FIDDLE - Bowing trip-ups, need some direction and questions answered

FIDDLE - Bowing trip-ups, need some direction and questions answered

Hi there,

I recently started playing fiddle again, having seriously started last year, but I got my own just this past July. I’m trying to absorb as much knowledge as I can before I make terrible habits for myself in the future. I’m once again noticing one which I traced back to last year: bowing trip-ups.

I initially believed that Irish fiddling had strict-but-lenient rules for bowing direction, and I tried practicing tunes with set bowing directions, while not being too obsessed… if that makes sense. This methodology worked, when I didn’t screw up the “note + direction” aspect.

Now, as I continue studying Matt Cranitch’s book on Irish Fiddle, I am more under the impression that it’s quite lenient, but in most (not all) cases, it’s ideal to start and/or end on a down bow. But I’m really trying to take to heart what the fantastic Kevin Burke once remarked about his bowing technique: the bow goes up and down. A year ago, I would’ve been driven mad by this thought, but I’m starting to see the light in that, whether I’m seeing it clearly or not.

So, I’m now bent on trying to avoid tripping up when I play tunes. While I can make a recovery of sorts, it’s at the expense of playing the wrong notes until I’m back to familiar territory, after which I soon screw-up again. I think what this says about my playing is that I’m not focused nearly enough on the notes.

I hear so many great fiddlers, and I assume they screw up too, and it probably sounds great. And if they practice so often, and don’t trip-up the tune to break the rhythm very often, perhaps they have some ingrained way to just put the importance on the notes and the expressive quality of the tunes. I think that would put less emphasis on the bowing direction. It’s all mystifying stuff.

So, I’m tempted to believe that my answer lies in just focusing on the notes, and hitting them with what direction I happen to have, hopefully after having developed a feel for the basic bowing mannerisms for tune types. That way, I’ll learn more than one way to attack the notes. But I still don’t know if my thinking is correct.

I have my presumptions about the answers, and how they may interrelate; withholding them further, I must ask these questions:

1.) Is bowing direction really that important?
2.) What aspects (the ubiquitous, often ambiguous “practice” being one of them) could help me avoid tripping up?
3.) Does anyone have any insight from famous fiddlers on how often they trip up and how they handle it?

Sláinte, agus grma as do chuid ama,


Re: FIDDLE - Bowing trip-ups, need some direction and questions answered

I’m going to guess also that playing alongside recordings and a metronome are part of the equation!

Re: FIDDLE - Bowing trip-ups, need some direction and questions answered

1) Short answer? Not really.

If you really really break a bit of a tune down, there are certain patterns that are more advantageous in producing a particular effect than others… for example slurring into the beat when crossing strings… but it’s too easy to turn these into “rules” that get in the way of being able to adapt or improvise. That book of Cranitch’s is excellent, but the problem with books of this type is that the suggested techniques become a manual for the ‘right’ way to play a tune (which is probably not the intention).

I don’t ‘teach’ bowing. Instead, I pick tunes that I know are going to provide a challenge. I might make suggestions (plural, there’s more than one way to skin a cat) for how to bow a particular phrase, but my biggest concern isn’t the direction the bow is travelling, but that the technique used is as smooth and efficient as possible. I’d rather my pupils absorbed a technique without being too aware of it, as this allows them to adapt their bowing in a natural way. Bowing should come as naturally as breath.

The bowing solutions that you’ll find in a fiddle tutor are suggestions that are probably intended to illuminate a particular effect or strategy, rather than being an example of the ‘right’ way to bow. Is there any such thing as the right way to bow? Is there any such thing as the right way to breathe?

2) There are some things that might help when practicing, but the most important is this: don’t overthink. You’re spot on when you say that the notes (and by extension the phrases and the tune itself) are more important than the bowing. If you’re spending all your energy worrying about whether it should be going up or down, then that’s necessarily taking away from other more important aspects of your playing.

The second thing is to try and listen to yourself as you play, because you’ll hear when you’re getting it right. You’ll be able to feel it too. Good bowing is smooth and comfortable, whichever way it’s going. Be guided by the way your playing sounds and feels rather than trying to remember how to ‘do it right’. Your bowing will only begin to look after itself when you learn to forget that you’re doing it.

