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!

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 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

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

A Treasury of Techniques, in short video form

Fiddle-online.com has a unique offering in its Technique Video Groups. Each group has 10 short videos (except #2, where the ninth video is actually 3 videos on learning vibrato).

Visit the TechVids page https://www.fiddle-online.com/technique/learning.php to learn more and/or sign up. There is a video introduction describing each group videos, and there is even a sampler which has one video from each group for only 3 credits. Each full video group of 10 videos is 12 credits for 2 months, and only 8 credits to renew. These videos are practical and help you work with them for about 3 minutes each. They’re great to keep coming back to for maximum benefit, as physical games/exercises, and awareness builders. They’re not really for people to accomplish and move on; they’re really for all levels. This includes Group #1 even though those exercises are really helpful to beginners as well.

Let’s take a quick look at what each group of videos offers —  Continue reading A Treasury of Techniques, in short video form

Fiddle for the Classically Trained

Many fiddlers started playing the instrument with classical training, and some who are classical players are interested in learning fiddle. First we’ll take note of the differences between classical and fiddle, and then we’ll talk about specific ideas to help classical players, to help classical players appreciate and play fiddle music better.

I’ve always noticed that the best fiddlers and classical violinists are good at everything, even if their styles differ. Their pathways to the top, though, expose very different priorities. Fiddlers tend to care most about these things, in roughly this order: timing, energy, bow articulation, expression, ornamentation, tone, intonation, clean notes. Classical violinists tend to care about roughly the same things, but in a different order: Tone, intonation, clean notes, vibrato, bow articulation, expression, timing, energy.

Two items are not shared between the lists. One is ornamentation, which is very important in fiddling, but it is written in for most styles of classical violin, and is executed the same as playing notes cleanly. The other is vibrato, which is essential to classical violin, but is used more as an ornament in fiddling. There is a little more blurring of the lines when speaking of baroque violin playing, where vibrato is also used as an ornament, and ornamentation is often improvised as part of the expression of the music.

In fiddling, timing is essential, and determines whether a fiddler can play for dancers, move the listeners, or play along with, or be listened to, at a session. Notes could be missed, as long as the beat (and preferably also the correct beat notes) are kept up. For classical players, tone and intonation are primary. I’ve heard some very good classical players who have

Continue reading Fiddle for the Classically Trained

What to do this summer!

Our live workshops on fiddle-online will take a break from June through August, but there’s lots to do here! Don’t forget to consult the Quick Guide at the left of the home page to help answer any questions you may have.

Instead of joining us for the live workshops, why not use this summer to catch up on past workshops? Click on the blue “Workshops” bubble on the home page and then click on the blue button that says “Click to see what’s available.”

There are two kinds — the left column shows buttons linking you to information about 23 regular Thursday workshops. Each has materials from at least 3 workshops, arranged by the topic of the month. Many seem self-explanatory but if you click on them you will be able to hear an audio sampling of the tunes and see a description of them.

Some of the titles of the workshops are not so self-explanatory. For example, “Tunes for Ornamentation” offers two slow airs, a jig and a reel as vehicles for learning and making use of different kinds of ornaments. “Tunes of Love” presents Continue reading What to do this summer!

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

Charting Your Practice

The word “practice” can be exciting for those who think of it as a chance to nail down skills and improve, or to feel more in control. For others it conjures up ye olden times when parents or teachers forced them to practice as if playing music was just more homework for school.

The bottom line is that the more you play, and the more mindfully you play, the better you get. When you sense your progress, it’s very rewarding. Not that anybody feels they practiced enough — that’s one comment I’ve never heard from a student! Usually I hear “I played it better at home!” — which is what the fiddle-online.com T-shirt says. (In fact, we have a brand new blue design you might be interested in!)

The problem is that many really useful exercises or practice sessions don’t give immediate results, even if you know they’re doing good things for you.

One way to make the results from practicing more tangible is to use practice charts, which can be combined with some nice rewards (some need nothing more than chocolate!).

Practice charts aren’t just for kids, and don’t need gold stars or silly stickers, though making them colorful is a really good idea. What charts do best is Continue reading Charting Your Practice