learning the fiddle

learning the fiddle

I bought my violin a year ago in which time I’ve been desperately trying to learn Irish folk music. I’ve just started doing lessons where I’m learning to read sheet music, but the progress is ever so slow and I feel I’ll never be a fiddler. Is it really so difficult or is it just me? How long does it take to become good? Words of encouragement please!

Re: learning the fiddle

Don’t despair! Just keep sawing away. It took me six months to learn my first tune and that was at least a year after starting. Seems like all the tunes sounded alike for a couple of years too.

It takes a year or two or maybe five to get tolerable.


Re: learning the fiddle

Hello the carver

Have been lurking for a while but your message has brought me out! I too am wondering the same. I was given a fiddle to look after by a friend and decided to start lessons. I have been playing the bodhran for a while and have had many people say to me - in real life and in internet discussion groups - that I will only get any good on the bodhran if I learn the tunes and learning a melody instrument is the best way.

So, not really very much encouragement for you but as I have just spent a few hours trying to get wild mountain thyme to sound like a tune at all (last weeks tune was mary had a little lamb………) its more like an extra plea for help!!

I know that I will be confusing your original post with what will possibly become a debate on the ethics of bodhran players learning tunes (!) but hope that by doubling your appeal we can share the advice.



Re: learning the fiddle

Good for you guys/galls to get up front with these comments. That’s part of what this site should be about anyway.

You’ve got one up on me cos I don’t play fiddle, although I’ve got 2… last time I scraped on it I had the neighbours calling out all sorts child protection and animal rescue charities…

But one thing is true no matter what the instrument…just keep on practicing. But not mindless practice - mindfull practice, where you think about what you sound like, practice technical things, just getting them right, stuff like that.

The thread I started recently about teaching/teachers might be of interest, especially with regard to the fiddle. Most of the fiddle contributors said it’s almost imperative to get lessons!

Right. I’m off. I feel like a bit of an interloper in a place where beginner fiddlers *need* to hook up! Hope something I said might help though….So. I’m outta here.



Re: learning the fiddle

Carver, "good" is a moving target — welcome to the wonderful world of all the rest of us! πŸ™‚ Be easy on yourself. Have fun playing, regardless of your yearnings to be as good as *insert name of your favorite fiddler here*. Relax. Let it come when it comes. Keep working at it, but don’t go stressing if you feel you should be moving faster (or slower).

That said, learning to read sheet music is fine and dandy and all, but not necessary to becoming a good fiddler, really. Listening to the music constantly until it’s coming back out your ears is, though. πŸ™‚

Have fun!


Re: learning the fiddle

Carver and Clunk (that would be a good name for a band, or a surgical team… πŸ˜‰,

Some people sound "good" on fiddle within 5 years or so, some take 10, and most of us still have days where’d we’d just as soon toss the squawk box into the dumpster even after 20 years or more of trying to make the thing sing. I’ve heard world-class players strangling the cat on a bad day, and they usually just shrug their shoulders and get on with it.

But nearly everyone who tries to play fiddle—and sticks with it—eventually has one of those moments where everything clicks and the music that comes out just swoops and soars and lifts dancers out of their seats and raises the hair on the back of the player’s own neck. And you can’t believe that such a swinging, soulful, sweet sound could come out of your fiddle, but there it is. After that, you’ll still struggle with certain techniques and tunes, and screechy days may still outnumber sweet days, but you’ll be hooked for life. Fiddle is one of the few instruments I’ve played that can physically *feel* as much fun to play as it sounds.

In my experience, there aren’t many shortcuts—you won’t learn something on fiddle until you’re ready to learn it. But a good teacher can prepare you—help you be ready—in less time than if you go it alone. You’ll also progress more quickly if you concentrate on bowing more than on what your left hand might be doing. Intonation and left-hand ornaments are important, but they’re meaningless without a solid feel for bowing. The bow is where all your rhythm, lift, and tone come from. Every fiddler I’ve ever met, no matter how good, has some lingering insecurities or ambitions about his or her bowing. It’s a life-long pursuit.

The other key to fiddle is learning to relax. The best way I know of to do this is to aim to play effortlessly. Don’t try to be the fastest fiddler, or the cleanest, or the liveliest, or anything else. All that will come if you can play effortlessly, play the most difficult passage as easily as just playing one simple note.

And the key to that is to take it slow. Don’t worry about playing up to session speed—that will come in due time. Don’t try to learn 500 tunes in your first month…they’ll come in due time. Most of all, don’t worry about trying to impress anyone. There are lots of great players already. Just play simply and effortlessly and let the tunes unfold one note at a time.