Lastly, if you are going to be analytical about bowing technique, try and think of the book in a different way. The bowings are only suggestions, after all, and the effect that is produced by bowing in a certain way is probably more important than the bowing itself… to put that another way, instead of thinking about ‘how’, try thinking about ‘why’. What effect is that bowing trying to achieve? Is there another way to do the same thing?Ask yourself; what effect would it have if you bowed it all separately? What effect would it have to slur in pairs, onto the beat? Or one-down-three up? Try as many different strategies as possible, but try to be guided by whichever a) sounds good and b) is comfortable to play. Don’t be scared to repeat particular phrases ad nauseam (or at least until they ‘feel’ right) and later work them back into the tunes.

3) I wouldn’t set much store by what someone ‘famous’ does unless your intended goal is to try and clone their playing. Sure, listen to/watch as many good players as you like, that’s sound advice, but be guided more by their overall sound than particular techniques. The truth is that most good players simply don’t think about how they’re bowing, in the same way that a good dancer doesn’t have to think about what their feet should do next. I’d suggest that it’s unlikely that a really good player would have a ‘set’ bowing for a tune anyway, they’ll have certain patterns that they’ll use, but I doubt they would be particularly conscious of their bowing at any stage.
Their concentration will most likely be on the tune itself. Hopefully you’ll begin to find that the more you listen to the tune while you’re playing it, the less likely you’ll be to make a ‘slip’, but also the quicker you’ll be to jump back into the tune if it does happen.

Re: FIDDLE - Bowing trip-ups, need some direction and questions answered

So the question about bow direction is interesting. In theory it shouldn’t matter all that much. The important thing is usually whether you’re slurring or using a new bow for example, not which direction it’s going in. In practise, there are often patterns that a fiddler has got used to playing on a downbow and others on an upbow, so they can come unstuck if they end up going the wrong way. This is quite common with triplets or bowed trebles or whatever you want to call them. I’m a lot happier playing them on a downbow than an upbow. Other fiddlers are happier on an upbow. So there’s no ‘right’ direction, but there might be a right direction for you and another one for me.
One solution is to make sure you can play things in both directions. Practise things like pedal bowing or that sequence of pairs and trebles in the second part of harvest home on a downbow and on an upbow. When you’re slowly practising a tune, make sure you sometimes slur a pair of notes and sometimes don’t, so you end up bowing phrases in different directions. Ultimately you’ll be able to bow naturally in any direction. Maybe the trebles will come off better in one direction, but they’ll be fine if you have to do them the other way etc…
The other solution is to have particular notes, maybe at the beginning of a phrase, that you choose to always make sure you play the same way. So you’ll be playing away and go, “that d is coming up and it has to be on an upbow. I’ll just hold this downbow I’m on till I get to it.” This way you have sort of anchors in the tune to get you back on track if you come unstuck.
In the long run you’re going to need a certain degree of flexibility or you’ll be stuck doing exactly the same thing every time with no variations.
As to famous fiddlers tripping up. They do of course. No one plays everything perfectly all the time. But they’re famous for a reason. You’ll have to listen pretty closely to catch them at it, and you won’t hear much of it on studio albums etc… often when you hear someone making mistakes it’s because they’re living out on the edge, doing mad variations and playing at fast tempos etc…
someone on this site (I can’t remember who) once said, in relation to variations, “bow yourself into a corner and then see if you can bow yourself out of it” , which I think was excellent advise, for practice anyway. Practise in a way that encourages you to be flexible, and you won’t trip up as easily, and when you do you’ll be able to catch yourself cleanly and no one will notice.

Re: FIDDLE - Bowing trip-ups, need some direction and questions answered

Just to clarify, I like it when players are living out on the edge, I’ll happily take any number of little hiccups if they come as a result of a really exciting style and approach.

Re: FIDDLE - Bowing trip-ups, need some direction and questions answered

And listen to Matt leavey! Some patterns and tricks are useful, but often you just need to play a phrase really slowly to yourself a good few times and see what works.

