Is fiddling an asset or a hindrance for classical violin improvement?

October 15, 2018, 10:01 PM · I guess this is a similar cornerstone as joining a community orchestra, in a different way.
I have been asked to join a semi-pro band. The band style is classic and modern latino, hints of jazz and rumba. Fiddling, in a word. I am really happy about it and I am sure it is going to help me to develop my musicianship, but I'm not so sure about my violin-ship.
These new rehearsals will come at the cost of classical practice and I will have to take away some time from them. I would like to know from your experience if what I can get from playing in the band regularly makes up for that and which areas of my playing can get affected so that I can direct the formal classes to compensate for it.

Replies (27)

October 15, 2018, 10:26 PM · I'd love to learn how to fiddle! Take it and run with it! I did fiddle club in high school and it was the most fun thing I had done senior year besides marching band. I love the Celtic style. Good luck to you!
October 15, 2018, 10:47 PM · I object to the dichotomy that either you are a "well-trained violinist" versus "self-taught musicians who have no intonation." That is a pretty foolish thing to say, since you obviously don't know much about oral-tradition fiddling. There is no need for "well-trained violinists" in any area of music besides European classical music. There are many languages played on the violin, and while some violinists seem to think that only they know how to play the instrument because they have played classical music, I will point out that it was first used to play oral tradition dance music, and thus European vernacular "fiddling" has a couple of centuries of tradition before anyone thought to make the stuff "legit." Fiddlers may not learn their music off of a page, but to imply that they are not highly trained within their own tradition is ignorance.

In fact, if you are interested in other styles of music, my advice is to enter this new language with humility and understand that in many cases, these players have been working as hard as you, and will be able to do things you cannot. Respect it. For example, if they don't really use vibrato (say, in Irish fiddling), don't you use it, either. Assuming that you know how to play and not paying close attention to the differences can get you into considerable unpleasantness. You don't want to sound like an Englishman in an Irish session--people are serious about this stuff!

BTW, there is no "Celtic" style. Either you play Irish music (and even there, are you playing West Irish, Donegal style, etc), or Scottish music, Cape Breton style, etc. To play the music properly, you need to listen to a lot of it and get the style in your head, and hopefully be shown by an expert how to do it.

After decades playing several traditional fiddle styles (my classical training is in other instruments and composition), I decided to dive into the Bach S & P's. It has been wonderful, and in answering the question of whether fiddling would mess you up, I would argue the opposite--that if you want to understand baroque style, learning how to play actual dance music (especially various European dance music traditions) would probably improve your understanding of baroque music.

October 15, 2018, 11:52 PM · I would agree with Paul Smith, I teach jazz violin, and I often have to undo some classical habits that make jazz violin sound cheesy . When Itzhak Perlman recorded a jazz album with Oscar Peterson, Didier Lockwood wrote an article ripping him apart haha in the same vein that Pat Metheny wrote an article on Kenny G recording over Louis Armstrong.
Edited: October 16, 2018, 12:15 AM · Carlos,

It is my understanding you are learning violin from personal interest, for personal development, and for fulfillment. This is in line with those goals. If it is something you are going to enjoy then it's something you should do.

Unless you are planning to leave diplomacy and chase a career as a professional soloist or orchestral musician it's just a false dichotomy (twice in one thread, word of the day!). It doesn't matter if one affects the other - you will still progress; maybe faster maybe slower - but more importantly you will be fulfilling your goals of actually enjoying the violin.

Do it for the fun and the experience. Don't worry so much about losing a little practice time - you'll learn different skills at a rehearsal and on a stage that you *can't* learn during solo practice.

October 16, 2018, 12:23 AM · Oh, I am going to do it for sure. It is going to be really fun and I am going to learn a lot.

Apart from the personal experience, I am convinced that fiddling techniques and practice can be excellent for a classical student. My main thought it's how to combine both ways, classical and modern, so that they complement each other and there are no gaps in my development. And see other's experience about that.

October 16, 2018, 12:23 AM · I agree with Michael on this.

That said, playing both genres is mentally quite challenging. Keith Jarrett, who has performed and recorded as both a classical and jazz pianist, says he can't play both classical and jazz in the same concert because he needs a full day to shift his brain from one mindset to the other.

