Recently I attended a workshop given by Alasdair Fraser, one of the world’s greatest Scottish fiddlers. I had listened to his recordings, live performances, and talks about Scottish fiddle music, so I thought the workshop would be good. It was great!
Alasdair started by asking each of us why we had come. This is a common ritual for starting workshops, and, usually, it’s pretty trite. This time was different. People spoke from the heart about their love for fiddle music, and Alasdair interjected his own heartfelt comments. There were twenty-five people and a wide variety of answers. Several people said that they had played the violin through high school and then put it aside for college and other activities. Now they were returning to play music they loved listening to. Some people said that they had never played Scottish fiddle music and they wanted to try it. Several people, including me, said that they had been playing with a local Scottish fiddle club for years and wanted to learn more about the things that make Scottish music Scottish. One fellow, about 12 years old, played classical violin and jazz piano. A girl who was just a little younger said that she has been playing Scottish fiddle music for a few years and had made it to the national level in competition. I noticed that the hairs on her bow had been dyed purple, but her hair had not. Someone said, “Music is what I live for.” One honest man said that he came because his teacher told him to. His teacher was there and agreed. We all agreed that the woman who had driven here from South Carolina, a few hundred miles away, should get some sort of prize.
Alasdair explained, in his view, the main difference between playing classical violin music and playing Scottish fiddle music. He said that in playing classical music, the goal is to figure out how the composer wanted the music to sound and play it that way. The goal in playing Scottish fiddle music, in his view, is to find the voice within yourself and let it play, contributing from yourself to the tradition of the music. (I don’t agree with him about classical music. In fact, Hilary Hahn has written something like what he said about playing Scottish fiddle music, but she was writing about playing Bach.)
Alasdair went on to say that Scottish fiddle music is essentially an aural tradition. He said that many classically trained violinists are excessively “paper trained” and need to learn to play by ear. There was a lot of embarrassed laughter and agreement among the participants. He also told us that we had to break the learned habit of being “down bow driven.” In Scottish fiddle music, and even more in Irish fiddle music, the first beat of a measure, while emphasized, is frequently played up bow. This gives a swinging feeling to the music. He also told us not to ask questions like “Where do I play the grace notes?” I didn’t say that I have asked that very question of friends. They always told me, as Alasdair did, “Wherever you feel like.” Such is improvisation.
His next major point was the importance of rhythm. He encouraged us to think of the fiddle as a rhythm instrument. He suggested getting a cheap electric keyboard instrument, setting it to play some funky rhythm, and playing along. One result, he remarked, is that your family will believe that you have gone mad. Then he played some rhythm games with us. He would play a rhythm pattern, using the open A and D strings in double stops, and we would play it back to him. The first rhythms he played were easy and included 1-2-3-4 and 1-2-3-4-5-6. Next we played 1-2-3-4 but with 1 and 3 up bow. Then he tried something harder, and the first one to catch on was the boy who played jazz piano. It was 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8. Next he gave us 1-2-3-4-5-6-1-2-3-4-5-6. We did this easily, so he divided the circle of players in half and had one half start with 1-2-3-4-5-6 and the other half with 1-2-3-4-5-6. This was fun. It reminded me of an exercise my orchestra conductor had us play to help us with one of the variations in Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Haydn. He divided the string players into two groups and had one group play 1-2-3-4-5-6 and the other group play 1-2-3-4-5-6, using any notes from an F chord. He really impressed me by tapping one rhythm with his right hand and the other with his left hand simultaneously.
Alasdair emphasized the importance of rhythm when playing for Scottish dance, focusing on the strathspey, a traditional Scottish dance form for which there are some great tunes. He told us that the dance has gliding, horizontal movements, not jumping up and down movements, which he called “boing boing.” He told us that our bows should follow or guide the dancers’ feet. He tried to demonstrate his point by dancing but admitted the obvious: he’s not a very good dancer. He asked whether any of the workshop participants could do Scottish dance. One woman did and gave us a beautiful demo. She kicked off her sneakers and danced in her stocking feet while Alasdair played fiddle. Her dancing was both very graceful and very athletic. She was up on the balls of her feet for a good part of the time, and her feet were often positioned as in ballet. Seeing her dance while Alasdair played was a wonderful bonus to the workshop.
Next Alasdair had us improvise some rhythm. He played a complex rhythm, still with double stops on the open A and D strings. He would point to someone and that person would have to play something in the gaps between his notes and keep doing it while Alasdair pointed to another person. Pretty soon we were all playing our own rhythm improvisations, and the room rocked.
Since the workshop, I’ve played some of these rhythm games with a few of my students, and they have all had a lot of fun with them.
To be continued
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