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The Secret is out . . .

Posted by bj on Monday, September 1, 2008

I got back from the Lake Genero Fiddlin' Bear Old Time Gathering late last night, after spending two full (and I mean FULL) days there.

I hope to have a few photos posted within a few days.

I did a lot more noodling around than playing, since there was no hope that I was going to keep up with these old time jammers at this point in my fiddling experience, since nothing was slowed down, but WOW, it was incredible. And I WILL PARTICIPATE a whole lot more at next year's event. Since I now know The Secret.

There were three things of major significance to me that happened at this event.

First, I got to meet FHO's Terri Lukacko, aka FiddleJammer, who was my campsite neighbor and Lake Genero Tour Guide, as well as my general hangout buddy for most of my time there. Terri is warm, funny, wise, and a helluva fiddler. I'm so happy I got to know her face to face, and I look forward to meeting up with her for future fiddle adventures.

Second, I had fun learning to clog. Who woulda thunk? And those ancient tap dancing lessons I took as a kid allowed me to add percussion to the jams pretty easily. I'll be doing more of that, it's great exercise, as well as a new "instrument" to add to my repertoire. And maybe, someday in the far, far future, I'll be able to clog and fiddle at the same time. Maybe even clog and fiddle and SING at the same time. Though a certain doctor from Philly, my clogging teacher and an amazingly agile and fun fiddler, will probably beat me out by doing all that while pregnant, which she hopes to be by next year's Lake Genaro festival. I truly hope she achieves all her goals.

Third, and most significant! Terri clued me in on The Secret. I found out why I was having a hard time really nailing the oldtime sound. On this forum there's talk of cross tuning, but geez, no one has ever spit out that it's the KEY (pun totally intended) to the whole dang thing. If you're playing any of the songs that are in the key of D, then you're tuned ADAE. If you're playing in A, you're tuned AEAE.And every jam circle tunes to the same crosstuning and stays with songs in that key for the duration of the jam. Those were the two keys that were played in all the jam circles I happened to participate in, and that I recorded. I listened at some others, but that's going to be enough of a start for me in my learning curve, since I now have to basically reconstruct what I've been doing to accomodate this newfound knowledge, starting with songs in the key of D.

Steve had talked briefly about it back a few lessons ago, and mentioned it as the way certain sounds were achieved. He pointed out how in some songs the tune is played high then an octave lower, or a bassnote is added into a tune in a certain way, and that was usually done in one of the crosstunings, and said that's how the sound is achieved, but it didn't sink in when he said it in an offhand manner, the way it did seeing it in action in the jam circles. I suspect he also pushed me toward songs in the key of D as the place to start because it's closest to standard tuning (with only the G string changed) and there would be fewest adjustments to the songs I've learned in standard tuning.

Part of the reason this whole cross tuning thing works is that it does allow even a beginner fiddler like me to noodle around within the tune and at least have the "wrong" notes be in the right key! The other part of the reason this works is because of the sympathetic notes thing. Even strings that aren't being played will ring a bit in the right key during a song. It creates a level underneath the one that is obvious to the ear. I could feel this underlevel in my chest and in my heart when some of the bigger and more experienced jam circles, some with five or more stellar fiddlers, really got cooking.

I've never seen and heard so many fiddlers in one place! The one thing I was a bit disappointed in was that I didn't meet anyone local to me, despite the event being only 60 miles away. The folks I met who are closest are approximately an hour's drive away. All the people I met were not only very friendly and encouraging, they were also very humble about their skills. This was most evident when they'd query me about whether I wanted to lead a song, and I'd admit that I was an aspiring fiddler, and not quite ready to take up that torch. The invariable response, even from the most incredible fiddlers there, was "We're all aspiring fiddlers."

16 comments on “The Secret is out . . .”

OTJunky Says:
Monday, September 1, 2008 @2:56:05 PM

"We're all aspiring fiddlers."

Ain't it the truth....

Glad you had a great time.


fiddlepogo Says:
Monday, September 1, 2008 @6:43:40 PM

"The Secret"???

I dunno...

I think all the stuff I've posted here has been in standard GDAE,
except the Tommy Jarrell tune medley I posted a few days ago,
and people generally say I sound Old Time.

