Learning to play an instrument
The first thing to say is that we cannot teach you
to play any instrument here on the web. Playing music is a
practical thing and while we might offer some general advice you can
only learn by doing it. So here are a few tips to start you off.
BFG we do not do much teaching, but we give as much help as
we can so that you can teach yourself. You need to be your
teacher. This means:-
- Work with other players and learn from them.
- Get help from good players to make sure that you
hold and play the instrument in the best way you can.
- Listen. Listen to yourself when you
play. Record yourself and listen to the recording to hear what
you do well and what you need to improve. Listen to other players
and to CDs of
good players. Listen to learn tunes and to begin to feel how the
- Watch. See how good players hold their fiddles
bows and try to copy them.
- You may want to get a few lessons with a teacher or with one of
the better players. Remember that although good technique is not
an end in
itself it is a means to playing better and with greater ease.
Many players of
traditional music get on fine with quite poor technique but they limit
- Ask questions. If you don't know how to do
something or you
need some help, ask one of the better players.
- Help each other. Find someone at the same level as
you and play together. Try to help them and get them to help you.
Fiddle playing is not a competition - we want everyone to succeed.
- Play at gigs and in sessions. We play regularly in
settings and most of the gigs are open to everyone. We will always play
something that you can play. At sessions try to join in or even
start a tune yourself.
- Don't give up. Sometimes you will feel that you are
not improving. This happens to everyone so find someone to encourage
you. If you do want to give up remember that you
can always try again if you change your mind. (If you have a BFG fiddle
please remember to give it back until you need it again.)
If you are a parent, you
might want to look at the list of hints below.
The best thing you can do is to learn to play with your child(ren),
otherwise you are asking them to do something which you don’t
regard as important enough to do yourself. Make music a part of your
everyday life and enjoy it.
- Encouragement is essential. It’s probably not a good
idea to gush with praise every time a child picks the fiddle up but
encouragement can help children to focus on their improvement over the
term. You could, for example, point out that they should compare
themselves to where they were a month ago, not where they were
- Try for a regular session each day. At the start,
this can be short, 3 – 5 minutes would do as it establishes a habit.
But make it fun and if you have to miss a day or two, so be it.
- Link learning tunes to treats in a positive way.
- Organise playing sessions with other parents and
children. Music is social. (In the early days BFG members would
often take their instruments to parties in the village and just strike
up a few tunes. It was very popular.)
- Finally, if it really isn’t working, don’t be afraid
to let them leave it for a bit and come back later. There is no
barrier to coming back and having another shot at it.
- If the fiddle sounds unusually grim, it may be out
of tune. You can buy an electronic tuner or if you are struggling ask a
player to help.
Practice is the key to learning and while you will get
better by going to the weekly BFG meetings your progress will be
slow. Make time everyday, or at least two or three times a week,
even if it is just for a few minutes. Work on tunes that give you
pleasure and others that are tricky. Play slowly until you play
accurately. Only then should you speed up. It is a common mistake
to play too fast too soon. Some tips on practising.
- Keep it slow. Practice is about learning to play well.
- Repeat everything. There is little point just playing
through a tune once. Play bits over and over again until they are
exactly right, in tune, in time and with any ornaments that you want to
- Spend time on making the hard bits easier.
- Do exercises to help bowing and tuning as well as playing tunes.
Tuning and Pitch
This section should be called the Pot and Kettle. But in the BFG
spirit of self-help and working together here are some thoughts on
playing in tune.
has a correct pitch, that is when it is in tune. If you don't play in
tune you will not sound very good. If you are playing in a group and
everybody plays in tune it sounds great. If anyone plays out of tune it
can spoil the effect. On a fiddle the string is tuned to the right
pitch by making it tighter or looser. There are two ways to
how tight the string is - first using the pegs at the end of the fiddle
and second by using the fine tuners on the tail piece.
There are three things
you need to consider so that you can play in tune.
