How should a classical violinist learn to fiddle?

July 12, 2010 at 11:02 PM ·

I’ve played classical-style violin for twelve years. Classical violin playing will always be my first love and passion, but I would love to dip into fiddling now and again, and not sound so much like a classically trained violinist sight-reading fiddling fake books! I want to learn how to get that accent, so to speak, in my fiddle playing.

I know there are many different types and styles of fiddling from a wide variety of geographic areas, but what characteristics do they tend to have in common? If you had only a few weeks to teach a classically trained violinist how to play with “a fiddling accent”, what would you tell them to focus on first? Listening to fiddlers? Which ones? How should we hold the instrument? Any special left or right hand issues we should be aware of? I see lots of fiddlers with their scroll much lower than us classical players. Is this to encourage playing closer to the fingerboard and to make drones easier?
I guess what I’m asking is, how can a classically trained violinist, who never expects to fool the Real Fiddlers out there, begin to learn how to fake it? (And sorry if this is a lame question, because I know I'd roll my eyes a bit internally if a fiddler came up to me and asked if it was possible to learn how to play with a "classical violin accent", but bear with me; I know absolutely nothing about fiddling, although I listen to a bit of it here and there.) Thanks so much.

Replies (33)

July 13, 2010 at 12:07 PM · Hi,Emily, Folks on both sides of "the great divide" make a big deal about how hard it is to cross, but I think they're all to some extent letting ego get in the way. Classical players who can play both baroque & romantic composers with suitable or typical styles can certainly add "Celtic" or "bluegrass" to their style inventory. The biggest component is learning to listen very deeply. Classical players have generally been immersed in the lit they play, so they don't always have to think about what they're doing to play in a style. Same thing for fiddlers. But a fiddler who wanted to play Bach, Bartok or whoever could certainly learn that, too. // The crash course for classical player- novice fiddler. 1) Decide on a style or a few tunes, get recordings you like, and listen till the tune is as familiar as Twinkle. Then start playing, matching what's in you ear to what's in your head. The various fiddle styles use different bow weights & strokes, but it isn't that different than what you change to go (from Bach to Bartok). Some styles use no vibrato, some use a little. A few are vibrato-heavy, such as gypsy, klezmer, some swing & ragtime. It is well worth watching good players of particular styles. There's no particular reason to undo classical playing position, and especially none to undo your bow hold. You more are watching to see if the slide pitches & how, how much 4th finger is used, where in the bow they get the sound & if there are noticeable places in the tune or in the stroke that are a little heavy or a little light. Many fiddle styles don't strive for the long bows with smooth, even tone common to several eras of classical composition. Sue PS I took up Cajun fiddle seriously 10 years ago. I've played for a dozen or more "legends" & current players and I always ask how my classical accent is, & that they tell me in blunt language what to work on. I take their OK's at face value :)

July 13, 2010 at 03:22 PM ·

 Thank you so much for your words, this is exactly the type of thing I was looking for, although I wasn't sure how to verbalize it!!! Thank you thank you thank you!

July 13, 2010 at 04:05 PM ·

Just play very badly and forget all the standards you may have been taught and you should be OK!!

July 13, 2010 at 05:14 PM · Hi,again,Emily, You could take a look at the websites "fiddle hangout" and fiddle world". Lots of good info, tunes to listen to. You can check for fiddlers and/or jams in your area by posting a question at those. There are also a number of outstanding fiddle camps all over the country if you have an open week. Sue

July 13, 2010 at 06:55 PM ·

The key to most of the fiddling I've seen (Appalachian, Missouri and Irish) is to remember that it's primarily DANCE music.  The PULSE is sacrosanct. You already have all sorts of tricks up your sleeve that will enhance the pulse (nice crisp attacks at appropriate times, etc).  As I heard one fiddler instruct a student once: "You've got to get your foot right, first".

It takes a little while to learn the tunes by ear, often because in a jam session you're surrounded by fiddlers who may not actually know it all that well themselves.  But they're so good at pounding out that beat, and they throw enough confusing double stops in, the melody you're trying to learn becomes elusive, and you'll get discouraged.   The unwritten law is that no one should feel too bad about a wrong note, so long as it's right on the beat. If it's in the right chord of the right key it's icing on the cake.