GDAE has the advantage that's it's so utterly versatile.
Also, any tune that has a lot of chord changes is more likely
to sound better since you can really accent the chord changes easily.
I only use a cross tuning when I feel it's essential to the feeling of a tune.
If a tune seems to stay in one chord, with only short blips into another chord,
especially the V chord, then I consider it a likely candidate for cross tuning.
Generally tunes with a lot of IV chords changes lose something when played cross tuned.

That being said,
I went through a cross tuning phase about 1 or 2 years into playing the fiddle where nearly everything WAS tuned "cross". It IS a plus for beginning to intermediate fiddlers, since it can make a simple tune sound richer.

Another thing is your local area... I admit, in your area, cross tuning is
probably the deal. The Appalachians are so close, and cross tuning is so common there, and since the banjo players have to retune, you can just retune when they do.
For example Matt Brown has a great album "Lone Prairie". First Old Time CD I bought three years ago (everything else was in the LP/cassette era!)!
Great album! He gives the tunings for almost everything, and nearly everything is cross tuned!
BTW, Matt Brown also has a teaching CD where he slows everything down,
and that might be a great resource for you.
I suggest, since you have two fiddles (or is it 3?)
that you keep one tuned standard, and use it for playing in G and C,
and maybe even D.
Keep the other one cross tuned either ADAE or AEAE.
I think you'll like the tone on the low strings better if the low strings
are light gauge.

It seems that in the Ozarks, cross tuning is just an occasional thing,
and out west here it doesn't get done too often.

bj Says:
Monday, September 1, 2008 @7:06:43 PM

Oh geez, is this another holy war thing with the fiddle? Cross tuning? There seem to be an awful lot of those. Bowing. Type of rosin. Type of strings. Now this.

Well, I've been playing with crosstuning on and off all day with the D tunes in ADAE, and it makes a lot of things a lot easier with the D tunes I already know, especially in adding that bass accent note where I want it in an 8th or 16th note without having to fling my lefthand finger(s) around to catch it. And you're right, crosstuning does make the sound richer. I noticed with my Stockdale fiddle (the one I took up there) that when it was cross tuned I could feel a whole lotta vibration going on! That's already a really resonant fiddle, and cross tuning made it even more noticeable, which I suspect was the difference the sympathetic vibration was making. I could also tell much quicker when I was slightly off the note since it didn't vibrate against my chin as much. For that reason alone I'm going to be using it a LOT! Being able to instantly have a buzz against your chin condition you to the right intonation? Geez, a nobrainer for sure!

For the record, and I could be wrong, but it seems Terri did just a tiny bit of steering in starting the action at the jam circles we were in so I'd get more acquanted with the whole idea of cross tuning. Maybe. Either that or she just really likes D and A, since it seems we were always tuned either ADAE or AEAE.

Thanks for the Matt Brown steer.

To OTJ-- Thanks! Yes, I did have a fine time!

FiddleJammer Says:
Monday, September 1, 2008 @11:13:12 PM

Thanks for your kind words, BJ. It was a fun weekend. Nah, I didn't steer anything. There was a jam in G under the easy-up on Saturday during the day. I played a few tunes late Sunday night in ADAD. Haven't done much of that. We played lots of A tunes using AEAE. Monday morning, though, the 'farewell jammers' did some in AEAC#. The decision gets made by consensus of whoever's jamming.

I feel the need to repeat that I think it's good practice to return a fiddle to an approximate standard tuning when the jam is over. I think that's healthier for the fiddle and strings.

If one is considering a broad spectrum of techniques for a well rounded fiddle education, well then, yes, a tiny niche of cross tuning afficianados might seem to be a speck. But, for those of us who love the experience of OT jamming, cross tuning is the mainstay of our sound and enjoyment. I'm a bit evangelical, but I'd recommend that everyone give it try. I'm too old to be working on perfection, and I might get around to western styles if I live long enough. For my money, I'd rather hear the fiddle ring in a particular chosen cross tuned key for a goodly long session.

bj Says:
Tuesday, September 2, 2008 @5:32:53 AM

The Saturday afternoon jam in G was one I didn't play in. I was so hypnotized just watching your friend's elegant downbowing (too many names to remember and hers escapes me!) and watching the dynamics involved in how the jam circles work. There was so much to take in! Not to mention experiencing that fabulous music . . . truth is that for that jam I didn't even pay attention to what the tuning was, I had way too many other things I was trying to get a grasp on! And I think at that point the whole crosstuning thing and the importance of it within this particular jam was just starting to sink in.

