Anyone Play Celtic Music?

November 2, 2019, 4:44 PM · I'm curious what scales and modes you normally use and are they generally what you practice? Or do you generally only practice songs that you write?

Replies (48)

November 2, 2019, 5:01 PM · I may help you if you explain what is "Celtic" music(I may be incultured)
November 2, 2019, 5:16 PM · I would imagine that modes are more prominent than actual scales
November 2, 2019, 5:41 PM · Modes are scales. Just different scales. I would expect dorian and lydian modes to be common but I really don't know, as I don't play a lot of Celtic stuff.

For Guillermo, you might find that Google can help you with terms like "Celtic music." It's a useful skill to be able to look things up on the internet.

Edited: November 2, 2019, 6:06 PM · Lol Paul
November 2, 2019, 6:36 PM · Major, Dorian, Mixolydian and Aeolian, and lots of pentatonic of course. Don't hear much Lydian, Phrygian or Locrian. I don't write any songs but those are the scale/modes I use when accompanying. Anyway, if you practice the Major scales then you've got all the modes and pentatonics already under your fingers.
Edited: November 2, 2019, 8:05 PM · Celtic music? That's got to be marketing terminology, on a par with the ubiquitous "song". I'd provisionally define Celtic music as music that is embedded in the culture of a Celtic nation or community that still has its own Celtic language. Such languages would be Gaelic (in Scotland), Irish, Welsh (I'm Anglo Welsh), and Breton. To this list may be included Manx (the now defunct language of the Celtic Isle of Man), Cornish (now making a comeback in Cornwall), and, intriguingly, Patagonian Welsh in S America (I have no idea whether or not they have a music tradition).

Oh, and I play Irish music when I get the chance, which is not now as frequent as it used to be in my locality.

November 2, 2019, 8:10 PM · Trevor, Celtic is a sub-genre or Folk basically
November 2, 2019, 8:41 PM · I've been listening to Loreena McKennitt and thought it would be cool to write some songs along those lines
November 2, 2019, 9:12 PM · After you've heard 20,000 Celtic fiddle tunes, you've heard them all.
November 2, 2019, 9:36 PM ·


The lyrics maybe more challenging than the music.

Edited: November 3, 2019, 12:19 AM · There is a fair amount of confusion here. I'll try to help.

If you are reading the music off a page, you aren't playing in the tradition, and if you think "Celtic" is an actual style of music (and not a marketing term) you are, um, misinformed. The marketing term allows people to group traditional music and descendant musical styles from the varieties of cultures of "Celtic Europe" but the music often is mostly independent, and learning Breton gavottes won't help you with Irish set dances. The term is intended to help people buy music that they like. My advice is to choose a tradition that moves you, and concentrate on it, learning the intricacies of the style.

The way people learn these traditions is by ear, and by being shown by masters of the style you're learning. Once you know the tradition, then reading music can help you learn tunes, but trying to read tunes for someone who hasn't mastered the style usually results in eating the recipe instead of the meal. If you play traditional Irish music with vibrato, for example, you could find yourself unintentionally insulting actual traditional musicians, who might regard your ignorance as hubris.

So if you want to learn, say, Irish traditional fiddling (what I do), you take advantage of the fabulous interwebs to listen and study actual players and imitate what they do. You know, or go live in Ireland for awhile (that's how I started...). You will have to listen to enough of the style to recognize poseurs, so you can concentrate on the good stuff. Once you have learned a substantial repertoire of different sorts of tunes, you might find yourself noticing that there are particular modes that turn up, and they may have characteristic phrases and ornamentation associated with them. An example are a group of tunes whose melodies would be analyzed by people applying European church modes as "Dorian," but they are played by pipers with a drone on the fourth of the scale, so a Dorian scale starting on A would be harmonized by a low D drone (see "Pipe on the Hob" for example). This is the sort of information that could evolve into a modal theory, though that hasn't really happened in Irish music, because it isn't necessary. It did evolve in the Middle East, because musicians were expected to be able to improvise on traditional music, and theoretical analysis makes that easier. Anyway, modes are not really scales, though people trained in European classical music often think they are because that's what they were told in their music history courses, by people who don't really know what modes are. They are in fact a large complex of musical ideas, of which a scale is a component, but also associated repertoire, certain notes that get emphasized or ornamented in particular ways, etc. Like raga in Hindustani music.

