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Defining Downbowing . . .

Posted by bj on Tuesday, July 21, 2009

There's a crazy old coot who offered to give me lessons, and there are times when he's a pretty good fiddler, and he's been doing it longer than I've been alive. Okay, so I took him up on it and took one lesson. I'm debating whether to take another. He's  . . . incredibly harsh. Abusive. Actually called me "stupid", and that was one of the kinder names he called me. And normally I'd be running the other direction, but truth is, he has gotten me thinking about a lot of the things I'm doing. So I guess I gotta decide if it's worth putting up with his mean spirited bile to learn something. The jury is still out on that one.

It started out when he told me "I ain't heard you yet start a tune with any b-lls." (word changed to protect the guilty.) He was right, I'm awful at starting tunes. And part of that is that I often start tunes on an upbow, and it feels natural to start potatoes on a downbow. You do the math. That doesn't work. So it's no wonder I have a problem starting at least some of my tunes with potatoes.

Last (and very likely only) lesson, he insisted I should be starting every tune on a downbow, and starting every A part and every B part on a downbow and ending said part on an upbow. So I've been playing with it. It works on some tunes . . . the ones that don't have pickup notes. Those are the ones I start on an upbow. Which seems to be a slight majority of the tunes I play.

This guy told me I'm a traitor to Oldtime, a fraud and worse if I don't start EVERY tune on a downbow. And end on an upbow. No matter what. And the accents need to be on the downbow. And that Upbowers are sissies and reconstructionists and should become singer songwriters and do experimental music instead of playing oldtime. Actually he said much, much worse, I toned it down a lot.

Ya know, I never pay attention to the count, I never tap my foot (since I have two cats waiting to pounce the second a toe twitches) and haven't thought about where the downbeat goes since I last took lessons with Steve. I do dig accents on the upbows, it just feels right to me. The other day Nancy was listening to my fiddling and said something that got me thinking. She pointed out that I accent the up beat with my upbow. Which means I accent where the count . . . isn't. It also means . . .

*** drumroll here ***

I always downbow on the downbeat.

Wow. That's exactly what Steve taught me to do, ages ago. It STUCK.

But this nutty old fiddler says I'm an upbower.

According to Steve's definition, I'm a downbower.

Which is it?

And after I solve that thorny conundrum, I gotta decide if I'm gonna hang the "KICK ME" sign on my back for Thursday night. Or not.

23 comments on “Defining Downbowing . . .”

mudbug Says:
Tuesday, July 21, 2009 @2:18:30 PM

BJ, bite the bullet and go back. This is a man who is beyond the social conventions we all take for granted. He's too old and doesn't care. He's going to tell it like it is w/o sugarcoating it, albeat maybe slightly crudely put. You may never find someone else who will be as honest with you, and deep down, isn't this what we need, as opposed to what we'd like to hear. Use your other friends for stroking you, and you'll know that when this guy eventually pays you a compliment, you can bank on it!

OTJunky Says:
Tuesday, July 21, 2009 @5:43:56 PM

Didn't realize fiddlepogo'd relocated to PA.

But mudbug's right, you should probably learn to put up with it - at least for a while.


bj Says:
Tuesday, July 21, 2009 @6:24:50 PM

I've already decided to wuss out.

My business life is pretty stressful right now. I've got other personal stuff going on. Fiddling is the RELEASE from all that crap, it's my happy time. And since I started dealing with this guy it's just hasn't been my happy time, not even when I'm playing alone. And though he did get me thinking about things, truth is I've not been playing anywhere near what I was before I started working with him. He's turned it into drudgery, and I've only been putting in about a half hour a day the last week and a half, where before that it was closer to two hours plus mini sessions all day. The only time I played well in the last two weeks was at the couple jams I went to last week when I just . . . played. And truth is, bowing like him doesn't sound right. It doesn't sound oldtimey. There's no flow. The accents are in all the wrong places.

Do I need another teacher? Probably. Is it going to be him? Hell, no.

I just decided not to go after writing this blogpost, and then had the best playing session I've had alone since I started with him.

