Turkey In the Straw

Here’s a tune you’ll want to play round the Thanksgiving table!  An American classic fiddle tune,  “Turkey in the Straw” sounds to me like it came from a type of old Scottish tune called the Scots Measure.

In that spirit, here’s a very simple version of the tune, but if you replace the numbered measures with the variations marked below the tune, you’ll see how this simple version might have developed into the tune we usually hear today.

The Scots Measure was a type of dance; there are many old tunes of that type but nowadays we have folded the Scots Measures into other forms such as hornpipes and reels. Below is a typical example of a Scots Measure Continue reading Turkey In the Straw

Expression

Someone asked me recently about how to release emotions, ideas, expression into her playing. It’s a great question that players of all levels can get a lot out of for themselves.

Expression doesn’t happen by itself. And it isn’t all about technique.

Putting musical expression into your playing may be easier with better technique, but just because someone has the technique doesn’t mean they’re going to have expression. In fact, it’s easier to learn better technique if you have ideas about musical expression — not only is there more motivation, but if you have an idea of what you want to hear, you’re more likely to figure out how to get that sound.

In classical music, dynamics are often written into the music, and for many, this turns expression into just another technical exercise. One time I judged a high level fiddle competition where a classical player played a nice slow air, but when she played it again, I realized she was playing it exactly the same way. It lacked genuine, responsive feeling.

In this little article we’ll look at some ways you can add expressive ideas to your playing, and then include a few tips on enjoying it more and making sure people hear what you’re trying to do.

You can try this with any tune, but let’s suppose Continue reading Expression

The Amazing Bow!

The violin bow is an amazing contraption. Pick one bow up after another, and they pretty much look the same, but they may feel light or heavy, even though the difference in weight could be a tenth of an ounce (3 grams). More astonishingly, when you try playing with various bows you’ll find some that actually sound a lot better than others.

I remember making a number of drawings of violins and bows many years ago. Bows are very difficult and frustrating to draw because they so long, thin, and seem almost uniform in shape. The stick has a subtle arc to it, called the camber, which can be beautiful but tricky to draw, as it gently curves toward and away from the hairs. It’s a bit more interesting to draw the gracefully shaped tip, and the black curved block of ebony at the frog. (”Frog” is horse terminology — the bow hairs come from a horse’s tail, and the frog is named after the part of the horse’s hoof that’s in the middle of the horseshoe).

When you try playing with different bows, you find differences in responsiveness partly because of the type of wood and the quality of the carving, which affect the strength and springiness of the bow stick. A very weak stick could easily touch the strings with some pressure, and if the hairs are tightened too much, the stick might even arc the wrong way (away from the bow hairs). The camber of the bow, the way the stick curves toward the hairs, allows you to control the tension of the hairs against the strings.

I always recommend Continue reading The Amazing Bow!

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 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

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