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:

Continue reading All Music Is Improv!

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??

Reading vs Playing

How similar is reading music to reading words? Is playing from written music something like reading a speech or a story out loud? If so, what happens if we read phrase by phrase, or word by word? What does it sound like to play music by phrase, by beat, or note by note?

When someone delivers a speech, it’s more effective to speak from notes, memory or extemporaneously than to simply read a text. Many speakers simulate directness with teleprompters even though they are reading. How does it feel when someone plays music from memory, or improvises, as opposed to reading off a music stand?

We enjoy storytellers and plays, yet we also enjoy having someone read a story or book to us. Which is the best model for music performance, or does it change from one type of music to another?

And what does this say about learning to read music?

Continue reading Reading vs Playing

Playing Faster 3

In Playing Faster 1 we talked about ways to think better about the music you learn and play, so that you clear the way to playing faster if you wish.  In Playing 2 we looked at some techniques for learning to play a piece of music faster.

Now let’s look at the unspoken question — how fast do you want to play?  Below is a list of actual tempos used on a variety of recordings.
If all you want to do is play faster, you will end up playing too fast.  What you want to do is be able to play at a good tempo, one that flows, one that suits the tune and the reason you’re playing it.  Feel the beat you want, and play to that.  Worrying about playing faster will make you rush, with no anchor or goal.

There are no firm rules about how fast to play a particular tune, but if you are playing it for a purpose, such as contra dancing, there is a range of tempos you need to reach so that the dancers can enjoy dancing.  Dance tunes have ideal tempos, but even those vary from one location to another.  Tunes for other purposes, such as marching, a wedding processional, a funeral, a tune to open a program, or to close one — all have a suitable range of appropriate tempos.
Continue reading Playing Faster 3

Playing Faster 2

In Playing Faster 1 we talked about priorities.  Notes or beats?  If you want to play faster you will do best to focus on the beat and the beat notes, rather than on getting all the notes.

Here are some games to help you play a tune faster.  It’s best to do tfast-speeding-carhese on small, manageable parts of a tune, not the whole thing.  Start by working only on a phrase, or if need be, a half phrase.  A phrase is usually four beats — all the learning materials on break tunes down by phrase, both in the audio and the sheet music.


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A note to Intermediate Players

Intermediate players have different needs than beginners or advanced fiddlers.

If you are at the intermediate level, you know how to play a number of tunes, and have probably enjoyed playing with others in sessions or in a group.  You know the joys of playing and getting better, and look forward to going farther.

Stay tuned to this blog for a number of posts exploring ideas for you to consider.

A good starting point is to evaluate your goals now and then.  Are you most drawn to the social factors, building repertoire, playing better, learning a particular style of fiddling? Do you want to play for dancers, play gigs with a band, join in public sessions, perform with a large amateur group, play solo spots, enjoy private musical gatherings among friends, enjoy playing and exploring the music at home for yourself?  Future articles will address all of these topics.

The site can help you work on Continue reading A note to Intermediate Players

A Note to Adult Beginners

By the time you’re an adult, you’re  quite accomplished in many skills — at work, while driving, being with friends and family.  But when you pick up a new musical instrument, you start fresh.  It’s an exciting adventure, but also humbling!

In learning fiddle, you will blend the physical, intellectual, and emotional.
Physical:  Your body may not always operate the way you presume.  Be open to new discoveries.
Intellectual:  Think constructively.  Sometimes you need to understand how to do things, while at other times, you’ll find that overanalyzing can get in the way, because much of what you need to learn is nonverbal.
Emotional:  As your violin becomes your musical voice, you will have feelings about various pieces of music — these will often motivate your learning faster and truer than following all the rules.

You already know a lot, because

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Toe-Tappingly Good Music

No matter how beautiful the notes, it’s timing that’s at the heart of the music, so it’s no wonder many players tap their toes.  Notes played badly but with good timing still present a recognizable piece of music, whereas notes played beautifully but with careless or unanchored timing can be confusing to listen to, or even unidentifiable.
How do we make certain of good timing?

There are many angles to that question but for the moment, I’d just like to comment on how musicians reinforce the beat with physical movements, such as tapping feet.

Those who play with the clearest sense of timing move physically in some way, as they play.  Those who have trouble with timing Continue reading Toe-Tappingly Good Music

Learning vs Memorizing

Memorizing a piece of music is different from learning it. Musicians who rely on written music, and then memorize it, have taken only a first step toward learning it.

Learning a piece of music involves making it your own, not just remembering the notes.  It engages your feelings and thoughts about sound patterns, rhythms, tensions and resolutions.

Research shows that playing music involves many areas of the whole brain (see this earlier blog post), whereas reading music focuses on the visual and language centers. When we learn a piece of music we give it a much broader dimension than we can when we read it.

Reading music is certainly a helpful skill — essential for Continue reading Learning vs Memorizing

Complete Guide to Taking an Online Class

In this article:zoom

  • Key Words Used in this Article
  • Equipment
  • Lighting and Placement
  • Signing Up for a Class
  • The Class Page
  • Scheduling
  • Class Levels
  • Credits
  • Class FAQ
  • The Class Experience:  What to Expect
  • The Class Experience:  How to Get the Most Out of It

Key Words Used in this Article

I’m going to be talking about online classes in the context of so I’ll mention “Zoom,” the service we use to connect students and teacher (it’s easier and more reliable than Skype).  You can learn more about this at

We’ll talk about the “Class Page.”  There is a section below discussing this.

A “Tunelearning Page” is a presentation of sheet music boxed and labeled by phrase, with audio buttons for each phrase.  This helps students learn a tune more easily and musically.  You can find a number of Tunelearning Pages available on this site, but the format is also used sometimes to help class students work on a tune on their own.


As a student you don’t need any special equipment.  All new computers, laptops, tablets, smartphones (yes, you can take a class with any of these) are equipped with a camera and microphone.  If you have an old computer Continue reading Complete Guide to Taking an Online Class