Are fiddle tunes always best learned by ear, or do traditional players also read through tunebooks for new material? How much do published collections influence the repertoire that groups of musicians actually play? Or are tunebooks, and music-reading generally, just a baneful influence on traditional fiddling, limiting its natural diversity and local character by promoting fixed, standardised versions of tunes? Such may well have been the view of the old mountain fiddler who, when asked, 'Do you read music?' replied, 'Not enough to harm my fiddling.' Depending on the style of the music, many players enjoy the freedom of the moment to explore melodic and rhythmic variations, or make up harmonies, or just to vary the bowing and ornamentation. Given the informal nature of 'folk' playing, then, is it meaningful to write fiddle tunes down at all? As usual, it all depends.
Tunebooks have probably been published in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales for about as long as the fiddle's been played on these islands. John Playford's 'English Dancing Master' of 1651 was the first of its kind, and contained dance instructions as well as tunes. By 1728, when the last (18th) edition of the Dancing Master appeared, country dancing had achieved mainstream status among the gentry and fashionable middle-class of town and country. A stream of tunebooks poured out from publishers in London, Edinburgh, Dublin and elsewhere to satisfy a steady demand, probably as much from working dance musicians as amateur players, and this continued right through the eighteenth, and into the nineteenth, century. 'Three Hundred Celebrated Scotch, English and Irish Country Dances, Reels, Hornpipes and Quadrilles' was the sub-title of Thomas Wilson's Companion to the Ball Room of 1816, and gives a fair indication of the music then in vogue in England. For every music reading fiddler, however, there'd be another who picked up the tunes by ear, and the tunes, I imagine, however acquired, would be played by heart at dances.
Collections could be the work of many hands. Playford was not himself a dancing master, for example, but he evidently enlisted the help of those who were. On the other hand, for Scottish fiddle composers like James Oswald, Daniel Dow (who in 1776 first used the term 'strathspey' in a tune title), William Marshall, Niel Gow and Gow's son Nathaniel and many others, the tunebook format was a way of publishing original work, maybe interspersing original pieces with already popular 'traditional' tunes of similar character. With a dedication to an aristocratic patron whose friends could reasonably be expected to purchase a copy, such collections would supplement the income of musicians in much the same way as album sales or downloads today. Books also spread their new tunes further afield than aural transmission alone could have done.
I'm looking at a facsimile volume of the Beauties of Niel Gow (1819), astutely dedicated by its editor Nathaniel Gow to the (presumably well-heeled and numerous) 'Royal Caledonian Hunt'. Clearly set out, with two or three tunes to a page, each with a (cello) bass-line and with minimal bowing suggestions, the simplicity of the notation contrasts sharply with later collections like those of James Scott Skinner. The Scottish Violinist (1900), for instance, uses grace notes, expression marks, and specific bowing indications throughout, including symbols like the 'straight slur' and 'loop' of Skinner's own devising (used for 'up-driven' bowing, and mid-stroke emphasis, respectively), along with a peppering of metronome marks and phrases like 'Fire and Force', 'Slowly and Artlessly' etc. Apart from the fact that, being Skinner, he relished presenting his music in the grandest manner, he was probably right to be so specific in his notation. Scottish 'folk' and 'classical' violin styles, so close in the baroque period, had diverged widely by the turn of the 20th century, and a Scottish violinist's knowledge of 'fiddle' style could not be assumed. William C. Honeyman, keen to convey style as well as repertoire, was at pains in his Strathspey, Reel and Hornpipe Tutor of 1898 to explain the 'correct' way of bowing the tunes, lest 'the true style' be lost. Subsequent major collections like James Hunters's Fiddle Music of Scotland have retained this detailed, instrument-specific notation, while the tutorial element has, since Honeyman's time, been a growing strand in the 'tune-book' as a genre, not only in Scotland.
O'Neill's Music of Ireland was published in 1903. Francis O'Neill, Chief of the Chicago Police, is said to have recruited men to the force on the basis of their skill on uilleann pipes, fiddle or flute, then sat them down in his office to play tunes while sergeant James Early transcribed the performances. About 1150 of the 1850 tunes in the original edition are dance tunes. Like other collectors of the 'romantic-nationalist' period, and a musician himself, O'Neill was keen to preserve tunes he feared would be lost. O'Neill's became the Bible of early and mid-20th century Irish dance musicians, and along with the 1920s recordings of Coleman, Morrison, Killoran etc, helped stabilise the core of a pan-Irish tune repertoire in the 20th century. Historically, fiddle playing in Ireland was, and remains, an aural tradition, so how could this happen? Well, you might still learn your tunes, and your style, by ear from other players, but use O'Neill's as a reference work, dipping into it for a quick reminder of how a particular tune went, or to catch some detail. The notation of the dance tunes is plain, just a melodic outline, with no instrumental clues like bowing marks, or ornamentation. At the heart of a community of active musicians, O'Neill saw no need to notate the 'style' of the tunes, and Lucy Farr, I remember, was critical of a later edition of O'Neill's that included suggestions as to ornamentation. 'You put in the ornamentation where you feel it,' said Lucy. 'And not everyone ornaments it in the same way.'