Re the "tiny niche of cross tuning afficianados". That was a pretty huge tiny niche, if you ask me. :-)

FiddleJammer Says:
Tuesday, September 2, 2008 @5:39:04 AM

I think of G as a type of cross tuning, actually. The low drones are all built in even without changing any of the string out of standard tuning. That's one of the reasons why that session rang so.

bj Says:
Tuesday, September 2, 2008 @5:45:26 AM

Yes, that session did ring. Maybe it's because I didn't even try to noodle along to that one, and could really LISTEN without distractions, but even though they were all memorable, that one jam seemed to have a certain magic or mojo that was kicking in, at least to my virgin ears.

DougD Says:
Tuesday, September 2, 2008 @8:14:05 AM

bj - I think the points you made in your blog are correct. I think crosstuning for the key of D is probably the least common, although I could be wrong.

The comments fiddlepogo made also make sense, at least to me. There is a kind of jam "trance" music with lots of rhythm and few chord changes that works well crosstuned, and can be a lot of fun. Tunes with more chords or key changes are not so good.

Terri - I think the crosstuned jam session might be a fairly recent phenomenon (I "blame" Clifftop for it actually :) ). Seems like when I was traveling around in the 70's we would have parties and jams and people seldom tuned out of standard, except maybe for "Black Mtn. Rag" or something. There was usually a wide range of tunes though, and lots of singing, which you don't hear so much now in jam sessions it seems. I agree with you about the key of G too. I love it.

And bj - I don't think there are "holy wars" about the fiddle, or at least there shouldn't be. There are just lots of ways of doing things. Some things I see advocated on this board seem very odd to me, but if people want to scratch their rosin or shampoo their bows thats their own business. I'm not sure I'd repeat it on as gospel though, even with a small "G." Crosstuning, though, has a long and honorable history, and not just in southern OT music. Its all good (I hope).

bj Says:
Tuesday, September 2, 2008 @8:33:21 AM

DougD, crosstuning for D was the norm at this particular gathering, which was pretty sizable, though not of Clifftop proportion, from what I understand, not having been to Clifftop yet. So maybe a regional thing? Jam was outside of Scranton PA off I-84 and pulled from a pretty big region. I met fiddlers from PA, NJ, NY, Connecticut, Mass, RI, NC, VA, MD, and some other places further yet.

robinja Says:
Tuesday, September 2, 2008 @9:10:24 AM

Hey, BJ! Glad you had a musical weekend! I did, too, which I may post a blog about at some point this week. I posted to your cross-tuning post on the forum, so I won't repeat that here. But I did want to put in a good word for the key of G. It is absolutely my favorite key. I think that G tunes have more variety, and I love that most of them are played on all four strings, so you get the lows and the highs and lots of string crossings. The only problem with G is that there seems to be less common ground between fiddlers on which G tunes they know, but, depending on the group, this can be a good thing, too, if folks are willing to try new tunes.

DougD Says:
Tuesday, September 2, 2008 @9:25:58 AM

bj - Like I said I'm not sure, but I just dont' think crosstuning for D is done as much as for A, maybe because you already have a D string for a drone in standard. I don't know about it being regional, and that whole idea seems very blurry to me these days. Despite the fact that you were in Scranton, I doubt many people were actually playing the style of music traditional to your area. I grew up in New England, and lived for a number of years in western New York, and I think most fiddlers in the Northeast stayed in standard tuning, and played a quite different style and repertoire than what was probably at that festival. There are "modern" old time players playing these tunes all over the place now, and whether the techniques used are different in the Northeast than down here (East Tennessee, which is the general area where a lot of these tunes come from) is hard to say and probably doesn't really matter. We have the same jams, etc., and its all several generations removed from actual tradition, although its probably still easier to find old timers who play down here.
I quoted Emmett Lundy in your thread on the forum just to show that this was not a universal practice, even here. On the other hand Joe Birchfield played in standard, GDGD, and GCGD (like ADAE). Its really a personal choice, and if you like it, go for it!
Also, this kind of jamming is very popular these days, but to me these tunes and style are only a small part of what I consider to be "old time" music. Its good there's something (or several things) there for everyone.

bj Says:
Tuesday, September 2, 2008 @10:30:54 AM

I've gotta go back over the Jehile stuff with my newly tuned ear. I think he was using cross tunings for some stuff, and if so, that puts cross tuning in the Pocono region fairly early on, since his sources were his grandfather and uncle.

