Improving your playing is rewarding in and of itself, but a big part of the reward is getting a chance to play with others. An earlier article talks all about hosting a session at your house, which is one great way to play with others, but here I’d like to encourage you to consider playing out in your community.
You don’t have to be at a professional level to play for people who would really appreciate your music, and it does wonderful things for your playing. Here a few thoughts on where to play, and how to get ready for it.
You’ll want to pull some music together with one or more friends. Keep in mind that multiple fiddles tend to average out in sound, so don’t worry about a few mistakes here and there, or about a few bad sounds. When you play with others, it averages out into a nice sound. The big goal is to play in time, so you can stay together, and so that listeners can tap their toes or sit back and enjoy a slower tune. They won’t care about a few bad notes! So pull together another fiddler or two (or more) and a backup person — guitar is the most portable. You could even host some sessions in order to find the right people to make a good mix, and a good mix is more about compatible people than it is about what level the players are. If you have fun playing together, the listeners will love it.
I will say right now that I know someone who is, frankly, a terrible fiddler, and yet he has ventured out and played at some community functions where people loved having him and asked him back with his small group.
It’s normal to have some nerves about performing. Performing is live, and anything can happen. You need to be alert, so naturally your nerves need to be geared up to some extent. The only people who don’t get nervous at all are those who don’t care.
But to those who let the nerves get the best of them, I have a simple suggestion — make your performance be about the music, not about yourself.
I’ve seen lots of suggestions about combatting stagefright, ranging from mentally undressing the audience to taking drugs. Most of these bits of clever advice miss the point.
The point is that your music has something to say to your listener, even if you can’t verbalize what that is. What is your music saying? It’s certainly not about how many mistakes you might make, what you’re wearing, how many listeners there are, or whether somebody misspelled your name.
Find out as much as you can about your music before you perform it. It’s impossible to find out everything, whatever everything might even mean, so when it’s time to play, go with whatever preparation you had time for, and convey the feel of that music to your listeners.
Who wrote the tune? When? Why? How has the tune been used? How did you find it? What did it mean to you when you heard the tune, or played it? One of the reasons I like to talk to an audience is
There is a kind of musical memory that everyone can learn and improve, and it’s not about how many tunes you know.
A good musician, while teaching a lesson or engaged in a rehearsal, can listen to an entire set of tunes, and yet keep in mind which parts were solid and where improvements can be made, noting ideas to heighten the impact of a phrase, smooth out a transition, fix a note mistake, change a bowing to bolster sound or timing, adjust a distracting ornament, and so on. A good lesson or rehearsal will include the chance to outline and work on all these points of improvement. And it’s only possible with a good musical memory.
Performing does not just mean playing while a bunch of people watch. You’re performing a tune any time you try to play all the way through it. But this is nothing to shy away from or build up as bigger than it really is — a performance could be for your teacher, or in a session, or even playing along with a recording on fiddle-online.com.
Perfection is not an issue when performing; in fact, “perfection” should be off the table. The goal in performing a tune is to get through it in time. How well you actually play it is for you to judge afterwards. Once you know you can finish what you start, whether a tune, a part or even a phrase, you can practice, polish, hone, develop your musical ideas. If you know you can get through the tune in time, you can play it with and for others, enjoying their company, enjoying the music, and learning what you need to work on in order to play it better.
A big part of practicing is strategizing for how you plan to play through, or perform, a tune — regardless of how well you know the tune. Don’t wait for that elusive moment when you think you know it “well enough to perform,” that future time when you plan to have all the notes nailed down. You wouldn’t want to nail a bunch of wooden boards securely in place without an overall plan for where they actually fit.
If you don’t like taking risks, this article is for you. Maybe you are shy and worried about embarrassment, or you are competitive and afraid to look like you don’t know what you are doing. Perhaps you are risk-averse professionally, as a lawyer or accountant, for example.
There’s good and bad news for you. First, the bad news: Learning and playing music is risky! Not only is it likely that you’ll make bad sounds, hit wrong notes, and forget something you thought you learned — all in front of other people — but these “mistakes” are the only pathway to learning an instrument.
Now here’s the good news: Playing music is a very low-stakes gamble. Hitting a wrong note or a bad sound is not life-threatening, nor (contrary to some people’s fears) will it wreck your reputation.
There is creativity lurking everywhere in music, and one of the most creative parts of fiddling is the building of medleys. A big part of the fun of learning to play fiddle is that it can be as simple or as complicated as we want to make it.
