Sanger's Guide to Learning Irish Fiddle

Version 8.2 (May 25, 2005)

Note to translators: someone has asked for a translation of this page into Spanish. If you would like to translate it into Spanish, or any other language, I would be happy to post your translation here in this Web space. Thank you in advance.

Introduction and disclaimers: This guide is an attempt to ease the newcomer to Irish fiddle playing into this pastime. I originally started it as a part of An Appreciation of the Donegal Fiddle, since people would ask me: "How can I improve my fiddling?" I assume that this question is being asked in the context of Irish style fiddling; some of my comments do, however, apply to other styles and indeed to other instruments. Also, many comments are addressed to starting fiddlers who are, unhappily, not in Ireland or places (such as Boston or London) with many Irish fiddlers. If you're near a good, willing Irish fiddle teacher, by all means, learn from that person! Neither this guide nor any impersonal medium can possibly be an adequate replacement for a good teacher.

I guess it should be obvious that the following is just my opinion, which means that some people will disagree with at least some of what I have to say. I have distilled a lot of the tips and opinions from workshops, advice from friends, and much personal observation both of myself and my fiddle students. You should get other informed opinions about how to learn, of course. Comments of all sorts welcome, to blarneypilgrim (at) yahoo.com. If you have any questions you'd like me to answer (by adding paragraphs to what is below) let me know. Without further ado I ascend my soapbox!

I. For newcomers to the instrument and to the music
II. Approaching the music: psychology, listening, learning by ear, sheet music, style, sessions, and tunes
III. Improving technique
IV. A few notes on ornamentation and variation
V. A few final words


I. For newcomers to the instrument and to the music.

I'll begin with several paragraphs directed to beginners on the instrument--the fiddle is the same instrument as the violin--and address in somewhat less detail the concerns of violinists who are newcomers to Irish music.

Buying your first fiddle. As a rule, don't spend less than US$250 on a first fiddle, because anything less than that is probably going to be a frustrating experience. Beyond that, it would be difficult for me to tell you what to look and listen for in a fiddle. If you are not yet a fiddler (or violinist), you probably shouldn't go out and do a lot of shopping for an instrument yourself. Reading lists of things to watch out for (cracks, cheap Chinese fiddles, well-cut scrolls, etc.) would help with that a little, but the sound of the instrument is most important (for most fiddlers, anyway--certainly for me). No matter how well you memorize a list of things to watch out for, looking at and listening to a large variety of instruments is necessary to get a good idea of what is and is not a good instrument; without knowing how to play, in all likelihood, you still won't be able to tell what a good fiddle sounds like. If you're just starting, then definitely get the advice of someone who plays. If you have a friend who plays, that's ideal; impose on him or her to go shopping with you. If just an acquaintance (who is a good fiddler), you might consider paying him or her to go shopping with you for an afternoon. If you know no one who plays, or if you just want to avoid that effort, you really won't go far wrong simply going to a reputable violin shop and getting a decent (say, 500 U.S. dollar) "student model." Sounds demeaning perhaps but they can make nice music. Or for that matter some good deals can be had by mail order from large companies that deal online, such as Elderly Instruments in Michigan--that's just one example. (My second fiddle was obtained that way and I got a good instrument for the price.) Of course, the problem with ordering instruments by mail order is that you must go to the considerable trouble and expense of mailing them back instruments that you don't like. Even for your first instrument, you'll surely want to hear it before you buy it. I strongly advise against trying to find a "deal" in a pawn shop or antique store by yourself. It is possible to find good deals in such places, but unless you know what to look for, you just can't know if what you're getting really is a "deal." The fact of the matter is that you usually get what you pay for, and a fiddle the dealer says is a "bargain" at $100 really probably is worth $100, i.e., you shouldn't bother with it if you're serious about learning.

Renting a fiddle. It's really an excellent idea to rent a fiddle, if you aren't quite sure whether you're going to stick with it. I rather wish I had done that myself, when I first started. It will also give you a better idea of what to look and listen for in a fiddle, when you go to buy one yourself. One can rent fiddles fairly cheaply on a monthly basis from many violin shops and general music shops that stock large numbers of high school band instruments. You won't get a beautiful-sounding instrument, but it will be fine for your purposes and certainly capable of making nice music.

What kind of strings to get. As for strings, I generally recommend, and my impression is that most fiddlers use, chrome-on-steel strings for their responsiveness and clarity. "Responsiveness" means the shortness of the time between making a movement with the bow or fingers and the time that the fiddle makes an audible response. For ornaments like rolls and triplets, responsiveness is very important. My favorite brands are Jargar (as of 2001 and 2002 the Jargar company hasn't been able to stock enough of them in the U.S.) and Pirastro Chromcor, but recently I've taken a shining to the Super Sensitive Pinnacle brand; these are all chrome on steel. But don't take my word for it--it seems like everyone has a different favorite. Especially if you have a harsh-sounding fiddle, or if you want a "smooth" sound coming out of your fiddle, you might want to try, instead of chrome-on-steel strings, perlon-core strings (synthetic gut) like Dominants. Last I heard, Dominants were the most popular string for classical violin students. Another often-recommended string type is D'Addario Helicores. Thomastik Infelds are synthetic but are relatively bright; I like the way they sound on my fiddle. Generally, I personally have found some synthetic strings to be a bit "limp," dark-sounding, and unresponsive, but other fiddlers obviously have a different experience: choosing a string is a very personal experience, based on your style and your fiddle. Unfortunately, you might have to do a lot of (somewhat expensive) experimentation before you arrive at something you really like. And, for better or worse, string companies have been coming out with new models all the time.

Recommended accessories. Some accessories that I highly recommend you buy:

Of course, recorded music is also absolutely essential, and a few books won't hurt. On the use of these accessories, see below. As to fiddle cases, a lot of people buy expensive fiddle cases, but some of the best fiddlers I saw in Ireland had some of the cheapest molded plastic cases that were ready to fall apart. Probably, it's a better idea to spend the extra money on the fiddle or bow!

For beginners on the violin/fiddle: getting started. Although I have some hints below, it's a bit too involved (and would require multimedia) to tell you how to tune up, how to hold the bow, etc.--the basic mechanics of how to get started on the instrument. (By now, perhaps someone has already done so online--let me know if you find one and I'll link to it!) There are videos that will teach you this. But in order to see such things demonstrated up close, and more importantly to get immediate feedback, you should go to a fiddle or violin teacher. The money will probably be very well spent. You will do best if you get a decent teacher for the first few months at the very least, to get you going in the right direction--without one, it is likely that you will "practice your mistakes," problem areas a good teacher would catch instantly, and unlearning those bad habits is possible, but quite a chore. And on the other hand, if you're all fired up to practice and don't have time, money, and inclination to take a few lessons, then don't let me stop you!

For beginners on the violin/fiddle: why not take classical violin lessons? Would they help? This is a big topic. In the first few months it doesn't really matter that much that you have an Irish style teacher; in fact, a classical violin teacher, who is tolerant of fiddle music and perhaps dabbles some playing it, would be fine. Some violin teachers encourage very strict discipline in their students, and while I'm not concerned to argue that this is wrong, it does seem unnecessary for purposes of learning the fiddle. Fiddlers seem to be perfectly happy holding the fiddle and the bow all sorts of ways that would make classical musicians cringe. On the other hand, the basics that they'll teach you in the beginning are 100% applicable to fiddling, and the habits of holding the bow and fiddle and producing a good tone, etc., are very good advice for fiddlers. All this admitted, I and most other fiddlers I know would reject the idea that classical violin training is either necessary for, or particularly helpful to, learning to play fiddle. Many of the very best fiddlers, the ones that I and other musicians admire most, have little or no classical violin training. Certainly very few of the old (or now dead) standard bearers of the tradition had classical training. Of course, there are many excellent crossovers--though one can often (not always!) still hear remnants of the classical "style" in their playing. Again: this is not to say that classical violin is useless for purposes of learning fiddle; of course, it will give you familiarity with the instrument and teach you much useful technique. What it will not teach you are the specialized techniques and above all the stylistic nuances that characterize Irish fiddling, and these are substantial--they cannot be learned easily as an afterthought.

