Self-teaching in folk fiddle?

February 3, 2014 at 04:37 AM · Hi, I am still beavering away at my folk fiddle. I have an hour a week with a teacher who is also a performer and I am learning all the time, mainly by osmosis. But before I went to him, I bought two fiddle manuals, both with cds. One is 'The Irish Fiddle Book' by Matt Cranitch, and the other is Play Scottish Fiddle (Intermediate) produced by Scotland's Music.

Should I wait till I'm not having the lessons at some point in the future & work through these books? Or try to find some time - difficult - extra to my lessons, and my exam tuition with another teacher entirely? Or ask my folk teacher if he'd mind working through the books with him?

If you're a fiddler, what would you advise? Do you have experience of teaching yourself through these books, or maybe others that you'd recommend? It would be nice to hear of the experience of any who have taught themselves using a handbook 'tutor'.

Thank you in advance for any replies.

Live long & prosper

Replies (20)

February 3, 2014 at 05:05 AM · Look for books by Brian Wicklund.

February 3, 2014 at 02:36 PM · Always found the tuition manuals of minimal value. Apart from the teacher, going to local sessions was the biggest help, along with a few good tune books to expand the repertoire.

February 3, 2014 at 02:58 PM · If you chose the books with the tunes you like, try the Suzuki way :-). I am not joking, just ignore the books and take the CDs out only and listen to them. Daily. For as long as you like, maybe a month but every day. If you like a particular piece put it on repeat and listen to it ten times in a row. Each time you will discover something new, a rhythm or tone sequence. After a month of doing this you will find that some of the songs are already 'in your head' and you no longer need the books :-).

February 3, 2014 at 03:23 PM ·

February 3, 2014 at 07:02 PM · Here's another vote for Brian Wicklund's books. Back when I was playing bluegrass mandolin, a friend who was getting back into violin picked up some of these books and we started playing together. And then he started bringing in pieces by Brahms and Corelli, and next thing I knew I was taking classical violin lessons. Now we're both playing viola in a local orchestra. So go for it - but be ready if it leads you in unexpected directions!

February 3, 2014 at 11:38 PM · Should I wait till I'm not having the lessons

Wait....? No! Open those books and begin....playing.

February 3, 2014 at 11:54 PM · Lots of good advice in all the above posts. The most important thing in learning any kind or style of folk fiddling is to get the sounds and rhythms of the music in your head. That means lots of listening. Then if you want to learn from books it will be easier. By this I mean that if you know what the tune sounds like it is easier to learn it from sheet music. Just remember that sheet music is only an approximation of the tune and many fiddlers will play the same tune in different ways.

Brian Wicklund's stuff is quite good by the way but I think he concentrates on American styles. Here are a couple of good web sites for American traditional fiddling:

February 4, 2014 at 11:47 AM · Hi Mollie

Yes - most important is to immerse yourself in the music and listen, listen, listen.

Best is live, at sessions. We've chatted about this before and there are suitable options withing striking distance, particularly the slow session in Glasgow. I know you're still a bit diffident about a mainstream session, but at the start you can simply go and listen so you get to know the tunes. And you can gradually join in as you feel more confident.

Next best is recordings - and now we have Spotify and YouTube you can find pretty much any tune you're interested in. I strongly recommend investing in some slowdowner software so you can play along in key but at any speed you choose.

But I do think that books have their value too. First is to show you idiomatic bowings, which for forms like Scotch jigs and strathspeys is pretty vital. And second, it can help you decipher some of the ornaments, which can be hard to make out, even with a slowdowner. And of course, they can be a source of well edited tunes.

For Scottish technique, I'd recommend The Caledonian Companion by Alastair Hardie and Traditional Scottish Fiddling by Christine Martin. For Shetland, Tom Anderson made a little book called Haand Me Doon Da Fiddle for the local schools. It's great - particularly on the very distinctive style of bowing. It's out of print, but you can download it here. There's enough in these to keep you busy for few decades!

February 4, 2014 at 12:11 PM · The best way to learn folk or trad music is by listening and playing it with others. My daughter takes lessons with a wonderful fiddler but has learned a lot on her own by listening to her favorite fiddlers tunes on CDs over and over or watching them on youtube, by attending sessions regularly, and going to workshops and camps to learn from other fiddlers.

If you aren't comfortable playing in a session, go and hang out to listen. If you know a few tunes, people at the open sessions we've attended are very welcoming to beginners especially if they understand session etiquette. You may find some "slow sessions" in your area as well where tunes are played at a better speed for learning.

My daughter has books with accompanying CDs as well but uses those more for new tune ideas now that she knows the style. They were not very helpful in the beginning.

February 5, 2014 at 05:24 PM · I'm going to reiterate what's been said before, that if you want to learn any folk genres, listening beats books. If you only have limited time, you'd be better off spending it listening to and trying to imitate artists you admire, or going to sessions and playing along when you know the song, and listening and recording when you don't (with the musicians' permission, of course). Festivals are also great, because they often include workshops along with great musicians.

