Medleys: the fiddler’s canvas

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.

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The first thing to know about making a medley is that we want listeners or dancers to keep those feet tapping. There should be no gap in time between any two tunes in a medley. That means that beat 1 of the first full measure of a tune should arrive exactly where beat 1 would have arrived if we had repeated the first tune. No skipped beats or extra time added.

Pickup notes that lead into a second tune can be shortened, stretched, changed or eliminated to allow the beat to continue from the first tune without interruption. If you are changing tempo, say from a waltz to a jig, the last measure of the waltz must complete three beats in waltz time before the first full measure of the jig begins. If there is a pickup to the jig, it has to fit into waltz time, because the new jig tempo doesn’t start until beat 1 of the first full measure of the jig.

One fun way to start building a medley is to take two tunes and play the last phrase (four beats) of one tune right into the first phrase of the second tune, keeping in mind what I just said about allowing no gap in timing. No need to play the full tune into the second tune, just try the transition of going last phrase of one to first phrase of the next. Then try the reverse — put the second tune first and see how they go together. If they go well together, bingo, you have a two-tune medley!

As soon as you make a medley, you have a longer piece of music to play. When playing with others, it’s great to start one tune when you already have in mind a tune to play next; it keeps the music going longer. A session can be a drag if everyone has to stop after every tune and figure out what to play next.

In order to remember the order of tunes in your medley, try using the tune titles to tell a story. If I want to play “Leaving Lismore” and then “Captain Campbell” and “Mrs MacLeod of Raasay” I could imagine leaving the island of Lismore on a boat, running into Captain Campbell on the shore, and together heading over to visit Mrs MacLeod for a picnic. Or maybe there’s romance involved, or a fight, or who knows? The story in your head will not only remind you of what order the tunes are in, but if you actually develop a story that goes along with your music, you will play the tunes better — kind of like playing music for a silent movie. And nobody has to know what story you’re dreaming of as you play — it could be funny, tragic, or bawdy. It will entertain you, and inform your playing.

I once had a student who had difficulty thinking of another tune to play after she finished one. We tried creating story lines with the tune titles, and it wasn’t long before she was able to play 16 tunes in a row — four chapters of the story, with four tunes in each chapter!

Feel free to experiment with putting any two (or 3, or 4…) tunes together into a medley. Be creative!

There are traditions for finding tunes that go well together. We’ll look into that in the next article!

©2019 Ed Pearlman

Controllers of the Left

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.

Continue reading Controllers of the Left

Controllers of the Right

We understand controllers — computer mouse, keyboard, remote controls, steering wheels, clutch and stickshift, rudders, video game controllers — gadgets that we have to coordinate in order to get something done. Those who are good at typing, computing, driving, video games, know how to efficiently use those controllers to get the desired results.

It’s kind of like that with playing the fiddle. We have controllers on our right arm and hand, and controllers on our left arm and hand. For the moment let’s talk about the controllers on the right.

Once your right hand is positioned with right leverage to control the bow (see the first five videos in Technique Video Group 1), the primary controllers on our right hand are Continue reading Controllers of the Right

Why Finger Spacing is > Intonation

Finger spacing on the fiddle is about more than playing in tune.  It’s about physical relationships and muscle memory. It’s also about using your ears to know a tune rather than memorizing notes.  In a moment, I’ll tell you a story about how different this can be.

You can temporarily play in tune by monitoring every note with an electronic tuner, or by using the little tapes that tell your fingers where to come down, but those learning aids are a lot like driving somewhere in a strange city relying totally on GPS.  Chances are, you won’t remember a thing about how you got there!  Learning the finger relationships, rather than relying only on tapes or tuners, is like that old story about the difference between teaching someone to fish rather than giving them a fish.

Left-hand technique is not about knowing where each finger is supposed to land, but about knowing how the fingertips relate to each other on the fingerboard: Which ones are physically touching? Which ones are a finger’s-width apart from each other? 

Keep on reading!

When Push Comes to Pull…a New Year’s Resolution

The best New Year’s resolutions are those that flow, not the ones that we force upon ourselves. Resolutions that remove obstacles to success, and those that require us to work with and for others, can actually lower the heart rate and blood pressure, and decrease anxiety and depression, while increasing our motivation to take on and persevere in difficult tasks. You might like to explore these ideas in detail in the book Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride, by David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University.

In fiddling, these ideas suggest the benefits of playing music with others or taking a class, or having a private teacher to work with. I think folks taking our live online workshops enjoy getting together regularly, playing with the instructor (privately, with other mikes muted) and asking questions or playing for comments if they choose.

DeSteno’s ideas also suggest tell us that finding ways to remove obstacles is a better and more lasting way to learn than to try to power through those obstacles merely by “working harder”. This certainly applies to work on timing, intonation, note patterns, and sound quality, but in this article, we’re going to focus on ways to improve probably the most important aspect of fiddling — bowing. Instead of prescribing complicated movements, we’re going to describe natural ones you can visualize and apply.

The most important thing you could do for your bowing is to make sure that your mental picture of what’s going on with your bow arm actually matches what is happening. This is called “body mapping.” You can find a brief video devoted to this topic in Technique Video Group 1 (video #9), which talks about two bodymapping ideas for fiddlers — more natural left hand fingering and the right way (i.e. most efficient way) to move your bow arm.