And you're right, I do like what I heard. A lot. I've started to get a handle on standard tuning and feel okay playing in it, but I couldn't achieve the same depth of sound using it. And I know a lot of the songs I was playing in standard I had changed the key on to play it in that tuning more easily, and I imagine if I go back and analyse the original I learned it from, it was probably from a cross tuned source.

Maybe if I had started playing when I was a kid or at least a lot younger than I am I'd feel differently. But this seems to have the potential to give me a better result quicker, and allow me to participate in something that's great fun.

Re the popularity of the jamming, there's a reason for it, whether it's true to the oldtime originals or not. The energy and the feelings created were very fine indeed, and the lack of ego and lack of competition in the jam circles made it a very welcoming place for this beginner.

fiddlepogo Says:
Tuesday, September 2, 2008 @11:27:10 AM

In any case, for someone who sounded so jazz oriented when you started,
you seem to have caught the Old Time bug in a BIG way!

ADAE is definitely optional on some tunes,
but on anything in D that doesn't have a lot of changes, and the changes it does have are V chord changes, it livens up the tune.
I've always played Sullivan's Hollow in D, and really like the way it sounds in ADAE- even though I know some play it in C!
Surprisingly, I also like GDAE on some A tunes like "Texas" that NEED
a D drone note in a place or two but don't need a G at all and need some extra resonance.
However, for Round Peak D tunes, it seems ADAE is the rule, not the exception.
Also Matt Brown surprised me by how little he used GDAE on his Lone Prairie album, and on that album at least, his playing is very Appalachian.
He even uses ADAE for Arkansas Traveller, which I have a hard time playing in that tuning.
And he's not doing it as a crutch at all, since he started out as a Suzuki player when he was little. He's using cross tuning as a stylistic preference.

janepaints Says:
Tuesday, September 2, 2008 @11:44:37 AM

Uh oh. Wait 'til ya get to Clifftop. :) Glad ya learned 'The Secret.'

fiddlepogo Says:
Tuesday, September 2, 2008 @11:48:03 AM

Holy Wars?

Only if someone is so inclined. I'm not, especially since I straddle
the fence on this issue.

I think downbowers catch more flak because to be a downbower,
you usually have to THINK at least a little about what you're doing with your bow. And quite a few people in Old Time seem very averse to doing that.
Some probably CAN'T make their mind think about that, since they try.
Others I think, work hard doing left brained analysis for a living,
and thinking about their bowing is too much like what they do at work for them- (busman's holiday) they just wanna relax and have fun.

Also, once you figure out downbowing, it seems like the best thing since sliced bread, and we downbowers tend to be perhaps excessively enthusiastic about it... which doesn't go over big among the other camps.

Cross tuning is somehow more out in the open- you do or you don't,
nothing all that mysterious about it, and if you do it, it's not hard to figure out.
So it's not as threatening.
Rosin choice is similar- you like it, or you don't, end of story.

Now string choice- that's different, because if you are use to one type,
and switch to another, you can sound like a total incompetent all of a sudden-
and it's hard not to passionately hate a string type that does that to you!
(Synthetics- grumble, grumble, grouse, gripe, groan!!! :-P ;^)

bj Says:
Tuesday, September 2, 2008 @5:13:40 PM

fiddlepogo, you're gonna laugh at this, but truth is most of the people whose bowing I analysed at this jam were more or less consistent downbowers, but nobody knew what I was talking about when I used the term! I think it just comes naturally to some folk OR they arrive at it because it makes sense without having been taught it or knowing what it is. I think I may have ended up being a downbower even if Steve wasn't my teacher. It just would have taken me a lot longer to get there.

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