Play Higher! Player lower! Can you?

Can you instantly play higher or lower when asked?  Some beginners start off with a sense of high and low on the fiddle that is visual instead of aural, and it can cause quite a few troubles.

If you find yourself (or you have a student or friend) hesitating or reprocessing when someone says to play on a higher string, or to play a lower note than the one you’re on, you may find it really useful to rethink “high” vs “low”.

The only useful meaning of “high” and “low” on the fiddle is based on sound. Does the note sound higher, or lower? Does the string sound higher, or lower?

Some people start learning the fiddle visually, so they look down the fingerboard from the vantage point of their chinrest, and they see that technically the G string looks higher up than the E string. Don’t look! Listen! Clearly the G is lower sounding than the E, and that’s the only thing that counts.

One student I had was an architect, and he unfortunately started off by

Continue reading Play Higher! Player lower! Can you?

Clarifying and Embodying your Tune Map

In the last article we talked about learning a tune starting with the ears, instead of with the eyes or brain. This is not merely about “learning by ear” but about taking a very practical break from the quantifiable — the written notes, names of notes, rules and regs — to allow the ears time to process a tune, its phrases, the beat notes, the pathways it follows to get you from one beat to the next. The ears know a tune long before the brain has a clue.

We are not merely advocating “feeling” instead of “thinking.” By all means, use all you’ve got! But there are traps people fall into, and we’re trying to avoid them. The brain is fully capable of micromanaging and obsessing over details it can’t really understand, while ignoring the key moments and the bigger picture that we really need it for. Many people read music and drill the notes until they feel they get a tune down, but they usually neglect to recognize that the reason they got the tune was because they allowed their ears and hands time to learn it (meanwhile the eyes and brain took all the credit! O, the injustice!).

The bottom line, as mentioned in the last article, is that what we think most about is what we are able to verbalize. Without good words, we have a hard time thinking about, respecting, and developing the job done by the ears and hands (i.e. actually play the fiddle!).

“Ear map” were the words we came up with and emphasized in the last article. To learn a tune, we have to map it out with our ears.

The words for today are “clarify” and “embody.” After mapping out the tune with our ears, we have to clarify the map, and embody the tune in our hands.

Think of how an artist draws a portrait. The first step is

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Ear-mapping your tunes

Learning fiddle starts with the ears. This might be a bit of a mind-bender for some to consider, but really, it’s the ears that teach the hands. The brain won’t admit this, but its job is really to observe and take notes for next time; it doesn’t actually know enough to tell everybody what to do (shhh, don’t tell it). Of course, that doesn’t stop the brain from trying to give orders and get in the way. The eyes, meanwhile, do their best to look super important, but there’s not much they can do when it comes to playing fiddle — music is about sound, and playing the fiddle is about muscles; the eyes can’t even see what’s going on, being farther apart than the strings, and at a weird angle. This is a big comedown for the eyes, who are totally dominant  when it comes to driving, reading, using a computer, and generally helping us navigate through every day.   For more on this perspective, read the blog about “Reversing the Learning Process” (the second one for November 2015 — archives are located at the bottom left).

But here’s the rub — we think about things that we verbalize.  We have a hard time thinking about the work of the ears and hands because we hardly have any words for what they do.  What learners think most about, and therefore work hardest at, are concrete tasks, usually ones that their eyes and brains can direct — for example, the notes on the page, music theory about names of notes, keys, marked bowings.  We imagine that our brain sits at its desk and orders the fingers to play this note and that one, and commands the bow to move so we can hear the notes.

This is all very unfair to the real workers — the ears and hands.  When you make a mistake, don’t get mad at your brain for screwing up. Thank your ears for knowing what the music should sound like and alerting you that they want to hear something different than what you played. Even a total beginner’s ears can learn a group of four notes after hearing them twice, even if the beginner can’t quite play them yet.

It occurred to me that if we spotlight some useful words about the ears and muscles, we could use them to better direct our thoughts.

Let’s start with the words “ear map.” When you listen to a tune you’re learning to play, your ears map out the tune. Since in order to read this article, you have to use eyes, let’s use a visual analogy.  Here is how the ears might “map” a tune to get a handle on it:

We hear the important notes in the context of the beat they land on.  We feel the pulse and how it matches with the beat notes.  The pathway getting us from one beat note to the next is at first a blurry one; we don’t yet know the details.  We want to know where we’re headed first, then we’ll learn how to get there. In fact, if you play those beat notes on time, even if the notes in between only approximate the ups and downs of tune, you will be playing that particular tune and no other. But if you change the notes that land on the beats, you’ll be playing a different tune.  Changing only the in-between notes, the pathways from one beat note to another, comes across as improv!