Lets look at tuning the fiddle. All fiddles have a
peg for tuning each string. Turning the top of the peg away from
you makes the string tighter and the note will get higher (this is
called sharper). Turning it the other way makes the note lower
(called flatter). Tuning with the pegs can be quite tricky but
by using the peg you should be able to get the string very close to the
right pitch. But you may also have fine tuning adjusters on the tail
piece of the fiddle. These are good for making small adjustments
to the pitch of the note.
must make sure that your fiddle (or whistle or
whatever) is in tune. Using an electronic tuner is one of the the
to check that each string is at the right pitch. You need to tune
every time you play. Strings will go out of tune and most
also go out of tune if the temperature changes suddenly.
- After you have tuned your fiddle the open strings
(no fingers used) will play in tune. As soon as you put your finger on
the string to make a new note, the tuning depends on you. You
have to listen carefully. It can be a good idea to use the
tuner to check that your ear is hearing the notes properly. Many
of us have to train our ears to hear properly
- When you join in a session or practice, remember
other people may have tuned to each other and not to the exact pitch of
the notes. You will need to tune your instrument to
||Fine tuners are
really handy as you can make small adjustments to tuning very
easily. The fine tuner should not stick or slip, unlike the peg
which is notorious for both of these things. The problem is that
when you leave a fiddle the strings tend to go flat (in pitch not
shape!) so you tighten the fine tuner a little each time. What
happens then is the fine tuner becomes too tight and won't tighten any
further. To avoid this, release the fine tuners every so often by
turning them anti-clockwise. Then tune with the pegs. Get
all the strings as well in tune as you can then use the fine tuners to
finish the job.
When you tune a string it is very likely that the others will change
pitch very slightly. So when you are tuning the fiddle go back
over all the strings a couple of times.
Now your fiddle is in tune and you are going to play it. For
tuning to have been worth it you will have to put your fingers in the
right places for each note. Several things will make this more
difficult. Playing too fast will often mean playing the
notes a bit out of tune until you are consistently accurate. If
you play slowly you will be able to
hear the notes better and "teach" your fingers to go to the right
place. Without lifting your finger bow a long note and rock the
finger a little to see how the note changes. You have to be quite
precise to get the note in tune. The next thing is to listen
carefully. If you are concentrating too much on reading music or
something else you may not be listening carefully enough to your own
listen to other players, especially the good ones. They are much
more likely to be in tune than you, so if what you are playing is not
quite in tune with them check your own finger positions.
It is not easy to hear your own playing and at the same time to listen
to others but it really is essential if you are going to play in
Obviously the less effort you have to spend on reading music or
remembering the notes the easier it gets.
For beginners we often put little strips of sticky label across the
finger board to show the right place for your fingers. This can be a
good way to start off.
with a good tone and in tune is really important and you will need to
practice these things so that when you play with others it sounds
Listen to yourself carefully. Use a tuner to test how well you
play in tune. Play long notes to see how you stay in tune and try
moving your finger a little to adjust your tuning.
Rhythm and phrasing
things about rhythm - first is how you play, with swing and lilt
and phrasing, and the other is about structure, does the tune have 2,3
or 4 beats in a bar. The first is covered here (Rhythm 1)
and the second, which is about jigs, reels and so
on is covered as Rhythm (2) below.
(1) The "Groove"
The importance of rhythm and how you create it.
Before we start we need to think about why rhythm is
important and how to make sure we have it. A
tune really consists of two things - the notes and the rhythm.
We all spend many hours getting the notes right but a lot less time
making sure that we have the right rhythms, which is a shame because
rhythm is essential to the feel and sound of the music. By this I
don't mean getting the notes the right length, which is important, but
working out where to place the emphasis in the tune and how to tweak
the note length slightly so that the tune gets the right lilt or swing.
This is about bowing (fiddles) and blowing (whistles and stuff) and
just adding emphasis where it is needed and making sure that it isn't
put in where it shouldn't be.
Rhythm is about three things.
- Emphasising the beat
- Adding lilt or swing
- Phrasing, including bowing (fiddles), tonguing
(whistles) and slurring (all instruments)
What follows are general rules. To completely appreciate why
Scottish and Irish jigs sound different for example, you will need to
do more listening and apply the rules.
