Violists playing and jamming fiddle music

May 4, 2007 at 10:56 PM · I have a new student, a classically trained violist, who wants to play fiddle music She’s especially interested in jamming and improvising. I started by giving her a quick survey of different styles of folk music from the Fiddler’s Fakebook. I got some transcriptions of American and Celtic tunes arranged for violin, viola, and a few other instruments, and we’ve been playing them together. I gave her copies of some of my CDs of fiddle music, including one with a violin, banjo, and cello (Crooked Still), which is very good, but I’m unaware of any recordings with viola featured. When I coach her, I give her some basic instructions for fiddling folk music: Don’t play so legato. Emphasize the rhythm more. Play with a little space between the notes, almost choppy. Avoid vibrato except as an ornament. I’m having her review scales, arpeggios, and double stops in fiddle/viola friendly keys to help her jam. She has been listening to recordings and improvising harmony. Sometimes the two of us play together with me playing mostly melody and her improvising harmony. We’ve tried swapping melody and harmony. Sometimes she plays just below the violin and sometimes a whole octave below. Sometimes I play harmony higher than her melody, and that sounded surprisingly good. We’re trying these combinations and finding what sounds good to us. We both like the dark sound of the viola in certain pieces with some mournfulness. She plays the bluegrass classic Jerusalem Ridge solo, two octaves below the violin part, as a slow air, and it is really, really beautiful. Reading sheet music is a problem since there is so little written for viola and they use that weird clef. She sometimes uses violin music and transposes in her head while playing. Sometimes she plays lower than the violin, and sometimes she plays the same notes as the violin by moving up into the positions on her A string. We’re both having a lot of fun doing these things, and we’re learning a lot together. Are there any classically trained violists out there who have branched out to fiddle music? If so, can you give us some advice?

Replies (23)

May 5, 2007 at 03:16 AM · Not to sound like a jerk or anything, but these kinds of discussions often leave me shaking my head and muttering "missed the point again...". The way I see it, when people talk about what specific technical things one should do to play folk music, the problem is they are approaching folk music from inside a classical mindset. Then the "folk idiom" becomes something of a gloss on the surface of still-classical playing, and the end result does justice to neither classical nor folk music.

I once heard a violist friend of mine play a tune that he had learned straight from a gypsy in Spain. It was fantastic: authentic, vital, un-messed with, un-cliché-d and un-"urbanized"--like the difference between a café violinist and an old peasant playing at a country wedding. He hadn't learned it from sheet music or any formula for sounding folksy, he learned it from listening to the gypsy, watching him play and then just imitating what he saw and heard.

In my perhaps-not-humble-enough opinion (I am our completely self-anointed expert on folk music), classical players can only learn to play real folk music the way real folk musicians do. No sheet music, play by ear. Don't worry about tricks, formulae and shortcuts, learn the "folk style" by listening to it. Wing it, in other words.

I could go on for pages about this (and probably end up sounding about as coherent Béla Bartók on a huge, vehement rant after one too many pálinkas in some weird little village somewhere), but I'd better not. Please forgive me my's only my two cents.

May 5, 2007 at 04:13 AM · That's the most formulaic anti-formulaism I ever read. I'd say real folk musicans can do whatever they want, including trying to figure it out on the internet.

May 5, 2007 at 04:15 AM · If you want to play music first learn your instrument.

When you have some technique you have to think about what you want to say or sing.

If you are some sort of genius you can just go ahead and make your own music.

For most of us we engage in a sort of dialogue so if you want to play a certain style you have to interact with other musicians who are talking about the subject that interests you. You must engage other people. Music is about communicating and sharing so you have to establish connections and you have to have something to say.

May 5, 2007 at 04:21 AM · This classical...folk music ...stuff is rubbish.

It is an artificial boundary. There is no real difference.

As a musician you either have something to say or you don' is as simple as that.

You choose what to say and how to say it.

May 5, 2007 at 06:05 AM · I'm a fiddler, self taught. Some people say I'm getting pretty good, including some decent classical players and teachers. I also work with classical players and teachers a lot, since I work in a violin shop.

I think you learn to fiddle best by listening and imitating. It's really hard to fiddle well from transcriptions, although I do transcribe tunes as I learn them. You learn fiddling styles from listening to good fiddlers.

I jam regularly with some classically trained players, and they always seem to sound "violinistic" until they start memorizing tunes and really listening, freeing themselves from the "dots".

I learned to play by watchng and listening to good players, from Kenny Baker to Jascha Heifitz, along with local players. I used Fischer's "basics" to help develop decent technique. I have learned a lot from classical technique in order to get the tone and articulaion that I want, but I learned style by listening. I use slow down software and record myself a lot. Very useful tools.

May 5, 2007 at 06:37 AM · Maura,

Very well said. You are absolutely correct.

May 5, 2007 at 11:52 AM · On the viola list a poster recommended Alasdair Fraser as a good fiddling violist to listen to. There's also Mel Bay's "Fiddling for viola" book that uses the weird clef.

