Playing fast on the fiddle

Playing fast on the fiddle

Hey! Ive been fiddle for about 10 years now but I still struggle with playing tunes up to speed especially reels. I was wondering what I can do to improve on that, whether its down to bowing, my bow being too heavy, my fingers can’t move quick enough or am I just not good enough to play fast tunes? If anyone has any tips, I’d be soooo grateful!!

Re: Playing fast on the fiddle

The best way to play fast is to play slow.

Re: Playing fast on the fiddle

How much do you practice?(Hours a week)

Re: Playing fast on the fiddle

good, earl cameron. i’m halfway there…

Re: Playing fast on the fiddle

What I mean is, go through the tune slowly and try to find a few different ways to bow through the tricky phrases. Practice bowing every which way. If you fall out of rhythm, go over that bowing and perfect it or think of other ways to bow that are more practical. Inability to play fast on the fiddle usually means you aren’t coordinating your bow accurately. I like to take a tune that is hard to bow like O’Rourke’s and do free form bowing (breaking patterns). It’s a good example because if you try to bow it only one way it will start to sound stale, and the bow tends to be very "up driven" as a Scottish fiddler would say, as opposed to a typical reel where the bow is more "down-driven" as I would call it. When you’re practicing bowings that break from your usual patterns you want to practice slower than you will eventually play the tune in a session, and you want to do this so you have time to rescue your bow from unpredictable bowing movements and to stay on rhythm.

Re: Playing fast on the fiddle

Oh and some tunes are just going to be naturally harder to play fast than others. For example, tunes like Earl’s Chair and Morning Dew are very easy for me to play fast, and to do so with solid rhythm. Whereas tunes like the Traveller or Swinging on a Gate (maybe because the key of G often requires more string crossing) I like to take at a more relaxed pace.

Re: Playing fast on the fiddle

It’s a big question, and one that all violin players, folk, classical, or what-have-you, ask fairly early on their career. A big question, which demands a really big answer which I regret you’re not going to get from me here :-(, but here are some thoughts …

Relaxed playing, and by "relaxed" I mean an absence of stiffness in the arms, hands and fingers, and in general posture, whether standing or sitting.

Bow hold and the way the left hand and arm supports the fiddle (not grips it).

As far as possible, getting fingers in place before they’re actually needed - this is especially important when string crossings are involved.

Using as little pressure with the left fingers as you can get away with. Beginners are sometimes surprised to learn how little you need to press the string in order to get a clear note. It’s comparatively rarely that you need to take the string right down to the fingerboard, and if you are always doing that it’s going to slow down your finger action.significantly (as well as causing tiredness in the long run). Closely connected with this is the concept of keeping the fingers low on the strings. A finger dropping from on high onto the string takes longer than a finger that is poised just above the string, needs more energy for the movement, and is that little more difficult to coordinate with the bowing..

Those are just a few points in a big subject, but the real answer lies in face-to-face tuition from a good teacher because there are far too many individual factors to be addressed in a forum such as this (bow hold, left hand, etc). If you go along this road don’t be surprised if a good teacher takes you back to square one, completely deconstructs what you’ve been doing so far, and rebuilds it from new. It’s well worth it, as I know from my own experience.

Re: Playing fast on the fiddle

What Trevor said :)

Also, are your bow stokes too long for the speed you are playing at?

As a rough guide, long stokes when playing slowly, then proportionally shorter strokes as the speed increases.

Re: Playing fast on the fiddle

Yes on the 2nd 3rd and 4th finger notes (where the string action is the highest) you can actually sound a clear note without touching the string to the fingerboard. I find that if I try this on the first finger, the string is already so close that it will always touch somewhat no matter how light your touch.

Re: Playing fast on the fiddle

I second the shorter bow strokes as the pace goes up. Not just shorter bows, but also moving from the thumb and fingers, the hand, rather than from the elbow. Here’s an example where the difference is easy to see. Watch what she does starting at about 2:10, how some strokes come from the elbow, little ones come from the fingers: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BF9uQI-SRv4

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Re: Playing fast on the fiddle

I took a class from Kevin Burke once and he said to take very short phrases—-break them up into 3 notes at a time if you have to—-and learn to play them fast, over and over again, then add another 2 or three notes, still fast, until you have a whole phrase, then half the tune, then the whole thing. What you’re looking for are the trouble spots—-do your fingers hit the notes unevenly, does the bow not get over to the lower strings fast enough, whatever it is, iron it out and get it to come more automatically. He said that most of this should come within the course of an afternoon. I was skeptical, but when I took that attitude, that it should be something that I could work up in a short period of time, it changed my perspective, and I was able to learn tunes a lot more efficiently.

