Expressive Ballad Fiddling

Fiddling a Ballad with Expression and Emotion
John Cockman, bluegrass, fiddling the Ballad of Serenity in a lesson

When you are fiddling  a ballad you want a singing tone with lots of expression and emotion. Think of a few of the ballads you have heard, Faded Love, Maiden’s Prayer, Good Woman’s Love. These are all sentimental songs that fiddlers play, putting in as much sentiment as they can.

These ballads are the American equivalent of Irish aires, the slow pieces that Irish fiddlers play. Maybe some of them once were songs, but not always. There is a strong tradition in Ireland of composing slow pieces to be played and listened to. We could cultivate that here, too, don’t you think?

Most of the expression will come from the left hand, or the fingering hand if you play left handed. Some will come from an artful use of the bow. Let’s take the bow first.

The Bow in Ballad Fiddling

There is a concept in violin playing called legato. That means the bowing is very smooth and the change of bow is deemphasized as much as it can be. That would also work as a basic bowing approach to ballads.

Added to your legato bowing, you have the increase and decrease in sound volume as you go along. This is also done for expression, just as a singer would sometimes sing louder, and sometimes softer in the same song. In music speak this is dynamic level.

When you play any ballad for the first time the changes of dynamic level may not be obvious. It could take several play throughs before you start getting to where you want to be on the loud-soft polarity.

Expressive Use of Vibrato in Ballads

Now we bring in the fingering hand and all it can do. There is an expressive qualitiy that requires very close coordination with the bow. We’ll get to that. First we have to get with our vibrato and make decisions about slides. And about blues notes, if any.

If you are not all over your vibrato at this point, maybe you can get into this. You may have heard that there are two kinds of vibrato, the arm vibrato and the wrist vibrato. I use my arm to move my hand back and forth over the finger tip to get the vibrato going. I used to be down on the wrist vibrato, but now I’ve heard so many good players use it to good effect, I’m also a believer.

Regarding the wrist vibrato there is a neat trick to get it started. You move your hand up the neck of the fiddle until your palm touches the body of the instrument. Now you rock your hand back and forth using the edge of the violin as the pivot point. After doing that, try the same motion with your finger on the string. Now do the whole business while pulling the bow across the string. Do you hear a vibrato sound?

The arm vibrato defies any quick and easy explanation, though I have had students who pick it up effectively in the first five minutes it’s taught. Not many. 

For this move try it first with the violin out of the way. You have your arm up with the elbow bent, as if in the position to play. Now you vigorously move your forearm back and forth from the elbow, like a gate swinging from the hinge quickly back and forth.

If that worked out, pick up the violin, put your first finger on a string and try using the same muscles, we’re talking bicep and tricep, to move the arm rocking over the finger which remains in place. Successful? Good. Now do it again while moving the bow over the string.

The first challenge is to avoid moving the bow at the same pace as the forearm rocking back and forth. This is patting your head and rubbing your tummy time.

If you find this difficult, go to YouTube and watch Mark O’Connor or Itzak Perlman. They make it look easy. Just copy them.

Choosing Vibrato or Slides

If you are good at using vibrato, you will not need many slides. Usually we choose one or the other. A big gloopy slide or an intense vibrato. Not both, usually.

Speaking of slides, there is a move I do in Faded Love where I slide up to a note and back down in the

Patsy Cline's Faded Love album available at
Patsy Cline’s Faded Love album available at

same bow stroke. You might hear it as a moan. Very bluesy. This is a case of coordinating the bow to increase in volume and back off in the same stroke while youare moving your finger up and down. That’s what gives it the moan.

And further, on the bluesy note question. This will be a matter of taste. You can certainly play a ballad with no bluesy notes. You have my permission and that of almost all listeners. The bluesy note, if present, should be well chosen to create an expressive effect, without disturbing the singing quality of sound you are getting from your legato bowing. Your unique style of ballad fiddling can include bluesy notes. It’s a matter of what you want to hear coming from your fiddle.

Improvisation can also be held to a minimum in a ballad. It’s all about the song, isn’t it? If you are a fiddler and you are going to showcase a ballad, you want it to be completely recognizable.

A good example is Miles Davis playing My Ship, in a live in Japan concert on YouTube. He plays his trumpet through the song in a very sensitive and expressive way. One time and done.

A good example of liberal use of improv in a ballad is in the great trumpet classic, I Can’t Get Started with You, featuring Bunny Berrigan. It’s my favorite ballad on trumpet.

Ballads with Rubato

After vibrato there is one more Italian word to associate with ballads, rubato. This term relates to altering the timing of the notes radically. You extend the time of one or more so much that you have to go through the following notes quicker to maintain the beat. Rubato means stolen. You stole time, but you have to pay it back.

This doesn’t work for fast tunes. You may hit an important note before the beat and hold it until it’s time for the following notes, what i call the power stroke.  There is no feeling of expansion of timing, like there is in ballads that are played with rubato. Rather, there is a feeling of pushing ahead, even though there is no accelleration in speed.

The best example I can think of for rubato in ballads is Frank Sinatra. His signature style involved holding back the notes after the beat they normally appear on. And he made it sound effortless and natural.

Backing up Ballads on the Fiddle

Ballad fiddling as back up to a singer can be simple. In old time folk style the back up technique was playing the melody softly while the singer had the spot light. When it was the fiddlers turn, if any, then an increase in volume and expression made up the solo, not heavy improv.

Current practice for backing up ballads allows for more improvisation in the break, but not for the whole time of the melody. When backing up the singer, the best practice is to keep the bow moving in a quiet regular rhythm on chord tones. I think of how the classical composers had the 2nd violin playing a back up harmony while the 1st violin held the melody. Changing the bow on the off beat, and keeping it unaccented as Mozart and Haydn did is a good plan.

If you work out a good counter melody, or a good harmony part, you can be more forward, but try not to outshine the singer. You won’t be popular. Ultimately it’s how the band does things that determine what will fly and what won’t.

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