Playing Friday May 26 at the Centre régional d’animation patrimoine oral (CRAPO)
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
Two reels from Louis Beaudoin are shared here. Both were taught at the Festival Memoires et Racines in 2014.
The first is “Reel in D #1” from La Famille Beaudoin (Philo 2022) and the second is a true Franco-American tune, “Eddie’s Reel,” learned from Eddie LeBlanc in Claremont NH. Twenty percent of New England’s population has roots in Quebec. The mp3 link for the second tune is from a 1976 Vermont Public Radio interview. I regret that the Philo recording cannot be sampled here.
Much of the Beaudoin family’s music is archived at the Vermont Folklife Center, which houses several collections of Franco-American traditional music, including the Beaudoin Collection.
Andrew VanNorstrand (right, with brother Noah at left) describes perfectly the mental and emotional process of fiddling. I couldn’t have said it better myself, so I asked to share his observations, which are reprinted with permission from Andrew’s 12/16/13 blog, The Deep Blue Green.
Fiddle Tunes and Three-Dimensional Truth
© 12/16/13 Andrew VanNorstrand. All rights reserved.
What exactly is a fiddle tune? Say you want to play a fiddle tune but you don’t know any. So you go out and buy a book like the Portland Collection or the Fiddler’s Fakebook or something like that. And you open it up and pick a tune and play it through. 32 bars of notes in a particular sequence with chord suggestions. Start at the beginning and stop at the end. Is that a fiddle tune? Is that music? It only takes about 35 seconds to play a fiddle tune once through so maybe repeat it a few times. Seems like a good idea. Dum di dum di diddly dum, dum di dum di die-do. Okay then, I guess that’s it. Wow, fiddle tunes are really super easy. Maybe try playing it faster. Done. Maybe try playing it like, way, way faster. Done. Maybe try playing through 40 more tunes in the book. And… done. So is that it then? Didn’t make any mistakes, played all the notes. What else is there?
This is a scenario I encounter pretty frequently at music camps, especially with folks coming from a background in classical music. These are very capable and accomplished musicians who want to learn how to play fiddle tunes. Which is awesome by the way. But it can get really frustrating for them because while they obviously have no problem playing fiddle tunes accurately there’s still something missing in the overall sound. Something that just doesn’t quite connect. It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly. Fiddlers do have some cool “tricks” up their sleeves. Different genres of fiddle music have different stylistic ornamentation so you can add in some double stops or triplets or slides (shout out to the dreaded bluegrass “chops” workshop). There’s often more than one version of a tune so you can learn a whole bunch of variations from a bunch of different sources and switch back and forth between them. Sometimes there might even be space for a little solo of some kind so you can be brave and try out a little improvisation. So is it a fiddle tune now? It’s certainly a lot more complicated. But I’d be willing to bet that it still doesn’t actually sound right.
I like to think about this a little differently. Take some classic tune like Sally Ann or Old Joe Clark or Turkey in the Straw. Now think of the notes in one long ribbon and instead of a repeat sign at the end, wrap that ribbon around so it connects to itself in a big circle. Now think of every single time that tune has been played by every single fiddler that’s ever played it as having it’s own ribbon. And these tune-ribbons just keep wrapping themselves around and around, crossing each other, overlapping each other, twisting and turning until you’ve got this giant three-dimensional ball of a tune. And believe me, old fiddle tunes are massive. They’ve been rolling around pubs and campfires and dance halls and living rooms for centuries. People have poured their lives into these melodies. They’ve crossed oceans and mountains and prairies. They’ve soaked up sun and rain and whiskey and tears to the point where they are literally overflowing with joy and heartache and memories. When you play an old fiddle tune, it’s going to weave it’s own unique path across the face of this huge globe; intersecting at every note with a thousand other paths yet still different because it’s YOU playing it. On your instrument. Right now. And that’s never happened before.