Emphasising the beat. If you play a tune without varying the
degree of emphasis given to the notes it will sound very dull and will
lack effective rhythm. It
is usual to "attack" some notes with more effort - to give them
emphasis. Some tunes will
have groups of two or four notes, others have groups of three. It is
to give emphasis to the first note or beat of each group. Some of
notes will also get emphasised a little - its is important to
listen carefully to good players to hear what they do. Copy
If you start tapping out the rhythm of a tune you will find that you
tap more loudly or firmly for some notes and that this will create a
regular pattern. That is the basic pattern you need to create
when playing the tune. Try exaggerating the rhythm at
first as this will help you take control of what is going on. You
may then find that some other notes need a minor emphasis within the
basic rhythm. This is step one. As you gain experience (usually
though listening not playing) you will hear that in some tunes the
emphasis can fall in odd places - the third beat of four in some
Irish reels for example. Mazurkas too have a distinctive difference
from waltzes even though they are both tunes with 3/4 timing (3 beats
in the bar).
Swing or lilt. In jazz this would be called "groove" and it is
the slight lengthening of some notes and the related shortening of
neighbour. It can go hand in hand with the emphasis described
above. In some tunes the pairing of notes gives the same feel as
a pendulum that is not quite balanced - an uneven ticking of an
old fashioned clock. In other tunes the lilt affects groups of three
notes. What this means is that despite what is written down in
music the notes that look the same will be played differently in
length, but to
a regular beat, feel or groove. This is the swing or lilt and you
will not find this in western classical music which is played as
written. (Well actually this isn't entirely true but we don't have the
space here to go on about it. And once a traditional music player
settles on a rhythm they will often stick to it with a passion
classical players would admire, even if they can't understand why
he/she isn't playing notes as they are written down.) One thing is for
certain, if you
don't add a lilt to traditional music it will sound lifeless and
again you need to listen to others and copy the good ones.
Phrasing. This is much the most difficult aspect of rhythm and it
requires you to think about bowing if you are a fiddler, and
breathing and tonguing if you play flute or whistle. Box players and
pluckers also need to think about their technique too. In music
some notes run together smoothly, with no gaps between them.
notes are slightly separated. These differences are determined by
whether you change direction of the bow or whether you change your
breathing and use of your tongue (obviously not for fiddlers). As
a fiddler if you change bow direction for every note the music will be
missing a chance to make the rhythm sound as it should. Not only that,
you will find
yourself using an up bow when you really need to emphasize the note
with a down bow. So you must slur some notes together - that is
play them without changing bow direction. Different styles of
playing use different bowing techniques. Listen carefully to good
players not just so that you can copy the notes and any lilt they use,
but also to hear how they break the music into phrases by their
bowing. You may need to get help from a good player to show you
how this works. You will also need to consider the use of ornaments
to the notes. (See below.)
And now for something completely different. You don't actually
have to play the notes on the beat at all, at least not when you are
giving a solo. There are many superb players whose style and
individuality relies on how they miss the beat and play just ahead of
it or less commonly except for blues players, just behind it - by a
very tiny fraction of a beat. They do this without changing the
tempo (speed) and they do it consistently. These guys are good
and their music is coming from their hearts not their minds. This
is where you should aim to be one day.
Some common and familiar rhythms in traditional music.
The rhythm of a tune is set
mainly by the number of beats in a bar. A bar is the shortest phrase in
The number of beats does not
equal the number of notes. If you were to clap along with a tune you
in time with the beats but not on every note.
Most traditional tunes will have 2,3 or 4 beats in a bar, but
often many more notes.
For now we'll describe some of the normal tune types you will find in
Scottish traditional music.
