Natural Ornaments

When we listen to music played or sung, ornaments are everywhere, but we barely notice. Stop and listen to a singer on the radio. Nobody sings without a slide or grace note note here and there, going into or out of a note.

That’s because ornamentation is part and parcel of the language. The use of these musical decorations varies depending on the dialect (the fiddle style), but it fits right in effortlessly, at least when you’re listening to it. In fact, most people hardly pay any mind to ornaments until we actually try to play them. Then we wonder how it’s done, and if we’re looking at it on paper, we struggle with making those grace notes sound like the ones we’ve heard.

Grace notes are not only integral to musical language, they’re also built into the way we speak. If we write lyrics to a tune, each note could be a syllable. But the grace notes, triplets, and slides are the consonants. Let’s take a look at some examples of this.

Continue reading Natural Ornaments

Finding the Beat, part 2

In “Finding the Beat, Part 1” we talked about how to figure out where the beats are, how many are in a measure, by feel and on paper.  Here we’re going to take a look at something more at the heart of the music.  The beat is, as its name suggests, the heartbeat of the music.  It is what creates the voice, the timing, the meaning.  The notes are like letters in a line of text.  Because of the beat we can actually hear those letters as words, phrases, ideas.

Where exactly is the beat to be found?  Is it just a metronome chirp?  If not, where and what is it?

Like the heartbeat in a person, the beat in music is really a pulse, not a hit.  Our hearts don’t go “boom, boom, boom” like a metronome.  Hearts go “ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom,” like the pickups in music that lead into each beat.

Beats are not merely a mathematical calculation.  (Do not tell this to metronomes or to any MIDI audio files because it would destroy their world!)  What makes music human is that our timing is responsive, just like our heart.

Studies about the human heart have shown Continue reading Finding the Beat, part 2

Finding the Beat, part 1

The heartbeat of music is, you guessed it, the beat.  Learners often focus on trying to play or memorize the notes of a tune and sometimes make the mistake of taking the beat for granted.  It’s a mistake because the beat holds all those notes together and turns them into music.

How do you find the beat?  Below, we’ll take a look at how to figure out where the beat is in a tune, whether 1) by feel or 2) on paper, with illustrations.

(Intermediate and advanced players may also find the next article thought provoking.  The beat is anything but a click on a metronome.  Where is it located, exactly, and how can we make the most of it?  This is something we’ll take a look at.)

1. Where is the beat, by feel

It is very common that a learner may focus so much on playing the notes of a tune in sequence that they don’t think about which notes are the beat notes, and may get confused as to how to find them.

Continue reading Finding the Beat, part 1

Making Harmonies

In most jam sessions people play tunes together in unison, just for the joy of playing the tunes. Sometimes, for special moments, variety, or in performance, musicians like to add a touch of harmony to fill out the melody. Below are some tips on making harmonies, and at the end, I will give you an example of a harmony part I’ve written that incorporates many of these suggestions.

1. No need to play harmony notes everywhere. Sometimes the nicest effect is to surprise the listener with a nice harmony on a long note, an ending, or a high point of a tune. Very often harmonies are saved for the repeat of a tune, so that listeners get to hear what the tune sounds like before the decorations are added. You can use the ideas below to make a full harmony or just to add bits of harmony in key places. Continue reading Making Harmonies

Changing Strings

Like tuning, changing strings is a necessary evil! Let’s talk about what to aim for and what to watch out for, as you change strings. We’ll start with the 7 Ideas to Keep in Mind, talk about How to Change Strings, and then go into the Whys & Wherefores for those interested.

7 Ideas to Keep in Mind

1. Change only one string at a time – the bridge can actually fall down if you take all the strings off at once*.  Of course, if you break a string, you may only need to replace that one.  Try not to let strings go longer than a year before changing them — you may not notice them losing their vigor but you certainly will notice how nice they sound when you change them!

2. Roll the strings neatly onto the correct pegs, with one layer of string**. The more neatly the string is rolled on, the more likely you’ll have enough space to Continue reading Changing Strings

Musical Memory — more to it than you might think!

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.

Challenge yourself to not only play a tune or part of a tune, Continue reading Musical Memory — more to it than you might think!

Guest Treasures

Without much fanfare, fiddle-online makes available performances and teaching 24/7 of some of the top contemporary fiddlers. As with everything at the site, it’s available a-la-carte and at a very low cost (80% of which goes to the guest artist, so an excellent cause!). See below for info about cost and logging in, etc.*

Below are some descriptions and links to more info about guest workshops by great players with varying styles of expertise: Scottish, Cape Breton, Irish, Quebecois, Old-timey, gypsy jazz and klezmer.

For the list and links, click Continue! —

Continue reading Guest Treasures

Strategizing for Performance

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.

To strategize for performance, start at the beginning. Continue reading Strategizing for Performance

Medleys 2: Compatible Tunes

In the last article we talked about why putting tunes together into medleys is so important to fiddlers. Now let’s take a look at how to put medleys together. What types of tunes go together? Which keys are compatible? What if you want two tunes to go together but they break all the rules?

Which types of tunes go together?

For faster tunes it’s easiest to play two of the same type — jigs with jigs, reels with reels. Jigs and reels both have two beats per measure, so if you want to combine them, keep that beat at the same tempo, and listeners can continue tapping their feet or dancing to the same beat. It’s just that you’ll be playing 3 eighths per beat if a jig, and 4 per beat if a reel. If the new type of tune starts with a simple rhythm, it can be easier to make the transition. For example, if going from reel into a jig, a jig that starts with one or two dotted quarters can simplify the transition. If going from jig to reel, a reel with quarter notes or even a half note in the first measure can help you and listeners get a clear handle on the beats before you draw them into the reel.

Slower tunes are a little different.

Continue reading Medleys 2: Compatible Tunes

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. Continue reading Medleys: the fiddler’s canvas