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Old-Time TOTW #30: Irish Boy (1/20/19) on viola

Posted by FiddlerPaul71 on Sunday, January 20, 2019

Hello, Friends! 


This week's Old-TIme TOTW is John Salyer's Irish Boy, played on viola in the key of D, in honor of John Morgan Salyer, who was born 137 years ago today. 


A few months ago I decided to pull out my viola, dust it off, and explore the wonderful world of Old-Time music on it. Why it had not occurred to me to do this sooner, I am not sure, but I'm glad the thought finally got into my head. 


When I was nine years old, there was an opportunity in the school I attended to learn a string instrument. I chose viola. Well, my parents told me "you never hear of any famous viola players, so maybe you should take up the violin." After giving it thought, they convinced me to do that. There was not much time or importance given to the lessons by the school. We had to give up part of our recess/playground time once a week. It was very rudimentary stuff, and by the end of the school year, I think all we were taught was how to play "Mary Had a Little Lamb." 


That was pretty much it for the education I received on the violin. I decided to learn more by myself. I played a bunch of popular tunes from the 1920s and 1930s, most of them learned from old sheet music that I found at flea markets when I was a child. 


When I was twelve, there was a need for a string bass player in the school orchestra. The director showed me some basics. He let me take the instrument home and said I could be in the orchestra when I was able to play a song for him. It was a holiday weekend and I worked very hard on it. I went into school on Tuesday and told him I was ready to play a song. He looked a bit surprised. I played for him and he let me be in the orchestra.


I hate to say, I got bored with that pretty quickly, so I encouraged my brother to take up cello so I could play it. I knew he would have nothing to do with it, but I convinced him to do it. He barely touched the thing, but I had access to a cello! I played it for my own enjoyment and had some opportunities to play it with other students for some recitals when I was a senior in high school.


There was one more mainstream string instrument that I had no opportunity to play, but wanted to, and that was the viola. When I was seventeen, I convinced the new music director at my high school to let me borrow a viola so I could learn it. She did, and I taught myself to play it. I became pretty proficient on it, even without lessons, and she suggested I audition for college in hopes of getting a bit of scholarship money. I ended up being accepted into the college with a full-tuition scholarship for playing the viola. More about that in a future blog, perhaps.


So, it all came full circle. The instrument that I originally chose, but did not take up as a child about a decade earlier, ended up being the one that got me to college.


Several months ago, I was listening to a lot of recordings of Isham Monday and Hiram Stamper, who characteristically tuned their fiddles quite low. When I aimed to learn Stamper’s version of Brushy Fork of John’s Creek, I listened to the source recording on Larry Warren’s monumental Slippery-Hill site ( ). Stamper was in EBEB tuning. That’s probably the lowest I’d be able to go on fiddle. There is something about those lower tunings that really grabs me. I got to thinking about low tunings and that’s when the viola entered my mind. Of course, the effect of a fiddle tuned very low is different from a cross tuned viola, but the viola has its own character, too. I’ll experiment with tuning the viola low, but some of that will put me in odd keys that aren’t very friendly for playing with others. 


I had not played my viola for a very long time, and I’m really glad that over the years I never got rid of it. I almost did when I performed in early music consorts on violas da gamba, voice, krummhorns, recorders, and sackbut.  Playing Old-Time music on viola is a lot of fun. Right now I’m back at square one with it, in the way that I’m really playing it like a fiddle with techniques I used when I was young, albeit cross tuned. So those “A tunes” played in AEAE on fiddle sound in the key of D when played in DADA on viola. I need to explore it more so that I can actually play tunes on the viola in the same key as the fiddle, which would be an octave lower on viola. That entails different finger patterns and string crossings to get used to.


So many tunes, so little time. That has become the story of my life.




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