The original question was about practice, and perhaps also how to apply traditional playing to original composition. I practice my traditional repertoire, generally keeping about 100 tunes or so on the front burner. I always have several tunes in learning stages, and part of that for me is to improvise on them in the style (I also play American music and do the same thing, but in that case I'm improvising in a different dialect). Active traditional players are continually learning new repertoire, and in Irish music this process is sort-of endless. I also spend an hour or so on the Bach solo violin literature most days, and whatever I am working on for other people.

I have played this music long enough that I can make up tunes on the spot, and coming up with material like Loreena McKennitt's music, being mostly lyrical songwriting more than dance music, is not difficult. Certainly, playing along with her recordings for inspiration is a good place to dive in. Learning from singers is a good idea if you are working on slow airs, since fiddlers are supposed to imitate them. If McKennitt's music is your thing, I might concentrate on Scottish and Cape Breton fiddling, and listen to traditional singers, for source material. When you can do that, you could probably "write some songs along those lines."

November 3, 2019, 5:05 AM · The Bonny Swans is my favorite Loreena McKennit song and when it first came out some of the radio stations played it a lot.
November 3, 2019, 8:37 AM · Let's not leave Galicia (northern Spain) out of the list.
Edited: November 3, 2019, 2:04 PM · Music is not exactly language, but the similarities are too broad and deep to dismiss.

Learning Celtic music is sort of like "learning Chinese" as a language. There are a great many regional dialects, some of which are sufficiently different to be considered entirely separate languages.

Invariably someone will come along and say that you can't hope to approach, say, Irish fiddling, without learning first to play by ear, without learning the tunes by ear instead of from a printed page, and without listening to the masters of that genre for years and years.

And there's some truth to that, but it tends to be a rather exclusive argument that leaves those who may be curious out in the cold.

I play American jazz, mostly on the piano. For years, people said the same kinds of things, that you couldn't learn jazz tunes from lead sheets, that you had to listen to particular players (always including Louis Armstrong) to have any hope of capturing the style, and that "theory" was some kind of four-letter word, a bane to "real" improvisation.

And then along came Jamey Aebersold, who argued that maybe we could bring more people into the fold, stimulate their interest, and just get them started up to a beginner/intermediate level of proficiency by having a simple system where scales are interfaced to chords. Meanwhile the students at Berklee in the 1970s were creating a compendium of lead sheets that is now known as Volume 1 of the "Real Book," with the overt encouragement of legendary jazz bassist Steve Swallow. The jazz purists were mortified.

Well, the truth, as usual, for most ordinary mortals, is somewhere in the messy middle of things where we're maybe reaching for that pure ideal, but meanwhile we need a few crutches to lean on so that we can gain some playing experience and start to enjoy ourselves.

So my main advice to the OP is to read a few lead sheets in the style that you're trying to learn. Look at the melody and the key signature. What you'll very often see is tunes that end in "E" that have two sharps. For a beginner, there is no distinction between that simple reality and Dorian mode. On the other hand, I would ask what is gained from having named that reality -- nothing. Just know that when you're playing a tune that is E-minor-ish, you have to figure out if it will sound better if your improvisation includes C# rather than C natural. This will not take you very long and it's the operational definition of the mode of the piece. Once you figure that out, come over to my house and we'll jam for a few hours on "So What" by Miles Davis (a jazz tune that uses Dorian mode, famously). I promise not to judge how you learned to play.

November 3, 2019, 11:47 AM · By the way, the idea that "Celtic" is a marketing term does not make it evil. Helping customers know what to buy -- that is, organizing ones wares in a limited number of broader categories -- is generally helpful to the consumer. If you already know that you're only interested in Galician or Manx fiddling, then go right ahead and search Amazon for that.
November 3, 2019, 4:15 PM · Jeff Jetson, I really like her Middle Eastern flavored songs like Caravanserai, you can almost smell the camels when you listen to it.

I feel there's a difference between what I refer to as Celtic, and traditional Irish music. What they play at St Patricks Day parades isn't my thing at all. McKennitt's music has more of a film score atmosphere to it.

