Get a Good Start!

A long-time English-style fiddle player's cribsheet for the beginning fiddle player
Updated by Gavin Atkin 23/8/00
So many people get into problems and give up when they try to teach themselves to play the fiddle - so, I wondered, would a few words of advice help some to enjoy playing the fiddle and fewer would give up in disgust?
I finally gave a workshop for beginning fiddle players at Sidmouth Festival this year. It was successful beyond my dreams, and so I decided to make the publishable part of the information available via the web. I hope it helps you.
I haven't included a scale or anything about reading music yet as I feel this information is available widely - however, I may add notes on these at a later date.

  • Tuning I Try tuning using the first two notes of a song or tune you know well - I suggest Amazing Grace or Twinkle Twinkle Little Star to get the interval between the strings of a fiddle. Listen for that sweet sound you get when you have got the fifth just right - practise by de-tuning slightly so you can hear it go off.

  • Tuning II Although I can tune pretty well, I prefer to use a tuner if there is one available because it's quicker than me, and better! When using a tuner, I always use the bow, as I've found that the pitch when a string is plucked is slightly flatter than the pitch of a bowed string. Long experience shows that the difference can matter more than you think.

  • Holding I Hold the fiddle up straight, or reasonably so! If you let it hang down on your chest, your bow will be much harder to control because gravity will tempt it to wander! Also try to hold the fiddle with your chin and between your finger and thumb - if you can, avoid letting the heel of your left hand support the heel of the fiddle. A good firm hold on the string produces a good firm tone, but it can be tiring. This is one area where practising helps a lot!

  • Bowing I Look out for your bow hair! Keep it out of water, beer, sweat, grease and any other kind of dirt to avoid unnecessary squeaks!

  • Bowing II Clean your strings before you play with cheap scent or methylated spirits, and cotton wool or tissue. Plain old soft toilet paper will also do, as will a handkerchief or the fabric backing of a rosin block! In the UK it is often possible to buy cheap bottles of Cologne toilet water for a couple of pounds. (I learned this one from my friend Taz Tarry, and it made a great difference to my playing confidence.)

  • Bowing IIIHow tight should your bow hair be? It's hard to say, exactly, but the hairs should not be either too floppy, or so tight that the bow is uncontrollably springy in use.

  • Bowing IV Practice the longest, straightest bows you can manage (say, six on each string) every day for a week or two, keeping the bow hair in a position (say about two-thirds of the way from the bridge to the end of the fingerboard) along the whole length. You will come to instinctively know where the strings are and should not have to think too hard about getting a reasonably controlled sound. From experience, I can tell you that once you've put in the practice on this, your playing really begins. There are good fiddle players who play holding the bow in either the 'folkie' or 'classical' ways, although I find the classical one seems to give the player more attack when it's needed.

  • Bowing VAnother technique I've found useful is practising stopping and starting notes. Practice playing with the same long, straight bows but with regular abrupt stops - I think it should sound something like 'deeb - deeb - deeb - deeb... '. Start slow before speeding up. Similarly practice stopping the bow before changing direction, which should sound like 'dirt - dirt - dirt - dirt...'. Also, perhaps because I started playing the guitar, I think that it can be useful to add further emphasis by momentarily relaxing the fingers on the finger board, which also stops the strings abruptly.

  • Bowing VII use the more expensive black rosin that comes in little round boxes. The yellow stuff just does not cut the mustard. Generally, I put a lot on the bow at the beginning of a night or session, and then leave it alone unless things are very sweaty, in which case I normally add a bit on part way through. (At the same time I usually find I have to re-tension the bow hair and tuning.)

  • SqueaksThe squeaks are always with us - try to reduce the problem in your practising, but don't get too hung up on the issue. Try to bear in mind that your audience hears far less squeaking than the player, and that even if there are a few, they're part of the instrument. Fiddle players on stage almost always ask sound engineers to turn the treble down to try to hide their squeaks - but they needn't. Instead, those fiddle players should relax and be happy.

  • Strings I use medium or heavy gauge Tomastic Dominants for a good strong tone. Sadly, Tomastics cost about 30 a set, but cheap strings are worse than cheap rosin. I believe there are other sets that are as good, but they seem to be even more expensive. You may console yourself with the thought that people have different views about old and new strings: most players prefer the sound of new strings, but there are others who prefer an older set. A big disadvantage of old strings is that they wear out and can snap at an important moment. On average, I suppose I buy a set or two a year.

  • Ornamentation Ornamentation can bamboozle you, and it isn't by any means essential - and it's definitely not as important as finding a lilt in your playing that makes people lift their feet. However, you will come across players who routinely play chords and turns to spice up their playing. If these interest you, I feel fairly confident in saying that they will usually be happy to show you how they do it! If there is enough demand, I would be happy to put up some notes about ornamentation as I've found it in English fiddle playing.

  • Ear playing Start with nursery rhymes, Happy Birthday to You, Christmas carols, pop songs and anything else that may be very familiar and very familiar to you, and work up from there. It helps in lots of ways to learn to read music as well, but it isn't essential - and don't believe the story that reading the dots will actually prevent you from being able to play by ear.

  • Sessions I've included a few notes on sessions because newcomers sometimes misunderstand them. There's no need to be shy in a session, but do try to be sensitive: don't try to start more than your fair share of tunes, and look out for signs of a tacit understanding of whose turn it is to play. Also, be aware that while a stranger who plays a few tunes from a different repertoire from the rest of the session will be appreciated, sessions can be killed by someone who insists on playing a lot of material that is either unfamiliar or over-familiar.

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