Saturday, April 23, 2005

Music Practice

I have been using two great tools to learn and practise tunes using the computer. The first one is a site called Practice Studio. There are a lot of MIDI files that play tunes at different speeds. These files are three types. One has the melody and rhythm. One has the melody line only and the third just has the rhythm. By playing the melody MIDI file tunes a can be learned and then after learned intonation can be checked. After the melody is learned, the rhythm MIDI can be played and you can play along Karaoke style. This is great for practicing beat. I have downloaded the MIDI file and converted them to mp3s and burned them onto a CD for easy playback. It is best to start on the slow speeds. Even after being able to play the faster speeds it is good to practise at the slower speed and constantly try to improve intonation and beat. Remember, first you get good, then you get fast. It does not happen the other way around.
Another tool is a freeware program called Audacity. Audacity allows you to load a sound file and crop it down to the part interested in. Audacity also can slow down a tune while still keeping the pitch. This is great for learning tune from a CD.
You will need a program like Music Match Jukebox to rip a tune from your CD to Mp3 format. If you want Audacity to edit a MIDI file, a MIDI to MP3 converter will have to be used.

Thursday, April 21, 2005


To rosin your bow, you simply rub the rosin along the full length. Ten or twenty times should be enough. Horsehair has tiny fibres and the rosin helps these fibres stand out so they grip onto the strings.
Ironically the rosin is not good for the fiddle. After a while too much rosin will be left on the string and the fiddle may start to squeek. The string have to be cleaned with a dry cotton rag. Make sure your dog or cat is nearby, as they love the squeeky sound of cleaning excess rosin from your strings.
You should also clean the rosin from the fiddle itself and the rosin can harm the finish.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

First Gigs

I say “gig” with a little tongue in cheek. I have never played a gig. I have just played in front of people and have tried to get comfortable with that. I soon realized, during my first few lessons that I could play a tune reasonable well on my own, but could not play well even in front of my instructor. I would choke. I would get stage fright and not even be on stage. Although I had decided that I was to play fiddle for my enjoyment only, I realized that I had to at least be able to play for other people at some times.

I therefore planned to to try and take every opportunity to play in front of people. My first “gig” was our annual Christmas party at home with about 20 friends and family present. I had picked 3 tunes, a reel, a jig and a waltz, St Anne’s Reel, The Irish Washerwoman and County Waltz. I had played these tunes hundreds of times, on average three times a day for almost 2 years. I could play them reasonably well, not quite up to full speed, but the most important skill I learned was to keep going no matter what. I realized that no one would really know if I had made a mistake, if I just kept going.

Well my first “gig” went well. Yes I did make mistakes, but I did keep going. My playing was met with applause and congratulations It was a success. However there was a great danger at this point, and that danger is to start to think you are good. My friends compliments were probably because they were surprised that their old buddy could play rather than because he was playing well. My wife realised this danger or perhaps she just knew my real level. She wisely insisted that three tunes was enough and that I should only play two or three tune at subsequent gatherings.

So that is what I continued to do. I played two or three tunes at our house when friends visited. I rarely took my fiddle to other houses, as I did not want to impose. I did this a few times but this was rare. I figured people coming to my house were fair game. The purpose of playing was to get comfortable playing in front of people rather that to be entertaining.

My biggest Gig yet.
Last Christmas, my wife and I were invited to one of her client’s houses for Christmas cocktails. During that week I had been practicing a lot in readiness for our own Christmas get together. Going out the door I had jokingly remarked that I should bring my fiddle, but in reality I did not want to impose myself on complete strangers. Especially not a lot of complete strangers.

The hostess had a large house and had filled it with 150 to 200 people. She had caterers offering trays of great nibbly finger food and wine. But what really made me happy were the two musicians playing Christmas and light music on the piano and fiddle. Or in this case I should say violin. As soon as I stepped in the door, the party was a hit for me.

Needless to say, we went up to the duo and requested some of our favorite Newfoundland or Irish jigs and reels. Although this was not their area of specialty, the duo did know a couple and played them. We of course thanked them and some where in the conversation; I had told the violinist that I was learning the fiddle.