Whatever differences you see--low scroll, bent wrists, fiddle on chest, bow hold way above the frog--probably just a collection of bad habits understandably collected by musicians who are completely self-taught. 

When you're in a jam, try to sit next to one of the better fiddlers or mandolin players, those who play clean melody lines.  The phrases are quite repetitive, so first just listen for how the phrase ends, even if you can only remember the last note.  Then the first.  Only a couple more in between and you'll have it.  If you can hear a banjo or mandolin playing a "less note-y" version than the fiddlers, try to follow them.  You'll hone your skills at experimenting with the tune at a volume only you can hear. You'll soon have it figured's just some simple arpeggio.  But keep that pulse the whole time!

Forget vibrato.  Embrace drone-y double stops.  Don't do long, smooth notes. Put some sort of edge on the beat.  Then, when you are with some banjos, guitars, mandolins, double bass--players who are comfortable with the tune and their instruments---the music becomes a kind of mantra.  Soon you'll realize how closely everyone is listening to one another, and you can start playing around with some nuanced interpretations within the group.  You'll experiment with how subtle that can be, while still driving that hard rythm that makes all the onlookers want to dance.  You're classical training can only help.





July 13, 2010 at 07:53 PM ·

I'd like to reinforce and reemphasize two comments that Sue Bechler made - 1.listen till the tune is really, really familiar,  2.  when playing, match your playing to what's in your head.  Simple as these may sound, they are not simple and they are fundamental differences with classical performance.  As one improvises, it really helps to have the melody 'running in the background' in your head.  Suffice it to say, it takes a lot of practice to do this well, and it is outside the skills taught in classical training.  The second point means several things.  It can mean having a style in your head and matching it in your playing.  It can mean having some riffs / motifs in your head and executing them in your playing.  It can mean hearing a rhythm pattern from someone else in the group and improvising notes to go with this new rhythm -  and on and on.  The mind is really active in fiddling or other styles of improvised solo violin performance.  This is not to say top classical soloist have inactive minds while performing, but rather that the nature of mental activity is very different.  And it takes lots of training and practice to do well in either style.

July 13, 2010 at 10:49 PM ·

I think that's all excellent advice from Sue, Phil and Mike and I'd agree with it all. Could I just add - don't be tempted to emulate any of the postures, bow-holds (part-way up the stick), or 'pancake wrist' of some fiddle players. Whilst these things by and large don't  affect the quality of the music, and there are some mighty hot players who play this way, you would gain nothing by adopting any of these postures and habits.



July 14, 2010 at 12:53 PM ·

Just for a little "cross-over" inspiration, find a copy of the CD "Short Trip Home".  Much of it is industrial-strength Bluegrass, and the featured fiddler on it is -- ta-da! -- Joshua Bell!  Be sure to listen to "Death by Triple Fiddle" (Track 9).

July 14, 2010 at 02:33 PM ·

Listen, listen, listen.  The styles of playing you are trying to emulate are fundamentally aural, based on traditional standards and practices.  And as someone said, they place at least as much emphasis on rhythm as on melody.  I like to say that the fiddler is playing both rhythm and melody, simultaneously, something likely absent from what you've been taught.  Consider, for example, that dancers don't particularly need melody, but that rhythm is essential; so pick a tune, and play it as an exercise in rhythm, not melody.  Rock the bow, make the rhythm bounce, push the time so that you're anticipating the beat, not on the beat, and see if what you end up with sounds like fiddling.

For listening I strongly recommend going to original sources, and reach back.  The Lomax Library of Congress Kentucky recordings from the late 1930's are wonderful,  William Steppe and Luther Strong.  More recently, Tommy Jarrell had that rhythm/melody combination all the time, required listening.  The Hammons family West Virginia material reflects old styles.  And so forth.  There is a huge body of reissued material from early 78s to hear.  Someone mentioned a Joshua Bell recording; I sampled in on Amazon, and it's not what you want to understand fiddling.  Try some Hammons family samples:

Tommy Jarrell:

Various from Smithsonian collections:

A dose of this kind of stuff should at least get you thinking.  Have fun.


