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.
At 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 own good 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 music sounds.
  • Watch.  See how good players hold their fiddles and 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 their options.
  • 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 various 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.)
For Parents

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 longer term.  You could, for example, point out that they should compare themselves to where they were a month ago, not where they were yesterday. 
  • 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 competent player to help. 
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Practice

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 add
  • Spend time on making the hard bits easier.
  • Do exercises to help bowing and tuning as well as playing tunes.


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Tuning and Pitch

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.

Every note 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 change 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.
  1. You must make sure that your fiddle (or whistle or whatever) is in tune.  Using an electronic tuner is one of the the best ways 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 instruments also go out of tune if the temperature changes suddenly. 
  2. 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 electronic tuner to check that your ear is hearing the notes properly.  Many of us have to train our ears to hear properly
  3. 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 them.
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.

Fiddle tail 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 your 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 playing.  Lastly, 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 tune.  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.

Fingerboard
Playing 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 good. 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. 

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Rhythm and phrasing

Two 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

Rhythm (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 the 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.
  1. Emphasising the beat
  2. Adding lilt or swing
  3. 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 normal to give emphasis to the first note or beat of each group.  Some of the other notes will also get emphasised a little  - its is important to listen carefully to good players to hear what they do.  Copy them.  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 their 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 the 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 unnatural.  Once 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.  Other 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.


Rhythm (2)
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 written music.  The number of beats does not equal the number of notes. If you were to clap along with a tune you would clap 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 and 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.
  • Hornpipes.  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.  
  • Strathspeys.  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 digress.
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.

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Speed and Tempo

Speed
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 more about survival.  And none of this is necessary as a tune played well at modest 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 ornaments. 

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.
  There is more sound (no 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 especially fast, and yet the tune seems to be tripping over itself. This is not very 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 course 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.

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Tempo
There are no specific speeds (tempos) at which it is normal to play 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 playing at 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 others.

Gay Gordons (Marches)
120  (Range 108 - 122)
Strip the Willow (Jigs)
128 (Range 116 - 132)
Dashing White Sergeant (Reels)
120 (Range 116-128)
Canadian Barn Dance (Hornpipes)
82 (Range 82 -92)
St Bernard's Waltz (Waltz)
160  (Range 160 - 188)
Friendly Waltz (Waltz)
164
Eightsome Reel (Reels)
116  (Range 116-124)
Virginia Reel (Reels)
122
Britannia Two-step (Marches - 6/8)
122 (Range 122- 128)
Military Two-step(Marches - 6/8) 126 (Range 126-130)
Pride of Erin Waltz
168

For descriptions of the various types of tunes see the section above called Rhythm (2).

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Ornaments

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 classical music 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 notes 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.

Finger ornaments.

The Cut.  This is where you 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 there 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 leaving 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.

Rolls.  There are two types 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 EFEDE 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 crotchet. 
(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 FEDE (2101) or just four notes.  This is used mainly on a crotchet, often in reels, but really just when it seems to fit better.

Slides.  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 place. 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 use the 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 own ornaments? 

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.

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Accompaniments

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.

  1. Know the music well -  it will help you to do the right things.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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 with them. 
That's it for now.

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Frequently Asked Questions

  • 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 chore.
  • 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.

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Footnote

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.
 

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