February 2007

Fiddle Retreat: Part Two

February 26, 2007 23:01

Continued from my blog, 2/24/07

When I attended a Fiddle Retreat in January, I learned so many new, fun things in ways possible only at live workshops.

I’ve always been intrigued and intimidated by fiddlers playing in alternate tunings, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to attend workshops on the subject. We were advised to bring spare strings, but I brought a spare fiddle, and that worked even better. I now keep one of my fiddles at home tuned permanently to an alternate tuning. Elke Baker, champion Scottish fiddler and immensely talented teacher, told us about ADAE, AEAE, and AEAC# tunings and then focused on AEAE, which works particularly well for tunes in A major. She played the same tune for us twice, first on a conventionally tuned fiddle and then on an AEAE fiddle, in each case playing only on the two upper strings. I didn’t expect that the differences in resonances on the two lower strings would make such a big difference in the total sound, but they really did. The two renditions sounded dramatically different. I’ve been playing in AEAE tuning quite a bit at home lately, and I can hear the difference almost note by note. It’s a lot of fun to play tunes in A first on my GDAE fiddle and then on my AEAE fiddle. I get a kick out of it each time. The AEAE tuning gives a very open, almost twangy sound. Another instructor taught us some West Virginia fiddle tunes in a different alternate tuning, GDGD. This tuning gave a sweeter sound than AEAE. The double stop-unison pairs, G on the D string played with the higher open G string, sounds especially sweet and warm. When I play with this tuning, I have to adjust my habits and remember which fingered double stops sound good together. It is a lot of fun because old familiar tunes sound so pretty in such a different way.

Playing in Pairs: Scottish and Shetland Styles excited me in several ways. I love both Scottish and Shetland fiddle music and play quite a bit of both. Shetland fiddle music, one of my very favorite genres, is relatively obscure, and there are few opportunities to hear it played live or play it with other people. Playing in pairs is something I love to do, but I’ve been winging it, and some live instruction and opportunities to play came as a rare blessing. I discussed my fascination with Shetland fiddle music with Elke Baker, our instructor. The Shetland Islands, which lie between the Scottish mainland and Norway, are remote, sparsely populated, cold, windy, rocky, and damp. They have many inlets with interesting rock formations offshore. The land is flat, and the buildings are small and squat, like army barracks. There are few trees, and most of them only grow waist-high. Their height is limited by nearby brick walls which provide shelter from the wind. I told Elke that I find it curious that such an inhospitable looking land has produced some of the warmest, happiest fiddle music in the world. Elke said that all the warmth and happiness are within the people who live there, and they express it in their music. Fiddle music is very popular in Shetland. I’ve read that Shetland has a higher concentration of fiddlers than any other place in the world. Elke said that playing in pairs is very important in the Shetland fiddle tradition. The two members of a pair have a master-apprentice relationship. The apprentice part is easy to play, and it’s a great way to get a novice playing fiddle music quickly. It can also be fun for people of any skill level who enjoy contributing to communal music-making in a variety of ways. Only a very rudimentary knowledge of chords is required. One simply plays double stops in the tonic (most common chord), dominant, and subdominant. People generally pick the simplest combination of notes possible, usually using an open string. For example, in the key of D (the fiddler’s favorite), you can go far with A and D (G and D strings), B and D (G and D strings), and E and A (D and A strings). Of course, it’s more fun to try using different pairs of notes and switching among them frequently. Elke taught us the syncopated rhythm pattern used for playing back up with the chords. It’s easier to play than to describe, but I can say that you change bow directions and chords off the main beats. Elke divided the class into two halves – masters and apprentices. We played several tunes that way and then switched roles. The overall effect was a lot of fun, and I couldn’t decide whether I enjoyed playing as an apprentice or a master more. Elke also spoke about playing in pairs in other Celtic fiddle traditions. In Scottish music, she told us, the cello is often used to back up the fiddle. The cellist will walk up or down a scale, much as bassists and bass guitarists do. A fiddler can do the same thing in a low register. In contrast, in Cape Breton music, fiddlers generally don’t play chords or harmony at all. They simply double the melody in a lower octave. I asked Elke some questions about playing backup fiddle for a variety of musical genres. I had noticed that playing below the melody line generally sounded good. Elke confirmed this and added that this way of playing backup is “safe” because you don’t stand out from the melody very much. When unsure of myself, I like to play unobtrusively. She said that playing above the melody line also works, but it stands out more and is done less often. Playing in the same range as the melody is tricky. You need a close harmony to sound good.

