Struggling to manage both classical and fiddle

February 22, 2015 at 06:52 AM · I am an adult learner learning both classical violin and bluegrass fiddle. In terms of classical, take weekly 60-min private lessons and am on Suzuki Book 4. With fiddle, I take weekly 45-min private lessons and am at a solid intermediate level.

Aside from the significant financial costs of taking 2 lessons a week, I am having a really hard time fitting in enough practice on both styles. Currently I'm practicing 5 days a week for 1.5-2 hours a day, split evenly between classical and fiddle (so 45 min to 1 hour for each style).

My fiddle teacher has gently suggested that I quit classical lessons for now, if I want to "get serious" with the fiddle. She says that doing so would allow me to essentially double my practice time for fiddle. She also said that with 2-3 years of intense practice, I'd be at a decently advanced level, and likely be able to compete at some local bluegrass competitions.

I LOVE classical, but I love fiddle music ever so slightly more. So, I'm considering putting classical lessons on hold for a few years, and then definitely returning to them later.

However, my main concern with stopping classical lessons is that I am worried that my technique and "proper" posture will suffer. My fiddle teacher (excellent and very well-respected in the fiddle community) has NO classical training, so she doesn't do anything with exercises/etudes (e.g., Wolfhardt or Sevcik), and she's not at all concerned with making sure I hold the violin correctly, etc. I'm worried that if I stop classical lessons for a few years, when I return to taking classical lessons I'll have inadvertently picked up all sorts of bad habits. In addition, I really do believe in scales/exercises/etudes, even for fiddlers, and I'd like to keep building up as strong of a technique as possible.

So, my tentative "solution" to all of this: I'm thinking that I might try to find a classical teacher who will see me on a biweekly basis, for 30-minute lessons. During those 30 minutes, we would focus solely on scales, exercises, and etudes. This would allow me to make sure that I still have good technique, and keep my fingers in shape for when I return to classical music.

What do you guys think of this plan? Do you think it is a wise one? And do you think I'll be able to find a teacher to agree with it?

Replies (29)

February 22, 2015 at 07:08 AM · It really depends what your long-term goals are for your playing.

My take on it is that it doesn't matter what style of music you play, but if you don't have any scales, scale exercises, etudes, and other technical development as part of your daily practice, you're not going to develop all of the kinds of skills you need to be a competent artist in your chosen medium.

I served as an accompanist in Modern Dance for several choreographers over a six year period, and had to collectively improvise with a pianist and percussionist in 90 minute blocks 2-3 times a week. There was never any written music, and we had to adapt whatever we played to fit the rhythmic structure of the work being done. We generated music in a a whole range of styles from 1500-now (including rock, pop, jazz, swing, various regional fiddle variants, experimental, newage, etc.), and if I didn't have a solid foundation in "classical" training through Flesch, Bach, and Paganini, I wouldn't have been able to do it.

It's the first job I had where I had to sit down in the record archives of my local music library and listen to everything I ignored before (as someone who really only played classical music) so that I could understand the vocabulary of those different musical genres.

February 22, 2015 at 07:34 AM · I'm worried about your bluegrass teacher's recommendation. I think at your level, a lot in lessons isn't Classical vs. bluegrass but rather striving for a solid foundation in technique - I agree with your intuition. Fundamental techniques and ideas like bow control, bow distribution, articulation, phrasing, vibrato, intonation, body relation to the instrument etc...will go on to serve you whether you'll play bluegrass, jazz, Classical, medieval, you name it. I will take your blussgrass teacher's suggestion with a grain of salt and just take the best out of all our teachers. Good luck!

February 22, 2015 at 11:33 AM ·

February 22, 2015 at 12:41 PM · I remember when I took up with a new piano teacher at the age of 16 with the purpose of studying jazz. At my first lesson, the first piece I was assigned was a Scriabin prelude. He told me I absolutely had to keep studying classical too, it is essential not only for technique but also it is a wellspring of musical ideas. I suspect the latter point is less important in fiddling than it is in jazz improvisation. What I learned is that to learn jazz, I just had to find more time. My solution was to give up the violin! Oops.

I like you plan of having two teachers. Sorry to say, but your description of the fiddle teacher is one of incompetence.

February 22, 2015 at 04:02 PM · I suggest finding a fiddling teacher who has a classical background.

