Technique and (many) fiddlers

November 13, 2006 at 03:24 AM · I've been a classical player/teacher for 45 yrs.,and in the last 5, have become a very good by-ear fiddler. I use & teach my same playing position and especially my bow grip/bow control skills. I see & hear a lot of fiddlers who sound great, but who use anything but conventional technique. Think Jay Ungar's lush tone and vibrato. He plays with his wrist bent partway up and his thumb way up on the left. I've heard him tell people not to copy his way of making vibrato. I've arrived at a philosophy that hinges on a willing suspension of old beliefs. For fiddle novices I advise basically conventional tech., because we know it works. For experienced players, I advise they make changes that will get them to how they want to sound. I'm comfortable with my train of thought about this, but I'd still be interested in others' opinions about why we are as adamant in the classical world as we seem to be, and how it is that those who differ so radically can sound wonderful.

Replies (21)

November 13, 2006 at 03:52 AM · Perspective is where this all begins. Early in the day of vibrato when it was still trendy and poorly understood, whose technique was it that defined classical approaches? And in that even in the classical world there are accepted variations of holding the bow, whose is correct.

I simply know, that the many extremely talented guitar and banjo pickers who are my friends, have not suffered from not having a discipline to ponder over. But that really doesn't take away from classical as much as it underwrites the real origins of music. Nature.

The paths that take the classical musician to excellence are different, from the paths that take 'everyman' along the way. Said another way, it wasn't the first or even fifth time I shot a grouse that made me a hunter, but I consider myself a hunter. I'm not obsessed with being a hunter, and I don't practice hunting every day; and, am motivated mostly by pleasure, and the fact that I love eating grouse.

This is where some of the differences you are discussing come from. Generally classical musicians invest huge amounts of time if they really are practicing as they should. I, on guitar, simply steal licks. And as an 'intense intense' hobbiest on violin, have learned that I won't play Paganini, but all the technique I can get from studying formally, I know in my heart from my experiences on piano, that the technique will allow me to play with a lot more confdence.

So, I think there are many mansions, that exist on various levels of where one wishes to go with, hopefully the music leading the way. A really good example of this is how I've approached violin.

I set a course and have protected that course like it was the holy grail. After I said some-day to "Devil went Down to Georgia" enough times, life got a little lonely, but I'm still making progress. Classical people do this every day of their lives as they put down the layers that allow them to hang out with Haun. We create tracks for ourselves, and in staying on course convince ourselves that ours it ok.

My guitar buddies simply raise their eyebrows a little and say, uh, ok--can you pass me another piece of that apple pie. So the extent with which we protect our paths also may make it seem as if classical players seem a little inflexible. But I don't think it's so....

Finally, I have limitations on guitar, and even piano to some extent because of my leisurely paths. And no I wouldn't change that. I had a lot more fun running around in the mountains that worrying about practicing from 15 or so through 20.

I also think that you would find that a classical person (you may be a case yourself) would have to adjust to the rhythmic bowing of the fiddler? Nonetheless I think you made a telling comment that really gets to the heart of the matter in your question: "my skills".

Classical music is a professional choice that leads to pleasure. Popular music is a pleasurable course that often leads to music, and nearly always to pleasure? And it is easier for you to learn what they do, than the reverse. al

November 13, 2006 at 08:21 PM · I play classical. I also play Scottish, Irish and Cape Breton traditonal. What I have noticed is that a lot of traditional, folk or "fiddling" music does not demand facility in shifting, vibrato or advanced bow technique.

There is much beautiful music that can be played very simply. Very fast and complex dance music can be played without shifting, vibrato or advanced bowing.

So..a lot of "fiddlers" can play a lot of good music with a technique that would limit them in the classical world of high positions, varied vibrato, many shadings and techniques of bowing.

I teach my "fiddlers" the same technique that I teach my "classical" students. None of them will ever be limited by a lack of proper technique.

November 13, 2006 at 11:26 PM · Some folk fiddlers I've seen do tend to have limited technique, some just using the upper part of the bow, always on the same tilt, seldom playing long, rich notes, often playing all notes short and detache. Also, some don't use the 4th finger much. As said above, shifting and vibrato didn't feature much. So I'm not convinced that the whole classical repertoire would be open to them without some technical changes.