The last workshop I attended, on Cape Breton Fiddle Tunes, was also taught by Elke. Cape Breton was settled by Scotsmen at the time of the Clearances, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when tens of thousands of Highland Scotsmen were evicted, often forcibly, from their homes and settled in Cape Breton. Their fiddle music diverged from that of Scotland and took on its own character. Cape Breton fiddle music is tightly linked to traditional Scottish/Cape Breton dances. We learned, first by ear and then by paper, several reels, marches, and jigs from Cape Breton. Elke, who has made many visits to Cape Breton, supplemented her teaching of the tunes with stories about prominent Cape Breton fiddlers and the dances where they play.

There was an amazing amount of learning about and playing fiddle music crammed into one weekend at the Fiddle Retreat. The best part about it is the enrichment of my own playing and listening which I’ll carry with me into the future.

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Fiddle Retreat (The Beginning)

February 24, 2007 06:43

One weekend in January I went to a Fiddle Retreat in Harper's Ferry, WV and had great fun. I haven't done anything like this in years. I was able to go because it was only for a weekend, so it didn't cost much, and it was not far from home and I got a ride with a friend. There were workshops, mini-workshops, jams, open mikes, and opportunities to play for dancers. The offerings were diverse and included Scandinavian, Shetland, Cape Breton, Scottish, Irish, old time, medieval, and contra dance music; learning by ear; fiddling without pain; applied theory; bands for mixed instruments; and mandolin for fiddlers. Of course, my brain went into information overload there, but I took notes and taped the workshops I went to. The weekend more than fulfilled its promise.

All the workshops and mini-workshops looked so good that I had trouble making selections, but here is what I attended:

Scandinavian and English Country Dance Fiddling
Developing Mandolin Techniques for Fiddlers
Alternate Tunings in Scottish Music
Playing in Pairs: Scottish and Shetland Styles
West Virginia Fiddle Tunes (with Alternate Tuning)
Potomac Valley Scottish Fiddle Club Meeting

The instructors were all very good, and I got some good ideas about teaching to use with my own students -- an unexpected benefit. Some of the instructors used their workshops mainly to teach new tunes, but this is not why I attended, since I can learn new tunes from books, recordings, or friends. I love the things I can only learn “live,” especially the way different kinds of music feel and the thrill of playing music with others. The weekend more than fulfilled its promise.

The first workshop I attended was Scandinavian and English Country Dance Fiddling, taught by Andrea Hoag, whose latest CD of Scandinavian fiddle tunes, Hambo in the Snow has been nominated for a Grammy this year. I have played Scandinavian fiddle tunes from a book, but that's not the best way to learn a new musical culture. Andrea's workshop gave me a better understanding of the music. I've played some hambo and polska tunes before, and I've discovered that the rhythm and the key signatures are surprising for me. I knew that the second beat of measures in 3/4 time is emphasized, but Andrea explained it better. You play the second beat with an upbow and get a sweeping effect. Andrea described it as "scooping the bow into the string." This made a lot of sense. I often tell my students to use more pressure on the bow, but "pressure" isn't really what I mean. I've heard the phrase "play the bow into the string," and, after I learned what that meant, it worked well, but it wasn't intuitively obvious to me. I'll try telling my students to scoop the bow into the string and see what happens. There is a characteristic feel of playing up bow this way. One of the students at the workshop said that when you play up bow, your joints open up. I don't know exactly what that means anatomically, but it sounds good. I know that many kinds of traditional music are strongly associated with specific traditional dances and some knowledge of the dance can help guide your bowing, so I asked whether anyone in the class could show me a hambo. Andrea herself and one of the students obliged. I had heard that the hambo is difficult to learn, and, after seeing it, I certainly agree. One really interesting movement comes on the second beat in 3/4 time while the couple is turning. Andrea appeared to push herself off the ground with one foot and leap/swirl around her partner. It's hard to describe, but seeing it is impressive and helps me understand the music. In response to my question about what makes Scandinavian music Scandinavian, Andrea gave some history. Scandinavian traditional music changed in style some time during the 19th century. The later music is what I have heard, but the earlier music is not in the tempered scale. Andrea told us that this music contains some notes which are not found on the piano, but they're perfectly good notes. She played some of the music for us, and it sounded strange to my (tempered) ears. I didn't relate to it as well as I did to the more recent music. Since I came home, I have been listening to Hambo in the Snow and appreciating Scandinavian music more and more. Andrea covered English country dance music in less depth, but she emphasized that these dance tunes in 3/2 time have a rhythmic structure similar to that of hambos and polskas. I tried playing some of them, and she's right.

