February flew by! You’d think a couple less days wouldn’t make such a big difference, but they do. This month has been jam packed with fun music events. I started off with being one of the closing acts in Little Traverse Youth Choir’s variety show called “A Time to Shine,” which showcased local musicians of all ages and genres at The Great Lakes Center for the Arts. It was the first time I’d played in an auditorium since graduating from Furman University in 2016, and I must say it was delightful to experience a bigger stage again!
The following week, Chris and I headed up with some other Blissfest members to Folk Alliance in Montreal. The Bliss crowd were scouting for acts to invite to the festival in 2020, while I was tagging along to do some scouting and networking of my own. I reconnected with several friends and past instructors from the Swannanoa Gathering, including Emerald Rae and Andrew Finn Magill, who have both had huge influences on my fiddling journey! I also met some great new musician friends, either over tunes on the 3rd floor of the hotel or throughout the night at all the artist showcases. It was three days of musical intensity and awesomeness!
You may have seen last month that I started recording videos for my YouTube channel again in the form of “end of month tune recaps.” Anytime you want to request a tune for an upcoming month, please feel free to contact me! For this month’s videos, I did something a little different from my original plan — I recapped on tunes that I’ve been playing for years rather than ones I focused on this month. The reason for that is, today is my dad’s birthday! One of the best ways that my dad and I were able to connect while I was growing up was through playing music together. He’d be on guitar, and I’d try and race him to see who could play “Old Joe Clark” the fastest… I think fiddle players have an advantage over fingerstyle guitar!
So in honor of my dad celebrating another year around the sun, and because I can’t be there in person with him today I want to dedicate this month’s round of tunes to him by focusing on a few of our old favorites to play together! The first video is a set of two jigs that we got from an arrangement off of William Coulter’s album, Celtic Crossing, featuring Kevin Burke on the fiddle.
The first tune in this next set is another one of Daddy’s favorites called “The Lads of Laois.” This is another William Coulter and Kevin Burke influence for us, but for the longest time I couldn’t play this tune up to speed. It’s an absolutely gorgeous tune, and yet my fingers were not able to figure out the roll patterns for many years! I finally started playing it again a little over a year ago, and was thrilled to hear the progress that had come out of a ten year hiatus from the tune! That is one of my favorite things about being a musician — often you don’t realize how far you’ve come until you easily play a tune that you struggled with years before. I wanted to do more than one tune for this recording, despite the fact that we always played it as a solo set! So I’ve added on “The Bells of Tipperary” although it’s not one we’ve played together. Taking you through two counties on the way from Dublin to Cork!
I warned my listeners back in January that I’d probably be singing a bit in these videos, so I went ahead and threw a song in for this last one! This is another favorite, which I learned initially from John Doyle at the Swannanoa Gathering, and have subsequently heard in quite a few song circles, workshop and recordings since. Here is my version of “A Stor Mo Chroi.”
Hope you all enjoyed the videos! If you are not already following me on Youtube, I’d love if you subscribed to my channel so you can keep up with my latest posts! You can also find full versions of these tunes on my Facebook business page, Hannah Harris Music, or on my IGTV channel through my Instagram! Thank you all for reading and for your support in my musical journey! Head on over to my “Upcoming Gigs” page to see if I’m playing a show near you in the future!
Hi, all! Welcome to the second half of “Why I Value my Classical Violin Training as a Fiddle Player!” If you missed the first half, you can catch up here. When I first wrote about this topic, I intended it to be only one post. However, as I got more into describing each area, I realized I was putting in more detail to the technical benefits such as intonation, practice methods, and sheet music reading ability. I addressed the expressive benefits briefly, but they really need a bit more fleshing out to do them justice.
