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!

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

Tips & Tricks: Four Reasons Why a Digital Recorder Should Be in Every Fiddler’s Tool Kit

medium_3353936487Hearing 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!

photo credit: Beverly & Pack via photopin cc

Searching for a violist

Last year I had a fabulous string quartet.  The four of us played well together, we were starting to get a nice blended sound, and we enjoyed spending time together.  Sadly, my violist moved away, leaving me needed a four member to the quartet, and so the search began.

This is a challenge that occurs with all groups at some point!  A friend of mine recently was looking for a bass player for her rock band so we were going through the process of looking for a new musician at the same time.

I have to admit that as I get older, what I look for in a musician has changed!  Through the years I have played in many musical groups, with a wide range of people with varying personalities and skill levels.  I have played with fabulous musicians who were a real pain to work with, and I have played with less skilled musicians who were lovely!

So, what do I look for now?  The best of all worlds would be a great person that you like to spend time with who is an excellent musician.  These people do exist!  However, if I can’t find that person, here is what I look for in order of importance:

  1. Personality – Let’s face it.  You are going to spend hours of rehearsal with this person as well as hours in the car driving to gigs.  You really want to be able to enjoy all of that time!  The time you are on stage is only a brief portion of all the time you spend together!
  2. Reliability – I really want to know that my musicians are going to show up for rehearsal and most importantly for gigs!  I want to know that they will be there on time with everything that they need.
  3. Being a Team Player – I like working with people who are willing to give their opinions and will to take criticism.  I want the whole group to sound the best it can, so anyone who wants to showboat is not welcome!
  4. Musical ability – Yes…  This one is number four.  I used to put a lot more importance on it, but I have played with musicians who have improved drastically over the time we worked together.  Weak skills can be improved upon with work and time.

So, I am sure that you all want to know…  I found a fourth member for my quartet and my friend found a bass player for her band.  We both feel really good about our choices!  I hope that you all have as much luck finding musicians to play in your groups!

photo credit: Daveybot via photopin cc

Never trust the quiet ones!

Just this past week I had a breakthrough with one of my private violin students.  Not only did she speak to me, but called me by name.  This is a child who had not spoken to me since she started lessons in September.

This is not the first time I have had a student who would not speak to me.  I had another who did not speak for about two years.  The thing I find interesting with quiet students is that often their parents try really hard to get them to talk to me.  I actually have no problem with non-speaking students.   I relate to these children!

When I was a child I was extremely shy.  I did not speak to my teachers unless it was absolutely necessary, certainly did not talk to my neighbours, and often managed to get my teachers to let me stay inside during recess.  This was my public face.  At home I was a talkative, bubbly child.  It was always a surprise to my friends to come over to my house and see me in my home environment.  My mom was telling me the other day that she thinks I was in junior high before I actually spoke to any of our neighbours.

With my students, I always try to give them the time and space to become comfortable with me and to start speaking on their own terms.  There has so far always come a time when the child has started speaking, in both cases calling me by name.  Even as a person who is shy by nature, it still surprised me, however I did my best not to react too much.  Nothing will make a shy child clam up more than someone making a big deal over him/her speaking!

I know that for some people who are more outgoing it is odd to run into someone who is not interested in speaking a whole lot.  With most children, it really is just a matter of time and comfort.  I went from being a very shy child to now being a musician and teacher.  I have been self-employed for at least 6 years now and have to be in communication with others all the time.  I love being on stage and in the spotlight.  You never know that a child will end up doing later in life!