She was right, of course, in one sense, but the fact is that tunebooks of fiddle music exist in a curious intermediate space between the aural and literate traditions, and need to be understood accordingly. It's important not to be intimidated by the fact of print, or to over-invest it with authority. The addition of chord symbols, for example, has become common in tunebooks since the 1970s, but you can take them or leave them, many preferring to sort out their own arrangements. Breandán Breathnach's three-volume 'Ceol Rince na hÉireann' is based on transcriptions from named 'source' performers, but he advises players to 'avoid tying themselves to a text. If they hear a turn or twist in another setting which appeals to them they should make their own of it.' The musical text, in other words, may be 'correct', but it is also provisional. Unlike an edition of Mozart, or Schoenberg, which aims to convey fully and accurately the composer's intentions, a traditional tune setting doesn't claim to be 'definitive', and has to be understood in the context of a living tradition. Some editors, including me, like to note down variants of a phrase where possible to give an idea of different, but equally valid, possibilities.
In recent years the book/CD format has become popular. There's a quite a spectrum of music-reading abilities, of course. At one end you have someone with just enough grasp of stave notation to be able to work out the notes and rhythm, using letter names to apply them to the fiddle. At the other, there's the fluent and habitual sight-reader, instantly converting visual information into an audio stream (music!) without apparent effort. Most of us are somewhere between the two. An audio recording helps the less-than-fluent find the notes, and can convey to the experienced reader some of the 'feel' that notation alone can't supply. A sense of the idiom, preferably based on playing with traditional musicians, is always needed to bring the music alive from the page. For those only comfortable with the notation in front of them it requires a leap of faith to start playing by heart, but that's usually where the fun begins.
Feeling the Beat
Rhythm is arguably the most basic ingredient of fiddle music, certainly of dance tunes. A 'wrong' melody note here or there won't matter much, but if a tune feels rushed, hesitant
or lacking in pulse, it can be hard to listen to. The bowing arm is obviously what generates the rhythm, so good posture and an effective bow-hold are important.
We talk of Down-bows and Up-bows to describe what are all in fact more or less horizontal movements across the strings. Conveying the pulse of a fiddle tune requires that we also develop an awareness of the force of gravity, of 'vertical' weight and lightness in the bow. Beginning fiddlers are often shy of allowing arm-weight to bear down on the strings, as though it'll snap them, but the effort of holding the weight back only makes the arm stiff, and produces jerky movements. Making the arm lax and floppy, however, doesn't work either. We need to experience the arm, not as dead weight, but as live, fluid weight. As a simple exercise, let your right arm hang freely from the shoulder, then lift the wrist and forearm. Very, very slowly turn your hand over from side to side, and focus on the sensation inside the forearm. It feels like the movement of a heavy fluid inside your arm, as if you're pouring weight from one side to another. The work of developing this kind of 'kinaesthetic awareness' requires patience, but helps your sensitivity and bow control.
The bow-hold itself needs to be both relaxed and firm enough to transmit subtle and varying pulses of weight to the strings. I wrap my fingers well around the stick, a little spread apart, from the second joint of the index finger at the leading end, to the tip of the little finger at the back, and with a slight turn of the wrist ensuring that all the fingers slope back towards the frog. This hold maximises the area of skin contact with the wood, reducing the need to grip. I also like to keep my thumb bent, the top right of the thumb-nail pressing into the leather collar known as the thumb-grip, the bottom left up against the bow-hair. The thumb-nail's point of contact with the stick is in fact a fulcrum around which the whole hand turns. (Press down with the little finger and the tip of the bow rises.) Whatever bow-hold you use should allow freedom of movement at the wrist, both up and down and, to a more limited extent, sideways.
Being able to locate, feel and convey the beat or pulse is essential. Remember that most tunes, including reels, jigs and hornpipes, have a two-to-a-bar beat, while slip jigs (in 9/8) and triple hornpipes (3/2) have a three-to-a-bar, and strathspeys either two or four. Even the irregular rhythms of Balkan music break down into combinations of twos and threes, and verbal phrases (like 'eight-een pints-of lag-er' for the kopanitsa in 11/8) can make them easy to remember. Often it's worth practicing rhythms on open strings, so that bowing can develop independently of any particular configuration of notes in the left hand.
The basic beat is subdivided in the case of reels and hornpipes, for instance, into groups of four quavers, the accent, and arm-weight, falling on the first of each group. Practice on the open A-string, using one stroke per note and starting with a down-bow: A-a-a-a, A-a-a-a etc. Keeping the beat in mind is especially important where string-crossing is involved: A-d-d-a, A-d-d-a etc. Beginning fiddlers, for whom crossing from one string to another may feel like a big deal, tend to over-emphasise the note where the change of strings occurs (A-D-d-A, A-D-d-A), which obviously disturbs the pulse. In the case of a jig (A-a-a, A-a-a etc), the strong beat falls on Down- and Up-strokes alternately, and you'll need to be able to accentuate a note as distinctly on an up-bow as on a down. Again, proceed from single-string practice to crossings like A-d-d, A-d-d, or A-d-a, A-d-a etc.
While inspired rhythmic playing is not reducible to the metronomically exact, even experienced players who confidently rattle out tunes in a session may find playing to the click of a metronome a salutary exercise from time to time. You can begin practicing a tune more slowly, then gradually move up to around 120 (two to a bar) for a reel or jig. You may however notice a strange phenomenon: in the difficult parts of a tune the click appears mysteriously to speed up, especially if complex ornamentation is involved, and then, just as weirdly, tries to catch you out by slowing down on the easy bits!