Finger placement in fiddle rolls

Finger placement in fiddle rolls

I’m curious as to best practice for placement of the low note finger in rolls on the fiddle. Take a roll on the note G on the D string for example where the roll is a GaGf#G. Do you place your second finger on the f# at the same time you place your third finger for the G, or do you do a quick placement on the f# after you start the third finger G?

It seems like a simultaneous placement would be best, but damn that’s hard to do.

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Re: Finger placement in fiddle rolls

I’ve been playing a long time, and I just think “roll on the third finger” - the other fingers seem to know what to do. So no, I don’t prepare by putting the lower finger down. But that’s after years of practice and getting comfortable with rolls. Plus, my fingers are always hovering just above the fingerboard.

Here’s a video you might find helpful.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Paiz0-yO1Sk

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… The more I think about it -

the point is to get a nice sounding roll - one that’s articulate and enhances the tune.

If you’re new to the fiddle, I’d say do whatever works to make for good-sounding rolls. Do them slowly and well, and then get them up to speed. If you need to put your bottom finger down to get the best sound, then do that. As you progess it will get easier and you won’t have to think about the bottom finger.

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Ergo’s video clip strikes me as a bit misleading because her inactive fingers are so high above the strings. You don’t have time for that when playing jigs and reels at typical dance and session tempos. Even going as slow as she is, I wouldn’t want to practice that positioning and motion—it might become habit.

As taught by a highly regarded Irish fiddler, I’ve always (for 40+ years) placed the lower finger at the same time I land the finger that I’m rolling on. It’s more efficient, which allows the hand to stay relaxed, even at a rip.

The only time I don’t place both fingers at once is when the lower finger is down on a different string for the note directly preceding the roll. For example, when a tune calls for a g on the E string followed by a d roll on the A string. But that’s somewhat rare, and I’d be inclined to have several other options (e.g., doing a bowed triplet on the d instead, or a melodic variation with other passing notes) for playing such a phrase.

Yosh, you don’t say how long you’ve been playing, but these sorts of skills do get easier the more you use them, to the point that it’s automatic. Placing two (or more) fingers down at the same time is easier if you think of them as one unit. At first, it might help to focus on finger positions where the two fingers are touching, such as:
On the A string, put your 1st finger on B and your 2nd finger on C natural at the same time. Then try 2nd finger on C sharp and 3rd finger on D at the same time. Once those start to feel familiar, try 1st finger on B and 2nd finger on C sharp simultaneously. There’s a bit of a gap, but your fingers can still land at the same time in their respective places.

Bear in mind that people who play chords on guitar and mandolin routinely place 3 or 4 fingers simultaneously. Us fiddlers have it easy. 😉

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So far we’ve got three posts with three different opinions… one “no”, one “yes” and one “it doesn’t matter”.

I was curious so I played a few rolls to see which way I do it. (I’m not a world-class fiddler, but I think my *rolls* are fine, and they don’t seem to require effort). For a 3-4-3-2-3 roll (like GAGFG on the D string), it seems like I definitely don’t put the 2 down until it’s needed. (The action of putting it down is really just a small flicking motion). In fact, when I tried to keep the 2 down throughout the roll, it felt awkward and uncomfortable. Just my 2 cents.

For a 2-3-2-1-2 roll… I think I still don’t put the lowest-pitched finger (in this case 1) down until it’s needed, but if I *try* to keep the 1 down throughout, it doesn’t feel too awkward. I can imagine that some players might keep the 1 down, especially if it’s being used for the note before and/or the note after the roll.

I agree that the video is a bit odd in the sense that her fingers are flying pretty far up vertically from the fingerboard, instead of “hovering close” like Ergo was talking about. Nothing wrong with how it sounds, though.

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Yeah - what I like about the video is how crisp her rolls are and how well she practices them. But my own fingers tend to hover over the fingerboard when I play. Sorry if this was misleading.