I took a break from fiddling and attended Paul Oorts’s workshop Developing Mandolin Techniques for Fiddlers. I’ve been fiddling around with a mandolin since I was a teenager, when I got an old mandolin from my grandmother. It ought to be easy for a violinist to play the mandolin because the instruments are tuned and fingered the same way. The mandolin has frets, so you can play it even if you’re tone deaf. I taught myself a few basic chords on mandolin and transferred my knowledge to fiddling, but I never became proficient with the mandolin. I’ve watched mandolinists play tremolo, but I could never learn to do it, and I became discouraged. Paul had a reassuring response to my problem: he told me that it just takes practice. He said to start with two strokes, then four, then eight…(I say similar things to my students when I teach slurring.) He watched my attempts and told me that it was really important for me to relax my grip on the pick. He said that some people play mainly from the wrist, others with the whole arm. I thought of vibrato. I noticed that my right arm was stiff from the shoulder to the fingertips. I thought of the many times that I’ve told my students, “It’s important to relax your right hand, wrist, and arm. You have the most control when you’re most relaxed.” Paul taught us some strum patterns, and they were all easy to follow because they were like downbows and upbows. He started with the simplest strum and added layers of complexity gradually. I thought of the way I teach bowing patterns, starting with the easiest and progressing in stages. Paul made it all seem so doable, simply by proceeding one step at a time. I thought of the reassurances I give my students, “You’re just beginning. Be patient. You’ll build your skills gradually.” Overall, Paul treated me the way I treat my students – with patience, reassurance, and respect. Why don’t I treat myself that way? I learned a lot from this class, a lot more than how to play the mandolin. When the class ended, I thanked Paul for being such a good teacher and told him that I got insights into my own teaching from him. He said, “That’s an unusual compliment, and I really appreciate it.”

Check out my website, http://mysite.verizon.net/paulinefiddle

To be continued

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Bad news

February 16, 2007 13:39


Bad news. The temp job I started three weeks ago didn’t work out. Initially I was overwhelmed with accolades and appreciation. I was even asked to work overtime because my work was so good. One person there really didn’t want me there, so she made trouble. I said that I would be willing to continue working there if they reassigned me to someone else, and I also suggested doing some work for them on a freelance basis. (Believe me, they need my help. Things are a mess there.) I’ve been terminated. Life’s a b*tch.

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Valentine's Day

February 14, 2007 21:31

Happy Valentine's Day to all my friends at v.com.

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Razumovsky at lunchtime

February 12, 2007 14:53


I’m working on a short-term contract on the campus of NIH (National Institutes of Health) in Bethesda MD, and today I enjoyed a very pleasant perq: a free lunchtime performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet Opus 59 (Razumovsky) #3. The site of NIH is aptly called a campus because it feels like a large university campus, even though it is a federal government agency. There are over 18,000 employees here, mostly research scientists in biology and medicine. Many scientists are musicians or music lovers, and a small fraction of them benefit from a program sponsored by Merck, the giant pharmaceutical company, which brings the Manchester String Quartet here for a free lunchtime performance once a month. The venue is wonderful – an auditorium so small that no mikes are needed. The sound was big, warm, and exciting, and I felt enveloped in it. When we entered the auditorium, the audience members each received a small brochure of beautifully written and illustrated notes on the programs, and, before the performance, the cellist, Glenn Garlick, spoke to us briefly about the music. His talk was punctuated by performances of small parts (a few lines) of this or other quartets which demonstrated some of the points of his talk. These “extras” included parts of Mozart’s Dissonance Quartet and some Russian folk material. The program notes, which are unusually informative, say that “the bigness of the Razumovsky quartets depends not only on harmonic breadth and sheer size but also on the scope that is made available to four distinct personalities who are prepared to argue or sink their differences.” That’s certainly a good description of the soul of the piece. The notes also say that Beethoven “associates the second violin with the viola as an alto instrument, [making for] a quartet sound weighted in the center.” I found this mode of interplay among the four instruments striking. There was extensive dialogue between the second violin and the viola. The dialogue was fascinating itself, in addition to its effect of setting the first violin and cello off like voices on the extreme edges. I remember reading discussions on violinist.com in which people say that they like playing second violin in string trios or string quartets because they make inner connections between the outer instruments. Overall, today’s performance by the Manchester String Quartet was stunning.

