How I Fly With My Fiddle: Tips and Tricks to Stress Free Travel

Flying with a violin (or any acoustic string instrument) can be daunting. It’s a bit like balancing a full glass of water on your forehead — precarious and not without risk. And travel is even crazier and busier at this holiday time of the year. Fortunately musicians make successful transits every day, which balances out the occasional horror story you might hear about an instrument breaking mid-flight.

Whether you’re traveling with your violin for the first time, or are a seasoned pro looking for additional travel tips, I’m here to set your mind at ease! These are some of the most effective methods I have used to make traveling with my fiddle a stress-free experience.

By the way: a fiddle and a violin are the same thing, just different in how they’re played. I play both my classical and Irish traditional repertoire on the same instrument.

Always good to have a fiddle on hand when traveling to a place with a pub!

I rarely travel without my fiddle. Whether I’m headed to a gig, conference, or just visiting family/friends, it’s a default luggage piece. I have been flying with my instrument regularly for the past five years, and have learned what works best for my travel style and what I should avoid. Your travel style may be different, but I hope that some of these tips will prove useful in your future trips!

These tips are meant for musicians who are traveling with one carry-on fiddle. I believe that you should NEVER put your instrument in checked luggage.

4 years ago before my first solo international flight — my setup has changed a bit, but not by much!

Tip One: Make Sure You Know Your Airline’s Instrument Regulations

One of my biggest fears used to be that I would arrive at my gate and the agent would tell me I couldn’t bring the fiddle into the cabin. There is usually a section in the flight booking process that shows the dimensions allowed for carry on luggage — if you actually measure out your case, it is often longer than what the dimensions allow for. However, it does fall within the required width. Because of this, your instrument qualifies as a special item, and you’re going to want to research your airline’s specific luggage requirements for it.

I have yet to come across an airline that does not allow fiddles in the cabin, but I know that budget airlines such as RyanAir can be tricky. It is always a good idea to confirm with the airline, whether you search online or call a representative. To research online policies, go to your airline’s website (even if you’ve booked through a third party site) and find the section that details their specific luggage regulations.

I recently looked up a flight through Spirit Airlines, and was able to find their specific instrument policy listed in their Contract of Carriage under “Special Items” on p. 29. (FYI, they do accept violins as carry on items!) Just keep in mind that every airline has slightly different rules.

If you have done your research and are still worried the gate agent will make you check your violin, then print out a copy of the page that lists your instrument as permittable carry-on luggage, highlight the section, and stow it in an easily accessible place in your case or personal bag. Never hurts to have some proof on hand. You can also reference musical instrument FAA laws.

Back in my early days of flying with my instrument, my college violin professor told me when all else fails, cry. I have yet to resort to this, but just throwing it out there for you.

One of the changes I made was getting a smaller case… as you can see, this one is a doozy!

Tip Two: If you need to check a bag, do some serious prioritizing and only pack the things in your carry on luggage that you couldn’t spend a night without.

Because I’m a major planner, I read every packing tip article I come across. Most times the writer is not a musician, meaning that I have to get creative with what goes in my carry-on and what goes in a checked bag. It’s possible that some airlines will allow you to carry on your instrument as a special item in addition to the overhead bag and personal item, but honestly I have never tried this before. Seems a bit like pushing your luck. I always end up checking a bag when I fly and have come to accept that I will never be one of those people who can regularly travel with only carry-on luggage. But that’s okay! I can still fit everything I need into a small duffel bag and even use some extra space in my fiddle case.

Typically you will find me in basic or economy seating on a flight — it’s just what my budget supports right now. I also like to travel light, so I use my fiddle as my carry on bag and bring a large purse or small duffel bag to stow under my seat. If you do this, remember you have to carry these things everywhere, so don’t overpack and weigh yourself down. It’s not fun. Everything else goes into your checked bag, so if you can put heavier things like shoes or an extra book in there, I highly recommend that!

Here’s what goes into my carry on bag almost every time I travel:

  • Phone, charger and headphones
  • Small purse with my wallet, keys, and passport (for international travel)
  • Keto friendly snacks and daily vitamins/supplements
  • A change of clothes
  • Any toiletries that I wouldn’t want to be stranded without if my luggage were lost
  • A light book/crosswords or sudoku puzzles
  • (Sometimes) Jewelry
  • (Sometimes) Printouts of important documents I need for my trip

Here’s where you can get creative. Depending on what type of fiddle case you have, there are likely one or two handy storage compartments that you can use for extra space. I like to roll up a t-shirt and a pair of leggings and stick them in my case (I use a Bam Original, which has an awesome secret storage pocket on the side). If you have a case that has space to store sheet music, you can use that space to store any documents you want to have with you such as proof of insurance, relevant airline regulations, etc.

Once you’ve gotten a place for your larger items, it is much easier to pack the smaller things in your personal bag! I prefer to use a small duffel (you can find decent quality, low price ones at TJ Maxx and Marshalls) because most everything fits in horizontally, meaning I don’t have to hurriedly go digging for my Driver’s License when I forget that I need it in order to be admitted into Security.

I LOVE my Bam Original case! So much lighter and easier to fit in airplane overhead storage!

Trick: If you have any liquids in your case such as instrument cleaner or a humidity controller that contains water, take them out of your case and put them in with your other carry-on liquids in a quart-sized plastic baggie. This will increase your chances of getting through the line without any hold-ups or additional inspection. You can put them back in your case once you’ve gone through Security.

Tip Three: Get on board the aircraft as soon as you can.

You can do this in one of two ways, and I’ll go through the pro’s and con’s of each. This is based on my experience with Delta Airlines — so it may be different for others.

Method 1: Buy priority boarding.

  • Pro: This ensures that you will get on the plane before a lot of other passengers, it’s a small additional fee on larger airlines, it saves a lot of stress if you’re traveling at the holidays when there are a lot of full flights
  • Con: You might not be in the gate area when they call priority, it’s an added expense, usually not offered on smaller flights (e.g. Pellston to Detroit)

Method 2: Be at the front of the line for your zone.