November 3, 2019, 5:43 PM · Blimey. I have read some "stuff" in this thread.

The melodic traditions of Celtic fiddling were established centuries before the violin arrived in London (then the Celtic nations, over the next 50 years). The scales and arpeggios played were derived from the diatonically tuned instruments used prior to then.

The folk harps and pipes used were tuned in modes prior to the equal temperament system of scales, and these included, as Henry Butcher listed, the Dorian, Aeolian and Mixolydian modes, (and the pentatonic scale we would call the major pentatonic). The Pipe scale is the A mixolydian scale, used on the highland pipes. But there are many other pipes. Fiddlers picked up these melodic characteristics.

The melodic fragments of "Indian" and "Arabic" music are quite separate from the melodic material of Celtic music.

Celtic fiddling is a solo art, and intonation didn't feature highly in their music, mostly because they didn't play ensemble music. Some drones and a few open string doubles don't make ensemble music, in my book.

Even from the start of the 1700s, fiddlers made money publishing their books of tune, and many hundreds of collections are catalogued and are available for study today, in university libraries, (eg Edinburgh, and Cork), and in private collections.

The "aural tradition" stories are as modern as the middle of the C20th, as are "sessions", and the first known circle of fiddlers playing a tune in unison is about 1962, Shetland Islands, led by Tom Anderson, in his efforts to revive fiddling (practically unheard for some 40 years, at that time).

As for the original question, go with Henry Butcher's list of scales/modes, based on open strings in first position.

November 3, 2019, 6:19 PM · Graeme -- interesting to learn about the origins with pipes and harps. That's very significant. Thanks for the education!
November 3, 2019, 7:04 PM · Very interesting Graeme
November 3, 2019, 8:11 PM · For buying music Celtic is a useful category. For playing, though, there are significant differences between the Scottish and Irish traditions. I personally prefer the Scottish stuff, myself. More rhythmic and foot tapping.
Edited: November 4, 2019, 5:51 AM · I've been involved with Scottish instrumental music and song for half a century. and feel that some of the views above are a bit misleading.

The term "Celtic" is pretty dubious historically, but it's a pragmatic umbrella term for the related musical traditions of (in broad terms) Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, Brittany, Galicia and Cape Breton. And the Celtic world also has close musical connections with the Scandinavian, American and broader Canadian traditions (and dare I say it - with the English tradition too).

Yes - as others have said there are many different dialects - and not just between countries - there are often strong regional differences as well.

But these traditions also have very strong commonalities. They have been exchanging musicians, tunes and styles for centuries, and this has only accelerated. Many of the most exciting projects these days involve collaborations between musicians from all across these traditions.

But the main point I want to make is that this was never just "peasant" music and there's no "one right way" to play it. It has always reached across the social spectrum, from the cottage through the bourgeois drawing room to the aristocratic ballroom and on to the modern-day night-club. It was and is played by rich and poor from the country to the city, by the self-taught and by highly literate classical virtuosi. It's been learned by ear and from printed collections and from manuscript chapbooks. It is swept by new fashions and new tune forms and new dances and new instruments. It's acoustic and electric. It's raucous and refined. It's traditional and experimental. It has always been a dynamic and exciting melting pot of people, cultures and ideas.

So don't be intimidated. Just pick up your fiddle and get involved - it's a broad church and there's a place for everyone. Explore the tradition on YouTube and Spotify and follow your heart. Imitate your favourite players. Find good tutorials and teachers. Hook up with local sessions or join a fiddle orchestra. Get along to festivals and workshops and summer schools. And above all have fun - there's tremendous scope for creativity and joyful music-making.

November 4, 2019, 5:08 AM · For the curious who can't travel to all the various localities to hear the local fiddle traditions in person, Chris Haigh wrote a wonderful book "The Fiddle Handbook" in which he describes and demonstrates with printed musical examples and recordings on 2 CDs which accompany the book many varieties of fiddling. He covers Irish, Scottish, English, Klezmer, Eastern European, American Old-Time, Cajun, Bluegrass, Western Swing, Country, Blues, Rock, Jazz. It's a great introduction to the differences between the various styles.