Re: FIDDLE - Bowing trip-ups, need some direction and questions answered

The Matt Cranitch book won’t steer you wrong, if it’s Irish music you want to play. Specifically, Irish music the way Matt Cranitch plays it!

Overall I think the general gist of it is to not square things off, too much. To my ear, that’s an “American” accent or a classical accent in some circles.

There are some useful trends and techniques that will help you get an “Irish” sound, and I think you’d do well to get the hang of them early…

Here’s one I think AJ Srubas explains well in this vid:

and demonstrates well in this vid:

If you can get this little 3-3-2 pattern (Surfing in Hawaii baby) down like Wax On, Wax Off from the Karate Kid (so ingrained you don’t have to think about it), you’ll be well on your way!

This might also help you, too… When people mention ‘slurring into the beat’ this is what they mean…

More broadly, as you progress and become more and more familiar with a tune, don’t play notes, and don’t think in terms of notes but in terms of ***phrases*** and some bowing ideas may present themselves that way.

Another thing you could try is to lilt the tune to yourself, out loud, vocally. Maybe if you lilt the tune naturally and then play it, or play it even as you lilt it, the syllables you use can naturally suggest some bowing ideas. Unvoiced consonants (T, G, D, G, H, K) suggest a change in bowing direction, while voiced consonants (L, Y, N, M, etc. suggest slurs. The goal is to get your bowing to match a very natural vocalization of the tune.

Hope that helps!

Re: FIDDLE - Bowing trip-ups, need some direction and questions answered

I’d strongly advise throwing the book (any book)in a lake and getting private lessons.

This is going to be sacrilege, but I don’t think the Cranitch book is good for beginners at all. There are too many gaps in the teaching and too many assumptions made that you know stuff already. It can’t make up its mind whether it wants to teach absolute beginners or classical crossovers. Maybe it would be good in conjunction with a teacher, but I don’t feel that it stands alone at all.

Private lessons are infinitely better. Skype lessons are almost as good.

Re: FIDDLE - Bowing trip-ups, need some direction and questions answered

The better you can control the bow, the better you’ll play and the more easily you’ll be able to navigate through the tunes. Also, the better you’ll be able to find a style that you like. And you won’t have to worry about tripping up, or getting caught between a down bow and an up bow.

“Overall I think the general gist of it is to not square things off, too much. To my ear, that’s an ”American“ accent or a classical accent in some circles.”

This is a good point, and very true. But, that being said, here’s my advice:

Start your daily practice with this exercise for a few weeks and see what happens. It’s very simple, but very effective in helping you feel more comfortable with the bow. I do it every day as a kind of mediation, and it’s helped me a great deal.

Re: FIDDLE - Bowing trip-ups, need some direction and questions answered

If you watch the Sligo fiddle style videos on youtube, you will see great players close up, and notice that the two often end on opposite bows. So they don’t seem to adhere to rules.
I would advise a beginner to beware of badly written music in which the pick-up notes are included in the first bar. The tunes section of this forum is full of them. Pick-ups should appear before the first bar, and are actually from the last bar.
In my experience, 99% of the time, it is best to start the down beat with a down bow, and end section on an up bow, so you can start the next section on a down bow.
Bowing is often about strategy, being on a certain bow at a certain place in the piece. It often depends on the tempo. Some bowings don’t work at fast speed, but you have to get up to the speed to find out.
Also, the final end of piece is usually best on an up bow because you have more control of very end of the note. For example, its much easier to slow down and then terminate with a crisp lift, on an up bow. If the last note is terminated in tremolo, the last up bow puts me in a situation where that tremolo agitation can begin on a very short down bow, and end where it will - usually the aforementioned crisp lift. (Then bow to the audience with a flourish.)

Re: FIDDLE - Bowing trip-ups, need some direction and questions answered

“it is best to start the down beat with a down bow, and end section on an up bow, so you can start the next section on a down bow.”

Disagree. Too rigid. I start mine on whichever way seems to fit. I accent with both upbows and downbows, and slur into the beat a decent amount. Yes, generally, I accent more with downstrokes than otherwise, but a good fiddler needs to be able to do it all. (there certainly are some common figures that can be bowed the same every time, but much of Irish fiddle music is quite flexible. And should be, IMO) Not that I’m any great shakes, mind you, but this is what I see good fiddlers doing, too.