BUT, I hugely envy their ability to memorise complex tunes with multiple string crossings, and to play very fast indeed! They must have excellent co-ordination and memory, both of which I lack.

November 13, 2006 at 11:45 PM · Susan,

that may be true of "folk fiddlers" i.e. self-taught, a-pickin' and a-grinnin,' playin' on the front porch types.

It is definitely NOT true of the great country players, esp the Nashville studio players. Those folks have extrordinary technique. they use the whole bow. They have the world's best intonation & pitch-accurate vibrato (they have to, so as to interweave notes with a singer) and they can bring-out all sorts of color from a single held note.

I doubt even the best classical players could last 5 minutes in a high-end Nashville session. It's simply a different discipline. A well-known tennet in the studio world is, "the hardest thing to do well is to play / sing a simple line." -Because it has to be EXACTLY right in every way, and it still has to have life & beauty.

However, it is also true that none of those session cats could get through something by Paganini. Not even close. Not if they practised two years straight. They don't have the bow control, & they don't have the facility in higher positions (though they do shift all the time, to think otherwise would be foolish)

Again, two VERY different disciplines that happen to share the same instrument.

November 14, 2006 at 12:02 AM · To comment on something Sue Bechler mentioned in her original post:

I saw an amazing bluegrass fiddler yesterday. He seemed to possess the technical chops of Aubrey Haney, and had the musical sensibilities of Mark O'Connor. However, he had the most unusual bow-hold. Kind of how you describe Jay Unger (if that was Jay's RT hand): His arm was way up over the fingerboard, with his wrist cocked down sharply. I'm sure this would keep him from having much subtly, and certain classical bowing would be impossible. However, it allowed him to create the most kick-in-the-pants Martelé you've ever heard.

I asked him afterwards if he ever had physical problems, and he said no, he'd been doing that all his life.

November 13, 2006 at 11:46 PM · I'm a classical violinist. I started off playing with classical technique. By a strange twist of fate I happened to find a book by Yehudi Menuhin sitting on a table about the same time as I started playing and read it. In it, Yehudi said that one should not play with a shoulder rest.

I followed his advice, and so, almost from day one, I began playing without a rest. This immediately put me in an 'outsider' position because, where I lived, everyone had to use a shoulder rest. There was a strong prejudice against going restless. But I didn't care because I had already started that way and found that I preferred it.

The next thing that happened is that I was very uncomfortable with my chin rest. It had an enormous bump in it that stuck into the bone of my jaw. I couldn't afford another, so I took it off and tried it without. It was so much more comfortable for me. Over many years I learned to balance the violin in my hand, learning modern vibrato (arm and wrist and sometimes finger) and all the modern techniques of shifting.

I developed as a violinist to an advanced amateur level, with relaxed vibrato and able to play in any position with comfort and good intonation. For about ten years I played with a CR in order to more visually conform to those around me. Then only this year, in about July, I started going without a CR again. My playing is now better, smoother, and more relaxed. I'm dismayed sometimes at how this puts me at odds with other players, but I must do what works for me best.

It really is possible to be an excellent player, with a lovely, varying vibrato and effortless shifting and great tone, with a non-usual approach to holding the instrument. However, I wouldn't recommend going down an alternative pathway unless you had no option otherwise.

I'm writing this to try and offer encouragement to those who might have no other choice but to go along an unconventional path. It really does work for some. If it doesn't work for you, follow the conventional route.

November 14, 2006 at 05:08 AM · She was talking about Ungar's left hand actually. He plays with his palm on the neck. This is interesting to me for a particular reason. Today I see more similarity in holds between classical and non-classical players - a slow convergence toward classical. The palm on the neck is a trait of old-time fiddling. You see this all the time in turn of the century photos. Also, they rarely if ever use the chin rest, although it may be there.

It's interesting for this reason - the songs, stories and dialects of those people are close to Elizabethan English. Actually, they even liked the German-style fiddles that were popular in the Baroque period. Because so much was frozen it time with them, I wonder if this might be a good place to see a living version of some of the techniques of Baroque playing.