July 14, 2010 at 03:45 PM ·

 I myself practice three things on a daily basis for my fiddle playing:

1. one hour of technique related to fiddle playing: detache etudes, shifting etudes (both Kreutzer) and vibrato

2. half hour of timing excercises: practicing tunes and improvisation with a metronome on beats 2 and 4

3. one hour of practicing vocabulary: licks, tunes, tricks etc.

For the third step Youtube is invaluable. You can start here ;)

Oh right: PLEASE don't forget vibrato. Having an excellent grasp of vibrato and being able to control it to the utmost detail (different speeds, stopping and starting at will) is VERY important for adding color to fiddle music, be it bluegrass, manouche or other fiddle music. A weak vibrato is what separates the boys from the men so to say!

July 14, 2010 at 05:00 PM · There are some decent recordings, vcr, dvd out there where the teacher breaks the tune down for you. I like Matt Brown's teaching CD. He's a young guy w/a solid classical background and a great fiddle accent. His tone is really elegant. His recording is for "old-time", a catchall for tradtional Southern fiddle styles which are also pretty much the ancestors of bluegrass. Brad Leftwich for vcr/dvd. For Cajun try Mitch Reed's vcr/dvd. Sue

July 15, 2010 at 02:34 AM ·

@ Peter, um, thanks for that awesomely enlightening reply........

Everybody else, thanks for your input. I'm excited to put some of this new knowledge to good use. Thanks so much!

July 15, 2010 at 03:57 AM ·

Lots of good advice here but one thing I want to add.

Speaking as a semi-trained classical player (violin was my 2nd instrument) that crossed over to New England contra fiddling and then crossed to Southern Old-time, if you want your fakery to be somewhat plausible, you should try to find a style where you like to listen to the music.

Because you'll need to spend a fair amount of time doing that in order to internalize the flavor of that music.

Sue and others have given you a good set of things to listen for -- aspects of fiddle music that can be different from classical.  Becoming a careful listener is a must for truly learning any fiddle style.

But if you don't begin to musically understand your new style at an intuitive level, you're going to sound like someone speaking a foreign language with the wrong accent, the wrong timing and the wrong idioms.  To my mind, that says a non-trivial amount of listening is required.

And outside of a few basic aspects of fiddling, the differences between two fiddle styles can be larger than any difference you'll find between two eras of classical music.

However, all styles put an emphasis on rhythm and phrasing.  The primary way to generate rhythm in the styles I play is to subtly (or not so subtly) make the bow changes more audible -- putting an edge into (some of) your bowing.  But I don't know that this is universal:  Irish fiddling may put more of an emphasis on lilt, rather than edge and if that's correct, the mix of techniques used there would be different than what I'm used to.

And to echo other's advice:  don't change your mechanics.  You've probably got the mechanics and techniques you need.  You just need to learn when to use what (and when not to) in the style you want to learn to play.

July 15, 2010 at 04:58 AM ·

Youtube IS awesome.  I wish I'd had it when I was younger. 

Not so much the "how to" videos, but the tons of videos/films of great fiddlers playing.  It can't replace jam sessions, but it sure can teach you a lot about all the great ways to play fiddle.

July 15, 2010 at 12:00 PM ·

and the list go's on.The above fiddler's show alot of advance  technique matched with style.There is no need to lower your standards to play fiddle ,it's the oppossite ,you need to pick up youir game.I enjoy the music of fiddlers with a good clean bounce in their bowing ,and in tune double stops.

The intrument and bow aid in the learning of the style ,of coarse once you have learned a style ,you can play that style on any violin ,but you will always find there are violins and bows  that will give you that sound you're looking for, and make that style easier to learn or play.I  find when it comes to violins and bows to fit a style ,think "character" first , don't consentrate on  balance clearity and projection as much.

The two main elements I work on with my students is the use of improvised ornaments and timing,and the control of the bow accent (speed vr pressure ).




