Rhythm Problems

What’s a “rhythm problem”? It’s the struggle some have with keeping the beat while doing all the other things that fiddle playing demands. The frustration shows up clearly when trying to play with others or with recordings. For those who have a serious rhythm problem (and I’ve seen this affect even some amateur performers), I will suggest an unusual antidote, but most learners don’t really have a “rhythm problem”; they have a priority problem. This article offers a few ideas about what might be going on and what to do about it.

Rhythm is an essential part of the natural world. We all experience it. It’s there in the sway of a tree, the gait of a horse, the beating of a heart. We feel it hearing the surf on a beach, and sense it with the tides, with sunrise and sunset. We move with rhythm all the time — walking at a very regular pace, breathing steadily in and out, and impatiently drumming our fingers on a table using a perfectly regular beat.

When we speak forcefully, our timing is unmistakable: speaking with unclear timing makes us sound insincere or uncertain. In fact, when we talk, we use much more complicated timing than music does. For example, if you say to a child, “GO to the CAR,” you are using a jig rhythm: ONE-two-three ONE. But if, just as you’re about to say those words, you spot a car speeding down the road between your child and the car, you will say, “DON’T go to the CAR!” This is a reel rhythm: ONE-two-three-four ONE. Seeing that car coming made you change instantly and naturally from jig to reel as you spoke. Musicians rarely attempt this, and certainly not without some planning. You manage complex rhythmic skills in everyday life that you probably take for granted.

If you have trouble playing in time, it’s not because you don’t have rhythm. It’s because Continue reading Rhythm Problems

Turkey In the Straw

Here’s a tune you’ll want to play round the Thanksgiving table!  An American classic fiddle tune,  “Turkey in the Straw” sounds to me like it came from a type of old Scottish tune called the Scots Measure.

In that spirit, here’s a very simple version of the tune, but if you replace the numbered measures with the variations marked below the tune, you’ll see how this simple version might have developed into the tune we usually hear today.

The Scots Measure was a type of dance; there are many old tunes of that type but nowadays we have folded the Scots Measures into other forms such as hornpipes and reels. Below is a typical example of a Scots Measure Continue reading Turkey In the Straw

Stepping on the Gas!

People often say they have trouble tapping their feet while they play. But they’ve got it all wrong; they just need to step on the gas. Let me explain.

It’s really helpful musically and otherwise to move to the beat while you play. Musically, tapping, marching or moving in some other way drives the beat, which is what music is all about, and provides a physical backup system to take you through a tune and keep you on track. Emotionally, moving to the beat takes the edge off any tensions you may have and gives you a place to put them that’s part and parcel with your music making. Physically, moving as you play relieves your muscles of being frozen in one position, where they can get overstressed and cause strains and pains.

If you don’t move as you play, all your playing has to be managed in your head, which is very little help to you. Your mind can easily be overloaded with worries, demands, and so-called executive functions (the existence of which many neurologists have doubts about anyway), in addition to the fact that without physical engagement, your mind can feel overstimulated by complex sound, social cues, and bodily tensions. Read my past article about “Reversing Old Presumptions” (type “reversing” into the search box to pull up the article) to see why playing music starts with ears, uses muscle memory, and engages the brain last, instead of the other way around as most people presume, and have to struggle with.

But how to manage that pesky notion of “tapping your feet”? It doesn’t have to be Continue reading Stepping on the Gas!

Expression

Someone asked me recently about how to release emotions, ideas, expression into her playing. It’s a great question that players of all levels can get a lot out of for themselves.

Expression doesn’t happen by itself. And it isn’t all about technique.

Putting musical expression into your playing may be easier with better technique, but just because someone has the technique doesn’t mean they’re going to have expression. In fact, it’s easier to learn better technique if you have ideas about musical expression — not only is there more motivation, but if you have an idea of what you want to hear, you’re more likely to figure out how to get that sound.

In classical music, dynamics are often written into the music, and for many, this turns expression into just another technical exercise. One time I judged a high level fiddle competition where a classical player played a nice slow air, but when she played it again, I realized she was playing it exactly the same way. It lacked genuine, responsive feeling.

In this little article we’ll look at some ways you can add expressive ideas to your playing, and then include a few tips on enjoying it more and making sure people hear what you’re trying to do.