Just before their break, the violin player asked my if wanted to play. I was taked aback and immediately refused as there were 200 people in attendance and I had never done that before. But deep in my heart I wanted to. Therefore when he asked a second time and my wife encouraged me, I took up the offer. In retrospect, I find it hard to believe that I did it, but I had been practicing hard for the last week and I guess it just seemed to fit. I played St. Anne’s Reel and Irish Washerwoman and the piano player backed me up. I followed Jim Morrison’s style and played with my back to the crowd. They only way I could do it were if I pretended to by just playing for myself. I played the tunes reasonably well, almost to speed and although I made a few mistakes I just kept going.

Later in the afternoon, the fiddle player again handed me his fiddle. This time I did not refuse and played Cock of the North and Connaughtman’s rambles. To my surprise I got the crowd going a bit and even got some applause. I was quite delighted as these were not my friends who were merely surprised to see their old friend doing something new. This was a true audience. I got another surprise compliment through my wife a few days later. The party hostess thought that I was better than the hired musician. I was flattered to say the least, and it encouraged in my playing. However I know for a fact who the better fiddle player was, and it was not me.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Music: Learning New Tunes

To reiterate, the purpose of this blog is to share my experiances learning to play the fiddle. New fiddlers can hopefully benefit and learn what to do and what not to do.

Learning new tunes is great fun and can be done a lot of different ways. When I started to play the fiddle, I had the basic knowledge of reading music, or as the say " the dots". However at first I found it hard to play from the dots and make a tune. I had to hear the tune in order to play it. I needed to learn the notes and then hear the tune. I guess this is mixture of reading music and playing by ear.

I found some great books by Gordon Stobbe that had matching CDs. He plays each tune once through only, so there are a lot of tunes on each CD. The books follow the CDs exactly. I listened to the CD and picked out a tune I liked. I then learned the tune from the sheet music in the book. Having done that I went back the CD and tried and imitate. I learned a lot of tunes this way.

To learn a tune from the sheet music, I had to break the tune down into parts. I started by learning the first half of the first bar usually four quarter notes of a reel. Then I learned the second set of 4 notes. When I could play the first bar from memory, I would go on to the second bar. I practised until I could play the first two bars from memory. I continued like that learning a bit at a time. Luckily most tunes repeat, so the third bar is exactly the same as the first. Usually the forth bar is the same as the second bar or with a slight variation. At first it would take a week to learn a tune in this way. Now I can do it in a few hours.

Taking lessons of course is a great way to learn tunes. There are many ways to bow a tune. I believe that this can only be learned from other fiddlers. From teacher or other fiddlers you can learn different variations on how to play a tune

Now when every I hear I tune that I like, I search for the sheet music. I good place is (see link on sidebar), to find lots of tunes with matching midi files.

I was never any good at learning a tune by ear. However, I have always heard that this is the best way to learn. I found it hard to find the right notes and even after I had figured out a tune, the next day I would have to figure it out again. I had decided that I was a lost cause and I must not possess the right skill or talent to be able to learn by ear. I just recently came across an article about learning by ear, that changed my perspective. This is a great site to visit. My goal now is to learn to play by ear.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

How to Hold the Fiddle

In order to properly hold the fiddle, you must sit with your back straight, both feet firmly on the floor, fiddle under your chin, your left wrist slightly bent and supporting the fiddle loosely with the V between your thumb and first finger. Hold the fiddle almost directly in front of you. The fiddle is actually supported with the shoulder and chin. The supporting arm can almost be taken away. A shoulder rest is commonly used to aid with this. The fingers are posed over the fingerboard. The arm is swung slightly back and forth to as the fingers move from string to string. Now relax and feel comfortable. And good luck.

Violin players can leave now.

That, as a fiddle player who has had 10 violin lessons, is the best that I can describe. If you can hold and play the fiddle in this classical stance then that is good. I figure this classical position must have been developed over time, and is the best for playing.
Try to imitate what I have described here and look at some pictures of classical violinists.

