More Thoughts on Learning by Ear

by adminKFS on · 3 comments

Playing by ear is not just about replicating a phrase. It’s also about memorizing a melody which is half of the battle. That is why many students find it difficult to learn by ear at a workshop. You are hearing a tune for the first time. Think about when a new song comes on the radio. Initially, you don’t have all the words. But as you hear it more and more, you start singing the entire tune without even realizing that you’ve learned it. The same thing works for learning by ear on an instrument. Having the tune in your head for a while is a much easier way to learn.

In my workshops, I usually have my classes sing the tunes before we play them. Singing through the whole tune, as opposed to learning a small section at a time tends to help commit it to memory faster because you have the context of the whole tune. This is helpful when you do learn smaller sections becasue you will know where you are in the tune.

It’s interesting to think how our perception of a tune changes each time we listen to it. I was just teaching at a workshop this past weekend and something very interesting happend. As we were singing through the tune, I heard a few people singing the tune differently then what it was. What they were singing sounded like a variation. Their perception of that phrase was different than the actual melody. And of course when we played it through, they played it the way they sang it. So singing the tune and getting it into our heads is sometimes more difficult than it seems. So after you’ve had a tune in your head for a while, listen to yourself very closely against the melody when you sing it to see if you are hearing something differently. If you hear something different, then fix it in your voice first. Then you will most likely get it right when you play it on your instrument.

Also, when you make more time to listen this way- without your instrument-you allow yourself to listen to more things about the music itself; phrasing and articultion, grace notes, etc- because you aren’t concentrating so hard on getting the notes right.
So the next time you feel pressed for time to practice, try listening on the go. It’s just as valueable practice time.

Thoughts on the ‘Up-Driven’ Bow in Cape Breton Fiddling

by adminKFS on · 3 comments

The up-driven bow is a term that is thrown around quite a bit in Scottish and Cape Breton fiddling. If you have read anything about Scottish fiddling, you’ll most certainly come across references to the powerful up-bow of Neil Gow. According to James Hunter (The Fiddle Music of Scotland), it was his favorite bow stroke.

The up-driven bow as described in older Scottish collections is a type of bowing mostly found in strathspeys that looks like this:

Excerpt from ‘The Braes of Mar’

The first note is on a down stroke and the last three are on an up stroke. Of the three notes that are in the up bow, the second is pulsed, meaning that extra pressure is applied and it is accented. The third note is detatched. In Cape Breton, this bowing is used most commonly in melodic phrases where the first two notes of the up stroke are the same note.

Even though the up-driven is a commonly talked about feature of the Cape Breton style, I don’t hear it much in this form. I do remember Sandy MacIntyre teaching this as an ‘old style bowing’ when I was student at the Gaelic College. However, there are common bowing patterns in the style that use strong up bows. One of the more common of these bowings is one that I refer to as a ‘shuffle bow’ like pattern that is very common in reels:

Excerpt from ‘Hamish the Carpenter’


Excerpt from ‘West Mabou’

In these examples, the upstroke occurs on either beat 1 or beat 3 which is are the strong beats in the measure, or the pulse. The  up-bowed slur in the first example and the up-bowed quarter notes and slur in the second example are very emphazied by using a lot of bow and some extra pressure. The upstroke is especially powerful and makes the melody sound very lifted and lively. A lot of the time, Cape Breton fiddlers are on a down stroke for a pulse. Having the pulse on this upstroke creates a varied and very powerful phrasing.

Even though it seems that technically the term up-drivin bow refers to the strathspey bowing in the first example, this latter bowing and others that have a strong up bow on a pulse is what I like to think of as an up-drivin bow in the Cape Breton style.