Next time you want to learn a tune, see if you can think about mapping it out with your ears. Rather than analyzing the map, try to recognize and anticipate the beat notes.  Feel them with your body by moving, tapping, marching, or walking as you listen. Remember, music without timing is just sound.

Occupy your mind with bigger things than the notes you might see on a page — sense the phrases, just as you would hear complete sentences when someone’s speaking to you.  Notice the order of phrases and when they repeat — many tunes are structured as Question & Answer, then Same Question & Better Answer. Note how you feel about the high and low points, where you sense simplicity and where complication, where the music seems comfortable and predictable, and where it surprises.

Demand more of your ears and hold them accountable as you work on a tune.  Rather than play through all the notes as if checking them off a list, ask yourself some questions related to how well you listen — Did you allow your ears enough time to map the music? Are your ears hearing all the beat notes? Are they comfortable with the timing? Did you let your ears sense the profile of the music, the ups and downs, even if some of the specific notes are fuzzy?  Those humble little holes in the sides of your head are doing a lot of work.   They will reward you well for paying attention to them!

In the next article we’ll talk about how to clarify your ear maps, and then come up with some words to help think about what the muscles do as you play. In the mean time, listen anew to your tunes.  Profile how the music travels as it rises and falls on its journey from beat to beat. Give yourself a frequent break from the quantifiable — the written notes, the finger numbers, note letters and rules — and let your ears be your guide.  If you allow your brain to take a break from being in charge, it will observe, take notes, and may well notice some pleasant surprises!

©2018 Ed Pearlman

Music = Relationships

1. The effectiveness of lessons is dependent on the relationship between teacher and student, not merely on the information being conveyed. This can be problematic for an online teaching site! At fiddle-online, we do have live events, videos you can relate to, every question is personally answered, and private lessons are available. But even in learning tunes for yourself, you can always learn more about a tune’s background (Tune Group tunes usually say something about each tune), the composer (if any), its typical uses, even a connection to the title, so you can develop your own relationship to the tune.

2. Music theory is only meaningful in terms of the relationships between notes, and how harmonic ideas progress from one to the next. The difference between major and minor key, for example, is all about the relationship of the third note of the scale to the root note.

3. The length of a note — half note, quarter note, eighth note, etc.– is only meaningful in relation to when the following note is played. A short note at the end of a beat is usually a lead-in to the next beat, and makes no sense without it. You wouldn’t practice the US national anthem by singing “Oh say can you see by the” over and over; “by the” is meaningless without “dawn’s early light.”

4. The impact of a beat note depends on its relationship to the pickup notes or breath that introduced it.

5. The musicality of a duo or ensemble is based on the relationship of its players and their musical connection, not in whether they play the notes, rhythms or tempos correctly. A player who as precise as a metronome but rushes the pickup notes, for example, may well throw the other players off tempo, because it’s the relationship of pickup to beat, the implication of when the beat is about to happen, that makes all the difference. A good dance band has a groove for the beat that comes when the musicians tune in to each other.

6. Good intonation is based on the relationships of notes to each other, not to the correctness of their frequencies or the names of the notes. (This is why the Finger Finder is so helpful.)

7. Expression of a musical idea is only effective because of the relationship between the volume or speed or quality of sound at the beginning and at the end of the idea. It’s almost never about a single note well played.

8. A good session is about the relationship of the players, whether they play together, whether they follow each other’s lead, not whether they get all the notes right or play the correct form or tempo.

9. The excitement or calm of a section of music depends upon its relationship to what was played just before. Playing a bunch of fast tunes is not nearly as exciting as building up to fast tunes from slower ones.

10. A change of tempo, from one kind of tune to another, depends on the relationship of the second beat to the first.

11. A smooth bow change depends on the relationship between the upbow and downbow on either side of the change.  If they are the same speed and pressure, the change will be totally smooth.

12. Quality sound is based on the relationship between speed and pressure on the bow.

13. Finger placement on a fiddle is based on patterns — relationships of scales and arpeggios, and the proximity between fingers, not correct placement according to an objective measurement. For example, fingers on a string or across strings touch or remain a finger’s width apart, or may feel stretched or close depending on the interval, and these connections mean more to the muscle memory than whether a note was technically correct.