Fiddle players for the most part hold the fiddle in this manner, but there is also a lot of variation. For one thing, fiddle players mainly use, what is called the first position. The first position is with the first finger to play the first note up from the nut, which for example is B on the A string. In the second position the first finger will play the second note, which is for example C on the A string. All the other fingers are shift up accordingly. Likewise for the third position, first finger plays D on the A string. Now with exceptions fiddlers stay in the first position. This means that they are not too concerned with the straight wrist slightly bent and the fiddle supported with the chin and shoulder. Most fiddlers actually support the fiddle with the arm. Many bend the wrist so that the heel of hand is touching the fiddle body.

The elbow is tucked so that it is under the fiddle. Violinists and lot of fiddlers, hold the fiddle high. However I have seen many with the elbow almost touching or even supported by the hip/ stomach area

I will soon include some pictures on how to hold the fiddle. This really is something that you need to have demonstrated, by another fiddle or a teacher.
The main point is that you have to be comfortable. A lot of fiddlers, mainly ones I have seen from the southern US actually hold the fiddle on their stomach or chest.
A Newfoundland fiddler, Rufus Guinchard used to hold his fiddle on his right shoulder. The story here is that when he was learning as boy he used to secretly practise and would sit at the window watching for someone returning. In order to play and be able see some approaching, he had to have the fiddle on his left shoulder. If you want to play fiddle in Shania Twain’s band then you have to have your feet two shoulder lengths apart, look up and point your fiddle straight up.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Tune your Fiddle

Tuning the fiddle can be just that, a fiddle, for the novice. I initially purchased a small guitar whistle tuner. I figured that I could just use the “A”, tune the “A” string and tune the rest of the strings. Unfortunately for my novice ear, this proved too frustrating. Firstly, the wind sound A had a slightly different quality than the string sound A. And second and more importantly, tuning the rest of the strings was difficult and time consuming. With experience and practice, this is the best way the tune, but I would not recommend this for the beginner

After my first violin lesson I followed my teacher’s advice and bought an electronic chromatic tuner. This was used in two ways. I could accurately tune the instrument and I could check my finger placing to see if the note was accurate. I do not do this now, but for the novice I think it is invaluable. There are great tuners available now that simply clip on the fiddle and they pick up the vibration. Using this the fiddle is not affected by ambient noise.

The notes of the strings from lowest string to highest string are GDAE. There are alternate tunings, such as ADAD, GDGD, AEAC#. These are used to make fingering easier for certain tunes and to drone and chord easier. Droning is playing a note with the adjacent open string. However the GDAE tuning is by far the most used

The strings are tuned a fifth apart. Without getting into too much theory, this means the number of tone intervals between one string and the next is 5. In practice, this means that playing a string together with its immediate neighbor give a nice sound, a chord in fact. A lot of fiddle players use this “perfect fifth” sound to tune the fiddle, but this comes with practice and experience

Most fiddles with metal strings are tuned with the pegs and then the fine tuners. I tune all the strings to be fairly close using the pegs. Then I use the fine tuners on the tailpiece to get the tuning more accurate. I usually tune the A, then the E and then the G and D. Once that is done you may have to re-do the A and E, as tensioning the G and D can change the tension on the others.

I normally use the electric tuner, as I usually want to get on with my playing. This is fine, but I think it is a good idea to wean yourself off the electric tuner after a while. I tune the A with the tuner, and then tune the other strings. Then I check my tuning with the electric tuner. No matter how you tune you always need a reference point to start and this is usually with the A string. Tune the A string to 440 hertz, or with an A note on another instrument.

Tuning the other strings can be done in a number of ways.
1: Fifths. Once the A is in tune play the A string and the E string together and listen for the correct “perfect fifth” sound. This of course takes practice.
2: Same Note. I play the notes of the scale on the A string up to E. I then play this E and compare it to the open E string and tune. Using this method you can also listen for beats in the sound. If there is a beat then the strings are not producing the same note
3: Octave. Play the notes on the E string up to A. Then play this A with the open A string. These notes are an octave apart and should sound the same. Likewise if you detect a beat with the sound then the E is out of tune
The rest of the strings can be tuned in the same way

Another reason to learn to tune without the electronic tuner is if you play with another instrument that cannot be tuned like a piano, accordion or a flute, then you will have to tune to them.

