This article first appeared in FiddleOn magazine in 2004 as Cooper's Fiddle Corner No. 15 A subscription to that excellent publication costs £18.00 for two years www.fiddleon.co.uk
Rhythm, Chords and Back-Up: the Art of Second Fiddle
When you play in a 'concert' band, or to accompany a singer, you may need to create a fiddle 'part' that is something other than the tune itself. It could be a harmony line, for example, or sustained chords, or a rhythm pattern based on the chords. But how do you go about constructing it?
Let's start with some chord basics. Chords are made up of the notes of an arpeggio played together at the same time. An arpeggio consists of the first, third and fifth notes of the relevant scale, the key-note itself counting as the first. Thus, the chord of D consists of the arpeggio notes, D, F# and A (also referred to as the 'triad' of D). In the case of the fiddle, a 'chord' will consist, for practical purposes, of just two of these notes played on adjacent strings. The two lower strings are particularly suitable, since the tune itself tends to occupy the higher range of the instrument. My own standard two-note chord of D consists of the open D-string, together with a first-finger A on the G-string below it. Bow the two strings with long, even strokes, and listen to the interval. Playing two notes at once will expose any dubious intonation. To ensure that the A note is really in tune, you could practice sliding the first finger up to pitch from a semi-tone below, while also playing the open D, and listen for the exact point where it sounds true. (A finger slide like this, as well as being a helpful intonation guide, can sound quite appropriate in many folk styles).
You may have heard of the 'three-chord trick.' Thousands of songs and tunes in major keys can be played with only three chords, known to folk and jazz players as the 1-chord, 4-chord and 5-chord, and to classical musicians as the tonic, subdominant and dominant. For example, in the key of D, our 1-chord is D itself, our 4-chord (counting up from D, E, F#...) is G, and our 5-chord is A. To play these chords on the fiddle, remember that each is based on the notes of the relevant arpeggio, so for G we select any two notes from the triad, G, B and D. By playing a two-octave arpeggio you'll enter 'the house of G' and realise how many combinations of these notes are available across the four strings. The easiest, and often best-sounding, G chord is simply the open G and D-strings. In the same way, for a chord of A, play the arpeggio and select your two notes from the triad A, C# and E. My personal default setting for an easy, effective A-chord is first finger across the bottom two strings. All of the chords I've described omit the 'third,' the note that makes them sound either major or minor, so they can work equally well for either. If you want to emphasise the 'major' quality of D, include an F#; for D minor, include an F natural.
Get familiar with these chord 'shapes,' so that you can go to them instantly, as a guitarist does, and move fluently from one to another. Over time, add further chords to your repertoire, using the arpeggio construction method. In a fiddle music context, the most useful chords to know are Bb, F, C, G, D, A and E, and their so-called 'relative minors,' G minor (Gm), Dm, Am, Em, Bm, F#m and C#m. The 'root' of the relative minor chord (also called the Minor Sixth) can be found six notes up the major scale: the relative minor of D, for example, is (D, E, F#, G, A...) B minor. At a later stage, as you gain confidence, you can explore a wider range of harmonic colours by substituting the occasional relative minor for a major chord.
Learning to think harmonically, as well as in terms of 'the tune,' is not as common as perhaps it should be when learning a 'melody' instrument like the violin, though fiddlers who've followed the classical route will probably have learned at least some rudimentary music theory. To progress beyond Grade 5 in the Associated Board practical exams, for example, students must pass Grade 5 theory. When I learned violin as a youngster I found harmonic theory bafflingly abstract, and just got through the exam by rote. Learning the piano, guitar or some other 'chord' instrument - and the mandolin, of course, recommends itself as having the same fingering as the fiddle - certainly makes it easier to feel, as well as understand, the musical effect of a particular chord progression.
So how do you know when to change from one chord to another? In practice, most people have a reasonably good sense of when a chord sounds 'wrong,' even if they can't immediately tell you what would sound 'right.' You can always try the chord suggestions given in song and tune books. Alternatively, find your own solution by trial-and-error. For tunes in major keys, the three-chord trick narrows the search. If the tune's in G, expect to encounter the chords of G, C and D. If it's in A, check out A, D and E. My own apprenticeship in this stuff was playing fiddle in American-style country bands, where the 'changes' soon become fairly predictable, especially if you can 'read' the guitarist's left hand. When the guitar goes from, say, C to C7 (the triad of C plus Bb, ie the seventh note of the C scale flattened a semitone), the effect is one of tension and imminent change, and the next chord will be the fourth above (C, D, E...) F. Every genre has its own distinctive style of chord changes. Scott Skinner, in his major-key tunes, often gets to the 5-chord by way of a 2-chord, while countless ragtime tunes employ a 1-6-2-5-1 progression.
Composing a harmony is not so hard once you've sorted out the chord pattern. Generally a harmony line follows the contours of the melody, but lower in pitch so as not to obscure the tune itself. It may have exactly as many notes as the tune, or shadow it more skeletally. The most commonly used interval, for example in Northumbrian or Swedish fiddling, is a third below, or sometimes a fourth or fifth. When the chord changes, make sure that the harmony note is either the root, third or fifth of that chord. Writing 'vertical' harmony like this is most easily done on paper until you get the hang of it, and the whole process can be quite mechanical. Obviously the harmony needs to sound good, as well as following the rules, so if the fiddle part you chanced upon while noodling about sounds great, even if you can't explain why, go with it anyway. For performance, you'll need to memorise your harmony line (and indeed the chord sequence you've decided on, if you're playing chords) in the same way as you would learn the tune. So ideally it should be memorable and pleasing in its own right.