Sometimes we talk about variation, ornamentation and improvisation as if these are tools or techniques; as if they are distinct and separate from the melody, which is somehow morally superior. But that’s not it at all. Whatever you play IS the melody. And you are responsible for every note. Fiddle tunes exist in a constant state of change where every single note has to be played not because it’s correct but because it’s the note you meant to play. There is no safe zone where the tune is some kind of neutral third party. Old Joe Clark doesn’t sound so easy anymore. Here’s the thing… music has to be about stuff. Even (especially?) a simple fiddle tune has to be about something. The raw physical existence of this world is really more than we can handle and we need music and art and stories to help us process life. Nobody cares about the notes you play. I’d say nobody even hears the notes you play. What people hear is the meaning; the reason you chose those notes. Tunes played accurately but without depth have this eerie zombie effect that’s hard to explain but immediately recognizable.
And this is really how I think about truth. Picture that giant fiddle-tune-ball I was talking about earlier. How does the tune go? What does it sound like? Well, walk up real close to it and you’ll hear a beautiful melody. But then the ball shifts a bit and you hear it differently. Still the same tune but in a new voice. Was the first one wrong? Roll the ball some more and the tune just becomes deeper and richer and more varied. And I think that can be scary. There’s this temptation to say “Wait a minute, what’s the real tune? How does it actually go? What’s the real truth?” but there isn’t an answer. Even if you back up and try to see the big picture, there’s always the other side that’s hidden. That’s just the nature of human perspective. Absolute truth exists but we are fundamentally incapable of understanding it. And that’s okay. That’s why we have fiddle tunes.
Andrew VanNorstrand is a fine fiddler and teacher and performer who plays for dances and concerts with the Andrew/Noah Band and the Great Bear Trio. You can find him at many dance festivals and dance camps, including Fiddle and Dance camps at Ashokan. He and his brother, Noah, are trailblazers in the ongoing contradance music tradition. The torch has been well and truly passed!
The Andrew/Noah band are at http://www.andrewandnoah.com
The Great Bear Trio are at http://greatbeartrio.com/Great_Bear_Trio/Home.html
Listen/watch them (Noah is fiddling, Andrew is on guitar) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HtgyvNFfWEw
Photo: Noah and Andrew VanNorstrand (Angela Goldberg photo)
OK, what’s ‘wholistic’ fiddling?
Wholistic fiddling teaches the whole tune – the melody PLUS the rhythms, the chord progression, what two-note chords you find on adjacent strings, and especially, how to dance them around in rhythm under the melody!
Music is much more than sound – it’s color and movement and history. There are many layers, some musical – one-two-three or more harmonies, countermelodies, even more rhythms, while others are more cerebral and emotional. Your skills and your inspiration (and of course, your taste!) are the limit. Create your own palette – of stories, chord possibilities, harmonies and multiple rhythms for each tune. Then you OWN it!
Regardless of regional fiddling style, inspiration is the point. Going deep primes the pump, starts the creative process. Finding the musical layers, bringing up new ideas, you create your own unique and tasty setting for the tune. Don’t just add melodies to your tune list. Learn as much as possible about each new tune’s origins and what it offers musically. Listen closely for the emotional content offered by each piece of music. Your job is to unlock that so others can feel it, too!
Here’s the lesson in two parts. The first lays out how to find the diatonic chords in any major key, using D as a template, with a copy of the Chord Wheel from my Fiddling Demystified Vol I. The second offers a pretty Cajun-style waltz of mine to try them out on! I encourage you to use the written music as a jumping-off point for your own interpretations!
I. Theory is your friend
Music theory is much simpler than you think. It’s just a template for understanding musical structures. You can learn most of the theory you’ll need in one key and then move the template around from key to key. For fiddle, I choose D major as my ‘template key’, because I think it’s the easiest key to play on the instrument. Violists and cellists might choose G major, with the same fingering pattern as D for the violin.
Why is theory important? Well, it’s language. Do you want to have a conversation and make sense? I try to speak French with musical partners so I know how frustrating it is to try to communicate clearly when the language just isn’t there. So here’s my answer:
Learn theory one fiddle tune at a time
For each and every tune you add to your playlist, learn the chord progression and write it down (even if you don’t notate the tunes). Take a few minutes and outline the chords on two-string pairs (usually just the bottom two pairs for fiddles – violas and cellos can use all three string pairs). Of course, if you already play a rhythm instrument, I’m preaching to the choir, but make sure to transfer your knowledge of those harmonic patterns to the fiddle if you want to use them!