I've been thinking about this a little bit myself because I like fiddle music and play viola, but since I also play violin, I've usually just done that instead.

May 5, 2007 at 11:53 AM · It sounds like if your student wants to learn folk fiddler, she should be learning from other fiddlers who are experts at that style. I see you're in Maryland---that's a fabulous area of the country for bluegrass, old timey, Irish, Scottish, and probably other styles too. See if she can find a local session or a jam where she can play with others and see how they do it.

As far as techniques go, rhythm is paramount. It's dance music. Vibrato isn't really practical because the notes go by so fast there's no time for it! And sheet music is misleading---it's only a *guideline* for the tune, not the tune itself---there's a lot you have to know about the style, the left-hand articulations and bowing techniques, before you can play a tune properly. So it's better to avoid writting music altogether and rely on your ear (this is especially hard for classical players trained to adhere to the page). And the most important thing to do is to listen! Tell your student to go to festivals (the weather is warming up now, there will be lots of them)---she'll get to see lots of different players and the different approaches they have to playing. Because there's no one "right" way.

May 5, 2007 at 08:25 PM · I made the transition from classical to folk player, and I can draw on my own experience. I learned a lot of tunes from books but doubted my ability to switch genres. I thought it would be easier to learn a new instrument. I learned and continue to learn the most by playing with other people. However, certain skills and principles can be taught, and I wish I had found a guide earlier. I have attended many fiddle workshops (including one by Alasdair Fraser; see my blog of 3/21/05) and classes at festivals and have learned a whole lot from them. Folk music is traditionally handed down from father to son. Is that not teaching? My student knew nothing about folk style and wanted to get some coaching before starting to jam with others, and I believe that's a very valid approach. Now that she jams with recordings, I think she's ready to try live jamming, if she feels comfortable with it.

I must make clear the meaning of my question, which seems to have gotten lost. I want to hear from violists who can give firsthand information from their own personal experience.

May 5, 2007 at 09:33 PM · I play "fiddle music" on both violin and viola. As a couple people have said Alasdair Fraser is a wonderful example.

I have simply played many fiddle tunes down a fifth. I think it is fun to both play by ear and from transcriptions but I find that I learn much faster if I have both the sheet music and an audio recording.

I have found that some pieces suit the viola very well and some, for whatever reason, don't. Certainly explore the Scottish airs and slow pieces. Also adjusting the tempo of any piece is perfectly acceptable unless you are playing for a dance (as I am this evening). Then the tempo is dictated by the skill of the dancers, the complexity of the dance, the preference of the caller and the general feel of the piece itself.

I guess what I am saying is not to try to play too fast at first. Strive for cleanliness in both ryhthm and pitch. Again, listen to Alasdair Fraser for a superb example of how it can be done.

Lastly, you must try out a vast number of tunes to find the ones that suit you and your instrument. Listen to lots of recordings and play with other musicians. Most of all...Enjoy!

May 5, 2007 at 10:07 PM · "these kinds of discussions often leave me shaking my head and muttering "missed the point again...".

There aren't really many noble savages left. But anyway, I have some ideas about it, but mainly the obvious ones. One thing to look at might be what cellos do in old time music, since the tuning is the same at least.

May 5, 2007 at 11:14 PM · Jim, you've already made it clear that you disapprove of my opinions. The discussion has moved on, leave me in peace.

May 5, 2007 at 11:20 PM · Ok. See ya at the parking lot jam Tuesday!

May 5, 2007 at 11:25 PM · Eh?

May 6, 2007 at 12:57 AM · Michael, thanks so much. That's just the kind of advice I'm looking for.

Jim, I'll be there at the parking lot, and I'll bring my violist with me.

Does anyone know of a recording on which Alasdair Fraser plays viola?

Alasdair and his cellist are giving a workshop on a weekday afternoon at a place about a two hour drive from here. I'd go if I had a car. Now I'm trying to talk my violist into taking a half day off from work to go and take me.

May 6, 2007 at 01:15 AM · I think I understood your question, and think within reason you are doing everything you can in the spirit of your question: specifically>more rhythm, less legato, spare vibrato.

I think also I understood Maura's comments. Being from a culture that has had 'color'; and, having studied intently the changes in that color in the spirit of modernity and populux, mixing genre's is a part of a never ending melting pot that nobody has control over.

Within classical, the history of vibrato speaks for itself I think, and that is within a single genre pretty much. With all that said, and from what I understand from banjo, my roots and so forth, fiddle: it's all in the rhythm.

Also considering what you are already doing with vibrato and less legato. But the point I'm trying to get at is to make the transition to be able to jam fiddle, it's alot about those short crisp notes that evolve as mature fiddle rhythm that will take the person furtherest all things considered. Fiddle and the rhythms as you probably already know was for a single instrument dance accompaniment.