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Oddly, at this point I do 23212 rolls best by placing 1 and 2 at the same time beforehand, but I do 34323 rolls best by only placing 3 beforehand. Fingers just seem to do what they want to do. I’m still working on crispness and speed, though, with a long way to go.

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In terms of fingers flying up, I’ve noticed some very good players whose fingers are typically close to the fingerboard except right before the roll when the operative finger seems to rear up and pounce, like a cobra.

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@jond: Possibly, there is a subtle sonic difference if you deliberately hit an ornamental note by “pouncing” from way up high. Almost like a guitarist doing a hammer-on. It’s probably not enough to really change the volume of the note, but it might change the quality of the attack/articulation.

I’m trying this out at home, and I think *maybe* there’s a sonic difference (or maybe I’m imagining it). It probably wouldn’t be audible in a fast reel, but in a strathspey or something like that, it might be.

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I had to check what I’m actually doing

I’m a ‚no’ - I can do it with the lower note finger down but I don’t think it would make for a crisp roll for me (now I’m hungry).

I also noted my root note finger is quite firm while the rolling fingers are relaxed. it’s a reflexive motion just like a trill or similar. I read in this really smart book that moves like this migrate to the cerebellum with practice:
https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/141566.Music_the_Brain_and_Ecstasy

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For any left-hand fingering, including rolls and other ornaments, if in doubt I always follow the “economy of movement” rule.

Put simply, use the minimum finger movement to achieve what you want. So in the OP, “roll on the note G on the D string for example where the roll is a GaGf#G” , I’ll have both my 2nd and 3rd finger down on the string before I start the roll.

That’s the most efficient way in terms of movement (you only move 4th and 3rd finger), but it may not necessarily be the “easiest” way.

It just depends on your style of playing, which is why we have 3 different answers, as Milo pointed out above.

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Unless you are striving for the “five clearly audible notes” type of roll, i.e. if you are going for the note-blip-note-blip variety, you don’t actually need a lower finger. I don’t use one and I think I get a crisper sound that way.

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Stiamh, that’s an interesting approach, one that I’ve never tried. Though I do sometimes play “cranns” on open strings with just flicks of the fingers to create the cuts, so the effect would be similar. With a little woodshedding, such open string cuts can be remarkably crisp.

I often use “audible note” rolls when playing with musicians who use them, to better gibe with their sound. And when playing slow tunes. Otherwise, I favor “blip, blip” rolls. Though my lower finger is always on the string for these, I’m not usually pressing much—just enough contact to damped the sound so the “blip” is a blip and not an audible pitch.

That said, all of this is situational, in that my finger placement usually depends on what the notes before and after the roll are.

The more you listen closely to good fiddlers, the greater variety you’ll notice in how rolls are articulated—audible notes or blips, timed evenly or with the first or last beat lengthened, with and without changes in bow speed or pressure, with a small slide or smear into the first note, etc. The more of these you can master, the easier it is to blend in a very nuanced way with other musicians, and the wider your expressive palette will be.

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@Stiamh : “Unless you are striving for the “five clearly audible notes” type of roll, i.e. if you are going for the note-blip-note-blip variety, you don’t actually need a lower finger. I don’t use one and I think I get a crisper sound that way.”

Just curious - what notes/blips would you actually play? The OP lists “GaGf#G”, which is 5. What do you play?

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Jim, the “a” and “f#” would be the notes of a fully fingered roll on the 3rd finger G. If Stiamh isn’t placing his 2nd finger down, then I take it that his roll would be GaGdG (following Stiamh’s apparent usage style of an uppercase letter for the note being rolled and lowercase for the other notes/blips). In the blip-style of roll, those blips aren’t heard at actual pitch, more of an unpitched interruption of the G.

Apologies if I’ve misplaced words in Stiamh’s mouth. 😉

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@gimpy - GaGdG - yes, I see what you mean. Thank you.

