The last couple of months I have been teaching a group adult fiddle class. As part of the class, I have been offering a single private lesson to each student. It has been really interesting to see what they are struggling with, and it all comes back to the same thing… When you are learning the fiddle, or any instrument for that matter, don’t forget to keep working on the fundamentals!
The first lesson we worked on using the bow. This means we worked on hitting only one string at a time, keeping the bow straight, making a clean sound with no squeaks… On week two I started teaching them a fiddle tune (Cock of the North). I noticed that once we started working on fiddle tunes, my students were no longer working on simply playing long bow strokes on the strings without hitting other strings and making nice clean sounds.
Why is that? Human nature means that we are more likely to work on something that is fun. A tune is something exciting! It sounds like something and is fun to play! Doing exercises to improve your sound and bow technique is not always fun!
Here is the thing though… If you do not work on your bowing technique, your sound will not be good and it will not be a pleasure to play your fiddle.
So, what is a fiddler to do? Make sure that you warm up by working on your bowing technique, or any other technique upon which you may be working. Make sure that you do not forsake the basics when you are practicing the fiddle.
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I have recently started teaching a group of adults to fiddle. One of my students came to me ready to quit after 3 lessons. This raised the question in my mind of what it takes to learn the fiddle. I think in some ways it is harder for an adult to learn to fiddle because you can understand so much and you are used to being able to do things well. Adults want to be able to play right away (and something more complicated than “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”) whereas most kids are excited to be making sound at all.
My student and I talked about why he should continue learning. This brought me to the realization of the three P’s of Learning the Fiddle: Patience, Practice and Persistence.
- Patience: You will not be able to leave your first lesson playing fiddle tunes well. It takes time and patience to learn. I often have adult students wanting to quit shortly after they begin because it is hard to have the patience to get through the initial learning process to get to a point when you can play a fiddle tune that really sounds like something. As I tell my students “If you could do this easily right away, you wouldn’t need to take lessons!”
- Practice: In order to learn the fiddle you have to repeat the exercises over again many times! The best plan is to practice every day. At the beginning, it will just be for very short periods of time, but the more often you play, the more quickly you will progress. Also, don’t ignore the initial exercises while trying to jump ahead to learning fiddle tunes. Keep working on the basics along the way!
- Persistence: I often run into students who panic at the first squeak that they make. As soon as they hear a note that does not sound right, they ask me what is wrong. It is good to try to figure out what is going on, but at times what you need to do is just try it again. You need the persistence to go back and work on getting better even when your playing does not sound very good.
So keep on working, be patient, practice as often as you can, and to be persistent!
Recently a student of mine was getting very frustrated because she was working really hard, practicing regularly, and felt that she was not improving. I have been through this many times over the past 20 years. We all think that progress should be a smooth curve, like the image I have included here. It is not!
In reality, even though you are practicing regularly, there will be times when you won’t feel like you are progressing at all! There will then be times when you will feel like your playing has improved immensely over night. The plateau periods are incredibly frustrating and make you feel like you might as well quit trying, but over time, it will all pay off!
So, once you hit a plateau period, what should you do? The big thing is not to quit trying, but to persevere. I will often change my practice routine. I honestly don’t know that it helps break the plateau any faster, but it does help your morale!
Something else you should know is that I still experience plateaus at this point in my career. I still practice and am still aiming to improve. I also still experience the moments that seem like sudden improvement. So, when you run into a plateau, don’t get discouraged and keep on working!
Please leave a comment if you have a great way to break the dreaded plateau!
Memorization has been a hot topic recently on music blogs. I love playing music from memory! I feel more confident, prepared, and also feel more freedom if I am not having to read sheet music. Having said that, the situation is key. By this I mean that I usually perform solo repertoire and fiddle tunes from memory and chamber or orchestral repertoire from sheet music. In the world of fiddle music, hardly anyone uses sheet music, so let’s get to the task of memorizing!
Here are 4 tips to help you along the way:
- Listen to a recording of the tune if you can and sing it back to yourself. I find that unless I can hum a fiddle tune, I will not be able to memorize it.
