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Become a Better Fiddle Player

Rhythms, Improvisation and Intonation

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I had a bit of a classical music background when I started playing fiddle tunes. A contra-dancing friend once remarked to me that a certain fiddler was very popular because she had a solid rhythm, even though she sometimes didn't play in tune. It took me a long time to internalize the fact that most folk music is dance music, not performance-for-an-audience music.

Closely tied to rhythm is the swing, or lift; the slurs and bow pressure applied at the right micro-moment that allow a tune to defy gravity.

Once I got the importance of rhythm in my head, the necessity to be able to improvise assumed first place. An improvisation that emerges from a relationship with the tune, with notes, ornaments and rhythm modified with a delicate (or not so delicate) awareness of the tune, is highly prized in Irish and Cajun music and esteemed in New England and Appalachian music, if only because playing the exact same thing forty times in a row at a dance can drive you crazy.

Closely tied to improvisation is the ability to play without sheet music and to learn by ear. My ability to read any tune at the drop of a hat was of use to friends who played by ear when we needed to learn a new tune in a hurry; but after a few passes through the tune, they had it down and I was still locked into the sheet music. I learned to take the time to memorize music by singing it (in my mind, if I am in public) and practicing it in bits that I could memorize. I am still working on the ability to learn by ear, but the more tunes I play the easier it is. Being in a group that includes instruments that are playing chords is a big help; those chords are audible guideposts.

Then the need for good intonation assumed prominence. A fiddle is usually the melody carrier in a band, and notes that are off are going to be very apparent in a context where you are playing with others. When playing alone, a fast song may hide a lot of wrong pitches, but the wrong pitch will severely weaken open and closing notes, double stops and slow passages.

RHYTHM and SWING

  • Get a metronome and use it. Better yet (as Kevin Burke said), get two metronomes.
  • Start slow. Play each phrase slowly until you have mastered it; do not leave mastery of the harder measures for later. You are teaching yourself to play it wrong if you are practicing it wrong. If some measures are harder than others, practice them separately and slowly until mastered. My personal measure is: if I can bounce against the metronome beat with precision and ease, then I have mastered the phrase well enough to go faster.
  • When you start slow and speed up, some correction of technique will be required. Adjust.
  • Experiment with bow strokes. Change the bowing, do long strokes, short choppy strokes, play at the frog, play at the tip.
  • Experiment with bow hand movements. These will add swing, emphasis and interest.
    • Bow strokes at the frog (top) of the bow involve a lot more arm movement than strokes at the point. Try playing fast notes starting half-way down the bow using a flexible wrist and no arm movement (other than adjustments to reach strings).
    • Straight up and down will put the bite at the beginning of the stroke.
    • A circular movement (bow hand moves down at the start of the downstroke, up at the start of the upstroke) will eliminate the bite and add a bit of swing.
    • A full-figure eight (a slight downward movement of the bow hand at the start and end of every stroke, then returning bow back up to neutral) will add a different pulse.
    • A smooth bow that touches a higher string at the very start of the stroke will add, as Bruce Molsky phrases it, pulse.
  • Breathe deep and stay relaxed.

IMPROVISATION

  • Sing everything before you play. Stop in the middle of playing and continue singing. You want to hear the music in your head before you play.
  • Play the same song in many different keys.
  • Play the same song in different modes (major, minor, Dorian, Mixolydian).
  • Practice using different bow strokes: long, short, choppy, smooth. This will teach you control of the bow so that you can render a song from any angle. You will not always be be approaching a phrase from the optimum up-bow or down-bow angle, especially when improvising. The down-stroke is the natural power stroke but you need to be able to produce the power you need from any point.
  • Breathe deep and stay relaxed.

INTONATION

  • Play with other people. Play straight meloday, play harmonies, play bass lines. Listen carefully.
  • The most important patterns for intonation development are arpeggio patterns, beginning with tonic [do-mi-sol] and dominant patterns that make up the harmonic functions of most of our Western music. Sing these as well as play them.
  • Control of your bow is an important part of control of intonation. A bow that is skewing sideways or with unconfident pressure will affect the pitch, especially at beginning and end of the note. Keep the bow parallel to the bridge (work with a mirror until it is instinctive).
  • Control of your fingers is important for intonation. Build up your finger strength with exercises. Keep your hand and your fiddle in position and it will be easier to stay in tune. If I let my fiddle drop or my hand drift, my intonation suffers.
  • Breathe deep and stay relaxed.
The movable-do-Solfége system allows the musician to sing a song without knowing the words; handy for memorization practice. The 'movable' in description means: DO is the tonic note of the song, not C.
Movable Do Solfége
SCALE DEGREE SYLLABLE C MAJOR note
1 Do C
  Raised 1 Di C#
  Lowered 2 Ra Db
2 Re D
  Raised 2 Ri D#
  Lowered 3 Me (or Ma) Eb
3 Mi E
4 Fa F
  Raised 4 Fi F#
  Lowered 5 Se Gb
5 Sol G
  Raised 5 Si G#
  Lowered 6 Le (or Lo) Ab
6 La A
  Raised 6 Li A#
  Lowered 7 Te (or Ta) Bb
7 Ti B

From Solfége, Wikipedia.com.

REFERENCES

Ellen Carlson, Tips for Better Practicing, Fiddle Magazine, 2016.

Bruce Molsky, Old Time Fiddling Tips, Strings Magazine YouTube channel.

Michael Martin, Fourteen Steps to Improved Intonation, StringsMagazine.com, Web.

Heather Scott, The Difference between Dark and Amber Rosin, StringsMagazine.com, Web. "Dark rosin is softer and is usually too sticky for hot and humid weather: it is better suited to cool, dry climates. Since light rosin is harder and not as sticky as its darker counterpart, it is also preferable for the higher strings [violin and viola]."

Solfége, Wikipedia.com.



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