"I've got a teacher who doesn't play Irish fiddle. When should I stop taking lessons, or switch to a different teacher?" Several people have asked me this. It depends on a lot of things. Say you've got a violinist for a teacher, who plays no or only a little fiddle, or maybe a good fiddler who plays some non-Irish style. What I said above applies: in the beginning, that person can indeed teach you a lot of important things that will be very relevant to your fiddling. A violinist can teach you such things as how to hold the bow and the fiddle, how to produce a clean, clear tone, how to do string crossings, how to play in a variety of keys, and how to read music. These are essential, or in the case of reading music, at least useful, skills. Learn them and learn them well. But what a violinist (who is not also a fiddler) cannot teach you is style--the very heart and soul of Irish music (or indeed, of any kind of music). There are also many techniques that violinists are unfamiliar with and cannot teach, unless they are also fiddlers. At some point, having a teacher who doesn't know enough about Irish music can be positively damaging to your style. This is actually pretty important. Would you go to someone who specializes exclusively in impressionist painting to learn how to paint in a realist style? Of course not. So the question is: at what point, in your development on this instrument, is it important to have a teacher who can teach you an Irish fiddle style? That depends on how quickly you progress; if you progress quickly, then just a few months, and if more slowly, then perhaps a year. If there actually is an Irish fiddle teacher in your area, and you are set on learning Irish fiddle, go ahead and make the switch.

What to do if there aren't any Irish fiddler teachers in your area. Look on the bright side of things: this means that, if you want them, you can have the very best teachers of all. People like Tommy Peoples, Michael Coleman, John Doherty, Paddy Canny, etc. This is not a joke. I personally had no teacher after my first few months--just a few lessons and workshops here and there. I relied on my ear for training in Irish musical style. I like to think my style has not suffered the lack of a teacher, though no doubt I would have improved faster, and practiced fewer mistakes, if I had been taking lessons from someone who plays in the style I want to play. But it's practice and careful listening, with or without taking lessons, that makes for improvement in any case. Frankly (speaking as a fiddle teacher myself), for most fiddle students, far and away the most important function of a teacher is to motivate the student to practice. A really hard-"working" (practice is fun, not work!), self-motivated student, particularly one with the honesty and discipline to listen to him- or herself carefully and to learn from bits of advice gleaned here and there, would do better than an unmotivated student of the greatest teacher in the world.

For trained violinists: you can learn Irish music. For what it's worth, here is my "take"--bear in mind that while I learned classical music on piano, I never studied violin. If you're already a trained violinist yourself or a competent violin student, you already have the basics of the instrument. But the fact that you're a competent violinist does not mean that you will be able to play fiddle tunes in a stylistically attractive way from the start, and there might be some new technical challenges associated with some tunes, especially hornpipes and fast reels. Still, if you're interested in playing in a traditional style, or anything like what you've heard on recordings of Irish fiddling, it is entirely possible for you to learn the style. Many violinists have successfully made the transition to fiddling, from Irish-Americans and Americans like Winifred Horan and Liz Knowles to our own Columbus, Ohio locals like Sandy Jones and Deb Colon (to name just a few--many famous fiddlers have had at least some violin training). Traditional musicians like these would surely agree with me that one simply cannot learn an Irish style from a tunebook. Practically speaking, what it requires is, above all, careful and much listening to traditional Irish fiddling, learning by ear, and scrupulous attention to "unlearning" (or not using) certain habits of bowing and vibrato that violin training develops. It helps greatly to play with others, as well. Learning from an Irish fiddle teacher certainly won't hurt, and might help you to understand some aspects of the music that you might not grasp immediately by yourself.

The basic method of teaching yourself to play fiddle. It might seem remarkable that there is a simple, basic method to teaching yourself the fiddle, but I think there is such a method. It's mainly this: learn tunes by imitating fiddlers you have recordings of, and don't stop learning tunes. It's that simple. Both parts are important. Imitating other fiddlers will teach you a lot of technique and style, as long as you pay close attention to technique and style--paying attention is very important. It will help you greatly, too, if you seek out help along the way from other sources (learn all you can from good fiddlers!), and you again pay attention to and make use of the advice that you get. Anyway, continuing to learn new tunes will more or less guarantee that you continue to improve, since each new tune has something new to teach you. In learning the fiddle this way, you have a number of aids at your disposal, in addition to lessons, words of advice, workshops, fiddle camps, etc. In order of importance: (1) Your collection of recorded Irish traditional music. (2) A computer program that slows tunes down, or a half-speed tape recorder. (3) Books and other media that specifically teach Irish fiddling. I recommend Matt Cranitch's The Irish Fiddle Book; Peter Cooper's Mel Bay's Complete Irish Fiddle Player is excellent as well, and many techniques are explained, albeit not as systematically, in Paul McNevin's Complete Guide to Learning the Irish Fiddle. There's also the CD-ROM of teaching by Cathal Hayden available from "Mad for Trad". Two videotapes I have seen recommended are by Kevin Burke and Dale Russ. Other instructional books and tapes, from Ireland, are available as well. (4) Collections of transcriptions of Irish tunes (i.e., tunebooks). On the use of all of these aids, read on.

 


II. Approaching the music: psychology, listening, learning by ear, sheet music, style, sessions, and tunes.

The psychology of fiddle practice. There is a widespread mistake that would-be fiddlers (and other musicians) make: they are constantly listening for their mistakes. As though doing so would improve their playing! It is far more important to listen to the good sounds that you make. Pay attention to how you made those sounds, and what it felt like to make them. Progress in playing the fiddle, as with so much else in life, does not consist in learning how to avoid mistakes: it consists in learning how to play well. If you always focus on your mistakes you will not be focusing on the things you do well. As a result you will reinforce your mistakes and your motivation to practice will be drained. Worst of all, you will pass over the good things you do, which are just precisely the things that you should be learning from. For the same reasons, do not compare yourself to good fiddlers if you are not so good yourself yet. This serves no purpose and simply damages your motivation to practice. Why should you expect to sound like that anytime soon--or, indeed, ever? Why shouldn't we be able to have a lot of fun playing not-as-well-as-Kevin Burke? Of course, I don't mean you should literally ignore all your blunders; of course you'll know they happen, but I'm saying you have the choice not to dwell on them or consider them important. Just enjoy whatever nice sounds happen to come out of your fiddle; that's very, very important. I would say this is the single most important thing to remember about practicing, except for...

The absolute, utter, crucial importance of listening. Ask almost any good Irish musician what the most important thing to bear in mind is when learning traditional Irish music and you'll get this answer: Listen. Listen to the best fiddlers in the style you want to learn. When I was learning myself, I was told this repeatedly. When I asked Seamus Connolly (a great fiddler, in case you didn't know) what the most important thing was to bear in mind, when learning Irish traditional fiddle, he said simply, "Listen." Having listened in many cases since childhood to the "pure drop" is what makes even a mediocre Irish player's fiddling sound "Irish." Lack of adequate listening, or listening only to derivative, flashy new players, or arguably even having very eclectic listening habits, is what makes some other players' fiddling sound something not exactly Irish. So put on tapes and CDs of fiddle music when you're doing the dishes or any sort of busywork, or driving; you don't have to be paying close attention to benefit (though of course it helps to do that too sometimes). Listen as much as you can. I personally listen for many more hours than I spend playing, and I think this listening has paid off. So what will be the effect of listening? (1) You will become very familiar with lots of great tunes. Then you'll want to learn them, and they'll be easier to learn. (2) You will be regularly inspired to practice and play better yourself. (3) You will get your ear used to hearing just how many different sorts of sounds can be made with this instrument--and, as you squeak and squawk your way to perfection, you'll discover how those sounds can be made. (4) You will learn the style of Irish music that, presumably, inspired you to take up fiddle in the first place.

But whom to listen to? Solo, preferably unaccompanied fiddlers. It's possible--likely, if you're new to the tradition--that you've never heard such fiddling before. Believe me, the more you, yourself, play the more you will be able to appreciate just a lone fiddle playing away. The reason it's better to listen to solo fiddlers is that that way you can actually hear what they are doing. A lot is lost in the collective din if you're listening to a fiddle with a lot of accompaniment or a whole band. Look at the discographies in the back of the Cranitch and the Cooper fiddle tutor books for some good suggestions. More good suggestions can be found in the IRTRAD-L Favourite Albums Survey--see especially the fiddle section, and if you are interest to know what albums influenced others' musical development, the influential albums section. If you want to learn a "generic" Irish style (if there is such a thing) then you should listen a lot to such players as (in no particular order) Michael Coleman, James Kelly, Kevin Burke, Paddy Canny, Tommy Potts, Andy McGann, Frankie Gavin, John Doherty, Paddy Glackin, Tommy Peoples, and many others. In short, you'd probably have very eclectic listening (and imitating) habits. It would be a more focused set of fiddlers if you would like to specialize, e.g., in the Donegal style, or in the Clare style. In such a case, you'd have to find out what many of the "source recordings" of fiddling in such styles are. At any rate, getting acquainted with (and learning to appreciate fully) the greats can be a years-long, but very pleasant endeavor. I very strongly recommend that you start regarding music listening as an essential part of your musical training.