[Even for a classical string player who doesn’t fiddle, this method would be useful in learning to recognize harmonic changes. It’s much easier to follow chord movement over 32 bars than through a symphony. Yet a symphony is built in large part of 4 and 8 bar fragments, just like a fiddle tune!]
Pay attention to movement, up or down. Learn each chord’s NAME and learn it’s universal key number (I, iim, etc). After chording ten different tunes in D major, I guarantee you’ll know D major. You’ll also know that the IV chord in D is a G major and that the relative minor of that IV chord is a iim and it’s named Em. It’s also a whole step up from the D major chord, so that’s where you look for it on the fingerboard. It shares two notes with the G major/IV chord, which is why it can sub for it in the progression and you use it because it changes the emotional content. Oh, and you can do all that with just one note (if it’s the right one)! Isn’t THAT language string players can use?
Diatonic? What does that mean?
‘Diatonic’ refers to a melody in the common major Western scale. The Ionian Mode is another way to name it – modes describe the unique scale patterns originally defined in classical Greek music. But today, if you want to add a rhythm to a melody, knowing where a tune is likely to travel harmonically is far more useful.
This is all vocabulary:
The vast majority of fiddle tunes in major keys use the diatonic scale/Ionian mode. Using the notes from just one scale (in this example, D major) defines the ‘key signature’ or ‘home/tonic key,’ which all mean the same thing – that the tonal center of the tune is D.
A chord ‘triad’ is the same as the three arpeggio notes – DO-MI-SO. The triad is played simultaneously, unlike the arpeggio, which is played sequentially.
Minor and major chord triads in every key are built from these ascending thirds using the notes of that key’s major scale.
Download Chord Wheel with spellings, relative minors, and the Universal Key, excerpted from my “Fiddling Demystified for Strings” Vol. I.
Chords are written with note names or Roman numerals, as shown below:
D E F# G A B C# – D major scale
I ii iii IV V vi – UNIVERSAL KEY notation is written in Roman numerals, with major chords in upper case and minor chords in lower case. This is another way to think of the key of D chords that follow, but since this can be used to talk about any key, it allows ease of transposition.
D Em F#m G A Bm – Chords built out of D major chord (arpeggio) notes. This is the D major family of DIATONIC chords, spelled out here:
CHORD | SPELLING | FUNCTION
D major – D-F#-A – I chord (tonic, home key, starts or ends most tunes)
E minor – E-G-B – iim chord (relative minor of IV chord, substituted for IV, most often used substitution)
F# minor – F#-A-C# – iiim chord (relative minor of V chord, substituted for V, least often used substitution)
G major – G-B-D – IV chord (sub-dominant)
A major – A-C#-E – V chord (dominant)
B minor – B-D-F# – vim chord (relative minor of I chord, substituted for I, less often used substitution)
Before you ask what happened to that poor little 7th note in the scale and where it’s triad disappeared to, a triad/arpeggio built on C# using only D-scale notes gives you a C#-E-F# diminished chord, two minor thirds stacked on top of each other. That chord is the orphan – it’s never used. [Even in the jazziest Québecois piano accompaniment, the diminished chord you hear is a I# or IV# diminished, never a vii diminished.]
Once we play with these ascending and descending triads, it’s obvious that, as string players, we have choices. We can pizz the whole triad on three strings, but we only need to bow two of those three notes on adjacent strings (usually A/D, D/G or G/C) to imply a chord. And you’ll find that those two notes are often doing double duty as part of another chord, so it gets interesting quickly. You start looking at notes and asking yourself, “how many chords can I make with these two notes?” [I’ll go deeper into ‘broken chords’ and how to use them in a future lesson!]
While this relationship among the diatonic triads made from the notes of ANY one scale – I, iim, iiim, IV, V, vi – is the same in every key, the note and chord names change in each key. This reality is why we learn the chord name, for instance, “D major,” and learn to call it “I” in the Universal Key. If I’m playing with a singer or another fiddler who plays the tune in a different key, using numbers instead of chord names makes quick and easy chord transposition possible.