OTJunky Says:
Tuesday, July 21, 2009 @6:33:35 PM

I guess sometimes you just have to ask the question - and hear the wrong answer - before you know the right answer... ;-)


bj Says:
Tuesday, July 21, 2009 @6:40:40 PM

Yeah, true. And the price for these free lessons was just way too high . . .

M-D Says:
Tuesday, July 21, 2009 @10:58:28 PM

I dunno', BJ. I think he'd really appreciate it if you were to give as good as you're getting here. Not that he'd ever show it, mind you. He'd probably raise billy hell with you, but you could just put it right back on him. Just think of how much fun you two could have, never mind the fiddlin'! :o)

I was kiddin' . . . but then, there's something to be said for standing in one's own power. Give it some thought, huh? Y'all get the kinks worked out, and it just might work to the benefit of both.

brya31 Says:
Wednesday, July 22, 2009 @2:11:31 AM

My instructor wont be negative and yours wont be positive, LOL We need to combine these two old fellars and have a heck of a time!

bj Says:
Wednesday, July 22, 2009 @3:58:11 AM

M-D, I tried that. That's when he blew a gasket and got really vile. A line was crossed. It might be best for him if I go ahead and put up with that crap, but it won't be best for me.

Too bad. I had already decided to choose all Polkas for the Thursday lesson since he made fun of 'em when I had sent him the link to some of Steve Jacobi's youtube vids (lizacreek here on the FHO.) The old fart didn't think much of Steve's fiddling either, to put it mildly.

I do have other fiddling mentors.

Rob, that's too funny!

fiddlepogo Says:
Wednesday, July 22, 2009 @10:59:03 AM

Um.... no,
I haven't relocated to Pennsylvania...
and while I might agree with this teacher in basic theory,
I don't agree with the attitude.... and one reason is because like
(Yes, I can get overheated in a discussion, but that doesn't mean I like being that way- this feller sounds like he ENJOYS being nasty.)
I also work REALLY hard on NOT cussing- I don't care how oldtimey some people might think it is.
roblem with a upbower that this guy does... I think you can make it sound old timey,
and I suspect there were at least some old guys that played that way.

If you really want to get downbowing sorted out, doing mostly sawstroke but with 3 note upbow slurs will do it for you-
In effect, you'd be mostly using the sawshuffle and "unshuffle" patterns.
But you can also think of it as turning a given "up-down-up" segment into and three note up-bow slur, which is easy to do, since you just removed the downstroke.

I do hope you can find a better downbow mentor.

M-D Says:
Wednesday, July 22, 2009 @11:00:06 AM

See, he did appreciate it! And he did raise billy hell! Boy, what fireworks, 'ey?

If you figure out why he's like that, why he does those things, it'll got along way towards smoothing things, for both of you.

You could always take a cheap fiddle with you, and tell him that it's for him -- upside his head -- the next time he gets vile.

There was one old fella' up here similar to that. Came here from Wisconsin via Colorado. He was a good musician, but most often quite cranky, and always with a chip on his shoulder. I never had a problem with him, since I understood where all that came from, but many didn't, and many did have that problem. He died last year, so that's all over now.

Save one of those eBay fiddles for him, just in case.

bj Says:
Wednesday, July 22, 2009 @11:12:28 AM

Michael, do you upbow the pickup notes? Or do you downbow 'em? Is your downbow falling on the count? If so, then by that definition I'm a downbower ALWAYS, though I may place my accents differently than you do.

Is downbowing defined as downbowing on the downbeat? Or always downbowing the first note in a tune or part and always upbowing the last note in a tune or part? Or always accenting the downbow wherever it falls? By one of those definitions I'm a downbower all the time, by another part of the time, by the third none of the time.

In other words, you tell me I need a downbow mentor without giving me an answer to my question. In other words, what is the exact definition of a downbower in Oldtime?

fiddlepogo Says:
Wednesday, July 22, 2009 @12:15:48 PM


The problem is that there is no equivalent of the A.M.A. ;^) for downbowers!
(American Downbower's Association???)
I've seen people who I considered upbowers on the basis of their accents and backwards sawstroke (up-down instead of down-up) call themselves downbowers because they use a (long) downstroke on the very first not of the phrase.
Then you have guys that are sticklers for starting down and ending up who don't use all downbow accents, and then you have downbow accent fiddlers.

