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Classical to Folk

Classical violin players are sometimes curious about folk-style fiddling, but don't know where to start. The differences are clearly not just a matter of repertoire and playing technique, but of performance context too, and the fiddler's general approach to music. My own start on the violin was classical - seven or eight years of lessons with a good teacher, working through studies and set-pieces for my 'grades', playing in a youth orchestra, even winning (admittedly, only in Wolverhampton) a Mozart violin concerto competition. It never occurred to me that I should end up playing fiddle for a living, so although I used to practice a lot it was basically for fun and I wasn't stressed by the need to make it in the classical world. What I did get was some good basic technique, a sense of confidence in my ability as a player and a love of the instrument - which has stayed with me. By 'good basic technique' I mean being physically comfortable with the instrument, learning to play in most keys - certainly those encountered in fiddle music - and to use the bow to produce different kinds of attack and tone and volume. Learning the higher left-hand positions (mainly third and fifth position) has come in useful with the Eastern European music I've attempted, though by and large the fiddle music of Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia and the American Old Time tradition doesn't call for them. Vibrato is another technique I'm glad I developed, even if in later years I had to work very hard not to use it in styles where it's not idiomatic. Reading and writing music, too, is a skill that, while it may have played little part in much traditional fiddling in the past, is useful for practicing musicians in any genre.

When I drifted into non-classical fiddle in my early twenties there wasn't to my knowledge any formal teaching of traditional folk music, such as we have today in the form of weekend workshops, folk camps, courses and summer schools. Even if there had been, youthful arrogance and rebelliousness would no doubt have kept me away. A guitarist friend called Moz played some 12-bar blues and I just tried to make something up that would fit. I listened to Dave Swarbrick fiddling with Fairport Convention and Peter Knight with Steeleye Span, and loved the sound, and I also heard rock and jazz fiddlers like Papa John Creach and Jerry Goodman. Listening to Papa John's 'Over the Rainbow' in an altered state of consciousness, I couldn't decide if it was the most exquisite music I'd ever heard or sentimental trash - and actually I'm still not sure. I attempted wild, freaky improvisations of my own in echoey rooms for hours on end. It was all very mid-'70s and probably sounded terrible, but these experiments led me to a different way of musical thinking, away from the page, away from fixed melodies. I joined a band and improvised over guitar chords, creating what I hoped were exciting fiddle breaks, and putting in fills between song verses. And I think it was this aural approach, responding to the impulse of the moment, more than memorising jigs and reels, that snapped the umbilical cord that had tied me to classical playing.

My playing was still fairly stiff, though, and as I came to realise the limitations of 'free' playing I began a long, informal apprenticeship in traditional music, first through Irish players I encountered in London, like Sean McLaughlin and , later, Lucy Farr. Folk fiddlers always play by heart, rather than from the dots, but how you learn the tune in the first place is another matter. The role of notation varies from one style to another. A majority of Irish traditional and American Old Time musicians, for example, acquire their tunes by ear, notwithstanding such big dance-tune collections as those of Francis O'Neill, while musical literacy seems to have been historically more widespread in Scotland and England. Many of the pre-Victorian English village fiddlers learned the rudiments of music-reading in West Gallery church bands, and the survival of late-18th and 19th century fiddlers' tune-books testify to their skill in this regard. Scottish fiddle-composers of the 18th century like Daniel Dow, James Oswald and others regarded their music as belonging to a European mainstream, the great divide between Classical and Folk not yet having opened up, and might write out a fiddle tune they'd made up along with a cello or keyboard part. So personally I see nothing wrong with using books as an initial learning resource, especially those that include a CD as a style guide. Far better, surely, to turn up at a session or folk gathering, or in some foreign country, with a dozen or so tunes under your belt, however awkwardly played, than with nothing. At least then there's something to refine, be it by adding lilt to a jig, or playing all the repeats you'd ignored as a reader, or adjusting to the shockingly fast tempo of a reel. Conversely, once you've got the idiom of a particular style down by listening long and hard to a lot of good players, you'll be better able to interpret the notation appropriately. You'll also realise that there is never one definitive version of a tune, as there usually is of a classical score.

