Is fiddle-online the future of technology?

Recently I added up what is going on in technology in many nooks and crannies of daily life for individuals, companies, governmental groups, and realized that www.fiddle-online.com may be just the kind of technology that’s going to be truly meaningful in the future.

Look around:

    • A concert streaming service couldn’t understand why musicians complained about getting contradictory and confusing information about their events.  The company explained the system’s intended logic, but all appearances are that the programmers of their system simply didn’t have the end users in mind when they devised their logical procedures.
    • A utility company has been accused of greed and scandal but one wonders if it had anything to do with their IT department.  It turns out that while some were wildly overcharged, others were not charged at all due to a new system.  Did the IT department get their side of the job done but skip a few steps crucial to customer service?

Continue reading Is fiddle-online the future of technology?

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.

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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

Pickup Notes: don’t play without ’em

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.”

Pickups at the beginning of a tune lead us into the tune. They prepare us for the tempo and beat of the tune. But they’re not essential to Continue reading Pickup Notes: don’t play without ’em

Music Doesn’t Fit In the Box

Music stands apart from many presumptions of modern life.

For one thing, there’s its sense of timing. I like to point out that music is not a to-do list but more like an appointment calendar. If you miss some notes, you have to get on to your next appointment on time, with the next beat or phrase.

Sometimes I speak of the Long Bows exercise (in Technique Video Group 1) as a great warmup because it can be a buffer between the demands of daily life and music. You have to settle into four beats per bow, allow for four bows per string, and all the while, you pay attention to sound, bow speed, pressure, continuity, differences in different parts of the bow. It’s not quantifiable.


Continue reading Music Doesn’t Fit In the Box

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

Holiday Gifts & Tune for You

Holiday gifts are available from fiddle-online (see below), but the best gift might be to play a fiddle tune for family and friends!

One place with a strong fiddle holiday tradition is Shetland, a fiddle stronghold halfway between Scotland and Norway. According to an observer writing about it in 1809, “long before daylight, the fiddlers present themselves at the doors of the houses, playing a tune called the Day-Dawn, the interesting association of which thrills every soul with delight … This tune has long been consecrated to Yule day, and is never played on any other occasion.” (Sir Arthur Edmonstone, View of the Ancient and Present State of the Zetland Isles)  The tune he refers to is still played today, and is still called “Da Day Dawn.” We’ll have to learn it some time in a fiddle-online workshop! Here is a recording of it I made for this blog:

“Da Day Dawn” traditional Shetland holiday tune, played by Ed Pearlman

If you’d like to give the gift of learning and playing more fiddle, here are some options for you!

  1. Without even visiting the fiddle-online site, you can get a fiddle-online gift certificate at the Paddledoo Online Store which will give your recipient 10, 20, or 30 credits when they register or update their profile on fiddle-online using a registration code you’ll  receive. (The Paddledoo Online Store contains many other surprises too!)
  2. If you have or wish to purchase credits on fiddle-online, you can use the Credits Store to purchase gifts from 5 to 30 credits, including CDs, January live workshops, materials from past workshops with Ed or with any of our world-class guest fiddlers, or a Finger Finder slide rule for finding fingering in any key, or a T-shirt that says “I played it better at home”! You can even order a private lesson for 15, 30, or 60 minutes to be scheduled at the convenience of your recipient.

Have a wonderful Christmas, New Year’s, winter break, or whichever holidays you plan to enjoy! I hope it includes lots of music!

—Ed

©2018 Ed Pearlman