Medleys: the fiddler’s canvas

There is creativity lurking everywhere in music, and one of the most creative parts of fiddling is the building of medleys. A big part of the fun of learning to play fiddle is that it can be as simple or as complicated as we want to make it.

As you get to know a tune you can make it your own, whether on purpose or subsconsciously. I learned one tune from an old book only to discover years later when I looked at the book again that I had unknowingly developed my own version — and I liked mine better! In some styles of fiddling such as jazz or Irish, people improvise new notes to dress up the tune or express their view of it. But improvisation of some kind goes on all the time even if more subtle than actually inventing notes. It is improvisatory to play a tune differently one time than another, inventing bowings, ornaments, and rhythms to suit the mood.

Making medleys is not improvisation but it is certainly creative. Once we know some tunes, we can find ways to put them together in interesting or exciting ways. The tunes may be given to us by tradition, but we can use them to create a bigger picture. They can be the colors of our canvas.
Probably the simplest reason to make medleys is because it allows us to play longer. Old-timey fiddlers like to play one tune for a very long time, but in most types of fiddling, the player moves on after two or three times through a tune.

How do we make medleys? In this article we’ll look at the basics and some suggestions for fun ways to do it. In the next article we’ll discuss how to find tunes that are compatible with each other, based on key and style.

<!--more-->

The first thing to know about making a medley is that we want listeners or dancers to keep those feet tapping. There should be no gap in time between any two tunes in a medley. That means that beat 1 of the first full measure of a tune should arrive exactly where beat 1 would have arrived if we had repeated the first tune. No skipped beats or extra time added.

Pickup notes that lead into a second tune can be shortened, stretched, changed or eliminated to allow the beat to continue from the first tune without interruption. If you are changing tempo, say from a waltz to a jig, the last measure of the waltz must complete three beats in waltz time before the first full measure of the jig begins. If there is a pickup to the jig, it has to fit into waltz time, because the new jig tempo doesn’t start until beat 1 of the first full measure of the jig.

One fun way to start building a medley is to take two tunes and play the last phrase (four beats) of one tune right into the first phrase of the second tune, keeping in mind what I just said about allowing no gap in timing. No need to play the full tune into the second tune, just try the transition of going last phrase of one to first phrase of the next. Then try the reverse — put the second tune first and see how they go together. If they go well together, bingo, you have a two-tune medley!

As soon as you make a medley, you have a longer piece of music to play. When playing with others, it’s great to start one tune when you already have in mind a tune to play next; it keeps the music going longer. A session can be a drag if everyone has to stop after every tune and figure out what to play next.

In order to remember the order of tunes in your medley, try using the tune titles to tell a story. If I want to play “Leaving Lismore” and then “Captain Campbell” and “Mrs MacLeod of Raasay” I could imagine leaving the island of Lismore on a boat, running into Captain Campbell on the shore, and together heading over to visit Mrs MacLeod for a picnic. Or maybe there’s romance involved, or a fight, or who knows? The story in your head will not only remind you of what order the tunes are in, but if you actually develop a story that goes along with your music, you will play the tunes better — kind of like playing music for a silent movie. And nobody has to know what story you’re dreaming of as you play — it could be funny, tragic, or bawdy. It will entertain you, and inform your playing.

I once had a student who had difficulty thinking of another tune to play after she finished one. We tried creating story lines with the tune titles, and it wasn’t long before she was able to play 16 tunes in a row — four chapters of the story, with four tunes in each chapter!

Feel free to experiment with putting any two (or 3, or 4…) tunes together into a medley. Be creative!

There are traditions for finding tunes that go well together. We’ll look into that in the next article!

©2019 Ed Pearlman

Pickup Notes: don’t play without ’em

What are “pickup notes”? They are notes that lead us into a beat note. They are easy to notice at the beginning of tunes, where there might be one or two notes before the first beat or bar line, but as we’ll see, they really can be found everywhere, and our awareness of them determines how musical our playing is.

The colored boxes marking phrases in the interactive sheet music on www.fiddle-online.com serve several purpose — first, they allow us to learn manageable building blocks of a tune and understand how the tune is put together, and second, they include pickup notes as part of the phrases. Written music shows us where the beats are, but not where the phrases are.

We can quickly understand pickup notes if we remember that the language of music matches up with spoken (or sung) language. The two beats in the proclamation, “Let’s go to the store” are “go” and “store”. These tell us the main idea, while the other words add nuance. The syllables before those two beats are pickup notes leading to the beats — “Let’s” belongs to “go”, and “to the” belongs to “store”. In music this sentence might be written in jig time:

If we split up the words by beat (which is what the written music shows us), we’d say “Lets. Go to the. Store.” It doesn’t make immediate sense in words or music that way. In order to play naturally, the way we talk, we need to be aware of the pickup notes, so we can say/play “Let’s go” followed by “to the store”, or “Let’s GO to the STORE.”

