Irish fiddler wants to add classical lessons

September 26, 2015 at 04:41 AM · After many years playing the piano, I took up the Irish fiddle at age 24. I've played for 4 years now and am very serious about it. I have an awesome teacher who lives locally, and I practice about 1-1.5 hrs a day.

However, I think that the #1 thing holding me back is technique. For this reason, I'm considering supplementing my fiddle lessons with extra classical lessons. I had about 1.5 years of classical lessons before I started fiddle, and I was on Suzuki Book 3 when I quit (I also became somewhat familiar with beginner etudes).

Here's my dilemma -- I can only scrounge up another $400 this year for classical lessons. With the local rate, that's about 13 lessons. With this budget, I have two options:

1. Take classical lessons once a month for an entire year

2. Take classical lessons every week over my summer vacation (I am in grad school and have summers off).

What do you think would be most helpful? Should I try to spread them out through the year, or should I concentrate them during a specific time so I actually get to see my teacher on a regular basis? Note: With either option, I will be able to make extra time to practice classical stuff.

Replies (56)

September 26, 2015 at 11:08 AM · Firstly, great that you're going to work on your technique. Too many folk teachers only teach the music. I'm in a similar position to you (Scottish fiddle) and feel that developing sound technique is a high priority.

I was recently chatting to a top folk fiddler admired for her technique, only to find that she's taken on a conservatory-level teacher to further improve her technical chops. I think that with today's standards, some classical training is almost a necessity. Just listen to recordings from the 70s to see how expectations have changed.

I think your answer will depend a lot on your abilities and temperament.

Kids need regular lessons to motivate them and keep them on track. More advanced classical students use their regular lessons to work on repertoire more than technique.

So as self-motivated adults who are not working on classical repertoire, the usual lesson patterns may not apply.

Personally, I'm a slow learner - it takes me a lot of time to bed in any new technique. So weekly lessons would be rather wasted on me - it would take me weeks to absorb anything new. I did discuss this once with a very good classical teacher, and her advice was that an hour a month, or two hours every two months would probably be the ideal.

On the other hand, if you learn very quickly perhaps an intensive input might be all you need to boost you to a new level.

Only you can decide. Why not identify a potential teacher or two and discuss it with them?

A quick word of warning - there is a huge range of ability amongst teachers, particularly when it comes to teaching technique to adults. Many of them focus on teaching young kids. Many of them focus on teaching interpretation. And many of them are frustrated performers with no vocation for teaching. Finding someone with advanced teaching skills who will be prepared to take on an adult beginner will be challenging. Do ask for a trial lesson before you sign up to a series, or you may get stuck with the wrong person.

If you can't find anyone locally, you might consider approaching our own Nathan Cole for Skype lessons. He's a high-end classical teacher, and a pretty mean folk fiddler.

September 26, 2015 at 11:48 AM · I've tried both methods: widely interspersed lessons, vs lessons just over the summer. The widely interspersed lessons are great if you are self-motivated, and will be able to remember exactly what the teacher told you about a technique so that you won't spend a month practicing it wrong. But between lessons, both you and the teacher will tend to forget exactly how the last lesson went.

The weekly give a strong motivation to practice the lesson material intensively each week, and it makes it easier to build from one lesson to the next. It also gives you less time to get bored with the practice material: I can learn the material from an hour long lesson in about 3 or 4 days. Seven days lets me learn it well. But more than that, and I've often moved on to other things.

Personally, I prefer the weekly. It's very easy for me to learn a full lesson of material in that time, and more time in between doesn't give me much gain. And the more frequent lessons make it easier to build from one lesson to the next. With two weeks or more between lessons, my focus will have moved from the lesson material to something else. For other people, the longer interval will mean they have enough time to really master the lesson material, and they might prefer the widely spaced lessons for that reason.

I'd also suggest looking for a teacher who has at least experimented a bit in the folk world. I've found that the classical players who have never looked outside classical music vastly underestimate the complexity of folk: they look at a lead sheet giving the basic version of a tune, and assume that's all there is to it. A little bit of exposure will go a long way towards helping them understand your strengths, and figure out what might help you most, given than you're only a limited number of lessons.

September 26, 2015 at 12:09 PM · Mary, I travelled a very similar road a few years ago and found myself up against a brick wall technique-wise after four or five years of Irish fiddle playing. Problem was, none of the Irish fiddle teachers seemed competent enough to help on a fundamental technical level, though they were excellent when it came to the music itself. So I looked around my area (Bristol, England) for a classical teacher and, with the help of my local violin shop I found one who had trained to a professional level at the Suzuki school in Japan, now runs a professional folk band in the UK (gigs, international festivals, radio and TV, CDs), and divides her time equally between the band and teaching. She deconstructed my "technique" and turned it around in two years to the level where I was able to swap over from playing orchestral cello to violin. The lessons were based largely, but by no means exclusively, on the Suzuki books, starting on #4. I continued lessons for a further five years. Problem solved!

A major point that came through from lesson 1 onwards was emphasis on beauty of tone, and intonation (which incidentally is closely related to it).

I had fortnightly lessons.

September 26, 2015 at 03:36 PM · I started on Irish fiddle at age 28, with little prior musical experience. I got to be a pretty decent player after about 4 or 5 years, albeit not terribly fast. I could do all the ornaments and such just fine. I decided recently after 10 years to take some classical lessons. I found this to be a two-edged sword.