Practice a lot on your own, but find other people to play with as soon as you can. Join a slow session or start your own. Team up with one other melody player and play one jig, one polka, and one reel for three months. Go to sessions and listen to the music and the craic. Find the music on the radio. Buy cds. Listen to players whose music jumps at you. Ask questions. Obsess over a tune. Lilt tunes whenever you don’t have a fiddle in your hands. Buy a penny whistle and learn the same tunes that you fiddle. Keep that penny whistle in your shirt pocket, play it in the car at stop lights, in elevators, at lunch, while you’re waiting for email to download. Have fun—*Play*—with the music. And enjoy the freedom that comes with being a beginner—you’re allowed to sound horrible, and even once you start to sound pretty good, you’re still allowed to smile and say, "I’m just a beginner."

One last idea: when I feel discouraged, I do one of three things. (1) Lock the bathroom door and play easy tunes for an hour, just enjoying all the reverb (echo) and 1,001 strings sound bouncing off the tiles; (2) pop a cd in the boombox and play along on a slow tune with Kevin Burke, Frankie Gavin, Martin Hayes, Ciaran Tourish, Sean Smyth, or whoever; or (3) call a friend and slaughter some tunes together.

Keep at it, and meaure your progress not by how fast you learn but by how much fun you’re having along the way.

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Re: learning the fiddle

I believe that if you work on getting a good quality of tone first then good intonation will follow fairly naturally. This is because you develop the ability to listen to yourself when you’re working on controlling the bow and learning to produce a good tone, and this ability will transfer to listening to your intonation, so your intonation will improve. This is why a teacher will often get a beginner to work on bowing open strings for the first few lessons before going on to fingering. Doing it the other way round, trying to learn intonation first without learning tone control, either won’t work at all or your progress will be very slow.

Don’t expect instant progress in technique, because it doesn’t work that way. There are the natural physiological limitations imposed by the need to develop muscles and tendons, loosen up joints, and develop the neural pathways for controlling the muscles. All this takes time, several months at least, and extending into years before technique really becomes rock solid.

Don’t forget the importance of rest, so as to allow muscles etc to recover. The rest period is when the real development takes place. I wouldn’t recommend practising every day to begin with; try every other day and no more than 15-20 minutes. There will be some natural aches in the arms and shoulders, but these will disappear after a couple of weeks. Do some gentle warm-up stretching exercises before you start playing, breathing slowly and deeply. This does a lot to relax you. And sit upright on a firm chair when playing. In fact, it is better to stand when practicing, it improves posture, breathing and control.

All this seems an awful lot to take in, but there’s no reason why, if you follow the guidelines by various people on this site (Will Harmon in particular), you shouldn’t be playing a few tunes confidently and enjoyably within a few months. After that, the only direction is on and up.

Finally, it’s so important to get a good personal teacher, especially for the first few months or year. It’s the only way to avoid falling unwittingly into bad technical habits which can be so difficult to eradicate later on.


Re: learning the fiddle

This reminds me of an old Steven King story where a man takes the advice of some strangers at a party to enroll in a revolutionary program that has a 90% success rate at helping people stop the habit. As it turns out, the program is run by mobsters who takes the dying wish of their GodFather a bit too seriously, ‘Don’t let this happen to anybody else.’, he says, as he lays dying from the cancer that his smoking habit had caused. Well, as you can imagine, Steven King does a great job of telling the horror story, but the interesting part is that at the end, the man (who now doesn’t smoke for fear his wifes fingers will be cut off by the mob) sees another man at a party, lamenting that he wishes he could quit smoking, gives him the number of the mobsters who had forced him to quit. I’m thinking since all of the people who responded postively, could be looking for company in their misery! πŸ˜‰

The only thing I’m trying to say is that whatever instrument you choose, try to remember that it’s all about the music. Don’t be afraid of trying a banjo or a box or a concertina or a flute. The fiddle is not the be-all, end-all of Irish music, and frankly, there are way too many of us in most places in the world. I’m not trying to discourage you from playing the fiddle, but I am saying that the fiddle is certainly the most dicouraging of all instruments. The b*tch isn’t forgiving at all, and you can spend 5 hours a day on it for 5 years and still not be able to fully participate in the sessions, which to me is the entire point of picking up an instrument in the first place.

So, it tough! It’s very hard. It’s discouraging. But, I love it with all my heart! My only regret is that I could have spent the same amount of energy and time learning a button accordian and I would have been a great asset at the sessions. No matter how you cut it, it takes 2 to 3 years to get your intonation down on a fiddle antd it takes only a press of a button to execute a perfect note on the accordian.

I’ve learned much of what I am saying by a very good friend of mine, whose name will be withheld to protect him from the fire and anger that will surely rain down upon me from my fellow fiddle fanatics!

