune.

We worked on developing a confident start to the note, by getting the bow to really engage with the string. There’s a knack to transferring the weight of the arm through the hand and into the bow right at the start of the note. Te weight is transferred through the index finger, with the thumb acting as a ‘pivot’ at the moment where the weight is transferred.

We played long open As, and worked on creating that engagement of the bow hair with the string at the start of the note. We focused on listening to the sound we were making, as we need to be able to feel and hear the moment when the bow hair engages with the string, and instantly relax the hand to let the string resonate fully as the bow stroke continues. Once you’ve mastered doing this, the effect on the sound of the start of the note is obvious. Have a listen to this recording – the first notes are bowed without this effect, and the second with:

Being able to play with a crisp start to the note can be really helpful with tidying up issues with timing – if it’s really clear exactly where the note starts (to both the player and the listener!), it will help define the pulse in the tune.

We learnt the slow air Theid Mi Dhachaig Chro Chinn T-Saile (I Will go Home to Kintail)

Preparation

There’s a lot we can do to prepare ourselves for a performance, or any situation where others might be listening to our playing. It can be useful to have a few tunes that you know you can play really confidently any time, whether or not you’re playing them on your own.

We talked about various things that will affect how confident you feel about playing a tune:

  • Knowing the notes: Being able to sing through the tune is a useful way to work out if you are certain how it should sound. Singing the start of tune in your head before you start to play can help with reminding you exactly how it goes.
  • Timing: tapping your foot when you’re playing tunes with a regular pulse can help establish a tempo before you start playing.
  • Tuning: There are various things you can do to build your confidence with playing in tune.  Make sure and check your fiddle is in tune before you play in front of other people. It’s surprising how quickly a fiddle can drift out of tune, so do this even if you tuned up when you first arrived.
  • Playing with dynamics in the tune: this might be dynamics in a phrase or part of a tune, or dynamics within a single note. Working on the dynamics in your playing will help your music to become more expressive.
  • Being confident about bowing: being certain that you have a way to bow the tune that sits well, and that you can manage even when you’re not thinking about it will also help.
  • Practicing recovering from errors: We tried this out while playing a scale. We did so, focusing on the sound rather than thinking about what our fingers and bows were doing. Then we tried throwing in a random wrong note for the third note in the  scale, and continuing on with the rest of the scale straight afterwards.
  • Practice in the performance space: if you’re planning a performance, and can have a run through in the performance space before the event, this can be really helpful, as the space, and acoustics will be familiar to you before you perform. If you can’t perform in the space itself, can you create something similar? If you’re going to be playing with others, can you practice in the same formation that you will use to perform? It’s also helpful to give some thought to any speaking any of the performers might do in between playing, if this is relevant. We tried this in the workshop, lining up and playing to an imaginary audience. It gave us an idea of the importance of ensuring that everyone in the group can see/hear the other performers (particularly someone who is in charge of setting the tempo for a tune).
Fiddlers playing at a ceilidh
Photo ©Ros Gasson

Developing routines to calm nerves

Building habits that you go through before you play can help you to feel centred.

  • Try taking some slow breaths, breathing from the diaphragm. You might want to try the 4-7-8 breathing exercise.
  • Developing  routine of stretching exercises to do just before perming can help you to stay relaxed

What’s happening?

When we have stage fright, there are several physical changes that happen:

  • Physical changes: sweating, increased pulse rate, rapid shallow breathing from high in the chest, trembling
  • Mental changes: self-doubt, worrying, visualising failure, blank memory
  • Emotional changes: panic, apprehension, fear

It can be helpful to simulate some of these ‘symptoms’, and practice playing through them. Try going for a jog, and then playing your fiddle while you’re still out of breath. Or try setting up a camera and videoing yourself playing, to add a bit of pressure! If you do this, it can also be a useful tool for watching your own responses to stress when you’re playing, so you can develop your own effective strategies to combat it.

Dealing with ‘gremlins’

We’ve all found ourselves in that place where we ‘fall off’ a tune we’re playing. Very commonly this happens when we start paying attention to the wee voice that whispers ‘This isn’t going to work’ ‘It’s too fast’ ‘Here comes that tricky bit that you can’t play’ ‘That sounds DREADFUL!’ and similarly unhelpful things.