  • Pro: No extra cost, and it’s rare for there to be no overhead space left for your case (they mostly want you to gate check roller bags)
  • Con: There’s no guarantee like buying priority boarding, you may have a long wait standing in line (no fun if your luggage is too heavy), you really should avoid cluttering the waiting area

I like to save my money and take my chances, so I opt for method 2 more often. Lately, I sit in the waiting area for as long as possible, enjoy the slightly fresher air of the airport, and get up to stand in line when they call the zone right before mine.

I’m usually one of the first people on board when my zone is called. Most of the time, there is still space in the bin above my seat to store my fiddle case. However, if the overhead bin above you is full, try to find space in a bin that is closer to your exit — that way you’re not fighting traffic to get back to your instrument at the end of your flight. It’s not the end of the world if you have to put it in a bin behind you, it’s just a little easier on your fellow passengers.

So worth it to have your instrument with you when experiencing places like this!

Tip 4: Airlines want your loyalty. Be polite, respectful and calm, and they will help you out!

Be polite to the gate agent. Be polite to the flight attendant. Be polite to your fellow passengers. People are always more willing to help if you treat them with kindness and courtesy. Calmly explain to the gate agent trying to tag your case that you have a musical instrument, which is fragile and easily damaged in checked bag environments. If needed, speak to a representative of the airline in person or via phone: they want your loyal and consistent patronage, so they will often be willing to help you out if there’s a problem.

You should try to be consistent with who you fly with. If an airline always treats you right and respects your instrument, they deserve your loyalty! It’s also a great way to build up frequent flyer points instead of spreading yourself thin across a bunch of different airlines. If you’re flying internationally, check to see who partners with the airline you’re flying with: I’ll most likely be flying AirCanada to get to Ireland in the future, so I’m planning on making a frequent flyer account with their US partner, United Airlines. No additional cost and the points never expire!

For national travel, I stick with Delta. Most of my flights go through Detroit or Atlanta (two of their main hubs) so it makes the most sense for me. They have always treated me well — I remember flying home from Atlanta the day after Christmas and they allowed me to go through (priority) security because I had an instrument. Shout out to Hartsfield Jackson for their efficiency!

Tip 5: Make sure you have both instrument and travel insurance!

Listen, hun. Life happens. Sometimes there are things we can’t control, and that means we have to take a deep breath and be patient as we find a new way to deal with a difficulty. Save yourself the extra headache and pay $3o-40 for peace of mind. Most of the time you don’t need it, but you will be so glad for it if you do! It’s just something you have to accept. If an accident does happen, use it as a learning experience for how you can make your travel go more smoothly the next time.

Were these tips helpful? Do you have other suggestions for stress-free instrument travel? Let me know in the comments! As always, thanks for reading!

Crowdfunding and Album Update

Here I am emerging from the depths of… album production! That’s right, I am recording my very first album to share with the world and couldn’t be more excited!

At this point I have recorded 10 out of 14 tunes, and completed scratch tracks on two others! I’m not sure if all the tunes will go on the album, or if I’ll keep a couple around as bonus tracks and incentives to sign up for my email list. I don’t expect people to just give me their email list for nothing, so I want to be able to offer a free song as an exchange!

The more I research online marketing and e-commerce, the more excited I get. Why? Because if I can master this method of making a living through my music, then it doesn’t matter if I live in a super busy city or in the middle of the woods (as long as there’s a good wifi signal)! Through the beauty of the Internet, I can stay connected with all my wonderful worldwide people even though I live far away from most of you. And those relationships and connection is why I do all this in the first place.

Tuning up for a big recording day!

The reason why I’m making my album now is because it makes the most sense to tackle at this point in my career. I want to grow this music business as much as I can, which means developing multiple streams of income. My music business is currently service-based, so I offer my music in the form of entertainment (gigs) and teaching (private lessons). Those are two income streams right there. Now add e-commerce and selling a digital and physical CD online and we’re taking it to a whole other level!

Back to the album. Here’s what I have left to do before I release this project to the world in Spring 2020:

Recording Phase

  • Finish Recording
  • Mixing
  • Mastering 

Post Production Phase

  • Design the album cover
  • Creating the CD booklet
  • Pick a Digital Distribution platform
  • Physical CD printing

Pre-Launch Phase

  • Advertising and promo to spread awareness
  • Reach out to press release companies
  • Reach out to radio shows
  • Upload music to DD platform
  • Create and share content on email list, social media, and website building the hype
  • Set up a Shopify page
  • Study eCommerce, email marketing, copywriting and all the legalities!
  • Ship crowdfunding rewards
  • Launch a new campaign for pre-orders
  • Ship pre-orders
  • Anything else I’ve accidentally left out of this list!

Needless to say, this project is one of the largest ones I’ve ever undertaken — with the possible exception of my Masters’ Thesis! It’s certainly doable when I break it down into smaller steps to tackle one week at a time, but as you can see there are a lot of steps. You may be wondering if there’s a way you can help or be a part of this process… If this is you, keep reading!

I launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo this past Tuesday, Nov 19th. This is the perfect opportunity for you to be a very special part of the process and be the first to order the new album! I am offering several different levels of perks to those who contribute to this campaign, from early access digital downloads to signed CDs to house concerts to Skype lessons/hang outs! There is a price point for everyone. 

Check out my campaign video here!

Phew. That’s a lot to update you with! Basically this album is my life right now, and will continue to be one of my main projects for many months ahead. Up here in northern Michigan we’re buckling down into the winter season, which means a LOT of cold and snow. I’ve been making my peace with becoming a northerner the past few years. At first I wasn’t sure I’d like living in a remote area of the world, but I’ve gotta admit that it does wonders for my creativity. Just imagine me curling up near the wood stove in my little house in the woods with a cup of tea, pouring my thoughts out into this blog — see, that’s not so bad! I have the space to think, reflect, and get those ideas flowing. And like I said before, I can connect with you, wonderful reader, wherever I am! Thanks for being here, and keep your eyes open for more album and music life updates soon!

