Incorporating Grace Notes into Your Fiddling

by adminKFS on · 5 comments

How do I get over the hump of incorporating grace notes into my music?

This is an interesting subject for me to approach as a teacher of traditional music. As a child learning the fiddle in Cape Breton, I don’t remember learning style specifics like bowings or grace notes. I have a few memories of certain instructors like Sandy MacIntyre and Stan Chapman at the Gaelic College in St Ann’s, Cape Breton addressing these issues, but other than that, I learned these stylistic nuances by listening to the music as my second language. Listening – actively, and passively – is the only way that you will gain an inherent understanding of what grace notes are common to a style and get a sense of where to put them. I often get asked “how do you know which grace note to put where?”

This is a difficult question to answer. Grace notes are used to add accent and emphasis to certain notes. Speaking for the Cape Breton style, there is a common pool of grace notes and types of drones and bowings that each fiddler draws from and incorporates in their own way. No fiddler graces a tune the same way, but after you listen to many players in this style, you’ll notice that there are common sounds. When you do a lot of listening- a combination of transcribing and just listening for pleasure- you’ll gain a sense of these common sounds and an inherent understanding of how to use them. In my lessons, my goal is to not only teach the technique of common grace notes within the Cape Breton style, but to make students aware of the sounds so that they can better pick them out themselves when they are listening.

Incorporating grace notes into your playing can make it sound more stylistic. But often times when students try to put in grace notes before they have tunes down, the grace notes can get in the way of the melody. The timing can be lost trying to work them in. You may be anticipating the grace note and play the melody note ahead of the beat or the grace note may completely bog down the note and you may fall behind the beat. The best advice I can give is to first learn the tunes with good time without any grace notes. Check your timing against a metronome. Maybe start with a particular grace note that is easy for you and try to work in in one phrase. Make that phrase a drill that you practice over and over until you become comfortable with it. Then try playing through the whole tune and see how the grace note feels.

Also, listen to how you are playing the grace note. Is the grace note overwhelming the melody note? This is also a common issue when first beginning to incorporate grace notes. The grace notes sound busy and the melody notes get lost. In many cases, especially in quicker dance tunes like jigs and reels, the grace notes need to be very tight and percussive sounding. You are not aiming for a particular note with the grace note, but rather just a break in sound, a percussive sound.

Treat music like learning a language. The more you become immersed, stylistic aspects of the music will increasingly feel more like a part of you and that will come out it your music.

Please let me know of your experience incorporating grace notes into your music!


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August 4, 2011 at 3:10 pm, Marjorie Graham said...

Very timely for me. I am only up to lesson 6 , have the songs put to memory and now maybe it’s possible to add a few grace notes and get the accents right , especially on the Highlander Jig. Thanks Kimberley

    August 5, 2011 at 3:50 pm, Kimberley Fraser said...

    Glad you enjoyed the post, Marjorie!

August 4, 2011 at 5:40 pm, Kira McLaughlin said...

Thanks as always Kimberley…very helpful. I’m always trying to do everything at once when learning a tune. It is good to know that I should be slowing down a bit.

I wonder, on average, how long it takes most people to really learn a tune well. I’ve been working on several of your tunes for weeks now and still am not entirely there yet? Sometimes it is frustrating because I usually get the tunes in my head right away.Like trying to run when you haven’t learned to walk!


    August 5, 2011 at 3:52 pm, Kimberley Fraser said...

    Hi Kira,
    I know the feeling of wanting to get everything down at once! I still work on getting to know tunes after I’ve been playing them for years. It’s something that every musician works on. The learning process never stops. The main thing is to keep playing and keep enjoying!

August 5, 2011 at 6:34 pm, Damien said...

Coming from an Irish music background, I’m at a loss as to where to put the grace notes in Cape Breton music. In Irish, you can accent the downbeats with grace notes galore, but you can easily cross the line and over-do it too. I’d be really curious to hear what a Cape Breton tune would be like if it was “overdone” with grace notes–what I definitely don’t want to do! Thanks Kimberly. Mighty stuff.

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