Physicality: Preventing Injury When Learning Fiddle

Practicing and performing music is a very physical activity.  In spite of all the mental and emotional exertion that goes into it, we must always remember how physical it is.

Below are some thoughts about how to play and learn in a healthy way so you can prevent physical injury from playing music, and here’s a website link that can give you lots hand painof information about this subject, including practical tips, anatomical information, and a list of excellent books.
Continue reading Physicality: Preventing Injury When Learning Fiddle

At Musicians’ Expense (music jokes, not taxes!)

The nice thing about jokes is that most people forget them soon after laughing-animalshearing them, so they can enjoy them again next time!  Here’s a nice list of all those music jokes you may have heard and forgotten.

Note:  There are no fiddle jokes here.  Is there a message in this?  Is the fiddle such an awesome intrument that it’s not funny?  Or do people already feel so sorry for us that they don’t need to take us down a notch?

OK, get ready.  No instrument is sacred here!  (Caution #1:  Do not read this while playing a wind instrument.)  (Caution #2: These are not all in good taste.)

The prodigy:  A boy said to his dad, “I want to be a musician when I grow up.”  His dad said, “Hold on there son, you can’t do both.”

Harmonica: What do you call a harmonica player’s accompanist?  Fido.

Viola:  The violist said to the violinist, “You know, we violists can play 64th notes.”  The violinist said, “Oh, yeah?  Let’s hear them.”  So the violist played him one.

Oboe:  What is a minor second?  Two oboes playing in unison.

Bagpipes:  Why do pipers always walk while they play?  To get away from the noise.  (It also makes them harder to hit.)

Continue reading At Musicians’ Expense (music jokes, not taxes!)

Music Is Time

I once had a beginning student named Harry, who was 72 years old.  He did quite well, generally, but one day I heard him playing a tune all wrong.

The tune had the rhythm of quarter, eighth, eighth, repeated four times.  Then there were two quarter notes and a run of eighths.
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He had played this tune fine before, but that day, he played all the notes straight through as eighth notes–da da da da da da.  At that moment he was reading the tune and completely ignoring the written rhythms.

I said, “Harry, what are you doing?  You know this tune.  See the quarter notes, and the eighth notes?”

Said Harry, “I didn’t want to waste time.”
Continue reading Music Is Time

The Musical Fork In the Road

It’s a nice time for a hike — smell the fresh air, step over tree roots and rocks, notice a fallen tree, glimpse a vista through a clearing.

Then comes the fork in the road. The trail diverges and we have to pay attention and make a choice of which way we want to go. Once we’re on the new path, though, we once again fork-in-the-road_300step over rocks, sniff the air, chat with a friend.

Playing a piece of music is a little like following a trail through the scenery. Our footsteps are the beats. We follow a trail through the notes. And often we play notes that follow the same path we’ve followed before–until we come to the fork in the road.

Familiar note patterns–whether from other phrases in the piece, other pieces we know, or from scales and arpeggios we’ve practiced–are very helpful in learning and performing music. But our fingers can also be duped by them. The fingers may happily follow a familiar trail as we busily watch all the scenery–intonation, tone, dynamics–only to find ourselves suddenly fumbling through the woods because we got off the trail.

Instead of being frustrated that we messed up, it may be that we just need to Continue reading The Musical Fork In the Road

Body mapping – Keeping mind and body on the same page!

A colleague once loaned me a book about what’s called “body mapping” for musicians.  Even browsing through it revealed some fascinating information about learning fiddle.

vitruvian-man-leonardo-da-vinciDid you know posture is not about having a straight back?  Or that your hand doesn’t rotate around the middle finger?  Did you know your arm requires the use of four joints, not three?

Below, I’ll outline answers to these questions.  These are just a few of countless interesting and important points about how our body actually works, versus how we might imagine it works.

Here’s an example:  When we play violin, our left hand is not parallel to the fingerboard — the palm faces in the direction of the left shoulder.  Those who imagine their left hand to be parallel to the fingerboard are thinking of a body map that doesn’t match reality.  They are likely to have a hard time playing notes in tune, because they imagine they have to separate their fingers sideways, when in fact they only need to straighten and bend their fingers.  You can see what I mean by placing two fingers on a string and sliding the 2d finger up and down the string — you are just straightening and bending that finger.  Those who map this out wrongly in their head may instead make awkward hand or wrist adjustments to compensate for the imagined difficulty.

Another common imagined difficulty has to do with how the right arm actually moves, as opposed to how some imagine it moves.  There’s a technique video (#9 in Group 1) that addresses both the fingering and this bowing problem with some awareness exercises that can help you bow and finger more efficiently, and sound better.

One book on this subject is called What Every Musician Needs to Know about the Body, by Barbara Conable.  A number of related books can be found at this link.

As to those body questions I mentioned–Do you think your back should be straight?  I have seen people walk around as if their spine is a pole, and seem to feel this is healthy, but according to the book mentioned above, your spine actually needs curvature and flexibility, and if you try to make your back super straight, you actually put weight and stress on the rear of the spine, where the nerves are, rather than on the weight-bearing side of the spine (its front side).  One thing that gives you good posture is the balancing of your head, which involves the ability to move your head in all directions, and yet always be able to come back to the balancing place.  You don’t want your head fixed in a rigid, “correct” place.

