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Pauline Lerner

Fiddle Retreat (The Beginning)

February 24, 2007 at 1:43 PM

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.”

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To be continued

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