What about the violin itself? It's true that quaint, home-made fiddles have played some part in folk tradition. Several American Old Time mountain musicians, for example, started out on 'cigar-box fiddles', and in southern Sweden a 'shoe fiddle' using a wooden clog as the resonator was sometimes played. Bampton Morris fiddler Jingey Wells's first fiddle was a 'humstrum', constructed from a corned beef tin and a rifle butt, while the travelling Doherty family of Co. Donegal, including the great fiddlers John and Mickey Doherty, used their kettle-and-pot smithing skills to fashion more 'realistic' tin fiddles. You may also have seen Tim Phillips's violins, popular on the English folk scene today, which are made of wood but, instead of the usual 'corners', are distinguished by their smoothly curved waist, and sometimes exotic colours. But no, the standard European violin that you already play is absolutely fine for folk. Most experienced players, folk or classical, will already have found their personal preferences as to 'set-up', and there's no need to change that, though some folk players prefer a slightly lower 'action', or string height. As for strings themselves, violinists tend to favour synthetic perlon-core or nylon-core strings like Dominant or Eva Pirazzi, while folk fiddlers mostly prefer those with a steel core. The latter range from the relatively warm-sounding Helicore, Jargar or Larsen strings, to the harder, more biting Precision strings popular with Irish fiddlers. Adjusters, or fine tuners, don't work well with synthetic-core strings, but when using steel strings it's standard practice to fit four adjusters to the tailpiece, not just one for the E-string.

The best general advice I can give to a classical player is to listen repeatedly to as many good traditional fiddlers as possible, find out which ones most appeal to you, then copy them. Go to sessions, get to know people socially and, when you can, join in. The back-biting and sense of competition so often encountered in an orchestral setting is, in my experience, rare among fiddlers, and enthusiasts are usually only too happy to burn you copies, for example, of their favourite recordings. Remember that many of your existing playing skills are transferable to this new genre but, as with learning any new language, it will take several (hopefully, fun-filled) years to become a fluent player, so be patient with yourself.

- Pete Cooper © 2009


Teaching Fiddle

Can traditional, or 'folk', fiddle be formally taught in the same way as classical violin? If so, what are the qualities that make a good, effective fiddle teacher? And how, as one reader inquired recently, do you go about finding one? Many of us who play in sessions have learned, as well as taught, a lot informally. Swapping tunes with a fellow player, if only by slowing down enough for each other to catch the more elusive details of a half-known tune, is at the heart of traditional music making - part of how fresh repertoire is pumped around the system. Similarly, asking one of your peers to show you how they play a fancy ornament you've noticed they're particularly good at, or to demonstrate some elusive 'bow-lick' (as American fiddlers say), is not the shocking breach of propriety, or confession of musical inadequacy, it might be regarded as in more starchy or competitive circles. We fiddlers tend to help each other out. It's when the gap in ability and experience between players is much wider, however, that we move from this kind of everyday sharing to the realm of 'teaching'.

Although formal tuition in traditional fiddle is very much a recent phenomenon, there are certainly more teachers out there now than there were twenty, or even ten, years ago. Teaching is part of the mix of activities that many full-time musicians engage in to make a living. An internet search for 'folk fiddle teacher' will turn up an astonishing number of results, Newcastle-on-Tyne and Glasgow, for example, being particularly well provided for these days, mainly with recent folk degree course graduates. It's only fair to point out, though, that coverage is patchy across the country. Obviously a lot depends on where you live, and whether you're willing to travel, and how far - and what kind of music you're interested in learning. If it's English or Welsh you want to play, then an Irish or Scottish specialist, with the best will in the world, can only help you so far. Most music shops keep a list of local violin teachers, but the majority of these still tend to be classical, and I frequently receive inquiries from people seeking 'a Bluegrass teacher in the Blackpool area' or 'an Irish fiddle teacher in Dubai.' (Yes, really.) The best advice I can usually give is, 'Google.' Folk music may have moved in from the cultural margins, but specialist fiddle tutors are still not exactly thick on the ground. A fellow Londoner complained recently that I lived too far away for lessons. Couldn't I recommend an Old Time fiddle tutor actually in Chelsea?

