Klezmer Fidl Blog: Klezmer Violin Ornamentation

May 4, 2021, 1:14 PM · Dear String Friends and Enthusiasts,

Thank you for your interest and kind comments regarding the first posting of my Klezmer Fidl Blog! This means a lot to me as teaching, performing, and composing klezmer music has been the main focus of my artistic career and I am happy to share my love and knowledge of this special historical instrumental folk music with you. Today’s blog deals with klezmer fidl ornamentation.

Greenman wood block
Block print by Barry Hoffman.

The subject of klezmer fidl ornamentation brings up varying ideas, concepts, individual teaching methods, and opinions. For klezmer violinists today and those studying East European Jewish instrumental folk music, we are fortunate to have internationally renowned practitioners who have developed their own unique sound, style, and musicality. These fabulous masters of the style have spawned new professional klezmer fidl clones who often emulate the specific stylistic nuances of their teachers. I have even heard some of my colleagues tell me that he (anonymous klezmer violin student Yoysef Fidl-Shpiler) sounds just like Greenman! In some ways, this is flattering, but my goal as a teacher is not to create klezmer clones (klezmer klones?) but rather to encourage students to develop their own unique sound and style based in the tradition. However, we do have to start somewhere, and I have developed my own system for teaching klezmer violin phrasing, ornamentation, articulation, and more.

I first learned the intricacies of klezmer fidl style at the former Yiddish folk arts festival, KlezKamp, in 1991 from the renowned klezmer violinist Alicia Svigals. Alicia was remarkable with how she taught the technical aspects of the dreydlekh (klezmer music ornamentation) and I am grateful for these lessons. The following year at KlezKamp (1992), I decided to take a few klezmer instrumental classes with the legendary klezmer clarinetist Max Epstein (1912-2000) to gain an additional perspective. This experience profoundly affected my conception of klezmer music ornamentation. I was an eager young klezmer student and proudly played Max a klezmer tune that I had just learned. Surprisingly, he asked me what I was doing. I sheepishly said, ‘I am playing…klezmer music?’ He countered with an inquiry as to why I was using so many ornaments. I retorted that I was just playing the ornaments I had learned for the music. At that point, Max blunted stated ‘The ornaments don’t go there.’ ‘Where do they go?’ I asked. ‘They go where they are supposed to go’ was his final reply. From that I learned that it was not enough to just add ornaments and nuances where I pleased but rather to intently study the music to hear where and how the old masters would ornament phrases. It was a lesson I am ever mindful of to this day.

Thirty years later, I have further developed my conception of klezmer fidl ornamentation, phrasing, and expressivity. I place an emphasis on the phrasing of the melody over the inclusion of ornamentation. While the dreydlekh give the tune its authentic Jewish folk sound, the melody with its rhythmic turns and modalities must assume precedence. Klezmer ornamentation complements the melody by emphasizing important notes, accentuating downbeats, or giving further attention to a note or expression to a phrase. This was the valuable lesson I learned from the clarinetist Max Epstein. Here is a listing of the klezmer ornaments I use and how they are applied:

Trills are to be played after sounding the main note. They are executed rapidly and narrowly either a half-step or whole step above the note they are ornamenting depending on the mode of the piece or the character of the phrase:

ex 1

Vibrato Trills are a modern klezmer violin technique in which the rocking vibrato motion of the main note finger propels the trilling finger to create an ersatz trill. The sound produced strongly resembles the fast half-step trills of the klezmer clarinetists Naftule Brandwein and Dave Tarras.

Slides/portamenti – I employ upward and downward slides/portamenti to connect two melodic notes. For upward slides, I rarely begin a phrase with a short quick slide into the first note that occurs in bluegrass and other American folk fiddle styles, but instead use upward slides on notes that occur in the middle of a phrase:

ex 2

Another use of upward slides involves sliding upward into a note culminating with a krekhts [See measure 4 in the previous example. More information about the krekhts is detailed below]. One must avoid using upward slides with excessive bravura or schmaltz that are present in urban Hungarian folk music. Downward slides are executed slowly and may directly connect with the next note they are tied to in a slur or done subtly when not tied to the next note [see ‘Fall-off/breath-slides’].