Another thing to think about would be does a modern way of using the left hand - developed with written music in mind - inhibit improvisation or steer it down particular paths? That could be a good reason to not use it, if what you're playing is 99% improvised and in a style that runs contrary. Regarding "how can those who differ so radically sound wonderful" - in those old recordings I hear good sounds, maybe the most interesting sounds to me, but they're not even remotely modern classical sounds. If a modern classical player is walking the tightwire with perfect straight-backed form, the people in those records are usually wobbling all over the wire doing handstands on a unicycle. Either is a good show:)

November 14, 2006 at 04:25 AM · Although this thread is about fiddle technique, I think Sue would agree that a good classical violin tone and general approach to technique is not altogether out of place in the music making of so many fiddlers these days.

Things like a good steady tone, excellent intonation, tasteful vibrato, a good approach to bowing, legato phrasing, scale technique etc -- these are all important things in a lot of folk and pop music now. A lot of that comes from classical violin technique.

To show that unconventional approaches to holding the instrument, by modern standards, do not necessarily result in a tone or technique similar to that used by the old time fiddlers, bear in mind that a player of the excellent modern classical standard of William Primrose (viola) would sometimes advocate seemingly unconventional approaches. He said plainly that he could play without a CR and only advised the use of one to avoid damaging the finish on the instrument. The ribs on the viola are only marginally taller than that on a violin. Maud Powell, the classical violinist, fairly close in sound to modern ideals, said the same thing. Classical violinists David Mannes and Arthur Hartmann, writing not all that long ago, are also in agreement. Some players of the 'golden years' of the 20th century, such as Szigeti, played in a pretty unusual way, but they had great sound and style.

Milstein's arm vibrato style would have worked no matter how he held the fiddle. Holding the instrument was ridiculously easy for him. It just sat there.

Anyway, as always, do what works best for you. Also, I like listening to old time players, too. They were creative people.

November 14, 2006 at 05:11 AM · You aren't using a chin rest? First I've heard of that ;)

November 14, 2006 at 07:58 AM · Hey

I play loads of Bluegrass and Folky styles of music as well as classical and have found that classical technique (when slightly tweaked) works amazingly for these other styles. I also use a different violin, bow and strings for these styles so that will also have an effect.

I reckon that if it sounds right then it doesn't matter what kinda technique you use.

November 14, 2006 at 04:04 PM · I hang out with a lot of fiddlers, some of whom have attrocious technique. A particular friend is the worst. He rests the neck in the webbing of his hand, the whole thing points almost straight down to the ground with him hunched over it, his fingers fly up every time they come off a note (and he has huge fingers, so that's a great distance coming back down), he grips the bow in what looks like a bear's paw hold, with his knuckles up, and bows with his whole arm from the shoulder, only uses the upper quarter of his bow, and his bow is sometimes as far as 45 degrees off perpendicular to the strings. (His fiddle is also the worst-sounding piece of wood I've ever played--it sounds like some cheap child's toy). Yet he sounds fantastic at what he plays. Somehow he has somehow learned how to compensate for his lack of technique.

However, he has very serious limitations. His flying left hand fingers and whole-arm bowing prevent him from playing as fast as he'd like. His crooked bowing prevent him from achieving the lovely tone he'd sometimes like. It's painful to watch.

I've seen a number of fantastic fiddlers (old time, Swedish, New England contra, swing, etc.) play with what looks like atrocious technique and sound really really good. Some of them have serious neck problems, some have serious shoulder problems, and all of them are limited. I've seen other fantastic fiddlers playing with GOOD technique, and in comparison with the others, they totally blow you away with their sound.

The fiddle teachers I know teach good technique. It will never limit you, and will help a lot.

April 18, 2011 at 07:10 PM ·


MIchael Cleveland has one of the most unusual bowholds I've seen. He has been blind since birth, and figured out a lot on his own.  Doesn't seem to hold him back much.

April 19, 2011 at 04:31 AM ·

Regarding " it is that those who differ so radically can sound wonderful," check out Tossy Spivakovsky, whose bow hold and violin position were unique. 

April 21, 2011 at 08:47 AM ·

Rachel Barton Pine just did a podcast about this. "Violin Adventures with Rachel Barton Pine" #60. "A conversation with multi-instrumentalist and early music specialist David Douglass about his groundbreaking research and performances on the early arm-held violin."

April 26, 2011 at 12:46 AM ·

 As good as he is at what he does, we'll never know how successful Michael Cleveland would be as a classical violinist with his way of approaching the instrument.  The same can be said, IMO, about most non-classical fiddlers.  I think Mark O'Connor, for one, has shown that he'd have a good chance of mastering the classical style with a lot of success, but I don't know of anyone else who comes to mind.  It'd be a bit like a contemporary Hollywood movie actor trying to switch to being a full-time Shakespearean actor.  The styles are very different.

