How to Sound Nice

This is a posting to IRTRAD-L by Larry Sanger, author of the excellent Donegal Fiddling Pages. Have a look also at his Learning Traditional Irish Music on the Fiddle site and his Advice for Students.

Here are some casual notes on the topic of how to sound nice. I just now wrote this out for myself but then thought that others might find it interesting and have something interesting to add or some useful way to reply. I wrote this in the spirit of trying to formulate thoughts for myself, not to try to teach other people. So -- I'm not trying to teach you (many of you probably have lots to teach me), I'm just sharing something.

(Even so, I think some people will find it just annoying and silly, and if those people would just skip on to the next message, that'd be great, thanks. :-) )

If you aren't already a great musician who doesn't have to think about sounding nice in order to sound nice, then you must consciously work on it -- the more often the better -- figure out what needs improving, and encourage that in yourself as you play. In order to do this you must slow down -- not necessarily very slow, but certainly at a moderate tempo, one at which you can concentrate on what you're doing without straining.

It helps to record yourself and then to listen to yourself played back at half speed. You can hear many of the jarring rhythms, incompletely executed ornaments, notes too-harshly attacked, etc. In listening to myself this way and then trying to play nicely, I had the following insights.

First, each note must be sounded. If you only "touch" every fourth or fifth note, so that it can't really be distinguished as clearly as the others, then it significantly detracts from the quality of the music. Part of what makes good fiddling ring and sound like it's speaking or telling a story or expressing a thought is that every note is sounded.

Second, there is a certain "groove" (or different kinds of grooves) that you can get into and whether you do get into it convincingly depends on how consistently you swing your notes. It also depends on your having some amount of swing in the first place. But the main point here is that it is often jarring (subconciously, since so many notes are going by so fast) to hear one pair of notes in one proportion and a later pair of notes in a different proportion, for no discernible reason. It just sounds sloppy, usually. Of course, sometimes you'll deliberately play notes in a different rhythm, and that can sound really great -- but in order for that to be effective, it has to be set off against a consistent rhythm.

Third, you must pay attention to (1) whether you're trying to play an ornament, and if so, (2) exactly which ornament you're trying to play. Then make sure you're actually playing that ornament! An educated ear can often hear when you try to play one ornament and end up sort of (but not quite) playing another one. Some ornaments that I can sometimes "confuse" in my playing: a regular bowed triplet and a very "scrunchy" bowed triplet (which I deliberately play only rarely); a bowed triplet and a fingered triplet (!); a bowed triplet and two notes; a "Teelin-style" dipping down from the open string vs. dipping all the way down to the sharp note; a long roll e.g. on the B and e.g. {d}BAB; a roll (particularly a short roll) and a cut; a cut and a fingered triplet; a fingered or bowed triplet and a triplet played in the rhythm one uses in strings of triplets (these aren't always the same); the two different kinds of "crans"; etc.

(One main reason why it's best to practice relatively slowly is in order to be able to execute those ornaments cleanly and deliberately. Zillions of badly-executed ornaments makes the playing sound bad.)

Fourth, there is another element to sounding nice that is much more difficult to describe, but it involves having an idea of what a tune is trying to "say" and playing the tune in such a way as to "say" that. It's relatively easy to play a tune mechanically, without any expression. It's also relatively easy to play a tune with a mechanical or predictable sort of expressiveness, without paying much attention to the unique or special parts of the tune itself. Generally, it's important to understand what parts of the tune are the questions and what are the replies -- but there's more to it than that. Often, this will come out by playing notes that correspond to each other (or in some way "point" to each other) in different parts of the tune in the same way, or in interestingly (and consistently) contrasting ways.

Just trying to sound nice, Larry