II. Hommage à Johnny – waltz in D major
My tune example gives you TWO keys to fool around in, since the second half of the tune moves into G major. I wanted to keep the entire melody within an octave to make it easier to play and also to find harmonies. Setting the ‘B’ part in G major gave me the drama and change I like in a second half, while still staying tidily within that octave in D major.
Suitable for strings or any ensemble, I wrote it this in 2012 in memory of John McGann, a great musician and pal and a beloved Berklee prof. And yes, this tune jumps off the D scale for one C chord in the B part, but that C chord is John, jumping in to surprise us! Good art can trump the rules!
It’s a Cajun waltz, so be sure to crank the two beat, not the one! You can hear Stuart Kenney’s bass with me on that two-beat, with Max Cohen on guitar, at the Greenfield MA contradance. Stu played with fiddler Dewey Balfa back in the day, so he knows Cajun waltzes! The tune is also viola/cello friendly with no E-string action, octave jumps or third-position workouts.
With a one-bar intro, the chords start on a walk down from the D on the downbeat. No worries if you can’t play the chords with the bass note written under the chord name D – D/c# – D/b – D/a. That’s how we write a bass run into a chord progression for backup players. It’s simply a walking line down, D-C#-B-A, played over a long D chord. We’re string players, so we get to play the sustained line!
Hommage à Johnny has been road-tested at the Old Songs and Philadelphia Folk Festivals in 2012, where young musicians from age 6-17 learned one of these three parts by ear (no music) or played a backup instrument, and performed with the Great Groove Band on the main stage at both festivals!
Copyright and your use
This is an original piece of music and all parts are copyrighted and all rights are reserved. Download them, learn them, teach them to your students. However, if you want to use my tune or my arrangements in ANY public performance, or if you want to record them, (even if it’s only in your living room), if you want to post it on YouTube or Facebook or otherwise perform it publicly or release it on a CD, you need to ask me first. I’ll say YES, but you have to ask me. And there’s a feel-good catch!
Permission is granted when you or your organization make a donation of $25 or more online to the Amherst Survival Center or you mail a check to them at 138 Sunderland Rd Amherst, MA 01002 – (413) 549-3968. The donation is tax-deductible. Make sure they know this is a ‘fiddlingdemystified.com’ donation and they will notify me. You’ll get a permission letter by mail, so be sure to give the Amherst Survival Center your mailing address! I figure my tunes should do good in the world, so helping to feed and clothe the needy and homeless in my town is a good place to start. I hope you agree!
Download practice and performance mp3s and 3 separate parts each for fiddle, viola, and cello. The easy melody part, with a strong two-beat accent in 3/4 time, is especially useful for teaching syncopation.
• Hommage à Johnny Tophill Contradance, Guiding Star Grange, March 2012, with Max Cohen (guitar), Stuart Kenney (bass), Matt Kenney (percussion) – use this one to jam with and try harmonies. Max and Stu are FUN to play with!
• Hommage à Johnny melody PDF (treble clef)
• Hommage à Johnny easy melody PDF (treble clef)
• Hommage à Johnny moving bass line PDF (treble clef)
• Hommage à Johnny melody PDF (alto clef)
• Hommage à Johnny easy melody PDF (alto clef)
• Hommage à Johnny moving bass line PDF (alto clef)
• Hommage à Johnny melody PDF (bass clef)
• Hommage à Johnny easy melody PDF (bass clef)
• Hommage à Johnny moving bass line PDF (bass clef)
• D major diatonic triads mp3 – going up and down the scale in thirds. THIS is how you practice scales in each key – build the diatonic triad recognition right into the scale practice
• G-major diatonic triads mp3 – same thing for G major
How to use the materials
Listen first – in class if possible. Post a link to the materials online for students to listen to as well.
Listen at least twice, allowing students to finger notes as they HEAR them with their left hand, but not read or play yet. After listening, let them turn over the music and read along while listening simultaneously. Listening first gives them a much better sense of rhythm and beat placement. This an effective way to teach authentic roots music in a classroom setting.