First, these two genres are quite distinct in some areas. Bow hold, for one. Being able to do long bows is essential for classical. This is something that i never ran across in Irish dance music. I found that the bow hold and wrist/arm transitions necessary for classical conflict with the loose wrist needed for Irish fiddle. There are a couple other areas, but bowing arm is the biggest difference between the two styles.

Second, practice time. As a working adult, I have limited practice time. Since there are necessarily differences between the two styles, the only way to maintain both skillsets is to practice them both. I had to let the Irish stuff drop while I did classical lessons. It is impossible to maintain both without significant playing time.

Third, stylistic integrity. Fiddle styles generally have the sound they do BECAUSE of the lack of interaction with structured pedagogy. A classical focus could very well change your core Irish sound. Your individual talent, dedication, and practice focus may net you good results. This is not a definitive problem, but it is something to be aware of.

I do wish that more folk music teachers would structure their teaching better to avoid these things. There is so much emphasis on emulation and absorbing through contact that structure is a foreign concept. I received a suggestion one time in 10 years to practice to a metronome! It took 3 classical lessons to have metronome practice assigned. Now, I understand that fiddle is informal, but any good student will understand the necessity of some discipline despite that informality.

I have no real suggestions as to frequency and such, but I can say that you should factor the above points into your decision. Best of luck!

September 26, 2015 at 03:54 PM · Specifically, what technique are you frustrated with?

September 26, 2015 at 04:07 PM · My unqualified view is that both have much to add to the experience. Loose relaxed fiddler bow hand is ripe for training sensitive articulation. Classical sensitivity to pitch, bow division and theory knowledge translates to beautiful fiddling that is clean and in tune. The classically framed left hand is perfect for fiddle music. The drive of a fiddler translates into a more common man related nuance to classical interpretation.

Good points about learning styles and time needed to absorb and effect change. As adults we can take more responsibility for our lessons so monthly shouldn't be a recollection problem.

September 26, 2015 at 06:13 PM · I think I'd compromise and have fortnightly lessons for six months. A week is a short time to get your head round new techniques - and a month is a long time during which one might lose the motivation to practise.

I am in the opposite situation to you - although always primarily interested in folk, when I took up the violin again in retirement I started with classical lessons. I am now moving towards concentrating on folk fiddle, but I have got such a lot out of my baroque lessons in particular. Like Trevor, I have a violin teacher who plays art music and folk music, both at a professional level.

Good luck - hope you find a really congenial teacher.

September 26, 2015 at 07:30 PM · What Mollie said -- do that. You'll need some space between lessons and a reasonable length of time because very likely you're going to be taking some steps backward in order to move forward overall. Ideally your classical teacher will be someone to whom you can explain all of this and they will help you meet your own personal goals.

If classical lessons wrecks your folk playing, then it suggests your folk playing is too dependent on specific technique short cuts that will not only hold you back in the long run but could also cause you significant physical strain.

September 26, 2015 at 09:08 PM · "If classical lessons wrecks your folk playing, then it suggests your folk playing is too dependent on specific technique short cuts that will not only hold you back in the long run but could also cause you significant physical strain. "

I'd recommend not hitting the panic button just yet. Classical lessons are a far cry from the miracle cure for musician injuries. Folk music has been around since the dawn of time, and tiered/structured classical lessons have only been around a couple of centuries. I think folk music and folk musicians will survive just fine without classical lessons.......

I know you are completely unbiased towards classical music, yet somehow you forgot to mention that there are plenty of bad classical teachers that exist. Just thought I'd mention it. You're welcome.

September 26, 2015 at 11:04 PM · All that's just fine Aaron, except it's pretty clear the OP is not happy with her technique. Classical lessons will help with facility, hand positions, shifting, intonation, and other fundamental stuff that violinists of every stripe find useful. The OP seems very motivated and I predict she will benefit from what she proposes to do.

September 26, 2015 at 11:29 PM · What do you recall from your 1.5 years of classical lessons before you began fiddle..??

You must of gained a decent left hand position and bow hold. Read your notes again and make further research on the internet, and there are a ton of books on violin technique. Don't wait around for a teacher, you have a head start, continue where you left off....??

September 27, 2015 at 12:53 AM · Thanks for the very helpful responses. I'm leaning towards the idea of doing bi-weekly lessons for 6 months (if I can find a good teacher who will be OK with this plan.)

In response to the person asking about what I remember from my brief time taking classical lessons -- I got through a decent amount of Wolfhardt, and I do scales and open bows in front of a mirror every day. I can play all of Suzuki Book 3 comfortably, and have messed around on the first few pieces in Book 4.

I'd like to learn new etudes (and continue in Book 4) by myself, I'm afraid to go on without someone correcting my errors. I'm worried that it would be counterproductive, and I'd just have to unlearn bad habits later.

September 27, 2015 at 12:55 AM · Oh, and I'll also note that my primary technical concern would be using my bow more effectively. (My intonation is already decent due to my piano background, and the left hand in fiddle music is not particularly challenging.)

I'd also be interested in learning shifting and vibrato just for kicks, although neither of them are used often in Irish music ...

September 27, 2015 at 01:45 AM · Out of curiosity, what does your fiddle teacher think about you taking classical lessons?

September 27, 2015 at 02:22 AM · Efficient technique is efficient technique, regardless of the style of music that you play. There is no "style" of music where the ability to produce a wide range of tone colors and articulation as well as a strong control over intonation is not usable. IMHO, adding technical and musical skills to your "musical toolbox" is extremely advantageous. How could learning *more* about a subject possibly make you a worse musician, technically or musically?

