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

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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

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

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 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:

Continue reading 10 Motivators for Practicing

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  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!

Hosting a fun Multi-level Session

[Interrupting our troubleshooting articles — there will be a couple more articles about the left hand later — first, let’s take a look this month at hosting and playing in sessions.]

Most fiddling is very sociable — playing with others in a session, at a ceilidh, for dancers, providing support for a community function such as a wedding or funeral.  Even in the extreme situation such as an intense fiddle competition, you’re judged primarily on whether your spirit and sense of the tradition is convincing, and the audience is with you, not agin’ ya.

One of the best ways to get comfortable with fiddling as a participatory and sociable activity is through sessions.  Let’s talk here about hosting a good session, and next time about how a player can fit in to any session.

The ideal session is a repeat event with a fairly consistent group of players that get to know each other and their repertoire.  But every session, even such an “ideal” group, has to deal with players with different levels and experiences.

Here are some ideas for hosting a successful and fun multi-level session.

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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

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.
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:

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Will I Ever Get Good At This??

Some fiddlers enjoy whatever music time they can get; others get a little daunted thinking about the long term and wondering how good a player they will become.  The truth is that nobody gets “good” at fiddle; we all just get better.  Most of our focus is on progressing from week to week, or from lesson to lesson.  Thinking too much about the long term can be daunting.

The only judge of whether someone is actually “good” is the listener.  If people keep coming up to you after performances and tell you they enjoyed your playing, were moved by it perhaps, or were impressed, well then you’re a pretty good player.

One time I had an elderly student named Joe who was quite obsessed with knowing whether he would be any good, and whether he had time to get to a decent level of playing.  The next student, Vick, happened to be a relatively new beginner who really wasn’t very good at the instrument because he had two time-consuming jobs, a family, and a sick relative to look after.  But the magical thing was,

Continue reading Will I Ever Get Good At This??