Contrary to a fairly popular belief, the downbow is a push, not a pull. These are both natural movements, but pushing a downbow is the motion that actually gives you more control and better sound. It’s very much like drawing a line. Imagine placing your chin on a table with a large piece of paper (or literally try it!), and draw a straight line toward your right. You naturally push the pencil away from you, leading with your hand. It’s the same motion you might use if you were whittling wood with a knife, the safe way — away from you.

When you push the pencil or the knife — or the bow — away from you, your arm opens at the elbow. The elbow itself moves forward, eventually straightening into a line along your arm. When you reverse the movement and bring your arm back up to where it was so you can draw another line or carve another strip of wood, you lead with your wrist, and pull the rest of your arm along. As you pull, your elbow bends and moves toward the back or side. Meanwhile you are naturally moving the pencil, the knife, the bow, in a straight line. This is the most natural motion for bowing.

The opposite motion is also natural but not helpful to playing the fiddle. It involves trying to pull the bow downbow, and feels normal only if we think of grabbing the bow as we might grab a stick (which in a way, it is!). In this motion, we lock our elbow and pull the elbow backward, engaging the chest muscles for strength, as we would do in a tug of war, or if we were sawing a piece of wood. Bowing this way is not uncommon for beginners but it makes us sound like we are sawing, with a rough sound, because we are moving as if we’re sawing wood! Because the elbow is stiffer, the bow can’t move in a straight line (imagine drawing that line on paper with a stiff elbow), and we can only use a small portion of the bow without running into the bridge or fingerboard. We can make do with this kind of bowing if we only play short bows, as in jigs or reels, but sounds terrible for any longer use of bows, as in waltzes or other slow tunes. When the bow is not straight, it migrates toward or away from the bridge as we play, and changes the whole recipe of speed and pressure that gives a consistent sound. And if the bow is crooked when changing direction, it won’t sound smooth because the bow is forced to partially slide sideways as it starts moving the other way.

So the natural and most productive motion of the downbow is to think of it as a push, moving away from you, and led by the wrist. The natural way of playing an upbow is to think of it as a pull, led again by the wrist, which bends toward your nose and draws the upper arm behind it only as needed, saving a lot of muscular energy (the pecs are never needed for playing fiddle!).

Try practicing the downbow pushing movement by placing something (a music stand, a wall or door, or an expensive vase!) just behind your elbow as you play a downbow. If you’re using the pushing movement, your elbow will move away from the object and you won’t even touch it. If you are pulling the bow down, your elbow will knock into the object, and if it’s an expensive vase, you probably won’t do it again!

The more you think “push downbow” and “pull upbow” and “lead with the wrist”, the more you’ll discover that you can draw a smoother bow, with a better sound, and have more control. It allows you to control the bow using just your forefinger instead of your whole arm. You play better and get less tired. To explore these ideas, you might want to work with the bodymapping video mentioned above on www.fiddle-online.com, and make use of these ideas deliberately in some of the other Tech Vid Group 1 videos such as Long Bows, Double Strings, and Short Bows, as well as in Notches, Circular Bows, and Breathing Bows in Tech Vid Group 2.

I feel sorry for French fiddlers and violinists. The French word for playing a downbow is “tirer” or “pull”, and the word for playing an upbow is “pousser” or “push”. This is exactly the opposite of the most useful way to map out what the body actually needs to do when using the bow!

By reframing how you think of the movement of your bow arm to a pushed downbow and a pulled upbow, both led by the wrist, with the rest of the arm passive, you’ll remove some very common obstacles to improving your sound and bow control. Your New Year’s resolution to improve bowing will be a breeze!

©2019 Ed Pearlman

Rhythm Problems

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.

If you have trouble playing in time, it’s not because you don’t have rhythm. It’s because Continue reading Rhythm Problems

Stepping on the Gas!

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.

But how to manage that pesky notion of “tapping your feet”? It doesn’t have to be Continue reading Stepping on the Gas!

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

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

60 Interactive Tunes in the Tune Groups

When you click on “Sheet Music” on the home page, you are taken to the world of the Tune Groups. Each of these gives you interactive sheet music and audio for a dozen tunes for 3 months. If you learn all 12 tunes, that’s a tune a week!

I’ll describe below how these work, but keep in mind that this interactive sheet music format can be found in all of the Workshop materials as well! A sample of this kind of sheet music is linked prominently in pink on the Tune Groups information page.

What tunes will you find in these tune groups? Tune Group 1 offers a nice mix of Celtic, American, and Canadian tunes, and also is good for beginners because it’s the only group that offers both the sheet music and music by numbers. Tune Group 2 continues with a nice variety of tunes — Scottish, Irish, American, and Quebecois. Tune Group 3 is all about Scottish tunes, and Tune Group 5 contains popular Irish tunes. Tune Group 4, Shetland tunes, is currently only available on my old site and works great but only if you can use flash media; it will eventually be added to fiddle-online so it can be used by all devices.

Here’s how it works. With each Tune Group, you get access to that tune group’s home page, with links to each of the 12 tunes in that group. When you visit one of the tunes,

Continue reading 60 Interactive Tunes in the Tune Groups