Part of the trick to getting beyond this is to understand what’s happening when we perform as opposed to when we practice. Practicing as an adult learner, especially with the fiddle, which is a tricky instrument to play well, often happens with our brains very focused on thinking and analysing what we are doing. To perform well, you need to access a different state, allowing your subconscious to take over. This is sometimes referred to as playing ‘in the zone’. It allows our playing to become much more expressive and fluid.

If you’ve never done this before playing in front of other people, it’s unlikely to just happen. So as you are learning, spending time switching from playing with your thinking head on, to playing ‘in the zone’ is an important part of your practice, if you want to play confidently. The gremlin voices interrupting our playing are a sign that we’ve slipped back into ‘thinking’ mode. If you’re aware of this, and able to switch easily back into playing ‘in the zone’, you can take evasive action when the gremlins strike!

Getting in the ‘zone’

There are many things we can do to start playing ‘in the zone’, including:

  • Practicing while playing something really easy (it can be as simple as a single note!) while focusing solely on listening to the sound you are making.
  • Focusing on interacting with other players while you are playing
  • Find a gentle visual distraction (such as watching TV with the sound turned down) while playing something simple

Find out more about playing ‘in the zone’

Creating manageable steps to your goal

Supposing you’ve decided your goal is to be able to start a tune on your own in a session. It can be a great help to find ways to reduce the level of anxiety about taking this leap into the unknown! So you might arrange to get together with some supportive friends who play, and try starting a tune on your own with them. If this seems too daunting, check before you play if there is a tune that other players on the group definitely know, and will join in with quickly. Once you’ve done this a few times you might find a friendly session where you can try it out. If it still seems very daunting, get familiar with the session, and the people who play there, before you play on your own. Check the etiquette of the session (can anyone start a tune any time? Some sessions are much more structured about who can start tunes, and when).

Are the other players in the session supportive of people who aren’t seasoned session players? If you have any choice about where you go, it makes a huge difference to find one that is open to folk who are starting out with session playing. It can be pretty daunting to stat a tune at a sensible speed, only to find that the regular players take off with it, and speed it up to a point where you’re unable to play!

It can also be helpful to go along to a session with a friend who also plays, especially if you have repertoire in common. If you don’t have anyone to take with you, ask the players near to you if they know the tune you’re about to start, before you play. That way, they are likely to join in to support you.

And it’s also worth paying attention to the abilities of other players, especially the people you end up sitting beside. It can be hard even for a seasoned player to keep a tune going if they have a loud player beside them who is out of tune, out of time, or playing something only loosely related to the tune they’re playing. If you’re making your first foray into starting a tune, pick a time when the players around you are able to play in a way that supports what you’re doing!

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Improving tone on the fiddle

Improving tone

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.

Bowed violin string in slow motion.gif
By ViolinB0W – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6JeyiM0YNo4, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27025733

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.

The bowing hand in action
Photo ©Ros Gasson

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.

Basic bowing patterns for reels

Basic bowing patterns

In this workshop we looked at developing a basic bowing pattern for playing reels. We looked at how to ensure that the stronger down bows fall on the beat. This will automatically make it easier to emphasise the notes that fall on the beat in each bar. The idea of doing this is not that you would always play a down bow on the beat, but that this will happen if you’re playing ‘on autopilot’. Achieving this frees you up to focus on the bits of the tune where you want to push the emphasis onto off-beats and/or the up-beats.

Emphasising the on-beat

We started off by playing long bow strokes on an open A string. Then we changed this to short bow strokes on the open A. We added a rhythm to this, emphasising the first note in each group of 4. This is similar to playing in reel time, where there are 2 sets of 4 quavers in each bar.

We were emphasising the 2 on-beats in each bar. We played the first note in the bar on a down bow each time. So the beat falls on the down bow, which is a naturally stronger bow stroke. To accentuate this, we used a fast long bow stroke on the 2 on-beats in the bar, making these much louder than the other notes. We also worked on getting the hairs of the bow to ‘connect’ with the string at the start of each bow stroke. To do this we used the index finger on the back of the stick of the bow, pushing the stick down into the fiddle at the start of each bow stroke, in a quick pulse.