I’m nerdy/geeky about these things 🙂

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Rolls! Love them all. Love the diversity. Just for fun, here is 1:30 of the talented Sarah O’Gorman rolling through Paddy Ryans Dream.
https://youtu.be/ivo2gkqK1Bk

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jond, I love that clip. Lovely playing of PRD. Lovely rolls. Lovely quayside ambience.

Jim, this is nerdy/geeky music. 😉 The devil’s in the details. I wouldn’t be here if there weren’t nerds/geeks like you to share this obsession with. (Now we’ll have to wait and see if Stiamh says, “No! That’s not what I meant at all!” Hah!)

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Yes gimpy, that’s right, I let the open string make the final blip. It’s not really an approach, it’s just what I have ended up doing. It might have developed because I initially found the upper grace note on third-finger rolls difficult because of my rather short little finger, and allowing the third finger to pivot somewhat might have helped with that. But I do like the enhanced crispy factor, especially on second-finger rolls. 🙂

The only thing you put in my mouth is the bit about lower-case grace notes. Not guilty on that charge.

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Oops, sorry Stiamh, that was Jim himself who used lowercase for the graces.

In standard ABCs, I would write your fingering for a 3rd finger G roll on fiddle as: G{A}G{D}G
Whereas I play: G{A}G{F}G with my 2nd finger on either F# or F nat depending on what key or mode I’m in at the time. Some “blip” players don’t adjust the 2nd finger to match key/mode, but since I play both blip and audible note rolls, and that choice can be made on the spur of the moment, my fingering adheres to whatever scale matches the tune at hand.

I wonder how the OP is getting on with his rolls….

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“Oops, sorry Stiamh, that was Jim himself who used lowercase for the graces.”

@yes, sorry, I just copy/pasted from the OP to save me typing it out again.

“Blip” is a better word than I used. I got myself into trouble a while back for calling rolls either “crisped” or “fluffed”!

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“I wonder how the OP is getting on with his rolls….”

OP here. Practicing every day…

And thanks to everyone for the discussion.

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Aye Jim, that would be a discussion for thepatisserie.org

And I misplaced letters in your mouth as well. Don’t know why I can’t attribute the upper and lowercases to the correct poster. Sheesh.

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>Milo Lear wrote: I’m trying this out at home, and I think *maybe* there’s a sonic difference (or maybe I’m imagining it). It probably wouldn’t be audible in a fast reel, but in a strathspey or something like that, it might be.<

There IS a difference in sound when holding a finger or replayng it.

I term the beginning of a musical sound its *initial*. Pipe organ terminology calls this *chiff*, which is the sound of an organ pipe’s initial. The initial is what clues in your ear and perception to identify specific instruments and individuals you have previously heard. For example, without their initials, the sustained sound of a violin, oboe, and trumpet can seem to be similar enough that the sustained sound alone may not help you ID the instrument, so to determine the instrument you wait for an articulated initial or listen for playing characteristics.

While playing a roll, the difference is whether or not the initial of the lower note is heard: a held finger obviates the initial, replaying the finger includes the initial.

To put the difference of these effects in language terms: a held finger is the blip of a glottal stop *t* with few harmonics, and a replayed finger is a crisp tongue-to-teeth articulated *t* with an abundance of harmonics.

These can be heard in string instruments and wind instruments. Keyboard instruments must replay all notes.

Played quickly, when the lower finger is held or when the finger does not come far enough off the string to rehear its initial, this absent initial may not be perceived as missing. Played slow enough, you can choose whether or not to replay the lower finger.

To my perception, replayed fingers keep the sound alive; held fingers sound dead. Therefore, in all situations, in all musics, at all tempos, I choose to replay all fingers, unless doing so is very difficult or impossible.

With bowed and blown instruments, as an expressive parameter (especially at slow tempos) you can also choose the duration of each initial, that is, how *fast* it develops.