As you develop it should become easier to tune and also to get the right intonation when “stopping”. I don’t think you should worry too much about tuning by ear at first. The electric tuner can easily take care of tuning. Ultimately, the best way to tune is by ear, but that will only come with experience.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Howling Dog

I was playing my fiddle one day at home and everytime I played I thought I could hear this noise coming from another room. I investigated and sure enough our toy poodle was having a good howl every time I played. He would just put his head back and howl. I am not sure if he thought I was playing well and he was singing along or if the fiddle music hurt his ears. Anyway I thought that I was playing well , but the dog was definately off key.

Fiddle Riddles + 2 Fiddle Jokes

Little Harold was practicing the violin in the living room while his father was trying to read in the den. The family dog was lying in the den, and as the screeching sounds of little Harold's violin reached his ears, he began to howl loudly.
The father listened to the dog and the violin as long as he could. Then he jumped up, slammed his paper to the floor and yelled above the noise, "For Pete's sake, can't you play something the dog doesn't know?!"

How is lightning like a violist's fingers?
Neither one strikes in the same place twice

How can you tell when a violist is playing out of tune?
The bow is moving.

How can you tell the difference between old-time fiddle tunes?
By their names…

What is the definition of perfect pitch?
Throwing a fiddle into a toilet without hitting the seat.

What's the difference between a fiddle and a Chain Saw?
You can turn a chain saw off.

What's the difference between a fiddler playing in "D" and a locksmith?
A locksmith knows how to change keys, and can get paid for it !

What's the difference between a fiddle and a Harley Davidson Motorcycle?
You can tune a Harley.

What's the difference between a violin and a fiddle?
A fiddle is fun to listen to.
How do you tell the difference between a violinist and a dog?
The dog knows when to stop scratching.

."Haven't I seen your face before?" a judge demanded, looking down at the defendant. "You have, Your Honor," the man answered hopefully. "I gave your son violin lessons last winter." "Ah, yes," recalled the judge. "Twenty years!"

Did you hear about the violinist who bragged that he could play 32nd notes?
The rest of the orchestra didn't believe him, so he proved it by playing one

Why did God give drummers 10% more brains than horses?
So they would not crap during the parade.

What's the relative minor?
The guitar player's girlfriend.

How do you know the singer's in jail?
He's behind a few bars and can't find the key

How is a banjo like a hand grenade?
By the time you hear the noise, it’s too late!

What did a drummer get on his IQ test?

What's the definition of a gentleman?
Someone who can play the banjo.........but doesn't!

How many bodhran players does it take to change a light bulb?
One holds the bulb and the rest is drinking until the ceiling starts to go round

How many trad musicians does it take to change a light bulb?
None - change is BAD!
Besides, we can play in the dark, anyway

How many traditional folk singers does it take to change a light bulb?
Three - one to change the bulb and the other two to sing about how great the old bulb was.

Bloke walks into a session in Belfast with a circular cardboard box.
Everyone looks nervous. The fiddle player finally asks nervously, "What's in the box?".
The bloke says "It's a bomb".
Everyone relaxs and the fiddle player says "Thank Chr##t, we thought it was a bodhran".

How do you get two whistle players in tune?
Shoot one.

What’s the difference between a fiddle and a dog? One knows when to stop scratching.

What's the difference between a violinist and a fiddler?
The vile-din they play.

What's the difference between an accordion and a trampoline?
People remove their shoes before jumping on the trampoline.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

My Fiddle Journey

My journey with the fiddle was unplanned and started rather abruptly one Christmas morning about 4 years ago. I was surprised to get a fiddle as a gift, as I had never included that item in any correspondence with the North Pole, although I had not been particularly bad that year. In a way, I was not surprised, as it was something I had always wanted to do, but never taken that first step. I was lucky that someone else took that first step for me.

For some reason, I soon decided on a course of action to not only learn the fiddle, but to keep my interest high. I suppose I was aware that the biggest downfall with learning a musical instrument, or anything really, is that the initial flurry of interest, which does not result in instant proficiency and stardom, can then lead to disinterest and failure.