As it's been said, it's not much about style. It's more about proper technique. Bluegrass as well as jazz put more emphasis on a subset of techniques idiomatic for the music. Classical music covers a bigger ground but spends relatively less time on jazz scales, continuous double stopping, droning on open strings etc. So it is understandable why learning classical repertoire can slow down one's progress in any other genre. If we had all the time in the world, we could learn everything. But the reality dictates that we need to prioritize as you have already realized.

February 22, 2015 at 05:22 PM · Thanks for all your great responses! Gives me lots of things to think about.

But just in defense of my fiddle teacher -- she may not do exercises and etudes, but that doesn't make her a poor player by any means, or an "incompetent" teacher. The fiddle community just doesn't value the same things the classical community does. Which is probably why I'm experiencing such discomfort in trying to straddle both worlds!

February 22, 2015 at 06:01 PM · I know what you mean ... the proof is in the playing. Sorry if "incompetent" was too strong. But someone who has nothing to say about hand positions, etc., shouldn't be teaching violin. The risk of harm to the student is too great. I've heard people say, you don't need classical chops, because look how great (insert famous fiddle player) was with their fiddle on their chest and the heel of their left hand glued to the violin's neck, and my reply is that he or she might have been twice as good with proper training. Thats one reason why I like Brian Wicklund's books. He stresses the importance of correct technique.

February 22, 2015 at 09:39 PM · At the other end of the "non-classical" scale are jazz and folk violinists such as Stefan Grappelli (jazz) and Jean Carignan (folk), both with an enviable command of technique. I believe Grappelli was at the Paris Conservatoire for 4 years, which would have done his technique no harm whatsoever. Carignan on the other hand was taught privately by Joseph Allard, possibly the best Canadian fiddler of his day, the result of whose teaching can be seen in this video of Carignan playing as an encore a virtuoso version of "The Devil's Dream", complete with left-hand pizzicati that Paganini would have doubtless approved:

The point I'm making is that such mastery is the result of first class teaching by the teacher(s), intensive application by the pupil, and dedication by both, over a long period of time. There have never been short cuts, and never will be.

Before I got into playing classical violin I had already been playing, largely self-taught, Irish fiddle music for about 5 years (and orchestral cello for decades), at which stage my fiddle "technique" reached a brick wall that I couldn't get past. So I looked round for a teacher to solve my problems. The proprietor of my local violin shop recommended one who has her feet firmly in both classical and folk (taught by Suzuki himself, and now runs her own very successful folk band). The first two or three lessons were devoted to deconstructing what little technique I had and rebuilding it, as result of which 2-1/2 years later I was able to transfer my orchestral playing from cello to violin. I continued violin lessons for another 5 years, and have now been playing violin in orchestras for 6 years.

From my own experience, a few off-the-cuff tips to help in identifying an effective teacher:

1) Do they move around you a lot of the time, looking at your playing from all angles?

2) Do they identify a problem quickly, and come up with a viable solution equally quickly?

3) Do they start off a lesson with two or three minutes of body, arms and shoulders warm-up exercises.

4) Do they concentrate basically on one problem per lesson?

5) Are they reluctant to go on to the next piece until you are able to play the current one at something approaching performance level, rather than just getting the notes right?

6) Do they focus attention on posture and relaxation right from the start?

7) In the later stages do they invite you to think about a problem yourself and see what solution you can come up with? This approach is actually an introduction to self-monitoring and self-teaching.

This is not all. Inevitably, if you have a teacher who knows their job you will come to a stage when you yourself will know you are ready to proceed on your own. This means your teacher has succeeded in their task and your "apprenticeship" is now finished. Your learning isn't, though: you are now equipped to organize your own learning and monitor your technique. You will have what I hope will be an enjoyable lifetime of experience-based learning and music making to look forward to.

February 22, 2015 at 09:52 PM · My daughter plays classical violin and Irish fiddle. She has classical lessons weekly and sees her fiddle teacher every other week. About 3/4 of her practice time is on technique, scales, etudes, and classical repertoire and 1/4 fiddling.

It is true that many fiddlers do not stress the same technical skills and for most fiddle tunes, not much more than Suzuki Book 4 skills are necessary to play decently well (ie. very little shifting between positions for the majority of tunes) but for my daughter, the skills learned through classical lessons allow her to pick up fiddle tunes quickly by ear even in the middle of a session, change tunes to different keys easily for fun, and freedom to express herself through fiddling without any technical hang-ups.

It might be that focusing on classical music for the next year to develop good tone, intonation, etc… while listening to bluegrass music and playing in sessions does more for improving your playing than focusing solely on bluegrass music. A solid foundation will enhance any playing you do.