September 27, 2015 at 05:47 AM · "Efficient technique is efficient technique, regardless of the style of music that you play. There is no "style" of music where the ability to produce a wide range of tone colors and articulation as well as a strong control over intonation is not usable. IMHO, adding technical and musical skills to your "musical toolbox" is extremely advantageous."

Irish music doesn't need(nor use) a wide range of tone colours. It needs dance rhythm. There is a pulse that involves both a push and a pull. It is unique to dance music - classical music is listening music. The two DO NOT have the same skillset. Having "technical and musical skills" does help be a better musician, yes. Some things do cross over, yes. Some things do not. It's a pretty simple concept.

"How could learning *more* about a subject possibly make you a worse musician, technically or musically?"

I don't think anybody actually said this?????? I said that some techniques could actually be detrimental to Irish fiddle playing. One cannot simply get the necessary dance rhythm with a typical classical hold and wrist and arm movement. Just as somebody cannot get the proper tone production and consistency necessary in classical music with just fiddle bow hold and arm movement.

As with nearly any field in life, having more general knowledge does help one be a better specialist, but only up to a point.

I think I'll head over to the other forums. You know, the ones where the classical musicians get bashed for sounding horrible when they attempt fiddle music. ;)

September 27, 2015 at 12:13 PM · Meet you there ;)

September 27, 2015 at 01:02 PM · Shifting and vibrato don't really exist in Irish fiddle music. And Aaron is correct that the skill sets are entirely different. It's not so much that you become a worse musician by learning more, but you may develop an "accent" in your chosen style by learning another. It's sort of like how if you've studied German for years and then start learning Russian, one may bleed into the other. However, music is subjective and there are plenty of crossover players out there, so this may or may not bother the individual musician.

I think what you really need is a teacher who very clearly understands your goals and is able to deliver you the information you need. Classical teachers do have a much bigger toolbox of technique than folk teachers, but the underlying purpose of the music is extremely different. Fiddle tunes essentially require you to be a percussionist playing the violin. As violinists, we're used to a lot of give and take in music that we don't even realize exists. There's none of that in dance music. The beat plows pitilessly on. You're looking for a very specific kind of bow facility that allows you to be relaxed and lilting while still driving the beat forward. (Maybe I should take Paul up on that idea to write some etudes...)

September 27, 2015 at 02:03 PM · +1 for Sarah's well-thought-out, objective, and unbiased post.

September 27, 2015 at 04:36 PM · Hi Sarah and Aaron -

I simply don't recognise your assertion that "the skill sets are entirely different" for folk fiddling. The rhythmic drive, yes. The techniques that produce it, surely not? It's simply all about bow control. It's the ear that's different, not the technique.

As a practical example, Sean McGuire - regarded by many as the greatest of all Irish fiddlers - always acknowledged the formative influence of his two childhood classical teachers. Are you saying that he couldn't raise a storming dance rhythm, even as an old man?

Many of the greatest exponents in the Scottish fiddling tradition had a classical background, not least Scott-Skinner himself, and these days a high proportion of the top players use fairly conventional classical technique. Looking at the young players coming through, I'd say that this is increasingly true in Ireland as well.

I think it's much more accurate to say that there is a wide range of approaches within folk fiddling. At one end, you have intuitive players with eccentric "home-grown" techniques, and at the other you have players with a strong classical background and fairly conventional technique. There are brilliant players at both ends of the spectrum. But to say that classical technique is detrimental for a fiddler doesn't make sense to me, and the dozens of top fiddlers who are also professional classical players would surely give convincing empirical backing to my position.

Another important point - Irish fiddling isn't limited to fast dance tunes. What about airs, slow marches, planxties, highlands, set-dances etc? These involve long bowing and, in most styles, a bit of vibrato. In the Scottish tradition, if you want to master Strathspey bowing you'd better have a pretty sound bow arm. Diddling with a loose wrist just ain't going to cut it.

I'm with Gene - strong classical technique simply gives you more options to express your music as you hear it.

To round off, here's one of my favourite clips - two American fiddlers in the Scottish tradition building up to a rip-roaring climax. One has a Bachelor of Music in Violin Performance at Berklee College of Music. The other has performed with the Turtle Island Quartet as as a soloist with major US orchestras. Has this harmed their fiddling? I think not!

September 27, 2015 at 05:16 PM · This is far removed from the OP topic.

Even with historical recordings and the composer's manuscript, it seems to me, the most popular artist's interpretation at the time defines what survives. Perhaps style, or accent if you will, can not be frozen but must evolve through artist's interpretation and audience preference in order to survive. Who of us hasn't copied a lick or a bowing here and there and then decided for something else.

Sarah, well said about the percussion factor for the dance music. It does enjoy a certain drive to entice and support dancing. Are not there also aires and laments that benefit from other skills?

September 27, 2015 at 05:34 PM · David - not really removed, I think. Sarah and Aaron are questioning the value of the OP taking classical lessons. Others of us are disagreeing. A relevant debate, surely?

September 27, 2015 at 05:54 PM · No, it was never my intention to say that classical lessons are detrimental at all. In fact, I said nothing of the sort. I perform both as a violinist and a fiddler, but I consider myself primarily a classical musician at heart. Advocating for "bilingual" violinists is an ongoing passion of mine. I was merely saying that Aaron is right that classical lessons may give a folk fiddler an "accent" (and of course, the reverse also applies), but it's up to that person to determine if that's bothersome or helpful.