Someone like Michael Cleveland figures it out one way or another.  Most of us don't have that gift and we need a reliable, tried-and-true approach.  

Still, as a guitarist, I know what you mean--when I watch Paco de Lucia or Tommy Emmanuel I just shake my head at the impossibility of it.


April 26, 2011 at 12:57 AM ·

 FWIW,  Gilles Apap (my favorite classical violinist by far, even though his intonation is somewhat questionable) has dabbled in the "country fiddle" style, and sounds 100% authentic when he does it.  

So, classical technique is clearly not a hinderance when playing "necka rosa."


Check out this fascinating video, in which Gilles shows how he played various stylistic variations of his infamous Mozart cadenza for Menuhin:

April 26, 2011 at 04:15 AM ·

 Fiddlers do not have to shift or to bounce their bows, so they don't usually need a classical (i.e. fully developed) technique.


"I doubt even the best classical players could last 5 minutes in a high-end Nashville session."

My first symphony gig was in Nashville, and I knew most of the top session players. They were all classically trained and members of the symphony. Good classical players can play ANYTHING. 


April 26, 2011 at 07:48 AM ·

Scott, I know I'm gonna' regret posting again, but I do believe you completely missed my point. (but it's a tired argument, and classical players don't like to be told that they have no groove, so let's end it there.)

For the record, the only A-list Nashville violinist I can think of (not that I know them all) that has any kind of professional classical background is David Davidson.   You can make a  pretty big list of those that don't.  Bobby Hicks, Aubry Hainey, Mark O'Connor, Stuart Duncan, Randy Howard, Johnny Gimbal ...   even the main players from the old days, like Tommy Jackson & Jean Heard.

Technique isn't enough, you also have to be able to feel it.  (You typically also need to be able to improvise.)  There are of course some individuals that can do both really well, like Davidson & O'Connor, (or Gilles Apap, I guess) but they are rather rare.

April 26, 2011 at 06:11 PM ·

Technique is a formalized way to have, or gain, ability.  Some simple pieces can be very stirring when played well. People who perform within their ability on these pieces can be very enjoyable.  In any genre, some pieces are very challenging.  That's where technique is necessary.  Another requirement to play at the top of any genre is deep knowledge and playing experience in that field.

Mark O'Connor has tremendous technique, even though he is not conservatory trained.  Listen to and watch his videos and you can see/hear terrific technique.  He's also knowledgeable about several genres - having written 8 concertos for orchestra and several string quartets. Mark stands out as a performer/composer, but several other "non-classical" performers have outstanding technique.  A short, off the top of the head list includes, Jean Luc-Ponty, Jerry Goodman, Didier Lockwood, Christian Howes, Naoko Terai, Florin Nicolescu, Richard Downs, Hernan Oliva, and Fiona Monbet.  There are others, and there are several historical performers with outstanding technique.

The questions about technique for any student are - how good do you want to sound; what level do you want to perform?  If they are aiming for the top, in any genre, they need technique and performing experience.  Its demanding and competitive in any genre, not just classical.

April 26, 2011 at 08:39 PM ·

A little comment on one of the YouTube videos of Gilles Apap's extraordinary and wonderful cadenza for Mozart 3 raises an important issue – namely that few performers* today write their own cadenzas, preferring instead to use cadenzas written by the greats of yesteryear (e.g. Joachim et al).  Apap has done a lot to redress this and to set a general example for others;  obviously not that others should necessarily compose a multi-genre cadenza like Apap's (which I like to think would have had Mozart in hysterics were he around today to hear it), but something that displays their personal vision of the concerto they're playing.

* I am happy to include myself among those few, for, when I was in my early 20s I gave a performance of Haydn's C-maj cello concerto and, not liking the tiny cadenza in the score of the 1st movement, wrote and played my own. It wasn't a big or difficult cadenza, and certainly not a great one, but it was in the style of Papa Haydn and it was my own (which was the important thing). 

May 1, 2011 at 02:14 AM ·


I don't know about the others you listed, but Ponty and Goodman were classically trained.  I think Ponty was a concerto soloist at age 11.


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