As part of my performance degree program at Berklee, I had to take what is called a ‘recital preparation’ class. Over the semester, each student prepares three performances. The first one is a solo performance. For my first performance, I played a jig; a common tune called ‘Irishman’s Heart to the Ladies’. I wasn’t sure what the reaction would be. I was in a class of all jazz players and I was playing a fiddle tune… without any accompaniment that would give the music context. Despite my uncertainty to the reaction, everyone seemed to enjoy the performance and the professor loved that I played with the ‘invisible drummer’.
What did he mean by the invisible drummer?
Because the fiddle is a melodic instrument, we often forget that in addition to playing melodies, fiddlers convey the tunes rhythmically through phrasing and emphasis of certain notes. We might make the mistake of thinking that the accompanying instruments (guitar, piano, bass drums, etc) provide the rhythm, but while an accompanist creates a groove, it is the fiddler that creates the intricate rhythms that propel the tunes along. This is what my professor meant by the invisible drummer. I didn’t need a back up band to convey the rhythm and pulse of the music. The audience felt the rhythm through how I was phrasing the music.
When students begin to learn how to play fiddle music, whether or not they are just learning the violin or coming from a classical music background, they often find it difficult to outline the pulse of a tune. The focus is on just producing the notes. What often happens is that each note has the same emphasis. To try and feel the basic rhythm of a tune type, I often ask a student to switch roles. Instead of taking the role of melody player, I ask them to accompany and lay out the pulse. For example, with a jig (6/8), I ask them to try and comp along, with the goal of outlining the pulse emphasizing the first and fourth beat. This is a good beginning to feel the basic pulse of a specific time signature. Understanding the more intricate phrasing and rhythms of a particular fiddle style is difficult to teach and is most successfully learned through listening.
Next time you listen to a recording, in addition to trying to internalize a melody, take some time to listen to how the tunes are phrased. See if you can hear when the fiddler is slurring as opposed to single stroke bowing. What notes are accented and emphasized? Rhythms and phrasing inherent to a fiddle style are just as important to absorb as the melodies, but this is often the more difficult part of absorbing a style. In addition to a lot of passive listening, try these active listening techniques to unlock your invisible drummer.