The problem with a beginner learning one way is that it often seems to get ingrained that way and it’s harder to change. In my experience, it’s best to learn upfront how to accent with both ups and downs, and with slurring into the beat. Of course, anybody can learn in any way that lets them play the music.

Goodness me

Thanks for the flood of answers and insights, everyone! Right now, all of this means a ton, I’m thrilled to have this much to consider, and I got more insight to other topics than I thought I would, which is wonderful. Numerous points here are very wise. I will be revisiting this page in the future for sure.

I don’t know how I can respond to everyone, but I will try to address some points, and hopefully you all can sense when I’m addressing something you mentioned.


In my quest to not screw up, I am trying now to eliminate any ornamentation from my practice at this point, except for ones that are so intuitive I can’t help but do them, such as cuts and rolls. Slurring is the biggest culprit right now. However, as I try re-bowing every single note, focusing on the distilled rhythm and notes of tunes, I find the ornamentation (including slurs!) are getting so much easier. I know this isn’t slightly surprising to read, but to actually DO it is an eye-opening experience. It really does make all the difference: you gotta saddle the horse before you ride it.

Alongside that, I had a feeling that practicing tunes with both directions would help, so I’m going to start doing that regularly as well. I need to be comfortable with more than one set direction in case I do get stuck in a rut.

I will also try listening to how I lilt tunes vocally and attempt to transfer that to my fingers. That’s actually a really workable system!

I have watched some videos on bowing, including the “Surfing in Hawaii Baby” one, and I have been trying to ingrain that rhythm into my mind so that I play reels with that muscle-mentality. It’s been working wonders for me, and I find that I’m starting to do it and break it where needed, unconsciously. I think I’m on the right track, then, but I’m gonna keep practicing like I’ve not got it down yet. I’ll still break it where comfortable.

Pedal bowing seems very intuitive: I think I may have done it before but not realized it, so I will come around to that technique eventually, I think.

Again, thank you guys a ton. I have neither the money for lessons nor a close proximity to learned, “dyed-in-the-wool” Irish fiddlers in my area. I’m eking out with as much intuition, information, and carefulness as I can right now.

Míle buíochas,


Re: FIDDLE - Bowing trip-ups, need some direction and questions answered

Somebody (okay, it was me) once complained to Kevin Burke that a fiddle bow is miserable tool to make rhythm with--compared to, say, a plectrum or drumstick. He looked a bit puzzled, and said, “The rhythm is in the notes.”

I think probably most fiddlers just play the tune, and work out the bowing problems as they come up, each in his or her own way. It’s part of developing a personal style. But some specific pointers from a good teacher will speed up the process, for sure. You might also look up YouTube clips of the top players, to see how they move the bow, in general. Monkey see, monkey do.

Re: FIDDLE - Bowing trip-ups, need some direction and questions answered

I strongly strongly strongly disagree that slurring is an ornament. Slurring vs punctuated notes (or rather groups of notes) are intrinsic to the rhythm. You *NEED* them. Nobody decent would tongue every note on a whistle, or cut every note on the pipes, would they? Why would they bow everything separate on the fiddle?

Of course, for learning purposes, you should bow passages every which way but loose and figure out what to use where and when, but to treat slurs as ornaments? I think it’s a bad approach.

Rick, I really don’t understand what KB is on about there. The rhythm is absolutely NOT in the notes, it is in our minds, and manifested by our bodies manipulating instruments. Tunes were born of people, not the other way ’round. I just don’t get where some of these elite player’s minds are. I certainly can idolize their playing, but I despise the way some of them attempt to convey information.

Jon, you’ve still got a long ways to go on the instrument. Don’t stress about it. It took me a year of playing before I mostly stopped sounding like crap. And another year before I sounded semi-decent. After 4 or 5, I was pretty good, but not fast. Most adult learners have a similar timeline. Give yourself 2+ years to get rid of most of the frustration. It’ll come. Just try to focus on the fun parts as much as you can.