I will stand by my assertion that the skill sets are different, but that doesn't mean that one person can't learn both! What doesn't change from style to style (much, anyway) is good, solid tone production. If you can't get a good tone on your fiddle, you will probably not enjoy playing anything.

Edited to add that yes, you might use vibrato in a lament or air. I meant to mention that earlier, but I do have a baby in the house and I get distracted sometimes! Shifting, though, really is extraordinarily rare. I can't think of even one strictly trad tune that requires shifting. You might get a showpiece like "The Mathematician" here and there, but your average session set will be in first position only.

September 27, 2015 at 05:57 PM · By removed, I was thinking of the question of monthly vs weekly lessons.

To the validity of seeking skills and improvement, I edited much of my opinion out before posting. I don't understand the concept of restricting artistic development to preserve a genre of music.

September 27, 2015 at 06:11 PM · Hi Sarah

Perhaps I misunderstood you, but when you said the skill sets are "entirely different" I assumed you were implying that classical lessons would be a waste of time.

Personally, I find that there's a substantial overlap between classical and folk technique, that's all I'm saying. For example, practising colle and martele gives more control over my attack in hard-driving tunes.

And you haven't really addressed my point that "percussive" dance music is only a subset of the full range of forms that a rounded Irish musician would be playing.

Are you really saying that the technique required for an air, waltz, planxty, highland etc is entirely different from classical technique? That simply doesn't make any sense to me.

September 27, 2015 at 06:40 PM · Geoff, might I pose the suggestion that one needs to be involved in both traditions before fully understanding? Having an opinion is great, but I would encourage you to have an open mind.

First, Scottish fiddling is well-known as being more demanding and influenced by classical-type music. (Was it Skinner who said, "I dinna write music for dullards"?) Using it to judge Irish is not an apples-to-apples comparison.

Second, Sean McGuire......he is a great fiddler, very showy and flashy. Sorry, but I don't think he is considered by many to be the greatest. Maybe a few. Nor do I think he has a very danceable groove, at least when compared to the likes of Paddy Canny or Vincent Griffin or Tommy Peoples. I don't know of anybody trying to copy his playing or idolizing him at all, but I do know of many folks who love the others I listed, and more besides, none of whom resemble McGuire's playing.

"But to say that classical technique is detrimental for a fiddler doesn't make sense to me, and the dozens of top fiddlers who are also professional classical players would surely give convincing empirical backing to my position."

Got some names? I don't know of anybody who is considered great from within the Irish traditional community who brings home the bacon with classical music. For that matter, I'm not sure that there are many from other traditions either. NOTE: IT IS THE OPINION OF COMMUNITY THAT MATTERS, NOT OUTSIDERS. THIS IS A TRADITION, NOT AN ELECTION.

Is it possible to learn and know both styles and all the techniques involved? Sure. These people start at a very young age and can absorb these things like a sponge absorbs water. See Haley Richardson, the current u-18 fiddle champ as a good example. The OP at age 28 will find absorption to be significantly harder. Somebody else mentioned foreign languages, which is a completely appropriate analogy. Classical music might be the most prominent language, but it is not the only language.

Nobody said ALL classical techniques are bad. I mentioned that some may conflict with Irish fiddle techniques. Irish fiddle is not concerned with efficiency or correctness or any other words one might bandy about. It is not concerned with dynamics or tone colours or any similar shading techniques. The only thing that matters is that it sounds like traditional music.

For that matter, let's stop assuming that Irish fiddle is the core of the traditional music scene. It is not. Irish fiddle is in essence emulating the uilleann pipes, and to some extent flutes and tin whistles. I don't see how any reasonable, sane person could expect classical music lessons to teach one how to recreate bagpipes on their instrument.

September 27, 2015 at 06:44 PM · And yes, there is substantial overlap. Substantial. There are a few things that don't overlap, and tons of techniques in classical that are never used in Irish music.

Some of those techniques are so similar yet have different nuances. Having them as separate skills is essential if one wants to sound authentic/correct in both styles. Keeping them separate is the trick. As I said previously, talent and focused practice is the key.

September 27, 2015 at 06:52 PM · "I don't understand the concept of restricting artistic development to preserve a genre of music."

Traditional music very much lives in the past. Yet at the same time, it is fighting modern elements, like youth, progress (people get bored with some old tunes etc), and outside influences. Modernization and media also plays a large role. Since this is an aural traditon it is quite amorphous. In other words, it changes, but only slowly. One way to keep it from changing too fast is to limit outside influences. Another is to start the musicians young so the authentic style is ingrained.

It's ok to not fully understand; just know that as a whole, it is resistant to fast change.

September 27, 2015 at 06:55 PM · And for the record, nobody said detrimental. Somebody was misunderstanding or twisting words.

September 27, 2015 at 09:24 PM · To me there seemed to be concern raised that classical training would lead to a change in playing the characteristics of other styles of music. As I have posted, I think "fiddle style and classical style" if you will are more complimentary than contradictory. I respect and share your passion and dedication to preserving traditional music. I'm not sure how you can keep it unchanging and alive at the same time.

You say the music is quite amorphous but I realize you are quite knowledgeable of the structure that makes up the tradition. Sadly, I think that the only community qualification on your list that I meet is that I'm not young. Oh well. There's only Scottish music then. Wait, what, I like and promote appreciation of classical, pop most other violin music and I'm half Irish. Doomed! I'm doomed!