February 23, 2015 at 05:11 AM · Donna, is your daughter "serious" in both classical and fiddling? If she is, then would you mind my asking what you believe the minimum amount of practice is for a relatively serious fiddle student?

I'm currently doing 45 minutes a day for each style (45 min for classical, 45 min for fiddle). My main reason for wanting to drop classical is so that I can spend the whole 1.5 hours on fiddle, because I'm worried that only 45 min a day is shortchanging it if I want to get serious with fiddle. But now I'm wondering whether that might be overkill -- maybe I should take your advice and not drop classical too quickly. What do you think?

February 23, 2015 at 10:52 AM · Classical violin requires techniques not found in fiddle music. Can I suggest spending a little practice time on these techniques through short exercises and pieces (not lengthy studies) but without trying to get them to real performance level. The fiddle can only benefit!

Posture? I see fiddlers adopting a stance which enable them to play, fast, for hours on end, but without the need for much shifting or vibrato. For large hands, the flat palm seems common, but maybe it's worth keeping an upright hand? The drooping fiddle will not damage classical playing, despite what folks say. (I play viola, a lot, so I should know!)

February 23, 2015 at 12:50 PM · Yes, Annie, she is very serious about both. She has won or placed at the All Ireland championships for the last three years and has played pieces like the Mendelssohn and Bruch concertos.

I don't know what the minimum is. I think it depends on a lot of things like your current level vs. where you want your level to be, how efficiently you practice, how quickly you learn, and how much material you are covering each week.

I hesitated to mention how long my daughter practices because she is "very serious" about both and I didn't want you to compare or think that amount is necessary for everyone. We homeschool so she has a lot of time to practice...difficult for an adult who works. She practices between 2-4 hours every day, closer to 2 on days where she has a lesson but closer to 4 on days she is home or when she has gigs to prepare for. She does a lot of listening on car rides or while doing other things around the house.

February 23, 2015 at 02:31 PM · I am a cajun fiddler and do not play any classical violin at all - although I have taken some classical technique lessons over the years. I am connected to the classical side as a violinmaker and lover of the music. To me it seems that maybe the issue is not one vs the other, but more of your mindset and intent. I am wondering if the issue maybe not the actual time one "takes away" from the other, but how you think of each and transition from one to the other. If you are serious about both, you need to think of them as different things and figure a way to not let one get in the way of the other, not in terms of time, but in terms of technique and attitude. A fiddle teacher my be biased against classical music or not be able to help you figure out how to hold two different (but similar) things inside of you at the same time.

February 23, 2015 at 03:41 PM · Annie,

Think carefully about your objectives. There is a reverse situation that may be informative. Some teachers focus kids on a very narrow set of techniques and classical pieces so they can win classical contests. Its called "hot-housing" kids. Some of these kids win contests and get into good music schools. Virtually none of them turn into soloists - which is what they trained to become. They hit all sorts of walls, not all of them technical. Most of them get into good schools and end up in orchestras. Success is in the eye of the beholder.

Playing any instrument well requires "seasoning" - thousands of hours of work. The violin requires more than most other instruments. When you think about it, you may find that your "classical practice" is on the same path as fiddling. Or maybe not - it depends on what your path is.

February 23, 2015 at 03:58 PM · I don't know all that much about the fiddling world, mostly because the music itself isn't that interesting to me. But I have a vague impression that there are more and more prize-winners at the various competitions who had significant classical training (e.g., Mia Orosco), and I can only posit that their superior, well-rounded technique and their experience in applying that technique toward the interpretation of a broad range of "classical" styles gives them a significant advantage. I would expect anyone who can play the Handel Sonatas cleanly and in tune and up to tempo should have a leg up.

February 23, 2015 at 04:21 PM · Anyone who can play Vivaldi at insane speed should be able to knock out reels convincingly. :)

February 23, 2015 at 06:02 PM · That's actually not true, Kevin. The bowing is *completely* different. In fact, I wish that the bow were the one with two different names, rather than the stringy paddle, since that's really where the heart of the difference lies.

I understand what Annie is saying, as someone who teaches and performs both classical and "fiddle" (which is really too broad of a term, as it encompasses every use of the violin other than classical). Although I strongly believe that lessons learned in one style can be translated to another, it isn't true that practicing more classical will automatically make you a better fiddle player. Your fiddle bow arm will suffer if you don't practice it, just like your classical bow arm. And your ear, too, will atrophy if you don't spend time listening to the musical language of each, resulting in an unpleasant "accent" in each style.