July 15, 2010 at 12:24 PM ·

 Hmm. Not sure about the fiddlers in those Youtube clips. Most of them except for Dane Cook - who I really like - have either very poor technique, awful tone production/intonation or sloppy timing. I'm not sure they are good role models for classical violinists. How about:

- Stephane Grappelli (gypsy jazz)

- Roby Lakatos (hungarian gypsy music)

- Marc o'Connor (bluegrass)

- Jim Van Cleve ( <- awesome fiddler

- Stuart Duncan (bluegrass)

Type in those names in Youtube for fiddlers with clean sound, impeccable time and stylistic awesomeness all around :)

July 15, 2010 at 03:02 PM ·

With all due respect to David Sanderson, don't dismiss ALL the music on the "Short Trip Home" CD so easily.  The "Concert Duo" tracks and some of the others won't get you where you want to go, but "Death by Triple Fiddle" (Track 9) and "BP" (Track 6) have some really good -- albeit somewhat "progressive" bluegrass characteristics.  The rest of the CD is just plain fun.  The title track is reminiscent of something you might hear in Copeland's "Appalachian Spring".  "BT' (Track 3) puts me a little in mind of a "Bob Marley Meets Flatt & Scruggs" scenario -- I can't get the melody or the syncopation out of my head.  :)  And everyone else on the CD (except Joshua Bell) has outstanding bluegrass credentials.   

July 15, 2010 at 11:26 PM ·

Or fiddling with a little more guts and dirt that's a lot harder than it looks, try this.

July 16, 2010 at 12:22 AM ·

 To me, fiddling is a social activity you do with your friends, or soon to be friends.  It's all about feeling and sharing the music, camaraderie, and fun.  With regard to technique, try not to annoy others.

Never let one of us amateur fiddlers tell you that you sound too classical.  We're just jealous.

And you're always welcome at any of the Minneapolis/St. Paul sessions if you're ever in town.

July 16, 2010 at 04:09 AM ·

This was a great podcast with Liz Carroll, Eileen Ivers, & Charlene Adzima, all outstanding, fiddlers talking about their craft.

Cleveland Celtic Podcast

If the link doesn't work it's the August 11, 2008 episode of the Cleveland Celtic Podcast.

July 16, 2010 at 02:02 PM ·

In the original post Emily asked: "I know there are many different types and styles of fiddling from a wide variety of geographic areas, but what characteristics do they tend to have in common? 

Our answers have pointed to practically everyone between Stephane Grappeli and Tommy Jarrell.  Is it possible, just for the sake of discussion, to define the term 'fiddling'?  I can hear what Mark O'Connor and Stephane Grappelli (and Christiaan van Hemert) have in common, and I can hear the similarities between Tommy Jarrell and Bruce Molsky, but are there just one or two characteristics that they all share that Emily is trying to pinpoint, and then understand the technique that gets you there?   

July 16, 2010 at 03:12 PM ·

Hi Phil,

Interesting question. I have always felt that fiddling has more than anything else to do with three specific things:

1.- timing to a steady beat, i.e. playing with a rhythm section. This is very different than timing in classical music where time is mostly " floating". Both feels require a lot of study to get down and it is equally hard for fiddlers to play "classical" time as the other way around.

2.- learning conventions of the particular style you want to play. If you want to play bluegrass start learning bluegrass-licks. Gypsy jazz? Start learning those licks. Indian music? Start learning ragas! Tango? Start transcribing Suarez Paz, Francini and learn the conventions of tango violin playing. Irish? Start learning those semitone embellishments!  And so on. 

3. - study the harmonic language of your fiddle style. This is often a big step for a classical violinist. Learning chords and figuring out how they relate to each other and what sounds good to play on them. However, step two will make you understand this slowly and thoroughly: if you transcribe a lick by Mark o'Connor and see what he's playing over a specific chord or progressions of chords you'll get it eventually.

What stays the same for all music (fiddle or classical) is technique. I know you see many strange violin and bow holds. But that usually just means: bad technique! Same goes for harsh tone production or poor vibrato: bad technique. So for technique one needs to study classical music, every day for the rest of your life. Good or above average classical violinists usually make the best fiddlers, they just need to split their time between classical and fiddling equally (and find good teachers/ ways to practice).

Some fiddling styles are a lot harder than others but the way to mastery stays more or less the same. The amount of time it takes to master a style differs though. Jazz styles take a while, but if you master that bluegrass will be a breeze. If you master bluegrass all the Irish, Scottish and Cajun styles will be available within a couple of days/weeks. Tango is a good place to start when you're a classical violinist (and PLEASE, not the way Kremer did it but the real deal); then I'd go to Cuban, then to gypsy jazz and finally bluegrass.

