In a few days, I will be celebrating my one year anniversary as a fiddler, or should I more accurately say, a fiddle student. January has been a quiet month, blog-wise, with this being only my third post, probably because I have really stopped and focused my attention on one thing, my bowing.
While my bowing has definitely improved over this first year, there is room for much more improvement, and I think a lot of my enthusiasm to learn new songs has distracted me from improving beyond the rudiments of this skill. Let’s face it; it is much more fun to learn new songs than it is to work on basic skills which require concentrated practice and constant repetition. However, after a while, learning new songs is not satisfying if the same bowing mistakes keep cropping up and are repeated.
Sometimes I feel I pay lip service to technique. I do it, but I don’t embed it. I practice it, but not enough. I start off a song or tune using good technique, but soon, even if I know the piece by heart, I slide back making basic mistakes. I find my bow grip unconsciously changes; I start bowing from the shoulder; I lower my elbow too much; my wrist locks up; I concentrate too much on the next phrase rather than how I am playing it. The list goes on.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not beating myself up, although, like many of us, I can easily fall into this at times. I know what I am experiencing is pretty normal for a beginner, and perhaps more common for a beginner who doesn’t have a regular teacher to keep bringing them back to basics. Without this constant prompting, I think I often make the mistake of putting the horse before the cart, or what I call playing before practicing. So, as a former teacher, I put on my teaching hat and thought about what I would do with a student who is experiencing what I am at this point in my studies, and as a result, my concentration has turned to specific technique improvement rather than tune production.
This begins with my bow grip. I have watched countless videos explaining and demonstrating the bow grip. To me it seems very unnatural, and apparently this is the case for my body as well, because before long I wind up turning to a grip that feels more comfortable. I have experimented with many variations and positions. However, the standard bow grip, with little variation, is tried and true and taught for a reason. While it may not be the most comfortable, it produces the best sound. So, who am I to argue that! If I were a baseball player trying to learn how to hit to the opposite field, I wouldn’t tell my instructor I want to do it my way because it feels more comfortable, while not producing the desired result. I would adjust until it became comfortable and the desired result was achieved. And, a smart and competent instructor would be able to explain it in such a way that made sense to me.
I recently came across one such instructor. His name is James Burke, a fiddler from New Hampshire who once taught on the now defunct Fiddlehub.com site. I happened upon a video of his with a detailed explanation of how to form the grip for the fiddle bow – how to grip the bow for maximum control and tone. To date, his is the best explanation, demonstration and reasoning for using this grip that I have watched. And, I started watching it every day at the beginning of my practice.
Unlike the other videos I have watched, Jim’s video explains the bow grip very well, in a way that makes sense to me. For some reason, when I follow his video step-by-step, the standard bow grip feels comfortable to me. And, watching it every day at the beginning of my practice, and taking the time to place my fingers on my bow in this methodical way is helping me keep my grip constant for a longer period of time. It may sound a bit crazy, but if I find my bow grip devolving, I stop and watch the video again, slowly positioning my fingers as I watch. Eventually, I will not need to watch this video as much, and eventually I will not need to place my fingers one by one to create my grip, but until then, I will follow this pattern. Yup, not as much fun as belting out a song, but a necessary step that will be repeated over and over again until I can do it naturally.
With a good bow grip, I can move onto placing it on the strings, and here again, Jim provides a video about bowing on the sweet spot – where the fiddle bow should be touching the strings and how to keep it there. Even though I know this, I have started watching this often, too, as a review and constant reminder
Jim provides additional videos with information and exercises to help develop a bow stroke that will help keep the bow in the sweet spot.
In this video, I especially like the second exercise where he moves his arm up and down the the center of his body while concentrating on his wrist movement. It reminds me of the paint brush method I wrote about in Wax On, Wax Off.
I have been spending a lot of practice time playing open strings, twenty long bow strokes on each string as I watch in my practice mirror concentrating on bowing in straight strokes. In order to do this properly, I have to make sure I am bending my wrist properly (see Wax On, Wax Off). If I begin to stray, I start all over again. Believe me, having to start again certainly makes me focus my attention. What is it weight lifters say? No Pain, no gain!
So, just so you didn’t think I have run away or dropped off the side of the earth, I decided to write this update on what I have been working on lately. Once again, it ain’t pretty, and may not generate a lot of fodder for blog posts, but it what I am working on lately.
I hope your fiddling is going well, and I welcome your feedback and insights.