Change in Method, Not in Goal

I like just about all music played on what some call the violin and others call the fiddle. More so than the style or genre of music, it is the sound of the instrument, or what I like to call voice, that first attracted me to it. And, after a little more than a year, I find the voice I can produce when playing much more satisfying than the actual song I am playing. My goal is to learn how to make my fiddle speak to the best of my ability.

Now, the fiddle speaks through tunes and songs, so when I first got my fiddle, I thought I would try to make my fiddle speak through Old Time. I’m not exactly sure why I chose Old Time except I really like Old Time music, and I was listening to a lot of it when I made my first fiddle purchase. So, I set off on my goal of making my fiddle speak through the method of Old Time music.

I began learning Old Time songs like Angeline the Baker, Julianne Johnson, Rock the Cradle Joe, Arkansas Traveler, Soldier’s Joy and more. And, while I could play them, I couldn’t get them up to tempo. I began concentrating on tempo. I read dozens of articles, watched hours of YouTube videos and practiced many exercises designed to help a fiddler increase tempo. And, while I saw some improvement in tempo, I was not happy with the sound when I increased the tempo. My fiddle ceased speaking coherently and sounded more like it was sick. This is not the voice of the instrument I desired or wanted to hear. I knew this was going to take a long time, and as I worked on it, I became more frustrated and discouraged. As more time passed, my fiddle sessions moved from being enjoyable to tedious. Not something I wanted! Perhaps I was just not cut out to play the fiddle…

Then, one day, I learned Jessica’s Waltz, a lesser known but beautiful waltz. One of the things I really liked about Jessica’s Waltz was I could play it, play it fairly well, and AT tempo, all while regaining that feeling that I was making my fiddle speak in a pretty way.

I picked out another song with a tempo I thought I could handle, the Tennessee Waltz. Hey, this was fun! I moved onto others, even trying some early American, contemporary and folks songs. I learned Hard Times Come Again No More, Annie Laurie, The Presence, Ashokan Farewell, and The Band Played Waltzing Matilda just to name a few. Before I knew it, my fiddle sessions were less tedious and much more enjoyable. I really began to like the sounds I was making with my fiddle and couldn’t wait until my next session, even extending sessions and playing extra at times I would not normally play.

I have found that by playing songs that are more within my tempo ability, I am able to concentrate more and improve upon fundamentals, which I feel will, in turn, help me increase my ability to play songs at faster tempos like those Old Time songs. So, I am sticking with this for now. I haven’t given up on playing Old Time; I just given up, for the time being, trying to play songs beyond my tempo ability! Faster tempo will come in time.

It took me a while to come to this realization, but I am glad I did. Otherwise, by stubbornly holding on to trying to play some of my favorite Old Time songs up to tempo, I might have set myself up for failure. I had to sit back and realize the goal was more important than the method, something I wasn’t seeing before. I was concentrating more on the genre of music than the goal of learning to play the fiddle well.

I have added these two sayings for reminders, hanging them on my practice room wall.

  11 comments for “Change in Method, Not in Goal

  1. March 12, 2020 at 3:22 pm

    I went through the same sort of revelation last month. While I called it struggling at playing tunes “outside my skill level” what I really meant was the same as what you’ve wrote here — struggling to play these tunes FULL TEMPO, while sounding nice. I also shifted my method and focus and it has done a world of wonders for my enjoyment of the instrument and practice sessions.

    Previously, I was just following the song order in a method that someone else sat out, and getting frustrated when I couldn’t play the next tune in the list. Or when I spent weeks on a tune only to forget it and discover I needed to re-learn most of it when I went to review it. That’s when I realized I might have been trying to force tunes that were just not right for where I’m at on my journey.

    Glad that you’ve also made that discovery — you’re not alone! — and that you’re finding what works best for you, too!

    • March 12, 2020 at 3:42 pm

      Hi Aywren…It is now more “embedded” in me after this re-evaluation to enjoy my fiddle and have fun. If I can’t play a particular tune or can’t play it up to tempo, I can always come back to it later. I’m not going to stress over it. Sounds the same for you, too.

  2. old cowboy
    March 8, 2020 at 9:11 am

    A few weeks ago I decided to go back to the tunes I have been “Playing” for awhile and add some embellishments to them. I can do slides fairly well and am beginning to get the hang of double stops, but still have a ways to go with them.The one thing I just can’t seem to get is the shuffle bow. It drives me nuts! Not even sure I like it all that much. I have found that you can add too much to a tune. Such as putting in too many double stops and slides. I am beginning to think maybe even to much shuffle bowing. Sometimes just playing the straight simple tune sounds better than all the fancy stuff. Or is that just the lazy side of me talking?

    • March 8, 2020 at 9:39 am

      I have heard songs where I thought there were way too many embellishments. I think it’s a personal “taste” of how much you embellish.

  3. old cowboy
    March 7, 2020 at 8:40 pm

    learning to play a song slow is the beginning of playing it fast. Learn it slow and in time it will come up to speed. I am a firm believer that a song should never be played faster than what it was meant to be. A perfect example of this is Old Joe Clark. Most fiddlers play it much faster than what it was meant to be. It sounds much better at a slower tempo.

  4. old cowboy
    March 7, 2020 at 8:34 pm

    Once you learn the basics of playing a song there are a lot of things you can do with it. Add slides, double stops, shuffle bowing you might be surprised at what you can do to make it sound better.

    • March 7, 2020 at 10:24 pm

      Thanks for the comments, John. I’m not talking about playing a song at a faster tempo than it was meant to be played at…just getting it up to the tempo it is normally played at. I’m still finding this difficult with most OT songs, unless they are waltzes. I need to improve my technique to do this. And, yes, I’m finding even with these slower tempo songs I can be creative.

  5. EMike McCardel
    March 7, 2020 at 6:07 pm

    Thank for the confirmation.
    I can play jigs but slowly. I’ve begun playing some slow airs and find it enjoyable. I’ve also gone back to revisit some beginner tunes like, Shortning Bread or Crawdad Hole and build on them experimenting with different bowing tempos and improvisations i.e. what ever comes to mind good or bad. Stick with what sounds and feels good.

  6. Peter
    March 7, 2020 at 10:31 am

    I still dream of playing “Irish Washerwoman” at full dance tempo. It’ll happen one day. Playing songs you can play at the accepted speed gives you a strong sense of accomplishment; I can still remember the day I first played one like that, it’s an old Dorset traditional song arranged by Ralph Vaughan Williams. I play the vocal line.
    There are lots of approaches, and it’s good to try several; in fact, maintain a rota of a few good exercises that work for you. Most of mine are from the 19th century violin masters, and many of the modern ones are direct derivations; they were aimed at classical violinists but the techniques are sound for fiddlers, too. As for learning that dance swing, there only one way to get the feel of that!

    • March 7, 2020 at 11:35 am

      yes Peter, and I’ll play Swallowtail Jig at full tempo one day, too. It just won’t be today! 🙂 You are right, shifting to playing slower tempo songs has done a lot for my sense of accomplishment and a boost to my confidence. Speed will come with time.

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