From the outset I decided that, I would learn to play, for my interest and my enjoyment only. I did not plan to be famous or make a career playing the fiddle. This would avoid losing interest in the future when the going was slow. I also decided that I would take it slow and give myself rewards along the way to keep my interest high. I was not going to quickly buy that new fiddle and take lessons right away only to get burned out and quit.

My first fiddle unfortunately was not very good. The fingerboard was warped and the tone was not good. I do not like to bring this up, as it was a gift, and was bought with the very best intentions. However, the point is, it was bought and given to me and for that I am very thankful. I took it to a music store and got it serviced, which helped little. Then I got it serviced at a luther and bought a new bow with real hair. That helped a lot. The point I make here is that you don’t need a good instrument to start with.

My plan was to do the best I could by myself, learn how to hold it, how to play the notes and learn some tunes. I was determined to learn some Celtic / Irish tunes from the outset and did not want to waste time with Twinkle Twinkle and Mary had .. Etc. I planned to do that as long as I could, before I got frustrated and/or disinterested. At that point I decided I would take some lessons to renew my interest.

So I stumbled along by myself for eight months before I started looking for lessons. I could not find a fiddle teacher so I took violin lessons. She was very accommodating as she agreed to teach me the fiddle tunes that I had been working on rather than violin. I learned all the basics of how to hold the fiddle, the bow and learned some fingering and bowing drills. This was good. The problem was that I learned the notes of a tune from a book, and then attempted to play a tune as I heard it recorded.

My violin teacher would always complain that I wasn’t playing what was written in the music. In classical music this is a no no. In classical music you must play the music exactly as it is written. She also kept calling me a fiddler player, as in “You fiddlers do this” or “You fiddlers do that”. At that point I did not really consider myself to be fiddler. So there was a bit of tension there, not to mention that I had a flexible schedule and she could never remember when my next lesson was.

The next fall, I suppose she was fed up with “fiddlers” and my weird schedule and she told me she did not want to teach me. I was a bit disappointed, but all in all the violin lessons were well worthwhile.

That turned out alright as I went out and found a fiddle teacher and moved on to some more relevant tunes and techniques. This time instead of not playing the music exactly as written, the teacher would always alter the sheet with his version of the tune. If I did not play it exactly as written it was not a big deal.

The next stage was to buy a better fiddle. I had struggled for three years with my original fiddle. I took my time trying out different fiddles at the store and took a good few months doing this. It was longer that I planned but the anticipation of that new fiddle offered some incentive. I took my time and picked out the one I wanted.

My instructor had told me I would not be happy with a fiddle less than three thousand dollars. He was probably right, but with my budget and skill I figured 800 was a better price. I have now what I consider and intermediate fiddle.

I also built myself a practice fiddle. I got an old neck and fingerboard and attached a piece of 2 x 2 hardwood to it. I then added the tailpiece, strings, bridge, chinrest, pegs and nut. This was great as it increased the time I could practise. I could sit with the family in the evening and fiddle away without making much noise. I could also carry it with me on work trips. I was playing an average of one to two hours a day.

Now after four years of playing, my next plan is to start attending some sessions and learning to play by ear. In the future I may buy that 3000 dollar fiddle.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Purpose of this Weblog

The purpose of this weblog is to document and review my journey of learning to play the fiddle. Hopefully other novice players will benefit from my experiances and perhaps it will encourage others to start. I have been playing the fiddle for about 4 years. As you will deduce my area of expertise is not playing the fiddle. At least not yet. Rather my knowledge area lies in the how to start. There is no way I could or should replace an experianced tutor. There are many things to learn, even before you get the stage of fiddle lessons and many things that can be learned from other novices. Hopefully this blog will attract comments from other novices and experts as well.
In my own experience I stumbled along with the fiddle on my own for about 8 months before I took formal lessons. During this time I gained some knowledge of how to tune the fiddle how to hold it, make some noises and even learned a few tunes. I got all my information from the internet and books, however I did waste some time and money on books that were not relevent although the seemed great in the bookstore. In doing this, by they time I started my first lesson, I had some idea what I was doing and definitely knew I was to learn the fiddle.