We worked on tapping the foot on the on beat (2 taps in each ‘bar’ of 8 quavers).

We also tried out adding a chord (playing an open D with the A) on the notes on the on beat, to accentuate the sound further.

We learnt the reel Put Me in the Big Chest.

Developing a ‘default’ bowing pattern

We worked on playing this with a basic bowing pattern that keeps the down bow on the beat. To achieve this, we slurred 2 quavers on an up bow after every crotchet or triplet. The idea is to develop a basic ‘default’ bowing pattern that will ultimately be played with any new tune, without needing to think about it. This frees us up to begin to play around with the pulse in a tune, but focusing on the phrases where we want to emphasise off-beats or up-beats, allowing the subconscious to take care of ensuring that for the rest of the tune, the on-beats will automatically be emphasised.

Shetland bowing patterns – 1 down, 3 up

Then we added in a 1 down 3 up pattern in the A part of the tune. In this bowing pattern, we used a long down bow stroke on the first quaver, to give enough space on the bow to fit in the 3 quavers on the up bow after it. The bow needs to move fast on the up stroke before this pattern (this note is the up-beat), to get the bow into position before the long down bow – so this automatically tends to add emphasis to the upbeat as well. We tried clapping the off beat while the tune was played, tapping the foot on the beat at the same time. We also tried clapping offbeat and singing the tune. If you’re struggling to control the direction of your bow with new bowing patterns, it can be useful to follow the bow direction with your bow off the fiddle, as someone else is playing the tune slowly with the pattern you are learning.

Shetland bowing patterns – 3 up, 1 down

We tried out playing the 3 up 1 down pattern in the B part of the tune. Playing this pattern pushes the emphasis onto the off-beat.

On-beats and off-beats

We added in a rhythm behind the tune, playing an A/E chord, using the first finger on the G/D strings,. We started out by emphasising the beat. This made it much easier for the tunes players to play with a strong pulse. The fiddlers playing the chords switched to emphasising off beat, which changed the effect on the tune.

Listening to our playing

We recorded ourselves playing the tune together with one person playing simple on beat rhythm behind it. We noticed when listening to the recording there was a tendency to be not all hitting the notes on the beat at the same time. Also the emphasis of the notes on the beat were not as obvious as we had thought when we were playing them. We repeated the exercise several times, which made a big improvement to the overall sound. We tried all focusing on following the rhythm set by the person playing accompaniment.

 

Playing with others

Playing with others

There are several things to pay attention to when playing with others.

  • We started this session by looking at the detail – emphases, playing notes cleanly, with a precise start and finish.
  • We also looked at playing with a clear pulse in tunes, making it clearly identifiable, so that others can follow and join in. Our pulse should be the same as others who are are playing.
  • Awareness of other players – what are they doing? Are you in time, in tune, …and playing the same tune?
Fiddlers playing together
Photo ©Ros Gasson

Playing the notes cleanly

We worked on getting the bow connecting with the string. We placed the bow on an open string, and added gradual tension with the bowing arm, making sure we were transferring the weight of the arm into the bow so the bow was fully engaged with the string.

At some point the tension of the pull of the bow overcomes the stickiness of the rosin, and the bow hair loses it’s grip on the string. The string then starts to vibrate, creating the note. This helped us to identify the point where the bow starts to get the string vibrating. We then worked on making sure the bow was really engaging clearly with the string, right at the start of each note. we played an open D, and used the weight of the bowing arm through the index finger to dig the bow into string at the point when string starts to vibrate.  We worked on dynamics within notes, using the bow speed to increase the volume at the start of the note. We worked on both of these playing up a D scale.

Playing with a clear pulse

We learnt Kirsty’s, a strathspey by Charlie McKerron. We played the opening phrase, concentrating on creating strong clear notes, and all playing in time. We used the speed of the bow to increase the volume of the notes on the beat.