- Jigs. 6/8 time. The rhythm goes ONE two three one two
three, ONE two three one two three, or if you prefer APples
oranges, APples and oranges, like The
Muckin of Geordie’s Byre. Each bar of the music has 1-2-3 1-2-3. The heavy type / upper
case letters show where the beats are emphasised. There is also a lilt
that means that the first and fourth notes (the 1s) are given a tiny extra length
and the next notes (the 2s)
are made a tiny bit shorter. Irish jigs have a sort of casual
flow to them, whereas Scottish jigs have a bit more emphasis on making
the longer ans shorter more distinct. The Irish also have a
tendency to give emphasis to the 2s and not the 1s. Its all very
complicated to describe - you have to hear it to hear it as they say.
- Reels. 4/4 time
(or 2/2 in some books which certainly emphasises that the notes come in
two groupings.) Reels go 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4,
1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 or WAter melon, WAter melon. Where you place
the emphasis here is very tricky to describe. Once again there
are distinct regional variations. The chances are in a reel at a
fast-ish pace you won't have time for lilt or for doing more than to
emphasise the 1s. You
may end up playing a style that emphasises the 3s - that's more Irish than Scottish
I think. In effect there is often an emphasis on the 1s and the 3s,
which would be WAter melon,
WAter melon I guess.
- Waltz. 3/4 time.
ONE two three, ONE two three. There really
isn't any more to say about this - but remember 1-2-3 1-2-3 played fast
could end up being a jig, played more slowly but with lots of lilt and
you end up with a 6/8 march.
These are 4/4 tunes like reels but the rhythm is 1-2 3-4 1-2 3-4 and there is a very strong
rhythm created by making the first note of each pair distinctly longer
than the second.
4/4. Like the hornpipe these are very dotted, but that is how
they are written down. They also tend to be a bit slower. The
Strathspey is called a Highland in Ireland and is played with less of a
snap to it. To be controversial for a minute, there is a school
of thought that the very formalised snap and accentuated rhythm of the
Strathspey is a Victorian affectation instigated by military piping and
embraced with vigour by a number of late 19th and early 20th Century
tunesmiths of which J Scott Skinner is the most well known. Prior to
this the Strathspey was much more free in its form and it required the
player to impose their own interpretation on the way it was to be
played. This is very probably true, indeed the adoption of the
pipes as a military instrument and the move of the fiddle from the
bothy to the ballroom has undoubtedly imposed changes on the style of
playing that has been far reaching and not entirely a good thing. The
same might be said when folk song moved to the music hall. Anyway, we
That'll do for now. You can go and read about speed, which is in
some ways independent of rhythm, but like so many of these things they
impact on each other.
Speed and Tempo
One of the things that we
all want to do is to play fast. It seems that the younger you are
the faster you want to go and the more likely you are to be able to do
it well. Generally there is nothing wrong with speed, provided that the
music stays intact. But there are a couple of problems to watch
out for. The first problem is when you don't realise how fast you are
going. This can stop others from joining in and sometimes you cannot
keep it up yourself. We have all been there. (Many of us still are
still there.) So its fine for a
bit fun but not a great musical experience. The second problem is
speeding up. Occasionally this is done deliberately, to put a bit
of life into the music, but very often it is not done on purpose, it
just happens. We all speed up from time to time and if you
are leading a set in a session or playing solo it doesn't much
matter. The problems begin when people do this in a group piece
and it leads to people playing out of time and just getting so fast
that the music sounds grim. It is also a bit of a
session taboo - be warned.
Speeding up is not related to age - everyone is capable of doing it and
it tends to happen most when people are playing something that they
can't quite manage or when they are concentrating very hard on their
own playing. Melody players and those accompanying on guitars or
percussion can all do it. Once the speeding up process
begins is hard to stop it and tunes can become less about music and
survival. And none of this is necessary as a tune played well at
speed sounds far better than one played badly but fast.
There is a real advantage to learning tunes slowly. It gives you
time to learn the tune and once you can play a tune competently you can
speed it up with ease. It you start too fast you will never
master the tune or the speed. So learn slowly - if you find that too
easy then keep slow and concentrate on tuning, tone and
Here is some very good advice, taken from an Irish music page. If
you follow no other advice, follow this bit. It will make a huge
difference to how you play and how much others will enjoy it.
pun intended) advice on the same
web page. I suggest that you have a read. It is about Irish music
but applies to Scottish traditional music too. http://www.rogermillington.com/siamsa/brosteve/meditation.html
If you don't have a
metronome (a mechanical time keeping device) you might want to get one
and play along to its beat. It is a frightening but useful experience.
