Banjo Hangout Logo
Banjo Hangout Logo

Premier Sponsors

Fiddle Lovers Online

Knacks, Tricks, and Sweet Spots!

Posted by fiddlepogo on Thursday, August 29, 2013

(the following is a post I made in the thread (Observations from a Beginning) with a few additional edits)
Originally posted by farmer bob

Sometimes you learn by not playing at all. When I get discouraged by a tune I'm practicing, I'll lay the fiddle down for a day and pick banjo. Come back the next day pick up the fiddle and wizz through the tune... Bob.

There's something to that.

Part of what I'm trying to say with the "cat" thing and the "Goldilocks" thing is that fiddling ISN'T something where there is a direct correlation between what you put in and what you get out, like a properly operating vending machine.

There are tricks and knacks to acquire and maintain.  Putting in lots of hours can help you acquire the knacks required, but not necessarily.

Think of it as like learning to ride a bicycle. Obviously, you had to spend SOME time trying to ride to get the knack of riding a bicycle... but there is little correlation between time spent and when you get the knack! Some people take a short time, some take much longer, a few never get it.   Bowing especially is full of knacks like that.   Obviously, SOME time needs to be dedicated to it.   Once you get a knack, like the knack of riding a bike, you retain it.  (It can get a little rusty however... you might want to take some slow easy rides around a deserted parking lot if you haven't been on a bike in years!)

One big help is watching good violinists and fiddlers.  I sometimes point out to audiences to verify my claims to be a FIDDLER (as opposed to a violinist) that I've never had a violin lesson in my life, but I have WATCHED a bunch of good violinists over the years.   What I have picked up isn't FORM... but a sense of how you need to move the bow to pull good tone.  Good fiddlers likewise for the most part can show you some stuff by how they move.

Two compliments I got indicate that people were paying attention to how I moved the bow, and if they had been trying to learn to play fiddle themselves might have picked up some valuable "intel" that might have helped them acquire a knack:

1. "You don't look like you're working very hard!"  

A very perceptive statement!  The truth is, that like a lot of instruments, the fiddle or violin rewards people who learn to use LESS effort, not more!

In fact, I think having had my midlife crisis electric lead guitar involvement just before starting to fiddle again may have primed me for a breakthrough, because shortly before taking up fiddle again, I had had a breakthrough with flatpicking where I was using thicker picks, and was learning to relax and let the mass of the pick do the work of producing the sound... the result was that all of a sudden, I could flatpick MUCH faster.

Having tried that, once I started up fiddling again, I think I had more of a tendency with the bow to relax and let the mass of the bow do the work.

This relaxation pays dividends on fiddle with TONE as well as speed!

2. "You make it look easy!"    Pretty much the same idea.  If someone makes it look hard, they are probably expending too much effort playing, and if they could learn to "lighten up" with the bow, their tone and maybe their speed would improve.

This relates to petting cats in another way as well.  With cats, it's safest, with a cat you don't know to start EXTREMELY gently, and then, as you get to know the cat and the cat learns to trust you, you can increase the intensity.... paying careful attention to feedback to make sure the cat is happy.

Likewise, if you start gently with the bow, and slowly increase the velocity and pressure, (listening all the while to hints for "complaints" from the strings!) you will find a sweet spot where it sounds best.  THEN, you need to learn to stay there in that "sweet spot".

Some people start WAY too strong with the bow, never lighten up, and as a result, will never improve, no matter how much time they put into it!

Two people I know with abysmal violin tone are VERY determined people, and you can HEAR their determination in the very way they use the bow.... and the fiddle HATES it!!!   The ability to be gentle with the bow on the strings is a BIG PLUS when fiddling.

Another trick I learned a few years back was how to FEEL feedback through the bow.   When I switched to a lighter gauge of steel string and to a  stickier rosin, I realized that I could suddenly FEEL the bow hair grabbing and kind of cocking the strings silently under the bow hair for a split second before releasing the strings into the beginning of the note.  I started feeling for that "cocking" action that reminded me of pulling the string of the arrow back before releasing the bow ( an archery bow!).

Since I know these tricks, I don't require a whole bunch of maintenance practice to retain my touch with the bow... I just need to pick up the fiddle and refresh that sense of:

1. Taking it EASY.... less effort is MORE!

2. Feeling the strings "cock" silently under the bow hair.


Intonation is perhaps something not quite as accessible to tricks or knacks.... well, you do have to be able to HEAR the difference.

