Fiddle and Violin Practice Techniques
At the first of the year we often make resolutions. Some of us even set goals and write them down. I’ve done that for years. If you have a goal of achieving a definite objective with your fiddling, then I support that wholeheartedly. You can also make a resolution anytime. If you are motivated to change what you do, then get started.
Here are some practice tips to help you attain any fiddling goal you have set for yourself.
Learning New Fiddle Tunes
Learning new repertory raises your fiddling ability. It makes you learn new combinations of notes. It will take focused effort. And it stretches your comfort zone.
Be sure you know what the tune sounds like. If you can “kind of” sing along or hum along with a recording, that’s a good start.
With any chart, whether standard music notation or fiddle tab, there is a first time you go through it. In music notation it’s called sight reading. It’s a skill that can be learned with practice. In the fiddle world, it is not a crucial skill. The point of having a chart is simply to help you get started easily. Visual learners pick up a tune most quickly with a chart.
When I go through a tune the first time, sight reading a chart, I might miss a rhythmic figure, or a note here or there. Then, the second time through I’ll slow down on the tough part and figure it out.
Beware the Trap
Once you’ve played through the new chart a few times, you know where the traps and difficult spots are. A trap is a place in the music where you were surprised by the choice of notes. You expected something else, based on what you were playing, but got blind-sided by the actual notes.
You can lock down a trap by a practice tip I call “the slow down technique.” What you should not do is what most learners do until they get some coaching. They play along at a normal speed, hit the trap, and, oops! Back up and play it correctly, then keep going. This is a good way to train your brain to fall into the trap.
Train Your Brain for Success
Better is: simply slow the tempo as you get to the tricky part and play it accurately. Speed up to normal after you get past it. Repeat as needed. This way you are putting the trappy part into context. You are letting your brain connect the dots.
The other way–oops! and fix it–will work eventually. But it’s so inefficient. Instead, allow your brain the chance to learn a new pattern of notes. They’re not so difficult. They just go together funny. Slowing down enables you to play the part accurately. This is just crucial.
Fixing Difficult Spots
Truly difficult spots require you to do something with your left hand, or bow, or both, that is definitely awkward.
You need to focus like a laser on exactly what is the difficulty. For example,“Let’s see…I have to hold my 2nd finger down while I reach with my 3rd finger to the next string, while slurring on the down bow, then….”
Be very aware of exactly what problem the awkwardness creates. Some spots require several tough moves, one right after the other.
One may require three or more seconds at first. Repetition builds speed naturally. You are creating and strengthening pathways in your brain. Your goal should be, not so much getting faster, as getting easier and smoother.
Remember this universal musician’s rule. You are allowed to mark your part with a pencil. Sometimes I’ll just draw a small wavy line above a trap or a difficult spot. It helps me to focus in my practice.
The Rule of Three
When you have isolated the most troublesome spots, play each of them correctly three times in a row. This is the most basic practice technique of all, the Gold Standard of music practice. Make it your default habit and see your ability move ahead.
There is a similar technique for warming up. When you take the fiddle out of the case, play a tune through slowly and carefully one time. Then go through it a second time just a little faster. Finally, on the third time play as fast as you easily can.
After spending some time with these techniques, you are ready for honest self-evaluation. Play through your new tune at a slow enough speed that you can play all the hard parts accurately.
In other words, play a steady tempo that allows you to play with zero errors. If you have a metronome, take note of the exact speed. Write that down on your chart as a benchmark.
In a few more days, when you have been progressing, make the same evaluation again. Be pleasantly surprised at the increase in speed with accuracy.
This builds self-esteem and the habit of constantly getting better as a fiddler. If you are advanced enough, use your metronome to pace yourself. Play to the “tock–tock.” This is not easy. It’s another learned skill. If you saw “The Red Violin” you witnessed the drill. But, it did get a little over-the-top with speed!
Build Speed with Rhythms
In tunes that have running sixteenths–notes that keep changing four to a beat–use four distinct rhythms to get on top of the notes.
Blackberry Blossom is a good example ot this kind of tune. Billy in the Low Ground, Arkansas Traveler, Leather Britches, Fire on the Mountain…the list goes on.
The first rhythm is swing rhythm. Think of Harvest Home Hornpipe as an example. You typically hear it with a swing feel. (Hornpipes originally all had this rhythm.) But Blackberry Blossom has a straight rhythm–or straight eighths, as jazz cats say. Play it with a distinct swing rhythm.
The second rhythm is like the Scottish strathspey. Each pair of two notes is played quickly on the first note and longer on the second. This is just the opposite of swing rhythm.
The next two rhythms involve grouping four notes as one beat and a triplet beat. Tum, ta-da-da would be a beat followed by a triplet beat. Ta-da-da, tum is the triplet beat followed by the single note beat.
That’s about as clearly as this can be explained. The concept benefits greatly by demonstration.