June Tune Recaps

On the last day of the first half of the year, I said goodbye to my retail job. I used to be the store manager for County Emmet Celtic Shop, where I was able to stay connected with my passion for Irish music by selling a variety of primarily Irish and Scottish merchandise: sweaters, jewelry, housewares… you name it! It was a wonderful little shop on the edge of town with a view of Little Traverse Bay on my daily commute. In the summers I even got to play my fiddle outside on the porch to draw customers inside.

There were many things I enjoyed about working at the shop, and many lessons that have shaped me into a person who I like very much. Ultimately though, retail work is not for me. Not a lifelong passion and not something that fills me up at the end of the day. That role goes to my music career.

Waiting for customers…

Needless to say, the last month or so has been extremely busy for me as we worked to close the shop! However, I hardly ever go more than a couple days without taking the fiddle out (and if it’s longer, my mood definitely gives me a big hint) — so I was still able to take time to record videos this month for y’all! It is finally warm and humid enough to play outside with a wooden acoustic instrument, so naturally I plopped myself down on the garden wall outside our family cottage in Michigan with tripod and fiddle in hand!

If you read last month’s recap, you’ll recall that I saw Kevin Burke play at a house concert in my area. I was absolutely blown away by his musicality, technical prowess, and ability to carry off a one-man show successfully. He’s long been a role model of mine, and this concert just confirmed why in so many ways. Needless to say, I’m still on a Kevin Burke high this month, so the first set of tunes I recorded for y’all are ones I got off a couple of his albums, “If the Cap Fits” and William Coulter’s, “Celtic Sessions.” The tune names are “Caisleán An Oir” and “The Star of Munster,” which I transposed down to g minor to fit the key of the first tune.

June Tune Recap Video One

For the second set, I chose a couple of polkas — surprise! The first is called Nell Fee’s, and I owe a huge thank you to fellow fiddler Stefan Fraser in Belfast for being so sharp on all the tune names I can’t recall! I followed it up with one of John Walsh’s polkas, which always brings me right back to sessions at the Blarney Castle Hotel (click through to see a promo video my friends and I were in for their website).

June Tune Recap Video 2

There’s not much time that goes by when I’m not thinking back on my experience studying in Cork. There are so many amazing musicians there, and the tunes are always close at hand every night. One of my favorite pub sessions to go to was right in Cork City Centre at Án Spáilpín Fánach. The guys there always made me feel so welcome, and we were a happy mix of locals and expats sharing tunes and songs til the wee hours of the morning. So for my last video, I’m revisiting a set that I got from a couple members of The Thirsty Scholars — a lively mash of reels to round out this month’s tune recap!

June Tune Recap Video 3

Lastly, I had this crazy burst of adrenaline so y’all get a bonus video! Here’s an Appalachian tune and a Scottish reel. Happy July!

Bonus June Tune Recap

May Tune Recap

There is no one I know who can execute a tighter bow treble than Kevin Burke. Say what now? Okay, so a bow treble is a type of ornamentation — or technical decoration — that fiddle players can add to their tunes. It’s where we move the bow in a quick down-up-down motion to add a bit of “spice” to the tune. When Kevin Burke plays a bow treble, it is so quick and crisp that it sounds more like added percussion than a repeated melodic note.

To give y’all some context as to why I’m waxing poetic about this master fiddler, I attended Kevin Burke’s house concert a couple weeks ago at the home of some of my musician friends, Mo and Dale Scott. It was incredible to say the least. I have seen Kevin perform before at the Swannanoa Gathering, but what I didn’t realize then was how much of an effect he has had on my own playing. Growing up, my dad played a lot of William Coulter CDs in our house, and I only found out this year that the fiddle player I listened to all the time as a kid was Kevin Burke! I must have subconsciously absorbed his phrasing and choices of ornamentation, because when I started playing fiddle music myself, that was the role model I had in my mind. Nowadays, whenever I ask my musician friends who are familiar with this type of music who I sound like stylistically, they almost always say Kevin Burke! Now I know why.

One of my favorite tunes from this house concert is one that I decided to record for y’all this month called “S’iomadh Rud A Chunnaic Mi.” In English, this translates to “Many a Thing I Saw.” Sounds like a good story already, right?

Coincidentally, I posted a blog earlier this month focusing on my favorite artists from my February travels to the Folk Alliance Conference, where I also heard this tune from Adam Agee and Jon Sousa. These guys are based in Colorado, but like me have traveled and studied abroad overseas to immerse themselves in the tunes and songs of Ireland and Scotland! Kindred spirits…

While the tune is listed as a reel in thesession.org, this tune is primarily an example of Scottish Gaelic mouth music, or puirt-a-beul. This came about when there would be a dance but no musicians were around to play for it. So, as a perfect example of “the Thrifty Scot,” the people improvised and made up words to the well-known tunes. These were meant to be more light hearted or silly, so they didn’t tell a story like a ballad would. In fact, they are probably most similar to Irish lilting in that the tune is sung — but whereas lilting is just syllables strung together, puirt-a-beul uses words. It’s actually quite a skill to develop, requiring breath control and a good knowledge of the Scots Gaelic language/pronunciation at a rapid fire pace. I learned one puirt-a-beul set with Mary Jane Lamond at the Gaelic College in Cape Breton back in 2015 and am woefully out of practice. Heather Sparling has a great book called, Reeling Roosters and Dancing Ducks: Celtic Mouth Music, which goes way more into depth about the tradition of puirt-a-beul. So if you want to learn more about this, I highly recommend the read!