It makes a difference whether you already play a bit, or are learning from scratch, and also whether you're an adult or a child. Of course, in the absence of a folk tutor for regular lessons, the total beginner could do worse than start with any good violin teacher. The note 'D' is played on the A-string with the third finger, for example, whether it's an Irish 'D' or a classical 'D'. Most basic playing skills are transferable from one style to another, and Suzuki-method teachers even teach by ear, in a way that parallels folk tradition. Most of the classical technique you'll learn up to about Grade 4 - and that alone could represent several years' work - is directly relevant to fiddle music too. Provided your teacher is not actually hostile to 'folk' playing - as some grumpy ones apparently still are - and you are reasonably open-minded yourself, you can probably acquire enough of a grounding to move forward. (By the same token, I suppose, a good folk fiddle teacher may be able to help a beginner with at least the rudiments of classical violin.) Books, CDs, tuition DVDs and internet-based resources like YouTube may be helpful at the 'improver' stage, while for a more direct hit of inspiration and guidance it's worth checking out the annual fiddle weekends, festivals, folk camps and summer schools in Britain, Ireland and abroad. Many of these are aimed at adults, but youngsters are specifically catered for at the Folkworks 'junior' and 'youth' summer schools, Durham, and festival-based project Shooting Roots, among others.

Perhaps you've thought of trying out some fiddle teaching yourself. There certainly seem to be places (Chelsea, for one!) where demand exceeds supply. Good social and communication skills - listening as well as talking - are an essential requirement. A friendly manner will help put students at ease in a situation in which they may feel vulnerable; and you should always begin and end the lesson on time to create a safe learning environment. (If the student's late for a 6.00pm appointment, I'm sorry, that's their look-out; the lesson still ends at 7.00pm.) The teacher should give their full attention and not interrupt to answer the phone, or nip out to the off-licence. Enthusiasm for the music and a desire to share it are prime motivating factors in the whole enterprise, of course, and probably why you were chosen as a teacher, but you also need to find out how much the student knows already and assess their particular learning needs. At the start of a lesson I always get the student to play whatever we learned last time. Some teaching points may need to be re-iterated, or maybe, if they've cracked it, you can throw in something extra, like additional ornamentation, for example. In a 'spiral' learning process we re-visit the same piece at intervals, getting into it more deeply each time.

If you then go on to teach a new tune, select one that's not too hard for them, and not too easy. Optimal learning takes place when the student is moving just beyond their current level of ability, into what Belarusian psychologist Lev Vygotsky called their 'zone of proximal development'. The teacher needs to think through the whole process. What is it they will need to know, what new skills must they develop (e.g. fast string-crossing, a new scale, or note, or type of ornament) in order to play it convincingly? It's a good idea to model the performance you're aiming for, playing the tune through several times at the outset, perhaps at slower and faster speeds, before breaking it down into smaller steps. Find a balance between telling the pupil how to do something, and letting them try it out for themselves. Your instructions and explanations ('Keep your thumb bent') may need to be repeated several times, perhaps at intervals. If something really isn't working, though, don't flog a dead horse, and be prepared to change tack. It can take minutes, hours, weeks, or months before the penny drops for any particular individual - and only at the right moment in their own learning process. Patience, preferably infinite, is desirable. Blame and judgement have no place. Aspire to the neutral and unflustered condition of a SatNav, when a driver has made a mistake and failed to follow its instructions at a roundabout, taking the wrong exit. It doesn't curse, mock, complain or hit him over the head with a stick; just re-calculates the new location, and proceeds afresh, from wherever we are now.

I was interested in an article on the new Scottish fiddle exams in the last issue of this magazine. I can see the point of having an outside expert assess your progress, if only to provide motivation when you feel you've reached a plateau in your learning, and help set goals. Presumably, too, if a syllabus of test pieces is created, it spares the teacher having to think too hard about what to teach the student next. On the other hand, the stress of exam conditions has very little to recommend it for the learner, and it's precisely to escape the tedious orthodoxy associated with any exam board, however benign, that some of us got into folk and traditional music in the first place. Maybe it's a matter of personality, or religious upbringing. If a student wants to learn some random tune (as the young say) which has caught their imagination on a CD, or a pop-song on YouTube, personally I'm happy to give it a go, folk or not. Why should lessons not explore repertoire in an open-ended way, including going off at tangents? I've certainly learned many of my best tunes in the process of teaching them, and would hate to think I knew it all in advance. So, yes, I do think fiddle can be formally taught, but flexibly, without dogma.

- Pete Cooper © 2009

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