Teaching a Fiddler

August 13, 2013 at 06:33 PM · I recently began teaching a young lady with a love for mountain bluegrass and a rather strong dislike for anything remotely classical. She's pretty anxious to learn fiddle stuff as quickly as possible, but I want to give her a solid technical foundation first. However, she feels that my view of a strong technical foundation is leading her toward classical playing. How should I create a curriculum that keeps her interested but also provides a good foundation? Thank you!


Replies (37)

August 13, 2013 at 09:02 PM · Learn to play mountain bluegrass for your self. Then your playing may convince your student to follow your teachings.....

August 13, 2013 at 09:20 PM · As someone who has been playing fiddle for 35 years without the benefit of formal training, please tell your student that the more effort she puts into a good foundation now the better fiddler she'll be regardless the style. Fiddlers I know with early classical training definitely standout from the rest of us.

August 13, 2013 at 10:21 PM · As The old story goes to excuse bad fiddle playing...."I never had lessons"....( Well I never had lessons either, I say under my breath, but I gave myself 'lessons' )

August 13, 2013 at 10:35 PM · Reiterate that the basics are the basics...both fiddle players and classical players need the same foundation.

Have her watch Natalie MacMaster play (YouTube)...her bow hold might not be entirely 'classical', but she has a loose grip allowing for a wide range of colour, speed, movement, etc. (vs. the death grip some fiddles have)... her wrist isn't collapsed, she incorporates vibrato, etc.

August 13, 2013 at 11:24 PM · My feeling is that you have to meet her halfway from day one, working not only on basic technique and setup, but on the music that she loves. If you don't feel you can do that, you should probably steer her to another teacher. That's what I have done in the past and would do again.

August 14, 2013 at 01:07 AM · Can you find folk tunes instead of classical to teach the technique concepts you need? At the foundational level at least there should be a plethora. Beyond that you can work out of a good technique book like Drew Lecher' or Simon Fischer's while moving repertoire toward fiddle pieces?

August 14, 2013 at 01:27 AM · Mark O'Connor's method books might fit the bill.

August 14, 2013 at 03:01 AM · Hi. I don't know about your own violinistic activities, but you have to be yourself. If that's mainly classical, that's who you are and will most convincingly offer. And also if you are mainly a classical musician and a student doesn't simply prefer to specialize in another kind of playing (which I happen to like but is not what I could teach) but actually finds classical music abhorrent, how does that make you feel?

You are right, that a solid foundation will serve a player well for anything, and eventually they can branch out into whatever they want to specialize in. If your new student doesn't want to accept that and thinks she knows best, she should probably go elsewhere and not try to dictate terms to you.

August 15, 2013 at 12:07 PM ·

August 15, 2013 at 05:43 PM · Good for you for making an effort to tailor your methods to fit your student's needs! Your student obviously has trust issues with you, and if you can't convince them that everything you ask them to do is for a specific purpose to get them where they want to go, then they will constantly fight you, and I personally don't think it's worth it. You can try explaining the importance of each instruction to anyone who wants to be a good fiddler, but I sense this person is already convinced she doesn't need to learn any technique. If that's the case, she can learn on her own, like my grandpa did, and good luck to her. She's wasting her money and your time.

August 15, 2013 at 05:49 PM · By the way, the best fiddlers I know all believe in teaching a solid foundation of technique. She also sounds really impatient, like in a couple of lessons, she expects to be able to play fiddle tunes. Seriously, if she argues with you, drop her. I can't even imagine being a student and disregarding my teacher like that. I could just be projecting my own negative experiences with "fiddlers" who thought they knew better than I did. Liz Brown's advice looks more helpful.

August 15, 2013 at 08:17 PM · I generally turn away such students.

August 15, 2013 at 08:57 PM · It takes a lot more than "basics" to be a convincing fiddler in any traditional style. Granted that bluegrass is not exactly traditional. I'm not saying that basic technique is bad, but it's just one small step. My feeling is that if you cannot play bluegrass yourself well enough to fool most bluegrass fiddlers, you should consider helping her find another teacher. But that's only my opinion and not likely to influence anybody here.

August 15, 2013 at 10:18 PM · Of course it's good to get a sound technique the only problem is that violinists who have gone through classical training without any attempt to play other styles invariably can't play other styles. Or, they think that if you can play the notes of the piece you are playing that genre. It's about much more than that: feel, inflection, ornamentation, emphasis, stylistic sensitivity and much more go into playing a different style. Much of this comes from listening, imitating, picking things up by ear. There is a lot that is not to do with technique - not to deny the importance of technique but it is not an end in itself. Through training you are also conditioning your brain in a certain way and, just as somebody who lives in a culture will have an accent, a classical player will also play other styles with an 'accent'. Not to say you can't be learning both while you are training.