There are some great collections for free download, the Kingston Irish Slow Session Tunebook for example, which is an enormous collection broken into sections like Airs, Jigs, Hornpipes, etc. and with background for each song. There are others that can be found just by searching for "free PDF fiddle music."

MelBay, the publishers, frequently have sales where one can buy their books either as printed books (hard to keep open on the stand) or ebooks (you can print them and coil bind them so they stay open easily, or you can read them on a computer or tablet). Fiddlehangout negotiated a 25% discount simply by entering MB25 on the checkout page, but you don't get free shipping with that. But they just got through with a 30% site-wide discount that did include free shipping on orders over a certain amount. Currently i believe they're offering only a 10% discount. They have an enormous number of excellent books of fiddle tunes from many different backgrounds, many of them Irish or Scottish or American Old-Time.

Don't be put off by people who say that reading the tunes from a book isn't a good thing -- for many (most?) of us it's the only way to learn about this wonderful aspect of the violin world.

November 4, 2019, 5:35 AM · I enjoy the Transatlantic Sessions based in Scotland, it includes great musicians from the UK and members of Union Station, and sometimes Bela Fleck
Edited: November 4, 2019, 10:38 AM · My solution for books that won't lie flat on the stand is to cut off the bindings and have spirals put on at the local print shop. The worst books I have ever bought for lying flat on a music stand are the O'Connor Method books.
Edited: November 4, 2019, 3:07 PM · I agree wholly with Geoff Caplan. By the way, I've been playing Cape Breton & Scottish fiddle music for about 25 years (before that, mainly classical); and I would like to point out that the music of Loreena McKennitt -- though "Celtic" in a broad sense -- has very little connection with Cape Breton or Scottish fiddling traditions. Contrary to what was implied in an earlier posting by Paul Smith. If you want to concentrate on Cape Breton fiddling, start with Natalie McMaster, preferably her "My Roots are Showing" album.
November 4, 2019, 4:12 PM · Thank you, Geoff Caplan in particular. I don't claim any real knowledge of Celtic music, but your post leads me to suspect that much of what I've heard about it (and about ITM in particular) might be wrong, or at the very least lacking in nuance. Now I want to have a closer look/listen.
November 4, 2019, 5:46 PM · Sorry, Parker...mea culpa, I went with McKinnett being Canadian. In any case, someone interested in imitating her singing would do well to listen to traditional singers, which is the specific suggestion I made. I have no idea how serious McKinnett's study of an actual tradition has been, but her singing still sounds more Scottish than Irish to me. I did not give the OP a suggestion for learning Cape Breton fiddling, implied or otherwise, but the traditional singing from that region might be an inspiration.
Edited: November 5, 2019, 9:44 AM · "Learning" folk music from the printed dots won't work if you have never heard the music being played. The dots are a mere skeleton of the real thing and can never notate the essential and ever-changing nuances of the music when played by experienced musicians. A lot of listening, preferably at live sessions or gigs if you can manage it, is one of the very few ways to put the flesh on that skeleton. Another way of course is to take lessons from an experienced teacher of the music, or in workshops.

My personal experience. When I started in Irish fiddle music, some 20 or so years ago, as a very inexperienced beginner, I went to a Irish session in a pub every week. And listened and watched. It was about 9 months before I started putting bow to string and was asked, at the end of one session would I like to play a little something, which I did (slowly), and then was taken into a corner and given a kindly mini lesson by one of the senior fiddlers on how to do it better. This actually was fairly standard practice with beginners at that particular session. It was another year before I was getting up to speed and taking part regularly, by which time I must have absorbed a lot of the music subconsciously.

November 5, 2019, 5:09 PM ·


…..."Learning" folk music from the printed dots won't work if you have never heard the music being played...….


This is very true for any kind of music, but I wonder what could inspire you to play it in the first place, if you hadn't heard it before. And, if you liked what you heard, why would you not want to listen to more..?


If you are a good reader you have literally thousands of tunes at your finger tips. I am not against the oral tradition, in fact I practice it myself, but there is a certain limit to what is available on recordings and from sessions. I can flip through books of tunes and decide what I would like to learn and memorize, and memorizing can be done in the same way as orally through audiation and mental imagery.

