Fiddle bowing- flaunting ignorance

October 23, 2019, 8:02 AM · I am in the process of preparing my students for an adjudication event. One of the piece that I selected for this year is Wabash Cannonball. In the description of Wabash Cannonball the arranger says, "Students will develop their into-the-string fiddle bow stroke." What the does this mean? I am thinking middle bow with detached, but not quite staccato playing.
Am I correct, or is this yet another gap in my knowledge? This is for players with 2-4 years of playing, in a public school, grades 6-8.

If you would like to observe:

Any thoughts?

Replies (15)

Edited: October 23, 2019, 8:30 AM · As an actual fiddle player, my take on this is a classical arranger trying to describe what they think is fiddle bowing. Yes, generally fiddle bowing has a strong attack in order to establish a rhythm (often for dancing), and I think that's what the arranger is going for here. There might also be an attempt to make the rhythm of a steam engine train.
Edited: October 23, 2019, 5:03 PM · Why don't you pick a real fiddle tunes? Walbash Cannonball is IMHO
nearly worthless for this purpose.
October 23, 2019, 6:03 PM · What do you suggest Jeff? I'd like to try a few too...
Edited: October 23, 2019, 6:47 PM · Angeline the Baker, Boil Them Cabbage Down,Rye Straw, Turkey in the Straw, Arkansas Traveler. All good, danceable fiddle tunes. Fiddle tunes of this type are more about rhythm and pulse than melody, and for a dance you will leave out notes to get the beat and flow if you can't play them all. Better to play the wrong note at the right time for a dance fiddler!

I would say that the "Fiddle" aspect of the Wabash Cannon Ball is driven by the Old Crow Medicine Show. I don't recall the orig. Acuff recording having a fiddle, just Bashful Brother Oswald blowing the wooden train whistle and the Carter Family didn't have a fiddle.

October 23, 2019, 9:57 PM · The ideas that Duane has suggested are more in line with what I had in mind. These are just a small part of the repitore of fiddle tunes that are often used for dancing. Where rhythm is the most important aspect of the music.
October 24, 2019, 12:55 AM · June Apple, St. Anne's Reel, Whiskey Before Breakfast, Blackberry Blossom and Cluck Old Hen would be some other tunes common among the Bluegrass reportoire, but maybe with a bit different flavor than some of those previously mentioned (not that there's anything wrong with those ones). As for the deep well of Old Time tunes...well that's another topic.
October 24, 2019, 4:49 AM · Randy Miller has published some great books of fiddle music: Irish Traditional Fiddle Music, The Fiddler's Throne, New England Fiddler's Repertoire, all published by Fiddle Case Books. You will be able to find thousands of possibilities in those books, published without pretensions, simply giving the notes and leaving it up to the fiddler (or teacher) to decide on phrasing, bowing and what-not.

I would suggest not approaching bluegrass fiddling until you and your students have learned a lot more about it because of the great speed required to really carry it off.

Sticking to old-time fiddling or Irish fiddling tunes would be wiser in my opinion.

And for a lot of information and great descriptions and CD with examples, check out Chris Haigh's book "The Fiddler's Handbook." In it Chris goes into depth on the various types of fiddling, each with their own unique characteristics: Irish, English, Scottish, Cajun, Bluegrass, Country, Jazz, Gypsy, Western Swing.

Once you decide on a tune to have your students play, you need to investigate the rich differences in bowing styles in order to have the presentation more realistic -- old-time fiddlers often just did back and forth bowing without slurring, other styles incorporated more slurring, but it was usually up to the specific fiddler with no two fiddlers agreeing on the best way to bow a specific tune.

There are great recorded examples of fiddling you listen to on youtube (many videos also) where you can get a better sense of what the bow is supposed to do rather than from the words printed in a school-oriented edition.

Wabash Cannonball is a great tune, I see no reason not to have your students play it. Trying to learn how to fiddle for a dance is not necessary for an adjudication, unless it's being run by a local contra-dance organization. And the best way to learn to fiddle for dancing is to go to such dances as a dancer who also sits a few out and merely observes how the music and the dancing are intertwined, and watches the fiddler(s) to see how they bow and especially pick up on the interaction between the fiddler and the bassist.