Now they are ready to play. Play in class, repeating the tune for long enough that students can try out harmonies, bass lines and other ideas. The waltz is a 64-bar tune and those repeats are helpful in memorization.
Encourage students to memorize the tune and get off the page. Then they are free to look each other in the eye. To stand next to someone else and play a nice harmony to their melody. To have the freedom to choose what to play based on where they think their voice can add the most to the overall sound. This invariably brings parents and other audience members to their feet when they see students and teachers playing freely together, having a true musical conversation on stage. It’s electrifying!
Please record your group playing this tune and send it to me!
Other fiddilng resources
Please share this lesson (including copyright and use) with other string or fiddle teachers you might know. You might also consider joining the Facebook Fiddlers’ Association, which I founded and help run. We have more than 2500 members from all around the world. It’s an amazing network, offering some pretty deep fiddle lore – and a great way to get fiddling questions answered!
My blog posts here are almost all lessons, so be sure to check out the older posts at right.
© 2011 Donna Hébert,fiddlingdemystified.com. All rights reserved.
developed for Tri City Trad’s “Jam/Sing/Thing” 1/14-16/11 in Troy, NY
Let’s start with some guidelines and then move on the questions at the heart of this discussion.
Bottom-line non-negotiable basics: TUNING and KEEPING THE BEAT.
My motto is “Tune it or die!” No excuses, buy a tuner and learn how to use it.
And if you can’t keep a beat, play softly so you don’t throw off other people’s rhythm. If you’re guilty of this, you’ll know because usually someone at the jam will look at you with a panicked gaze or someone else will start slamming their foot into the floor to keep a stronger beat to counteract yours. Less skilled players should always play softly. Sing along with a tune to pattern it in your brain. Pay attention, play softly and you’ll learn.
- Play louder than everyone else
- Grab the limelight repeatedly
- Shut people out with tunes no one else knows
- Play tunes outside the jam theme (i.e., Bluegrass at an Irish session or the reverse)
- Start a tune and then fizzle out. If you’re going to start a tune, know it well enough to finish it.
- Talk while people are jamming. Leave the circle with your conversation.
- Keep your instrument in tune
- Your practicing at home
- LISTEN! LISTEN! LISTEN!
- Ask how the jam works
- Follow the group rhythm
- Come prepared with a set of tunes to share
- ALWAYS ask before recording
- Play more softly if you’re a less skilled player
- Keep an open mind and heart
Remember that a jam is just a group of people, and people organize themselves differently. Most jams have a core group that helps to organize the session. See how you fit in with them. Some questions to consider about yourself and the jam . . .
Who are you musically? – What’s your style, skill level, repertoire, harmonic tastes, personal, political and social comfort levels, competitiveness or lack of same? Know your own skills and style before jumping in.
When are you practicing on your own? Is the jam the only time you play? If you want to improve, spend more time with the instrument alone and practicing in smaller groups with others. Come prepared with repertoire under your hands. Do your homework and you’ll have more fun at the jam. Andy Kuntz, (jam leader and webmaster: The Fiddlers’ Companion www.ibiblio.org/fiddlers/) suggests new jam members come with a set of tunes they can introduce if called upon. Be ready to start each tune and play them at a grooving tempo.
Where are you jamming? – Before jumping in, observe the group. What kind of music is the jam about? Is there a leader? What are their social boundaries around the music? Are they really a ‘house band’ and you’re jamming with them, or is the jam more circular and open, with input from others? Jammers talk about the “jam hog” who gets going and plays tune after tune from their own repertoire, shutting out the rest of the players. The rules for getting along in kindergarten pretty much apply here. Share. It’s nice. ASK before you record someone. Professionals at the jam might prefer you not record their jamming (especially if it suddenly shows up on Facebook or YouTube without their knowledge – a definite NO-NO!). So ask first! You’re much more likely to get a ‘yes’ answer. I request that I see any video recorded of me before anyone posts it online. No exceptions.