You can try this with any tune, but let’s suppose Continue reading Expression

The Musical Fork In the Road

It’s a nice time for a hike — smell the fresh air, step over tree roots and rocks, notice a fallen tree, glimpse a vista through a clearing.

Then comes the fork in the road. The trail diverges and we have to pay attention and make a choice of which way we want to go. Once we’re on the new path, though, we once again fork-in-the-road_300step over rocks, sniff the air, chat with a friend.

Playing a piece of music is a little like following a trail through the scenery. Our footsteps are the beats. We follow a trail through the notes. And often we play notes that follow the same path we’ve followed before–until we come to the fork in the road.

Familiar note patterns–whether from other phrases in the piece, other pieces we know, or from scales and arpeggios we’ve practiced–are very helpful in learning and performing music. But our fingers can also be duped by them. The fingers may happily follow a familiar trail as we busily watch all the scenery–intonation, tone, dynamics–only to find ourselves suddenly fumbling through the woods because we got off the trail.

Instead of being frustrated that we messed up, it may be that we just need to Continue reading The Musical Fork In the Road

The Amazing Bow!

The violin bow is an amazing contraption. Pick one bow up after another, and they pretty much look the same, but they may feel light or heavy, even though the difference in weight could be a tenth of an ounce (3 grams). More astonishingly, when you try playing with various bows you’ll find some that actually sound a lot better than others.

I remember making a number of drawings of violins and bows many years ago. Bows are very difficult and frustrating to draw because they so long, thin, and seem almost uniform in shape. The stick has a subtle arc to it, called the camber, which can be beautiful but tricky to draw, as it gently curves toward and away from the hairs. It’s a bit more interesting to draw the gracefully shaped tip, and the black curved block of ebony at the frog. (”Frog” is horse terminology — the bow hairs come from a horse’s tail, and the frog is named after the part of the horse’s hoof that’s in the middle of the horseshoe).

When you try playing with different bows, you find differences in responsiveness partly because of the type of wood and the quality of the carving, which affect the strength and springiness of the bow stick. A very weak stick could easily touch the strings with some pressure, and if the hairs are tightened too much, the stick might even arc the wrong way (away from the bow hairs). The camber of the bow, the way the stick curves toward the hairs, allows you to control the tension of the hairs against the strings.

I always recommend Continue reading The Amazing Bow!

The Beat Not Played

Most of the time, we change bow on every beat, in order to keep up a good sense of timing in our tunes. But there are lots of times when a beat goes by without a change of bow. That’s what I meant by the title of this article — “the beat not played.”  It could be a syncopated rhythm or it could simply be a dotted note, where the following note is played after the next beat has passed. We need to feel each beat, whether we play a new note on it or not — this is one basic timing question, not only for playing musically, but for being able to play with others; and it is why slow airs are more difficult than people imagine.

Syncopation is the focus of this month’s workshop tunes, because they all contain some syncopation that’s worth getting comfortable with. But let’s look first at the way slow airs often make you hold a bow beyond the next beat.

The beauty of a slow air depends on the placement of the notes, and if you are playing a very long note, the note that follows must be placed exactly in the right place, or the flow of the tune falters. We have to feel the beat throughout, but especially during the long notes.

Here is the beginning of the slow air “Da Slockit Light”:  Continue reading The Beat Not Played

Hidden Tips

Here are some tips for you about Fido (fiddle-online), including some “hidden” bits as well as a few basics worth keeping in mind.

Privacy

As far as your internet privacy goes, there is only one person (myself, Ed Pearlman) who designs, publishes and runs this site, so if you send a message or fill out a form, it doesn’t go anywhere else; there are no employees or third-party companies involved. When you send info about your interests, for example, not much happens with the information — for new people I try to look at their interests and recommend places on the site that can help them.

There is also privacy in the live workshops — when you learn specific things from the teacher, mikes are muted so that you hear the teacher to play along with, but nobody else hears you unless you choose to play a phrase or two for the class in order to get some comments. This allows people of all levels to take class because nobody can compare folk to each other; everyone is focused on improving their own playing.