September 27, 2015 at 09:59 PM · "I respect and share your passion and dedication to preserving traditional music. I'm not sure how you can keep it unchanging and alive at the same time."

There is no way to do so. I usually don't say anything, but the OP did ask, and it seemed appropriate to point out things from my experience. The music evolves as people change with the times. This is music of the people, after all. You can only educate people on the rich history and culture involved in such traditions, and how a specific tradition is unique.

September 27, 2015 at 10:40 PM · Mary you are owed an apology. Differences in opinion were not caused by your questions or the content of any of your posts. Sorry. Keep posting.

September 27, 2015 at 11:09 PM · Not a problem. I've found it interesting and informative to read everyone's posts.

Not that I intend to jump into the fray, but I'll note that Mairead Hickey (All-Ireland winner, several times) is quite accomplished in both styles.

I really envy how fluid her bowing is, and how clean her playing. I'm hoping that classical lessons might help my achieve that.

September 27, 2015 at 11:23 PM · All I can say is a big old unqualified thumbs up. I'd like to play like that also.


September 28, 2015 at 12:26 AM · Hi Mary.

My daughter plays both classical violin and Irish fiddle. Aaron mentioned her in one of his posts and it was funny to be reading this discussion and see her name. Yes, like Mairead, she started both very young but my daughter tells everyone her ability to play Irish music the way she wants is due to her classical training/technique.

There are certainly some differences in emphasis in each style but good classical technique does not inhibit her Irish fiddling at all. There are tunes, many of her favorites, that include shifting and when playing slow airs even vibrato is used as an ornament.

Kind of the opposite of your situation but she takes Irish lessons every other week to every 3 weeks because her teacher is three hours away and my daughter's schedule is very full. He gives her enough to work on to keep her busy for 2-3 weeks. Maybe a you could find a classical teacher who would be agreeable to taking you on every 2-3 weeks or who might give her a lot of material and allow you to come back in when needed? Maybe Skype lessons or shorter (1/2 hour vs. 1 hour) but more frequent lessons would work?

September 28, 2015 at 12:30 AM · I have to agree with David that some of the posts on this thread had a sour tone. I especially don't need to read whole sentences in all-caps.

Texas fiddler Mia Orosco was originally classically trained. She's a great fiddler. She started playing fiddle music younger than most (12 or so) but by that time she had already developed pretty good classical chops.

Simple Google searches like "Irish fiddler and Suzuki" and "fiddler who studied classical" and you can find other examples of good fiddlers who have studied classical too. It's not that hard.

As for McGuire, as far as I am concerned, he was a real genius of a player and I hope he is ultimately accorded his true place in the annals of traditional Irish music.

September 28, 2015 at 01:50 AM · Thanks for the response, Donna. I looked Hayley up on Youtube and her playing is just lovely. I should start paying more attention to younger musicians :)

So, since your daughter sees her teacher so infrequently, does she have really long fiddle lessons to compensate? As in, more than a 1 hour lesson? (If you don't mind my asking. I'm just curious because I've never heard of such an arrangement being done before. I might like to do something similar -- but with classical, of course -- but don't know how whether I could find a teacher who would accept such a situation.)

September 28, 2015 at 03:54 AM · Mary, my experience with lessons that are not weekly is that teachers can most easily fit you in if yours is the last lesson or the first lesson of the day, or at special times such as weekends or days that they normally have off. You really just have to call them up and talk to them. I'm really hoping you'll connect with a teacher who will think of your situation as a unique and interesting challenge. I know my teacher would. Over the summer I had only four lessons but they were 90 minutes.

Honestly, though, a lesson much longer than one hour can become very taxing mentally. At least for me because my lessons are pretty intense.

September 28, 2015 at 11:42 AM · I just want to emphasise what I believe is the most important issue in the classical/trad distinction before I bow out of the thread.

Everything I've learned in playing and singing this music for 40 years, often with very fine exponents, is that the differences are mainly a question of the ear and not the physical technique.

I had a classical music background as a kid, and when I started playing folk it didn't sound right. Someone with a deep insight into the music took me aside and gave me a framework for hearing the differences. I wrote that up here:

Once I could hear and understand what trad players were doing to create their sound, I could start to emulate them. If you can't hear it, you can't play it.

Yes, there are some techniques you wouldn't learn in classical, such as rolls and bowed triplets. But this is a small point, as the same fundamentals that you'd learn from a good classical teacher apply when you work on these skills.

I would contend that the reason many classical players don't sound right when they fiddle is nothing to do with their technical skills - it's simply that they haven't understood the differences between phrasing and attack between the two genres. I can also tell you that professional classical players that do understand the music can whip up as hard-driving a storm as you could wish for.

If they can hear the differences, classical players have no problem adapting - they have pretty much everything they need under their fingers, and can learn the rest quite quickly.

But there's a dark side we haven't mentioned to the resistance many trad fiddlers feel towards classical lessons. It's the thousands of fiddlers who are chronically hampered by their lack of tone and technique. This is far more common, in my experience, than players who sound too classical. I've sat in sessions with many people who have been playing for years, and it's difficult to even tell what tune they're playing when they start to lead a set. I know others who are a very fine fiddlers, but are limited by obvious technical issues that a good classical teacher could easily fix. On balance, I think that most fiddlers would greatly benefit from learning the basics of classical technique.

So Mary, I do think you're on the right track. Classical teaching for technical fundamentals, and very careful listening to fine traditional fiddlers to get the right sound. And while I'm at it, in my personal experience the absolute key is to play regularly with better players - it's by far the best way to progress.

