Bowing a Reel-Where to Start

Bowing a Reel-Where to Start

I’m new to this site. It’s awesome.

I would like to forget everything I know or think I know and start at the beginning. How can I learn to play a reel so that I drive people crazy. I want them to stop what they are doing and be forced to dance.

Where do I begin?

Re: Bowing a Reel-Where to Start

Hello and welcome!

Are you coming from classical background?, unlearn everything!
A good way to start is to listen to good players live and on tape lots and lots until the rythme permeated the brain and we begin to feel naturally where all the slurs/accents should go. ie get to know what we’re trying to achieve.
Bowing in general is going to be completely diferent fromk classical. I will avoid sawing back and forward by using slurrs a lot of the time, maybe on a third of the notes at least, I tend to do most of the slurrs on up bows over 2 or 3 notes and downbows are often quick "clips" after upbow slurrs, on the offbeat, thus the rythme begins to exert itself.
Now that we’ve listened to tons of good players, it is coming to us naturally where to bow without much thought, so I guess the listening to others at the start is probably most important.
There are no rules for bowing and often it might seem chaotic to study, but with the right feel for the particular reel, it’ll become second nature, just listen to an expert and then fake his playing!!

Happy fiddlin’!

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I guess I should have said that I try to start off on down bows to give some kind of a structure to things.

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Re: Bowing a Reel-Where to Start

Welcome 1whoknows,

Lots of people here have a ton of good advice to offer, but it would help to know your background better. How long have you played fiddle? What styles of music? How familiar are you with Irish Trad music and the subtleties (ornaments, tonalities, variety of rhythms) of Irish fiddling?

In short, my advice to a relative newcomer to the fiddle would be different than what I might say to an experienced player. Until we know where you land on the continuum, we’d be shooting in the dark.

Kenn is right though to recommend that you start by *listening, listening, listening* to players whose reels make you stop what you’re doing and get up and dance. You might want to focus on a particular style (Sligo or Clare or Donegal or Galway, etc.), or even specialize for a while in one player (I’m notorious on this site for pushing Frankie Gavin and Kevin Burke on everyone, but you can’t go wrong spending some time trying to capture their lift and pulse in the music, particularly reels).

So give us a little more to go on, and then stand back for the avalanche of suggestions….

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Re: Bowing a Reel-Where to Start

Thank you for your reply, Kenn. You guessed correctly…I started playing classically and I’m sure it has affected my ability to play reels. I cannot seem to find the driving rhythms.

I can read music. I’m thinking if I found some sheetmusic with the bowing indicated, it might be a start. Most of the reels I find do not show any bowing patterns.

Re: Bowing a Reel-Where to Start

You can find tutor books that show bowing patterns. They might be of some help at first but ultimately they won’t save you the necessity to listen and they definitely won’t give you the recipe for driving people crazy. In fact if you want to drive people into a frenzy of wild excitement I suggest taking up the highland bagpipes.

If you want to earn the respect of other trad musicians, it’s going to take you at least a few and probably many years of listening and working hard at developing your own style. This is a hard fact for a capable violinist to accept, but the sooner you do, the faster things will go.

Steve (whose musical life life started with classical violin).

Re: Bowing a Reel-Where to Start

1WK,
Sheet music annotated with bowing won’t really help you much—it’s not so much the "bowing patterns" that give a reel or jig life, but the somewhat syncopated timing between the notes and subtle changes in volume and note length used to accent notes both on and off the beat. David Lyth has a book or two of transcriptions showing the bowing of Michael Coleman and other old fiddle masters, but these still do not indicate the amount of swing or emphasis given the notes, and that’s where the just-gotta-dance feel comes from. I’ve never seen a printed source that can do that.

One trick I used early on was to carefully transcribe a tune as played by Kevin Burke or Frankie Gavin or some other luminary on one of their cds (see the comments section under the Old Torn Petticoat in the tune archives on this site). Then I’d play along with the recording and mark the sheet music to show which notes were accented, where the slurred notes were, etc. Mind you, I didn’t do this to very many tunes—it’s a fairly labor and time intensive way to learn tunes—but it did help me understand exactly what these fiddlers were doing, and to have a written record of it to jar my memory during subsequent practices.