The setting was so small and informal, that I felt quite comfortable approaching Glenn Garlick and the other members of the quartet after their performance to talk. I was not alone. A lot of listeners who have been attending this concert series for months spoke to Mr. Garlick, and he recognized them and chatted like an old friend. He told me that this concert is one in a three year long series of monthly concerts in which the musicians explore the string quartet genre in chronological succession. Unfortunately, I’ve missed performances of some quartets by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, but I look forward to hearing quartets by Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and more. Mr. Garlick said that it will be easier to understand some of Beethoven’s quartets, which can have the feeling of “dense” sound, after listening to works by Mendelssohn. I asked him where the quartet comes from, expecting to hear “New Hampshire,” but he said that the quartet is locally based. All the players are members of the National Symphony Orchestra. At the time of their first performance, they had to come up with a name quickly, and one of the players suggested Manchester because that is the name of the street where he lives. Unfortunately, the name stuck. I told them that I like a name suggested by someone (I think Sandy Marcus) on violinist.com – the Mississippi Hot Dog Quartet. Mr. Garlick said that he and the other three players especially enjoyed performing at NIH because so many scientists here are such knowledgeable and enthusiastic listeners. The members of the quartet really did look like they were enjoying themselves, and so did I.

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Novel Paradigm

February 3, 2007 01:10


I’ve been told that I’m a Novel Paradigm.

This week I started a day job, which will last for a few months, and it’s quite a change in lifestyle. My official title is Quality Assurance Case Manager, but the title in the job ad, science writer/editor, is more informative. I’m working at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD, strangely enough, as a scientist in an HR office. This is a new role (novel paradigm). NIH employs thousands of scientists who collectively engender, at a reasonable estimate, millions of HR documents per year. All these documents are read and evaluated by personnel and administrative people, and many are peer reviewed by scientists. It makes sense to have a scientist like me helping to write and edit these documents, and that’s where I fit in.

I had some performance anxiety before I started. Years ago, I worked as a government bureaucrat, and I wasn’t sure that I could do it again. Working as a violin teacher with occasional gigs as a science writer/editor is very, very different. Now I have a 9-to-5 lifestyle. I have to commute to and from the office. I have to understand and fit into the organizational structure. I have to deal with the layers of bureaucracy. The big surprise is that it’s not as hard as I had feared. I’m even learning the latest bureaucratic jargon pretty well.

I want to continue teaching as many of my students as possible, and that means major rescheduling. I’m essentially working two jobs now, and I have very little free time. My practice time has been drastically reduced. My practice log tells a sad story. I made a written schedule for myself for this week, and, in one small block, I wrote “ME.”

So far, my biggest problem at work has been getting lost. The buildings are huge and sprawling. Different wings and floors have been built at different times, and I sometimes feel like a rat in a maze. The campus, too, is big and sprawling. On my first day, when I went a short distance to another building to get my badge (ID card), my boss had someone accompany me. That was an act of kindness. My guide left me to do her own work, and, after getting fingerprinted, photographed, and “badged,” I had to find my way back myself. When I returned to my office, I found my boss and several of my coworkers huddled together and waiting for me anxiously. They told me that people sometimes get lost for hours. I’m building my skills now. I’ve learned landmarks like the sign that says “Entrance Closed During East Redundancy Loop Construction” and the entrance to the morgue.

I have finished my first week and survived. TGIF! Only one problem: I have to work this weekend.

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