…..'The dots are a mere skeleton'... Yes, of course they are because to include all the possible nuances and ornaments on the printed page would render it illegible. So to make the music sound authentic one is required to study the ornamentation, nuances and inflections separately from the tunes so to acquire the skill to insert them anywhere in the music that is desired.


November 5, 2019, 9:42 PM · Henry... You are suggesting that it's possible to learn to speak French by having it written out phonetically so that you sound like you could almost... speak... French... Your theory relies on the assumption that sounding like you can speak French is a good pathway to speaking French. I don't think so. You seem to think that memorizing this phonetic spelling of French, how to make the sounds of French, means that you can sing like Edith Piaf, and actually feel the music as she did? Yeah, right.
November 5, 2019, 10:08 PM · No, but with a phrasebook you can ask for directions to the WC.
November 6, 2019, 1:06 AM ·

No, I am not suggesting that's how to learn to speak French, just "CELTIC" fiddling!? Really bad analogy that.


That's how I taught myself to play "CELTIC" music on the fiddle. I may not have 100 (CELTIC) tunes, but I can improvise over a Double Tonic and I can make up tunes in style, on the spot, piece of cake. I have a collection of Dave Swarbrick LP's and I transcribed many of his tunes, saved myself a heap by not paying 'masters' to show me how to play it, and I didn't even need to fork out for an extended holiday to Ireland.


Edited: November 6, 2019, 6:38 PM · Paul Smith's analogy is a good one. To learn to play Irish music, or Scottish, etc., in which there are many dialects, you need a good teacher, and the willingness to spend time listening and playing along with humility in live gigs and sessions. Even more so if you hope to compose tunes in the right idiom; in my view not exactly a piece of cake. The written notes can help you get started if you aren't comfortable learning by ear, but they're only at best a beginning. Unlearning dependence on the written note is fundamental. I found that quite challenging as a classically trained violinist when I first began to play this music a long time ago.
November 6, 2019, 5:33 PM · I dated a classically trained pianist years ago, we tried jamming and she couldn't do anything without the notation in front of her. I was a 100% ear player (bassist) told her the keys and scales involved and she couldn't do it.
Edited: November 6, 2019, 6:47 PM · Not at all surprising. Took me me quite a while to get comfortable without a score.

November 7, 2019, 12:08 AM · Practice your pentatonic scales and arpeggio inversions. Then go to a fiddle camp. I like Centrum Fiddletunes Festival in Port Townsend, WA. Cheers! :)
Edited: November 9, 2019, 9:59 AM · Just returned from a very satisfying daytime solo violin recital at a local church. The violinist was Declan Daly. He performed an eclectic mix of solo classical with Irish fiddle music and a touch of American folk fiddle. Typically, he'd play a movement from a Bach suite and follow it with an Irish jig. Other sets would be a piece by another classical composer linked with another Irish or American tune, not necessarily in that order. Another piece played was the Bourree from Bach's 3rd cello suite, transcribed for the violin, and that worked very well (memo to self - look closer into this).

The programme showed how well classical pieces and Irish fiddle music can successfully come together in the right hands.

Declan is Irish, and I'd guess his Irish music style is from County Clare (Martin Hayes country). Here is his CV: https://www.linkedin.com/in/declan-daly-33a69566/

Edited: November 9, 2019, 10:02 AM · It occurs to me that Declan Daly's solo recital was, in effect, busking indoors at the highest level, performed by a master of his art.
Edited: November 10, 2019, 9:23 AM · I suspect that one of the ways that Celtic music has been "defined" for a lot of people is: "Whatever gets played on Thistle and Shamrock." According to Wikipedia, "Thistle features traditional music, the singer-songwriter genre, and the Celtic music contribution to world music." Wikipedia also says it's the most listened-to show of it's kind in the world. Obviously it has been much to Fiona Ritchie's advantage for "Celtic" to be defined quite broadly.
November 12, 2019, 2:04 PM · Trevor, you ever hear of Aly Bain? he's a Scot. I see him as a virtuoso on the fiddle.

