Playing those higher notes

Most fiddlers leave their left hand in the same place all the time, in what classical players call “first position.”  You can get by very well this way, but there are some great tunes that make us play higher up the neck.

Let’s take a look at several different ways to play those higher notes. If you already have a way to do it, this article might give you a few new ideas to try, and if you tend to avoid those higher positions, read on — it’s not that hard to play higher if you find an approach that suits you, and practice doing it a bit. We’ll be talking about ways to “crawl” up the neck as well as exercises for learning to shift positions.

Before Louis Spohr invented the chin rest in around 1820, I suspect that violinists and fiddlers held their instruments the same way. According to the great violinist Ruggiero Ricci, they used to hold the neck with their hand, with the thumb partway up the neck. They had to reach back to play the normal first-finger notes, but they were able to crawl up the neck with their fingers and play high notes without moving their thumb. Apparently the virtuoso Niccolo Paganini once said his secret was that he had only one hand position.

After the chin rest was invented, violinists held the instrument with their chin or jaw, which freed up their hands to shift up and down the neck by bending at the elbow and keeping the fingers and thumb always in the same relative position. But I suspect that most fiddlers continued with the old way of holding the neck with their hand, and moving their fingers around while their thumb stayed put. This might have required that their left hand collapse at least partway at the wrist in order to reach back to first position — a position classical teachers frown on mightily these days.

Whichever way you hold your left hand, the old idea of “crawling” up the neck with the fingers is very useful and worth learning. “Crawling” refers to  Continue reading Playing those higher notes

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

Continue reading Clarifying and Embodying your Tune Map

Troubleshooting 6 – More Left Hand!

One of the main culprits causing fiddling to sound out of tune is the 2d finger. It wants to be next to the third finger; that’s its natural place. When we have to place it next to the 1st finger, and far from the third, it’s awkward but definitely doable, by everyone, if they think about it and teach their muscle memory the right way. Those who don’t want to think about it tend to throw the 2d finger down somewhere between 1st and 3d, and that apathy has a price — it turns everything a bit sour on the account of just one or two notes.

Note about “TechVid” videos mentioned below — they refer to the  technique video groups 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:

  • Trouble playing low 2d finger
  • Trouble playing low 1st finger
  • Not immediately sure which way is higher/lower
  • Trouble playing fingers individually, especially 2d and 3d

Continue reading Troubleshooting 6 – More Left Hand!

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 3 — Bow Control Problems (1 of 2)

In our last article we did some troubleshooting for annoying sounds and how to stop or prevent them.  This time, and in the next article, we’ll continue troubleshooting bowing but focus on restrictions you may feel while trying to use the bow.  Your bow is your voice, where all your timing and music come from.  Bow control is at the heart of enjoying your playing.

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 Credit Store.

Below are suggestions for handling or preventing the following problems:

  • Problems with timing or coordination between left & right hands
  • Rough bow changes and disconnected notes
  • Trouble playing near the frog
  • Weak or noisy start to your notes

Continue reading Troubleshooting 3 — Bow Control Problems (1 of 2)

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

10 Ways to Build a Good Bow Sound

In the last article we did some troubleshooting for physical problems, and that’s not only useful for easing or overcoming problems but also for preventing them.  The same applies this time — for bowing and sound problems.  You can always come back to these for reference, and also refer to corresponding technique videos on this site.

This article will focus on 10 ways to improve basic bow awareness.  This provides a foundation for fixing most any bowing or sound problem.  The next article will troubleshoot more specific problems such as squeaks & squawks, bouncy bowing, hitting wrong strings, thin or inconsistent sound, disconnected bows, running out of bow, difficulty playing fast, timing problems, coordination between left and right hands, trouble playing near the frog, trouble crossing back and forth between two strings, trouble playing two strings at once.

Let’s start with the heart of the matter — three variables that make for a good (or bad) bow sound.

Keep in mind that understanding an exercise has little to do with allowing your ears and muscle memory to really learn its benefits.  Doing it, at least a few times in a row, gives your ears and hands a chance to get the feel of it and get something out of it.  Working with the videos is helpful because they give your eyes something to besides get in your way!

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.

The Heart of Your Bow Sound.  There are three factors that are at the heart of a good (or bad) bow sound.  You can fix your own squeaks, whistles, scratches & other annoying sounds by becoming more aware of these three variables — bow pressure, bow speed, and distance from the bridge.  There’s a ratio between the first two — generally, more pressure and more speed go together, and less pressure/speed work together as well.  Notice that playing closer to the frog automatically adds pressure, and playing closer to the tip removes weight/pressure from the bow, so your sound can change simply by moving the bow.  These relationships all change, though, depending on the distance from the bridge (which is why staying in the middle makes it easier to have a consistent sound).  Playing close to the fingerboard requires less pressure, and close to the bridge requires more pressure.  Squeaks, whistles and scratches happen when these rations get out of whack.  If this seems like a lot to think about, remember that the whole point is not to overthink it, but rather to teach your muscle memory and ears to handle these things for you, and to help you troubleshoot when there’s a recurring problem.

Below are 10 practical games/exercises to help you get a feel for these issues, so you can play better, and be able to diagnose the cause of unwanted noises or movements you may find yourself making.

Continue reading 10 Ways to Build a Good Bow Sound

Troubleshooting 1: Physical Problems

Do you have aches & pains or physical limitations when fiddling?  Or feel restricted in the kind of sound you can get?  Do you have trouble hearing and matching notes and patterns?   In this and the next two articles, we’re going to troubleshoot these problems and offer some tips on how to address them.  We’ll start with a look at physical aches and pains, next time talking about sound and bowing problems, and then issues to do with left hand notes and pattern difficulties.  We may need to spend several articles on each of these issues; I hope you find them useful and enjoyable.  Your comments are always welcome!

Let’s start off with the bow hand, work our way into shoulder and neck troubles, down the left arm to the hand and fingers there.  Finally, we’ll talk a bit about the back, hips and legs.

Keep in mind that many aches and pains are not be caused by the violin, so you should see a doctor or physical therapist, of course, if problems persist.

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.

Below are suggestions for addressing or preventing the following concerns:

  • Shaky right hand
  • Stiff right wrist/restriction on length of bow
  • Right forearm tightness
  • Right shoulder ache
  • Neck pain
  • Tooth or jaw pain after playing
  • Left wrist and hand tension or awkwardness
  • Back ache
  • Ankle pain

Continue reading Troubleshooting 1: Physical Problems

Playing in Tune 3: Games & Exercises

In the last two articles we talked first about how intonation is about relationships, not about the placement of individual notes or fingers.  Last time we looked at ways to improve your hand position so you can play more accurately and effortlessly.  Here we’re going to offer some games/exercises to build good intonation into your hands and ears.  Your brain can help understand the patterns, but can’t direct your fingers to the right places; you need to build that physically into your muscle memory and your hardworking ears.

earhandLo-Hi Scale.  This exercise really gives you the basic relationship you want to get into your muscle memory so you can play both the low and high positions for each finger.   It’s video #10 in Technique Video Group #1.  Start with an open string.  Halfway through the bow, play first finger right near the nut (first circle on the Finger Finder), for the second half of the bow.  Try it a few times to get used to it, but once you do, you can just do it on the downbow, and on the upbow, again play open string for half a bow, and for the other half, play first finger in the high position (next circle on Finger Finder, a finger-width past the low position).

Remember, you are not just playing notes!  Checking your pitches against your electronic tuner won’t necessarily teach your ears or fingers what to do next time!  Give your ears and fingers a chance to compare open string with low first finger, and then Continue reading Playing in Tune 3: Games & Exercises