For my second set of tunes, I decided to go back to my memories of studying in Cork. I left Ireland in May 2017 after an eight month period of intense study at University College of Cork for my Masters Degree. I still get very nostalgic for that time of my life, especially for the people I was fortunate enough to meet and connect with. If anyone from Cork is reading this I miss y’all SO much, and am planning a 2020 trip back to visit! These tunes are dedicated to you.

When people ask me what my musical focus is, I usually just say Irish traditional music. But if I were to get really specific, I would say that I hone in on the Sliabh Luachra region of Ireland (parts of Counties Cork, Kerry, and Limerick) with nods to my Appalachian North Carolina roots. I think the mountains are becoming more and more a part of my soul. “Sliabh Luachra” translates roughly to “The Mountain of Rushes,” which gives you an idea of what the landscape looks like in this region (thank you Kevin Burke for pointing this out in your concert)!

The beautiful “Sliabh Luachra” rush mountains of West Cork and Kerry! Taken from the Ring of Kerry at Ladies’ View near Killarney in 2017.

This area is known for its polkas and slides, almost but not quite replacing reels and jigs in session repertoire. Today I’m going to play you two slides that I learned in my fiddle lessons with Connie O’Connell at the college, called “Barrack Hill” and “Paddy Cronin’s Slide.” These lessons were unlike any others I’d ever taken. Two or three other fiddlers and I sat around in a circle in a narrow room of the music building with Connie for 45 minutes every Tuesday afternoon and absorbed 1-3 lesser known tunes (they had to be in order to pick one all of us didn’t already know). It was done entirely by ear, but we were allowed to record the tunes on our phones to practice for the next week. I absolutely love this learning approach, and have continued to incorporate into how I learn new tunes to this day. It’s a great brain exercise, and really instills the music deeper into the musician.

So with my Barry’s Gold Blend of tea within arm’s reach and two Sliabh Luachra slides on my mind, here is my May tribute to my time spent in Cork!

Folk Alliance 2019 Part Two: Who I Discovered

Hello again! As promised, here is part two of my Folk Alliance posts. This one focuses on the my favorite FA artists who I either met in person for the first time or reconnected with from previous travels. If you missed my first post, which tells you what Folk Alliance is and focuses on my main takeaways from the week, you can click here to catch up! One of those takeaways had to do with what type of artist I resonate with the most. I realized that I connect best with performers who not only play well, but also have a unique persona that shines through in their music. I highly encourage you to look these artists up, listen to their music, and if possible see them perform live.

So many talented artists all gathered together in this building!

Old Friends:

I was thrilled when I saw that both Andrew Finn Magill and Emerald Rae were performing at Folk Alliance this year (click on their names to check out their websites)! Finn was my first “real” fiddle teacher when I started attending the Swannanoa Gathering Celtic Week at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. I know him the best for his Irish music, but in the past few years he has been focusing on Brazilian styles — which also sound amazing. He played several sets with his friend and bandmate, Cesar Garabini, who is an absolute wizard at the seven string guitar. I credit Finn for giving me the necessary tips I needed to shift my sound from classical violinist to Irish fiddler. He’s also great at providing disciplined practice tips, which is an area I’m always looking to improve!

Emerald Rae was another one of my fiddle teachers from Swannanoa, this time focusing on Cape Breton music. To this day, I still love to play the tunes she taught in that class — she’s got a real knack for picking some great repertoire! Like Finn, Emerald has retained her traditional music background, but has also transitioned into a new style: singer-songwriter. Her latest self-titled album is full of her own compositions written for fiddle accompanying voice. Let me tell you, it is not easy to sing and play at the same time, but Emerald is absolutely brilliant at it. She is exploring and pushing boundaries of what the fiddle and voice can do to create a one-woman show. She also experiments with cross tuning and medieval music, which gives her a unique vibe and really showcases her powerhouse fiddling. Can you tell she’s one of my role models?

From Andrew Finn Magill and Emerald Rae’s Instagram pages. Reproduced with permission.

New Friends (thank you, Instagram!):

There were also some familiar faces at Folk Alliance thanks to the virtual world of the internet — mostly due to Instagram and the Celtic Colours Festival Livestream from Cape Breton. Tristan Henderson of Vermont trio, Pete’s Posse, was one such Instagram connection. He has been really supportive of me ever since I started to market my music more online, so it was wonderful to meet him and hear him play in person! He’s one of the friendliest musicians I’ve ever met and also quite possibly the owner of the biggest jaw harp collection that I know.

Another Celtic Colour/Instagram discovery was April Verch. April is an amazing virtuosic Canadian fiddler from the Ottawa Valley region, but also knowledgeable of other Canadian regional styles. She was performing with her trio at Folk Alliance, and I must have dropped in to listen to almost all of her showcases. She fiddles, sings, and step dances — sometimes at the same time! I ended up taking a master class with her during the week to learn about the stylistic differences among the Canadian regional fiddle traditions, which was really fascinating to compare to what I’ve learned about Irish regional styles. She taught the class a Métis (French, Irish and Native American influenced) version of The Arkansas Traveler as well as an Ottawa Valley (in Ontario) style jig. I could definitely hear similarities between the Ottawa Valley and Appalachian fiddling, both of which have ancestral root meanings to me! April has just released a new album, “Once a Day,” where she’s exploring more 50’s Canadian country repertoire — absolutely adore her and her music!

Album cover from April Verch's latest release, "Once a Day."
Reproduced with April’s permission. Check out her new album!