For many fiddlers coming from classical, the lack of a "standard" approach to bowing (or just about any other aspect of playing this music) can make learning Irish Trad Music a frustrating experience. There are many helpful bowing cliches, but no single way to actually do them, and they usually aren’t repeated so often within a tune to be worthy of being called "patterns."

That said, here’s a not uncommon way to bow certain phrases found in many reels. I’ll try to diagram it to help you hear which notes to emphasize, and how to make it swing.

Consider the first four bars of the second half of the reel Drowsy Maggie, a scale-based setting, without ornamentation:

(You can plug this fragment into one of the abc applications from the Links section to create sheet music and even a sound file if needed.)
M: 4/4
L: 1/8
K: D
|defd cdec|defg afge|defd cdec|BABc dAFA|

First, play through this with a separate bow stroke for each note, starting with a down bow and alternating (down-up-down-up, etc.) Do it till the melody line is stuck in your head. This four bar fragment can be played as an endless loop, and so makes a good exercise for getting used to the reel beat and trying out different bowings.

Next, keep playing with single bow strokes, but play the 3rd note of each group of four just a bit louder than the others. You can also hang onto it just a hair longer and infinitesimally shorten the second and fourth notes of each group of four. This is the basic reel rhythm, emphasizing the off beat.
Accent the notes in brackets:
|de[f]d cd[e]c|de[f]g af[g]e|de[f]d cd[e]c|BA[B]c dA[F]A|

Now, mix in some specific slurs by playing the following bowing "pattern" against the melody:
down up down, up-slur-3-notes

Using this, you can play the first 4 bars of Drowsy Maggie as:

|(down)d (up)e (down)f (up)dcd (down)e (up)c|
|(down)d (up)e (down)f (up)gaf (down)g (up)e|
|(down)d (up)e (down)f (up)dcd (down)e (up)c|BA
|(down)B (up)cdA (down)F (up)A|

Slurring those groups of 3 notes and hitting the off beat note on a down bow is one way to get a reel swinging. But remember that this is just one approach to bowing these phrases, and if I played this part of the tune this way, I’d no doubt do something completely different the next time through. Sometimes you’ll want to accent the first and fourth beaths (the downbeats) of the bar more, and sometimes it adds a lot of lift to emphasize the downbeats and offbeats nearly equally. The idea here is just to give you one systematic way to get the reel pulse you’re looking for. Also realize that each tune has its own personality, which (to my ear) shouldn’t be subservient to the beat. You use timing and phrasing to spotlight certain notes, based on what the tune tells you about which notes are most important. And so eventually you have to be able to accent whatever note needs it, regardless of which direction your bow is traveling, or whether the note falls on a single bow stroke or somewhere amidst other notes being slurred.

In the long run, you’ll learn more quickly and with far more "authenticity" and danceable spirit if you divorce yourself from sheet music for now (most trad musicians use it, if at all, only sparingly and as a memory aid, not as a sole source for tunes). Learn tunes by ear. Ideally, you can listen and learn from an experienced player in person. If not, rely on recordings. But I highly recommend that you leave the sheet music alone until you have the feel of the music inside you. Then you can apply that to tunes on paper and make them come alive.

Good luck, and keep us posted on your progress.

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Re: Bowing a Reel-Where to Start

Good suggestions Will and a lot more helpful than my contribution.

But I’d like to add one more thing about the whole idea of bowing "patterns". I feel that the search for bowing formulas and patterns leads many younger fiddle players, esp. those who have not grown up with the music, to over-emphasise the backbeat to the detriment - and sometimes the exclusion of - the melody. When you hear these fiddlers the backbeat overpowers the tune, and this is the result of the overzealous application of bowing "patterns".

I’m not for a minute trying to suggest that this is where Will’s advice will necessarily lead you, after all he emphasises the distinct personality of each tune. But it is something to bear in mind if you’re looking for a way to achieve a particular effect, as you said you were.

I sometimes feel like reminding some fiddlers I hear that they are supposed to be playing the tune, expressing its melody, and not using the tune as a vehicle to demonstrate their powers as a human rhythm machine. Backbeat is important but if you overstress it music goes out the window.

What do you think, Will?