We talked about how to start a tune, so that others you are playing with can come in at the same tempo. We tired out counting in – to do this, you need to think about the tempo you want the tune to go, the time signature of the tune, and whether you are starting playing at the start of a bar, or with lead notes before the bar. We worked on counting in and starting confidently and together.

We also talked about keeping a sense of the pulse as we play. An orchestra has a conductor to follow, but with folk music there isn’t an official person doing this. It often happens in a session that the players will end up following the loudest instrument. But what happens if that player has a poor sense of timing? There are various things we can do to prevent the pulse being lost in a group. The first thing is to make sure you have a good sense of where that pulse is. Generally folk musicians do this by tapping a foot on the beat. If you’re used to doing this, and confident your foot tapping can hold a steady tempo, you can then learn to follow that, rather than the loud instrument. Depending on the setting, you might also want to tap that foot a bit louder, if you can feel the tempo in the group is beginning to go out of control. It’s also possible to take visual cues from other players who you know have a good sense of the timing, if you’re unable to hear what they are playing – watching a good player’s bow can be very useful!

We also talked about being able to hear the tune in your head as you’re playing. Learning the fiddle is a complex business, ad it’s easy to get stuck in a very ‘thinking’ mode when playing, as we concentrate on bow direction, where our fingers are going, whether we’re in tune etc etc. Ultimately we need to let go of this and trust our subconscious to take charge of these physical aspects of playing, in order to let the music that we’re playing flow out. When we do this, we can then hear the tune in our heads as we play, and focus on how we want to tune to sound. If something goes awry with our playing, and we continue to hear the tune in our heads, we can very quickly get past the mistake, and slot back into the tune in the correct timing.  This keeps the pulse going. It’s surprising how little someone listening will notice, in terms of errors, if the pulse stays on track!

We worked on focusing on hearing the tune – the group split in half, and played alternate phrases from the tune, keeping a steady tempo as the tune switched from one group to the other. We needed to hear tune through the phrase we weren’t playing, in order to come in at the right point and at the right tempo. We also tried playing a phrase altogether, all missing out several notes in the iddle, and coming back into the rest of the phrase together at the right time/tempo.

Awareness of other players

We stood in a circle and played the tune, focusing on the players either side of us, and blending with them. Then we played focusing on whole group sound, making eye contact, and taking our visual and listening focus off our own playing. Doing this created a big difference in the energy of the group’s sound.
We tried out playing with our eyes shut, focusing only on the sound we could hear. Some people found technique tricky when doing this – eg being confident about the position of the bow on the strings.

We talked about what to do if you can’t hear the others you are playing with. One of the most obvious things is to play a bit quieter yourself. Sometimes in a session, you ca tell the music isn’t ‘gelling’ but it can be hard to hear where the pulse is, and what’s being played. There’s nothing wrong with dropping your own volume right down, or even stopping playing altogether, so you can hear more clearly what’s happening.
Then we played round the A part of the tune, with one person ‘in charge’ of the tempo on each repetition. All the players followed the same person, and the person ‘in charge’ moved on sequentially around the room with each repetition of the part.

Then we tried putting it all into practice, and played the opening phrase of the tune individually, with each person in the group following on from the previous player. We made observations on our own playing after doing this.

We also talked about how to end, or signal an end to a tune so that a group can all end together (and also so an audience knows you’ve come to the end!)

How to make practice effective

It’s tempting when practicing, to play lots of tunes that you know. It can be useful to do this, but if there are elements of technique that you’re struggling with, playing over and over with poor technique is likely to be helping to bed that in! So it’s useful to identify a single thing that you want to work on, and focus on that each time you play. it can be helpful to play something very simple (a single note, a scale, or a short phrase) while you work on that specific technique. As learning a new technique will often take you into a thinking way of playing, it can be easy to miss the effect that the changes you are making have on the sound you’re creating. It’s difficult to focus on listening closely while mastering a new physical skill. It can be really helpful to record yourself playing, and listen back to it.

 

There’s a really useful blog called the Bulletproof Musician, which gives plenty of tips, hints , and information about the psychology of playing well. And a simple guide to how to practice effectively, from Hands Up for Trad

Patsy Reid and Megan Henderosn playing fiddle
©Ros Gasson