August 15, 2013 at 11:34 PM · One minor suggestion, which may or may not help (hopefully, it will). What are the similarities between classical and bluegrass? Point them out and have the student connect that way.

For example, one of the rhythmic basics of country, rock, jazz, etc., and classical is the syncopation of rhythm - off-the-beat accents and stresses (including in the melodies). I defy you to find more than a few measures of almost anything by Bach where even the melodies themselves aren't syncopated (with off-the-beat acccents).

I'm sure there are other features like that (the slope of the melodies, the harmonies, etc.).

In any case, if you can give this student something familiar to listen for and connect with, hopefully it will help.



August 16, 2013 at 12:12 AM · Many fiddlers are really resistant to learning 'technique'...like it's an evil conspiracy that's out to get them. Then, at some point, they end up with issues in their own playing...and when they ask what these issues are a result of - it always comes back to technique...

Also...I'd like to point out (again)...not every one will be...or wants to be...accomplished (be it fiddle/classical). Many people are quite happy just to be able to play a recognizable tune...others are just happy to have the experience of learning something new...

What I think a good teacher should do however, is try and lead everyone down the right path as far as technique goes. Then, if the student ends up wanting/needing it...the basics are there...or at least they understand the concepts that you were trying to instill...

However, a belligerent student just won't be open to learning...like leading that proverbial horse to water...so it doesn't hurt to be prepared to call it quits either, should that be the situation.

I'd still start with Natalie MacMaster on YouTube...

August 16, 2013 at 12:30 AM · They'll quit soon anyway when you try to teach them things like positions or double stops.

August 16, 2013 at 12:44 AM · ...they might balk at positions...but not at double stops...that generally starts right off the bat...

August 16, 2013 at 06:05 AM · > the only problem is that violinists who have gone through

> classical training without any attempt to play other styles

> invariably can't play other styles.

...until they learn how to. How is this a problem again?

Moreover, producing a good tone, having a wide range of articulations (bow strokes), and playing in tune are not unique to any genre.

August 16, 2013 at 06:56 AM · "they might balk at positions...but not at double stops...that generally starts right off the bat"

only if it involves an open string

August 16, 2013 at 01:40 PM · But that's okay too! Fiddling does have it's own sound...and that sound relies on open strings. There's nothing 'wrong' with using open strings!

There is room in the world for all kinds of violin music :D!

However, you still need the basics - even if you play open strings and never leave first position.

August 16, 2013 at 02:42 PM · The problem I find is that fiddle music is not as easy as it sounds. You may have to extract the "basics" from the music in quita different order from that of a more "clasical" method.

But you may end up by creating a plublishable method...

August 16, 2013 at 04:29 PM · There are so many great fiddle books out there; I'd say that you can combine maybe a good scale book and method book with fiddle music.

I really like the Simply VIolin fiddle books (If I could just figure out how to buy them, their site seems to be not selling) and Mel Bay has approximately a billion fiddle books.

Some of my advanced students went to a Bluegrass festival just for fun and exploration, and I think they got the most out of just bringing their violin (and I think one brought his mandolin, too!) to informal jam sessions and simply joining in. Since they have such a strong basic technical foundation (and also the open-mindedness to playing by ear that came with Suzuki in their early days), it was really easy for them to join in and just have a lot of fun.

August 16, 2013 at 08:22 PM · I was taught classical violin as a child & took the violin up again 18 months ago in my sixties. My main interest is folk fiddle - not bluegrass, but Scottish & Irish, with a hint of English Playford. My teacher knows both traditions. I find that playing scales helps me with intonation, and playing pieces by Handel & Bach limbers up my fingers & when I try the folk tunes again, I play much better. So I think if your pupil can accept that there is a benefit to knowing both traditions, that's fine, and you have something valuable to teach her. But if she has a closed mind, then maybe she'd be better going elsewhere. Good luck, whatever.

August 16, 2013 at 08:52 PM · I have recently started inta fiddlin' for my own amazement. Not that I'm worth writing home about.

There's a pretty good resource for a classical violinist wanting to move into fiddling on Amazon. it covers fiddlin style and rhythms in the intro. It's a fake book, so the arrangements are pretty simple for beginners, but you can add your own gingerbread to it.

As I'm playing some of the traditional and folk tunes, it occasionally hits me how close the basic structure is to some of the Bach Partitias. Not so much with country rags. They're closer to Joplin. :-)

So if you pick up this book and work up a couple of shuffles, you might have a lot of fun with your student -- giving an object lesson that basics are basics, no matter what style you play.

August 19, 2013 at 12:55 AM · Hello everyone,

This is my first post. I don't usually have anything to contribute to discussions; you all do a wonderful job without me so I just lurk and learn :) I'm a fiddler so I'll chime in on this one. BG isn't my favorite genre - I mostly play Irish, Scottish, Cape Breton, etc., and occasionaly a little oldtime - but IMO, the points you've made here are valid for all trad music.