How are jam decisions made? – How do tune choices seem to happen? How long do they play a tune? Do they play medleys? Do they arrange or improvise on the tune? How open to new people are they? Every group has a structure and jams are no different. Take the time to figure out what’s going on before you jump in. Ask questions. And remember, unless it’s your jam, you’re visiting, so act accordingly . . .
What are your goals in joining the jam? Are you here to learn? To have fun? To get a chance to practice in a larger group setting? To showcase yourself? To teach and inspire others? To have fun grooving with some of your friends? Hey, it could be the free BEER! You can choose to come for different reasons each time, but be aware of why you are there. The jam is not there just to serve your needs. At least part of your reason should be social, to enjoy the group, as well as the music.
Why are you there? Why are other people there? – When the answer to both questions is roughly the same, you can have a great jam. What expectations did you walk in the door with? You might want to lose some of them and let things flow and enjoy the good fellowship that jamming provides. Remember – a good time can’t always be scripted!
© Donna Hébert, 1998
Don’t be afraid
Just let go
Take a deep breath
and look into
each other’s eyes
Friend and peer
Tuck your fiddles
and raise your bows
ready to share
Enter the sound
Let its will
back and forth
Magic carpet ride
Roller coaster tune
A journey round your ears
and every so often,
your eyes – softly shut
to better hear the music
in your head –
open wide, and you catch a
of another soul
10 most important things about your time alone with the violin
1. Breathe! And keep breathing. Don’t hold your breath when you learn or play – it starves your brain and your sound along with it. Breath awareness will keep you in the present and focused.
2. Play in front of a mirror! A picture is worth a thousand words. Look for where your movement is awkward. See if you can correct yourself by watching what you do and redirecting your movements.
3. Change your stance! If you play seated, stand up if possible. Walk around a bit while you’re playing to help your body relax and open up. If you sit, keep your spine erect and perch your hip-bones on the edge of the chair. Don’t sit back or slouch.
4. Easy does it! Approach playing fiddle lightly. A relaxed bow hold keeps you flexible and able to move in any direction. The same is true for the left arm. If you need a shoulder rest, find and use one that works for you. Don’t add tension to your hold in either hand. Instead, monitor yourself to see where you’re holding and then wait for the release. Remember to wait!
5. Listen before you play! Fiddle style is all in the ephemeral ornaments that curl around notes and in the rhythm that drives the tune, neither of which you’ll find notated in most tune collections. So listen-listen-listen!
6. Sing the tune! Doesn’t matter if you sing in tune – you are patterning the tune’s unique rhythms into your brain so you can retreive it later. Singing makes it physical, makes it real, makes it YOURS! If you can sing it, you can play it!
7. Learn something new every time you play! Find something new in every playing experience and you’ll find you are never bored with music. It can be as complex as a whole tune or as simple as a new way to finger an ornament, play a new chord or bow a lick.
8. Use all your senses! If you know you always hear a note a little sharp or flat, use your sight to help you find the right spot. After a while your ears will hear it right, too! If you primarily read music, try listening and singing along with your eyes closed to help wake up your ears.
9. Find shortcuts! Big improvements in playing technique can happen when we adjust our breathing, stance, bow and instrument holds. Also look for places where left-hand fingers can be left down to improve efficiency.
10. No shame – no blame! A wise man once said, “If you do not know a thing, you simply do not know it.” Take fear and blame out of the learning eperience and the result is a lifetime of creative and joyful self-education!
Annie Cameron’s Jig
What happens when you’re not paying attention? When it’s a piece of music, a simple slip like misreading the key signature can uncover a whole new interpretation of the melody and the harmony underpinning it. A little key change and suddenly it’s a whole new tune!
Reading through the William Marshall Collection, I found this little slip jig and in error, I started playing it in B minor instead of it’s original Bb major. When I realized my mistake and corrected it, I thought, “Hmmmm . . . I might like the minor version better!”
So here is my minor update of a major slip jig (9/8) called Miss Ann Cameron of Balvenie. Try it out and then go back to your tunebooks and play some of those major tunes as minors instead. Who knows what you’ll find?