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Detour down the classical path

Posted by jonno on Sunday, November 22, 2009

Hi everyone,

I started to write this as a forum posting, but it got too long so I transferred most of it to here.  1st two paragraphs are a repeat from the forum.
A year ago, I put myself in the hands of a classical violinist (a full time symphony player at operas and orchestras in Baltimore and DC) and part-time teacher.  I am not one of his typical students, I’m in my 50s, started at age 20, self-taught and played very casually for 5 years, stopped for 25 years. In 2006 I retrieved my fiddle, started taking lessons, attending workshops, jams and playing with friends at every chance. I aspire to play like Randy Howard, Paul Anastasio, Kenny Baker, Ketch Secor, Bruce Molsky, Darol Anger, Alistair Fraser, Brittany Haas - all people that my classical teacher has never heard of. 
After 2 ½ years of playing every day, absorbing and practicing everything I could from my teachers, I was making progress, learning a fair number of tunes and getting some rhythm in my bow strokes. But playing still felt awkward and, to my ears, sounded laborious.  I decided to get a better handle on some fundamentals, to take classical lessons – just for one year, just for the experience.
I was lucky to hit it off well with my teacher. The first lesson, he writes out a list of eight lesson books – scales, Suzuki, duets, etudes, shifting exercises. Every week, his lessons and assignments focus me on dozens of skills to work on. Gradually, I feel myself improving in the areas that were frustrating before. My teacher has changed a lot of the mechanics of how I play. It feels easier on my joints, my fingers are falling on the strings with less effort, the bow feels more like an extension of my arm. 
Most of my practice time goes toward working on my classical assignments (still pretty elementary stuff – Suzuki Book 4 level), but I still spend time playing and listening to the stuff I love.  The surprise for me is how much fun this is and how much of a difference these lessons make. I had assumed it would mostly be knuckling down and toughing it out with discipline – there’s some of that and keeping the daily routine intact is essential – but it feels so great to work on a piece for weeks and months and get to the point where the passages come to my fingers and bow without conscious thought and my mind is able to focus on the music rather than the mechanics. For me, this is a level of playing that I’d never experienced before. 
Usually, my progress is so slow that there aren’t breakthroughs (I’m not a natural musician and I’m sure that my progress is slower than most), but today was different. The sound that I pulled from the fiddle was something that I have been trying to make ever since first picked it up in 1975. Here is what I’m talking about:
Set the bow on the string, let it sink in and pull just enough to set the string to vibrating. Right away (like within the first ¼” of the pull), hit that perfect amount of bow pressure in combination with a steady, smooth pull of the bow.  At the end of the stroke, stop the bow, but keep the weight sinking into the string to start the next stroke so the string vibrates perfectly in tandem with the friction of the bow.  The sound that pours out is full, pure, amazingly full – it is quiet, but solid through all the frequencies. When you increase the bow pressure and speed, the sound wells in volume and intensity but remains pure. 
The quality of this sound is something I’ve tried to produce, but never have done so before. I’ve known about the balance between bow pressure and bow speed and, until today, thought I had found the right balance, but today the sound coming from my fiddle made it sound like a violin.   
Hopefully, I’ll be able to replicate it tomorrow and, with practice, will be able to produce it easily and consistently. I won’t have a lot of use for this particular sound when I’m playing the stuff I love to play, but it is wonderful to be able to be developing enough control to produce it if I want. I’ve decided to see what else lies down this path for now and stay with this teacher for another year. 

9 comments on “Detour down the classical path”

KCFiddles Says:
Sunday, November 22, 2009 @9:16:22 PM

I think it's great to have the skills to make whatever sound you want. I've been working on Kenny Baker's "Roxanna" waltz for some time now, and it's kicking my butt, but also teaching me a lot. Such a simple tune, so hard to make sound like him. The guy's got some wicked skills. I think he may be the devil in disguise, but he sure sounds great!

IMO, good training gives you options, an assortment of tools that you can pull out and use when you need them.