Your student sounds like she's been talking with other musicians or maybe reading trad music forums. Classical vs. trad style comes up a lot and many people insist that learning anything beyond simple basic techniques somehow prevents one from playing traditional tunes in an "authentic" way. That's misleading, especially for beginners. Inexperience and lack of understanding traditional music is the real cause and all it takes to overcome that is being willing to learn different ways to use those techniques and, of course, actually listening to the music.

Your student says she loves mountain bluegrass so I guess she's referring to pre-Bill Monroe music? Mountain music is kind of like juiced up oldtime and mountain blue grass is like juiced up mountain music - if that makes any sense :) - kissing cousins, along with other styles like country music, gospel, etc.. Bluegrass fiddling requires advanced skills: it has to be played tight and precise and often goes up into third position. You also need to know how to take a "break" (an improvised solo) so you need some music theory.

Mountain music/bluegrass is a lot less demanding so if you can stand it, hold off on trying to build a foundation and take a more informal approach for now.

I wrote out a study plan I'd use with your student but deleted it. I don't teach - I do some informal tutoring but I wouldn't teach if somebody paid me, lol :) so I'm not really qualified. Instead I'll offer some suggestions I hope will help:

Ask her what tunes she wants to learn and start by teaching an easy one to her by ear, even if you give her the sheet music. There are tons of free mp3's and sheet music online if you need it. You don't have to be perfectly authentic - just get the rhythm right.

She'll hit a lot of walls but she'll appreciate your effort to work with her in a non-classical way. Give her assignments that tie in to the style she wants to play and be a little sneaky - simple shuffle exercises also work on rhythm and bowing skills.

She'll either accept that you know what you're doing or else drop out. And probably take up the banjo. :)

Sorry for the long post.

August 19, 2013 at 12:25 PM · Thank you all so much for your help! After these ideas and suggestions, I feel much better prepared to help this student. Last week at her lesson, we spent some time just listening to various types of fiddle stuff to see what she really likes...think of the Darlin family on "Andy Griffith." :) I think I'm going to use a combination of Essential Elements (to lay a good foundation) and some of the books listed in these posts. Thank you so much!

August 19, 2013 at 03:58 PM · Catherine,

Here's a link to a tune played by Krista Solars. Krista has a violin performance degree from Indiana University, and a masters in performance from U. of Texas. She plays classical performances, e.g., weddings and concerts, and some exciting fiddling. Have your student listen closely to this tune with you, and point out the tremendous technique. It all comes from a solid foundation.

Wabash Cannonball

August 19, 2013 at 09:24 PM · This is my grandson's ensemble ("band"):


The violinist is still a classical student as a junior at University, and has over a dozen years of classical training. At one of their performances that I attended he told me that he had been performing string quartets (Mozart, The Hint) that afternoon, He developed the improvisational techniques used in the Steep Ravine band in high school working with my grandson, who has been classically and jazz trained on piano since he was 5, and jazz and classically trained on guitar for at least the past 5 years.

My grandson is the guitarist and usually lead singer in the band, Steep Ravine.

You can listen to 5 of their songs at the website and you can download their EP for free. They will be studio recording a CD next month.

You can see if this is the kind of thing the would-be student wants to do.

Another story related to me by a violin maker friend (I've bought 2 of his violins and one viola): A pair of teenage sisters, who each owned a violin he had made, and who grew up studying the Suzuki method before moving on to more conventional pedagogy were passing through Tehachpee, CA on there way over the mountains to Bakersfield and saw the sign advertising a fiddlers' contest. They were not fiddlers, but classically trained violinists. They entered the contest as a duet - and won!

A number of the girls who were studying in that Suzuki program passed through our community orchestra (where I lived from 50 to 20 years ago) on their way through high school and before heading off to college (a number as violin majors). I remember how sometimes two of them would play Bach - alternating measures - and even alternating notes. Now, I don't know how to teach the improvisational techniques that "fiddlers" develop but I know that kind of horsing around can't hurt.


August 20, 2013 at 03:19 PM · The notion that fiddlers "balk at positions and double stops" is crazy. Different styles of playing violin require different techniques.

I'm both a classical player and fiddler, and I literally do a brain switch when ever I switch styles. You can do both - neither one is more correct, they are different.

Yes, rarely do *bluegrass* players go into positions. I don't actually play bluegrass myself just because I'm not crazy about the music, but look up Alasdair Fraser on YouTube, and you'll see how Scottish fiddling in particular goes against this notion. As a *fiddler*, he frequently goes up to high positions (at least fourth), uses three-note double stops, as well as harmonics and other techniques familiar to classical players.