I will say that it took me quite awhile to figure out how to play Irish traditional music with the telltale groove that makes it sound as though I grew up playing it my whole life. I couldn’t play ornamentations such as the roll or the hammer on until 2014 — and I started playing fiddle music 10-12 years before that! So you can see that it takes time! Fortunately for you all, you don’t have to take as long as I did. I simply didn’t put enough priority into learning proper expression until I became serious about learning the music. I took classes, listened to recordings, and started to absorb the feel for each tune type. Once I made up my mind to do so, it took very little time to develop my new sound — with a little boost from my classical training!
In Irish traditional music, no tune is meant to be played the exact same way twice. There are nuances in the melody, whether you are swapping out different notes, adding ornaments, leaving some notes out, incorporating drones… you name it. Irish tunes are typically played three times through, and they have fairly simple two-part structures — most commonly eight measures of A, then B. So, you can understand that playing these parts the exact same way each time would get boring, both for the musician and the listener! However, for a classical musician who has any experience with playing any sort of theme and variations, fugues, and dance tunes, this is already ingrained in your head! The only difference is that you have to come up with your own variations instead of seeing them written out on the page. That being said, plenty of Irish tune books do provide written ornamentations either within the tunes or in a separate “how-to” section.
One of the primary identifiers of different fiddle music is the ornamentation of the tunes. There are many different techniques you can use to “spice up” a tune, and often these can be telltale signs of what regional style the musician is using. There are certainly some crossover techniques, and not each one is individual to one specific region. For instance, a musician from county Clare would use less embellishment on one tune than a musician from county Sligo might, but they both use rolls, cuts, and half rolls. It’s more about the placement and the frequency of use.
I’ve found that the rhythmic side of including embellishments or fiddle ornaments into a tune can be a pitfall for classical musicians, because we’ve been taught to play all the notes on a page. Trying to read all of the notes in a roll and play them in a classical style actually distracts from the tune and its overall rhythm. I don’t encourage reading ornaments directly from the page when you first start playing fiddle music, simply to avoid breaking the flow. This is probably one of the most difficult areas classical violinists have to work on in order to sound more like a fiddler. You may have the technical skill to incorporate different ornaments — your fingers know how to do a roll pattern, or slide up and down to a note — but it becomes a matter of WHERE to incorporate these. In a fast paced reel, you wouldn’t want to do a full roll on a quarter note because that would throw off your rhythm and thus destroy the pace of the tune — a sure way to get you a scowl from your accompanying guitarist! Instead, you would use a half roll, or some other ornamentation to fit in with the tune (and to reference an earlier point, you can vary which ornament you use here). If you have played in an orchestra before, you will understand that you have to create a uniform sound with the rest of your section in order to pull off a piece well. The same applies to using correct ornaments in order to create fiddle phrases — while you have some leeway with how to create your own sound, it is still important to stay within the appropriate beats of the tune.
When I play a tune, I’m not thinking in numbers. I’m thinking in terms of expression — such as where to stress one note, and how different parts of the tune should be phrased. I have never been one to think in technical terms, even with my classical studies. I don’t think in chords, or in whole and half steps between the notes. I’m more focused on where the tune is going and how each part fits into the whole, rather than the individual structures of each note placement. However, it does help to be able to approach a tune from both standpoints. Fortunately I had a few teachers, mostly during my college years, who exercised that unused part of my brain to help me learn how to think of music in technical terms. This is extremely helpful if you are playing with a guitarist or some other harmony line, because you can then provide your own input as to what chords go well with the tune. In a pub session setting, you will also be able to tell what key the next tune is in, which you can shout out to alert the accompanying musicians — trust me, they really appreciate the heads up!
While the technical standpoint is certainly valuable, at some point it is good to let the expressive side take over. Many of my previous classical instructors did an exercise where I was supposed to come up with a story to tell alongside the music, and then allow my playing to tell that story. It could be exaggerated, or maybe based on different moods — and you didn’t have to play it the same way every time (remember those variations)! I think this has been extremely beneficial in giving a soul to my fiddling. When you let go of thinking in terms of strict placement of each note, you can then open yourself into the flow of the tune or the real heart of the music. A really good musician can do both of these things: play the notes well, yet only subconsciously think about them.