The books can be a little useful in learning about techniques, especially if you have done enough listening that you really know what it's talking about. But to play well, the focus needs to be listening. If you'll have to struggle to find time to read the books, save them for later and spend the time listening closely to the music instead.

February 5, 2014 at 05:34 PM · I agree fully with Karen. Books have their place, especially good collections of tunes in the different traditions; but the best route is working with a good teacher, listening (including Youtube if you're careful about who is performing), and most importantly, joining in at live sessions. It takes time to learn how to sound authentic, don't rush the process.

Some excellent tune books have already been mentioned, but I'd like to add, for Scottish music, the Hunter collection (The Fiddle Music of Scotland) and the famous old standby, The Skye Collection (available in facsimile). Hard to beat those two for many of the best traditional tunes.

February 5, 2014 at 07:08 PM · If you like American fiddling from the Southern Appalachian style, I would consider using this Bruce Molsky video,

I agree with others, listening is so important since folk fiddling is an aural tradition.

February 6, 2014 at 12:36 AM · Excellent video, Chuck -- I've bookmarked that one!

February 6, 2014 at 02:09 AM · I agree with all of the above, but also, attend as many workshops as you can. There will undoubtedly be some near you. I've found it hard to learn by ear, although I'm getting better. Workshops are great to learn the nuances that make a particular style of music.

February 6, 2014 at 10:39 AM · Ah yes, playing by ear. Something all fiddlers should practice, I think. But it's rarely tought as a skill - people are just expected to pick it up somehow.

Some tips that were passed on to me and may be worth sharing:

1) Obviously, look for the resolution note to give you the key

2) Get a sense of the structure within the A and B parts. They are usually divided into 2. The second half is sometimes a a variation of the first half, sometimes a new theme. It helps you to remember the tune if you consciously note this relationship.

3) In the same way, you can note how the A and B parts relate to each other. For example, they often modulate up a fifth or an octave. Or perhaps the second half of the B part restates a theme from the A part. This is particularly helpful with multi-part variation sets. Each tradition has structural patterns like this, and you soon learn to recognise them.

4) Pick out the key notes that define the structure of the tune - I like to call them the skeleton notes. If it's a fast tune, you can work your way in by just playing those notes. They are often, but not always, the first beat of the bar.

5) Then start filling in the linking and embellishment notes.

6) Finally, if all this has gone OK, you can add ornaments and variations, and start riffing with the tune.

Probably the best way to get going is in the practice room with simple tunes and a slowdowner. And then graduate to workshops. But once you are confident you can consolidate your skill in sessions, where it really comes into its own.

I find playing by ear relatively easy with the fiddle compared to the concertina. You go up to go up, down to go down - it's all very logical. One of the main challenges is getting the bow organised when there are a lot of fast string crossings - something I have to work on...

February 6, 2014 at 02:37 PM · I agree that playing by ear is a skill, but it is also innate to some people. I could harmonize when I was eight and play be ear at six. In some ways it is a disadvantage.

Old time fiddlers could hear a tune and "get it" as they say. That might explain why tunes have so much variety.

There is also an old sound of a fiddle, solo fiddle (no accompaniment)as with the Bunt Stephen's recording below, and archaic style called "crooked" tunes like Zollie's Retreat.

It is hard for anyone today to play "old" since we did not grow up hearing old. I prefer to take what I have grown up listening to and developing my style since that is truly what the tradition calls for, individuality barrowing here and there, always ready to implement something new.

One more thing you hear in these old recordings of solo fiddle, a heavy beat made with the foot fall. It's very noticeable with Hobart Smith and not at all with Clyde Davenport. Their music is on YouTube.

February 8, 2014 at 04:17 PM · Listen to lots of music, as much as you can get your hands on. If you tune in to dance programs such as BBC Scotland Take the Floor - you will find a fair selection to traditional dance music. There may be equivalent programs on Irish radio.

BBC Alba is the Scottish Gaelic language TV channel that has lots of traditional music as well as crossover styles such as country music.

The main thing is to listen to lots of music so you get a feel for the rhythm, phrasing and tempo.

February 9, 2014 at 03:43 PM · There's a lot of excellent advice here. But I think when your are learning fiddle technique it's best to stick to the style that is played locally, until you feel quite confident of your own playing. It's important to ground yourself in your own tradition, at least at the beginning. Irish, Scottish, English, Shetland, and all the sub-variations, not to mention on this side of the pond Appalachian, Cajun, Quebec, Metis, Cape Breton, etc., are all wonderful musical traditions, but they are each quite different and make different technical demands on the player. One could go mad trying to learn all the different possibilities.

February 9, 2014 at 09:40 PM · You could go for the total immersion technique and attend a festival such as Willie Clancy festival in County Clare, Ireland ( It's laid back and accepting of all standards of player, except that you need to be really advanced to attend the classes in Clare style.

February 11, 2014 at 09:15 AM · Thank you for all these lovely replies, which have been so interesting & helpful.

As soon as our Ruby Wedding party is over, I intend to build my handbooks into the structure of my 'folk fiddle' lessons. I hope it will lift me off my plateau.

Peace & long life to you all. :)

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