As the the rotation of the hand, it’s interesting to note that the hand does not rotate around the middle finger.  In fact, because of the way the forearm twists, the axis of rotation is around the little finger.  If you imagine your hand rotates around a different part of your hand, then you might be straining something.

Lately in teaching fiddle, I’ve found it interesting and helpful to point out that the bow arm uses four joints, not three.  We know about the wrist, elbow and shoulder, but might not stop to consider that the shoulder can’t lift without using the joint where the collarbone connects just below your chin.  It’s a joint we never need for playing the fiddle!  If you do use it, whether on left or right, you’re likely to strain some muscles.

This “mapping” of the body can be a tremendous help in playing in a more relaxed way, which translates into being able to play better and for longer periods of time without strain.

© Ed Pearlman 2015

Pointers about Online Classes

Taking an online class is pretty easy on  — here are some pointers about making them fit your needs.

It’s easy — when you sign up for a class, you’ll find yourself on the class page where there’s a link.  No Skype calling or anything — you’ll just click the link at class time and join in.  For details and first time users of Zoom, see this page.  “Signing up” for Zoom can be done in advance or when you go to class, and takes a minute just to enter email address and the name you’d like other people to see when you’re onlinonline class screene.  You’ll need a computer, tablet, or smartphone with a camera and mike, which they all have nowadays.

Before signing up for a class you can hear an audio sample of the tune we’ll work on.  The class is never about just getting the notes; it’s about ways to understand, remember, phrase the tune, and how to think musically about it.  Technical ideas are integrated, and often relate to some of the technique videos available on this site.

Sheet Music
As soon as you sign up and go to the class page, you’ll have access to sheet music and audio of the tune in question, in case you wish to take a look before, during, or after class.  You get the most out of classes, though, if during class you try to learn by ear.

You see the teacher and other students on your screen, can speak or play any time, except at a few times Continue reading Pointers about Online Classes

Future Tech, or How to Learn Fiddle Without Really Trying

New technology, new pharmaceuticals, new strategies…you deserve to know the latest ideas to help you learn and play well without really trying.

An earlier article talked about ways to unlearn stagefright — well, some people just take pills, like beta-blockers — end of problem!  There are also physical gadgets out there — to keep a bow on track, fit your bow hand into a corrective mold, electronically play a the next note of a tune every time you tap on a drum, or show a piano student which keys to press remotely from an online connection.fiddle lying down2

Here are some products so advanced they haven’t been developed yet.

Magnetic Tune Teacher–electromagnets are embedded in the fingerboard and activated based on a programmed piece of music, while magnets in the student’s fingers are drawn to the right place at the right time for the right amount of time, thus teaching their fingers to play the music, or covering for them if they forget. One slight drawback is the minor surgery required to insert the finger magnets.  Continue reading Future Tech, or How to Learn Fiddle Without Really Trying

Intonation and Mother Nature

Mother Nature provides us with many ways to learn to play in tune, and also ways to mercilessly annoy our friends and neighbors.  This is because we all have a very good sense of pitch.
For example, we can wiggle our 3d finger on the A string around a D# and produce a sound that anybody could mistake for a mosquito.  That note vibrates the air around it at about 600 times per second, the same frequency as the beating wings of a mosquito.

This means that everybody is able to recall and match pitches that they have heard many times.  Of course, it is also just plain fun to know how to imitate a mosquito — or a bumblebee or a housefly (wiggle the first finger right at the nut on the G string — this is close to 200 vibrations per seconbeed, same as the bee and fly).  Below is a chart of how some natural sounds match up with musical instruments, in case you’re interested in other annoying sounds.

Those who think they have a bad sense of pitch, I find, are usually focusing their attention on their muscles and not their ears.  Often, singers who can’t match a pitch are Continue reading Intonation and Mother Nature

Pentatonic is Everywhere

One of the most popular note patterns in musical styles around the world is the pentatonic scale.  I often start beginners off  with tunes based on this scale because they can be great tunes, but easy to learn.  Some pentatonic fiddle tunes use only 2 fingers.
This scale has been used for centuries in Celtic music, American folk, gospels, blues, country, rock, jazz, East European, West African, Chinese, Mongolian, Japanese, Greek, Native American, Southeast Asian, South American, Afro-Caribbean — in fact, it’s hard to find places where the pentatonic scale is not in common use.  It has been important in classical music as well, particularly in Romantic and impressionistic music.

Carl Orff believed the pentatonic scale was natural for children, so the Orff method focuses on its use for younger learners.  It’s also part of the Kodaly method, and us used in Waldorf schools, for similar reasons.
piano keyboard
It’s easy to visualize the 5 notes of this scale when you see it on a piano:  Continue reading Pentatonic is Everywhere

Is Stagefright Learned?

It’s natural to feel nervous energy when performing.  We know that in performance, nothing is guaranteed, and that’s part of what makes it exciting and fascinating.

But nervous energy is different from performance fear, stagefrightwhich we usually call “stagefright.”  Stagefright seems to happen when performers focus mostly on their weaknesses instead of their strengths.  They worry about what people might think, whether they’ll get through a tricky spot, or whether some unforeseen problem will throw them off.  They might even feel unsure if they’re “deserving” of being out on stage.

In other words, people with stagefright are thinking about themselves, not about the music.

My theory is that stagefright is learned, and can be unlearned.  Often I see advice to people about special tricks Continue reading Is Stagefright Learned?