What about tunes in minor keys? What chords do we use there? Well, it depends. A variant of the 1-4-5 sequence will sometimes work, in which the 1 and 4 become minor chords, while the 5 stays major. For a tune in D minor, for example, you'll encounter D minor, G minor and A major. It's a very classical-sounding harmonic framework, however, based on the diatonic musical system, and usually sits ill with English, Irish or Scottish 'minor' traditional tunes. Strictly speaking, these tunes are often 'modal' in character, usually in the Dorian (minor third, major sixth) or Aeolian (minor third, minor sixth) mode. Modal scales are originally based on a constant drone, as in much bagpipes repertoire, and need a different harmonic approach. In many Scottish and Irish minor tunes, for example, you get a bar or two of Am, say, alternating with a bar or two of G major, and returning 'home' to Am. This progression from the minor, then down one step to the major, and back, is very common. For a tune in Em, the 'other' chord will likely as not be D. If you're after a third chord as well, take one further step down, to C. The C-D-Em progression has been a harmonic cliché of celtic music since the 1970s.
Back-up playing should reflect the style of the piece. To accompany, say, a lyrical, free-flowing English folk song, a few well-chosen, understated drones, or even a unison melody line, will probably provide better support than, let's say, choppy, bluegrass-style, off-beat chonks! Similarly, for an Irish ballad, fit your playing style to the song, and use the same kinds of ornamentation and bowing as you would for an air. Traditional singers may vary the melody or rhythm slightly from verse to verse, for the sake of the words, so be prepared to follow. As a musician you should also defer to the singer when it comes to deciding on the key of the song, as even trained singers don't have a physically unlimited vocal range. (What do you mean, you can't play in Eb? Practice more!)
Pete Cooper © 2004
Playing with Others
This article first appeared in FiddleOn magazine as Cooper's Fiddle Corner - 5.
Fiddle music cultures have always been open to the participation of newcomers, especially the young, who are not only the life-blood of tradition but can also be quite interesting people. But in past centuries fiddle traditions were often extremely localised. If you didn't grow up in that particular region or village, or even that family, with a father or uncle or neighbour to teach you, the local repertoire and playing style would be very hard to learn… Today when traditional 'folk' cultures are both fragmented and globalised, you can indeed hear CDs of music from all over the place at home. But ironically, depending on where you live, you may have to travel some distance to meet up with fellow members of what could be termed your chosen 'home' fiddle community.
A magazine like [FiddleOn] publicises a wide range of fiddle workshops, residential weekends and summer schools going on around the country through most of the year. In fact these events are an international phenomenon. Workshop weekends and the like have become ever more popular as aspiring fiddlers discover that, while CDs, downloads and live concerts are a great way to hear performances by their favourite artists, fiddle music is also much more than a spectator sport.
Workshops give participants a chance to meet and learn directly from some of the very musicians whose playing they admire, many of whom are also excellent teachers. Insights gained with their help can extend your playing skills and inspire you to work towards a higher level of achievement - you not only go home and amaze your friends and loved ones with new tunes and improved technique, but feel motivated to practice for weeks to come.
Most fiddle events include open sessions that anyone (who can pluck up the courage) is free to take part in. These are probably just as important as the classes themselves for many participants, especially those who are otherwise musically isolated. Simply the fact of playing music with other people can be a life-changing experience if you're new to this kind of thing. Although I say 'simply,' approaching your first session may not feel simple at all. On the contrary.
Every folk session has its etiquette - Who starts the tunes? Can you join in if you don't know them? What types of tunes can you play? etc - and I'd like to tackle the details of that interesting subject in a later column. But I'd say that the basic requirement for any effective shared music making - and in my view the most important musical skill you can develop - is the ability to listen and play at the same time. It may sound blatantly obvious or it may strike you as a novel idea. But believe me, whatever your level of proficiency and whatever your style of music, that's what separates the musicians from the tune murderers: being able to play your own instrument while also listening to the others.
Try this experiment with just one other musician, maybe another fiddle player. Decide on something you can both play - a jig, a hornpipe or Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, it doesn't matter what. While the two of you are playing the tune together, listen to the sound of the other person's instrument. And they should be listening to you with equal attention. If they can't hear you perhaps you're playing too softly. If you can't hear them, could it be because you're drowning them out? Try to match your sound levels so exactly that you're hearing both fiddles equally clearly. To an outside listener they'd be sounding almost as one instrument.
What about the rhythm? Are you both feeling the basic pulse of the tune in the same way? Listen to the other player's rhythm, which may be slightly different in emphasis, but without losing your own. It requires a sort of diffuse, free-floating attention, so that you can also take in, for example, details of the intonation (like, are you both really hitting that fourth finger top B on the button?) without getting hung up on it and thrown off the tune. If you do fall off the tune, don't panic, just let it go and jump on again at the next convenient phrase.
You obviously need to know a tune well before you can play this closely with someone else. If you're still scrambling around trying to remember the sequence of notes, you probably won't have much spare capacity for listening. Go and practice more. But if you're confident that you can play a tune OK on your own, that's a great start. And if you can listen at the same time, well, there's nothing to stop you. Of course all sorts of irrational anxieties may creep in when you're playing with people you don't know very well, like 'Are the others of a high enough standard to appreciate what a genius I am?' or 'Am I about to be utterly humiliated?' or even 'Who's buying the next round?' But that's life. Discuss it with your therapist.
- Pete Cooper © 2001