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!

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

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.

Pretty sure I was in the middle of figuring out 12 Bar Blues here…

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.

Some absolutely wonderful fellow Furman alum musicians!

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.

A lot of times it’s easier for me to concentrate and absorb the music when I play outdoors. This was taken at Lake Logan about three years ago. Credits to Bruce Perry!

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.

Some of my favorite sources for tune inspiration!

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!

Combining Fiddling and Writing: Finding Motivation with My Latest Strategy

2019 is turning out to be my year for finding new strategies. How can I keep content coming your way at a fairly consistent rate without going completely into overdrive? How do I balance a full time job with pursuing my dream goals? How do I fuel my passion for writing AND playing the fiddle without burning out by the end of the day? Where does my motivation lie, and how am I going to prioritize that?

I ran into this problem during the second half of last year, where I was being really hard on myself for not being creative enough. Yet I was also just trying to hang in there, get enough sleep, eat well, and give myself that down time I needed to recuperate. That part worked to some extent, but I went to sleep most nights feeling discouraged that I wasn’t doing enough. However, I’m now happy to say that in the past month or so I’ve learned to take baby steps, and be proud of where each one takes me. I’ve started re-prioritizing writing and working on growing my music. I’ve figured out how to recognize when I’m making excuses to myself and letting fear of success stand in my way — but that’s a subject that could take up at least three more blog posts. Let me tell you why I’m sharing this murkier part of my journey with y’all.

About two weeks ago I wrote down a bunch of different ideas of things I care enough about to write on and share with you, my audience. And y’all, there’s a LOT of stuff I could (and will) ramble on to you about. However, one of those ideas just happened to involve Youtube. Several years ago, I did a five part beginner fiddle tip teaching series, and I’ve added on a couple videos here and there — but I’m just starting to realize what a great barely tapped resource it is for spreading my musical message! So I decided that I need to be putting more videos out there. At this point, it’s just me and my tripod sitting in the den of my rental house, but I believe in working with what I have to get to the point where I want to be.

Video One of Three: 2 McFadden Reels!

I usually try to keep at least one video in my “Top 9” posts on Instagram, so that anyone doing a quick scan of my page can easily access an example of my playing. I intend to continue that in a similar vein, but this year I’m adding something a bit new to my practice/writing routine! Each month, I will record 2-3 sets of tunes, and post them up on my Youtube channel. I mentioned that I already have a few videos geared toward beginners. While this is something I want to continue to create, I also don’t want to ignore the rest of you who don’t need these tips! So, these tunes are meant for fiddle players (or traditional Irish musicians in general) of all levels as a resource for tune and technique inspiration in addition to showcasing what I do. Or if you are just an awesome person who likes to listen to fiddle music, I hope they give you some nice ear candy!

Video 2 0f 3: Set of Jigs from one of my December gigs!

I will likely be drawing on tunes that I find cropping up in almost each one of my individual practice sessions throughout the month, but I also welcome your requests! Feel free to make them challenging — it’ll help my technique and my self discipline! You’ll get credit in the videos unless you prefer to remain anonymous. Since this month is just the start, I went ahead and picked out the tunes for January: reels, jigs and polkas! In future posts, I will talk more about the tunes and the backstory behind why I picked them — although there is a bit of that at the beginning of each video. I hope you enjoy this new idea, and if you have a Youtube account and want to stay in the loop when I post new videos, please do give my channel a follow! Thank you for reading (and listening)!

Video 3 of 3: Polkas… surprise!

Three Quick and Easy Steps that Relax Sore Fiddling Muscles

Summer is here, which for me means more outdoor gigs, more busking (street performing) outside of the Celtic Shop where I work, and just more playing in general. I used to stretch or do little exercises to warm up my muscles much more regularly, especially when I felt that I had overplayed. However, over this past winter I got pretty lax about stretching, and now it’s coming back to bite me. Word to the wise, start these stretches BEFORE you feel any pain with playing, just to be on the safe side! It doesn’t matter if you’re a beginner at fiddling or a pro spending multiple hours a day playing. Be proactive about taking care of your body.