Re: FIDDLE - Bowing trip-ups, need some direction and questions answered

I also can’t accept slurring as an ornamentation. It’s a technique. I also agree with everything Aaron said, especially about practising to do your bow strokes both ways. There will always be times when you have to stop and think and analyse which is best (such as I find myself doing now that I’m getting into strathspeys) but it mostly starts to come naturally after a while.

Re: FIDDLE - Bowing trip-ups, need some direction and questions answered

I bought the Cranitch book as soon as I returned to the fiddle five years ago. But it sat in my drawer unopened till last year, when I decided to go through it. As a result, I did what people have said above - took note of what he said, but did my own thing. I have developed my own pattern of bowing now. I love some of the tunes in the Cranitch book and have added them to my repertoire, but some of his bowing suggestions didn’t suit me at all.

I so agree about learning to do things from both directions. When, in my early days, I was trying to stick to bowing schemes that my teacher had suggested, if I muffed a bar, I was completely stuck. Now I hardly bother about whether it’s up or down bow, except as the tune suggests it to me.

A very interesting discussion, and I wish you joy in your playing, Jon.

Re: FIDDLE - Bowing trip-ups, need some direction and questions answered

The trouble with Kevin Burke’s remark “the bow goes up and down” is that it’s very easy for a master Irish fiddler to suggest that bowing patterns/directions aren’t that important: the fact is he has already internalised all of them and can pick and choose in a nanosecond how he wants to bow something! Burke also makes it very clear that when he’s bowing a reel he will always at some point do a bit of 3-3-2 bowing. So take that comment with a pinch of salt: any really good experienced Irish fiddler can bow a tune however they like and it will still sound Irish. They vary their bowing patterns cos it is second-nature to them.

When i first got Matt Cranitch’s books I did my best to follow his bowings super-literally to the letter. Inevitably, when you’re not playing with the music in front of you, other ways of bowing those tunes start creeping in. That’s fine and in fact that’s how it should be. Forcing myself to learn those bowings really really helped me play Irish tunes, even though now, because I’m not a robot, I don’t necessarily play them exactly how Cranitich wrote them. I doubt Cranitch bows them exactly the same way every time anyway.

Re: FIDDLE - Bowing trip-ups, need some direction and questions answered

…also, just to make one point. Matt Cranitch is particular about bowing not because he wants you to do a down bow here and an up bow there, but because the bowing changes and breaks he suggests provide a rhythm and imply an emphasis. There’s nothing that radical about them. For the most part, they achieve common things such as: slurring over a bar line in a jig; the good ol‘ 3-3-2 pattern in reels; syncopation and ’jerk‘/’bounce’ in a hornpipe etc etc. None of these are unusual among Irish fiddlers. It’s a red herring to talk about up-bows and down-bows in this context. Bowing à la Cranitch is all about bowing in the service of rhythm and emphasis.

Re: FIDDLE - Bowing trip-ups, need some direction and questions answered

I strongly disagree with those who advise beginners to approach a subject any way they wish. Beginners who ask questions deserve something specific as an answer, and to tell them to simply use their intuition is not particularly helpful.

Re: FIDDLE - Bowing trip-ups, need some direction and questions answered

"Eventually you’ll find the bowings that work for you. Use them.

The difficulty comes, I think, when we hear another player with great lift or pulse or swing or whatever, and we imagine that we could sound that good if we only knew the bowing sequence s/he uses. Yes, some patterns will help, and we’ve been illuminating them here. But show me a pattern and I’ll find you a fiddler who does the opposite, or (as Monty Python liked to say) something completely different, and yet they’ll sound just as good. “Lift” has little to do with down bows and up bows, and a lot to do with (1)…

Kevin Burke brought this home to me some years ago at a one-on-one lesson…"
Posted by Will Harmon October 9th, 2001

Posted by .

Re: FIDDLE - Bowing trip-ups, need some direction and questions answered

“It’s a red herring to talk about up-bows and down-bows in this context. Bowing à la Cranitch is all about bowing in the service of rhythm and emphasis.”

True. Again, learn to control your bow and the up/down won’t matter. You’ll be fine no matter where you are.