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Some Possibly Life Changing Interventions... and Bowing Interventions!

Posted by fiddlepogo on Sunday, February 22, 2015

I just woke up from a nap.  Yeah.... I'm getting to that age I guess.   But it's something I tend to resist unless I can't resist it!  I probably take about a nap or two a month.

And sometimes when I wake up I get insights.... I see things I hadn't seen before.

I woke up pondering why some people have such an aversion to a pattern based approach, and such an (excessive in my view) reverence for learning fiddle the way the oldtimers learned when in so many ways as far as I can see "that was then, and this is now."   And then it flipped around to wondering, well, why am I so open to an approach to Old Time fiddling that arguably the oldtimers DIDN'T USE.... certainly not the terminology and the numerical notation of the length of bow strokes!

And then it occurred to me that three things took place when I was 10 or 11 that either had a profound importance to me or may have had if they were not done, and we'll never really know.

One, some observant teacher noticed me squinting at age 10 when my seat was in the back of the classroom, and sent me in for an eye exam.  Result:  I was near-sighted, and got glasses.  Life got so much easier.... I had had NO idea how nearsighted I was.  Of course, it away, it meant that life was very possibly ALSO going to get harder, because I now LOOKED different, and was about to go to Junior High, a time when kids are very conformist.  Still, I needed them, and I'm glad I got them.... and maybe I would have liked baseball better if I'd gotten them sooner, because I was learning baseball between 8 and 10 while my eyesight was getting worse.  Being nearsighted made dealing with fast moving hardballs REALLY hard!!!

Two, a doctor noticed that one of my "family jewels" was hiding!  I had an "inguinal hernia".  It hadn't bothered me, I hadn't noticed anything amiss, but I guess my parents thought that since gym class would start at age 12, it was important to take care of.  So, when we moved and changed school districts, I had surgery done to correct it.  My dad was clever that way, he knew it could be embarrassing if someone asked why I'd missed a couple of weeks of school!   I don't actually know what the results would have been if it hadn't gotten taken care of, but I'm glad my parents cared enough to have it fixed.  They may have been waiting for things to descend on their own, and by that time it was obvious it wasn't going to happen.

Then, the following year, I got sent to the speech teacher.  For a kid from the Midwest, the way I talked was sticking out like a sore thumb...  I was dropping my final R's!!!!  Put together with a typical Chicago accent, I must have sounded like I'd just moved from Boston.... and we hadn't just moved from Boston.  For instance, the teacher got me to realize that while everyone else from the Chicago area who grew up in the Chicago area said FaRm, with a really strong Midwestern "R", I was saying "fahm"... probably with a slight nasal twang to it, because a Chicago accent now sounds to me like a soft New Jersey accent.   How did this happen- did I watch too many episodes of The Three Stooges???? ;^)   Anyway, the speech teacher was successful, and pretty soon I was saying FaRm just like all the other Midwestern kids.  I got teased quite enough during Junior High as it was, and I'm glad I didn't get teased about that too!  Oddly I don't remember being teased about the glasses in any overt way.... never got called "Four Eyes", or anything, though I think I looked odd enough (from photos- BIG lenses) that the glasses helped make me a target.

Anyway.... three arguably "unnatural" interventions.  Things just had to be a certain way, and when they weren't, they got "fixed".

And I guess that may have affected how I view such things. 

Now.... what does all this have to do with Old Time Fiddling?   Sometimes I wonder if this attitude isn't a BOOMER thing.... Baby Boomers seem to LOVE natural approaches, and being a Boomer myself, I have those leanings too, up to a point.