I often ask people who want to play fiddle if they can sing on pitch.  If they have good pitch control with their voice, the prognosis for good pitch control with the fingers is GOOD.... it PROVES you can hear the difference and control a muscle (vocal chords are muscles) to make a difference.

One trick though is making the circle of fifths or fourths work for you.

Suppose you've spent a lot of effort getting your intonation cleaned up in a particular key, probably C, G, or D to start with.  If you pick your next key to work on as the one of the keys next to that key on the circle of fifths, the SCALE IS ONLY ONE NOTE DIFFERENT!!!!

So you have only ONE NOTE with a different fingering from the previous key, so you can retain your finger position and therefore your intonation from the previous key, and just work on intonating that ONE NOTE by matching it to the notes you are already intonating properly.

Now, it's true.... getting that first key intonated properly is going to be the steepest learning curve.... but even there, there are tricks.

1. Pentatonic scales.   A pentatonic scale has only five tones.  Three of those tones are going to be the notes in a major chord (triad).  Those notes are going to be easier to intonate, especially if you use open string notes for reference points.  Once you have the three notes  that are part of the triad intonated, the other two remaining notes shouldn't be hard.

2. Use drones.   Drones are often seen as an advanced technique, but if the fiddle is properly tuned, using a drone that is a tonic of the key (a D drone in the key of D) or a 5th (an A drone in the key of D) is going to make it MUCH easier to hear when certain intervals are IN TUNE.

You can also use drones that you AREN'T playing yourself.... there are CD recordings of drones, or you could tape down the appropriate keys on a cheap keyboard with masking tape!

Anyway, if I were beginning, I would focus my efforts on getting JUST ONE KEY properly intonated.   Whether you can sing or not, you've then proved you have the ear, and then can work around the keys in the circle of fifths from there.

If you can't get one key properly intonated.... well, you've got a choice:

Take up another hobby-

or get one of those fiddle fretters!

(fingerboard attachment with plastic frets and adhesive backing)


Which reminds me.... mandolin!

When I borrowed my first fiddle to learn on, I was renting a room.  The landlady had a mandolin setting on the mantle of the fireplace, and I got permission to borrow it.

I'd work out the basic left hand fingering on the mandolin first, then, when I picked up the fiddle, I could then concentrate on the intonation and the bowing, which, when you think about it, is PLENTY!

The same could be done by keeping a spare fiddle equipped with a fiddle fretter, preferably with the visible frets to help you visualize where the notes are... you could even leave the strings without rosin on them and just pluck the thing like a mandolin to learn the basic left hand fingering... then concentrate on the intonation and bowing on the fiddle you bow.

If you use an actual mandolin as a training aid like this, you can make it easy on yourself- take the paired strings OFF so you only have a four string mandolin!

Anyway, in summary... if you can acquire knacks and use labor-saving tricks, you can greatly reduce the number of hours required to master certain techniques.

3 comments on “Knacks, Tricks, and Sweet Spots!”

nancymae Says:
Thursday, August 29, 2013 @8:10:43 PM

Such good points on learning!! I have also found that I have to be "ready" to learn things as well. My teacher would tell me to tune with my drone string and that I should hear the drone ring when I have my other string in tune. I didn't know what she meant, I couldn't hear it. Then one day, I did....I don't know why that happened, except just time doing it, listening to myself....being patient with myself. It sure is a beautiful journey, learning the fiddle..learning your fiddle. Thank you for the great advice! Always learn from you!!

fiddlepogo Says:
Wednesday, September 4, 2013 @7:47:07 PM

Yes... that's true.... sometimes things just "click" when they want to, and there's no hurrying them!!!
I'm glad if anything I write seems to be of use to you!

Humbled by this instrument Says:
Saturday, September 7, 2013 @4:45:56 PM

I've nothing to add. Carry on.

You must sign into your myHangout account before you can post comments.

More posts from fiddlepogo

Terms of Use | Privacy Policy | Privacy Consent
Copyright 2024 Fiddle Hangout. All Rights Reserved.

Newest Posts

Click for Details 'Bowing Problem' 15 hrs

Click for Details 'key of C' 1 day

Click for Details 'Clifftop ' 2 days

More >  

Hangout Network Help

View All Topics  |  View Categories