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Fiddle tunes have a lot to teach . . .

Posted by bj on Thursday, August 5, 2010

I know some people get hung up on playing scales and arpeggios, but geez, those things occur in abbreviated and not so abbreviated form in almost every tune I play, so I really just don't see the point, though when I was first starting out they were helpful since I didn't know any tunes yet to speak of, and getting the scales and arpeggios under my fingers gave me a bit of vocabulary so when I started learning tunes my fingers had bits and pieces of them already.

In truth, fiddle tunes teach me every thing I need to know about fiddling.

Right now I'm working on a tune called Ride Old Buck in A cross. It's a simple little tune that isn't so simple. Why? The fingering patterns through the lower part of the tune are different than any A tune I've played before. So though I could HEAR it easily, my fingers at first kept getting tangled up. They wouldn't automatically go to the right notes since I hadn't encountered that particular pattern of notes before. But the beauty of this is that it's teaching me some more fiddling vocabulary. Somewhere down the road, there will be another A tune that uses bits and pieces of this particular pattern, and my fingers will know where to go next time.

A couple months back one of the novice fiddlers at the jam mentioned that I really had that syncopated bowing down. Syncopated bowing? I've never worked on syncopated bowing that I knew of, how could I possibly be doing it? Well, I had. The A tune called Shenandoah Falls had taught it to me in the B part. I just played the accents where I heard 'em, while using my natural bowing flow of downbow on the downbeat. HAH! Now, granted, it's only a small bit of syncopation, but extending it longer in a new tune will be pretty easy. And now I know what it's called, LOL!

I'm currently working on a few C tunes. They're coming more slowly than I would like. Why? I'm learning double stops, which is a pretty big deal. Up until now, in the keys of G, D and A and in crosstuning I haven't needed to use double stops very much, only in certain isolated instances, since the open notes worked and droning is pretty easy compared to double stopping. In the key of C if you want to include double-string playing then almost everything you do is going to be double-stopped, with only a few exceptions. The good news is once I learn those three tunes well, then many other C tunes will be much easier to learn and play. I'm currently working on Sandy River Belle, Fun's All Over, and Texas Gals, which are fairly simple tunes while being really interesting and fun to play. I'm glad I didn't try this earlier in my playing. There's a lot of intonation precision needed to make double stops sound good. I'm somewhat okay with them now, though I still need to practice to nail them. If I had tried this a year ago it would have been a major train wreck and very discouraging.

Playing in C is also a challenge in a different way. Many, if not most, of the tunes in C are rags. I have a theory about why. The key of C offers the biggest range of notes in first position on the fingerboard, and the rags need that range, which is probably why that key was chosen for them. It'll be awhile before I start on those C rags, but in a few months I'll tackle a couple. By then my fingers will at least know well where most stuff, including many of the doublestops, are in the key of C, so the larger range, double stops, and more complicated bowings may come a bit easier.

I also have been really working the old chestnuts lately. I take approximately one day a week to work on three well-known tunes and try to come up with variations in my playing of them, whether it's a totally new version like Benton Flippen's joyous rendition of Soldier's Joy, or a completely different way of bowing or ornamenting a tune I've been playing since the beginning, while playing the same version I originally learned. The tunes are Angeline, Soldier's Joy, Liberty, Sourwood Mountain, Old Joe Clark, Bonaparte's Retreat, Cluck Ol' Hen, Golden Slippers, and a few others. This has been making my playing a lot more interesting. I'm also finding that sometimes, without thinking about it, variations are sneaking into tunes I hadn't tried them in. The tunes are telling me where they fit. And it's because I'm using them in tunes I know well that they're now able to sneak into other tunes where bits and pieces are similar to bits and pieces in the old chestnuts.

Back when I was starting out I'd find that there were tunes I couldn't easily learn. It took awhile for me to figure out that I just wasn't ready for them. I learned that if I put them aside for a month or sometimes a few months, then came back to them, all the problems were gone, and they'd go under my fingers quickly and easily. Why was that? Probably because other easier tunes taught me the bits and pieces I needed to play the more complicated tune.

Tunes are the building blocks to learning to play Oldtime Fiddle. I know some people will preach quality over quantity, but I am firmly convinced that quality comes directly out of quantity. And each tune I learn will remain a work in progress.

 



17 comments on “Fiddle tunes have a lot to teach . . .”

Cyndy Says:
Thursday, August 5, 2010 @9:53:47 AM

Yes, yes, and yes. I do practice things out of the context of tunes now and again--it helps me to focus--but I'm firmly convinced that I wouldn't play any better practicing just a few tunes than I do working on a bunch. I play how I play and when one thing improves in one tune then it improves automatically in all the rest. I'm trying to keep myself from spending time learning new tunes this month (laugh) so I can organize and see where I'm at but I was listening to Emmett Lundy as I worked yesterday and I had to keep picking up the fiddle to try things out . . .

bj Says:
Thursday, August 5, 2010 @9:59:19 AM

LOL! When you are READY for that new tune you pick up the fiddle and it plays itself!