Re: Bowing a Reel-Where to Start

Your right there Steve.
If it’s great tune and you do your damdest to play it with no accent on the back of the beat at all. It will still sound accented on that beat. There’s no need to force it

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Re: Bowing a Reel-Where to Start

Great advice from will and steve, and a nice drowsy exercise to play!
I would think that to start out with, the direction of bowing and slurred notes are going to be your first concern, once this is down, accents and swing will likely come naturally. Bear in mind that many accents (often played staccatto) can be the result of bowing, ie a down bow might have to be quick and make up for 2 or 3 upbow lenghths, thus the accent. The exercise of Will’s is great for practising this.
Incidentally, as many will tell you, you should be as comfortable doing slurred downbows and stacatto up bows (ask Michael!).
You will have to get comfortable with only using a relatively short section of bow (as a beginner) most of the time, the tunes go fast afterall and have to appear relaxed.
Also you can pretty much forget about hairpins, play all the same overall volume to start with at least.
I guess that’s my two bits worth: start by figuring out which way you’re going to bow a tune after listening to (please not more Kevin!) an expert on tape and making notes.

Good luck!

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Re: Bowing a Reel-Where to Start

WHEW! I am blown away by all of your thoughtful, detailed and insightful comments. What an amazing treasure this site is.

Now, I must go to work. (The day job, that is.)

I am serious about this music business, though. And I plan to try the methods suggested. I will report any progress back to this thread.

Again, thank you, all.

Signed,
1whoknows that he doesn’t know

Re: Bowing a Reel-Where to Start

Steve, I agree 100 percent. That’s what I meant with my little digression about each tune’s personality not being subservient to the beat. If anything, it’s the other way around. I too would much rather listen to a player exploring the melody than yet another reel reduced to a drum solo…. One of the things that endears me to these old tunes and the tradition of how they’re played is that we don’t have to be slaves to the back beat, and in fact we should avoid such a formulaic approach to the beat if we want to bring the tunes to life.

Part of the reason I set up the Drowsy Maggie exercise the way I did was to enourage 1whoknows (and anyone else) to single bow the tunes they learn before adding slurs. Most newbies (either to the instrument or the tunes) will find it easier to hear and follow the innate beat of a tune if the bowing is kept as simple as possilbe at first. Single bowing also allows you to easily accent any note in the tune, not just the down beats or just the off beats. Adding slurs adds interest, but also demands more bow control and confidence in where to place the beat. As you gain experience, it becomes easier to let your bow arm do it’s thing with much less conscious control, but if 1whoknows where at this stage already he wouldn’t need to ask the question he does.

One more thing about the sheet music. Many classically trained musicians look to the dots for every instruction on how to play a given piece of music. But trad players look mostly into themselves. The lively pulse of a good jig or reel isn’t in the dots or bowing marks, it’s in *you.* If that pulse isn’t in you yet, you won’t find it in the music. Ya gotta listen to good players, immerse yourself in their music.

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Re: Bowing a Reel-Where to Start

I totally agree Will, with your comments about classical and traditional style. This could be a seperate discussion by itself, and a controvercial one at that!
Switching from classical to good traditional style is a very hard thing to do and takes time, especially on the fiddle. There are thousands of mediocre players out there who couldn’t or wouldn’t ditch their original teaching and make the transition properly.
I think that asside from the wonderful finger dexterity and ergonomic physical technique that classical training brings, it is a major hindrance to learning and playing traditional music.
Some of us lucky ones learned trad. style from day dot, the other half have had to make the long and difficult transition to developing their new instinctive style of playing (from the head, not the sheet).
Having said all of that, I’m sure lots will dissagree with me, and there are obviously many players who have learned both styles to a high standard.

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Re: Bowing a Reel-Where to Start

Will Harmon is a Session treasure! I find your explanations clear and instructive. I am new to playing the fiddle and I "listen, listen, listen" but find it hard to figure out bowing from just listening. Has Will ever considered writing a book? For now I plan on hitting the archives for more instructional gems!

Re: Bowing a Reel-Where to Start

I agree with you Bijilson—I actually just printed out this thread,to use in the future when I am at a level to actually understand all of the helpful suggestions.

Thanks, Will!