September 28, 2015 at 11:48 AM · Actually, Mary, her weekly classical lessons are 90 min or more (they often just keep working if having fun). Her Irish fiddle lessons are still an hour even though twice a month.

For fiddle lessons, I carry along a video camera and record her teacher playing new tunes and anything else she'll need to work on for her next lesson. She never "learns" a tune during a lesson but learns them at home in between. She likes to live with a new tune for awhile so she learns it the first few days at home then continues to play it for the rest of the time between lessons so by her next lesson she has added in some of her own variations and ornamentation.

It might be ideal if you could find a classical teacher who would allow you to videotape infrequent lessons then you'd have it to review while practicing.

September 28, 2015 at 12:16 PM · Geoff, what you wrote rings true to me. I see that with classical musicians who try to cross over into jazz. Finding the notes to play is hard enough (there's another active thread on that!), but it has to swing. I also learned it by someone showing me. Lessons don't always come from someone who plays the same instrument.

And having watched a lot of amateur fiddlers at "farmers market" kinds of venues, I also have noticed that many are fairly crippled by their technique. What I see most often is that the left palm is clamped firmly to the neck of the fiddle -- shifting even into third position would be impossible. But sometimes they crank out good stuff anyway, and often they've figured how how to play in tune, even with double stops. That's weird to watch, but it works for them.

September 28, 2015 at 12:57 PM · Geoff, I enjoyed reading your posts and you make some great points. I agree that slower ballads are the closest to classical. Perhaps "entirely different" was too strongly worded, as we're all still talking about violin here. It's not entirely different in the same way that drafting a legal brief and splitting wood are entirely different, to be sure. But I was thinking mainly of dance tunes because at any given session, the majority of tunes will be jigs, reels, and hornpipes with maybe a few slip jigs here and there, and usually no more than a handful of ballads a night. Most sessions like to get the party started.

However, I think you'll also agree that if you were to put a bare-bones transcription of a reel in front of an orchestral musician who had never studied trad music, you are not going to get a reel back in return. Even if you played the reel to someone with an extremely good ear, who was used to playing by ear (say, a Suzuki learner) I don't think that person could achieve that "fiddle" sound without doing some woodshedding over a period of time. When I was learning to play in that style, I had to sit down and listen over and over and over to tunes, try different things, and really practice. The left hand ornaments are relatively simple, although they did require some practice to achieve. But I really did have to change my right hand technique to some degree to get a lilting Irish sound. The string crossings are different (lazier is the best way to describe it), the phrasing is different, the attack is different, the notes decay differently. Of course the difference is in the ear to some degree, but it's also a matter of muscle memory. I found I had to build a new muscle memory for Irish tunes.

I still find playing a contra dance more taxing than playing in orchestra, even though the technical demands of a contra are so much less stringent, because of the different strain on the muscles that the unrelenting pulse requires. It reminds me of when I returned from living in Russia for a year and it actually hurt my mouth to speak so much English again. Of course I still had the same mouth, but the muscle usage was subtly different, and my English-speaking muscles had atrophied. Similarly, an orchestral player is not used to holding down a half note equals 120 pulse with no variation for two hours straight. It is more difficult than it looks at first glance.

Finally, I really did not intend to be negative at all about classical lessons. That would be quite silly of me, as I teach them and enjoy doing so. And a lot of good fiddlers do have some classical training, mainly in tone production. Classical training in bow facility will help to some degree, but playing a fast classical passage truly is not the same as playing a fast Irish fiddle passage. It just is not. Of course I'll always support learning for learning's sake. But whether or not classical lessons would be useful for her immediate goal depends primarily on the teacher. I'm sure that if someone showed up here saying that her goal is to enter conservatory in two years, most people would (correctly) tell her that Irish fiddle lessons would be of little practical use at the moment. Similarly, if her primary goal is to become a better Irish fiddler, a lot of what's learned in a traditional progression of classical repertoire won't suit that purpose. She needs a teacher who will give her material that will be helpful and leave the rest.

As far as the question of preserving traditional music, I am not a purist about that myself. But some are. Some quite stridently so. That may or may not be a concern for the OP.

September 28, 2015 at 01:30 PM · I started classical mid life (I hope) and got in the bk 3 range. Then fiddle group classes by ear and tab for some place to play. Then fiddle group classes with classical trained fiddler using sheet music. Then period of amateur performing only. Now self directed more classical style focus. Attended a few workshops and scattered private lessons along the way. Can't say that I've progressed all that much in the last 20 yrs. but a wonderful journey. Never felt a conflict between any teaching. I'm always amused by fiddlers who consider note players as being from planet X with their weird bow holds and fiddle positions and note players who consider ear players as intentionally coarse sounding. Only a few are at the far end of the pendulum swing. I support partaking in as varied a musical experience as you wish. It has long been my dream to support a workshop to combine both camps and hopefully foster a larger cross-over community.

September 28, 2015 at 01:49 PM · Perhaps I should also note that I did have intense classical training for a long time before I ever started to learn to fiddle. So for me it was a matter of adapting what was already there, *but* it was a much longer process than just "oh yes, I see, slur here, separate there, turn here, roll there." I think folk musicians often feel insulted by the idea that their music is basic. It is not as complex as classical, no doubt. But it's also not something you can just show up to cold and knock out of the ball park, either. It does require time and energy to learn, as well as practice to maintain.

