Online Fiddle Lesson

Fiddle lesson with MP3's.

by: Geff Crawford

Going out on a limb here with a little experiment. I wondered if trying to learn an old-time fiddle tune online would be possible, desirable, fun, or, okay, a waste of time. Let’s find out. I’ve included links to a fiddle tune, “Liza Jane” played (by me) both slow and up to speed. This particular tune is from Franklin George of West Virginia. First, I’d say listen a couple of times to the tune played up to speed. Imagine yourself maybe at a barn dance, see if the mood of the tune grabs you at all and makes you want to dance. If not, I guess you’ll just have to imagine harder, or anyway do the best you can. The purpose is to give the flavor of the tune and rhythm, so as you begin to play it you’ll know what you’re shooting for. Now, as you begin to try the slow version, if it’s really easy from the start, go for it. I wanted to show the tune without written notation, because the experience of learning a tune aurally is very valuable. The best way is with someone playing it right in front of you and helping you get the notes and the rhythm as you both sit there. We’ll see if this is an acceptable substitute for that. The tune is played like most fiddle tunes with an A part and a B part, with both parts being played twice through. Just to get you started, the A part starts on the open D string and goes up the scale to the fifth note of the D scale, which is an open A string. The B part starts on a G note played with the middle finger on the E string, with a second note, B, played with the index finger on the A string, a double stop, or two notes played together, on two strings. If the double stop throws you at first, just play the G note on the E string for now. If the letters of the notes aren’t familiar to you, don’t stress about it. A lot of old-time players don’t bother to learn the names of the notes they’re playing, and they play fine anyway–same with, say, guitar or banjo players who learn from tablature. You don’t need to know the note names, just listen carefully and try to make the same sound you’re hearing. Okay, now if it’s not really easy from the start, I have a suggestion that I’ve used when trying to learn a tune from a recording that’s played fast, often with a band that can obscure some of what the fiddle is doing. Try learning phrases of the tune starting at the end. What I mean is, go to the end of the A part and listen to the last six notes and see if you can get those memorized and played fairly smoothly, but keeping it slow for the moment. (In this tune, the first of those six notes is a quick little run from the open A string up to the D note on the A string. But you can add that little run later, and just play the D note for now if you want.) I think this works for the same reason that someone being interviewed who gets asked two questions before answering, usually answers the second question first. It’s just natural human memory to remember the most recent thing you heard first. So once you’ve learned the end of the tune, try to catch the phrase right before that, and when you have it, tack on the ending you’ve already learned, and just keep going from there. There’s an elephant in the room: What about the bowing? Well, try single bowing at first, changing bow direction with each note, until you have the notes fairly firm. Unfortunately, after that, the mystery of fiddling rears its head. A tune all single-bowed will not sound like fiddling. By the same token, a tune played by repeatedly putting 5 or 6 notes on a single bow stroke (till you run out of hair) also will not sound like fiddling. More than one note on a bow stroke is called a slur. You have to put in some slurs to make it fiddling. Try finding places where 2 or 3 notes can be slurred, and if it doesn’t sound right, go back to single bowing at that place, and look for other places to slur. As a help, I noticed that in the slow version, I played a lot of single bowed notes, with just a handful of places where I slurred 2 notes, maybe 3. So if you’re listening and wondering how many slurs there are, keep that in mind. You really have to focus and listen hard, but remember, it’s more than half single bowed notes the way I played it. When the slurs come, the tune sounds a little “swingy” for a moment, and that’s what makes it dancy. Try to notice when that happens if you can. Another bit of bad news is that virtually all fiddlers, when they take a tune up to speed, change the bowing some from the way they might do it at a slow, teaching speed. I think I did that too, but hopefully not too much. Also, in subsequent times through the tune, fiddlers will most of the time put the slurs in different places. It’s confusing for the learner, but that’s what makes it fiddling. Well, I hope some people will give this a try, and give me some feedback if you feel like it. I’ll get back to a more normal column next time. Thanks for your patience, and sorry about the almost 1000 words this time.

Liza Jane–fast Liza Jane–slow