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Re: Bowing a Reel-Where to Start

Interesting comment about the difficulty in switching from a classical style to good trad. I’ve come from a lifetime of classical cello (which I still play regularly in orchestras) to trad fiddle and I found that the left hand and general bowing techniques have transferred remarkably easily from one instrument to the other, but never having had formal violin lessons but just observing and copying others I didn’t have any preconceptions when coming to the fiddle. For instance, it didn’t take me long to realise that, for me, the shoulder-rest was more of a hindrance than a help, so I got rid of it. I do know, though, that I’ve got a very long way to go in learning the trad fiddle bowing techniques and styles. When are you bringing out that book, Will?

trevor

Re: Bowing a Reel-Where to Start

No shoulder pad trevor? thats interesting, I always played with one until last week I packed it away in a seperate box from the fiddle (I’m moving house next week) and since have played without it, and I think I preffer it without now!
I should mention a video available from " lark in the morning" music shops and mail order (links section): "Basic Irish Fiddle Technique" I think it’s called, and Idon’t remember the authors name, maybe someone at the session can fill that in. Anyway, its geared towards showing you the correct way to play decorations (rolls/triplets/grace notes). It may be too early for 1whoknows to get bogged down in decorations, but the video would be very useful for showing how he’s bowing the tunes, he plays them slow then fast- and one of the demonstration tunes is "Drowsy Maggie".
I seem to remember he was a pretty ****hot player too!
Of course possibly a better alternative would be to wait for Will’s book, he should be well through it by now………

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Re: Bowing a Reel-Where to Start

Well, I actually do have a file going with the idea of getting all of this between two covers. When it’s done, I wonder if Jeremy would let me advertise it here? *grin*

So my question to all of you is, does it seem a bit silly to have a book, with a bunch of words and dots on lines, to explain how to do this aural, largely intuitive thing we call Irish Trad music? Are there really a lot of people out there who would benefit from a written explanation of what’s supposed to be a face-to-face, hand-me-down, aural tradition? I’d *like* to believe so, but it just feels counterintuitive to me (and so I’m wondering if such a book would be worth the time and effort needed to write it).

And thanks for your too-kind words….blush.

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Re: Bowing a Reel-Where to Start

I’d be carefull of that one about no shoulder rest.
I played for years without one and was persuaded to try one by a freind. I couldn’t play for months. I found it lots harder at first. It comes down to whether you actually HOLD the the fiddle in your left hand. If you are holding it, your fingers are obviously not as free to move.
I know it’s not as comfy, but you need the shoulder rest

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Re: Bowing a Reel-Where to Start

Will,

I for one would be interested in such a work. The Crannich and Cooper books are good as they go, but specific bowing instruction would be very much appreciated. There is no one local to share, show or watch to get it the real way. These are the people you would be helping.

Waiting anxiously,

Joe

Re: Bowing a Reel-Where to Start

Will,
The very fact that it is an aural tradition means there is a dearth of written information to help non-initiated players.

Nowadays, when people from all different places and backgrounds are keen to learn all different types of regional music, I’d think more information can’t be a bad thing, after all, the computerised generation that we are prefer the "fasttrack"approach.

And we can always toss it in the bin if we don’t like it!…….I think it would be well accepted (and you might get rich).

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Re: Bowing a Reel-Where to Start

Get rich? Heh. I’ve got seven books out in print, and I’m lucky if the year’s royalties pay one month’s rent. Which is still better than nothing, but considering all the research, writing, and editing that went into them, my hourly wage must be approaching single digits, as in 3 cents.

Maybe if I called it "Harry Potter and the Source of his Tone"…..

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Re: Bowing a Reel-Where to Start

Hey guys, go to Amazon.com and do a search for Will Harmon and you can see everything he’s written! While you’re there, buy a book and give poor Will a pay raise!

BTW, Will is being gyped! Three cents an hour is an outrage! I think he’s worth at least 6 cents, maybe even 10!

;-)

Re: Bowing a Reel-Where to Start

Funny, I’d never done that myself. There are a few of my books they don’t have, but I’m surprised their coverage is as good as it is.

Kevin, if I start getting 10 cents an hour do I have to pay you a commission? :-)

While you’re paddling down the Amazon, click on the cover photo of Mountain Biking Helena if you want to see a grainy shot of where I live. The steeples in the background belong to one of the few gothic cathedrals in the West, St. Helena Cathedral, modeled after a church in Cologne, Germany. BTW, the photo is genuine—we have spectacular hiking and biking trails that start right in town and climb up to the continental divide about 15 miles away. From there you could walk to Canada or Mexico through some of the finest scenery in North America. AND we have a great weekly session, heh.