Edited: October 16, 2018, 3:17 AM · In the style of fiddling I have engaged in in the past, LOTS of drones were played, sometimes almost all drones. When starting Suzuki, I found it difficult to hit single strings reliably, and certainly my intonation on a single string suffered, as I used to slide into the correct note, using the drone string as a check. The styles you mention are not of the "fiddling" style I usually associate with folk fiddling, i.e. perhaps not as much drone work.
October 16, 2018, 3:41 AM · I got into Irish music a few years ago and now play both that and classical...but when I first started doing it, I stopped practicing classical for awhile because I just wanted to learn as many tunes as possible so I could play in sessions. No regrets, but Carlos I think the biggest difference is that most likely you will be playing primarily in first position, as I was in Irish music. The only thing that "suffered" in my classical technique was that I became much less confident with shifting and playing in higher positions simply because I wasn't practicing that for a long time. Nothing else was really affected. If you want to keep your classical chops simultaneously with your new band, I'd recommend doing lots of work on shifting when you get some time to practice classical. Congrats on the new gig, it sounds exciting :)
October 16, 2018, 7:12 AM · All this is very well said. Especially what Paul wrote about entering this new language with humility, and about the historical contexts and styles! There's a great deal of discipline and hard work involved to learn how to play the music properly, so you don't won't like a classical violinist who thinks he's gone slumming. I don't think you will regret your decision, Carlos.
Edited: October 16, 2018, 7:32 AM · The violinist, Jan Purat, in my grandson's band (Steep Ravine Band, my grandson was vocal and guitar) has a degree in violin performance from UCSC. The band disbanded last year after about a 5-year run but much of their original music is still on youtube ( ). If you can find their performance at the Strawberry Festival in Grass Valley, CA where they played some of the old Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt classics you will be blown away. They issued 3 CDs of their original stuff (all still available).

To me the tough part for a classical musician is learn to improvise well enough to do this sort of thing. I watched this band in many live performances and the songs were never exactly the same from one to the next.

My semi-violinist (never played pro) granddaughter studied classical with me for 10 years but added a course in improvisation in college while she was at Brown and told me it was tough to learn to play without having any music to look at. But later she went on to play with some groups (Celtic and eastern Europe) that required just that (an avocation - not a profession as her brother had done).

October 16, 2018, 8:44 AM · You touch my fears, Andrew. Apart from my classical/modern style concerns, my biggest challenge is how to jump to the chords with a good lick or riff. How to be in, as a part. How to add.
I am starting just as a background instrument and only in those tunes I am comfortable jumping in. It may take long, or never, to get more preeminence than that. But the road will be exciting!
Edited: October 16, 2018, 8:52 AM · I came to fiddling rather late, but I found it liberated me considerably from some of the constrictions of classical music playing. To have to learn tunes quickly by ear and to improvise can be intimidating when you have been trained to adhere to sheet music. And continuous vibrato that is so prevalent these days in classical playing -- you have to learn to drop that and treat it selectively, as a a valuable but dispensable ornament. As for intonation, that is not as simple an issue as it appears, since there are ancient scales, and certain essential notes that are played differently in traditional oral music, which may sound out of tune or wrong to someone trained in mainstream classical music, as any good ethnomusicologist will tell you. A classical musician can easily blunder into this area self-righteously without sufficient awareness of the history and context.
Edited: October 16, 2018, 12:46 PM · I am remembering a video I just saw of Anne Akiko Meyers playing something with "blues" in the title. It sounded like a classical player who decided to try blues without any real feeling for the genre.

Akiko does the blues

Though it does have passages that border on.

October 16, 2018, 1:17 PM · I think there's something to be said for playing other genres idiomatically. As David points out, being able to play concertos at a high level does not mean you won't sound corny playing something with some swing, and that you can just paste your approach to classical pieces onto any other genre. I remember a few years ago it seemed like everywhere I looked, there were strings quartets "classicalizing" pop music, and every time I listened to one of those covers, they sounded atrocious. Do classical players not understand the concept of a groove? Are classical players incapable of dancing? I don't know, but I think it takes time to adapt your technique to the conventions of the genre, and that a lot of bad crossover attempts are the result of a lot of hubris.

Anyway, my point is not to cast aspersions on you, but to say that I think it's a really good thing what you are doing, and that it can only round you out as a musician. Stephane Grapelli had a good deal of classical training, having studied at the Paris Conservatory. Learning other styles is not high on my own priorities right now, but it would be good for me to study other styles.

I saw Katie Glassman, who is a local, play a few years ago, and asked her about her background. If I remember correctly, she started with fiddle, and then went and studied classical in college, I guess to round out her playing. I don't know much about the fiddle world, but it looks like she is a national champion fiddler, and she sounded great. I'm sure that with proper motivation, people can transition in either direction.

October 16, 2018, 1:30 PM · @Christian, were one of these string quartets the Dallas String Quartet, playing electric instruments? Sometimes it worked, kinda, but everything was instrumental, and to have one violin always playing the vocal line sounded like a forced match after awhile. DSQ and vocal line

This one is not sooooo bad:
Rolling in the Deep

This one sorta works, given the only instrumentation on the original was a bowed string section.