While I didn’t end up speaking to any of these guys, I also got to see Le Vent du Nord in person. WOW. I barely have any other words. Despite my minimal knowledge of the French language, they were one of the most engaging groups of musicians I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch perform. Also one of the guys plays a hurdy-gurdy, which is just awesome in and of itself. Another string instrument for me to try…

Other Favorite Musical Acts:

Rising Appalachia: I was introduced to this wonderful band by a fellow American student and friend of mine in Cork, who shares my deep love for my homeland in the southeastern United States. She and I even worked up their version of “Across the Blue Ridge Mountains” to sing in the weekly sessions we attended at the Blarney Castle Hotel. However, I was in no way prepared for their performance at Folk Alliance. Jam packed into a small hotel room with thirty to forty other people, I experienced the most soul-fulfilling music I have felt in a long time. Their beautiful harmonies and arrangements of classic Old Time tunes brought me right back home to the Piedmont/Mountain region of North Carolina, and really reached my core. To me, they represent true “Roots” music: they bring everything back to the lay of the land, how we occupy it, and how we use it to serve one another. They share an idea of how to manifest all of our gifts on this earth, and it really sunk in with me… also they have the classiest hats! Lastly, they just released a new album called Leylines, which focuses on the musical alignment of traditions from the southeastern US, Ireland, and Africa. Y’all, it’s a true work of art!!

Rising Appalachia joined by Finn Magill — seriously the most magical showcase, y’all!

Adam Agee and Jon Sousa: I accidentally stumbled upon these two Colorado-based musicians as I was wandering down the hotel corridor. There was some beautiful fiddle/guitar music trailing out of a room that stopped me in my tracks, made me turn around and make a beeline for its source. Jon spent some time at University of Limerick, where he developed his knowledge of singing in the Irish language, and it was an absolute pleasure to speak to them both after their set! I’m always glad to meet fellow musicians who have had similar Irish experiences to my own — and I really hope to catch these two for some tunes one of these days!

The East Pointers: These guys actually came to Petoskey a little over a year ago, and played at Red Sky Stage — love their energy, their banter in between sets, and their songs! They’ve definitely got a traditional sound at their roots, but they use it to tell their own story of their travels and upbringing. Both of my favorite songs of theirs, “82 Fires” and “Two Weeks,” shed light on different hardships: wildfire threats in Tanzania and the economically challenging work environment in the Canadian Maritimes. Even though their songs focus on specific events or geographical areas, the themes are relatable worldwide and really have the ability to reach a variety of audience members. On top of that, they are genuinely nice people, which is always a plus in my book!

Additional Acts I Enjoyed:

Riviere Rouge – April Verch recommended this Canadian Métis trio — wonderfully friendly guys who, like Le Vent du Nord, have the ability to connect through their music with both their French and English speaking audiences. I thoroughly enjoyed my first major introduction to Metis music thanks to them!

Nava – These guys are an Irish/Persian quartet using instruments and repertoire from both traditions. Often times I shy away from groups that blend a bunch of different styles because I think they lose that traditionally rooted approach — not the case with these guys! They honor both Irish and Persian culture and put together a truly enjoyable set!

The Lumber Jills – If my best friends from childhood and I had ever played music together, it would be like this quartet of young girls from Cape Breton. They clearly enjoy playing music together, and I hope to go to the Celtic Colours Festival one of these years to hear them play again!

The Fretless – Classical string quartet meets fiddling repertoire. I didn’t get to see them live, but Chris did and got them on video for me. Recently, I’ve started to get more involved in my local classical music scene, so I think I have a new project in the works…

Gus La Casse – Gus is a fantastic Acadian fiddler, and really throws himself into the music! His energy immediately transforms his surrounding environment. He played a few showcases with Tristan Henderson, and between the two of them I felt as though I’d dropped into a concert environment flow that only masters of tradition can pull off! Seriously amazing musicianship!!

Pumpkin Bread Band – One of my roommates from the Swannanoa Gathering, Maura Scanlin, is the fiddle player from this band. Having heard her play before, I knew I’d have to see them in showcase — Maura puts such heart and soul into her fiddling and she’s a pleasure to listen to! Her band was great too — they just released their debut CD, and I look forward to hearing more of their work!

There were many more artists that I didn’t get around to listen to at Folk Alliance due to the sheer volume of simultaneous showcases, but the artists listed above all stood out to me for their own reasons. It was truly an honor to meet such wonderful musicians and reconnect with others who I consider as mentors. The beauty of these conferences are the connections made and the chance to experience some fantastic musical moments. I highly encourage y’all to surround yourself with music that lifts you, inspires you, challenges you, and makes you feel a deep connection to this world and your life in it. Comment below if any of these artists resonate with you, and better yet reach out and tell them how much their music means to you!

Special thanks to this guy for making the trip to Folk Alliance possible! Here’s to many more music travels in the future! PC: Tin Can Photography

April Tune Recap

Does anyone know where April went? Between moving, starting to transition jobs, future house hunting and wedding planning, by the end of the month I was finding it extremely hard to prioritize time with my fiddle. Fortunately my latest project is both specific and motivating for me, so most days I was still able to get the instruments out for a little while!

Ever since mid-late March, I’ve selected one fiddle player each month to focus on studying. For April I chose David Doocey, an Irish fiddler/multi-instrumentalist, who released an album in 2013 called “Changing Time.” My self-imposed challenge was to learn every single tune on the album. The goal was not to sound exactly like David Doocey — although he is a great fiddle player and I really do admire his style! Rather, I wanted to absorb a few influences of his while expanding my tune repertoire. Whenever I am over in Ireland or at an advanced Irish session in the states, I like to be able to pick up new tunes quickly from master musicians. So this exercise was meant to help me train my ear to absorb phrasing, tune structure, and variations all within a limited amount of time.

I spent the last month listening to David’s album over and over again, while attempting to play along with him. Each time got a little better, and I gradually caught on to each of the tracks one by one. I kept a checklist handy of all the tunes I didn’t know yet, and after the first couple of days I was able to start crossing them off. In this month’s tune recap, I dive into three of my favorite tracks from this album — each of which required a different learning approach!