Fall-Off/Breath Slide – a subtle slide down off a note connecting it to the next note (without a slur). Accomplished by slightly rolling the fingertip less than a half-step back towards the scroll at the end of the note. The bow slows down right at this point where the finger falls off. The hand continues the slide between the two notes after the finger has finished its slight roll off, thus connecting the two notes and creating a ‘breath’ quality. These two notes are to be played separately without a slur:

ex 3

Krekhts (pl. krekhtsn) – a Jewish vocal ornament that produces a characteristic ‘sighing’ or ‘sobbing’ effect. Instrumentally, the krekhts is a false stopped note ornamenting the preceding main note it is tied to. This is unlike a classical grace-note which is tied to and played before the main note. The krekhts is executed by playing the main note full value then stopping the third or fourth finger on the string [above the pitch of the succeeding note] together with stopping the bow at the same moment. Giving the bow a little ‘tug’ or increasing the bow speed at this simultaneous point of ‘finger/bow stopping’ gives the krekhts its sobbing effect. I often add krekhtsn on the ‘and’ of the beat in addition to the more common main beats. The bow arm must be flexible enough to be able to change speed and to stop at a point. The krekhts imitates the human voice and gives the listener a sense of the musician talking directly to them. The violinist must be capable of varying both the bow speed and attack [point of finger and bow contact] depending on the musical phrase:

ex 4

Bends – the pulling back of the finger-joint closest to the fingerboard and returning it to its natural curved position, often applied to notes longer than a quarter note. In execution, the player plays the actual note, then ‘bends’ the note back about a quarter tone lower than the note, then returns back to the note pitch. [See measures 4-6]:

ex 5

Vibrato – In the recordings of the Jewish violinists of the early twentieth century, a fine narrow vibrato is present especially in the playing of Jacob Gegna, Oscar Zehngut, and H. Steiner. My preference is to use vibrato in this way without the vibrato motion being too wide or intense. For klezmer violin style, one should never use an overly romantic vibrato that is used in the romantic classical violin works. I use vibrato in klezmer music to give warmth and expression to long notes while using it sparingly [if at all] in faster dance pieces. I feel that vibrato adds a singing quality to my Jewish violin playing while the added vibrations to the instrument allow the notes to ring. When not using vibrato, I can still derive expressivity from the controlled use of bow speed in addition to trills, slides, and krekhtsn.

Other ornaments that I seldom use are ‘chirps’ which are mini-rapid slides down from the main note or from a series of successive notes. These have the effect of crying or sobbing, like the krekhts, but without the soulful exasperation of breath. For my taste, I find chirps to detract from the music, bringing more attention to them rather than to the melody and phrase.

For sound quality, I use an expressive bow arm with changing bow speeds to draw out the notes and ornaments. It is important to sing through the violin and have the violin be an instrumental for speaking.

Ornamentation in klezmer music is subjective just like in classical music or other folk music styles. The concepts related above are not meant to be rigid rules but rather a guide for the student to gain an understanding of how to both execute and apply the ornaments in the traditional klezmer fidl fashion. We all develop our individual styles from the other music we have studied, performed, and encountered. For me, my klezmer fidl style has been informed by my classical conservatory training, my extensive work with various East European folk music styles, Yiddish/klezmer mentors, and the serious listening to klezmer music source recordings. Writing countless transcriptions of the 78 rpm recordings of the great Jewish violinists of the early twentieth century [Jacob Gegna, Oscar Zehngut, H. Steiner, Abe Schwartz, Max Leibowitz, Josef Solinski, Avram Bughici, Leon Schwartz, Berish Katz, and M.I. Rabinovich] played a major role in my understanding and conception of klezmer fidl style. I draw my inspiration from their dedication to preserving East European Jewish instrumental folk music and sharing their unique talents.

I would love to hear from you! Please feel free to send me any questions you may have about klezmer music, klezmer fidl, and/or your comments about this blog. I would be delighted to connect with you!

* * *

If you are interested, I have written a klezmer instruction book for beginning violin students of all ages, Klezmer School for Strings - Violin Part - Vol. 1 and composed a Klezmer Concert Suite for Solo Violin and Orchestra that models the artistic listening and dance music performed by the klezmer fidl for the traditional East European Jewish wedding. For more information about this and more, please visit my website www.stevengreenman.com.

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May 4, 2021 at 10:10 PM · Thank you so much for this. I have wondered about klezmer and how the different sounds are made. It's a far cry from Twinkle Twinkle, for me anyway.

May 6, 2021 at 12:10 AM · Steven, I laughed out loud at Epstein's response as to where ornaments should go, which was "...where they are supposed to go." How wonderful that you've taken the time and effort to explain and notate all the specifics. Although I don't play klezmer music, I can still appreciate these beautiful traditions that, thanks to people like you, will continue on.

May 7, 2021 at 01:57 AM · Thank you Diana! This has been "my life's work" as they say, and happy to share my experiences and knowledge. Where do you perform/teach?

May 7, 2021 at 01:58 AM · Also, if you have any questions about klezmer music or the klezmer fidl, please feel free to ask any questions you may have here. All the best!

May 8, 2021 at 01:41 AM · Steven, I live and work in Tennessee, but I am certainly not a professional klezmer performer. That said, I love the music/style and know many people who do perform regularly. In fact, we have two groups here in Kville: Dor L'Dor and Tennessee Schmaltz. I also listened recently to a seminar my husband gave on tenor Richard Tucker and the cantorial style. Needless to say, there are many similarities with the ornamentation you describe!

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