Fiddling, Folk and Improvisation Sessions from ASTA National Conference
At the 2020 ASTA National Conference, I attended several sessions on fiddle, folk and improvisation. Fiddle tunes are excellent tools for teaching ear training, intonation, style, bow technique, memorization, and more. Here are key takeaways.
Teaching How to Make a Simple Fiddle Tune Come Alive
(Andy Reiner, Dave Reiner)
The handout had many tune suggestions and notated ways fiddlers make it sound authentic. See me if you’d like a copy. On Boil them Cabbage Down, draw out beats 1 and 3, accent beats 2 and 4. Model the sound for the students. For Angeline the Baker, some students simply playing eighth notes on 2 and 4 helps. Techniques: Bow pulse (accent within a slur); double stops (encourage them); bow rocking (a double stop alternating with a single note. Practice it silently. Play eighth notes 95% straight, 5% swing. Don’t swing in class and while it is new. Sometimes when it is well-learned and at a quick tempo, it’s appropriate to swing.
When you play, you improvise bowings, but you have to have the tools of the different bowings. Basslines are roots of chords on downbeats. Middle voices work well with bow rocking, Georgia shuffle. Fiddling is in the right arm. The left hand is just notes.
An Old Time Jam consists of everyone playing the tune many times. A Bluegrass Jam has all play and then each individual solos, and it ends with all playing again. Vibrato is something we add as an effect. It isn’t something we take away. It’s critical that kids have audio examples to listen to. This is a ‘by ear’ art.
Notes from a Jam Session with Moxie Strings
Moxie Strings ran an excellent jam session on the following tunes: Cripple Creek, Blackberry Blossom, Whiskey Before Breakfast, Stand by Me, and then the following were by request: Jerusalem Ridge, All Blues (Miles Davis), Ashokan Farewell, and something by Bruno Mars.
For Cripple Creek, in D, members comped on a D Major chord the whole time, either with a brushy stroke at the tip or a choppy one at the frog. To do this in class, you would need a back-up track or a solid rhythm/bassline player.
They pointed out that Irish jam sessions can be intimidating because it comes down to knowing the tunes. (And, in my opinion, they are really twisty and fast.) This jam session was excellent. I would like to bring them to LPS to work with our students. Moxie Strings is two women, violin and cello.
Teaching and Playing Irish Music Authentically
Reading music is not part of the learning process. There are two tools for creating the Irish sound: Emphasis (from the bowings) and Ornaments. Ornaments take time to become natural. Everyone uses them uniquely.
Irish Music Value System: Strong sense of rhythmic pulse and groove; individuality, creativity, being a tune source.
Western Classical Music Value System: Precision, clarity, intonation, uniformity, music literacy.
Ideal learning method: Listen as much as you can because this informs our decisions, find a local musician to learn from in person, play along with a recording and imitate every single little thing you hear.
Goals in sounding authentic: Make bowing and rhythmic choices that fit and complement the melody, use ornaments carefully and intentionally, cultivate a unique sound.
Goals when coming up with a bowing: Hear phrasing, emphasize beats to create rhythmic pulse/groove, have variation of that emphasis.
The ornament “cut”: It breaks up a longer note duration, most often articulating two eighth notes that are tied. You quickly flick the finger (experiment with the angle). It can be used on any note/finger. It is a percussive sound; do not hear pitch.
The ornament “roll”: It fills the space of a dotted quarter note. It’s a sequence of 5 notes (for example, BDBAB). Spread the notes equally. Think of top note like it is a cut.
The ornament “treble” is a percussive bowing technique. The bow grabs the string and creates a crunchy, percussive effect. Can be down or up bow. Can connect to the next note with a slur or separate bow. It imitates a dance step.
Tune type “polka”: Usually played quickly. Emphasis is on the off beats.
Tune type “reel”: Fast driving rhythmic pulse in 4/4 or 2/2 time.
The Bluegrass Breakdown: Teaching Improvisation in the Classroom
(Annalisa Chang, Devin Reid)
Authentic folk music is much more valuable than inauthentic orchestral arrangements. The benefits of teaching improvisation include ear training, music theory, composition/arranging, and modeling.
Have students learn first by ear. Then let them see the notation to check. They have to have tracks to listen to. Sequence: Teach the main tune. Then introduce any rhythmic shifts you want (Cripple Creek example). Call and Response over tracks. Double stops.
Tips for learning tunes aurally: Listen to several recordings, even ones with instruments besides fiddle. Try to imitate the sounds you hear. Sing the Tune. Practice.
Tips for Improvising: Keep it simple. Less is more. Think about the underlying chord structure and listen to the groove. Remember how long the melody is. You can incorporate parts of the melody in your solo. (Let students play around. If it doesn’t sound good, they probably won’t do it again.)
Other tidbits: When comping, you can play solid eighth notes (D/A double stop works in the key of D), but ghost the first and third beats so they are only lightly heard. For chopping, Have a good bowhold. Curl fingers into the hand and extend fingers while straightening the thumb. Start on the string. For mandolin, keep a relaxed pick hand. Keep empty fingers loose. When strumming down, angle the pick up. When strumming up, angle the pick down.