But where do I get this music? If you're not in Ireland or near some major Irish music outlet then the answer is obvious: mail order. If necessary, you can order direct from Ireland. There are lists of mail order places online. Lots of these mail order services have 800 numbers or e-mail addresses and you can order free catalogs from them. Get them and browse. If you're just starting out and are not entirely sold on learning Irish music specifically, consider ordering samplers from different music labels (Green Linnet, Claddagh, Gael Linn, Shanachie, etc.) or one of the gazillion collections of "Celtic" music -- just be forewarned that many "Celtic" collections are modernized, jazzed-up versions of the Real Thing. But you can get samplers of the more traditional stuff from Claddagh, Gael Linn, Green Linnet, and others, I believe. Another source are radio programs and sound files to be found online. Raidio na Gaeltachta often has programs of interest available for free downloading, and here's one from Connemara.

To non-Irish learners. I think perhaps the biggest challenge particular to non-Irish musicians is that, in the beginning, you may not yet have a very good understanding of the Irish traditional music. This was certainly the case with me, but I never assumed that I understood the tradition when I did not. That means I didn't have the additional hurdle that some people have, of not accepting that they don't understand the tradition. I used to meet Americans who seem offended by the very suggestion that they don't understand Irish fiddle music (isn't it all subjective?). Well, would you think you understood classical music if all you had heard were some Mozart and Beethoven, or listened to "Hooked on Classics" and "The Greatest Classical Music"-type collections? Of course not. Suffice it to say that you don't know what it is if the only Irish music you know is from Riverdance and Enya and, say, a few bands that you saw in concert or at a festival. Americans, even if you're familiar with very well-known Irish fiddlers in America, e.g., Martin Hayes, Eileen Ivers, Kevin Burke, and Liz Carroll (all great fiddlers!), and have seen others performing as part of tours to your part of the world, realize that that's only the surface of the Irish fiddle tradition, and indeed only the successful, well-marketed-in-America part of the surface. There is a whole world of Irish music which comes from Irish music labels such as Gael Linn and Claddagh--or, of course, from truly great musicians who haven't even been recorded commercially! The Irish musical tradition is very much alive and well in Ireland. At least before the Internet started connecting us so wonderfully, some non-Irish musicians who were starting out in this music failed to accept or appreciate that fact fully. It is a fact, and a very important one. You can go there and learn. The country itself is the source of this music: there are many great centers of Irish music outside of Ireland (notably, London, Boston, and New York City), but Ireland itself remains far and away the most important source of the music.

Learn tunes by ear. This is probably some of the hardest advice to take, but trust me, it really pays off: learn how to learn tunes by ear (i.e., memorize tunes by listening, without sheet music), and learn them that way as much as you can. Good fiddlers can and usually (if not always) learn this way, and for excellent reasons. If you're a beginner the prospects can be daunting of course. So you might want to begin with songs, mazurkas, waltzes, slowly played jigs and hornpipes, etc. Just try it with something simple at first. In fact, it's best just to try to play simple tunes you already know like "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" or your favorite simple Irish song. The more you do it the easier it will become--trust me on that. It's hardly impossible. You don't have to be a genius to do it. You don't even need any special or rare talent; you just need sufficient persistence.

"But I can't keep up with those blazing reels on my CDs!" Nobody expects you to. What's nice is that through the miracles of modern technology you can have really fast tunes slowed down to a speed from which you can learn. It's also nice to have adjustable pitch control so you can match people who have tuned up or down from concert pitch (without retuning yourself). I've seen a couple of different computer programs recommended that can quickly slow down tunes without changing pitch and which also have adjustable pitch control: Roni Music's The Amazing Slow Downer, and Transcribe from Seventh String Software. There are others, too, including one I use (though it's probably not as good as these): the free "Slow Me Down" plugin for the free audio player WinAmp. There are MP3 players that slow down music, as well. If you're still analog, half-speed Sony and Marantz tape recorders (I've got two myself) play tunes back at half speed and also have adjustable pitch control. A tape recorder's half-speed function, following the laws of physics, drops the tune by exactly one octave, which is not difficult to learn from. If you can't learn directly from a human being who plays the tunes slowly and can play the parts you haven't got yet--which means most people reading this--then you owe it to yourself to get one of these devices and make learning by ear that much easier. -- For more tips on how to learn by ear, please see below.

What is bad about learning from sheet music. Learning by ear is simply essential to learning Irish musical ornaments, lilt (rhythm and emphasis), phrasing, tone quality, and style generally; there's no other way to do it well. You can't learn it from sheet music. You'll discover that tunes that you learn by ear, you have memorized; memorization is often more difficult if you try to do it from sheet music. It's well-known that reading from sheet music uses a different part of the brain than that which you use in learning by ear. A lot of people I've known who have some experience with classical music unfortunately attempt to learn Irish music by learning primarily from sheet music. This is often the case with violinists who are trying to learn to play the fiddle. You can hear it in their playing, too. They play the notes but they lack the style that inspires people to take up Irish music in the first place. You cannot learn the style from notes on a page. As Caoimhin Mac Aoidh often quotes someone as saying: "Would you go into a museum and smell the paintings?" No! You use the proper sense modality to appreciate and to learn an art form. In this case the proper sense modality is hearing. It's understandable if you learn a lot of tunes from sheet music when you're just beginning. But get away from that as soon as you can. Remember, this is an "aural" (passed on by ear) tradition and for that very reason there is a lot about the music that can be learned only by ear. (There's more that can be said on this subject of course.)

What is good about learning from sheet music. With the foregoing warnings out of the way, let me say that there is one thing that sheet music is uniquely suited to do for you. If you spend hours sight-reading randomly-selected tunes in fat tunebooks like O'Neill's, I've discovered that one can rapidly improve one's ability to play such tunes. No, you will not learn much about the style this way, but of course you know that this is only a technique-building exercise. (It also familiarizes you with tunes.) It's not unlike doing exercises when practicing classical violin. The point is that you will be exposed to all sorts of different ways that your fingers and bow must be contorted. If you practice sight-reading to the point where you can play a tune at a moderate speed that way, you have de facto given yourself a leg up on mastering some basic technical challenges of Irish fiddling.

Tunebooks to buy? My favorites are O'Neill's 1850 and O'Neill's 1001 Gems (two different books with some common content; I wouldn't bother getting the version edited by Miles Krassen), widely considered the Bibles of Irish music; Bulmer and Sharpley, Music of Ireland (full of great session tunes in good settings; recently reprinted I understand); Breathnach, Ceol Rince na hEireann (4 vols., scholarly and classic); Sullivan, Irish Traditional Music (3 vols., also called "Sullivan's Session Tunes"); for Donegal tunes, Feldman and Doherty, The Northern Fiddler, (out of print) and the tunebooks edited by Caoimhin Mac Aoidh available from Cairdeas na bhFidleiri; and I have a soft spot for Ryan's Mammoth Collection re-released by Mel Bay (but most of the settings are out-of-date). Other peoples' lists would differ but I think most would agree that the O'Neill's books and Ceol Rince are among the best. In addition to these, there are a lot of newer, pretty good tunebooks; see, just for example, the Elderly Instruments catalog listing. I haven't really studied many of the new ones, so I can't make many recommendations; I've heard good things about the Waltons series. Also, I have the "Music for the Sets" series of six cassettes published in the late 1980s by The Piper's Club of Dublin (Na Piobairi Uilleann), and I can recommend those cassettes very highly. They come with a set of tunebooks as well, transcribing all the tunes; I haven't seen those, but if they're good transcriptions, they're bound to be good books.