Another year, huh? Well. Perlman will be retiring in a few years.......

jonno Says:
Sunday, November 22, 2009 @9:39:34 PM

Hey Michael -
I've played along with his recording of Roxanna a few times and I know exactly what you mean (if I remember right it modulates in the middle). It took me a long time to learn Baker's Festival Waltz and it's one of my favorites. I took a one-day seminar with Bobby Hicks summer before last and boy did he make it look easy. As you say, what sounds simple at first is devilishly hard to imitate.
One of the reasons I took the fundamentals fork in the road was because embellishments were creeping into my playing - more as clutter than expressions of the music. I decided that I wanted to have the simplest versions that I play sound good. Like watching an elderly couple waltzing around the dance floor - no fancy steps, but perfectly in time with one another.

mudbug Says:
Monday, November 23, 2009 @1:24:05 AM

Ahh, Jonno. Nothing like making a pure, singing note. It touches the heart, and makes the spirit soar!

fiddlepLuker Says:
Monday, November 23, 2009 @3:08:09 AM


I am impressed you are continuing lesson. While reading your blog post I could feel so much of what you experienced in your writing. For the past 3-4 months I have thought more and more about doing what you have done. Now I feel like the next step is doable! Once in a while I hit a note just right and WOW it brings a smile for sure. I am looking forward to your future post. Thank you for sharing this experience with us.

OTJunky Says:
Monday, November 23, 2009 @3:55:40 AM

I hope this works out for you. You've got some admirable goals.

The thing that gives me pause with this kind of thing is that I always imagine that If Kenny Baker signed up for lessons with a good classical teacher - the teacher would feel compelled to "correct" some things in his playing.

Don't know if that's really true or not - but it is what worries me... ;-)


TimK Says:
Monday, November 23, 2009 @4:50:25 AM


Congradulations on your committment to improve your playing skills. I started with a teacher who was classically trained but was also a very good folk fiddler. I believe that the more skills you have the more versitile your playing options. Glad this is benifitting you!

Percy Says:
Monday, November 23, 2009 @5:45:25 AM

This is what Hardy has been telling me all along. I know there have been forum "disagreements" about the value of classical technique -- but for at least some of us, classical technique is "the way" for us to get the tone we are looking for in the music we are trying to play! I'm going to see Hardy this weekend for a 2-day "boot camp" to try and improve skills. After reading your post though, I may have to get a classical teacher here as well so I don't have to go 6 months between lessons! Rock on!

jonno Says:
Monday, November 23, 2009 @6:03:57 AM

Wow - it's great to hear from you all! I suppose I'm fortunate to find a teacher that is literally without judgement about musical styles. He is very much into the physics of producing the sound - the effeciency of motion and ergonomics. He often plays for operas that run for 5 hours and this is his career, so he's in it for the long haul and wants to protect his joints. He got tendonitis in his 20s and he re-engineered his playing as part of his rehabilitation.

As an adult learner, I am very interested in and helped by his explanations of "why" to do things a certain way. He doesn't frame his explanations in a way that infers judgement, but states if you hold your instrument, bow, arm, wrist, hand, etc. like so it makes this kind of sound or has this kind of wear and tear on your body.

Recently I was watching Ketch Secor (fiddler of Old Crow Medicine Show) and noticed that his bowing motion comes from his shoulder and his entire right arm moves back and forth. I realized that I could not play like that because I am prone to bursitis flare-ups in that shoulder (espeically after a few tennis or ping pong matches). I've adopted what my teacher taught me - to mostly use my elbow as the hinge that pulls and pushes the bow and (knock on wood) my joints are pain-free. I should add that what really struck me about Ketch's playing was that his intonation is spot on and his rhythm was right in the pocket driving the tune along. Learning his fiddle breaks note for note is teaching me a lot of stuff that my classical teacher doesn't deal with. I'm just happy being a sponge.

rastewart Says:
Tuesday, November 24, 2009 @11:57:21 AM

Fair warning, John--I'm going to find out who your teacher is and try to get him *and* Hardy to move to Chicago. Seriously, though, as I said in the forum, this is giving me things to think about, and it sounds like you've found exactly the right teacher for what you're trying to do.

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