Furthermore, there is technique to be learned for fiddle, but it's not the same technique. The technique is more focused on how to get a better and better swing and how to improvise with greater and greater fluidity. The left hand technique is much less extensive, I will grant, but it does exist and it is different.

Fiddle players are often insulted by the attitude of classical players that all it takes to play fiddle is to be a good classical player, and rightly so. They don't believe that all it takes to play Vivaldi is to be a good fiddle player. If you want to be a respected bluegrass player, then exercises like Kreutzer, Dont, Rode, three octave scales, and classical bowing etudes are useful only in the most esoteric way. And make no mistake: playing a ripping Kreutzer bowing study is not going to guarantee you a good bluegrass sound.

I imagine most wouldn't blink an eye if a classical teacher told a student to stop wasting time with a bluegrass teacher. That said, I personally would not tell an adult student to stop studying with another teacher, as I don't think it's my place to give adults those kind of imperatives. If I had serious issues with the instruction coming from the other teacher, I would be honest with the student about it and let him or her know that I didn't think it was beneficial to continue with both of us and let the student make the decision.

I don't think it's necessary to choose one or other, and many well-respected performers who inhabit both worlds agree with me. But I can understand how an adult with limited resources and time may want to choose one or the other, and that does make sense, since it is essentially like learning both German and French. Yes, you're using your mouth for both languages, but they both require an enormous investment of time to achieve results.

February 23, 2015 at 06:11 PM · But, having said that, there is basic violin hygiene that's important no matter what you're playing. The collapsed left hand is a great example. I wouldn't let that slide in any student of any age, playing any kind of music, because it affects intonation, and it will prevent the player from shifting if s/he ever wants to learn. Same goes for a stiff right arm/wrist/fingers. If they want to focus on fiddle, that's fine, but I don't want them to ever be impeded down the road by bad habits. The idea is to build on your library of musical languages rather than spend time unlearning ways of playing that just aren't efficient.

February 23, 2015 at 07:08 PM · Well stated, Sarah. In defense of Kevin's point, I would guess that someone who can play something like the Vivaldi Four Seasons should have the basic control over his or her bow and bow-LH coordination to learn fiddle bowing more quickly than someone who cannot play the fast passages cleanly.

I have an idea ... produce a series of fiddle bowing studies to go with selected Kreutzers, I bet those would be a big hit.

February 23, 2015 at 07:19 PM · Well, sure. Obviously the higher level of technique that you start with, the easier it will be to learn any new technique. However, it's not the case that whipping through a reel with the same bow arm you would use for Vivaldi will give you a good reel. It will give you the notes of that reel with the sound of Vivaldi. It will be immediately rejected by everyone who understands the style.

If I neglect to practice fiddle--which sometimes happens, alas--what happens is that I lose agility in the necessary motions for the bow arm. I notice that my string crossings revert back to classical style, which is where I come from and what I would identify as my primary style if pinned down (but I won't be, thank you). I also lose mental agility for improvisation, whether that's the tiny adjustments I would make to an Irish reel in accordance with the style or the more sweeping improvisation necessary for something like gypsy jazz. Of course I can still play a recognizable tune, but I'm not at the top of my game when I don't practice, just like with classical. I think a lot of classical players also imagine that learning other styles stops with learning the notes. The basic skeleton notes of the tunes are much easier than the notes in classical pieces, so it's easy to think "oh, that doesn't really need practice," but it does, if you want to keep doing it better and better.

As far as the fiddle bowing etudes, don't you tempt me! ;)

February 23, 2015 at 07:31 PM · I cannot believe reels require more dexterity in string crossings than some of the most insane Vivaldi concerti. BTW, the four seasons are not at all representative of Vivaldi's violin concerto writing.

But I agree that playing reels with a Vivaldi sound doesn't fly. It would be lacking that bit of twang in the sound and surely gut strings won't help. LOL.

February 23, 2015 at 07:38 PM · I didn't say it required more dexterity. I said it's a totally different set of movements, and it is.

February 23, 2015 at 10:14 PM · Thanks for the response Donna. Your daughter sounds very talented! I wish I could be homeschooled so I could have that much time to practice! :) Did she finish all the Suzuki books? My classical teacher wants to wean me off of them after book 5, but I'm not sure what I want.