To wrap this up, you can find value in both a technical and an expressive approach to fiddle music. I have personally found that my classical training has built my skill levels in both of these areas. Above all, it has given me patience. I have been playing the violin for almost twenty years now, which is a scary thing to admit. In those years, I have progressed further than I ever dreamed was possible and been a part of many different experiences that have added great value to my life. It makes me excited to see how I will feel in comparison to twenty years from now, and I hope that I will have had many deep, meaningful conversations with other classical turned fiddlers in the meantime! Our journeys are all so unique, and I love hearing about other people’s methods! So if you have a story about your musical journey, no matter what stage you are at, I’d love if you would comment below and tell me more about yourself! Cheers, y’all!
I have a confession to make. If you’ve only just started following me, you may think I’m a fiddler through and through. But the truth is, I was trained classically for seventeen years until I decided to switch to fiddling full time! As a young child, learning how to play the violin came with its ups and downs. I remember being in tears during those car rides with my mom coming home from my teacher’s house while saying I never wanted to see a violin again. Fortunately Mama knows me extremely well, and she would encourage me to wait to decide if I really wanted to quit until I was less upset. She told me to think about how I’d feel in ten years time. Would I regret my decision to quit? Or was the violin getting in the way of my real passion? As you can probably guess, this method worked, and I stuck it out.
Around the time of one of these frustrating episodes, I discovered fiddle tunes. They were FUN. My fingers found it much easier to play Irish/Scottish/Appalachian melodies. Everything that was discouraging me in my classical training somehow just disappeared when I started playing “Full Rigged Ship” or “Margaret’s Waltz.” I found something that I was good at, and it kept me interested enough to continue with my violin lessons. I may not have discovered the likes of Tommy Peoples or Liz Carroll until many years later, but that love for the music was born early on.
Despite what it may sound like, this post is not meant to bash classical music — quite the opposite! My classical music background has provided some of the most valuable training I’ve ever received in my life. Oftentimes I miss my days as a music major at Furman University, with its wonderful network of driven musicians and rigorous instruction to motivate me towards improvement. These days my practice sessions are entirely self constructed, so it’s up to me to set my own goals rather than have a teacher provide guidelines. Fortunately, I have that classical discipline instilled in me so I am capable of motivating myself to improve. I continue to read books and listen to podcasts directed towards practice and performance strategies for all musical genres, because I find value in a broader, multidisciplinary approach.
Before I get too far into this I just want to clarify that I believe each person has a different learning approach, and there are many amazing, top-notch fiddlers out there who have zero background in classical music! However, if you’re like me and you started out playing classical violin before switching to fiddle — or you’re considering doing so — then these tips should bring you clarity and justification in your learning method. It is okay to start something, decide that the method doesn’t work for you, and revise your strategy!
This is going to be a two-part post. As I was drafting this, a good friend/editor of mine suggested separating the technical benefits of classical music with its expressive benefits, and I agree that there is a lot to be covered in both of these categories! So to start with, here are a few examples where my classical background has made a world of difference in my musical technicality and practice methods:
Technique: This is what almost any classical-turned-fiddler will tell you they value in their violin background. Classical music has it all. From complex rhythms, to intonation, to bow control — there is an exercise for just about any technique that will translate over to your fiddle playing. The repetitive practice gradually builds up your muscles so that the nuances of fiddling become reflexive and subconscious.
Discipline: Classical music is hard. It forces you to slow down and take more difficult sections of a piece bit by bit. In order to be a successful musician, you can’t just run through your repertoire once at full speed and hope that by playing it again you’ve somehow made yourself better. No. More likely, you’re developing a bad habit that’s going to turn around and bite you whenever you try to improve. I’m not the most patient of practicers. It takes a lot of self discipline to prevent myself from rushing ahead and trying to learn all of the tunes at once. I have to slow each one down and proactively think about where the melody is going next. So many Irish tunes have similar phrases that it takes active brain power to figure out which tune it is you’re playing and what phrase needs to come next. With the patience I’ve learned from classical music, I am able to slow down and really think about the direction each tune is going in order to avoid confusion in the middle of a gig.