Get yer free tunes here... There are a lot of tunes for free that you can get online, especially if you can read "abc" notation (see the abc home page). But be careful. Some people have put up abcs and the transcriptions have mistakes, or the player transcribed wasn't worth transcribing (or not nearly as much as some others are). And unfortunately a lot of the time you (especially if you're a beginner) just can't detect these problems from the abc notation alone. You'll be far better off, in my opinion, if you load up on reputable, published tunebooks, if you must have a lot of sheet music ("just say no"), than you'll be if you download reams of abcs. (By the way, this is not to deny that there are some sites that contain a high percentage of very reliable, very interesting transcriptions. You simply have to be discriminating if you are to find them. Perhaps the thing to do is to get advice from a good player about particular sites.)

On style. Seventy-five years ago there was no such thing as a "generic Irish style." If you played traditional Irish fiddle, then necessarily you played a local style, one that differed considerably from that played in the next townland or county over--a style that probably had a great deal of character and "soul." The advent of recording technology changed the situation considerably, and especially since Michael Coleman's 78's were spread throughout the country, an Irish stylistic hybrid, called (sometimes derogatorily) "session style," has become more and more common. More recently there have been considerable efforts by some players to recapture some of the older, regional or even local styles. I would be remiss not to mention the very unique, individual styles which can neither be called regional nor "session" styles; e.g., Tommy Potts. Some of them are great fiddlers and well worth listening to, of course.

Why style is important to think about. Think about the difference between a great concert violinist and a great fiddler, like Tommy Peoples. Both players obvious masters of their instrument; but if the concert violinist tries to play "The Oak Tree" after one has heard Tommy's version on The High Part of the Road, one hears an enormous difference. The difference is style. Style is what makes you love one fiddler while another leaves you shrugging. For this reason, if you really want to play the fiddle, you should think about style. Playing fiddle without knowing what style you're aiming at--to use another painting analogy--is like dabbing paint on canvas without knowing whether you want to be an impressionist or a realist. You can go only so long improving in your technical ability on this instrument, before further significant progress will consist mainly of stylistic progress.

So what style to learn? The style you eventually end up playing will be a result of the choices you make, about what to learn conscientiously and who to listen to. If you are a newcomer either to the music or to the instrument, the choices you make right now can greatly affect what you'll sound like later on. So what style you should choose to pursue? Answer: you can always just leave it to chance, but if you'd rather not, try learning the style that you will like to listen to best yourself. But you won't know which one that is until your taste is well-informed; of course, tastes can change a lot as you are exposed to any new style of art. So one excellent reason to buy a lot of fiddle CDs and tapes is to get an idea of what you want to sound like. It is possible for players today, including people with scanty Irish heritage, to learn older regional styles from Ireland. You are not at all limited to the styles played by people who live near you. Just for example, I try to play in a something like a Donegal style. Some friends of mine say that they are drawn primarily to the Sliabh Luachra style (from the Cork/Kerry border), and others go in for the East Clare style. Let a thousand flowers bloom, I say! If you choose a "session" style, then have at it; it will, after all, be easier for you to play with many other Irish musicians in Ireland and elsewhere. I am not specifically trying to discourage you. I simply think you should realize that you are making a choice and that there are many other choices out there.

"But isn't specializing in this day and age rather insincere?" There is one common opinion about style that I think is unequivocally a mistake, a simple thought mistake. It is the view that, since one is living in modern times with access to all sorts of music, it is somehow more "sincere" or "honest" to let one's playing be influenced by all sorts of fiddling--and correspondingly, not fully sincere to imitate one specific regional tradition such as the West Clare tradition. That is an inference and it just doesn't follow. Developing your playing in some very specific stylistic direction, whether a regional style or in imitation of a great unique fiddler like Tommy Peoples, can result in deeply-felt, good music. In my experience, too many fiddlers, even technically excellent fiddlers, who attempt to learn many distinct styles at once do not succeed in sounding convincing playing any of them. My advice is to learn the one you like best and branch out later. Learning the fiddle is challenging enough as it is without your having to do what many masterful fiddlers cannot do, i.e., play convincingly in two (or more) distinct styles. "In my humble opinion."

A reason to specialize. The reason I (and many others) pursue Irish traditional music is that we hear something in it that is particularly beautiful, so beautiful that it is worth producing ourselves. That's the gist of it. The reason that I and many others dislike (some, or most) fusions of Irish music with other kinds of music is that the fusions tend to dilute and show little sensitivity to the very aspects of the music that cause us to love it. I love Scottish music as well. The reason I don't try to play it is that I don't think I can play both Irish and Scottish music well. I believe I can play well (in a way that I particularly like) only one style of music. When one tries to learn more than one style, the result, in one's playing, will very probably be not nearly as nice as each influence on its own. I think widespread experience bears my opinion out. Consequently I have chosen one particular tradition (the Donegal fiddle tradition) that I liked most of all; and I'm trying to master it. (And there is an astonishing amount of variety just within that one tradition, so much so that some have doubted that it constitutes a single identifiable "tradition.") So the point is this: you may love Irish music, and Scottish music, etc., but the unhappy fact is that you will probably not be able to play all of those kinds of music in the manner that makes you love them so much. You can try, and you might succeed in making nice music, true; but my prediction is that you won't succeed in making the sort of music that attracted you to Irish music, when you attempt to play Irish tunes yourself. That's just too hard.

Specializing within the Irish tradition. Some people, even some people who are pretty good fiddlers, seem to think it's possible to have a "Donegal" bag of tricks they use on some tunes, and a separate "Clare" bag of tricks they use on others; they like to say that they can play in several distinct Irish styles. (Donegal and Clare are two counties associated with particular Irish styles.) But we're back to the issues we discussed above, only on a smaller scale. Is it possible for the same person to be able to play some tunes in a Clare style and others in a Donegal style? Maybe--probably, for some people. But I've heard some people try and I wasn't convinced. What happens is that they use more triplets on the Donegal tunes and then call that their "Donegal" style; but of course the ornamentation alone (or any single aspect of technique) does not make the style. Style is very complex. My hat is off to anyone can play more than one Irish style convincingly. I suspect that most people who try end up with a sort of hybrid, or combined style. The result still sounds Irish but it's not specifically locatable. An example would be Kevin Burke. He grew up musically in London where there was a melting pot of Irish styles. It's beautiful music, with a variety of traditional Irish influences. Anyway, enough about that.

Playing in sessions. A session is a group of musicians--not, usually, a band--sitting down just to play some tunes they have in common. If you live in Ireland, or elsewhere in a city of large enough size, chances are there is an Irish music session meeting regularly near you. If you live in Dublin, Galway, New York, Boston, Chicago, London, or some other places, there are many sessions weekly, and sometimes several daily. That means you can go down to a pub and watch some musicians of varying levels of accomplishment going at it live in person! It's great! And when you get good enough you should join them! There are also some "slow" sessions, set up especially for beginning players; they can be fun too.

Some "rules" for playing in sessions. Each session tends to have its own unofficial "rules," and some rules are common to almost all sessions. There are many available descriptions of session etiquette, and the following I'd say that, for beginners who are very concerned about embarrassing themselves (a major concern for some), the best advice is: if you don't know what you're doing or what's going on, sit down and listen. No one minds a listener. To a lot of experienced musicians, sessions are serious fun. Beginners are welcome and expected to sit back, enjoy, and learn. Unless you're unusual, you probably shouldn't be playing in any regular sessions in your first year or two of playing. There are "slow" ("beginner," "turtle") sessions, though, which are another matter, of course: some of them you can join in within a few months of starting. You can learn a lot from a good session, just sitting right outside the session circle and paying attention. (That's what I did when I was starting out. It was great fun, really!) Some other unofficial "rules" or advice, particularly for beginning fiddlers thinking of joining in a session, might include:

Session tunes. If you want to play in a session, you're going to have to learn the tunes they play there. Tunes that are commonly played in many different sessions are known as "session tunes." For better or worse, if you get into Irish fiddling very deeply, you're going to learn a lot of these tunes. Most experienced Irish traditional musicians know at least 500 tunes--and some know considerably more than that, upwards of 1500 or 2000. This may sound impossible to the beginner. But the more tunes you learn, the more you'll understand how and why this is indeed possible. (Just start learning tunes, and don't stop!) Anyway, a fairly large subset of these tunes can be called "session tunes." It's moderately important that you to know which tunes these are (not to say the set of "session tunes" doesn't change; it does, albeit slowly, over the years, and tunes commonly played can vary considerably from place to place). That knowledge will come in a number of different ways. (1) Attending good sessions. (2) Reading the titles of tunes in books labelled "session tunes" or that contain many session tunes. (Most tunebooks do, but a handful decidedly do not.) (3) Noticing that certain tunes are very often recorded (those are often, though not always, session tunes), or very often transcribed in different tune books. (4) Getting clued into which of the many classic Irish traditional music recordings contain a large preponderance of "session tunes." These include: the recorded works of Micheal Coleman, Joe Cooley, Seamus Ennis, and others; anything by the Bothy Band; early records from the Chieftains; and particular albums, like Tommy Peoples' The High Part of the Road and Paddy Glackin and Paddy Keenan, Doublin'.