Another problem in the folk world is that teachers don't really talk about technique at all, so one is forced to learn ones own fiddle technique, and that can be a really bad thing without some previous classical training. The collapsed wrist Paul mentioned is a classic example (although one of my favorite fiddlers, Liz Carroll, plays quite exquisitely with a slightly collapsed wrist that I would never let fly with any of my students!). Folk teachers basically all teach the same way, whether it's a whistle or a fiddle or an accordion: "here's your instrument, now let's learn a tune." A lot of times all in the same place! So it does become an issue. The great fiddlers that you hear are people who either had training in technique or were miraculously talented enough to figure it out on their own, but most folk fiddlers who did not have any technical training are ultimately not satisfied with their sound. I don't teach beginners anymore, but when I did, I made sure that they were well set-up so that they would not be limited in anything they might want to do with violin later. No collapsed wrists even if you think you have zero interest in orchestra!

September 28, 2015 at 02:16 PM · So a number of us including the OP have experienced various degrees of classical before looking at fiddle. Seems we all feel a need for the classical element. Not unexpected as this is not

September 28, 2015 at 02:47 PM · Sarah, I don't think anyone would expect an orchestral violinist with purely classical training to jump into a old-time string band and start wailing. Any violinist who thinks they're going to do that id going to get their butt kicked, so to speak.

There's going to be an adaptation period for anyone joining a genre for the first time. The one part of this whole discussion that I just found kind of weird is the idea that a fiddle player who decides to take some classical lessons is at risk of suffering some kind of deterioration in their fiddle style (taking on an "accent" or such). I appreciate the analogies to language and singing, but I just have to wonder if there's any evidence for that deterioration actually happening to anyone. The way one plays might feel different as hand positions change, but that doesn't mean it has to sound different to the listener, except perhaps in the short term while one's technique is being transformed.

September 28, 2015 at 04:05 PM · Well, I don't have any empirical research to back me up, but anecdotally I can say that yes, stylistic confusion does occur. Students that have studied both with me will have to be reminded not to "shuffle" their Bach bariolage, or conversely that their classical string crossings aren't appropriate in a particular tune. For me, and for a lot of other people, that's never been a reason not to work on both. But some people are particular about it, and yes, there is definitely some snobbery out there about sounding "too classical" in the trad world. It is equivalent to the derision you will see from classical players if someone shows up and plays unaccompanied Bach like a fiddle tune. I think it's all a bit silly and tribalist, personally, but YMMV.

September 28, 2015 at 05:47 PM · Hi Sarah

I was going to bow out of this one, but felt I couldn't ignore your courteous and interesting reply.

I suspect that once we've sorted out differences in perspective and language, we actually wouldn't disagree over much.

Coming to fiddling as you did with a sound classical foundation, I suspect that this sensitised you more to the differences than the similarities.

Issues like a relaxed, balanced and efficient left hand, intonation, bow-arm fundamentals and tone production will have been second nature to you.

I would suggest that all these skills are pretty much common to classical violin and to fiddle, and will cross over without much fuss. This is a big area of overlap, and it seems that we agree that on the whole you're going to get a better grounding in these skills from a good classical teacher. I think you nailed it when you said:

The great fiddlers that you hear are people who either had training in technique or were miraculously talented enough to figure it out on their own, but most folk fiddlers who did not have any technical training are ultimately not satisfied with their sound.

I take your point that you then had to make non-trivial changes to the way you shaped notes when playing dance music - I've been applying my classically inspired technical work directly to fiddling, so I didn't have to go through that stage. Doubtless I'll experience that process in reverse when I start attempting some Bach. Though I would suggest that compared to mastering the fundamentals note-shaping is more a matter of detail.

But it seems that we can also agree, from the evidence of our eyes and ears, that far too many fiddlers who are resistant to the idea of classical technique never master the basics and scrape away oblivious of their limitations. We've all experienced the skidding bows and excruciating intonation.

And as you pointed out, even the self-taught ITM fiddlers who can rattle out a decent jig or reel are often painfully limited.

I once sat in on an Irish session and played a well-known air. None of the fiddlers joined me. When I asked if they didn't know it they said: "Oh, we don't play airs - they're far too hard"... In fact, they rarely moved the bow more than a couple of inches.

Not only are they cutting themselves off from much that best in the Irish tradition, but they won't be able to tackle Classical or Klezmer or Scottish or Gypsy Jazz or any other more technical genre if the mood ever takes them.

In contrast, pretty much any competent violinist who truly immerses themselves in a folk genre will make pretty fast progress provided they don't have cloth ears.

To me, picking up the basics of Classical technique is all up-side - I simply can't see any down-side at all. You simply end up with more musical choices.

September 28, 2015 at 07:45 PM · I know a violinist who trained as a professional in the UK, subsequently playing in professional symphony orchestras. Some years later this violinist got interested enough in Irish music to study it at degree level in the University of Limerick (Ireland). The violinist said it took two years to learn to "lose" the classical sound when playing Irish fiddle music. So it shows it can be done.

September 28, 2015 at 08:21 PM · Something I'd like to add to my previous post about how playing Irish fiddle led me into classical lessons - and what I am about to say may be viewed by some as a warning about possible dire consequences :).

After about two years of lessons based mainly, but not exclusively on Suzuki 4 and 5, the idea came unbidden into my head that I'd like to play violin in an orchestra. The idea wouldn't go away.