 

Some of you non-musicians reading this may be a bit skeptical about the whole idea that fiddling is a workout, but it really is. We may only be exercising certain parts of our bodies (unless you’re one of those really talented Canadian fiddlers who can step dance with ease whilst sawing away at their instrument), but finger dexterity and arm/shoulder muscles are all constantly at play here. Eventually those muscles are going to need a break, and you want to be in control of when those breaks are. For me, I’ve lately been noticing a lot of tension and a bit of swelling in my wrists whenever I play too hard for too long. And yes, it’s hard for me to tell myself to stop. My heart says I could go on playing all night, but my body retaliates with a vengeance and a desperate cry of, “enough already!!” So what do I need to do? Playing less isn’t really an option I care to go with. So… I’ve got to stretch.

My usual place outside County Emmet Celtic Shop! Gotta love mixing retail with music work.

I had a bit of a wake up call a few days ago after one particular busking session that had me running to the fridge for a water bottle to use as a makeshift icepack. One of our customers kept giving me this concerned look, and at first I thought she was judging my, uh, resourcefulness, but it turns out that she was actually a massage therapist! While I was helping her at the counter, she asked what sort of pain I was having. When I told her that my wrists were sore (it was the left one that day, but it can happen to both), she then proceeded to ask if I stretched (to which I replied with a sheepish “not anymore”) and she asked if she could show me a couple basic stretches to help loosen the muscles in my wrist. Of course I agreed. Three minutes later? No more pain.

 

In fact, I was so moved by her kindness and by her helpfulness, that I decided I would share these tips with you all in a blog post in case any of you, musician or not, are experiencing wrist pain. If you are a professional musician, or play music regularly, I cannot stress how highly I recommend finding a good stretch routine that works for you. I know that on my end, I get excited about stretching and taking care of myself at first, and then I gradually lose the routine and talk myself out of it because it’s just “too much time” or “I don’t really need it.” No. Time to stop kidding myself. Take care of your bodies y’all, and they’ll take care of you.

 

Just to clarify, I’m speaking from personal experience and am in no way licensed to professionally help anyone get rid of muscle pain. These are techniques that I’ve adapted into my routine and they are very effective for me. If you are experiencing serious recurring pain from playing your instrument, you should absolutely consult with your doctor, physical therapist, or another licensed professional to find a treatment that works best for you. Okay. Ethical training induced side note over.

 

So here are just three basic stretches you can do in a really short span of time. If you have more time, I suggest finding a longer routine that stretches more muscles and really gets you warmed up. Descriptions are included below, or you can just watch the video!

  1. Before you play, hold your arm out in front of you with your palm facing up. Slowly stroke your forearm starting at your wrist and moving towards your heart, using a firm but not too aggressive pressure. This helps to open up those muscles and release tension. You can also do this after you are finished playing. I do anywhere from 10-20 strokes usually.
  2. After playing or any time you notice pain in your wrist, hold your arm up and keep it straight in front of you, palm side facing the floor. Let your wrist relax, fingers pointing perpendicular to the floor. Using your free hand, gently apply pressure to the back of your hand and hold this position for four seconds. Release. Tilt your hand to the right, still keeping your arm straight and facing down, and repeat with four seconds of gentle pressure. Now tilt your hand to the left. You should notice a bit more tension in this position, so be careful not to overdo it! Very gently apply pressure again for four seconds and release.
  3. After step 2, keep your arm out straight, but make a fist. Rotate your arm, so now your palm is facing upwards. Release your fist and let your palm relax. Repeat the four seconds of gentle pressure and release. Tilt your hand to the left. Repeat. And then carefully tilt your hand to the right. This should feel the least natural, so again be careful! Same deal with the four seconds here.

 

Voila! Those are three basic stretches to open up tight or swelling muscles in your wrist. While I’ve used other methods before, these have by far been the quickest pain relief, and they’re easy enough to regularly incorporate into a routine. Hopefully most of you already have stretching methods that work for you, in which case I hope this provides some fresh ideas for you! If you don’t though, these will get you started. Additionally, if any of you have your own stretching methods or tips that work for you, I’d love to hear them! Feel free to leave a comment below or send me an email! Thanks so much for reading, and I hope this was useful to y’all!