October 24, 2019, 6:04 AM · Thank you all for the response. I am required to select music from a specific list. I am likewise trying to show a variety of styles in music choice and key. I'd love to enrich my classes with some actual fiddle music; however, when I cannot get them to perform basic compositions correctly, fiddle will be impossible and the antithesis of what I am trying to teach in terms of playing foundations. Again, this is for a public school grades 6-8, these students are low income, with little parental support, and I provide numerous instruments.
October 24, 2019, 7:21 AM · Peter - thank you for working with these kids, this will become a significant part of what they are. Kudos!
October 24, 2019, 9:45 AM · The more rapid bow strokes are typically done with a pronounced articulation, like a martele (hammered) stroke. The specific technique used can vary, but it basically drives the bow hairs into the string and then releases the pressure to complete the stroke.

On the web site you posted, you can hear a pronounced articulation of the notes, but traditional fiddling would be a bit sharper.

A common ornamentation is called a "cut" which is a sharp, brief hammered note, basically a grace note, typically a third above the target melody note.

October 24, 2019, 2:15 PM · Since you're exposing them to tunes they might not know rather than really trying to teach them fiddling, and you have to choose repertoire from someone else's list, why not just have everyone play detache in the middle of the bow? The kids learn a tune they probably haven't heard, and you get to reinforce fundamentals. Stylistic correctness is not the issue, right? Or am I missing something?
October 24, 2019, 2:42 PM · If you did want to be "stylistically correct" with a Bluegrassy song like this, you would just play it until you find what works for you and your students, and sounds like what you have imagined. There are no hard and fast rules to fiddle bowing, especially on a vocal song. The only true "rule" I could think of would be trying to start most measures on a downbow, but even that would be more important in breakdowns/reels. Most fiddlers I know would approach bowing to a song like this without much thought and just go for what feels right. Of course, if you're not striving for stylistic correctness, then everything I just said was useless jibber-jabber.
October 25, 2019, 1:18 AM · "I'd love to enrich my classes with some actual fiddle music; however, when I cannot get them to perform basic compositions correctly, fiddle will be impossible and the antithesis of what I am trying to teach in terms of playing foundations."

This is not useful for the competition but please don't assume teaching fiddle will detract from teaching violin (If that's what you meant).

Have a look at the Fiddlers Philharmonic series. They have violin viola and cello versions, a teacher score and recording for kids to listen to, and are designed specifically for the kind of group you describe. There are old time and celtic books, and from memory - sorry mine are currently on loan - a slightly simpler or slightly more advanced one with a mixture of styles. The fantastic thing is that they include basic and advanced versions of the tunes and also back up chord parts which are surprisingly useful for including beginner students in a performance (they can play one note each of the double stops, or choose something in or d so they can use open strings - total beginners still sound good pizz) as well as teaching rhythm in a very fun way.

October 25, 2019, 4:51 AM · My wife had started a violin group at the Catholic elementary school where I have been running the band program for a number of years and initially it was a typical classically-oriented violin program. The first year there were 6 members, the second year there were 3, the third year there was only a single "my daughter might join again" response. So my wife discontinued the program.

Then after a year's hiatus she had the idea of calling her violin program "Fiddle Squad." She uses a combination of fiddle tunes and a school-oriented string program method book (I can't recall which one now) and she's had at least 12 (out of a school of about 240 students) divided into Beginner Fiddle Squad and Advanced Fiddle Squad (while my band program has had about 20 students each year). Fiddling can be done in an untrained manner but it doesn't have to be -- many excellent fiddlers use just as great technique and posture and bow manipulation as classical violinists. One big difference is that the music gets the students excited because it's energetic without being on the level of a concerto and the students love playing the fiddle tunes and that enthusiasm carries over to the more classical music in the book.

So don't write off fiddling as unhelpful in a classically-oriented string program. Mark O'Connor started off as a fiddler, winning fiddling contests, yet he is also a top-notch classical violinist, proving that fiddling and classical violin playing are not mutually exclusive.

October 26, 2019, 6:36 PM · Good point. Also have a look at o Connors string methods or at least the string orchestra book. You can listen to some of the mp3s online.

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