When I recorded the 2006 stuff on ezfolk, I was almost a 100% downbow accent fiddler. I've since start using SOME Nashville Shuffle and Offset Nashville, which have an upbow accent in the second group of three strokes... so I'm not 100% on downbow accents, but still have a strong tendency, maybe 90%.
I DO tend to define downbowing as downbowing on the downbeat-
I feel that first downbeat is a very important note that helps other players in the group or jam hear where you are, and is an important reference for any dancers. I tend to think of pickup notes as being unaccented, and therefore they could be on an upbow.... or you could just sawstroke 'em.

However, I got to watch Tommy Jarrell in person, and one of his distinctive traits was that he started that initial long downstroke he used just a little early- maybe one SNE's worth before the real downbeat.

I tend to think that the importance of downstrokes is related to the importance of rhythmic "groove" in Old Time.
Downbowing on the downbeat is important not because it's first, but because it's important to the groove.
If a fiddler gets a strong rhythmic groove going, and is clearly using
mostly downbows in key places to do it, I'd call them a downbower, regardless of how consistent they are... I find occasionally maintaining the groove calls for some of those "exceptions that prove the rule".

As you might guess, one of those sticky wickets and exceptions is the Georgia Shuffle. You can get a strong backbeat groove going with it, but both versions of it have problems as regards to downbowing principles.

A series of Georgias like Steve or Ken Kolodner do them fits the "begin on a downstroke" downbowing principle, but violates the "end on an upbow" principle, as well as the downbow accent principle.
A series of Georgias as I learned in the 70's is consistent with ending on an upbow and maintaining downbow accents like a down-up sawstroke-
but it violates the "start on a downbow" axiom if you want to use it from the very beginning. So downbow accent Georgia is attractive to me, because it fits 2/3 of my downbow specifications, right off, and I can even use it's beginning on an upbow to get me turned around- in the unlikely event I start a tune section on an upbow, I just make sure it's a Georgia Shuffle, and within 3 SNE's, I'm corrected... and I sounded rhythmic, not fumbling, while doing it.

I also tend to dislike the "backwards" Georgia for the same reason I dislike Nashville- it muddies the first downbeat- I REALLY like a single HARD downstroke on the downbeat, since it's rhythmically so crisp and unmistakeable, but that's also a stylistic preference on my part.
I have to admit that Nashville Shuffle has a long and honored place in Old Time fiddling as a whole, even if it annoys me a bit!!! ;^D

I think you need to find someone who has a strong confident rhythmic groove that you like, and who can explain how to get that groove.
I wouldn't worry too much about them being 100% consistent to both downbowing principles. I think if you are a 100% "start down, end up" downbower, you won't be 100% downbow accent, and if you are 100% downbow accent, you will likely not be 100% "start down, end up".
The two principles are related, but they pull a player in slightly different directions, and I feel those two different directions may be appropriate for what you are trying to do musically with a tune or a phrase.
And depending on their style, one fiddler may emphasize one of the two downbow axioms more than the other. I try to emphasize BOTH, maybe because I like to make things complicated.

I just got out the fiddle and examined my bowing of pickup notes-
so far, what I see is that I'm very eclectic- sometimes I sawstroke them, especially when I'm using sawshuffle, since the sawstrokes will blend right in with the sawstrokes that begin the Sawshuffle.
If the first shuffle is a Syncoshuffle, I sometimes put the pickup notes on a 3 note downbow ending on the downbeat with a little push, and the rest is standard Syncoshuffle (the effect is very Tommy Jarrell-ish, IMO).
And if I start the part with an Unshuffle pattern like in Green Willis, it seems natural to put the pickup notes on an upbow!!!

So here's the paradox- the pickup notes SEEM to be important, since they are FIRST, but what counts is a rhythmic groove which fits the melody, and so the pickup notes get treated in whatever way enhances the rhythmic groove of the whole kit and kaboodle.

