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Technique and Maintenance for Fiddle and Fiddler
Eddy Chen discusses the role of the Left Hand, looking at finger positions, the thumb, flexibility, support of the violin, shifting, and the importance of adapting to circumstances. 20:39.
How to Stay Healthy at AllThingsStrings.com.
BowingFrom Violinist.com: Hold the bow in a way that allows each finger to do its job, never in a way that works against those jobs.
Tightening the bow: recommended tension leaves the hair about a pencil-width from the stick at the middle of the stick, its closest point.
Jesus Florido: Balancing the Bow on YouTube.
Rhythm and Swing
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.
ImprovisationOnce 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.
Many fiddlers do well with indifferent intonation and a driving rhythm and skill with chords, but how much better would it be if the beautiful harmonics that result from accurate intonation were employed!
In Western music, a C sharp is held to be the equivalent of a D flat, and ditto for the other similar combinations. This is called equal temperament and it is used on the fixed-pitched instruments, like the pianos many of us start our musical education on. It divides the octave into minute units called "cents". Since an octave is 1200 cents wide, and the Western scales have 12 tones per octave, each note is 100 cents apart.
However, on a violin, just intonation often sounds better to the ear. Just intonation is based on the relationship of both notes in an interval, and it is the musical expectation of many non-Western cultures From Wikipedia: "Today, despite the dominance of repertoire composed under equal-tempered systems and the prominence of the piano in musical training, musicians often approach just intonation either by accident or design because it is much easier to find (and hear) a point of stability than a point of calculated instability. A cappella groups that depend on close harmonies, such as barbershop quartets, usually use just intonation by design. Bagpipes, tuned correctly, also use just intonation. There are several conventionally used instruments which, while not associated specifically with just intonation, can handle it quite well, including the trombone and the violin family of instruments."
From Close, But Not in Tune: Creating the Habit of 100 Percent Accurate Intonation, by Laurie Niles:
Practice with a PlanJust because you play fiddle music does not mean you cannot steal a page from a violinist's playbook. As Gerald Klickstein says, "The fundamental source of confidence on stage is thorough preparation." My most-important and most-neglected "rule" for practicing is to know what my goal is and to have it in my head BEFORE I play it. This means listening to a new song several times, attentively, before putting bow to string; reading the new exercise through before attacking it; visualizing and humming the problem note or phrase before trying to fix it.
How many hours a day should you practice? Noa Kageyama says just one if you are really trying!
Kageyama espouses Deliberate Practice: "goal-directed, problem-solving, solution-focused practice." Listen with concentration so that you can analyze what went wrong, why, and how to correct the error. This will involve focusing on the specific notes and phrases that require improvement, not mindless repeating an entire section in which the error is embedded.
Efficient Practicing for the Time-Crunched by Lydia Leong. Her article on practicing 40 minutes a day had many of the same points as Dr. Noa Kageyama's, above. Here are some additional points that she made.
Eugenia Fielding is the incarnation of Lydia Leong's admonition to avoid scales unless they are combined with another technical drill. She uses scales and arpeggios as the content for bowing exercises. She describes her approach in detail at Why I practice scales and what they do for me.
At 60 beats per second, she practices her scales thusly:
Liz Lambson also multi-tasks, but her tool is a metronome. She describes her approach in How to Use a Metronome.
Chin and Shoulder RestsThe use of shoulder rests, in particular, and what kind, is a hotly-contested subject. I use one. All the fiddle players I know use one. My first violin teacher did not use one... he used a handkerchief...so he never suggested I use one.. but after years of wondering about it I finally realized that he had broad straight shoulders and I have narrow sloping ones.
MutesThere are two uses for mutes: in an orchestral piece, as notated by the composer, and during practice to keep the neighbors from calling the police.
I am only familiar with the last. However, I avoided them (and lots of practice time) for years because I felt the mutes distorted the sound to the point that the practice time more than non-productive, it was damaging.