Creativity with scales: I am not afraid of tunes in F. Or Bb. Or even c minor. Many Irish tunes are in G, D, A — or C if you’re daring. But with classical music, you can easily transpose a tune and play it in a different key. Take a common tune like the Kesh jig, and try and play it in as many different keys possible on your instrument — it’s a really fun exercise for your fingers and your brain! Being comfortable with all of the so-called Western Classical scales (12 major, 12 minor, 7 modal) really opens up your ability to play accurate notes regardless of the key you’re in. Drilling scales is just one way to improve intonation as well as familiarize yourself with the phrasing in a tune. Many fiddle tunes are just running up and down the scale, skipping notes here and there, or inverting them.
Sheet Music: Remember how I value multiple approaches to learning one topic? A lot of fiddle music is traditionally meant to be learned by ear. However, sheet music is very common these days and with the sheer amount of tune collections — both in print and in online archives — many fiddlers also use these to keep track of their tune repertoire. When you first start to learn Irish music, I think that it is more important to listen to it rather than try to read it straight off of a page. However, learning a new style of music is like learning a new language. In order for you to make sense of the new language, you have to apply it to familiar context — your native tongue. If you are used to reading music, it is extremely helpful to have a transcription of it in front of you while listening to someone’s recording of the tune. Because of the versatile nature of Irish and Scottish fiddle music, it is unlikely that you will find a recording that sounds exactly the same as the notes written on the page — and that’s the point. The notes are just a basic structure, able for altering and creating your own take on the tune. The sooner you can translate that approach to reading traditional tunes, the more you can use sight reading as a learning method. It has taken years of listening to Irish music for me to be able to sit down in front of O’Neill’s collection of 1,000 Irish fiddle tunes and play straight from the page without sounding like that’s what I’m doing. I have gained the ability to incorporate the lilting feeling into the music even though it’s not exactly what is written down, and this is something you should strive for if you intend to learn from sheet music. My best advice here is to start by listening only, then gradually incorporate the written version initially as a point of context, and then only later as an effective learning tool.
These are all very well and good, but how do you incorporate classical exercises into your fiddle practice? Recently, I have unearthed some of my old double stop technique books within the last couple of weeks to improve my intonation and ear training for picking out multiple notes at once. Double stops also help with varying the tune because you can add drones and other chords to spice up your playing. However, if you’re like me and play with guitar or piano accompaniment, sometimes your improvised chords will clash — meaning that having a solid understanding of basic music theory and different chords has incredible value. I do not think in numerical or technical terms when I play, so I find it difficult to shout out chords to my accompanist or determine which ones are appropriate for different phrases. Having double stop/chord training in my individual practice is definitely beneficial to fixing this issue, and it is something I know I will continue to work on.
Double stops are not the only exercises you can do, however. Scales, rhythm and bow exercises, metronome practice, and many other methods will come in handy based on what you are trying to target in your practice. The fact that I’m able to sit back and analyze both the strengths and the weaknesses in my playing is a direct influence from my classical training, and one that I am constantly grateful for. I know that in order to have a successful and efficient practice session, I need to spend time painstakingly going over technical aspects of my playing to build up speed and accuracy. It’s more than just sitting down and being able to crank out fifty tunes at once — something I’m most definitely guilty of doing in previous practice sessions. Slow practice is key, and without my classical music background I would have found it much more difficult to sit down and figure out how to go about this.
So if you are a classical violinist trying to learn another music genre, don’t let people tell you that you’re ruined for any other type of playing. You have the tools you need to practice well, and that practice will lead to developing your new sound. It’s not a process that happens overnight, but you know that because you’ve already done it with your classical studies. And that training has already opened doors for you — you have technical skills, you have discipline, and you have creativity of expression. Go for it, my friends. Be the fiddler you’ve always wanted to be! Cheers!