However, for a novice fiddler in search of at least temporary consistency, sawstroking them should be a pretty safe way to go.

fiddlepogo Says:
Wednesday, July 22, 2009 @12:21:45 PM

I listened to Steve Jacobi, and he sounds like a good BLUEGRASS fiddler to me- could his bluegrassiness be part of why the cantankerous old curmudgeon doesn't like him???

I hope the guy isn't part of your jam!!!

bj Says:
Wednesday, July 22, 2009 @12:23:42 PM

Um, wouldn't that depend on HOW MANY pickup notes there are? ;-)

I mean, if we wanna end up on the ONE downbeat on a downbow and all . . .

bj Says:
Wednesday, July 22, 2009 @12:28:02 PM

Steve Jacobi plays both OT and bluegrass. So does the old curmudgeon, who doesn't seem to like any other fiddler who I like. Personally I gotta wonder if he only likes dead fiddlers since they're "safe". In other words, they can't show him up now. I get the idea he's the kind of control freak who has to be the authority in a student's life. And for me that isn't happening. Especially since he isn't the best fiddler I know personally.

Yes, he's one of my jammers. But he doesn't come often, and if the other two REALLY GOOD fiddlers come, he doesn't stay very long.

OTJunky Says:
Wednesday, July 22, 2009 @2:23:54 PM

What are the chances he'll join the FHO and read all this... ;-)


bj Says:
Wednesday, July 22, 2009 @2:39:51 PM

Slim. Not quite none, though. Which is why no names have been named. And there is nothing here I wouldn't say to him directly, and I have said a few of them already.

ChickenMan Says:
Thursday, July 23, 2009 @7:23:14 PM

So, I have a couple of DVDs I bought with a gift cert. from Amazon - Brad Leftwich and Bruce Molsky. Both teach a Tommy Jarrell 'lick' (which is a bowing pattern and not a group of notes) and if I have interpreted it correctly, those pickup notes, even if it is a whole beat's worth, are drawn on the downbow, pushing the one a little - hard drivin' rhythm. Then what happens is the upbow on the immediate eighth note following the down beat. Theres more, but I couldn't describe it proper. It was really tricky for me to learn because I was taught to change directions when changing strings, and these bow licks often do not follow such a rule. I have only recently had a real breakthrough and am doing it with nearly every tune. And it does make for some exciting fiddling.

ChickenMan Says:
Thursday, July 23, 2009 @7:28:26 PM

Also, the banjo player who taught me several fiddle tunes was a bit.... abrasive. He did, however put up with my beginner scratching and I grew thicker skin re: less "sensitive" to such off putting behavior. That has served to keep my mouth from getting me into of a whole lot of trouble :-D

bj Says:
Friday, July 24, 2009 @2:22:03 AM

My friend Nancy, who is a beginner, is taking lessons, and her teacher (Steve Jacobi, btw) told her she has to change directions when changing strings. My question to her was-- WHY? That was the first I'd ever heard that, and I routinely do slurred string crossings and see nothing wrong with it.

Tommy's lick, huh?

Re thick skin. I used to sell at an outdoor market in Manhattan. Few people on the face of the planet have a thicker skin than those who have worked at an outdoor market in Manhattan. Also, there's a huge difference between abrasive and abusive.

ChickenMan Says:
Saturday, July 25, 2009 @10:10:07 AM

True. My man was not outright abusive. Too bad for that "teacher" since he has one less student AND some negative advertising ta-boot. I hope you weren't paying much.
I will post the tune I've learned with Tommy's Lick in it - Citico - it's a very simple melody that is highly rhythmic.
There is a Lowe Stokes version on the Juneberry 78's website.
The same lick is used in Breaking Up Christmas.

deckda Says:
Sunday, July 26, 2009 @2:17:31 PM

I think it wise that you choose to stay clear of this guy;
bad lessons will suck the soul right out of you.

bj Says:
Sunday, July 26, 2009 @3:44:10 PM

deckda, that was exactly what I felt starting to happen, so yeah, already decided he's nothing to me now but a minor acquaintance/annoyance.

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