These are the styles I've studied and it took me about 15 years 3 hours a day of study (with one hour technique) to get them all " down" (not there yet of course, never will be). Others might do it/did it a lot quicker no doubt!


July 16, 2010 at 03:42 PM ·

Christiaan -- a clear and eloquent overview.  And now I'm inspired to grab my violin/fiddle  and start exploring every avenue you've laid out!  What a world of music!

...and if anyone finds themselves in an old-time jam and is in need of a couple of "Do you know the difference between a fiddle and violin?"  jokes, I can offer two that usually get a chuckle:

#1:  It's a fiddle if you didn't mind when you spilled your beer into it.

#2:  A violin is a fiddle that went to college.




July 17, 2010 at 11:18 PM ·

A lot of pretty good advice (with one obvious exception, although I think Peter was just having a joke ...) Good listening examples posted too. I recorded a short sample of something I wrote myself,  quite a simple piece, and played it completely straight, as one would play if reading from music which had the note, but no markings on it. I then repeated the sample, but this time I changed the accents, the bowing, the dynamics, to give it more swing, and added some grace notes too. I think this is the essence of fiddling as opposed to "violining". Each style has its own characteristics, as you well know. I hope this is of some help to you :) 

The sound quality is a bit boxy, as it was recorded in a bare room with no sound deadening.

The whole piece is here :


July 18, 2010 at 07:56 AM ·


your link spoils the whole page layout, I can't read anything because it's all too wide to fit on the screen.

Please edit your posting and use to make it shorter.


July 20, 2010 at 05:37 PM ·

Heres a great example in my opinion. She makes use of the whole bow with a classical hold and plays with a real old time soul. She really rocks it out at the end.

July 20, 2010 at 06:53 PM ·


Hmm, not sure about that one. She plays quite a bit out of tune, has less than desirable tone production and no real timing concept as far as I can tell by this video. Furthermore her technique seems kind of forced. You will probably find me too critical but these kind of videos make classical violin players think fiddling is an inferior way of playing the violin. Being a fiddler myself I encounter that attitude a lot! 

If you're in the market for an excellent (female) fiddler in the bluegrass style:

Impressive stuff: in tune. excellent tone and very, very good timing and style. To boot, she plays left handed on a right handed violin; I guess if you're used that kind of thing it's easy but wouldn't it be neat if she just did that for this video :)

July 20, 2010 at 10:28 PM ·

 For starters I would think it would take a change of life style honey. You've got to be with it man. To get that chops rolling a disconnected upper body helps. Then you chuck your sheet music away and sleep under the bridge for a night. Your nice and loose now, your going to play on the upbeat. Start chewing gum and smile at those gorgeous looking men and the fiddle will be playing by itself. Who cares about intonation, now your a free soul.  The stiff upper lips with the opened violins are just a long gone haze babe.  You know what fiddling is, better far than they. 

July 20, 2010 at 10:44 PM ·

I like the way you think Dion  ;)



the violin sings,but the fiddle dances

July 21, 2010 at 12:27 AM ·

heres one of Dions proteges

July 21, 2010 at 02:07 AM ·

Balance with the instrument and the bow. Free neck,shoulders arms and hands... Legato detaché. Soft pad of the fingers,one at the time in first position, starting with sounds on the D string. (Not  E,A or G.) Then when it sounds good, try on the other strings starting with E and teach the slight motion of the arm under being a kind of legato motion,like a singing détaché of the bow (Balance).  These were my very first lesson's with a master,one of the best students of Alfred Dubois ( himself an ex Ysaïe student) Hold the violin and bow like a flower he said all the time. Be soft and gentle with your left hand and fingers. Feel the weight of the bow on  the strings and make it glide like a skater. Do not press for sound, just apply more speed... Over an over again I have heard for almost two years all these advices. That is what I remembered and all sort of games with the other students who attended the lesson, each one being impatient to play...

July 21, 2010 at 10:08 PM ·

Hope that fixed it Tobias.

July 22, 2010 at 07:40 AM ·

Thanks, Eric!

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