However, to me, the whole point of Old Time fiddling is to be able to SOUND like the oldtimers.   Not just play the tunes.  And in this case, the goal is to me more important than the means being "natural" or "unnatural".  Remember, I was a tail-ender on the folk boom, and for about seven years, people had been singing folk songs, but frankly NOT sounding very "folk".  Maybe that was a good thing, considering the cultural origins of so many of the songs- people might have felt caricatured.   But somehow, when I started playing fiddle, I didn't want that approach.... I didn't want to sort of, kind of sound like the oldtimers.  I really wanted to be able to NAIL the sounds.  Maybe the New Lost City Ramblers influenced me, because they were sounding a whole lot more like THEIR sources than most of the other folk performers had.    And it became obvious that so much of the sound was in the bowing, and I was committed to using "fair means or foul" to learn those bowing sounds.  Now, back in the early 70's, there wasn't a whole lot of bowing knowledge available in books... the Miles Krassen book said NOTHING about bowing, and I was sorely disappointed about that.  But I was REALLY GLAD, really THANKFUL whenever someone took the time to "give me a leg up" and show me a pattern.   And so, when I got to hear accomplished fiddlers, I not only listened to them, I watched them like a hawk, in the hope I could glean some information that way.  I frankly had mixed success.  I tried to imitate Tommy Jarrell's motions for his signature lick.... but got what I now call Smoothshuffle instead!   I wasn't able to directly decipher the bowing Brian Hubbard was using back then.... but one day I made a mistake that sounded just like what he was doing back then that sounded so cool to me, and I think it probably WAS what he was doing.  (I think he's moved on to other licks though!).  Then, I had recorded Dave Vitek playing a New England tune with a cool bouncy bowing.  This is a bit odd, because in most respects I lean towards the sound of Appalachian fiddling.  But this just sounded WAY too cool to pass up.  What I SAW him playing looked just like Nashville Shuffle, as far as the balanced motions.  Knowing that, and then listening a lot, it finally hit me that he was OFFSETTING the motion a single short note, resulting in the bouncy sound.  Maybe this is my musical nod to my Yankee heritage!   Or maybe the bouncy sound reminds me of the phrasing my dad got when whistling which I liked so much, but couldn't do.

So.... I got three or four bowing from people directly showing me (Sawstroke, Nashville Shuffle, Georgia Shuffle and Syncoshuffle- eventually),  one bowing was just too obvious (two note slurs), and three bowings from a combination of visual input and some Serendipity- Smoothshuffle, Sawshuffle, and Offset Nashville. 

The three I got by visual input and "serendipity" make me think that the oldtimers must have had a lot of that going on too, maybe more, because if I could pick it up through rather fleeting contact with fiddlers, they must have had even more opportunities since they often had WAY MORE than fleeting contact.

The three I was shown were in a sense "unnatural", since I didn't just pick them up on my own.  But it didn't seem that unnatural at the time, since three of them had folksy sounding names, and the one that didn't (Syncoshuffle) was a variant of one that did.  And since so many fiddlers had fiddling fathers, I don't see that form of bowing instruction to have been out of the reach of the oldtimers.  There's a video of John Summers on YouTube talking about how his father taught him to fiddle, and his father obviously felt that getting the right sound and the right bowing was IMPORTANT enough that he didn't just "laissez-faire" and trust little John's ears to pick up the bowing info.... he had little John REST his hand on his father's bowing hand!

I really think a lot of fiddling fathers must have taught their (mostly sons) how to fiddle in similar ways... to me, there's an attitude in the culture of Americans before World War II that was really careful and precise..... "craftsmanlike" would be a good description.  There were right and wrong ways of doing things, and doing things the right way was important enough to intervene a bit to make sure it got done RIGHT.   Somehow, since World War II, there's this sloppiness that's entered into the culture- "It's good enough for government work!" or something like that.  (It just occurred to me that I probably picked up some of that attitude in building plastic model airplanes and cars- I wasn't very good at it, but the guys I admired would make spark plug wires out of thread and stuff to make them REALLY detailed and REALISTIC.)

Anyway.... regardless of all that, I would have used videos of bowing back then if there were videos of bowing even available back then.  And I feel it's important enough to use them NOW.

Now... with my three interventions, my parents waited at least several years before intervening, probably hoping the problems would take care of themselves.  Could fiddle bowing be approached THAT way?

Well yes, it could.... but by then, you have habitual ways of bowing established, and that would make using a pattern approach at that point VERY DIFFICULT.  From everything I know about the human mind, habit patterns are TOUGH to break once established.  And I've seen (and heard) people who can play guitar and/or banjo and/or something else in a top-notch way, absolutely FLOUNDER when it comes to bowing.  It's really not all THAT intuitive.... not if it's not in the culture around you.