An old favorite and a new favorite! Also I am WAY too excited that I made my first video edit with these! Baby steps…

When I first recorded this video with the intro, my fiddle was reacting to the new environment and was slightly out of tune. It wasn’t terrible, but it was enough to bother me, and I didn’t want to put that kind of musical content that I’m not completely satisfied with out there. So my “brilliant” plan was to record the tunes on their own once I adjusted my strings, and then put both the intro and video clips into iMovie on my phone! At first I thought I needed the computer, which would have been a problem due to my full iCloud storage, but fortunately I thought to check out the apps I never use on my phone — and voila! Some of you with experience in video editing may be shaking your heads at me for this incredibly basic skill I just acquired, but y’all this is a HUGE step for me! I don’t like to video edit at all! I just want to focus on playing tunes, not fine tuning the format that I share them in… but I will say it’s a useful skill to have and maybe once I learn more and get better at it, I will find it more enjoyable!

Dipping into my classical background to crank out these unusual tunes! 3-4 flats with no alternate tuning!

This next set of tunes posed a different kind of challenge. A top resource for many Irish traditional musician is The Session, which provides sheet music for a multitude of tunes. Another nice feature is that you can research a particular artist, and the search engine comes up with a list of all of the tunes on their albums. However, not every single tune is transcribed into the database, so sometimes you only get a name with no link attached! This was the case for David Doocey’s track “Up Braid/Tory Fort Lane.” Maybe some day I will sit down and submit a transcription for these tunes, but that wasn’t the focus of this month’s project. Instead, I saw it as an opportunity to learn these two tunes entirely by ear — a preferred traditional learning method anyway!

The fun thing for me with these tunes is that they’re in unusual keys: c minor and f minor where the key signature contains three and four flats! Definitely an advanced key to play in on the fiddle as you can’t use three of your four open strings. As I mentioned in the video, some fiddlers get around this obstacle by using alternate tunings on their instrument. In this case, you would tune the strings down by a half step, so that the A would become A flat, and so on. Occasionally, I do like to experiment with alternate tunings because they create a whole new open and resonant tone that my ear is not adjusted to! You can imagine it opens a whole new world of musical possibilities. However there is value in both methods, and this month I chose to stay in standard tuning while adjusting my fingers into a trickier pattern — I believe David does the same thing. It was a good review from my classical music days and reminded me how much I love playing in both of these keys!

A beautiful jig that I’ve only ever heard at a faster tempo prior to David Doocey! Love that this gave me an opportunity to slow it down and challenge myself in new ways!

Lastly, I chose to record this beautiful slow jig called Inis Bearachain. I have heard some of my friends in Cork play this tune before, but at a regular jig tempo, which is much faster. So the challenge with this tune was to slow it down and explore the possibilities of playing it at a completely different tempo! It may seem odd, but playing slow is much harder than playing fast. When we play fast, we are speeding through the notes, not paying as much attention to precision and intonation, and getting ourselves in this mindset of rushing ahead and thinking more about what is next than what is at hand. Trust me, this is me in so many ways… so using this practice time to slow down and be present in a more mellow tempo turned out to be a great mindset exercise for me too! Learning how to be present yet proactive, centered yet conscious of what’s coming next… it’s not just a music skill, y’all, it’s a life skill!

One of many reasons I love playing music is that I can tie my practicing into life skills and lessons. Patience with learning new tunes in a repetitive aural method, revisiting old lessons as needed to make progress, and slowing down to appreciate the moment… these are all things I can apply to my life beyond my music. It’s why playing an instrument is so much more than entertaining an audience. The reason why I have gone down this musical path in my education is not just for acquiring technical skills in performance and teaching — it is for the mindset that learning an instrument teaches us. It’s more than learning how to be a good musician. It’s also learning how to be a good person. How to be fully present, centered and connected to our lives and how we interact with others. Music is a conduit through which we as human beings can learn to enter into that flow that makes our lives worth living. Be present, my friends. Be connected. Be musical.

Folk Alliance 2019, Part One: What I Learned

February was my month for traveling and seeing new places! About halfway through the month, my fiancé, Chris, and I took off for five days to attend the Folk Alliance Conference in Montreal. This particular conference takes place once a year — although there are also associated regional conferences — and it is a time where artists, festival scouts, promoters, vendors and panelists all gather to network and explore new possibilities for sharing music! Since Chris is a board member of our local music festival, Blissfest, I got to tag along as an honorary scout. Our main purpose was to discover and meet new acts to introduce to our area of northern Michigan, while also reconnecting with artists who have performed here in the past. When Chris first sent me the list of artists who were going to be at Folk Alliance, I admittedly squealed with delight each time I saw a familiar name!

I’m not quite sure what the logic is of trying to get hundreds of people up to a hotel in Canada in the middle of February, but I expect it has to do with being a slower time of year for both performers and presenters. Needless to say, there were quite a few travel delays, and we were no exception! We had decided to fly out from Sault Ste Marie, Ontario, which involved crossing the US/Canadian border the night before to stay at an Airbnb since we had a morning flight. Of course northern Michigan winter weather made an appearance, and the Mackinac Bridge, which was our one way to get from the lower peninsula to the upper peninsula of Michigan, was closed due to high winds and very low visibility for about seven hours! We hung around Mackinac City for a few hours in hopes that we’d catch a clear window between the snow storms, but no such luck. We ended up driving back to Chris’s house, but had no sooner settled in to watch a movie when the bridge opened back up! Fortunately we hadn’t unpacked and were able to throw ourselves back in the car and get over the bridge to the Canadian border and our Airbnb. Winter traveling is a lot of “hurry up and wait!”

The view of our hotel from the cathedral across the street! Still very snowy and icy.

The following day, our flight was canceled and we were put on standby for a later flight — nine hours later to be precise! We were flying with Porter Airlines, and I’m happy to say that despite the weather conditions, they made every effort to get the two of us on that flight and to our final destination in Montreal. We arrived at the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth Hotel a few hours late, but very thankful that we didn’t have to cancel our trip! If you are a northern Michigan resident, I do recommend checking the rates for International Travel out of the Soo airport — it’s a lot quicker to go through Customs at the border, and you’re paying airport parking rates in Canadian dollars! It’s both a time and money saver, despite the winter weather delays, and we had a good experience.

