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?
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