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

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