RosinFrom AllThingsStrings.com: "Some musicians perceive significant differences among rosins, while others are simply not picky. Ultimately, each player's experience is subjective and preferences are highly personal... According to Norman Pickering, a giant in the world of violin acoustics, the rosins that work best break up into tiny particles, coating the hair with a thin, uniform coating. "Small particles stick to hair better. It's the larger ones that fly all over the instrument and do no good at the string." According to Pickering, and many others in the violin business, most people use far too much rosin. "Ninety-nine percent of the rosin falls on top of your instrument. So I use very little," says Fan Tao, a violinist and head of research and development for D'Addario Strings. An avid player, Tao has barely scratched the surface of a rosin cake he started nine years ago and has never needed to have his violin cleaned.
"While it's crucial to use enough rosin, over-rosining to get a better grip or improve the tone often has the opposite effect. Bow maker Michael Vann is fond of the following demonstration. He asks a violinist to play for him, perhaps a passage of Bach, and then asks to see the bow. He removes much of the rosin with a soft, clean cloth, and then asks to hear the same passage. Says Vann, the player is always surprised at the bigger, more beautiful tone that ensues with less rosin. He also points out that vigorous rosining, rather than working rosin into the hair, actually melts rosin into a glassy coating on the hair."
Fiddlesman.com recommends that a new, unrosined bow be rosined for 5-15 minutes. After the initial treatment, re-rosining will be necessary after an hour of practice and with 5-20 strokes.
If you over-rosin a bow, you can remove the excess from the bow with a clean cloth. Remove the rosin dust from your violin with a clean cloth as well; My luthier says that a layer of un-removed rosin will change the tone on the violin.
Recommended rosin types:
Sound-proofing your practice spaceFrom Strings Magazine:
Ask a friend or family member to measure the sound level (using a free or inexpensive decibel-meter app) while standing six feet away from the practice space, with the door closed, while you play. Be sure to play at the loudest volume you will use during rehearsal. The typical sound level of a violin is about 70—90 dB. By comparison, normal conversation ranges from 60—65 dB and traffic noise from inside a car is about 85 dB. Reducing the sound emitted from a room by just 10 decibels (dBs) will create the perception of a 50 percent reduction on the part of an outside listener.
Buy soundproofing that will treat the frequencies produced by your specific stringed instrument. A violinist or violist will not need a bass trap placed in the corners of the room to inhibit bass waves. If you practice with a cellist or bassist, you will need one anyway.
The goal is to create an acoustically "dry" room free of a lot of reverberation, which will enable you to hear your instrument without ambient effects. Soundproofing during construction is ideal, but post-construction methods can be effective as well. Minimize existing reflective surfaces: lay carpet or some sound-absorbing material on hardwood floor.
Here are five popular soundproofing treatments. Ask for the noise reduction coefficient rating (NRC) to determine the sound-absorption quality; a higher NRC rating indicates maximum effectiveness.
Carbon Fiber ViolinsI bought a carbon fiber violin because I sometimes find it hard to hear myself in a music jam that has a lot of happily strumming instruments in it and I'm tired of it. Wooden floors and high ceilings are common in these venues and the reverberation confuses my ears. But if you try to distance yourself from the happy strumming circle so that you can hear what you are playing they get miffed. Carbon fiber is supposed to be louder, impervious to the heat or cold that might be encountered traveling to or during music events, and able to travel in an airplane's cargo hold because changes in pressure and temperature will not cause it to explode.
There were none to be tested locally my decision to go forward with a purchase was influenced by information and videos gathered from the Internet. There was not a lot of information to be had. I started a conversation with Simon Streuff, a violin educator and You Tube blogger, asking him about his experience with testing a carbon-fiber violin. He had tested one at a convention, not the best setting, but felt the one he tested ($6000 high end) sounded nice.
with a lot less information than I usually gather before buying anything that costs more than $20, I decided to go with the Fiddleshop's Glasser Carbon Composite for $500, figuring they would be likely to let me return the instrument if it was not a real musical instrument.
