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

Continue reading Clarifying and Embodying your Tune Map

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

Joining in a Session

In the last article we talked about hosting a multi-level session.  Let’s take a look at how to participate in a session, however it’s being hosted.  If it is a multi-level session of the type I described in the last article, it’s no problem for you to participate.  All you’ll really want to have ready is some tune that you like and know how to start, so that when it’s time for you to jump in, you know what to do.  You might want to have two tunes in mind, in case one of them was recently played already.  You’ll be able to start it at the tempo you like.

The most important trick to starting a tune at a session is to make its rhythm clear.  Even if people know the tune, they can’t join in with you until they figure out what kind of tune it is — jig, reel, strathspey, air, waltz.  For others to know, you have to know, and convey, the rhythm.  Regardless of your level as a player, you can certainly choose a reliable session tune for yourself, and know the type of tune, the title, and the key.  True, many session players don’t know these things, but if you just have a tune or two ready to pitch in to the group, it’s not so hard to look up and remember a few things about it.  It can help accompanists if you call out the key, and helps melody players to know the name of the tune if they ask afterwards.

To play with good rhythm depends on knowing the beat notes.  All you really must do to feel comfortable starting a tune at a session is

Continue reading Joining in a Session

What’s in a fiddle style?

The magic of a fiddle tune is not in the notes, but in the feeling, the cultural need, the “style” that produced the tune and uses the tune for listening, dancing, marching, or other community functions.  Even in classical music, where many musicians play all their music with the same sound, the pieces come from different eras, different cultures, and sound better when the musician draws upon those characteristics.  Some classical musicians specialize in renaissance music, or baroque music using original instruments, or German romantic, or American modern, etc., and may play these types of music quite differently.palette

Fiddle music is local music from around the world, and has not only noticeably different styles from one country to another, but usually is played differently from region to region, or even from village to village.  Some local styles are built entirely on the playing of a well-respected fiddler.
I once heard a concert by a group that presented an eclectic mix of folk tunes from around the world.  When the group got around to some of the tunes and styles I knew best, it became clear that while all the melodies were interesting, they were all played the same way, because that group was not knowledgeable about the many styles they were drawing tunes from.

To those who know a style, it is truly moving to hear a great player from that tradition.  It can be entertaining and impressive, but not moving, to hear someone get all the notes of the tunes but miss out on the soul of the style.  There’s a song that says it best:  no matter how amazing the player, “it don’t mean a thing if ain’t got that swing.”

How do you learn a fiddle style?  Like anything else, what you learn depends on what you become aware of.  The more you are aware of, the more you hear, and the more chance you have of incorporating that awareness in your playing.  If you want to find out what “that swing” is, you need to listen to really good players from the tradition, and try to get a sense of what they are trying to do.  What is it that moves those who care about that kind of music?

The best goal is to learn a style from within, rather than Continue reading What’s in a fiddle style?

Tuning the Violin

In the last 3 posts we’ve looked at ideas for playing in tune.  Now we get to the part that has nothing to do with playing skills:  tuning the violin itself.  It’s kind of a necessary evil.  If you could have a self-tuning violin, and never learned how to tune it yourself, it wouldn’t affect your ability to play music.  (If you’re an inventor, get cracking!)strings4tuning

The most useful skill is to be able to tune your violin by ear, but even if you use an electronic tuner there are a few techniques everyone needs to know, so we’ll discuss both approaches — how to use the pegs and the universal ability to match pitches.  This is a pretty detailed explanation, so you may already know some of it; hopefully some of it will fill in some gaps or give you something to think about in a new way.

I once tried tuning a violin exclusively with an electronic tuner, and it took me a lot longer than doing it by ear.  The reason is that the eyes, and all the mental processing they require, are a lot slower than the ears.  This is true in tuning, in playing, in reading music, in watching your fingers, in watching other people’s fingers — sometimes the eyes just get in the way of muscle movement that’s going to happen with or without them, and other times the eyes just require more thought, attention, processing, to get something done, than the ears do.

Playing a violin that’s in tune is like starting on a level playing field.  If it’s out of tune, everything else has to adjust to make the music come out right, and that’s just not fair!

Electronic Tuner

We’ll start by talking about the electronic tuner.  Continue reading Tuning the Violin

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

Playing In Tune 1: Relationships

Everybody wants to play in tune, but not everybody can agree on what that even means.  Much of it is not really a scientific thing, contrary to the beliefs of our electronic tuners.  It’s far more human than that.  It’s about relationships — your ear comparing one note to another, your fingertips either touching each other or stretching apart on a string or across strings.  Sometimes it’s about which notes want to lean sharp or flat in order to sound good.

harmonyspheresalchemyThat’s what we’ll take a look at here.  Having a better understanding of what you’re aiming for makes playing in tune a much easier goal to reach.  In the next couple of articles, we’ll look first at ways to set up your hand for more effortless and accurate playing, and then we’ll go over some games/exercises to build good intonation into your playing.

First, some perspective.  Important as it is, intonation is not our top priority.  If you play out of tune, but in time and with good spirit, others can still play along with you, enjoy listening to you, and dance to your music.  Good intonation makes it more pleasant and rewarding but is not essential.  You can play beautifully in tune, but unless you have good timing, your music will be hard to listen to, impossible to dance to, and discouraging for other musicians who want to play along.  Timing is a dealbreaker; intonation is not.

Having said all that, you still sound much better when you play in tune!  Sloppy intonation can also change the whole mood of a tune, for example by making a major tune sound minor or sour.

OK, so what’s intonation all about?  It’s about relationships.  It’s not about matching a note to your electronic tuner, though that can be a useful test.  It’s not about seeing an F# on a sheet of music and knowing where you’re supposed to put your finger, though that is a helpful skill.  And it’s not about sticking the little colored strips on the fingerboard — your eyes can’t even see those strips accurately from the far end of the fiddle, and I’m afraid they are a symptom of a terrible disease called fret-envy!

The bottom line about finger relationships on the fiddle comes down to a simple question — Continue reading Playing In Tune 1: Relationships

All Music Is Improv!

Improvisation is about finding a path to get to the right note at the right time.  Composers like Beethoven improvised all the time, and managed to write down some of what they created.  When we play those compositions, they should sound as fresh as when they were written.

Too often, learning music seems to be about perfecting the playing of a sequence of notes.  It really should be about appreciating the way a tune (or composer) arrives at its musical destinations–the next beat, next phrase, next theme.  This is how the tune makes musical statements.  This is what the tune has to say, and what you have to say when you play it.
two-pathways
To focus on the perfection of each note is like focusing on each letter that spells each word you say as you speak.  Ultimately, you want to spell well, and say everything the way you want it to come across, but getting each detail right is not your first priority.  That would be like not seeing the forest for the trees.

Here’s a basic exercise in improvisation:

Continue reading All Music Is Improv!