As for the artists, I saw many familiar names and discovered some new favorites. There were quite a few musicians on this list, so in order to give them my proper attention, I am splitting this blog entry into two separate posts. I asked my Instagram followers what they would rather hear about first, and my takeaways from the weekend ended up being the winner. Don’t worry if you wanted to hear about the artists, because that post is coming within the month!

And here’s the cathedral!

This post is dedicated to what I learned about myself as an artist and how I will use these takeaways to grow into a better musician and businesswoman. I hope that some of these insights will prove useful to you on your own journey, or that they will help you to better understand who I am if that is your primary reason for following along.

So to dig right in, I learned from this week that I need to be more assertive and proactive when it comes to going after my goals and making the necessary connections for growing into a successful music business. Right now I am struggling with fully adopting this mindset because I do still have the security of a full time job. However, this won’t always be the case. If I truly want to pursue my dream to be a full time musician, it will mean transitioning from a “9-5” job into a freelance lifestyle where it is my responsibility to schedule my own hours, manage my time wisely, and be in charge of my finances. What is holding me back right now is the job security I currently have, so there is no mass panic on my end to come up with funding outside of that. I thought my procrastinating days would be over after college, but as it turns out, this is a weakness I will have to continue to battle to overcome.

Something I didn’t realize before arriving at the conference is that the artists have to pay in order to come perform here. This is as much a networking event for them as it is for festival scouts and educational panelists. In retrospect this makes perfect sense, but it did make me stop and think for a minute about the different choices I will have to make when I invest in myself as a musician. Will I pay to go to these networking conferences in order to book more gigs and make all of that money back? Will I take courses on how to manage a music business? What will I have to budget out for in order to better increase my growth and income? I am glad that this is something I’m realizing in the early days of my music career. I no longer believe that some agent is just going to “discover” me and book me for festivals and cruise ship shows for the rest of my life. If I want to be a part of these communities, then I need to meet these people halfway. I need to take the initiative and be bold enough to put my work out there and ask to collaborate with others. I can’t just sit around and wait for people to come to me. This may seem obvious to some of you, but for me Folk Alliance was a reaffirmation of this and the fire under my pants I needed to stand up and start figuring out how to assert myself into the musical community I so desperately want to be a part of.

Positive flowers to keep my motivation strong!

Another takeaway I got from Folk Alliance is that there is a power of connecting and reaching out to people on social media. I have been interacting with a band called Pete’s Posse on Instagram for over a year since I switched to a business account for marketing my music. This Vermont trio has been very supportive of me and my tune videos from the start, so you can imagine how thrilled I was when I found out that their guitar/jaw harp player, Tristan Henderson, was going to be one of the performing artists! What was even more awesome was that we recognized each other in the showcase room right away and were able to connect instantly in person due to our social media introduction.

Check out Pete’s Posse on Instagram and Facebook — you won’t be disappointed! Shared with their permission.

This happened again with Canadian fiddling virtuoso, April Verch. I had seen April’s showcase lineup on Instagram the week before and commented that I was excited to meet her and see her perform in person for the first time — and, bless her, she must have looked my profile up beforehand because she recognized me AND introduced herself! In addition to her performances, she also taught a two hour masterclass on different regional styles of Canadian fiddling, which I was lucky enough to attend. As a personal takeaway, I learned so much more about the nuances of Canadian fiddling, and was able to compare this to my North Carolina Appalachian roots as well as Irish county regional styles.

Each of the musicians I connected the most with were ones who took the time to craft their own unique persona, which they shared fully in their music. For example, Emerald Rae is one of my favorite fiddlers — she stands out because she can sing while accompanying herself on the fiddle with her own compositions, loves medieval music, and has both dreadlocks and a delightfully warm and bubbly personality. Andrew Finn Magill grew up in Asheville with a background in classical and Irish Traditional music, but found his greatest love in the music of Brazil. Rising Appalachia is a group deeply rooted in the music of the Southeastern United States, while also stretching back further to the places where its settlers came from. In this rooted mission of theirs, they also seek to spread a message to their audience: one of awareness and how to best live in harmony with our land and our ties to the earth. I had a breakthrough at Folk Alliance, because I realized that the artists that stuck the most with me where the ones who not only played well, but put their passions and their personality wholeheartedly into their craft. That resonated with me, and made me realize that in order to best serve you, my reading and listening audience, that I owe it to you to provide the most true version of myself. Only then will I feel as though I have truly grown into the musician I want to be for you all.

My constant travel companion…

Some other tidbits I picked up from watching the showcases and attending talks are as follows:

  • It is a good idea to bridge the familiar with the unfamiliar in a performance. Personally, I love to pick obscure Irish tunes that are not overplayed in sessions, but it’s also important for me to not lose my audience on the way. The best solution I’ve found for this is to tell a story about how I found the tune or why I picked it — often times it works to keep that connection with my listeners.
  • A good performer communicates firmly but respectfully with the sound crew. Don’t get upset when feedback occurs or if you have to repeatedly ask to hear more of yourself in the monitors. If you’re a female performer, learn at least some basics of sound technology and don’t let the sound guy walk all over you. Know what type of sound you want in different venues and be able to communicate that with the crew. I noticed that April Verch was very good at subtly indicating when she was switching from hard to soft shoes in her step dancing sets. Because of her calm and assured demeanor, she was able to guide the sound crew through her performances with little to no mishap. Goals.
  • Both the directors of the Swannanoa Gathering and Celtic Colours Festival were at Folk Alliance doing the same things our Blissfest group was: scouting! So because part of my music dream is to perform or teach at some of my favorite events… guess where a good place to network will be!
  • From the ethnomusicology summit: I unintentionally got to hear the counterargument for my Master’s thesis about the media’s role in promoting “world music.” Stay tuned for a post on the pro’s and con’s of media labeling, and be prepared to get your discussion keyboards out!
  • Ideas for a solo fiddle show: incorporate Quebecois foot percussion boards and pizzicato fiddle accompaniment on songs. I’ll let you know how those projects go for me. Or maybe you’ll see it in a future video!
  • If y’all ever want to go on a cruise with me as your private group entertainment, let me know because there are programs out there for that and we can make it happen!

