Tips & Tricks: Keep Working on the Fundamentals When Practicing the Fiddle

small__5503920977The 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.

photo credit: 27147 via photopin cc

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Introducing my Band: Different Folk

© Clayton Morrissey 2012 All Rights ReservedI am in a Celtic/Maritime band called, well, Different Folk.  We have actually been playing music together now since 2009 and named ourselves Different Folk in 2010.  We had a busy weekend this past weekend playing St. Paddy’s Day gigs, so I thought I would tell you a little bit more about the group.

The band is formed of Kim Moller on vocals and bodhran, Will Toner on vocals and guitar and me on fiddle.  I originally met Will when he was playing with another group for a Bloomsday celebration in Fredericton.  I had stopped by to drop of a demo to someone else that I was hoping would hire me to play a gig later in the year.  In the end, I was asked to sit in on the gig.   While playing, I noticed that Will likes to sing in the same keys that Kim often signs in:  E, F, and F# major.  These are not usual keys!  Most of the time I have played in bands I have played songs in D and G major.  I also noticed that the tone of Will’s voice sounded like it would match Kim’s really well.

Not long after, Will came to perform at the Lougheed Pub in Harvey, where Kim and I live.  I noticed the event listing and told Kim that we had to go because I wanted him to meet Will.  We went and had a great time, with Kim singing along to almost every song that Will sang.

From that point, Will, Kim and I all ended up in the same musical circle and ended up doing some pick up gigs together, so gigs where someone would call around and see who was available to come out and perform.  Nothing official.  In 2009, Kim and I decided that we wanted to do a show with Will, so put together our first “One More Chorus” show in which we invited several of our friends to perform with us.

Our first outing as a trio was to Campobello in the summer of 2009.  I had been asked to perform for the Lighthouse Days celebration and needed to take a band with me.  The MC for the event could not remember our names, and we became “Heidi, Pat and the Other Fella”.  At that point is became apparent to us that we were indeed a band, and also that we needed a name.

After much deliberation, and many other suggestions, we settled on Different Folk.  We are all a little different, and we like to play a wide variety of music.  Once we named ourselves and started telling people the name of our band, so many of my friends would reply, “Yes, yes you are!”  The name was perfect!

Since then we have been busy playing at festivals, in pubs and in concerts.  You can check out our music and see our upcoming shows at http://differentfolk.ca

We would love to get into house concerts as well.  If you have any ideas as to places we should be performing, or would like to host a house concert, please let me know!

Photo by Clayton Morrisey http://claytonmorrissey.smugmug.com/

Tips & Tricks: The Three P’s of Learning the Fiddle

small_2559344065I 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.

  1. 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!”
  2. 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!
  3. 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!

Falling in Love Again: Being Reunited with my Violin

fiddle7I have not been playing one of my violins for over year now.  This violin is the one that my parents bought for me when I was in university and is the instrument that I have used for most of my classical performances ever since.  Over a year ago, I noticed that the top was coming apart from the back near the neck of the violin.  I was worried about how much work was going to be needed to repair it as the front was actually bowing away from the violin.  I put off getting the repairs done because I did not want to deal with it.

I studied music at McGill University, and during my second year, decided that it was time to upgrade my violin.  My parents and I went to a luthier to check out some violins, with the plan just to look and not to buy anything right away.  This plan did not pan out, and I walked out with a new to me violin, a lovely Tyrolean violin made in the early 1800s.  I had fallen in love.

My violin and I were together for about 14 years without any issues.  My violin came apart near the neck, and I was worried about how much work might need to be done.  Usually, splitting seams are not all that big a deal and can be fixed relatively easily by a luthier.  I was worried as the front of my violin was actually bowing out away from the ribs.  I stopped playing the instrument because I was worried that continued contact with my hands would cause more damage.

Finally, shortly after Christmas 2012 I was able to send my violin to Montreal with friends to have it repaired.  The luthier called me to tell me that the repairs would not be all that major, and would only cost me a small amount.  It was a huge relief.

I got my violin back on February 19th, 2013, I was in the middle of a concert series with Symphony NB, so did not go back to playing my violin immediately.  I have since started playing this specific instrument again.  My violin did not sound the way I remembered, which was a little disappointing, but I had known that this situation might occur.   It had not been played in over a year, and also had been repaired.  Since then, I have been playing my violin as much as possible to try to get in touch with it again.

My violin and I have been getting along quite well, it is opening up and sounding warmer as time goes on.  As the sound has been improving, I have started remembering why I chose this violin over 15 years ago.  I am in the process of falling in love again with my violin!

Am I Normal? The Question all Fiddle Students Ask

small__3534516458Recently I have been asked the same question several times.  “Do others of your students have this same problem?”  “Is my child learning at a normal speed?”  This is fascinating!  These are students of all ages, so this seems that we don’t grow out of this concern as we grow older.

Many times I have taught students who struggle in their first year of lessons, but who flourish later on.   I have been running a string program at an elementary school for the past three years.  It is great to see that some of the kids who were having difficulty in the first year are now some of the stronger students.  It is great to see their confidence growing as time has gone on.

I try in my lessons to encourage students to improve without worrying about where they are compared to others.  In the end it does not matter whether or not other students have the same problems.  What matters is where you have are having difficulty and how we can fix it!  You need to keep improving and moving forward.

I am not immune to this issue myself and am always comparing myself to other violinists, fiddlers and professional musicians.  At times I feel like my career is moving very slowly compared to some other people.  In the end, I always find that it is best for me to travel at my own speed.  When I think of all that I have accomplished, my career is moving along quite well.

My hope for all us (me included) is that we can concentrate on ourselves, and continue learning and improving.

Tips & Tricks: 4 Steps to Memorizing Fiddle Tunes

small__3462594915Memorization 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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…
  4. 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!

photo credit: Marcos Molina (laro) via photopin cc

Tips & Tricks: How Violin is Like Hockey

small__4912748706Perhaps 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!

photo credit: Paul L Dineen via photopin cc