Natalie MacMaster, the Cape Breton fiddler mentioned earlier in the thread, plays in positions. By the way, her bow hold is amazing. You cannot play the music she does with a standard classical bow hold and sound authentic. The techniques are very different.

Mairead Nesbitt of Celtic Woman uses positions.

Generalizing fiddling as inferior to classical playing because players don't utilize every technique classical players do is misguided.

To the author of the thread, if you at any point feel like you can't teach your student what she wants to know, feel free to tell her that so that she can decide to pursue such lessons from some other teacher, or can realize that the world of classical music is as wonderful as the world of folk. The techniques are so different that continuing after that point could be detrimental to her ability to play either style, if that makes any sense.

BUT - she does need to know from you that the fiddlers on this website probably unanimously agree that scales, double-stop etudes, arpeggios, etc. are not going to lead her to being the classical player she doesn't want to be. They will be just as incredibly helpful to her as to any classical player.

Have fun learning with her! Fiddling is a ton of fun! :)

August 20, 2013 at 04:56 PM ·

August 20, 2013 at 07:53 PM · what about sitting down with her and listening to some of the kind of music she is aiming for, then making a list with her of the techniques to develop? I am sure scales, arpeggios, intonation, "tone" although that may be different applications from classical--same with quick and sure string crossings, double stops, control over nuance-again, she may want different types of nuance-bow distribution, whatever else. Then she will see that it's mmostly the same content but different application, and you may get some ideas how to go at it for the applications she is looking for.

bbut also-if you want to get her to relate to classical too--bach and Bartok are a fun combo for piquing the interest, in my experience, for a fiddler. Pretty related, at the roots.

August 21, 2013 at 07:11 PM · Well said, Polly Butler! All too true. It's nonsense to think that fiddlers only play open strings, and avoid positions and double stops. I am also a classical player and a fiddler, and I can confirm that switching back and forth isn't as easy as it may seem. The best fiddling can be fiendishly difficult. Just watch Natalie MacMaster playing Tullochgorum on Youtube. One thing that should be emphasized is that to learn fiddling properly, any young musician will need eventually to study with a good fiddle teacher and to attend lots of fiddling sessions. It's an aural tradition and it has to be heard and imitated in its own context. You can give her a solid technical grounding, but despite the best of intentions, a teacher without fiddling experience won't be able to take her to the heart of this music. But some humility will go a long way. The original poster may perhaps possess that precious gift, but I have seen too many stereotypes about fiddlers and fiddling traditions, unfortunately, perpetuated by classical musicians. However I think I am beginning to see, at last, some welcome signs of a change in attitude among younger classical violinists. The respectful discussions between Aly Bain and Nicola Benedetti, broadcast by the BBC and easily available on Youtube in three parts, seem to confirm this notion. I strongly recommend them to fiddlers and classical violinists alike. The student mentioned in the original post might also benefit, if she's old enough.

August 21, 2013 at 07:11 PM ·

August 23, 2013 at 10:00 AM · My daughter plays both classical violin and Irish fiddle. I can attest to the fact that her strong classical foundation and technique (plus the ear training she received as a Suzuki kid) have been the reasons for her success in fiddling.

She plays tunes that include shifting and double stops and uses these skills to play tunes in different keys than she originally learns them in. She has a classical teacher and a fiddle teacher. She keeps the genres separated when practicing (practices them at different times of the day). Many of the young people we know who are the more successful fiddlers also began with or still play classical music.

If you are able to supplement your program with a few fiddle tunes your student likes through which you can teach the same technique, that is fine but I would suggest teaching the student technique in the way you do best and encourage her to listen to fiddlers, attend fiddling camps, and eventually get a fiddle teacher. There is a lot more to fiddling than playing the notes. I also know some classical teachers who have attended fiddle camps to help themselves sound more authentic so they can teach interested students.

August 26, 2013 at 10:53 AM · Log on to www.fiddlerman.com/ for some encouragement and very useful information.

August 30, 2013 at 03:58 PM · First decide if these are students you want. I have friends who simply won't teach them, preferring to stay classical in approach.

If you like fiddling and are familiar with the styles and techniques, then you need a whole separate syllabus for them.

I use the same scale books for everyone, and those who have trouble are often steered to a 'classical' method book for the beginning fundamentals. Some need them, some don't.

Your best bets for fiddle only students:

1. Mark O'Connor's Method

2. Brian Wicklund's "American Fiddle Method"

3. Carol Wheeler's "Fiddling for Children" (this is excellent, but presupposes about two years of Suzuki, so it's not a starter book for me).

You need to know the differences in approach regarding vibrato & bow technique really, in order to not have your students come out sounding too 'classical'. Tougher than it sounds lol

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