There you have it! Folk Alliance was one of those weeks where it took me a long time to process what exactly I learned from the experience, but I’m delighted to share those thoughts with you now. If this was helpful to you, or if you want me to dig deeper into any of these subjects in a future blog post, please comment below and let me know what you think!

Thanks for tuning in! Comment your thoughts below 🙂

March 2019 Video Tune Recap

Hello, hello! It’s the end of the month, which means it’s time for another tune recap! I will admit that I almost forgot to record this month, but fortunately I had a gig yesterday morning at the Boyne City Farmer’s Market, which proved to be an ideal time to record a few tunes. This month y’all get a bonus guest musician — John Warstler! John and I play gigs together frequently in the Petoskey, Michigan area, so it was great to get to feature him on a few of the sets this month.

If you’ve seen some of my earlier tune recordings on Instagram, you may remember that I get pretty creative with how I rig my phone to capture a good angle when I record myself playing. Think filing bins, kitchen clips, music stands, and blankets hung over doors for a backdrop. My behind the scenes are clearly very hi-tech. This time was no exception! While I did get a tripod for Christmas this year, I didn’t realize I would be needing it so I left it at home! So these videos are coming to you with the help of a pop socket, mic stand, and bright yellow duct tape… What can I say? I’m building this music business one step at a time, and if I have to be resourceful before I can budget out for “proper” equipment, then you bet I will!

This month I’m starting out with a tune that Chuck Boyer requested last month: Niel Gow’s Lament for his Second Wife. This is a beautiful Scottish waltz that I’ve been playing for years, but hadn’t pulled out of the tune repertoire since my undergraduate days. I’ve actually recorded this tune before, I believe in tribute to one of the (tragically) many school shootings that have occurred in the US. I’ve found music to be the best way to express some of my deeper emotions — I hope that whatever you may need to hear this lament for that it gives you some comfort and perhaps a few minutes of joy and peace.

Coming to you from the Boyne City Farmer’s Market — Niel Gow’s Lament. Send me your tune requests!

This next set focuses on a project that I actually started back in February, where I tried different methods to help me learn tunes more quickly. Part of the value of learning by ear is that it actively forces you to remember the phrasing and the notes at a quicker rate than reading off of sheet music. This may seem a little counterintuitive to anyone who knows how to read music. After years of practice, I am at the point where I could easily sight read a tune and play it in an Irish traditional style because I know what a jig or a reel is supposed to sound like. However, I can’t tell you how many times I have mindlessly sight read a tune, then been unable to recall how it goes later on in a session. It doesn’t stick that way.

So to combat this tendency, I forced myself to slow down. I picked five jigs that I wanted to learn in O’Neill’s Collection of over 1,000 tunes, and I drilled them. I started off reading them off the page, then played them through enough times so that I could play without looking at the music. Then I put the fiddle away and came back to it the next day starting out with playing from memory. I would only reference the sheet music if I got completely stuck. Adding or subtracting a passing note here and there only added to my version of the overall tune, so I didn’t worry about playing every single note the way it was written. By using that method, I taught myself ten new tunes in three days. Let that sink in… I slowed down so that I could speed up. I was patient so that I could reach my goal faster than the breakneck, unplanned pace I’ve been relying on before now. Needless to say, this is one of my new practice strategies!

Jigs: The Kinnegad Slashers/Fair Haired Boy/Black Donald the Piper feat. John Warstler

Lastly, I couldn’t help but add two of my favorite reels to this month’s recap! As you’ll hear in the video, there is a story to go along with the first tune, John Brosnan’s. So as promised, here it is! Some of you may know of the Irish band, We Banjo 3. Their fiddle player, Fergal Scahill, did a Tune A Day challenge back in 2017, and unfortunately I missed out on my opportunity to play a tune with him when they played at Blissfest that summer. Those were the days when you could barely pay me to be assertive, much less bug a famous person by reaching out more than once to try and meet them. When I saw Fergal was doing the tune challenge again this year, I knew this was my chance. We were already headed down to Ann Arbor to see their live album recording show at The Ark, so with fingers crossed and several messages back and forth on Instagram, we made it happen! The video is on his Facebook and Instagram pages, but if you’re having trouble finding it, I can send you the post on one of those platforms.

We recorded the video at the very end of February, so I decided to wait until this month to incorporate the story in to my recap. I’m posting it this month as a reminder to myself that I can be assertive, and that I don’t need to be afraid to ask if I want something badly enough. Both of the tunes in this video are some favorites that I heard played on my trips back to Cork last year in sessions at the Bodega. Thank you Michael, Hughie, Shane, and Tomas for your influence there! And thank you, of course, to John for playing on these videos this month. Here’s John Brosnan’s/The Sailor’s Bonnet — thanks for following along, and stay tuned for April!

Closing out with John Brosnan’s/The Sailor’s Bonnet

February 2019 Video Tune Recap

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.

Video 1 of 3: Jigs!

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!

Video 2 of 3: Reels!

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.”

Video 3 of 3: Song!

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!

Why I Value My Classical Violin Training as a Fiddle Player: Part 2

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!

If you’re willing to put in the work to sound like a fiddler, it will happen much faster than you may think! The skills are there, it just takes the right approach to draw them out.

Variation:

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.

Ornamentation:

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.  

Here’s a video from a five part series I did for Violin Tutor Pro a couple years back. There are a few of the videos that have tips on technique as well as expression, if you are curious! Featuring my good old Edenhall apartment in Cork City…

Phrasing:

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.

Summary:

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!

Tell me a story about your musical journey!