Viola for Irish Traditional Music in any setting

Viola for Irish Traditional Music in any setting

I’m just wondering if anyone is playing a viola in sessions, or at home, or at gigs?

Obviously the main instrument in that class is fiddle, but I’ve been thinking about using viola as well as fiddle. I just bought a 15+1/2 " viola, and I’ve been going through some of the tunes.

Since most tunes are in D and G, they can be played in the same pitch range on viola as fiddle (eg D tunes in A fingering, G tunes in D fingering etc).

What are your thoughts, either as a viola player/potential player, or a listener (who maybe plays another type of instrument entirely?

Thanks!

Re: Viola for Irish Traditional Music in any setting

I don’t play viola myself but there certainly are people playing traditional music on it – some of them exceptionally well.
Cliodhna Begley https://youtu.be/84s5W6Dygfg

Saileog ní Ceannabháin https://youtu.be/sFkjWzWO-CQ


Macdara Ó Raghallaigh’s ‘Ego Trip’ album https://thesession.org/recordings/3943 features some tunes on viola, as does Claire Egan’s ‘Turning Tides’ https://claireegan.bandcamp.com/releases .

Re: Viola for Irish Traditional Music in any setting

Hi Jim,
Not a viola but I play quite a bit on a concert uke tuned in CGDA. I also happen to have a G one row 4 stop melodeon and low G whistle.
With this consort I had a little G session with pals.
Just play tunes in the standard way. Lovely mix of sounds.
Also if one plays a bit of Scottish music as I do you can play your normal A mix tunes in D mix if you happens to know a small piper with a D set of pipes.

You could play along with Michael J Kennedy’s g melodeon recording which is available online for free listening.

No real different then just shifting down a string on a normal fiddle but it’s nice to justify owning instruments in different keys abs you don’t lose the low notes. Wonderful sound playing everything lower pitched

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Re: Viola for Irish Traditional Music in any setting

You can tune a viola down two semitones to DAEB, and play tunes exactly like a fiddle without the G string, with the added bonus of never having to reach for a B. I think you need to get some slightly different strings. I have been wanting to try this for a while, but we have a moratorium on more instruments in the household…

Re: Viola for Irish Traditional Music in any setting

I was drafted into playing viola for a year in the Junior High school orchestra, then promptly ditched it for rock drums. So no expert here, but I would imagine it could be fun to play some of the ITM repertoire at home in its native pitch — fingering it as if it were a fiddle — on some of the slower, more evocative tunes.

That’s how I use my octave mandolin, on a select group of tunes that sound good at a lower pitch. I’ve enjoyed hearing this approach used on a Bb flute by artists like Matt Malloy and Sylvain Barou on some tunes. Until I can afford a Bb flute in addition to my one in D, I’m just getting into the low pitch zone on the OM for now. This isn’t anything I’d bring to a session, it’s just at-home enjoyment of some tunes at a lower pitch.

If you haven’t heard it, you might want to check out Scottish trad fiddler Katie McNally’s two Trio albums where she plays fiddle along with a viola player and backed by keyboards. The viola is more of a background instrument there, but it works well along with featured fiddle in tight band arrangements like this.

Re: Viola for Irish Traditional Music in any setting

dunnp: "No real different then just shifting down a string on a normal fiddle but it’s nice to justify owning instruments in different keys abs you don’t lose the low notes."

I don’t entirely agree. From a technical perspective, there is not much difference (although, on most violas, the scale length is longer, so the fingers need to re-learn where the notes are). But the larger body (or, on a small-bodied instrument, thinner plates and/or lighter wood) give it a lower resonance, making it sound and feel very different. Ample justification, in my opinion.

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"Macdara Ó Raghallaigh’s ‘Ego Trip’ album https://thesession.org/recordings/3943 features some tunes on viola"
He’s playing a fiddle tuned down to Bb, actually, not a viola.

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Re: Viola for Irish Traditional Music in any setting

I totally agree the different scale length and bigger body will give a different tone.

The baritone concertina sounds amazing.

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Re: Viola for Irish Traditional Music in any setting

I play CGDA, but an octave lower on cello. I’ve always loved airs and such on the low strings. Never had it at a session, but of course is lovely in duo/small ensemble.

If I had a viola I’m sure I’d be playing tunes on it as well

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Re: Viola for Irish Traditional Music in any setting

Thanks for your comments. @Creadur and @Conical bore : my idea was to play the "fiddle" notes at the same pitch on viola, just using a different fingering, so the tone and timbre would be deeper and richer.

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""Macdara Ó Raghallaigh’s ‘Ego Trip’ album https://thesession.org/recordings/3943 features some tunes on viola""
"He’s playing a fiddle tuned down to Bb, actually, not a viola."