How to decide what tune to learn next. But this raises the general question: how do I decide what tune to learn next? There is obviously no consensus about this, because virtually no two experienced musicians' tunelists coincide perfectly. Everyone has to come to grips with the problem. But the following might help. Why do you want to learn tunes at all? Consider some different reasons. (1) You want to play in the local session. (2) You want to play in most Irish sessions (not just the local one(s)). (3) You want to learn a particular regional style, or the style of a particular player. (4) You want to be able to play with a particular person, or with a band. (5) Last but certainly not least, you want to play tunes that you really like. How you decide what tunes to learn depends on what your priorities among these reasons are. The more you want to play in a regional style, the more regional tunes you should learn. The more you want to play in the local session, the more local session tunes you should learn. And so forth. -- Beginners be forewarned, the decision here is not inconsequential. Suppose you decide to learn only tunes you personally love to pieces. If you take that as your conscious policy, you might find yourself after a few years with a raft of nice tunes that no one else can play (this happens sometimes); and you may discover at that time that you want to be able to play with others a lot more than you can. Or by contrast with that, suppose you decide to concentrate solely on local session tunes. Not surprisingly, after a few years you are able to play along with many, or maybe even all, of the tunes played at the local session. That's great; your playing mates are probably very impressed. But then you might be asking yourself: do I really like the style I've developed by learning just these tunes with these people? And: aren't there a lot of very exciting tunes that I'm ignoring, because they happen not to be played locally? And: what happens when I go to visit Dublin, or some other place that plays a completely different set of tunes? -- Anyway, this is all just food for thought. (More on learning tunes below.)

 


III. Improving technique.

Technique and style. Style is one thing, and technique is another. A good fiddler is decent in both categories. But if you have to be weak in one area, be weak in technique. I must agree with a friend of mine who says that she'd rather listen to a stylistically excellent fiddler with relatively poor technique than to a technically "perfect" fiddler with no style. It's not for nothing that I and other traditional musicians listen to a lot of old, maybe-sometimes-a-bit-scratchy-sounding fiddlers. While some of these old players did and do indeed have decent technique, it's certainly not polished in the way of a lot of technically polished fiddlers--fiddlers that I hardly ever listen to, because I find their playing less interesting. I listen to those grand old fiddlers because they had style coming out of their ears, and the result was extremely pleasing to listen to. All this being said, good technique is important. Perhaps technique is important for no other reason than that certain aspects of a pleasing style cannot be achieved without the ability to play the fiddle up to a certain technical standard. But at any rate, you've got to learn good intonation, rhythm, facility with the bow, and so forth, to be able to sound the way you'd like to sound.

I've learned a number of "tricks" or aids to improving technique, and here they are.

Use a metronome. Before you skip this paragraph in horror, let me state two great results of using a metronome: (1) improved rhythm (poor rhythm is a very common problem), and (2) ability to force yourself to play slowly. I say this from experience, both learning myself and teaching. If you have problems speeding up or keeping a nice danceable rhythm, practice with a metronome for half (or--do as I've done--almost all!) of your fiddle practice for three months, and I guarantee you will see dramatic improvement. Get a metronome, and make sure you can hear it. It might be that many people don't like metronomes simply that they can't hear the clicks, so it's too easy to get off beat. The solution is to use ear- or headphones, or put the thing next to your ear on a shelf. Make sure it's not clicking too fast or too slow when you're first learning how to use it. One thing that biases many people against metronomes is that they cannot stay right on the beat, which is frustrating. If that's your situation--and it probably will be at first--just find the right speed for you (usually quite slow), and remember that playing with the metronome is a skill that requires practice. Keep at it, and eventually, you'll get it. Note, the whole point of using a metronome is to develop your internal timing--i.e., to get yourself to the point where you don't need it. So remember, too, to practice without the metronome while listening for a good, steady rhythm. Playing along with a live person with good time, or a recording of someone with good timing, and paying attention to "keeping even" with the music, is also very good practice. Note: unless you play the note that falls on the beat right with the metronome's click, you probably won't experience the benefit of playing with the metronome. It is very important that you (eventually) stay perfectly even with the metronome. It takes some practice before you can do this consistently, but most people can get it (everyone, I dare say, with enough practice). Remember that that is the aim: you're not fully prepared for your metronome work until you can stay perfectly even with the metronome!

Tap your foot. This will improve your rhythm. Remember, this is dance music; it should have a steady, driving beat and not speed up (a common problem) or slow down appreciably. Practically all good fiddlers I have ever seen regularly, if not always, tap their feet. (A few don't do it so often.) It won't necessarily "come naturally" to you at first: you'll have to work at it in the beginning. But later on it'll come without thought. Just bear in mind that your foot requires rhythm training just as your bow arm and fingers do--so train your foot-tapping by tapping your foot along as you play with the metronome or with another person!

The use of a tuner. When learning, I have sometimes used an electronic tuner not just to check whether my open strings are in tune but also to check whether my intonation is right. Some fiddlers recommend against doing this, but my experience is that it can be very helpful, so long as you are careful to play the notes long and clearly (to give the tuner time to find your tone), and so long as you regard it as a method of training your ear. (The other half of the meaning of "Listen!" is "Listen to yourself.") One useful procedure is to play scales while watching the tuner, repositioning your fingers, and paying attention to the tactile sensation, physical position, as well as the simple sound of the note. This is, like the metronome, a crutch to be thrown away later when not needed, or when it becomes an actual impediment. Many people are not born with a good sense of pitch; their ears need to be trained. Use of a tuner is just one of the most straightforward ways to do it. Other ways include the old tape-on-the-fingerboard, which is of questionable long-term value (it's a useful crutch in the first few months, but you'll still have to learn it the hard way later!), and simply trying to pay attention to how close you are in tune when playing with another person (whose intonation is good!). There are CDs that purport to teach ear training and intonation, too.

Other intonation advice. Play a scale in the key of the tune you're about to play, before you play it. Make sure the intonation in the scale is right (with a tuner, probably), before you launch into the tune. This will help remind you exactly where the fingers should be going. This is another good way to develop good intonation.

By the way, I've seen several common intonation problems:

Play in front of a mirror. A common error of beginners is to play with the bow not at a perpendicular angle to the strings, i.e., not parallel with the bridge. It is very important to recognize this mistake if you are making it, because it almost invariably results in a relatively raspy, weak tone. The good news is that it's not hard to correct. My experience with my students is that the problem tends to be solved within the first six months of playing; if not, you're simply not working to correct the problem. You simply have to watch yourself in a mirror. If you need to, spend half your practice time in front of your mirror. Set a mirror up in your practice spot for this purpose. What should you watch for? Make sure your bridge appears straight-on in the mirror; then you'll know that your bow should appear perfectly parallel with the bridge, that is, not at an angle to the bridge. As long as the bridge appears straight on in the mirror, you can detect any deviance from parallel. Note: if you are just looking at the mirror holding your fiddle at any old angle to it, you won't be able to tell whether your bow is slightly off from parallel. Your frog should be, when you are in this stance, at a 90 degree angle to the mirror and to your strings. Play on all four strings, taking long strokes and shorts strokes, and using the entire length of the bow. Also, practice all string crossings from the tip to the frog of the bow in this stance. (One can easily change the bowing angle with a string crossing.) The more you practice this way, the easier it will be to play with your bow going across the strings consistently at the correct angle. After a while you won't need to play in front of the mirror at all.

