Five Crushing Tips for Learning Fiddle
The Talent Code, by Daniel Coyle, was published in 2009 and became a New York Times best seller. I remember reading it and talking it up with my students and colleagues as tips to learn fiddle. It revealed the concept of deep practice. And related that deep practice to “hotbeds” of talent development.
The book revealed how myelin wraps around the conduits from nerve cells in the brain as they develop. As more myelin encases the nerve pathways the neuron fires more often and more strongly. The brain works better.
This relates to learning sports and music very clearly. Places where students could learn quickly, powerfully, effectively were the hotbeds of talent. The book explained how all this worked, the various points of convergence between student, teacher, practice method and setting.
Then, a few years later Daniel Coyle published The Little Book of Talent, 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills. It was the most influential book I put on my Kindle in 2012. I read it twice. Chose certain tips to share with my students.
After a few years I decided to get the physical book, the hard bound copy. Having this real book rekindled (heh-heh) my interest in what it had to say. I saw how little of it I had implemented in my teaching, or in practicing the fiddle. My particular interest this time is how it will speed up learning the skills I need to be a successful blogger.
To move ahead on this project, I’m sharing with you in this post…
Five Great Learning Tips from The Little Book of Talent
These are not the top five. Your top five could be different from my top five anyway. They’re just five really great ideas worth looking at and asking if they are usable for what you are learning, especially if it’s fiddle.
1. Stare at who you want to become. That’s the first tip in the book, too. I confess here that I have lately been staring at pickleball videos. I want to learn pickleball and this is how I am starting.
Also, I have been asking my students to watch closely while I play the tune they are working on. I should have begun this years ago when I read the book the first time. Without laying undue stress on the process, I’m inviting them to use the first tip of “stare at who you want to become.”
2. Steal from the best, and steal without apology. This rule is especially good for hot licks. An example of this is a new tune I learned, Road to Columbus, a Bill Monroe tune. One of my students asked for it, being influenced by Kimber Ludicker, fiddler in Della Mae.
My first foray into research went to Kenny Baker on YouTube. Then I accessed Mel Bay’s Bill Monroe Instrumentals.In preparing it I put the B part down an octave because she is not yet shifting to 3rd position.
Soon I noticed Jenni Lyn Gardner, the mandolin player in Della Mae, also played the B part in this range. Next I watched Michael Cleveland of the Torchbearers crush the tune. On his second ride he does a dynamite move I immediately resolved to copy. I’m playing it that way now with the Crystal Beach String Band, just adding a slight tweak.
This is how you do it. First copy, Then tweak. Some call it the Folk Process.
A Critical Distinction in Skills
Know whether you are learning a hard skill or a soft skill. This distinction is pure genius. It is so right on intuitively. Here it is:
Hard skill is one that is done the same way each time. For example in the first lesson with a complete beginner I soon demonstrate playing four bows on each string and ask them to do the same. I don’t know if I’ve had more than one student get this the first time they tried, simple as it is. When you master this skill you do it the same way each time.
As the student continues there are many hard skills we stop at and focus on. Playing fiddle is a complex skill, a soft skill, ultimately, made up of many simple hard skills.
When I ask the student to make up a different way of playing a certain part of the tune, that’s a soft skill. It’s edging into improv without lighting up a neon sign. The student could pick higher notes one time and lower notes another. Choosing to do one or the other on the fly is an advanced soft skill.
Daniel Coyle compares the hard skill to the work of a carpenter. The soft skill is compared to the play of a skateboarder. I know enough about carpentry to know that you want to hammer the nail in straight every time. I don’t know skateboarding. But improvised playing, as I’m acquainted with it, is playful and not the same every time.
Who Should You Choose for Coaching?
4. Pick a high quality coach. Daniel Coyle gives five criteria for choosing a coach. His last one I’m putting first for an obvious reason. Pick the old guy. (Heh-heh) You don’t learn how to teach well overnight. It takes time and attention to what you are doing. Research can help, too. If everything about two teachers is the same, go with the older of the two. (That would be me.)
Here are other qualities to look for.
- Find a teacher who is good at fundamentals and will come back to them when needed.
- Get someone who gives short, to-the-point direction, not long winded speeches.
- Avoid the coach who makes you feel happy and secure, who says, “Oh keep going, we’ll handle that later.” No. Instead…
- Seek the help of someone who scares you a little. This teacher or coach will observe you closely. They will be action oriented, to get you where you are doing something. They will be blunt about your mistakes and places you need improvement.
5. When practicing by yourself find the sweet spot. It lives between the comfort zone and desperate struggle to survive. Barely surviving means you are pushing yourself past the point of getting 50% right. The comfort zone is where you find some ease and can play the tune with few or no mistakes. The sweet spot is where your success is between 50 and 80%.
In practice, speed is not the only factor. Number of out-of-tune notes can be considered. Good quality of sound that doesn’t drop away and get weak, or keeping a strong sound all the way through the tune, is another dimension to listen for. Coordinating the change of the bow with the change of the finger on the fingerboard is a skill to develop.
These five tips leave 47 more on the table. You can get the book at the usual places. There’s a lot more great stuff just waiting for you.
For your convenience, one more picture of the book as it is offered on Amazon:
(Usual affiliate disclaimer.)