So I think the best way is a two pronged approach.   Play the way that seems most natural at first just to "get off the ground" and be able to learn bow control and the actual tunes, and work on intonation.  But then, within a couple months,  learning patterns on the side, but in parallel to just "winging it" with the bow would allow you to program those rhythms into your subconscious, so that when you got to the place you wanted to play that rhythm, the technique would already be somewhat up to speed.

I personally don't think that one needs to learn ALL the patterns.  It seems that most of the best oldtimers had just one or two trademark bowings in addition to the "usual suspects"- sawstroke, Nashville Shuffle, Georgia Shuffle and Two Note Slurs.  So it makes total sense to me with the bowing lore that's now available on-line, that fiddlers SHOULD enquire about the patterns their favorite oldtimers used, and focus on THOSE bowings for supplemental bowing practice sessions.

Anyway, I'm starting to turn this into my normal bowing "dissertation", "spiel" or whatever, but I think I already said what I intended to say.... that in some cases the results CAN justify "unnatural" means.  For instance, I think it's kind of cool when researchers and wildlife biologists take offspring from zoo animals, and try to reintroduce them to the wild.  I think that's a good thing to do, even though it's obviously NOT natural.  To me, special bowing instruction can be like that.  Maybe that's why Los Angeles seems to be a hotbed of bowing analysis and instruction.... it must be in the water.... which is piped down from Northern California in a very unnatural way!  Joking aside.... in Los Angeles, fiddle bowing just isn't something that's normally available to learn naturally in the local culture.

And that's where I learned to fiddle.... although then there wasn't formal bowing instruction available like there is now.... although applying the word "formal" to David Bragger seems somehow inappropriate- that's just not his STYLE!  And that's probably a good thing, too.  Bowing analysis could be made altogether too "Spock"-like to be FUN.  And fiddling should be FUN.

2 comments on “Some Possibly Life Changing Interventions... and Bowing Interventions!”

tonyelder Says:
Monday, February 23, 2015 @7:39:24 AM

I woke up pondering why some people have such an aversion to a pattern based approach, and such an (excessive in my view) reverence for learning fiddle the way the oldtimers learned when in so many ways
as far as I can see "that was then, and this is now."

I would ask to you consider:

For some – it has nothing to do with an aversion to a pattern based approach. Aversion is not how I would describe it. A better description might be a personal disinterest or indifference.

And my disinterest isn’t based on any reverence I have for learning the way oldtimers learned. However, I do look at those facts as a basis for me having faith in the idea that - I can successfully learn to play old time fiddle the same way they did and succeed. Listening and playing with others is a valid - time tested method. For me – this has nothing to do with a misplaced sense of tradition.

My personal disinterest and indifference has grown out of the difficulty I have had with my attempts at following David’s “down, up, up, down” while leaning a tune and your “1, 3, 1, 2, 2“ as a separate discipline of study - juxtaposed to my “luck” at figuring this out by just listening and watching. If that sounds slanderous – let it be aimed at me and handicap. I know those methods work for some folks, but I haven’t been able to do it. And I understand, based on your personal experience, you probably think I’m needlessly struggling more with my method – even if I don’t realize it. And I know you’re only trying to help.

And I’m telling you - I’m not struggling more, I’m struggling less. And I’m enjoying it a WHOLE lot more. And I am not ashamed of what I have learned, the way I play, or the way I sound. And I have a historical basis for believing – it’s going to work out fine (above).

Yes, there will always be folks better than I am and I will never be another Tommy Jarrell or Bruce Molsky. None of that bothers me.

Doesn’t any of that make sense to you?

And then it flipped around to wondering, well, why am I so open to an approach to Old Time fiddling that arguably the oldtimers DIDN'T USE....
certainly not the terminology and the numerical notation of the length of bow strokes!

I would like to flip it over and ask: Why would anyone want to be closed to an approach to Old Time fiddling that arguably the oldtimers DID USE....?

Perhaps you aren't so opposed, as I once believed you were...

fiddlepogo Says:
Monday, February 23, 2015 @12:59:03 PM

Well, that makes sense....

And actually, I'm not that opposed to using the approach the oldtimers used, if by that you mean "going straight at the music". I just picked up the fiddle the first time and played "Old Dan Tucker" which was already in my head. And I did do directionally free bowing for a while... it let me concentrate on intonation and getting some bow control. So I went "straight at the music".

