Just thought I would write a short note about this topic. It’s something I get asked about a lot, particularly from those trying to make the shift over from classical music and after teaching at three weeks of music camps this summer, I’ve been reminded of this common issue.
The first thing I like to tell students is that ‘fiddling’ is not really a genre. There are so many different styles of fiddling. Even within Celtic music there are the very specific styles of Scottish, Irish, Cape Breton, etc, and they can be broken down even more. So the first step is to find a style that you are really passionate about. And that means doing a lot of listening. Become familiar with the artists in the genre and get to know their repertoire. Attend sessions to see what the common repertoire is. Sticking to something that you love is always a good way to start out. All of these different fiddle styles have very specific nuances that separate them – bowings, grace notes, etc. Diving into everything at once can be daunting and it may difficult to become a good player of any one style.
The process of learning a style of music needs to be treated like learning a language. The bottom line is that to learn a language with all its idioms and inflections you have to be immersed in it. Learning a fiddle style is no different. And today we have great resources like youtube and itunes when a live experience isn’t possible.
If you are making the switch from classical to a style of fiddling, just know that it can certainly be done. One example I like to talk about is the great Irish fiddler, Liz Knowles. Liz began playing Irish music later in her career and is now one of the most respected fiddlers in Irish music with tours with Riverdance and the String Sisters.
Should I learn how to read music?
As musicians of traditional music, we place a great deal of emphasis on learning music by ear. When you primarily learn by ear, you not only pick up a melody but you also absorb all the other nuances that go along with a style that are difficult to teach. However, reading music is an extremely valuable skill. It’s true that Cape Breton music is mainly transmitted orally. But much of the repertoire has been learned by fiddlers searching through tune books. The majority of Cape Breton fiddlers read music. Tune books have been a valuable and treasured resource for Cape Breton fiddlers ever since they started to become more available around the time of WWII. I love going through tune books not only to find new tunes, but also to find tunes that I frequently hear but don’t play. Yes, learning by ear is important, but reading music is still a valuable asset.
Do I need to learn music theory?
Ultimately, your ear is your best guide through the learning process. You most likely know some theory already – you know what major keys sound like versus minor keys. You just might not know what exactly a ‘key” is or what major and minor really mean. In my personal experience, I had a little theory knowledge growing up, mostly learned from my piano lessons. I studied it more in depth in high school and college. Music theory has helped me understand traditional music in a different way, especially in my piano accompaniment. It helped me understand and be able to explain the sounds I already knew. It is a tool that helps me teach traditional music. Having said that, an in depth knowledge of music theory is not necessary to be a good fiddle player. But it does help to have some basic skills, for example, a knowledge of key signatures and chords. If you are playing with an accompanist, it is helpful to know what key you are playing in and some basic chords to accompany the tunes with. Ultimately, having some theory empowers you to help you learn things on your own. In my teaching I like to focus on these skills to help give students more perspective and understanding about the tunes and music they are playing.
Should I take classical violin lessons?
We all know of many traditional players of various fiddle traditions who are self taught, hold their instrument in all sorts of different ways, yet are virtuosic in their traditions. In Cape Breton, many fiddlers are and have been self taught and play brilliantly. Think of the instrument simply a tool to produce music. But that doesn’t mean you should just think that you should ignore some classical technique. It’s especially valuable if you are having trouble getting good sounds out of your instrument. In these situations, taking classical lessons can definitely help you play more efficiently. Classical training can help improve skills ranging from a good bow hold and string crossing to good intonation.
What are some other concerns you have about learning fiddle music? Please feel free to post about your experience.