Check your bow hold. Are you holding your bow "correctly"? That question sounds like exactly the sort of niggling concern that drove you to fiddle instead of violin, right? Unfortunately for that point of view, however, a poor bow hold can make a difference, and correcting it can lead to significant improvements in your playing. The biggest bow hold problem for beginners is the failure to keep the thumb at a ninety degree angle to the stick, so that the nail is more or less aimed at the stick itself. If the fleshy part of the thumb is pressed against the stick, that tightens up the thumb muscle as well as the rest of the hand, making it harder to keep your hand flexible (see below), which is very important. Keeping that thumb bent, so that nail is pointed at the stick and the first joint is at a 90 degree angle pointed away from the stick, will help keep the hand loose. It might seem uncomfortable at first, but you'll get used to it quickly and it's worth it.

Keep your right wrist flexible. Another common error of beginners is to play from the shoulder or the elbow, and not with what is generally called a "loose wrist." This is a misleading term, partly because the looseness is actually in the hand as much as in the wrist, and partly because the point isn't that your right wrist should be loose but that it should be flexible enough make smooth changes of bow direction and to keep your bow parallel to the bridge from the "G" string all the way to the "E" string, and regardless of whether you're playing near the tip or near the frog of the bow. The best way to loosen your wrist, in my opinion, is to play in front of a mirror and to watch scrupulously for any deviance from parallel (see above). The laws of geometry dictate that your wrist must bend if you're to use much of your bow! (Which you should do!) Another way to "loosen" your wrist is to play with a book under your right elbow, or with your elbow against a wall. Your shoulder will be immobilized, and you will have to move your wrist and your elbow at the same time in order to make any good sound on your fiddle! Finally, it can help to remember the image of a swan's neck; when playing near the frog, your wrist should be bent upward, and when playing near the tip, your wrist should be bent in the opposite direction; going from one end of the bow to the other, your wrist should smoothly and gradually bend one way and then the opposite way. This smooth movement you can practice without a bow or fiddle at all; it won't be smooth at first, so you will have to practice it before it comes out right.

Check your left hand position. There are two things to bear in mind when evaluating your left hand position. First, the wrist should not be completely collapsed; violinists insist on keeping it rigidly straight, but whatever you do, don't collapse it so far that you are actually supporting the neck of the fiddle with the heel of your hand. That tends to tighten up the hand and make it less flexible and versatile (it certainly makes it harder to slide into positions, when you're ready to do that). Holding up the fiddle with the heel of your hand also requires the fingers to curl around more severely. Straightening out your wrist will make it much easier for you to arch your fingers over the fingerboard and place your fingertips directly onto the strings. The latter, by the way, is necessary for both good tone (the fingertips create a definite stop to the string) and for good intonation, so it's pretty much mandatory. And if that's mandatory, then so is not collapsing your wrist.

Second, make sure that your left thumb is cocked outward, with the fleshy part of the thumb pressed against the left side of the neck of the fiddle. Under no circumstances should your thumb be pressed against the rest of your hand--something that I've seen a couple of times in beginners, and which severely hampers the flexibility of the left hand, making it much harder to play. Generally speaking (there are exceptions to all of these rules), a fiddler supports the fiddle at four points: the chest/collarbone, the chin (which cantilevers the fiddle), the fleshy part of the left thumb, and the fleshy part of the hand just below the pointer finger. There should be a little open space below the neck, between the hand and the neck.

How to learn a tune by ear from a recording. Here's a basic procedure that has worked for me. Obviously it's not the only way to do it. Preliminary note: if you're a beginner (at least), I do recommend you try to learn your model's ornaments and specific version as closely as you can, for a while, at least. You'll change the way you play the tune, unwittingly, soon enough, simply because you cannot remember what you heard, and besides, you can't help but be yourself. I think this is one of the best ways to learn an Irish style--it's not unlike apprenticeship. Bear in mind, though, that perhaps not everyone would agree with this advice; it is regarded by some as a cardinal sin of traditional music to "ape" another musician. I agree with that as far as it goes, I would simply add that it's hard to become a traditional musician without monkeying around with other people's music a bit! Anyway, here's a procedure I've used for learning tunes by ear:

  1. Pick a tune to learn that you have heard many times before. (At least when you're new to learning tunes by ear, don't try to learn tunes that you've never or rarely heard before. That can be much harder.)
  2. Put that tune on while you make some tea, or play with your dog, or whatever, and listen to it several times. (If you want to learn a whole block of tunes, put them all on together one after another and replay the block for a half-hour or more: that speeds up the learning process a lot.)
  3. Slow the tune down (using whatever method available to you: tape recorder, software, or other device) and listen to it, more carefully, a few times at that speed. (You're getting ready to play it now.)
  4. As to the next step, you're faced with an option: (a) launch right in and by brute force try to play it over and over, or (b) learn the tune phrase-by-phrase, stopping the tape after each phrase. I myself am inconsistent at this point and use a combination of these two methods. For easy tunes I find the first way quicker; harder tunes definitely require at least some learning phrase-by-phrase.
  5. At some point, stop the tape entirely and try to play the tune without the music at all. This is important to making sure you actually know the tune and are not just depending on the recording. Identify the areas you don't have yet and go back and learn those specifically. Repeat until you can play the tune slowly, by yourself, without any misplaced notes.
  6. When you can play the tune several times over at half speed note-for-note with the recording--congratulations, you've learned the tune! Now make a point of learning very well how the tune starts. Make sure you memorize those first few notes perfectly. Then you'll find it much easier to start on demand.
  7. But you'll want to practice again with the recording several hours later, or the next day; and then again a week later, and occasionally after that. Without this extended repetition, you may lose the tune. Then all you have to do is work it up to speed...for instructions on that, see below.

How to really spruce up your playing of a tune. Here is a basic drill I use some.

  1. Play a tune you have learned (but have not entirely mastered) a few times at your "top speed" (i.e., the speed beyond which your playing gets really sloppy).
  2. Set the metronome for at most half that speed (or even the slowest setting on your metronome). Drill the tune for as many times as it takes to play it several times through without significant mistake, until you're absolutely sure you can play it easily at that speed without any mistake. (What constitutes a "significant mistake" depends in part on your level of playing.)
  3. Increase metronome speed by 10 bpm (beats per minute). Drill the tune until mistake-free as before. (Some would recommend increasing the metronome speed by smaller increments, depending on how difficult the tune is.)
  4. Repeat (3) until you reach a point where you can't play the tune any faster without significant mistake.

This whole rigmarole may mean (and for me, has meant) that you'll be playing the same blasted tune for an hour or more. But it is truly effective. The more you do it the better you'll get. Not just at playing that tune but at playing all tunes. That's an observation I've made of my own playing, anyway. Notice that just because you are playing a tune relatively fast today, you will benefit from going through the same process tomorrow, with the same tune. (This same gradual speeding-up can be done playing along with certain computer programs that will slow down tunes for you; that's probably better than a metronome!)

Practice tunes slowly. Even tunes you know fairly well. As you get better you might have a tendency to want to play "up to speed" all the time--but then you end up practicing your mistakes up to speed, which might be more damaging than helpful. Now, surely it's useful to practice playing fast sometimes (I doubt it's possible to learn how to play fast without sometimes practicing playing fast). But for anyone who has played more than a few months, such practice isn't what's difficult--what's difficult is getting yourself to slow down to the point where you can play a tune with relatively few mistakes (or even perfectly). You will improve your technique greatly if you do this a lot. You will play more smoothly and cleanly, and your friends, family, and pets will like you better.

How to learn new techniques. When the great fiddler James Kelly came to my hometown for a concert, workshop, and sessions, he pointedly emphasized something to me: much improvement on the fiddle consists in improving technique, and the very best way to improve technique is to focus on the thing you want to improve, and practice it over and over and over and over again, slowly and carefully. It really is as simple as that, he said, and I have found that to be the case in my own experience, repeatedly. Most people already have been told what the basic moves are involved in a roll, triplet, etc. (You can find such explanations in fiddle tutor books and on videos.) Most people know, from one source or another, what they have to do, and they know roughly what it should sound like, but they can't do it yet.

If that is your situation (as it probably is, with regard to one problem or another!), James Kelly's advice suggests basically a one-size-fits-all solution to your problem: do whatever it is you want to do in absolute slow-motion, but perfectly, over and over again. Do not attempt to execute the technique at speeds at which you aren't capable; you won't learn anything that way. Get to like the idea of making sheer noise with the fiddle. Playing fifty rolls slowly on different strings is going to sound like sheer noise soon enough! But making noise can be relaxing, like meditation. (Don't concentrate too hard when you do it!) Anyway, the point is that if you can do something slowly, it's simply then a matter of increasing the speed. The only way to learn to make a bowed triplet (basically, two staccato sixteenth notes followed by an eighth) sound as good as Tommy Peoples', or John Doherty's, is to start by playing the notes very slowly and just keep at it, not increasing the speed past a point where it sounds well. Be patient for long enough and your patience will pay off big dividends. Once you have mastered the triplet at a basic level, you don't have to relearn it (though you might have to spruce it up from time to time, as it were); you've got it for the rest of your playing life! So you might as well, from the beginning, get it right so you don't have to unlearn bad habits. There's no hurry; you've got the rest of your lifetime to learn.