As you get to know a tune you can make it your own, whether on purpose or subsconsciously. I learned one tune from an old book only to discover years later when I looked at the book again that I had unknowingly developed my own version — and I liked mine better! In some styles of fiddling such as jazz or Irish, people improvise new notes to dress up the tune or express their view of it. But improvisation of some kind goes on all the time even if more subtle than actually inventing notes. It is improvisatory to play a tune differently one time than another, inventing bowings, ornaments, and rhythms to suit the mood.
Making medleys is not improvisation but it is certainly creative. Once we know some tunes, we can find ways to put them together in interesting or exciting ways. The tunes may be given to us by tradition, but we can use them to create a bigger picture. They can be the colors of our canvas. Probably the simplest reason to make medleys is because it allows us to play longer. Old-timey fiddlers like to play one tune for a very long time, but in most types of fiddling, the player moves on after two or three times through a tune.
How do we make medleys? In this article we’ll look at the basics and some suggestions for fun ways to do it. In the next article we’ll discuss how to find tunes that are compatible with each other, based on key and style.Continue reading Medleys: the fiddler’s canvas
What are “pickup notes”? They are notes that lead us into a beat note. They are easy to notice at the beginning of tunes, where there might be one or two notes before the first beat or bar line, but as we’ll see, they really can be found everywhere, and our awareness of them determines how musical our playing is.
The colored boxes marking phrases in the interactive sheet music on www.fiddle-online.com serve several purpose — first, they allow us to learn manageable building blocks of a tune and understand how the tune is put together, and second, they include pickup notes as part of the phrases. Written music shows us where the beats are, but not where the phrases are.
We can quickly understand pickup notes if we remember that the language of music matches up with spoken (or sung) language. The two beats in the proclamation, “Let’s go to the store” are “go” and “store”. These tell us the main idea, while the other words add nuance. The syllables before those two beats are pickup notes leading to the beats — “Let’s” belongs to “go”, and “to the” belongs to “store”. In music this sentence might be written in jig time:
If we split up the words by beat (which is what the written music shows us), we’d say “Lets. Go to the. Store.” It doesn’t make immediate sense in words or music that way. In order to play naturally, the way we talk, we need to be aware of the pickup notes, so we can say/play “Let’s go” followed by “to the store”, or “Let’s GO to the STORE.”
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.
What’s a “rhythm problem”? It’s the struggle some have with keeping the beat while doing all the other things that fiddle playing demands. The frustration shows up clearly when trying to play with others or with recordings. For those who have a serious rhythm problem (and I’ve seen this affect even some amateur performers), I will suggest an unusual antidote, but most learners don’t really have a “rhythm problem”; they have a priority problem. This article offers a few ideas about what might be going on and what to do about it.
Rhythm is an essential part of the natural world. We all experience it. It’s there in the sway of a tree, the gait of a horse, the beating of a heart. We feel it hearing the surf on a beach, and sense it with the tides, with sunrise and sunset. We move with rhythm all the time — walking at a very regular pace, breathing steadily in and out, and impatiently drumming our fingers on a table using a perfectly regular beat.
When we speak forcefully, our timing is unmistakable: speaking with unclear timing makes us sound insincere or uncertain. In fact, when we talk, we use much more complicated timing than music does. For example, if you say to a child, “GO to the CAR,” you are using a jig rhythm: ONE-two-three ONE. But if, just as you’re about to say those words, you spot a car speeding down the road between your child and the car, you will say, “DON’T go to the CAR!” This is a reel rhythm: ONE-two-three-four ONE. Seeing that car coming made you change instantly and naturally from jig to reel as you spoke. Musicians rarely attempt this, and certainly not without some planning. You manage complex rhythmic skills in everyday life that you probably take for granted.
People often say they have trouble tapping their feet while they play. But they’ve got it all wrong; they just need to step on the gas. Let me explain.
It’s really helpful musically and otherwise to move to the beat while you play. Musically, tapping, marching or moving in some other way drives the beat, which is what music is all about, and provides a physical backup system to take you through a tune and keep you on track. Emotionally, moving to the beat takes the edge off any tensions you may have and gives you a place to put them that’s part and parcel with your music making. Physically, moving as you play relieves your muscles of being frozen in one position, where they can get overstressed and cause strains and pains.
If you don’t move as you play, all your playing has to be managed in your head, which is very little help to you. Your mind can easily be overloaded with worries, demands, and so-called executive functions (the existence of which many neurologists have doubts about anyway), in addition to the fact that without physical engagement, your mind can feel overstimulated by complex sound, social cues, and bodily tensions. Read my past article about “Reversing Old Presumptions” (type “reversing” into the search box to pull up the article) to see why playing music starts with ears, uses muscle memory, and engages the brain last, instead of the other way around as most people presume, and have to struggle with.