Re: learning the fiddle

This is an avalanche of terrific advice! Print it out, post it on your bathroom wall and incorporate it into your being. (BE the Fiddle, Luke……) And one thing more—listen to those cds Will & Zina mentioned for just a few minutes before you play (EVERY DAY, of course…). My teacher firmly believed that training your ear somehow translates to training your fingers, and I have come to belive this also. (And it helps you get rid of the sheet music thing.)
So what if you sound like crap for the first year or so? We all do. If you keep it up, in five years you’ll be having fun playing; otherwise, you’ll just be five years older.
I picked up a fiddle when I was 44. The first year was dreadful. But then, one day one of the neighborhood teenagers drifted through the house while I was playing and said "Hey, you don’t sound so bad anymore!" Whoo-hooo!!!!


Re: learning the fiddle

I started to fiddle about a year and a half ago. I’m pushing 60 pretty hard (57), and just decided i’d learn to play with no musical history behind me. My daughter-in-law said a few months ago, "the violin’s not a very forgiving instrument, is it?" Pretty clever, isn’t she? She recently said I was really getting a lot better.

My instructor admonished me to keep the fiddle IN TUNE because of harmonic balance or some such. The open fiddle strings will vibrate in harmony with the one you are playing on and sound a gazillion times better if you are in tune. Buy a good tuner and practice, practice, practice.

We have a local fiddlers and pickers group that plays each Friday night and they even let me play along. It’s mostly Country and Western, but sometimes the dulcimer player and a flute player come along, and then we do a bit of Celtic. Sounds fine!

Some days my fiddle won’t do anything but squawk, and sometimes she sits up and sings beautiful music for me. I think sometimes it’s the weather, sometimes it’s me, and sometimes she’s just being petulant. I missed playing for two weeks because of family matters, and when I picked her up this morning I was afraid she’d forgotten me, but she played like a real lady. Guess she just missed me and was being kind.

Re: learning the fiddle

that last piece of advice is a good tip.a fiddle that’s been played in tune will have a really good open and resonant sound and it’s that much less of an effort to get a good tone.(well,violas anyway, as the fiddle responds quicker but the principle is the same).

you try playing on an instrument that’s been abused and you’ll see the difference.

by the way,this is one of the gripes i have when people say your instrument makes a good sound…well,yes it does but who’s making it? to be compared with: ‘and what do you do really’ and my favourite: ‘i’m afraid there’s no money but it’s a really good gig’
sorry for the mini-rant.

re the days when nothing’s clicking,either go to the pub or practise some tunes that have scale/arpeggio passages in them.
which brings me to scales and arpeggios in this music…i would n’t bother playing them on their own as they are f**king boring if you’re not in the mood or you simply don’t get on with them.there’s plenty of tunes out there that can serve the same function and you’ll have a lot more fun to boot.you want arpeggios? try a few hornpipes.the belfast or the golden eagle just sprang to my mind but there’s lots more.
so,thecarver, that’s my two bits.good luck with it and hope to hear you blasting out the big reels some day.
best wishes

Re: learning the fiddle

*Hi all - yes I’m back*

It has taken me about 3 years to get reasonably good on the fiddle - I played for a year before I learnt my first tune. Now I can read sheet music, and know tonns of tunes to play with out the dots on lines.

Keep pegging away, play as many sessions as you can, even if you don’t acctually play in them - it’s good to pick up tips and advice from people.


Re: learning the fiddle

‘Training your ear translates to your fingers’ certainly does Batlady. I’ve always thought of it as having ‘ears’ at the end of each finger. After a while the fingers just go down in the right place pretty much most of the time. (I started at 44 to and have found it the most worthwhile thing I’ve ever done…..well almost!)

My tutor spent ages with me bowing. I used to have a ‘windscreen wiper’ bowing action. Once that was straightened out, my tone and intonation just improved immensely.

the carver, there’s really lots of excellent advice here. I wish I’d had this kind of support when I started. Just knowing you’re not on your own really counts for such a lot. We’ve all been there… and some of us still are…but just love it. DON’T give up….KEEP going and it does get better.

Re: learning the fiddle

Lots of good advice. I picked up the fiddle at the tender age of 48 and haven’t looked back since. I had played piano as a child and sing, so I knew the notes. But translating that to my fingers was too hard for me in the beginning. I stopped with the sheetmusic for a while and just rtied to play tunes I liked fron CDs. "Auntie Mary" was one I aspired to play. It took me a year and a half but I eventually was good enough to play it in public. Now I am working on the sheet music. It’s going a lot better because I can "hear" the notes now before I play them. But I am still really slow at reading. When I’m frustrated I just go back to listening and playing for a while.
While I’d love a teacher, my work schedule and money issues prohibit this. I do allow myself one or two weeks a year at the Gaelic COllege in St. Ann’s, Cape Breton. They teach all levels and you are IMMERSED in music. I also took up bodhran last year - what fun!
Keep pugging away. Find a tune and make it a lofty goal. Then slowly but shurely practice, practice, practice. It’ll come!