Watch some good Irish fiddlers play. It's an excellent idea to travel to Ireland, or to wherever there are really great Irish fiddlers going at it. (Videos are, to some extent, adequate substitutes--but really no match for the real thing in a weeklong fiddle school, for instance.) You can learn at least one important thing from watching good fiddlers in action. You can get a real physical sense for how they hold the fiddle and how they move the bow across the strings; this can only be seen, it cannot be heard. If you see good fiddlers playing enough then you will have a sort of mental image of what it looks like to make good music. That can be helpful in making good music yourself!

 


IV. A few notes on ornamentation, bowing, and variation.

Start learning ornamentation early, but don't "practice your mistakes." Others may disagree, but I think the sooner you start learning ornamentation, the better. It is possible to have a perfectionist approach to learning music, which might advise you not to try ornamentation until you've been playing for a while and can get it perfect; but I suspect that, unless you have played another instrument or otherwise have trained fingers, you're going to make a lot of mistakes before you get ornamentation consistently right. Besides, as long as you're practicing slowly enough (which you should be doing, if you're a relative beginner), many ornaments aren't actually that difficult to execute. Bear in mind, you shouldn't "practice your mistakes," which, applied to ornamentation, means that you should make sure you know what the ornament should sound like, how to execute it, and whether you're executing it correctly.  If you notice your rolls are consistently incorrect, for example, I recommend against continuing to play tunes with those incorrect rolls--that is a perfect example of "practicing your mistakes." What I recommend is that you either (1) leave out the rolls, or (2) (much preferably) slow down until you can play the rolls correctly, or correctly most of the time.

Learn by listening, and drill slowly. The best way to learn ornamentation is to have a good musician demonstrate it to you carefully and correct your attempts to replicate it. Another way, also essential, is to listen closely to recordings of fiddling, paying special attention to the cuts, rolls, triplets, double stops, etc. Books, videos, CDs, and workshops, help explain things nicely as well. Even equipped with those tools, it will help to slow down the recordings and pay special attention to the attack, internal timing, crispness, etc., that characterizes the ornament you're studying. For purposes of learning any ornament, as explained above, drilling slowly is the single best way to do that. Again, the more you like making noise, the better motivated you'll be to do this (necessary) sort of practice!

Many types of ornaments. Explanations of ornamentation in fiddle tutor books are, sometimes, a little misleading in that they might lead you to believe there is limited set of kinds of ornaments. The list seems to be approximately the following: grace notes, cuts, double cuts, short and long rolls, triplets, and slides. In fact, there are many other kinds of ornaments as well, many of them having no name. Part of what distinguishes a fiddler's style is, often, the sort of ornaments he or she uses or doesn't use.  For instance, by choice, James Byrne uses very few rolls, long or short; but he does use a distinctive pattern that combines a cut followed by three slurred notes, notated in ABC like this, for example: ({d}BAB). James might play this when someone else would play a long roll on the B. To take another example, some Clare fiddlers, such as Martin Hayes, use many bluesy slides (starting a note from about a half-tone below and sliding up to the note), whereas others use hardly any at all--Anyway, with this caveat, I'll present some observations and opinions about ornamentation.

Triplets. Bowed triplets, or trebles, when played alone (i.e., not in a string of ascending or descending triplets, as in a hornpipe), consist of two sharp, staccato sixteenth notes (semiquavers) followed by an eighth note (quaver). They are not played as triplets are played in classical music, i.e., each note receiving one-third of the total value; the proportion is 25%, 25%, 50%. But this is only a general rule, because there is a range of styles of triplets, from very hard and scratchy, in which it is hard to distinguish the individual notes (e.g., Tommy Peoples), to a more evenly-spaced style in which one can make out each note of the triplet clearly (I think of Paddy Killoran).

Strings of triplets. Hornpipes, strathspeys, and highlands are famous for featuring technically-difficult strings of triplets. I myself have received different pieces of advice for improving the playing of these, but one thing seems to be regarded, by some at least, as divine law: they must be played with a single bow (changing bow direction with each note). Unfortunately, this can be achieved only by dint of long, slow, repetitious drilling. Note that some musicians play the triplets evenly (each note receives one-third of the beat), when they come in strings, whereas others play them like jigs, with the first note held a little longer than the second and third. This seems to be a matter of taste.

Rolls. Long rolls are played in the space of three eighth notes (quavers), short rolls in the space of two. Everybody's got an opinion about rolls--I'll make just a few observations. First, the most common problem I have observed is that some people play rolls something like this: B{d}AB (the {} means a grace note, a note played very quickly), instead of this: B{d}B{A}B. In other words, a roll well-played involves playing the main note (here, B) three times, and a common problem is that fiddlers drop the second time. To avoid this, it is important to practice rolls very slowly, making sure all the notes are played (even if they are barely heard). Second, as with triplets, there are different ways of executing the internal rhythm of a roll. Some people tend to even out the last four notes of the roll: B(4dBAB, but at least for purposes of learning, I think it is better to begin by thinking of (long) rolls as a three notes from a jig, that is, swung so that the first note is sounded longest, then cut up by ornaments rather than bow-strokes--something like this: B>{d}B{A}B.

Cuts, etc. The largest variety of ornamentation can be found in the many ways to tap a finger on (or briefly lift it off) the string, just enough to interrupt the main note. A master of this was John Doherty. You can find explanations of "cuts" and "double cuts" etc. in Matt Cranitch's fiddle tutor, which is an excellent place to start. Cuts are used for various purposes: to cut up two instances of the same note, to embellish/trill the important notes, to add percussive emphasis to a note, or to act as part of a larger ornament. But here as with all ornamentation it is very important to listen to examples, because where a cut is placed, relative to the main note, whether it is preceded by a slur, which finger is used to make the cut, and what function the cut is used for, are things that are difficult to learn from a book (or webpage!) and are probably better learned in context of music itself.

Double stops. Double stops (playing on two strings at once) has at least two sorts of purposes: more commonly, to emphasize a note with harmony, and less commonly, to act as a drone. Not all fiddle styles make much use of double stops, but most use it to some extent. One difficulty about double stops for the novice (and sometimes more experienced players!) is intonation--it is particularly easy to hear bad intonation when one uses double stops. To practice this, locate each note on its own, and then play them together. Start with something easy, in any case: when a tune has a long "D" on the A string, dip down and play the open D.  That's not too hard. Bear in mind that to sound clean (of course, not everyone cares so much about sounding clean), you'll usually want to start both notes of the chord at the same time. Another tip is to get into the habit of, occasionally, playing "unison double stops," i.e., an open string (E, A, or D) together with the same note played with the fourth finger on the string below. This helps build fourth finger strength and intonation, which is nice to have. It also adds an effective "punch" to certain notes you want to emphasize.

Some ornamentation is essential, but not all ornamentation is essential. In my opinion, an Irish-sounding style requires using some ornamentation. Not just learning but also encorporating ornamentation into your playing is essential to having a nice-sounding style. But this does not mean that you need to learn and encorporate all kinds of ornamentation. As a musical acquaintance of mine once observed, a large part of the old-sounding styles he liked depended precisely on their not using certain kinds of ornamentation and other techniques!

Should one work out exact bowings? An essential part of any violin or fiddle style is bowing. There are some people, such as Liz Carroll or Washington, D.C.-area fiddle teacher Philippe Varlet, who sometimes say they carefully work out exact bowings. Others, such as Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh and James Kelly, have said they hardly know or think about what their bows are doing; simply being immersed in enough fiddle music is enough to make the bowing aspect seem obvious to them. Unfortunately, neither of these "extremes" is very helpful to the beginner. Learning an exact bowing script necessarily tends to ossify the setting of the tune, when variation is the lifeblood of a traditional style. Besides, their own playing puts the lie to the notion that Liz and Philippe are always bowing the same way, and of course they would deny that they bow the tune in the same way every time, if the question were put straight like that. Indeed they must use a whole variety of bowings, because they do vary their own playing quite a bit--as any good fiddler does. Similarly, it is possible to observe Mairead and James playing and detect a good many patterns in their playing. In fact, I seriously doubt that one could, just by observing a fiddler playing, determine whether he or she has actually worked out specific bowings.

