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!