October 16, 2018, 1:33 PM · Well, That got away from me before I completed my href statement, and now the EDIT link is part of the href, meaning I can't edit it now. It brings up the video, which is of Eleanor Rigby.
Eleanor Rigby
October 16, 2018, 2:53 PM · Yeah, that DSQ one is like almost there, but somehow so far off. I'm not a crazy Michael Jackson fan, but whenever I think of this phenomenon, I think of how I can never hear a version of "Smooth Criminal" (including the DSQ one I just listened to) that doesn't sound super 4-square, even though I can see that they are trying. They should call it "Hemophiliac Cat Burglar" or something. I think the string quartet may inherently be ill-suited to playing something where you'd be counting on your rhythm section in another arrangement. Basically, it always sounds like a string quartet is playing.

Another one I remember was the Vitamin String Quartet. 'What's the point?' has always been my attitude.

October 16, 2018, 3:10 PM · Carlos, it's a skill you might find useful as a diplomat - Someone in your host country might relish jamming with you!
October 16, 2018, 3:50 PM · Is it something that you are drawn to do? I feel like being motivated is a huge part of the equation, so if it's something that motivates you to practice and play and explore more music, then it seems like a good thing!
October 16, 2018, 9:51 PM · You won't wreck your technique, if that's what you're asking. One thing I've noticed about playing violin in a jazz trio (or an orchestra, for that matter), is that you do have to actively work on making sure your posture, hand positions, etc., are properly maintained. They can erode more easily than you expect because you're often given inferior seating or cramped quarters on gigs. If you need a pickup I recommend the Fishman V-200.
Edited: October 16, 2018, 11:57 PM · I have the Fishman V-200, and one of my luthiers dislikes it because you're supposed to put the little piezo "blade" into the high side of the bridge, which he said deadens the highs. My hearing is so crappy, I couldn't pick up the difference. Supposedly the L.R. Baggs piezo bridge is a better route. God, be sure to get a D.I. box, or else the impedance mismatch will make it sound like you're playing a chainsaw. I got a little $30 passive DI from Guitar Center, and it worked as well as my L.R. Baggs Paracoustic DI. No tone controls, but....

The Fishman V-300 and the L.R. Baggs bridge are comparable in design. I don't know about sound.

October 17, 2018, 11:07 AM · Carlos -- go for it. My experience at doing both classical and "fiddle" genres has been positive. There should not be any conflicts with left-hand technique, but there might be differences in bowing; some genres bow too hard and heavy. The fiddlers can be very good players in the second violin sections of community/amateur orchestras, with superior velocity, left-hand agility, and string-changing technique. My mariachi started as semi-pro, then quickly became fully pro. I was in a contemporary conjunto which led to doing more singing, arranging, and improvisation. Other Hispanic genres that I would like to do , but have not found locally, would be the traditional tango orchestra and the Cuban Charanga orchestra.
October 17, 2018, 1:16 PM · Good luck in trying this Carlos. Classical training is a good foundation to lean on for this.Probably the best foundation, so long as you find out how the rules are different.

My findings are that most of the folk genre are more flexible in expression. In the folk genre I play (Irish) rhythm is a huge factor. Playing to the rhythm of the tune using bow pressure isn't something I've seen in classical as much. In terms of rhythm, swing is more often the rule than the exception.

Although I've heard of different expressions of the same music given in classical music. I believe it to still be more rigid compared to some of the other folk genre. The printed music is almost always only a guide and a loose guide at that.

My brief ventures into what is commonly referred to here as Old Time and Bluegrass weren't especially favorable. I don't really like those much, and also because it can be difficult to find players here I look up to as a standard for the genre. OTOH The Irish scene here is full of talented players so long as I can keep up with them lol.

Much of this has to do with your personality. I don't like rigid and therefore gravitate more to other styles. I see classical music as beautiful yet very rigid. I don't dislike classical, however if the goal is to have fun, I like a more relaxed and less rigid atmosphere. If you're Hispanic you probably have some groove happening there somewhere :) Us English, Germans and so forth we're all too white :) At least half of all classical music must have come from anal retentive types. We all need each other, we all make the world go around just sayin'

Edited: October 17, 2018, 10:21 PM · Spanish from Spain and South america Latino are very different kinds of music. The Latino is indeed more popular internationally and it is more danceable and fun. That's why the band has some of them in the repertoir. But at its core, the Spanish modern music "rumba" has a leg and an arm in flamenco.
Which is frustrating for me, because there are no teaching methods, or teachers or even well known artists that do violin flamenco. Except for Ara Malikian, who tries to play all styles in the world.

This is the kind of music I would like to play eventually in the band... Eventually is the main word. For me, this is the Spanish Fiddling :-)

October 19, 2018, 1:31 PM · Interesting music. Very improvisational on the violin. More so than other folk types of music.
When you mentioned this I was thinking more along the lines of Flamenco. This seems to me it would not be very difficult for a classical musician to do.
Dissect the theory and structure. Once you have that down you are free to play in that structure to your hearts content.
Edited: October 19, 2018, 2:46 PM · I see some videos on youtube for flamenco violin. How well do you learn by ear?

Perhaps you could convince them that Asturias, by Ibenez, is flamenco.

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