The apparent speed paradox
Have you ever listened to a recording of top
Irish musicians playing
a dance tune at a nice speed and decided to play along, only to
discover that they are playing much faster than you thought? The music
is fast, and yet it doesn't sound hurried, which lulled you into
thinking you could keep up with it.
At other times you might be listening to less
experienced or less skilful players, and notice
that their playing sounds rushed, hurried. They may not be playing
fast, and yet the tune seems to be tripping over itself. This is not
enjoyable to listen to.
Part of the art of playing Irish music -- and
most types of music, in
fact -- lies in creating
a feeling of space inside the tune, so that the notes fall in just
the right place, no matter what speed you're playing at, and nothing is
hurried. Largely this is a matter of being very sure of the rhythm you
want to create, and feeling confidence in your ability to do so. Of
you need appropriate technique, too.
Strive for this feeling. When it comes, you'll
really start to enjoy
the music you're playing, and so will others. You won't sound hurried.
In the meantime, and afterwards,
resist the temptation to play too fast for yourself.
There are no specific speeds (tempos) at which it is normal to
tunes except for dances of course where there is an expected
speed. We have included here a rough guide to tempo for playing
at dances, for those who have mastered the tunes and can cope with
full speed. You can vary all these down for session playing,
although be warned at some sessions people will much much faster than
this. Remember though, play within your capability. If you try to
go too fast too soon you will slow down your learning.
Speeds for dancing (beats per minute.)
The speed given is what Blackford Fiddle
Group Ceilidh Band aim for - the range is what we have heard from
|Gay Gordons (Marches)
|120 (Range 108 - 122)
|Strip the Willow
|128 (Range 116 - 132)
|120 (Range 116-128)
|Canadian Barn Dance
|82 (Range 82 -92)
|St Bernard's Waltz
|160 (Range 160 - 188)
|116 (Range 116-124)
|Virginia Reel (Reels)
(Marches - 6/8)
|122 (Range 122- 128)
||126 (Range 126-130)
|Pride of Erin Waltz
For descriptions of the various types of tunes see the section above
called Rhythm (2).
In your home your ornaments are things you like to look at. Thay are
not part of the furniture and not part of the decoration but complement
both to your eyes and (you hope) to others too. They help to give
a finished feel to the room, to give it character and
personality. In music ornaments do much the same thing.
They are not the tune or melody and not really part of the structure of
the music either. On the other hand if you take them away the tune will
feel incomplete, a bit dull, incomplete and without character. So
much like your
ornaments at home they are essential to the whole. While the choice of
how many to have and where to put them will obey some rules, in the end
it will be up to you how to use them. If you have learnt to play
you will be familiar with grace notes which are used to provide
ornamentation, but these do not help greatly with ornamenting
traditional music properly. This is something you must learn from
scratch as it is particular to each style of traditional music. Scots
fiddling and piping, Irish fiddle and flute playing all provide unique
examples of ornamentation, often with distinctive regional styles. If
you wish to learn about these you will have do more than read the few
we provide here. This is just a starter.
The first thing to remember is that you will not find ornaments written
down on the music - you will have to use your ears not your eyes.
Conventional music notation does not even begin to describe or
illustrate how and when ornaments are to be used. People adapt standard
notation or invent new symbols but in all cases they are only
suggestion what you should do. (This is not always true -
people who play in pipe bands will follow their own particular
ornamentation marks with a religious zeal which can only have come from
military discipline and has little to do with traditioanl music as a
living art form. It is necessary for them to do this as will eb
referred to later.)