I’ve also been doing metronome work lately. Torture though it is, it’s made a huge difference in my playing, and I’m not only playing faster, but evenly at the faster speeds, which of course sounds better.

Plus everything everyone else has said. :)

Re: Playing fast on the fiddle

(if you have patience) Take a tronome, start at a bpm slow enough to play through the tune(or phrase) cleany, then bump it up a point or two. This is like "extreme inroning". But it works for me when I get desperate, and it helps a lot faster than always trying to play at speed but not being able to.

Re: Playing fast on the fiddle

If I were given a pound or two for every time I’ve been told, or seen, the advice that the secret of playing fast is to practice slow then I’d be well on my way to getting my next Strad ;-). There is a fundamental flaw in this advice as far as fiddlers and violinists are concerned, and Worldfiddler touched on this in his last post when he referred to the relationship between bow stroke length and speed.

Basically, the bowing action for slow playing is quite different to that needed for fast playing. I’m talking here about a separate bow stroke for each note, which is possibly more common in Irish dance music than it is in art classical music, which tends to slur groups of notes. As Kevin Burke said in a recent workshop, if you practice reels slowly you’re likely to become very good at playing reels slowly, but you’ll still have problems in playing them up to speed (say, a ceili dance speed of about 120). To play at that speed you need bow strokes of little more than an inch or so long, using very little arm movement at all. If you practice slow you’ll naturally be playing long strokes taking up about half the length of the bow, using a lot of arm movement. It is very difficult to play at 120 using that length of bow stroke; the player will be in danger of losing control of the bow. The action will likely look and sound untidy at the very least.

It’s also equally inappropiate to practice slow trying to use short strokes, because what is likely to happen is that you’ll either be stopping the bow on the string between each note, or bouncing the bow. If you try to up the speed of those techniques to 120 then I’m sorry but you’ll be well beyond your pay grade!

Kevin’s solution to this conundrum, a solution I’ve heard from one or two other sources, is to practice playing fast by actually playing fast. You do this by taking the first few notes of the tune at a speed you can cleanly play using short bow strokes, and then gradually increase the speed using looping until you reach your maximum at which you can still play cleanly. I’d suggest 10-20 loops of the group. Then repeat the process with the next group of notes; and the next; and so on. You should be able to get the tune up to a clean-sounding brisk pace, even if it isn’t yet quite 120. Clean playing always sounds better than messy over-fast playing. You’ll probably find one or two tricky bits in the tune - awkward fingering or string crossing, most likely - so these will take more time to get right. Don’t worry about this, it’s normal.

Kevin also suggested initially playing the tune at a moderate speed a couple of times so as to get an understanding of its structure and to locate the tricky bits, before going into the fast practice mode.

I wish someone had told me all this years ago! The trouble is that slow practice works well for some instruments (such as the piano, which I had my full share of in my youth) but then gets thoughtlessly applied to the fiddle where it is not entirely appropriate in all circumstances.

A last word, get some good face-to-face instruction in holding the bow and bowing action before trying the fast practice mode.

Re: Playing fast on the fiddle

Excuse to terrible spelling, but my phones’ screen is all messed up and i’m not near my computer.

Re: Playing fast on the fiddle

Yup, Trevor’s description is also what I remember. One class from Kevin Burke has lasted me years in terms of what I’ve learned. :)

Re: Playing fast on the fiddle

Something that’s helped some of my students is playing the tune in your head faster than you can on fiddle. You have to be able to imagine the tune at least as fast as you hope to play it.

You can use a metronome if you want: get an objective measure of your top comfort pace on fiddle, and then notch the tempo up 10 or 12 bpm and just lilt along, no actual fiddling. But make sure you’re not skipping beats or notes—no cheating!

Of course, it still comes down to mechanics, and as Trevor says, the mechanics of bowing at speed are different than slow playing.

As bluegrassers like to say, "Playing above 140 bpm isn’t a skill, it’s a lifestyle." (Not unusual for tunes like Rawhide and Big Mon to go at 160 or even 170 bpm.)

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Re: Playing fast on the fiddle

Great info Trevor, thanks for sharing

Re: Playing fast on the fiddle

There’s one thing you can try which might help, and that is to bow along with a recording more or less the way you would be doing if actually playing the tune, but to remain on whichever note ( preferably open string) acts as a drone. Obviously you can’t exactly duplicate the bowing, but the idea is to try to get a good solid rhythm. If you can’t, the problem is with your bowing. hand.
It can become boring quite soon, so don’t overdo it; but it can also be quite hypnotic if you get in the groove.

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Re: Playing fast on the fiddle

Gam - that may be useful up to a point and, of course, if you can’t maintain a solid rhythm on one note, then there’s little hope of doing so throughout a whole tune. But one of the main things that governs bowing - and the main sticking point for me - is the string crossings. If all tunes were on one string, with a 5 note span, I’d be laughing.