Correct. He does however play a viola in this video (viola comes out at around the 5 minute mark):
https://vimeo.com/62660303#

Re: Viola for Irish Traditional Music in any setting

I’ve heard it done in sessions, just dropping down the octave for the b part usually. Ie everything in normal pitch. It works well. Rounds out the sound. I mean it’s not that different from doubling or reversing tunes anyway. There might have been a bit of folding parts to make them fit, like flute players have to do when a tune goes down below d, but there wasn’t much and it’s not too complicated to do.

I’ve also heard it with a flat set of pipes. I don’t know if it was tuned up or down or what. Maybe everything down a tone? Up a semi-tone?

I’ve also just pretended the viola was a fiddle and played away. It’s fun. You have to work a little bit harder to get the sound out at speed, but it’s eminently doable. It would make life difficult for other musicians of course. So doing it in a session would be a terrible idea. But I’ve done it solo.

I’ve only taken the viola out busking with mates a handful of times, but it worked fine. (Mainly songs and slower tunes.) And again, I haven’t taken it to a session ever I don’t think, but with a little bit of practice it should be eminently doable, and a nice addition. I’ve heard good players doing it and it definitely added to the sound.

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Sorry, not everything in normal pitch. The a part usually in normal pitch and the b part an octave down. But with some jumping about.

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I play violin and viola - if playing the viola, I just play tunes exactly as I would on violin, so they are pitched a 5th down. If playing with others though, you’d need to adapt for the missing E string somehow, yes. On my 5 string electric violin I get the best of both worlds! I find that pretty anything can work on viola, but especially more lyrical airs, etc. I particularly like playing tunes like Roslyn Castle and Leaving Lerwick Harbour on viola, played a 5th down from the key you’d do it in for fiddle.

Re: Viola for Irish Traditional Music in any setting

Probably not for a trad session, but I did wonder what a viola would be like tuned down a tone and playing like a double bass, 1,5, 1,5 etc. with some harmony and the occasional support of the melody at the end of each verse, but in thirds (an octave below) as singer sometimes do.
If you had good rhythm to start with, it would probably be entry instrument, like ‘get in there and start playing with friends straight away’.

Re: Viola for Irish Traditional Music in any setting

I play the fiddle and the viola. A little while ago I bought myself a five-string fiddle with a C at the bottom and I love it. Quite often in sessions I’ll play a tune an octave down once through. It thickens up the overall sound, particularly if it’s a smaller session. It goes quite nicely with a whistle, too, to complement the tone.

Re: Viola for Irish Traditional Music in any setting

A broad-bodied old fiddle strung as a viola gets an outing on the rare occasions when the session might include nykelharpa and smallpipes in F.

Re: Viola for Irish Traditional Music in any setting

A lovely sound, which I have only heard once, is a viola tuned down a halfstep (I think) to play with a flat set of B Uilleann pipes, so the violist was playing the melody on the bottom strings primarily. This was at Lorient, when I was (inevitably) on the way from somewhere to somewhere else so I don’t know who the musicians were but it’s always stuck in my mind.

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Re: Viola for Irish Traditional Music in any setting

Aidan, I’m interested in a 5 string - any makers you can recommend?

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Actually, that’s a point. Don’t you already play a five-string most of the time Jim? I could swear you said something like that before. In which case, you probably play loads of stuff down the octave already.

Re: Viola for Irish Traditional Music in any setting

Caoimhin was among my inspiration for getting into hardanger fdl. I would so love to get a viola d’more.

The ensemble romp with Hayes et al. is a lot of fun. Bass clarinet is one of my favorite instruments, but I’ve never had the opportunity to try it in a fiddle ensemble!

(Something I’m sure most have seen before: https://youtu.be/R48lXNaeT00 )

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Re: Viola for Irish Traditional Music in any setting

Alpine rabbit wrote:
> Aidan, I’m interested in a 5 string - any
> makers you can recommend?

Mine was made by Rod Ward (www.wardviolins.com) and I love it sinfully. It’s the first 5-string that he made - as I understand it the second was a commission by Sam Sweeney who, at one point recently, had his for sale…

A friend of mine locally has a Tim Phillips 5-string (we were the only two fiddlers at a session once and someone had to come over to check that violins do indeed normally have 4 strings….). We differ in opinion about which is better ;)

Re: Viola for Irish Traditional Music in any setting

@outwesht

//Don’t you already play a five-string most of the time Jim? I could swear you said something like that before. In which case, you probably play loads of stuff down the octave already.//

I do play a 5-sting fiddle most of the time, and at sessions too, but I usually just stick with the top 4 strings, playing it like a normal fiddle. I rarely go down to the lower register. For my own comps, or playing otwith the session environment, I use all 5 strings, giving a greater pitch range for 1st position.

