I am editing the intro to my 2006 Fiddling Demystified for Strings and thought the musings on learning to fiddle were blog-worthy. Some of the material covered in the book is also in the numbered lessons in my blog. Free sample pages.
Fiddling – a collection of cultural and regional folk violin styles – is mysterious and mutable, morphing from phrase to phrase, seeking the elusive, satisfying groove. Drummers at heart, we mine melodies for rhythms, teasing them out with our bows to make people dance! We nudge the rhythms along, swapping one for another in a spiral of variations. We tinker with the music because we must. We are fiddlers!
So how do we tinker? What do we change and when do we change it? Fiddling Demystified presents a practical, left/right hand, tune-by-tune, lick-by-lick foundation for understanding fiddling. I dig deep into each tune, detailing the sets of licks, rhythms and ornaments that define regional styles. There are 32 reels, waltzes, jigs, pipe marches, airs and a Cajun two-step here, each one decked out in its own style. Fourteen are originals, written by others and myself. The Practical Guide to Fiddling Style Markers, a four-part glossary of fiddle licks and lore, demonstrates dozens of subtle ways that fiddlers can mess with a melody, our raison d’être, after all.
For fiddling IS improvisation and variations. We punctuate with rhythm a little differently on each repetition. We jump the beat, swap slurs around, create variations, syncopated bowings and rhythm licks with the right hand. Simultaneously the left plays ornaments – grace-note flicks, triplets and reverse triplets, duplets, hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides, drones and turns – bending notes in as many ways as possible to keep any one way from becoming tedious. Most fiddlers begin by immersing themselves in the music of one regional style. Over time, we learn to speak in that dialect, and don’t stop with one tune, or even one style, as we discover soon enough.
About orthodoxy: There is no one “right” way to play a tune, regardless of style. I’m not saying style doesn’t matter, or that you shouldn’t have favorite fiddlers or styles, but that there is no Holy Grail. Just because it’s published or recorded by a well-known primary source doesn’t change that fact. Fiddling is, by its nature, self-curated. It is interpretive, diverse, and democratic, and our own renditions change daily. Your iconic recording of that primary source was the way he or she played it that day. Learn it, study it, even, but please don’t enshrine it, or claim to have the one true version, (even if it is your favorite). Mine it for what you love about it, repeat that with multiple sources, then make the music your own.
Using the book and CDs
Families of ornaments and rhythm motifs set each tune in a regional style. To get the most out of Fiddling Demystified, use these left/right-hand technique sets to dress up tunes that you already play. Stick to one style per tune and accessorize each repetition a bit differently and you’ll see where the variations go. Get off the page as soon as possible, and find others to jam with – that’s where the real fun is!
Lessons include chord names, slurs, and accented bowings, all cross referenced with the Guide or the Index. Style markers are in bold italic inside a tune or in the Guide (7-25). Cross-referenced page numbers are italicized in parentheses, and the Index (63) will help you find a specific technique. Tunes are written in cut time rather than 2/4 for easier reading, but at 112-120 beats/minute in reels, play the 8ths as 16ths. Tempo markings are for a half-note in cut time (2/4), quarter-note in waltzes (3/4), and a dotted quarter-note in jigs (6/8).
NOTE: Fiddling Demystified’s viola and cello editions reset the melodies where it is necessary, retaining the fiddle key to allow jamming. Music examples in the Guide are in three clefs. Though not all fiddle ornaments will translate directly to the viola and cello, the rhythms will. I include a general transposition protocol, and some of the tunes are ‘native’ to cello and viola, sharing the same fingering as the fiddle.
This is not a complete theory manual, but has useful lessons on chord names and families, major, minor and modal harmony patterns, and on how to find harmonies and create rhythms. Tip #1: Learn the chords along with each tune. Pay attention to the repetitive patterns. After a dozen tunes in a key, you know that key. Tip #2: Get a mandolin chord book and memorize the chords in Bb, F, C, G, D, A and E and their minors. These both turbo-charge your ability to learn by ear, because now you can predict where the tune is going next.
On the companion CDs, I swing the eighth-notes, common fiddle practice. Waltzes and airs have harmony parts added the second time on the (a) track, with harmony only on the (b) track. Track numbers, tune names and keys are announced in each track. (A) tracks are at reduced speed, with lessons and style markers on the (b) track. (C) tracks play at or near dance tempo, adding variations. Because of disc space, I play only once through for both fast and slow tracks, but try using computer slow-down software like The Amazing Slow-downer™. This handy learning aid loops selected clips and slows the speed while retaining the original note pitches.
Listen to the jam CD several times and hum, sing or deedle along before reading or playing. You will hear more tune layers this way and it will help you decide where to dig into what’s on the menu. Listen carefully for note bendings, dynamic accents, phrasing cues and transitions, drones, syncopations, double-stops or percussive effects – all the interesting stuff that’s missing from a transcription.
You’ll notice bowing differences between the CD and the sheet music. Fiddlers who sight-read learn to interpret sheet music (heresy, but oh-so-liberating!), changing the bowings constantly to keep things moving. Our motto is “never the same way twice!” So, on the slow tracks, I reconciled the first repeats of A and B phrases with each transcription, but the second repeats vary. The faster track is played off the page more. Then the Fiddlejam CD plays the tunes in medleys, creating variations on the fly. Jam along with that CD to practice grooving once you can play the tune, even at slower speeds. Slow the track down with software till you can jam along. Way more fun than a metronome!
Immersion and apprenticeship are the best ways to learn. Check out the NEA’s Master/Apprenticeship Program in the Traditional Arts (state arts councils administer this program), find a great local fiddler and apply to work together. This book and CD are at best an introduction to fiddling styles and performance practice. Find a fiddler in your community and become friends. The rest is up to you.
My mother, Mary Margaret (Blair) Hinds, sang and played music with me as a child and made me practice the violin when I was nine. I keep her cowgirl band’s 1938 promo shot on my desktop to remind me to hang on to my dreams. My daughter Molly put up with hundreds of fiddlers and ended up playing the bass. She is one of my music partners today.
Amanda Bernhard (Autumn Frolic), Russell Barenberg (Lullaby/Berceuse), Jane Rothfield (November Wind), Cynthia Thomas (Thanksgiving Waltz), and George Wilson (Sweet Journeys) have allowed me to publish their wonderful tunes in this collection.
Darol Anger is a friend, creative inspiration and a mighty fiddle and jazz violin master. He urged me to publish the book, wrote the foreword, and I wrote Transylvanian Landslide for him in 2003. Renata Bratt tweaked my cello arrangements for playability and fingerings.
Fiddle masters Alan Jabbour, George Wilson, Jane Rothfield, Suzy Thompson, Barbara MacOwen, Seamus Connolly and others help clarify my thinking on the building blocks I call style markers. John McGann answered theory questions. Guitarist Max Cohen reviewed my chord choices and made sensible changes. Thank you all!
My students have taught me so much over the years. Their hunger for music, rhythms and groove matches mine, their questions inspire our research and work together, and their trust keeps my answers honest. The feast of music they bring in the door just makes me grin! So many tunes . . .
Amherst Massachusetts, 2014