There's no agreed-upon basic bowing style. What own basic advice to my students--based on my own predilection for the Donegal style, so this advice is probably not generally-applicable--is that the standard bowing pattern is one bow per note, and any slur must have some sort of justification (see below). I was told by Donegal fiddler James Byrne, and understand that Francie Byrne and John Doherty said similar things, that in the Donegal style one should play the note falling on the beat with an up-bow. A person playing a different sort of style, particularly Clare and Sliabh Luachra styles, would probably reject all this advice and claim instead that good bowing involves at least as much slurring as single-note bowing: that's the only way get the smooth and lonesome sound some Clare and Galway fiddlers prefer, and the only way to get the unique, driving rhythms of Sliabh Luachra players. Sligo players tend to fall somewhere in between, but they typically use a lot of slurring, too (see Tony De Marco & Miles Krassen, A Trip to Sligo: A Comprehensive Guide to the Art of Irish Fiddling Sligo-Style, Silver Spear Publications, Pittsburg, 1978). Also, the southern Irish fiddle styles tend to play the note falling on the beat with a down-bow. The point, then, is that there is no single widely agreed-upon set of basic rules for bowing. The first step in deciding what "standard" bowing for you should look like is to decide what sort of fiddle style you want to cultivate.

Learn bowing patterns. Regardless of style, what I suspect every good fiddler learns, at some stage or other, are a whole series of bowing patterns. One can learn these patterns from books like the Cranitch tutor; in fact, I recommend the Cranitch tutor for this reason. Peter Cooper's tutor is also very well detailed on bowing. You do not necessarily have to use his exact bowings always, but learning them will expose you to patterns of bowing that will sound nice when applied to newly-learned tunes. Note that sight-reading following indicated bowings is a very difficult and long, drawn-out process if you've never done it before. Expect to take a long time to do it. Don't be discouraged; making it easier is part of the bow training itself.

Some common bowing patterns include (and are definitely not limited to):

Of course, a lot of times you just can't go too far wrong with the old up-and-down.

Avoid boring bowing patterns. Beginners, either intimidated by complex bowing techniques or not yet having been exposed to them, frequently fall into one of two "boring" bowing patterns. One is simply to bow every single note (i.e., "single bowing"). Coming out of beginners' fiddles, such a see-saw bowing pattern sounds invariably boring and lacking in style altogether. Now, the fiddling of John Doherty and Dermot McLaughlin is anything but boring and styleless, and they use/used single bowing much more than anything else. But even they slur from time to time to achieve certain effects. Besides, in the long run, that single bowing style is going to appeal to only a very small number of fiddlers reading this, not because that Donegal style is not a grand style--in fact, I personally love it to pieces--but because it's only one style among many others, and tastes differ widely. So unless you specifically want to cultivate a Donegal style, you should make a point of starting to add slurs into your playing here and there. The other "boring" bowing pattern involves playing reels and hornpipes with two up (starting on the beat), then two down. This creates undesirable rhythmic artifacts and a sing-song tone, which sounds good in some polkas (when not overemphasized), but rarely anywhere else.

A little about variation. Variation of the melody is not ornamentation, of course, but it serves the same general purpose, namely, decoration and making the bare bones of the tune more interesting.  Typically, variation involves changing a single note, but a key note; e.g., playing a low D instead of a high D, or substituting two eighth notes (quavers) for one quarter note (crotchet) (what I like to call "filling in the gaps"), or something similarly small. The effect of even small variations like this can be striking. No doubt the best way to start learning variation is, like everything else, to try out other people's variations. But there's nothing wrong with trying your own. The sky's the limit--it's amazing how many different ways a tune can be varied and still be the same tune. You'll discover, no doubt, that many of the variations you try, particularly "on the fly," just don't sound right for one reason or another. There is such a thing as "standard variations," and most good fiddlers know many of the same sets of variations of a tune like "The Morning Dew." Many of the "gee-whiz" fiddlers who play long, complicated variations specifically cultivate variation as a habit and learn specific, complex variations. (I think of Sean Maguire.) Others--the majority, I think--vary tunes quite a bit in small ways, but find more complex variation either not worth the effort or not aesthetically to their liking.  As John Doherty once said, those fiddlers who are endlessly varying tunes should stick to the main tune, or else write new ones. This is, however, obviously a matter of opinion and taste. What is beyond any doubt whatsoever, though, is that traditional Irish fiddlers all vary their playing to one degree or another, and your playing will be considerably less interesting if you do not cultivate some amount of variation.

 


V. A few final words.

Discussion online. Since, presumably, you're reading this online, you might be interested to know that there are many music discussion forums online, including IRTRAD-L, FIDDLE-L, and TheSession.org (among others). Especially if you do not have a lively local music scene, you might find the social support, information, and advice on these lists congenial and helpful. You might even make some friends there, as I have.

Don't stop learning new tunes. Obviously, how often you can learn a new tune depends on your time for fiddle, but this should be a high musical priority, if you want to make much improvement. If you've got an hour per day to practice, a couple of tunes per week might be doable. The more tunes you learn the better you're going to get, because each new tune offers a whole new set of challenges. (A little sight-reading, as I explained above, can be useful for a similar reason.) I am not suggesting that you actually go for quantity over quality; by all means, when you learn a tune, learn it very well. But do not sit on your laurels and keep playing the same things over and over again.

This point is extremely important for certain people to realize. I doubt it is much of an exaggeration to say that if you don't take this particular bit of advice, you'll never get very good. I have observed a lot of musicians who have played or aspired to play Irish music for years, but they stopped learning new tunes (or, not so often) after they have mastered some basic set of 50-100 tunes. These people are amazed and dismayed at how many tunes the leaders of good Irish sessions can play (see above). They appear to assume that the seasoned players have some sort of superhuman ability they simply do not have.

Granted, the reason many of the "relatively tuneless" remain tuneless is that they have very busy lives and have little time for music, period. Of course that's understandable. But there is a myth, I think, that should be put to rest: there is no mystical power of tune-learning and -retention, a power which the tuneless believe they do not have, and which explains their inability to learn tunes. Instead, learning and retaining new tunes has become easy for the seasoned players because they simply kept at it regularly; that's all. I doubt there's anything superhuman about it; learning new tunes is a hobby, or a habit, like gardening or star-gazing! You have to make enough time, but then it becomes relatively easy. I believe that anyone with a modicum of musical ability, and a enough spare time, can do it. Your time's better spent this way than reviewing tunes you know in your sleep.

The habit of learning new tunes regularly may take some amount of sacrifice: you may have to give up learning another instrument, or another musical style, or playing with a band, or playing at a session. Ask yourself: if I weren't trying to master my band's repertoire/the tin whistle/Scottish music/etc. in addition to learning Irish fiddle, would I be able to learn a lot more tunes on the fiddle? If the answer is "Yes" then you'll just have to make sure that your priorities are right. Speaking only for myself, having fun by learning and improving my playing of Irish fiddle tunes is far and away my top musical priority. I believe the sacrifice pays off. Well, I don't actually regard it as a sacrifice, because it's fun!

Practice! The more often you practice the more effective each practice session will be. You forget some of what you learn after each practice session; the longer you wait between practice sessions, the more you forget. As a result, some people play for years and years on end but do not improve that much. And not just because they haven't practiced many hours (all added up), and not because they have reached their final musical peak--but because the practice that they have gotten in has been spread out too widely. Notice, I'm not suggesting that you only practice in big long blocks of time; indeed it's better if you spread your practice out into many sessions. I'm suggesting the obvious--that you practice more often!

 

Copyright 1997-2004 Larry Sanger. Thanks for comments and discussion (about various versions): Lorna LaVerne, Julie Henigan, Stacey O'Brien, John Perrins, Kyra Dwyer, Carolyn Cutler, Aimee Nemeth, Peter Damashek, David James, Chris Gilb, and other anonymous folks. These good people are obviously not responsible for any wrong, injudicious, unfair, etc. content that is left. Further questions? Suggestions for improvement? Please write to blarneypilgrim (at) yahoo.com.

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