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!
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.
• 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 7500 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.