I had been an orchestral cellist for decades, so the classical environment was part of my life, but nevertheless the idea came as a surprise to me, and to my teacher when I mentioned it. She made some changes to the syllabus, introducing some more exacting technical stuff, and then 6 months later I asked the Secretary and CM of my chamber orchestra if I could change from cello to violin. They agreed and I did. The next 6 months in the seconds were tough but enjoyable; however, I survived and haven't played cello orchestrally since.

I continued regular violin lessons for a further five years until last year, and now play regularly in a couple of symphony orchestras as well as the chamber orchestra.

It's just as well things panned out violinistically for me as they did because over the last few years Irish sessions have all but disappeared in my area, due mainly to pub closures, takeovers, or refurbishment as restaurants.

September 28, 2015 at 09:03 PM · Trevor

A lot of the best examples of pro-level violinists in the Scottish tradition who are also kick-ass fiddlers grew up with the tradition - people like Chris Stout, Alastair Hardie and Douglas Lawrence.

If you're making the switch later in life, I'd say that 2 years is a fair estimate. It took me longer, but I'm a bear of little brain...

September 29, 2015 at 03:54 AM · It would take me longer than two years. The fact that I don't like Irish fiddle music very much at all and therefore never listen to it by choice probably would contribute to the difficulty.

September 29, 2015 at 10:58 AM · In questioning whether developing classical skills will affect previous fiddle abilities or interpretation I wonder if other factors come into play.

I need to have whatever I'm playing solidly in mind in order to have any chance of playing success. Once I'm sure what sound I want to effect, then the question of technical ability comes into play. This might just be me, or my slow reading or my ear experience. I have been lead to believe that listening to music is recommended to help in development.

Could classical contamination in fiddle playing be due to what the player has in their minds ear rather than new technique?

Would frequency and availability of fiddle listening material be a factor in cross contamination? In my case, I might be assigned a truly traditional Irish Jig, but not have access to an authentic example to listen to.

Could it be that an increase in technical ability cause pre-existing difficulties to be more prominent.

September 30, 2015 at 12:55 PM · Personally I don't see any point rationalizing a phenomenon that hasn't been demonstrated to any reasonable degree of certainty.

October 6, 2015 at 05:05 PM · It seems to me that for centuries folk fiddlers have learned their craft without a single note of Bach or Tchaikovsky. They never heard of Sevcik or Galamian. Wouldn't know a Franco-Belgian bow hold from a wheel of Camembert. It causes me to wonder if the techniques required for fiddling are compatible with the techniques required for classiscal?

October 6, 2015 at 10:10 PM · Steven,

I think that this view of comes from a romanticised view of the fiddle tradition that you can probably trace back to Victorians like Cecil Sharp who imposed their own bucolic fantasies onto a much more interesting reality. For example, the Victorian collectors typically ignored the thriving urban tradition as it didn't fit their preconceptions.

It's a common misconception that all fiddlers were musically and technically uneducated, but if you think about it a little more deeply it's actually a bit patronising. The facts show that the truth is a lot more complex and nuanced.

I know some pretty serious historians of English and of Scottish fiddle and have discussed this in depth. I've also read some of the scholarship, which is pretty extensive these days.

As I've said above, there has always been a spectrum - at one end you do get self-taught players with little classical influence. But at the other, you get very sophisticated musicians, and most players fall somewhere in between.

It's always been this way, but it's particularly true today, where many exciting fiddlers are emerging from schools like Berklee in the US and the Royal Colleges in the UK.

Sure, traditional music was played in barns and bothys. But it was also played in drawing rooms, assembly rooms and grand ballrooms. Some of it was composed by field hands, but much of it was composed by professional musicians and gentry. It was influenced by continental trends such as the polka, waltz and schottische, and by popular urban music such as the English stage jig. It's also clearly influenced by classical music at times - some popular English "folk" tunes were actually composed by Mozart and Purcell. It's all much more complex than the old idea of some peasant sawing away in his hovel.

And even with rural fiddlers, it's not at all safe to assume that they were all naive and unsophisticated. I'll give you two examples.

In England, John Clare, the Victorian "peasant poet", was a village fiddler in Northamptonshire. He couldn't afford to buy the latest tune collections, so he used to visit the music shop on his visits to town, sightread silently through the tunes, rush outside and write them down from memory. I have a classical training, but would struggle to pull off a feat like that.

I know a historian who has studied dozens of 18th century chapbooks from working English fiddlers. They are often highly literate, with sophisticated notations and bowings and in a wide range of keys. These people were not musically illiterate bumpkins.

In Scotland, Niel Gow was a rural weaver. But he was taught by a fine fiddler, and became a pretty sophisticated musician. According to tradition, he would get hold of the latest Corelli and rush home to sightread it...

In the cities, people obviously had access to a wide range of influences. But this is also true of rural areas. People would visit the cities for fairs, and would have contact with local professional musicians and trained amateurs through, for example, local church bands.

I don't know so much about Ireland, but would expect it to be a similar story. As you can tell from the compositions of Turlough O'Carolan there are aspects of the Irish tradition that were extremely sophisticated. There will be the same spectrum, from aristocratic halls through Dublin drawing rooms to turf cottages in Clare.

In a post above Aaron discounted my example of McGuire as a classically influenced Irish fiddler, and cited Tommy Peoples as the real McCoy. Aaron's right - he's a seminal influence. But here's his technique - excellent classical form, I would suggest:

And he also composes for third position:

Yet another example of a sophisticated fiddler with some pretty obvious classical influence.

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