Re: Playing fast on the fiddle

"one of the main things that governs bowing"

I should specify: one of the main things that governs *my* bowing. To an accomplished fiddler, no doubt, slurring across strings is no object.

Re: Playing fast on the fiddle

"Don’t try to go faster that this - jim,,,"
(re Josie McDermott & Tommy Flynn clip)

If I were setting the pace, I’d have no desire to go any faster than that. But a lot of sessions go a lot faster than that. Sitting out is OK up to a point, but you miss out on the communicative aspect of the music.

Re: Playing fast on the fiddle

If you can’t keep up with the session speed then get another session. Trying to play for speed is not what it’s all about. Music should be lovely first. A previous poster said: "Clean playing always sounds better than messy over-fast playing." Amen. That’s all that needs to be said with regard to speed.
If you force speed, and play out of your comfort zone, your playing will not be lovely. Your rhythm will suffer. Do you criticize Mike Rafferty, Martin Hayes or Paddy Canny for playing too slowly? I have been with Rafferty when he left sessions that were too fast.
No matter what Kevin says, if you can’t play the tune slowly you won’t be able to play it fast. And there is that old guy from Donegal who said "Let’s play it slow and wild."

Re: Playing fast on the fiddle

@ CreadurMawnOrganig
Yes, you’re right of course, but the idea is to discover what the problem is in order to put it right. Here is something else you can try then — preferably when nobody is within ear shot.
Find a phrase involving string crossing that is giving you problems (the easiest way to do this is start a tune and play until you make a mistake) and decide on say half a dozen notes that you can put in a loop.
Very slowly "play" the notes the way you normally would but allowing only one tiny click of the bow. By which I mean apply a little pressure in the direction you want to play, but don’t actually sound the note: stop as soon as the bow overcomes the friction and ‘clicks’ The idea is to isolate the vertical movement of the right hand, without any horizontal movement. It doesn’t sound very nice, and requires intense concentration to keep your place in the tune, but it certainly clarifies in your mind where your hand is supposed to be going.
An added bonus is a marked improvement in bow control, although the downside is that if you overdo it it will drive you insane.

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Re: Playing fast on the fiddle

I agree with Jim’s tempos… the jig is even a tiny bit fast for my taste on that particular tune - but not by much.
brad,,,

Re: Playing fast on the fiddle

How would you know that Gam? :-) sounds like a good exercise.
Again I would suggest the use of a metronome. Start a tune at a comfortable speed to the click and up the speed little by little over the course of say 15 min on the tune. At the end slow back down . Dont go so fast you mess up the tune. try a really old familiar tune.

As Bruce Lee said; ”Sprinters dont practice by jogging round the track.” or something similar.

Trevor made a very important point; Relaxation. Speed is often unobtainable because the antagonistic muscles are tensed while the agonsitic muscles are meant to be working. so its like driving with the brakes on.
Speed is a function of fluidity, thats why we say to do everything slowly. Really slowly and correct. This is stage one, essential. This gives you good form. Speed per se is of no value if form is sacrificed.
Try this ; hold your right arm out and put yr hand on your thigh use your t ricep to push the against resistance feel the tension in your bicep, it shouldnt be there! now put yr hand under your leg and curl against the resistance, these are isometric exercises . Feel the bicep, it should be relaxed.
you can use this exercise to make your mind aware of your muscles and hopefully become more aware of how they operate and if you use both muscles at the same time.

Re: Playing fast on the fiddle

B Rad,
I would agree with you there, but that was the Antrim fleadh
Here’s our last week’s session, even slightly slower that this would do me, and be spot on too.
jim,,,

https://vimeo.com/43775467

Re: Playing fast on the fiddle

Another reason for playing slowly — think of playing a tune like driving round a race-track. A person who knows the track inside out will do better than someone who has never seen it before. Anticipating — knowing — what is coming is far better than reacting to what is passing you by.
One of the problems with playing at speed, other than the actual mechanical control of the muscles, is that the fingers and brain get out of sync. It just needs your bow or pick to be travelling down when you wanted it to be travelling up, and that split second’s hesitation gets passed on, making it a game of catch-up instead of being in complete control.
Playing slowly allows you to examine all the curves and intricacies of the tune, gives you time to assimilate it into your brain so that you experience all combinations at a speed at which you can cope. As you get to know the tune, speeding up is less of a problem.

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Re: Playing fast on the fiddle

Top Mark’s Here gam,
jim,,,

And learner’s take note !

<a game of catch-up instead of being in complete control.>

Re: Playing fast on the fiddle

"Let’s play it slow and wild."
Wow! If that isn’t a turn on, I don’t know what is.