The Power of Fiddle-Fiddle Ensemble
Fiddle and fiddle playing together in an ensemble implies a strong tradition in fiddling known as twin fiddling. There are other possibilities, and current fiddle practice as seen on YouTube shows some possibilities that go beyond twin fiddle. Let’s first take a close look at twin fiddling.
Close harmony characterizes the genre, along with parallel bowing. That’s why it’s called twin. The fiddlers, especially when competing in a fiddle contest, try to appear as alike in their performance as possible. In the videos I’ve seen, the paradigm is to play the tune through twice, exactly the same way each time. To be able to do this both fiddlers need to know their parts very well. Whether they worked out the arrangement by themselves or from twin fiddle arrangements in the instruction books is not apparent from the performance.
Fiddle Solo with Fiddle Back Up
Another concept comes from the Dueling Fiddlers, Adam Degraff and Russell Falstad. Their ensemble is no longer together. While they were working together they did a number of concerts, produced an album, and received a fair bit of attention on YouTube. Their background clearly was classical violin. They both played very well, and added enough fiddle licks and grooves so they didn’t sound too stiff.
The parts were seemingly well worked out. If they did any improv, it was not apparent. And maybe I just missed it. Their repertory came more from rock and folk rock than fiddle tradition. I liked what they did. It had very high musical quality.
Enter the Five-String Fiddle-Fiddle
Over the past year I’ve been watching and appreciating the highly musical level of the two fiddle performances of Brittany Haas and Lauren Rioux. They have some very magnetic performances on YouTube. Watching them it seemed as though the non soloist played chord forms on the lower strings, sometimes chopping, mostly playing real notes. Then, they would change roles so seamlessly you almost didn’t catch it.
I had the opportunity for a coaching session with Lauren Rioux last July at the Mike Block String Camp. When I asked her about this back up technique she demonstrated it for me, saying she went for the non-melody notes in the chord. Although, I have to say, she was playing so many of the chord notes, I don’t know how she could leave any out.
Both women use a five string violin, which enhances the sound of the back up violin. The sonic difference between melody and back up avoids a cluttered sound. This approach seems like a new idea in fiddling, relatively new, anyway. I’ve been playing with it myself, whether to the annoyance of my band mates, I don’t know.
When there are two fiddlers in a band, they can do everything I have described so far. They can also play in unison. Old time string bands have that totally under control. In other cases the two fiddlers may take turns playing solos, or even swap two’s or four’s. (I hope you know what that means. I’m not taking the time to explain it right here.)
What these back up choices mean is reflected in the bowing. The chop is percussive, without producing a clear pitch, when done right. The Haas-Rioux formula works from the area near the frog to facilitate string crossings between the C, G, and D strings. My long time go to technique for back up has been to play in the lower third of the bow towards the tip. This enables the sound to lean towards syncopation, smooth and rhythmic grooves while not being obtrusive to the singer.
If I’m playing in a strictly instrumental situation, here I go with the frog, and I don’t mean Pepe. It’s an opportunity to further practice what I learned from Darol Anger and Lauren Rioux.
Music Theory for Fiddle and Fiddle
To pull this off you need to know some music theory. How much? Just enough. Maybe the equivalent of a first year conservatory student. Let’s review the pathway briefly.
1 Know the numbers of the notes of the scale.
2 Know the intervals between notes.
3 Know the notes of the chord, and the numbers of the notes.
After that it’s mostly knowing this stuff faster and deeper. Here’s how it applies. In twin fiddling one fiddler plays the melody. Think of Liberty, for example. It’s as easy a twin tune as you will find in the a part. Then in the B part it gets more challenging. The second part starts a third higher than the note of the melody. The first fiddler plays an F# on the E and the second fiddler plays an A on the E. From there it gets a little more complicated. Just recognize that both the F# and the A are part of the D chord that is the harmonic underpinning to the tune at this point.
In the end, it’s a study, and there’s a learning curve. Anyone can go there who wants to, has the patience to work up the curve and master the skills needed.