And pretty soon I could play other melodies, but it sounded pretty plain, and I wasn't satisfied... because in recordings I could hear stuff happening with the bow that I couldn't do. Now actually, very little of what happened to me was methodical at the time. Tommy Jarrell talked about visiting an older fiddler and encouraging him to play... because he wanted to learn stuff. So much of my learning from other fiddlers was kind of like that.

Anyway.... to me it's just that there is a way of fiddling that sounds Old Time, and I think someone trying to fiddle needs to check their progress, and if it's not sounding Old Time, try some supplemental method. And the farther away from fiddling a person grows up, I think the MORE that needs to be done. (I grew up pretty far from it!) And probably sooner than later, to avoid bad bowing habits.
And if someone comes at Old Time from another fiddling genre, I think it's almost an absolute requirement. Classical and Irish players who try to play Old Time already have habits of using the bow that are VERY different, and they need something concrete to latch onto to break them out of those habits.... and of course listen whole lots. Actually even a Bluegrass player who wanted to play Old Time might benefit from studying some patterns- it might give them an alternative to Georgia Shuffle!

Listening and watching is good.... if you have someone to listen to and watch who knows what they are doing.
My annoyance with people who use such a method isn't so much that they are using such a method.... it's their insensitivity to people who really don't have that option very much- in a survey I did a while back, 50% of those responding said they have no local jam to go to, or there are "problems" that keep them from going.

Heh. It's kind of like climbing a mountain. I'm not a mountain climber, but over the years, you read about it.... partly when there's a major disaster and someone gets killed trying it. There's almost always more than one way to climb a mountain. And there's different kinds of climbers.... some very experienced. And some go up the easy way with guides. And some take more challenging ways. And there are fiddling equivalents to that. If someone wants to be adventurous and take a steeper more challenging way... well have at it.... I don't object to it. What I do object to is when they pooh-pooh the more gradual, guided way, and discourage the people who probably are going to have to take that route. And you'll have to trust me on this, but it's happened whole bunches over the years here on the FH. Now, not all the friends on my friends list are pattern downbowers. Steve Downey and fiddledan aren't. But they aren't prone to arguing about it, so it's easy to be friends!
And Steve has told me that the bowing analysis just doesn't work for him, and I respect that. And he does a good job with his approach.
Heh.... there's at least one downbower I don't want to friend because he's so abrasive!
Anyway..... YOU are not my "poster child" for needing a pattern approach... you've never been isolated from fiddling since I've known you, and you have a Southern background that may have exposed you to more fiddling when younger.
But I think you've assumed I'm talking about YOU, thinking about YOU when I talk about bowing, and I'm really NOT.
It's kind of like the recent thread where I said classical players need to LISTEN..... I think chas5 took it personally, and I REALLY WAS NOT talking about him.... but I was generalizing about cases I've seen and heard over the years, usually involving someone with school orchestra violin experience who is trying to fiddle.
Likewise, I can think of people over the years who were really kind of floundering with their attempts at Old Time bowing. And as far as I know, none of them are on the Fiddle Hangout, and I'm not going to name names anyway.
Very seldom do my comments in a bowing thread have anything to do with how the other persons in the thread actually fiddle. That would be a critique, and I'm reluctant to do that, and try to do that ONLY when the other person requests it, as they sometimes do. And I try to be as positive and as encourgaging as possible.

One thing that may not be obvious.... I have this strange ability to recognize trends over time. It's kind of an inductive thing. If something happens once, I don't put much stock in it. When something happens two or three times it gets my attention.... the things that I hear or see over and over again REALLY get my attention, and I'm starting to see a trend. Very often stuff I say is based on trends I see over the years.

For instance, I've noticed that there is this odd trend with Boomer fiddlers, especially from an urban background- there's a tendency to avoid sawstroke! I noticed that back in the 70's, and I still notice it somewhat today.... and it contrasts mightily with what I hear on the field recordings of oldtimers, where I hear a lot of sawstroke.

Can you see how LITTLE that has to do with any ONE person? If it had to do with only one person, I'd be leery of it as a possible fluke.

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