Cyndy Says:
Thursday, August 5, 2010 @10:05:58 AM

I will say, though, that the lots-of-tunes approach works for me because it fits my goals. If my teacher was giving me very specific instruction on technique and if I was hoping to play a different style of music, then I'd almost certainly need to practice in a different way.

bj Says:
Thursday, August 5, 2010 @10:10:14 AM

You may be right.

I think this is a very Oldtime-oriented approach to learning fiddle. And the tunes seem made to order for it. It's all patches in the same quilt.

And I think that's probably yet another thing that drew me to oldtime rather than bluegrass or jazz or gypsy fiddling or any of the other directions I could have gone.

OTJunky Says:
Thursday, August 5, 2010 @2:11:03 PM

It is an Old Time oriented approach - nothing wrong with that. I think it's the usual OT fiddler's approach.

In fairness though to fiddlers like Woodwiz and Swing - the scale and arpeggio thing is probably important for fiddlers who want to eventually be able to improvise in either Bluegrass or Western Swing. In that case you don't really know what you're going to play until you play it so there's not really much you can practice other than scales and arpeggios out of known left hand chordal positions.

Still, I agree that's not needed for old time.

The only recording I have of "Ride Old Buck to Water" is from the Skillet Lickers. Don't know where you learned your version but if you haven't heard the Skillet Lickers play it, I recommend it. I think they do it in AEAE as well.

As for rags, my own opinion about why they tend to wind up in C as that a basic think in rag time is not only the syncopated figures but also the "cycle of fifths". So, a lot of rags in C will go through the A, D, G chord progression to get back to C. If they were in G, they'd go through E, A, D (not too bad). If they were in D they'd go through B, E, A (Yuk). So I think a lot of rages get pitched in C - or even F (Beaumont, Duck Shoes) to stay away from the more esoteric chords when cycling through the fifths.

Just my two cents...

--OTJ

bj Says:
Thursday, August 5, 2010 @2:26:26 PM

OTJ, I don't think in chords since I no longer play guitar, but now that you mention it you have a point about rags. However, I am a vocalist, always have been, so I always think in terms of the range of a tune, and I think we both have the right of it, at least when you consider fiddle rags and where they fall on the fingerboard.

As to scales and arpeggios-- Yes, for other genres they'd prove helpful. Not much for OT though, and that's pretty much all I play these days. And for OT the tunes pack a whole lot more punch for learning.

Humbled by this instrument Says:
Thursday, August 5, 2010 @2:50:30 PM

Tunes are the building blocks of BLUEGRASS. If you OT'ers want to borrow them time to time, I s'pose so. It's just that they sound so much better when we BG'ers play 'em. (Okay, now for serious commentary.) Uhm...I once wrote how playing fiddle tunes directly affects my soloing during bluegras sessions. Here's how. I get that good intonation and rhythm and bowing patterns and oogles of other good stuff FROM playing fiddle tunes during my practice. It's about all I do, too. I don't go over scales, too much at all. But I go round and round with "Oh Mary" and "Blackberry Blossom" and "Billy in the Lowground" etc. Good post, bj.

bj Says:
Thursday, August 5, 2010 @3:15:02 PM

Humbled, who borrowed tunes from whom? LOL!

Wow, it almost sounds like you got serious there for a minute . . . nah, can't be.

Ozarkian DL Says:
Thursday, August 5, 2010 @4:41:52 PM

Your last paragraph says it all BJ....QUOTE :

Tunes are the building blocks to learning to play Oldtime Fiddle. I know some people will preach quality over quantity, but I am firmly convinced that quality comes directly out of quantity. And each tune I learn will remain a work in progress

harwilli55 Says:
Thursday, August 5, 2010 @7:57:04 PM

Thank you bj for so eloquently describing how I learn so much better than I ever could !!! Bravo !!!

WoodshopFiddler Says:
Friday, August 6, 2010 @5:27:50 AM

How much "stuff" is in an "oogle"?

carlb Says:
Monday, August 9, 2010 @6:13:58 AM

Syncopated bowing, I believe, comes from where you think the notes and spaces should be. Keep playing with Jane and you'll probably get more and more syncopated without even realizing it..

bj Says:
Monday, August 9, 2010 @6:18:49 AM

Very few things I love better in this world than playing music with Jane, so that won't be a hardship.

janepaints Says:
Monday, August 9, 2010 @1:43:04 PM

I seem to be contagious

playmorebluegrass Says:
Friday, August 13, 2010 @11:31:52 AM

i admire you dear!

Humbled by this instrument Says:
Sunday, August 15, 2010 @5:33:44 PM

Okay, you wrote this on the 5th; it's now the 15th, so write somepin new. I look forward to your writings, woof.

bj Says:
Sunday, August 15, 2010 @7:02:25 PM

Wow, you miss me, Humbled? I'm . . . Humbled. Which creates a helluva conundrum, doesn't it?

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