Happy playing,
vlnplyr

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vlnplyr, I’m not sure what you mean by “replaying” a finger. Perhaps you could elucidate?

I think what Milo and jond were talking about is the difference between two broad categories of rolls (with a range of possibilities within and between them). For the sake of clarity, in case someone new to all this stumbles on this thread:

One is the “audible note” roll, where the grace note fingers press the string onto the fingerboard and the pitch is heard. A 3-4-3-2-3 roll on the D string would sound the notes G-A-G-F-G.

The other is the “blip” roll, where the grace notes don’t have an audible pitch, just an interruption of the note (in this case, G) being rolled. Many players make the higher grace note (a cut) by flicking across the string rather than bringing the finger *down* on the string. You can get a more percussive effect if that finger starts its motion with a big back swing, which is what jond nicely described as a rearing and pouncing, like a cobra strike. This is usually most visible when it’s the long 3rd finger doing the cut, either on a 1st or 2nd finger roll.

Of course, you can do blip rolls without the big back swing on the higher cut, and that finger can stay closer to the fingerboard. It’s more of a low reach to the far side of the string and then pulling the finger back across it, without pressing down.

In any case, the goal is to hear the note being rolled (again, G in our example here) 3 times, either as the central note with audible grace notes above and below it, or as the central note with cuts separating it into three.

There’s a wide range of timing and expressiveness available within and between these two types of rolls. When playing dance tunes at tempo, some fiddlers tend to use one type of roll almost exclusively, while others use the whole spectrum.

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Just to clarify, what I was talking about was the difference between 1) placing the lower finger at the last minute but keeping that finger hovering right above the fingerboard before you place it, and 2) placing the lower finger at the last minute but “rearing up” with that finger and “pouncing” with it (creating a sort of hammer-on effect). Option (2) is what the fiddler in the first video was doing. Some of us (including me) were criticising this as poor technique. But jond pointed out that it he’s seen other good players do that, and there might be a sonic reason for choosing to do it.

Of course, option (3) is just leaving the lower finger on the string the entire time (this is the option the OP was asking about). I think the take-home is that options 1, 2 and 3 all might sound slightly different from each other. As vlnplyr said, it might change the “attack” or “chiff” or whatever term you prefer to use.

Option (4) is the Stiamh way, which is to not use the lower finger at all (which changes the note value of the lower note, assuming that you can even discern a note value). That seems like a cool alternative option. I suppose it would produce a more pipe-like ornament (I might be confused about this, but it seems like smallpipes and so on often use rolls/ornaments with bigger intervallic jumps).

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From a technical perspective I’ve always viewed the finger action in rolls as left-hand pizzicato, and if you look at many Irish players the cutting finger is doing just that, while the finger below is maintaining the tonic note.

You really need to be able to have a view along the fingerboard from the bridge end, but you can clearly see the cutting finger come down on the string and continuing to move sideways off the fingerboard, rather than a hammer-on. You’ll rarely see a finger strike down then come straight back up again. It’s often difficult to tell when the fingers are viewed from above.

Depending on the pressure and velocity of the finger as it strikes the string, you’ll either hear a crisp pitched note (as in the 1st video), or a quieter pitchless “blip” that some players go for, and they see it as more of a rhythmic device than notes that are part of the melody.

As for having the fingers flapping about way above the fingerboard, instead of being close to the fingerboard, yes theoretically it can be viewed as poor technique, but only in the sense that it’s wasted motion. That said, for those who do this it doesn’t seem to hinder them. They play well in spite of it, not because of it. They do it because they can.

A classic example of this is Alexander Markov, virtuoso violinist. He did a workshop showing how little movement was required. He picked Paganini’s Caprice #5, and demonstrated very rapid playing. There seemed to be hardly any finger movement at all, and he’s playing like 16-20 notes per second. Then he goes on to perform that same piece in concert, at the same speed, and his fingers are flying all over the place!

Each to their own.