After I posted that I had ordered the Glasser, Mr Streuff wrote that "The acoustic sound from the mezzo-forte violin was actually pretty powerful! I am curious how your Glasser violin will sound! Yes, they seem great for more rough gigs! I also consider one when I will play more with a band, they are designed to fit the needs of a traveling musician who sometimes plays bars and clubs quite well. For the moment I am more into classical music though...the carbon fiber violins actually sounded much better than I expected. I think for crossover gigs the combination of a robust, good sounding and good looking violin make them so attractive."
After I received the violin, I was pleased to find that the Glasser is both loud and distinct and clear. It doesn' have the sweetness of my wood violin, but I love the clarity of the sound. And it IS killer to look at.
I also ordered a Stroh violin in case the Glasser is not loud enough. I am obviously not going for subtle nuanced tones here.... but I believe a Stroh might be able to go head-to-head with an accordian if necessary.
Pocket FiddlesI have owned and played three types of travel (or pocket) fiddles.
My first was the wiplstix. I had it for several years and tried to love it, but couldn't. The main problem was the shorter-than-standard fingerboard, which worked against muscle memory. The completely round bottom was another hindrance- it was very hard to keep on my shoulder and the little tire tube supplied with the fiddle wasn't much help on my sloping shoulders. The bridge kept sliding to the left (turned out to be a common complaint) and tuning was very difficult. I actually liked the intimate sound very much but it took too much effort to obtain it. I gave it away.
My second was the Neil Gow 22XL Travel fiddle from Adventurous Muse. This is made from full-sized neck and a narrow body. I ordered it with the fancy geared tuners. I like the sound very much. It's a good tool in a small group or at home. The optional shoulder rest holder (which attaches with two small screws) is an ingenious solution but those two little screws are, well, little, easily misplaced, and they have to be unscrewed to remove the holder if you want to put the violin away. A nuisance. I purchased a two-part (collapsible) bow with it, which was a mistake; I ended up getting the bow hair tangled every-which-way in a careless moment. I then purchased a 1/2 (or 1/4) size Coda bow, which serves well.
My third is now the Cricket... My main interest in it was the chinrest/shoulder rest assembly... it looked awesome. And portable. And screw-less. The fact that it was made in the USA and that I could order it with an internal pickup was an additional bonus. I am really loving the full-size fingerboard and the sound. The optional geared pegs make tuning it easy. The chin/shoulder rest is both elegant and functional... this is their second version, more adjustable than the first I was told.
Traveling safely with a small fiddle: finding the ideal case for a small fiddle is frustrating. The Neil Gow came with a tubular case that seemed very strong but I could never get the top lid to stay on. As for the Cricket: they sell a soft-sided trapazoid with a handle and a 31-inch long document holder with a shoulder strap. I bought both, but the fact is that the soft-sided case was not very protective and the document case, 31" long, allowed me to carry it out of the house safely, but it was not going to fit in overhead compartment of an airplane and might not survive a trip in the hold, leaving me at the mercy of the plane crew as to how and if it could be carried. For my first airplane flight with the Cricket I ended up wrapping it up and putting it inside a box which I then put in my checked luggage. Then I read a hint from another pocket fiddle owner which suggested the Tran carrying tube (4.5 inch diameter and 24 inches long) was a good solution. I bought one and it was perfect, fitting both the Cricket or the Neil Gow, plus 1/2 size bow, plus Cricket shoulder rest, and it will fit inside checked luggage. Unfortunately, these 24-inch cases do not seem to be available any more: 36-inch, yes, 24-inch, no. I believe used ones sometimes make their way to Ebay. If you see one, snap it up!
Gerald Klickstein, MusiciansWay.com
Simon Streuff at Violin-Education.com. This German musician puts out clean and concise videos because 1) he is good at what he does 2) his English is good enough to teach with but not good enough to allow him to natter on.
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.
From Solfége, Wikipedia.com.
Maura Enright, Proprietor
Author: Maura Enright
© 2012 by Maura Enright
Latest revision: September 2018
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