Two Different Home Pages – Site and Personal

The site home page shows 4 choices – Workshops, Articles, Technique, and Sheet Music. Click on Workshops to view info about upcoming live workshops as well as info about materials available to you from past workshops. Articles takes you to this blog. Techniques takes you to info about 5 video groups of 10 videos each, a treasury of learning options to be used at your own pace for improving ergonomics, bowing, fingering, note patterns, ornamentation. Sheet Music gives you a listing of Tune Groups with 12 tune in each, for you to learn from (many tunes are also available from past workshop materials).

The site home page also has a green button for joining, sort of a registration form. Anonymous lurkers and freeloaders are not appreciated here, it’s more of a small international community of learners. The red button is for logging on, once you’ve joined. This takes you to your own personal home page, which gives you direct links to any resources you are currently subscribed to, shows their expiration date, tells you how many credits you have, offers an online pitchpipe for tuning, and explains the menu items at the top of each page. There’s also a link there to Continue reading Hidden Tips

60 Interactive Tunes in the Tune Groups

When you click on “Sheet Music” on the home page, you are taken to the world of the Tune Groups. Each of these gives you interactive sheet music and audio for a dozen tunes for 3 months. If you learn all 12 tunes, that’s a tune a week!

I’ll describe below how these work, but keep in mind that this interactive sheet music format can be found in all of the Workshop materials as well! A sample of this kind of sheet music is linked prominently in pink on the Tune Groups information page.

What tunes will you find in these tune groups? Tune Group 1 offers a nice mix of Celtic, American, and Canadian tunes, and also is good for beginners because it’s the only group that offers both the sheet music and music by numbers. Tune Group 2 continues with a nice variety of tunes — Scottish, Irish, American, and Quebecois. Tune Group 3 is all about Scottish tunes, and Tune Group 5 contains popular Irish tunes. Tune Group 4, Shetland tunes, is currently only available on my old site and works great but only if you can use flash media; it will eventually be added to fiddle-online so it can be used by all devices.

Here’s how it works. With each Tune Group, you get access to that tune group’s home page, with links to each of the 12 tunes in that group. When you visit one of the tunes,

Continue reading 60 Interactive Tunes in the Tune Groups

What’s a mistake?

How we think about musical mistakes has a huge impact on how we practice, how we learn, how we perform.

How do you think about making a mistake? We all think differently. For you, does making a mistake feel dangerous, like falling off a bicycle? Scary and disorienting, like finding yourself on the wrong path in the woods? Painful, like tripping on a tree root while hiking? Frustrating, like hitting the wrong floor button in an elevator? Hard to erase, like dropping the wrong ingredient into a recipe?

Or is it something that passes by, like saying the wrong word, or missing a fly with a fly swatter?

How you think about mistakes determines your response to making them.
Some players seem so worried about hitting the wrong note or making a bad sound that their playing sounds like they are tiptoeing through the music, afraid of being mugged by a mistake. Since there are always going to be mistakes, their fear is bound to be realized sooner or later!

The main thing to remember is that the greater musical skill is found, not in avoiding mistakes, but in recovering from them — staying on track, keeping the music going. To do that, you need to have a sense of where you are in the music, to keep it going in your head, in your body (feeling and trusting the beat). The fingers don’t always cooperate, but we don’t have to allow them to hijack a performance.

This is one key benefit of learning tunes by phrase, as can be found throughout the fiddle-online.com site — this helps you keep the structure of the tune in mind, and helps you get back on track, rather than be derailed by missing a note or two.

As listeners, dancers, or fellow bandmates or session players, we want musicians to play with confidence. A wrong note doesn’t stop us from tapping our toes or nodding our heads with the passion of the music. But a timid or fearful sound, or fuzzy timing, does affect us with uncertainty, and it’s hard to feel the music when you’re not sure it will carry through to the end.

Ultimately, of course, it’s not the mistakes or the missed opportunites we care about, but the performance, the music, the flow and the spirit of it. The goal is to allow the music to flow, and studies have even measured the healing effects of flow in music.  One study about how people engage with music said, “Playing and performing music has the potential to induce a flow-like state”.  Another study looked into the effect of flow in music.

If you are a worrier about making mistakes, just consider the listener’s point of view— it’s not what was missing that we remember, but what was there.

©2018 Ed Pearlman