- Know the format of the tune. In fiddle tunes there are many parts that repeat. Usually there is an “A” part that is played twice and then a “B” part that is played twice. Even within these parts there are usually phrases that repeat, so look for these and know when they happen.
- Play the tune many, many, many times! If I am trying to memorize I will play the tune once with the sheet music and then try it from memory, play from the sheet music, try it from memory…
- Set small goals. Don’t set out to memorize a whole fiddle tune in one day. Maybe just try to get the first half of it, maybe just the first 4 bars, maybe just one pattern.
I hope that these tips help you! Please leave me a comment if you have any tips on how you memorize music!
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Perhaps due to my classical training, I feel best about lessons that include technique, such as scales, as well as learning pieces. Here is a conversation that often occurs as I am working on a study or scale with a student:
Student: “What is the name of this piece?”
Me: “D Major Study.”
Student: “So, is it a song?”
Me: “No, it is an exercise.”
Student: “If it isn’t a song, why do I have to learn it?”
I would usually tell the student that you have to practice your studies/scales so playing pieces will be easier, but one day, in a moment of brilliance one day I told the student I was teaching at the time that learning the violin is like going to a hockey practice: You don’t just play the game, but you also have to work on drills. The reason for doing these drills is so that you can develop all the skills you need for playing in a game situation. By already having the skills, you can react as needed when a certain situation arises. That seemed to make sense to him.
In music, you should practice your scales and arpeggios so that when you come upon one in a piece, you don’t have to think about every single note individually. The pattern will already be familiar to you. You should also work on exercises that will develop your technique. This is again so that when you run across a specific technique in a piece of music, you will already have the skill needed.
Having said all this, there are some teachers who don’t believe in using studies, and prefer to teach technique by picking pieces that include whatever it is they want to teach. There is definite validity to both techniques. My teachers were great believers in scales and studies, and it is these habits and techniques that I aim to pass along to my students!
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Hearing yourself play any instrument is kind of like hearing recordings of your own voice. It is terrifying, but one of the best things you can do to improve your playing! I know that I am guilty of not doing this enough. After recording my first CD, I learned to record myself at home before I go to the studio. This is a good habit whether you are releasing a CD or not! Here are the kinds of things I notice when I listen to a recording of myself.
1. All of my little mistakes are obvious. I pick up the big mistakes when I practice, but smaller inaccuracies in my playing (notes that aren’t clear) become obvious in a recording.
2. Any little squeak or squawk is amplified. I think of my playing as being very clean, so I am always surprised to hear squeaks when I listen back to a recording of myself.
3. Tuning, tuning, tuning! Again, all inconsistencies become obvious to me!
4. When I was taking lessons, I remember my teachers complaining that my dynamics were not varied enough. There is nothing like hearing a recording of your own playing to realize that they were right!
You don’t need to spend a lot of money on fancy equipment in order to do this. Most computers now come with recording software and there are digital recorders at all price points as well. The important thing is to get recording and listening to your own playing! It is terrifying, but an important step improving your playing!
Leave a comment to let me know if you have experience with this and how it helped you with your fiddling!
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Periodically I come up against the same dilemma: it feels like everyone else in the world is progressing really quickly, in whatever way, and like I am moving very slowly. In the end I always achieve more success when I remember that I need to progress at my own speed. This applies to all aspects of life, including learning the fiddle.
I have noticed that many of my adult students have this same concern. “Am I learning at a normal speed?” This is a question that I often hear from my students. Our concern about “normal” is interesting. I have watched students at fiddle camps get frustrated because other students are learning at a faster speed.
So, what is the problem with comparing yourself with others? Often it can get discouraging. The more time you spend worrying about how well others are doing, the less time you are putting into your own progress. Also, the more frustrated you get, the worse things seem to go. I have experienced this many times! There seems to be a loop of negative feedback where the more you want to progress, the worse you get, the worse you feel, and the more others seem to be getting ahead!
What is the solution to this? Focus on your own progress, compete with yourself, and relax. Traveling at your own speed works out for the best, and you will actually progress faster in the end.
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