Pickups at the beginning of a tune lead us into the tune. They prepare us for the tempo and beat of the tune. But they’re not essential to Continue reading Pickup Notes: don’t play without ’em

Controllers of the Left

In the last article we talked about “controllers” of the right arm and hand, as in remote controllers or video controllers, each joint having its role to play. The more aware we become of the role of each joint, the more efficiently we can play. We certainly don’t have to consciously think about these things once we’ve learned about them, but if we just play “naturally” without stopping to notice what “naturally” means for us, we may well be getting in our own way with misconceptions of what our body is actually doing. Video #9 in Technique Video Group 1 is called “Body mapping” and talks about common misconceptions about bowing and fingering that can block us from playing as well as we could.

Let’s try mapping the joints of the left arm and hand, and notice what they do for our fiddling.

Continue reading Controllers of the Left

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

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

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

Finding Articles You Want!

There are some 70 articles in this blog!  Apart from the more recent ones highlighted to the left, you can check out past months in the archive, if you know which month you want, or if you want to hunt through them all.  But the easiest way to find something useful to you is to use the search box at the left.

Here are some keywords you can type into the search box to bring up selected articles you might enjoy.

“advanced” — tips for use of fiddle-online by advanced and professional players

“tuning” — about tuning the violin

“mind/hand/ears” — reversing presumptions on how to learn to play

“playing faster 1”, “playing faster 2”, and “playing faster 3” — three articles setting you up for learning to play faster and understanding how fast to play various tunes

“mapping” — how to “ear-map” your tunes and learn most efficiently

“clarify” — once you’ve “ear-mapped” your tune, how to clarify and embody that map

“troubleshooting 1” — how to handle and avoid various physical problems from playing

“troubleshooting 2”, “troubleshooting 3”, and “troubleshooting 4” — understanding and improving bow control

“troubleshooting 5” and “troubleshooting 6” — addressing left hand problems

“stagefright” — is it learned?  New and organic ideas on how to avoid and handle it

“style” — what are fiddle styles?  how to learn them from within

“nature” — about intonation and mother nature, including a comparison of musical pitches and those of various insects around us

“motivators” — ten aids for motivating your practicing

“brain” — how learning and playing music enhances brain capacity

“musical fork” — how to avoid being derailed by wrong notes

“jokes” — 60 jokes making fun of every kind of musician!  Perhaps the most useful article of all!

**Have any favorite articles you’d like to recommend?  Leave a comment!**

©2018 Ed Pearlman

Do We Do It for the Applause?

Those who watch performances, and those who do them, often have very different ideas of what’s going on. I remember one woman who was convinced that the reason musicians get on stage is for the applause. She felt that musicians play in front of people because they are basically egotists, or narcissists.

If you are working hard learning to play music, you know otherwise. Applause is not much of a motivator for playing music. It’s nice to get applause as appreciation, but it’s not what gets us on stage. In fact, for some sensitive souls, applause is what keeps them *off* the stage! Some have a bad case of stagefright. Oddly enough, stagefright, a fear of how you come across to listeners, a fear that you might screw up in front of them, is in a sense based on a certain kind of egotism, a focus on oneself instead of on the music. I find that people who love he music they’re playing, who know all about who wrote it and what it’s been used for and what it means to them, who really want to convey their enthusiasm for the music to their listeners — these are people who rarely have stagefright.

Let’s go to the extreme case for a moment, and take a look at a survey of one kind of performer — celebrities. Dr. Drew Pinsky managed to get 200 celebrities to fill out a “Narcissism Personality Inventory” survey. The results showed that those who had the least skills — reality TV stars — had the highest scores for narcissism, while those with the most skills — musicians — were the least narcissistic.

This survey suggests that the more actual content, discipline, and skill your work requires, the less narcissistic you are. Some aspects of the music biz can involve hype, buzz, connections, or status, but the bottom line is an inescapable reality check: How you sound. It’s very real. The skills of musicianship and of communicating to listeners are hard earned.

And those hard-earned skills are fun. It’s fun to make progress, to be able to play music you couldn’t play before, to be able to play a tune for people just the way you want to play it.

I remember introducing a group of kids to the violin for their first time. They worked hard, and every one of them had a grim and determined face. They didn’t sound so good. But when it came time to find out how they liked it, all of them loved it and said they had great fun trying out the instrument!

I thought of this when a man came up to me after I had just led a big fiddle orchestra concert, and complained to me that nobody was smiling while they were playing. He said people should be having fun playing fiddle music. I assured him they were having the time of their lives.

Fun isn’t just about smiling and relaxation and games. Working hard to learn a piece of music, and performing earnestly, is fun because it’s so rewarding — even without the smile!

And that reward doesn’t need applause, though it’s nice to see the smiling faces of the audience telling you they enjoyed the music!

©2018 Ed Pearlman

5 Sayings to Help You Practice

Here are 5 sayings for you that might just help you practice and play better!

1. The more you play, the better you get.

2. The more mindfully you play, the faster you get better.

3. It’s not the minutes that count, but the consistency.

4. It’s not how many minutes, but how much you care.

5. If you like it, play it again; if you don’t like it, don’t play it the first time.

If you’d like some brief commentary on each of these sayings (plus a special sixth saying), read on!

Continue reading 5 Sayings to Help You Practice