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Re: Bowing a Reel-Where to Start (shoulder-rests)

Shoulder-rests… hmm. I think the previous postings merit a little more discussion on this matter, probably not enough for a separate thread, but since the matter has been raised here anyway, here goes …

Basically, the shoulder-rest is a personal thing; some people need them, others can get along fine without them. For myself, the fiddle rests comfortably on my collar bone, which means I can move the instrument around as I wish, both laterally and in its angle to the horizontal. A shoulder-rest would pretty well constrain the instrument to one position, which I find inhibiting and restrictive, and I don’t like it. Also, I feel that the fewer things you have hanging off a fiddle the better it will sound.

I use the smallest chinrest I could find - it’s quite old, nearly flat and roughly kidney-shaped. Its dimensions are 3 inches x 1.25 inches, its bottom edge is curved to match the curve of the base of the fiddle, and its under surface is about 0.25 inch from the belly of the fiddle. I have fitted it as close to the edge of the instrument as is secure and to ensure that the vibrations of the belly and back plate are not impeded by it. When I’m playing, my chin barely contacts the chinrest and most times not at all. Its main function as far as I am concerned is to protect the varnish on a rather old fiddle.

As regards the left-hand *grip*, I don’t. The neck *rests* between the hand and thumb and I have no difficulty in moving up and down the fingerboard. In fact, it is definitely easier for me to reach the extreme end of the fingerboard with my relatively thick cellist’s fingers without a shoulder-rest than with. Ok, so we don’t need to play in those very high positions in irish trad. Fair enough, but there are a few tunes that go up the far side of B and it’s nice to be able to reach those notes with confidence and come back down again easily.

I think that facility in playing in the higher positions should be part of the technical package of every fiddle player, even if they never use it. The point is, when you can do the positions easily you know that your hand and fingers have reached a good state of relaxation and then other good things will follow. A decent controllable vibrato, for instance, will be only just around the corner - for use with slow airs only, please! - that’s my personal opinion :)

It’s worth making the point that shoulder rests are a recent innovation. There were hardly any in use or existence before WW2. If you look at photos or paintings of violinists (trad & classical) from before that time you’ll have to look very hard indeed to spot a shoulder-rest. Look at those old photos in some editions of O’Neill, for example. If there was a problem with resting the fiddle on the collar-bone then the player would use a cloth pad, or perhaps turn over the lapel of his coat to provide the same function.

The chinrest, too, is less than 200 years old. It was invented around 1820 by the violinist-composer Spohr (I think). Before then, a player would rest his chin on the belly of instrument to stabilise it when coming down from high positions, or he might rest his chin gently on the end of the tailpiece. It’s not unusual to find a well-used 18th c fiddle with the varnish on the lower part of belly worn away almost to the bare wood. Paganini’s violin is a good example.

I’ve experimented with playing without a chinrest. It’s quite feasible. The trick for me is to have my chin on the treble (E-string) side of the fiddle, not quite touching the belly, and let the treble side of the tailpiece rest gently against the left side of my jaw so as to stabilise the instrument and prevent it sliding sideways and downwards. I don’t do it on a regular basis because, as I’ve said, I value the varnish, and so I use a minimal chinrest in the standard position on the bass side of the tailpiece.

trevor

Re: Bowing a Reel-Where to Start

Talk about a flood of information! Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Brief question: When I print out a tune it’s very small and the quality is rather poor. Any suggestions?

Re: Bowing a Reel-Where to Start

Suggestions? We have no shortage of suggestions here!

I think what you are printing out are the GIF files that jeremy posts of each of the tunes. These files are 72 ppi at about 500 pixels wide and saved with one color, which is black (the white is set to transparancy).

Jeremy could improve the appearance considerably by saving the GIFs with additional colors (adding the greys that would soften the rough edges of the dots), but he’s probably trying to save on disk space which is a valid concern for a webmaster.

In anycase, you wanted an answer and not a technical diatribe about the oddities of GIF files. Here’s what you’ll want to do to get a beautiful print of any tune posted.

First, you’ll want to download the ABC file and open it with just about any ABC tune reader (see links for some recommended ABC programs. Most of these are free). When you open the tune, it will present itself in a window as traditional sheet music which you can print directly from your program at high resolution to your printer.

Tell us how it goes!