Similarly, most of the people I see doing folk etc today indeed, look pretty classical to me. The hold, the long bow strokes, the vibrato..... Like Jim I think said, I plan on doing my own thing eventually, being more aware than many on our inability to truly protect purity of genre. I've also always been experimental on a surprising advanced level on piano, and was slap bassing long before I saw others doing it on keyboards.

Sooooo, just focus on the rhythm and short strokes I think, and let the student and music lead the way. Now were the discussion focused on Baroque violin, everything would be a different matter.

May 6, 2007 at 02:09 AM · Regarding vibrato, please see my blog (which is hidden from the index but you can get there through my profile page).

Also regarding vibrato, I most definitely hear Kenny Baker using it, but it doesn't make it classical. Or, there are as many ways to vibrato as there are to build a mousetrap.

Regarding the "appropriate" way to get fiddle going, on any instrument: The real point of listening versus reading is that reading is simply not enough information. Can you understand a Rembrandt painting by reading a 20 page review? In fact this applies just as much to "classical" as well. If you learned to read music and then practiced in a vacuum, would you get Beethoven to sound "correct"? Well yes, but no--it is a matter of interpretation :-/

Regarding geniuses making their own music: perhaps there is some truth to that. Perhaps there is also not much stress on composition in musical instrument instruction. Perhaps also there are some who create new and others who massage and make new. Elvis could sing and dance but John Lennon composed. We can't honestly belittle either.

Regarding jams and harmony: It all depends on the group, the attitude, and the moment.

Regarding viola and folk. I used to bring a viola to bluegrass jams. It was appreciated and welcomed. Harmony fills are "easy" and they can give some nice feeling.

Also regarding Alastair: "his" cellist's sister plays a 5 string fiddle. (She played with D.A. on his Republic of Strings project a couple years ago.) That has a viola built in after all.

May 6, 2007 at 02:52 AM · Albert, thanks for emphasizing the importance of rhythm. You are so right. In one workshop I took from Alasdair, he started by saying "You may think that this is how a violin should sound," and he played a few bars of Mozart. He continued, "Get that idea out of your head. The fiddle is a rhythm instrument. Get one of those cheap electronic keyboard devices with preset rhythms, and listen to "funky bop pop" over and over. Then try to play that way." He always emphasizes the close relationship between Scottish fiddling and Scottish dancing. He says, "The bow should follow the dancers' feet." If there is someone in the fiddle workshop who can also do Scottish dance, he has that person dance while he plays so that we can see the relationship. I've been fortunate to play with other fiddlers for local Scottish dances.

Bilbo, thanks for pointing out the inadequacy of written music, especially folk music. Most folk music was played before it was written down, and the written form often doesn't catch the spirit. With folk music, there is an additional complication: Different people play the same tune different ways. It is really important to listen a lot in order to learn to play. I keep telling my students something Wynton Marsalis said, "Listening is practicing." I'm glad to hear that, in your experience, bluegrass players welcome a violist. There are some great bluegrass jams locally, and we'll plan on joining them some time soon.

May 6, 2007 at 04:33 AM · Hello Pauline,

You and/or your student might want to check out the Pittsburgh Jazz and Fiddling Camp which will take place July 16-20 at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. I founded this camp three years ago. It is specifically designed for classically trained string players who want to expand their horizons to include fiddling, jazz, rock and world music. Please check out the camp website:

Best regards.

Roy Sonne

May 6, 2007 at 07:37 PM · Pauline, you are soo lucky to be able to go and work with Alasdair Fraser! I would jump at the chance to go. I am sure he will give you lots of suggestions for what works well for viola.

Also it helps me to remember that the violin was initially used for folk and dance music because, first, it was cheap, and secondly it was portable, and third it was loud. With modern amplification used for almost all big dances anyway the viola can hold it's own as the melodic instrument if you wish to use it that way.

May 7, 2007 at 01:54 PM · I should have thought that rhythm was essential in most styles of music. And obviously vibrato doesn't feature so much in fast passages with short notes, but there are plenty of folk slow airs that benefit from it. Not all folk music is for dancing and much 'classical' music is dance music. Why look for divisions? Music is music. All due respect to Mr Fraser.

I have recently taken to playing violin tunes on the viola using the same fingering, which is fine solo, but some folk object to fifths.

May 8, 2007 at 02:02 AM · Edward, it's simply that the fiddle is a rhythm instrument, especially when contrasted to other forms of violin. It's not really an either/or premise as much as mature fiddle 'is' mainly about rhythm.

May 10, 2007 at 02:53 PM · Your viola student might check out Cajun fiddle. Many tunes are typically played in key of C. Lots of us tune down a whole step, giving the vln a somewhat darker, swampy tone. And one standard way of "harmonizing" is to play the melody down an octave.Absolutely learn to play by ear and mimic. The bits of Cajun I've seen transcribed for fiddle don't work at all unless you already know the tune in somebody's version, or have really immersed yourself in the rhythm. Sue

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