The idea of using a viola was to play in unison with the session, as far as possible. So, if the tune was in D, I’d play in D too (top 2 strings). Same pitch, different timbre.

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I do play my viola in sessions. I retune it to DAEE. I use the 3 bottom strings tuned up a tone then add an old D string tuned up to E for the top string. I use an old violin and viola case to cart around my fiddle and viola and swap between the two when I feel like it.
The only drawback is not having the low G string but for most tunes you dont need to go that far down. Go for it.

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and then you use the same fingerings as for fiddle?

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Didn’t Paddy Glackin play viola on some of his recordings?

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@Polkadot "I retune it to DAEE" - you mean you have two strings tuned in unison? If so, why?

Re: Viola for Irish Traditional Music in any setting

Hi Jim top E string is just for show. I only play the the lower DAE strings. Full 16 inch viola works fine, it’s just my solution for sessions. I’ve been playing fiddle since I was 13 (70 now) and I did try to play CGDA but too hard for my old brain. Good luck.

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Hi Polkadot, now that’s an interesting setup! So everything is an octave lower. Fair enough.

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www.sonicviolins.co.uk

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Re: Viola for Irish Traditional Music in any setting

Liam O’Connor playing Viola and Cormac Begley playing bass concertina.

Not exactly a session setting but an excellent example of viola being used to it’s full effect for Irish music.

https://youtu.be/9J8JPtaUuIA

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I know several violists that have jumped from classical viola to trad, including myself. Most just stick to fiddle. Some play 5 string. A few switch back and forth.

Transposing down a 5th (down a string) doesn’t really work for sessions, unless other people are willing to make it work. Usually the fix is playing down an octave or shifting to play the high notes.

We have one musician at the local session who brings both. Usually she will switch higher phrases down an octave.

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One thing that hasn’t really but discussed is one pretty important technical distinction between viola and violin: Bow use

I’m not talking about violin bows vs viola bows (which is a thing to consider), but the actual bow technique itself.

Viola strings respond more slowly. This means that if you play the same way as a violinist, your notes will have a slight delay. Honestly, probably not a big issue with a noisy session. But if you need precision it’s something to be aware of.

The other issue is that violas are naturally much less loud than a violin. So, in general you need more bow to project the sound out. Even still, the Viola is more likely to get lost in a large session. Not unlike the issues an octave mandolin might have.

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@banshee misfortune - I do have a viola bow (a big heavy John Maw), and it has about an inch more hair than the fiddle bows I have.

Interesting that you say violas are much less loud than violins. Viola has longer, thicker strings, more pressure needed to play them, bigger sound chamber body etc. I find it relatively quiet under the chin, but listeners say it’s far louder than a fiddle.

Of course if its being played an octave lower than the other instruments, then I don’t think the sound will be heard so loudly. If it’s being played in the same register, then that’s a different story, I reckon.

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My wife switched to Viola for a number of tunes. We had 2 violinists, and while that worked well for a lot of the fast tunes, slower tunes I’d arrange into 1st and 2nd violin parts. Eventually, I reworked them to fit within the villa’s range for her. The rough recordings we made to critique gave us a more fuller sound on airs and ballads.
Play a tune on a violin an octave apart, and then play it with a violin and viola, and it sounds more robust. The distinction between their respective ranges is more pronounced, is my description of the sound.

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I actually just recorded an EP of Irish tunes on the viola ( https://thesession.org/recordings/7430 ). I tend to play tunes a fifth down for more resonance, but not always. On the fairly rare occasions I bring it out at a session, it’s generally for slow airs.

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@chuck, would you share some nice arrangements?

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I have a Yamaha 5 string electric violin. They’re reasonably priced, beautiful to behold and sound great. Now if only i could find a community of (non traditional) trad players where i live.

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@fredlyr - I do like the sound of the Yamaha 5-string electric. I have a 5-string Bridge Lyra Dragon, good for experimenting with different tones. Haven’t tried any effects yet 🙂

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John Silakowski is a well known maker of 5 string violins in the U.S. They are a bit pricey, but they are played by many prominent fiddlers (e.g. Casey Driessen, Brittany Haas). I’ve played one and it was mellow and rich in tone, but a little on the quiet side I thought.

Re: Viola for Irish Traditional Music in any setting

Not Viola, but I play tenor banjo exclusively in CGDA tuning. Bit of stretch sometimes to snag the low F# on some D tunes but I’ve honestly never had much of a problem. Viola would be pretty close to the same I’d assume, and I love the nice low tone of a Viola in any situation.

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Re: Viola for Irish Traditional Music in any setting

Many years ago back in the 1980s I knew someone who had been classically trained who played both the viola and the uphonium in sessions and that was in a pretty small crowded pub.He also made and played beautiful clarsachs Plus another individual who played both folk and trad jazz clarinet.