November 12, 2019, 7:39 PM · Jeffrey, yes, I agree.
Edited: November 18, 2019, 2:24 PM · While there are new "Celtic" groups and stars who play new "Celtic" music; the vast majority of Celtic music has been passed down either by ear, rote (do-as-I-do), or notation. "Sessions" are where groups of musicians come together and play these fiddle tunes. While there is some variety in Celtic music based on the region in which it is played, the same tune WITHIN an area is generally always played the same way. The same tune in a different region may have its own regional difference, but in that area it is also played the same way (for that area). [Consider a Scottish tune that came over with Scottish immigrants to the US, and stayed in the Appalachian Mountains for two hundred years. The Scottish tune in Scotland will be the same throughout Scotland, and the Appalachian tune (which may have varied over the years from its Scottish parent), though slightly different from its parent form, will be the same throughout the Appalachian area, When "Sessions" are played, everyone needs to know the same version. There are books like "1,001 Fiddle Tunes" and the resources like the James Scott Skinner Collection at the University of Aberdeen or the Miller O'Hirn Collection at the University of Glasgow Library, or any of the publications of Neil Gow, Duncan Macintyre, etc., on on-line from URLs like thesession.org that has kept these pieces alive. Except for "new" Celtic groups doing their own original music, the traditional music is basically unchanged (although SOLO performers, or a soloist with a group, will often add variations to the well-known original).
Edited: November 18, 2019, 2:29 PM · Joel, you speak in such vague and general terms about something that in practice is extremely complicated, that it's difficult to see how your pronouncements have much to do with actual traditional fiddling. That you think traditional music is "unchanged" in any context is at best uninformed, and your statement that "the same tune WITHIN an area is generally always played the same way" is simply untrue. I am not as educated in Scottish music to challenge your idea that a Scottish tune "will be the same throughout Scotland," but I can say with confidence that this is NOT the case in Ireland, nor in American fiddling, even within the same region.
Edited: November 18, 2019, 5:48 PM · What Paul says is true of Scottish traditional music as well as Irish or American fiddling. There are very many variations within the same region, and even from player to player. Accomplished players may even play the same tune quite differently on different occasions. It may useful for members of an organized "session" to agree among themselves on which version of a tune to follow, since they are essentially bunch of people trying to play together in unison or in harmony, but it is simply untrue to say that "the Scottish tune in Scotland will be the same throughout Scotland." Or throughout Cape Breton, Quebec, Newfoundland, the Appalachians, etc. Traditional tunes do have a recognizable pattern, it's not utter chaos, but there are lots of differences in the details, and that's part of the pleasure of getting to know them.
November 18, 2019, 7:28 PM · I didn't read all the responses before posting this because it's actually a relatively simple answer. I'm a fiddler rather than a classical violinist, and to me and the other "Celtic" musicians I know, Celtic music means mostly (key words, "mostly") one thing: Fiddle tunes! Mostly, reels, hornpipes and the different kinds of jigs. Sure, there are also airs and strathspeys, but even those can be considered kinds of fiddle tunes. For these forms of music, the most common modes are by far Ionian, Aeolian, and Dorian. Mixolydian also occurs but the other 3 are far more prominent imo. The 6th can sometimes be ambiguous or simply left out and leaves you wondering as to whether it's strictly Aeolian or Dorian....but in the end it doesn't really matter. Let your ear guide you. Chordal back-up would differ very little between the two. For vocal music within this genre, the melodies often stick simply to Ionian or Aeolian.
November 18, 2019, 7:31 PM · Although it's worth noting that if you're in a Celtic music enviroment, you might just call them "chunes" and not "fiddle chunes". No need to offend the pipers ;)
November 18, 2019, 8:28 PM · I agree with Jason about the modes. You know, for a fiddle player to learn a little bit of guitar is just as valuable as it is for a classical violinist to learn a little piano. It just helps you understand the music you're playing, really it does.
November 18, 2019, 9:42 PM · Very true, Paul. One of the main reasons I do play just enough guitar to back up another lead player. It also seems to solidify your sense of rhythm. Very important since Celtic music is mostly dance music. You can dance to a pot being banged with a spoon or the prettiest little melody from a fiddle; but you can dance to neither if they aren't timed well.


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