And thanks to everyone for your thoughtful responses. I agree with Sarah that fiddling (speaking of it very generally) requires a different set of movements. My bowing definitely had to be reworked for bluegrass. And I've heard classical players try their hand bluegrass (without having much knowledge or practice in the style) -- it always sounded pretty "off" to me. HOWEVER, I do know some excellent bluegrass players who would benefit greatly from classical training. I have no idea how they manage to play with such crazy postures and bowholds.

February 23, 2015 at 11:42 PM · He who shall not be named probably has a lot to say on this.

But what Sarah says rings true to me. A lifetime of classical only and I wouldn't stand a cat in hades chance of playing that blue weed stuff well. Can play Vivaldi though....


February 24, 2015 at 01:47 AM · Annie dont skip book 6, there are two Handel sonatas *plus* La Folia by Corelli. Its wonderful stuff. You know, I think Corelli would have appreciated modern fiddle music.

And Sarah, I was serious about the etudes. If you really could develop etudes that would teach, in a gradual and systematic way, the sounds and feels of, say, the top three or four fiddle styles, you'd make a fortune. I woukd buy that for my daughter. Etudes and explanation that would explain the difference between the fiddle sound and baroque playing would be so valuable.

February 24, 2015 at 11:43 PM · I've always taken classical lessons, but I do play a lot of bluegrass fiddle as well. Sometimes I feel a bit self-conscious when I realize I'm the only one keeping the neck up level or going up into 3rd position and staying there for a while - but I manage to fiddle reasonably well and I'm accepted by the rest of the group as a strong player. I think classical training is more disciplined and exacting, and gives me technique I can use while fiddling. But one of these days I really should work on that double shuffle...

February 25, 2015 at 01:20 AM · I recall Yo Yo Ma mentioning that the bowing was the most difficult part of the playing that he did with Mark O'Connor (blessed be his name...:) and equated, from a difficulty perspective, a Texas style fiddle tune with a Bach Sonata or Partita.

You, as a classical player, might have incredible control and ability, but if you try to play Sally Goodin' from the music, without bowings or fingerings, you'll sound a mess. There aren't any bowings or fingerings. You get to make them up yourself and figure out what works, as a fiddler, that is.

Bluegrass, old-time, classical, they are all very different, and having classical chops doesn't always help in playing non-classical styles. You can be a wonderful, skilled classical violinist and a beginning Bluegrass fiddler, both at once.

I understand what the teacher is saying. If you go to bluegrass, with rare exception, you'll venture up into 3rd position on the E string, and everything else is in first position. Kind of a waste after those 3 octave scales.

Play violin, have fun, and realize that they are very, very different. Just don't tap you foot when you are playing Bach...

p.s. You don't seek out a teacher that you can agree with. That doesn't work.

February 25, 2015 at 09:31 PM · My thoughts on this one : I'd be tempted to stay with the fiddle teacher. I play bluegrass fiddle myself, and classical too, and I believe that there's a fair amount of commonality in both genres, as regards technique.

Annie, you mentioned getting to a "decently advanced level", so let's assume that your fiddle teacher will eventually take you to the stage of what would be expected of comtemporary bluegrass fiddlers - some of the repertoire of Flatt and Scruggs, and Kenny Baker, as well as that of more modern players.

For that, you would need to have the ability to play double stops in 1st, 2nd and 3rd position, and also be able to shift up and down from one double-stop to another. You'd need fluent double-shuffle bowing too, as well as being able to play in at least two of the 'flat' keys.

It's my opinion that to get to this stage with a classical teacher, it would take many years - plus the fact that double-shuffle bowing may be an alien concept, depending on the teacher's musical background.

You could keep practicing some basic but important classical exercises, eg the content of Sevcik Opus 1, part 1. It's by no means musical, but excellent and straight-to-the-point, homing in on finger strengthening, finger agility and finger independence too. With patience and perseverance you could do that by yourself, without a teacher.

As for your posture, etc - I'm of the opinion that if anything is wrong with it, you'll know fairly quickly, and be able to self-correct. Even a non-classically trained teacher should be able to spot what is wrong, if you can't.

Of course the ideal solution would be to have a teacher with a solid background in both classical and bluegrass, but they are hard to find! (There are a lot of those kind of players around, but owing to playing commitments, they do not teach).

February 27, 2015 at 03:06 AM · My daughter went through Suzuki Book 7 with some outside pieces thrown in. After Book 7, she branched out to other repertoire.

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