Re: learning the fiddle

If I can play fiddle, anyone can with practice. Practice every day . It helps to use a recorder to tape yourself —it is easier to hear intonation and other problems, then you can go about correcting them once you know what they are—be aware that a tape recorder is a merciless critic!!

The other use of the recorder is to record yourself, date the tape, and put it away. Listen to it in 3-4 months and you will be able to hear your progress

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Re: learning the fiddle

Not sure I have any good tips that aren’t here already, but I write anyway… πŸ™‚

I’ve been playing the fiddle for about 3 1/2 months now. It’s not much, I know, but I actually got the hang of it quite early. Of course, having played guitar for about 13 years and a couple of cello and double bass years behind helped a lot. πŸ˜‰

I spent the first 2-3 months at home, just examining the instrument, trying to hold it different ways to find out which felt most comfortable, sawing away with the bow to try out the different sounds that was possible, trying some jigs and reels, some time playing together with a friend who plays guitar, some time with another friend who plays flute, just playing, toying and having a great time. Then I realized that I should probably try to get good, also. πŸ˜‰

Recently (a couple of weeks ago) I started taking lessons. Once a week I go to my teacher and we play for about an hour. It’s been great, a lot of fun and I’ve learned much. We work on tunes and ornaments, not so much bowing, since he (and I) think that it will come with time, as I grow comfortable with the tunes.

It’s a great feeling when you for the first time is able to play a reel or a jig at decent speed without any (big) mistakes. Those moments when you actually notice "Hey, I’m so much better now!". Keep fiddlin’!

And of course, listen, listen, LISTEN. πŸ˜‰

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Re: learning the fiddle

I’m one of those unfortunates who grew up playing classical strings and had to un-learn all those habits when I started playing the fiddle. I am not certain, but I believe it’s likely that the time it takes to control the instrument - to have it become another part of your body - to create a nice tone, to have it behave under your fingers … that this might take the same amount of time whichever road you’re on. I started from scratch with another 400 students who were all involved in the same program, and I watched everyone progress as I did.

The first thing I notice looking back is that everyone progressed about the same for the first 2 years - learning the basics, scratching and screeching along the way. Over the next 3-5 years people started dividing… some continued to sound like they were fighting the instrument, and others moved on to various stages of ability. I know a lot of the difference had to do with the time people put into their playing. And some of their progress - or lack of it - came from their blood.

The second thing was that (except for a few exceptionally talented people) most everyone took about 5 years for things to begin to click…. give or take a year. People generally practiced on their own (realistically) about an hour, about every other day. And they took private lessons.

All of the advice I’ve seen on this thread sounds good to me; but I’d just add: be patient, and don’t give up. It takes a really long time for everything to come together, and that makes it that much more rewarding when they do.

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Re: learning the fiddle

Your account of the programme for teaching 400 budding musicians (in Australia was it?) and that it takes about 5 years for the better ones to reach a good standard seems to match up with the grade system used in the UK by the Royal College of Music and others for classical musicians.

The grades run from 1 to 8, and someone who is prepared to do the work AND has a good teacher can be expected to reach grade 8 standard after about 5 or 6 years - give or take. If you take grade 8 in an instrument you’ve also got to take grade 5 theory (or it was in my day). A responsible teacher wouldn’t enter a pupil for a grade exam unless both were confident that the pupil would get better than a straight pass.

Grade 8 is, I reckon, comparable to a university entrance standard in a subject, which means that a professional standard of playing isn’t far off if you’re prepared to put in the dedication.

After chuntering along about the "classical" end of the music spectrum, it is my most fervent wish that nobody gets any bright ideas about inflicting said "grades" on Irish trad music - not that the ITM community would take a blind bit of notice of it anyway!

However, I don’t think the discipline involved in learning instrumental technique, esp for the fiddle, via the classical route is ever wasted. It just means you got be prepared to put in the work (4 very important words!) and adapt your playing for other musical styles, whether Irish trad, folk, blue grass, jazz, or whatever, and you should have the basic technical competence to enable you to do this.


Re: learning the fiddle

1. Slow down, everyone tries to play too fast.

2. Always tap your foot to your own playing: if you can,t then nor can anyone else.

3. If your elbow is going up and down like a fiddler’s elbow you’re not using your wrist and you’re not fiddling.

4. Try to think of a fiddle as tuned percussion.

5. Keep going, you’re probably better than you think, try recording yourself.

Good luck,