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I wrote this piece ten years ago for FiddleOn magazine, and since then, of course, online fiddle tuition has hugely increased, with excellent (as well as not so good) YouTube videos available, to say nothing of Skype, but maybe the article is still worth a read…

Fiddle Teaching

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 the student, 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.

- Pete Cooper © 2009



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