14. The value of a practice session is found in its relationship to the previous one. “You don’t get good, you just get better.”

©2017 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

fiddle-online for Advanced and Professional Players

If you are an advanced, even a professional player, there are many uses you can make of the fiddle-online.com site! Below, we’ll take a look at what you can get out of the following offerings —

  • Concert/workshops with world-class guests in various fiddle styles
  • Advanced ideas about bowing, ornaments, and stylistic timing
  • Audio and video about various fiddle styles
  • Articles on the blog, many of which have food for thought for advanced players and teachers
  • Technique videos which can fill in gaps or provide new perspectives
  • Teaching support in the form of techniques, concepts, tunes, and styles

Read on for details!

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10 Motivators for Practicing

Practicing trains our muscles, our ears, our mind to work together. No commander can get much done with untrained or unprepared troops.

The problem is that progress that might be made in a single practice session is not always noticeable. Here are some ways to encourage practicing, drawn from a variety of sources.  Some are good for kids (or the kid in all of us), some for all ages.

Here are 10 ideas for motivating your practice:

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Troubleshooting 5 — Left Hand

We’ve been troubleshooting physical and bowing problems.  Now we’ll turn our attention to the left hand in this and several upcoming articles.

About videos — the “TechVid Groups” mentioned below refer to the  technique videos available on fiddle-online.com.  There are ten videos in each group.  You can work with them in real-time or at your own pace to make use of the exercises while being reminded of what to aim for.  Written descriptions are only a rough sketch of what to do.  In fact, often videos are not even enough — many times I’ve seen people not really discover the personal context for using these exercises until they had a lesson.  If you want this kind of help, a one-off  online lesson can be arranged via the Credit Store.

Below are suggestions for handling or preventing the following problems:

  • Playing out of tune/Not sure where to put fingers
  • Playing too slowly/Reluctant fingers
  • Notes not coordinating with bow
  • Trouble with fourth finger

Continue reading Troubleshooting 5 — Left Hand

Troubleshooting 4 — More Bow Control! (2 of 2)

In our last article we discussed ways to improve your bow control, especially if it’s getting in your way sometimes.  Here are a few more tips on that subject.

About videos — the “TechVid Groups” mentioned below refer to the  technique videos available on fiddle-online.com.  There are ten videos in each group.  You can work with them in real-time or at your own pace to make use of the exercises while being reminded of what to aim for.  Written descriptions are only a rough sketch of what to do.  In fact, often videos are not even enough — many times I’ve seen people not really discover the personal context for using these exercises until they had a lesson.  If you want this kind of help, a one-off  online lesson can be arranged via the Credit Store.

Below are suggestions for handling or preventing the following problems:

Troubleshooting 2: Sound Problems

In the last article we talked about building awareness of your right hand and use of the bow that can help you diagnose your own troubles when you make sounds you don’t like or for times when you don’t quite feel in control of the bow.  This time we’ll get specific about troubles that happen and what you can do to help fix or prevent them.  We’ll start here with troubleshooting the making of annoying sounds, and in the next article, we’ll focus on troubleshooting bow control and physical restrictions you might be feeling about your use of the bow.

About videos — many of the exercises described below correspond to technique videos available on fiddle-online.com.  These videos allow you to work in real-time or at your own pace to make sure you learn and make use of the exercises while being reminded of what to aim for.  They can be very helpful because verbal descriptions are only a rough sketch of what to do.  In fact, often videos are not even enough — I’ve had many students discover that it takes a personal context to apply these ideas to their own playing.  If you feel this way, a one-off  online lesson can be arranged via the Credits Store.

Keep in mind that squeaks, scratches, and other weird sounds happen to everybody.  The worst thing you could do is to stop playing in the middle of a tune and try to fix these sounds, first of all because unless they are a regular occurrence, they are just a mistake, not a flaw; and second, because by disrupting the continuity and timing of a tune just to chase after a stray sound (or even a wrong note), you may well have hurt your playing with a worse mistake than the one that’s already water under the bridge.  Make a mental note about the problem, and see if it happens again in the same place (this helps build awareness and is a great performance skill).  If it does, there may be a technical problem to address — a trouble to shoot!

Below are suggestions for addressing and preventing the following problems:

  • squeaks
  • scratches
  • whistles
  • shaky bow or inconsistent sound
  • thin or timid sound

Continue reading Troubleshooting 2: Sound Problems