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

Controllers of the Right

We understand controllers — computer mouse, keyboard, remote controls, steering wheels, clutch and stickshift, rudders, video game controllers — gadgets that we have to coordinate in order to get something done. Those who are good at typing, computing, driving, video games, know how to efficiently use those controllers to get the desired results.

It’s kind of like that with playing the fiddle. We have controllers on our right arm and hand, and controllers on our left arm and hand. For the moment let’s talk about the controllers on the right.

Once your right hand is positioned with right leverage to control the bow (see the first five videos in Technique Video Group 1), the primary controllers on our right hand are Continue reading Controllers of the Right

When Push Comes to Pull…a New Year’s Resolution

The best New Year’s resolutions are those that flow, not the ones that we force upon ourselves. Resolutions that remove obstacles to success, and those that require us to work with and for others, can actually lower the heart rate and blood pressure, and decrease anxiety and depression, while increasing our motivation to take on and persevere in difficult tasks. You might like to explore these ideas in detail in the book Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride, by David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University.

In fiddling, these ideas suggest the benefits of playing music with others or taking a class, or having a private teacher to work with. I think folks taking our live online workshops enjoy getting together regularly, playing with the instructor (privately, with other mikes muted) and asking questions or playing for comments if they choose.

DeSteno’s ideas also suggest tell us that finding ways to remove obstacles is a better and more lasting way to learn than to try to power through those obstacles merely by “working harder”. This certainly applies to work on timing, intonation, note patterns, and sound quality, but in this article, we’re going to focus on ways to improve probably the most important aspect of fiddling — bowing. Instead of prescribing complicated movements, we’re going to describe natural ones you can visualize and apply.

The most important thing you could do for your bowing is to make sure that your mental picture of what’s going on with your bow arm actually matches what is happening. This is called “body mapping.” You can find a brief video devoted to this topic in Technique Video Group 1 (video #9), which talks about two bodymapping ideas for fiddlers — more natural left hand fingering and the right way (i.e. most efficient way) to move your bow arm.

Contrary to a fairly popular belief, the downbow is a push, not a pull. These are both natural movements, but pushing a downbow is the motion that actually gives you more control and better sound. It’s very much like drawing a line. Imagine placing your chin on a table with a large piece of paper (or literally try it!), and draw a straight line toward your right. You naturally push the pencil away from you, leading with your hand. It’s the same motion you might use if you were whittling wood with a knife, the safe way — away from you.

When you push the pencil or the knife — or the bow — away from you, your arm opens at the elbow. The elbow itself moves forward, eventually straightening into a line along your arm. When you reverse the movement and bring your arm back up to where it was so you can draw another line or carve another strip of wood, you lead with your wrist, and pull the rest of your arm along. As you pull, your elbow bends and moves toward the back or side. Meanwhile you are naturally moving the pencil, the knife, the bow, in a straight line. This is the most natural motion for bowing.

The opposite motion is also natural but not helpful to playing the fiddle. It involves trying to pull the bow downbow, and feels normal only if we think of grabbing the bow as we might grab a stick (which in a way, it is!). In this motion, we lock our elbow and pull the elbow backward, engaging the chest muscles for strength, as we would do in a tug of war, or if we were sawing a piece of wood. Bowing this way is not uncommon for beginners but it makes us sound like we are sawing, with a rough sound, because we are moving as if we’re sawing wood! Because the elbow is stiffer, the bow can’t move in a straight line (imagine drawing that line on paper with a stiff elbow), and we can only use a small portion of the bow without running into the bridge or fingerboard. We can make do with this kind of bowing if we only play short bows, as in jigs or reels, but sounds terrible for any longer use of bows, as in waltzes or other slow tunes. When the bow is not straight, it migrates toward or away from the bridge as we play, and changes the whole recipe of speed and pressure that gives a consistent sound. And if the bow is crooked when changing direction, it won’t sound smooth because the bow is forced to partially slide sideways as it starts moving the other way.

So the natural and most productive motion of the downbow is to think of it as a push, moving away from you, and led by the wrist. The natural way of playing an upbow is to think of it as a pull, led again by the wrist, which bends toward your nose and draws the upper arm behind it only as needed, saving a lot of muscular energy (the pecs are never needed for playing fiddle!).

Try practicing the downbow pushing movement by placing something (a music stand, a wall or door, or an expensive vase!) just behind your elbow as you play a downbow. If you’re using the pushing movement, your elbow will move away from the object and you won’t even touch it. If you are pulling the bow down, your elbow will knock into the object, and if it’s an expensive vase, you probably won’t do it again!

The more you think “push downbow” and “pull upbow” and “lead with the wrist”, the more you’ll discover that you can draw a smoother bow, with a better sound, and have more control. It allows you to control the bow using just your forefinger instead of your whole arm. You play better and get less tired. To explore these ideas, you might want to work with the bodymapping video mentioned above on www.fiddle-online.com, and make use of these ideas deliberately in some of the other Tech Vid Group 1 videos such as Long Bows, Double Strings, and Short Bows, as well as in Notches, Circular Bows, and Breathing Bows in Tech Vid Group 2.

I feel sorry for French fiddlers and violinists. The French word for playing a downbow is “tirer” or “pull”, and the word for playing an upbow is “pousser” or “push”. This is exactly the opposite of the most useful way to map out what the body actually needs to do when using the bow!

By reframing how you think of the movement of your bow arm to a pushed downbow and a pulled upbow, both led by the wrist, with the rest of the arm passive, you’ll remove some very common obstacles to improving your sound and bow control. Your New Year’s resolution to improve bowing will be a breeze!

©2019 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

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

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