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!