For fiddle players there are a number of different types of ornament
that you may be able
to use in time. These include those using the bow and those using the
fingers. We'll look at a few finger ornaments, but please remember
these are just
one way to do these things and there are many variations used by
different players. These forms of playing can be used on many
oteghr instrumetns although the mechanics of how you do it will vary.
strike the string quickly and then remove your finger
again. You do not alter the bow direction but slur the notes
together. The cut It is often used where the same note is
repeated in a tune. So for example if you are playing an E (first
finger on the D string) followed by another E you would tap down using
your 2nd or 3rd finger (F and G positions) but without applying full
pressure. You are not actually creating a new note but a short
interruption or new sound between the two notes. It is very subtle and
don't think of it as being a note. (It is not a grace note as in
classical music.) There is also a double cut which is used when
is just one of a note in the melody and two short "notes" are used to
precede it. Again for a E you would finger E and then either F or
G before settling back on the E. The two short notes are tiny
almost the full length of time for the melody note. It is hard to
describe so listen to good players and spot the cuts as they happen.
. There are two
of roll - long and short. Both involve a cut and then a move down
from the melody note. The long roll can be described as going
up from the melody note, back again, down from the melody note and
back again. That sounds like five notes. So an E long roll
on the D
string would be played E
with the emphasis being on the E. So
looking at the fingering it is 12101 (or 13101 if you want). This is a
great ornament to put in jigs when the music says that there is a doted
(Which looks like this
The short roll is the same except that it doesn't start with the melody
note but on the "cut note" above. So an E would be played FE
or just four notes. This is used mainly on a crotchet, often in
reels, but really just when it seems to fit better.
This is easier.
Instead of starting the note in the right place you start a half tone
down and then smoothly but quickly slide your finger into the right
Its a good way to start some tunes or phrases. Because it is
easier it do there is a risk of putting in too many slides. Some
great players can carry this off, for others it is recommended to use
the slide sparingly.
A final word for playing in a group. Ornaments work best in solo
playing as they allow you to give a tune a bit of your own
personality. If you are playing in a group with other melody
players it is good to use a few ornaments and generally for everyone to
same ones in the same places. The ornaments described here can be
played on many
instruments including fiddles, whistles, flutes, cellos guitars,
mandolins and boxes. Pipers, who need a range of ornaments have
different ways of doing this, often becoming more stylised and
regimented. Can you imaging a pipe band with everyone making up their
There is much more for you to learn but here is not the place to do it.
So go try a few cuts, rolls and slides first.
This is not a guide to accompaniment but a few pointers to help you
participate in and support a group of melody players. Accompaniment is
essential - it is one of the core ingredients of traditional or
any other music and as such it needs to be done well.
- Know the music well - it will help you to do the right
- You are not in charge. The melody players don't want you to
drown them out or change the tempo or rhythm of the music. They
have the tune - leave that to them.
- You may have to take charge. If the melody players are
struggling with timing or speed you may be best placed to reimpose some
order. It can be a key job in a group of learners in particular, but be
sensitive to their ability and interest.
- If there is more than one accompanist, please all use the same
chords. You may know more fancy ones than your neighbour, but the
listener will just hear a jumble if you start playing different things.
- Rhythm. The accompaniment is vital to keeping the rhythm of
the music. If the music has a strong beat or a swing to it you
must follow that.
- Be ready to adjust if the melody players go wrong. If they miss a
bit out or forget a repeat (as if!) then you need to get back in time
That's it for now.
- How much playing should I do? The important thing is
to try to play every day. Make it like brushing your teeth or washing.
Five minutes is fine to start with. You can do more when you feel like
it – the important thing is to enjoy it rather than to regard it as a
- How long will it take me to get good? This
depends on how much you play and how good you want to be. Our
best players have been playing for eight or nine years and they can
play for a ceilidh of 2 to 3 hours without music. But you will be
able to impress people after a short time.
- What's the difference between a fiddle and a violin?
They are the same instrument but played in a different style. Fiddle
players play traditional music and they are less fussy about getting
things absolutely right. Violin players play classical music and
are much more careful about the technicalities of playing. If you want
to be a violin player, you need to get lessons somewhere else.
Everything on this page is offered in the spirit that even the
partially sighted can offer a bit of vision from time to time. But if
we've got it wrong or you have some better ideas please point us in the
right direction. We don't claim authority just
some useful field experience.