How to Make Irish Fiddle Music Sound Irish

A Celtic primer for classical players: capture the lilt with authentic bowing patterns and ornamentation
by Katherine Thomas

In the mid-’90s, the “Celtic Tiger” phenomenon ripped the veil between esoteric and pragmatic folk music in America. With the phenomenal success of Riverdance and Grammy award-winning band the Chieftains, traditional Irish music emerged from New York dance halls and Chicago pub sessions to headline Broadway shows and stylish concert halls. This musical renaissance excited not only audiences, but also string players who were—and still are today—eager to dip their bows in the heart song of Hibernia. However, with a myriad of tune books and tutorial media available for traditional Irish fiddle, knowing where to start can be overwhelming. Classical vs. Traditional Bowing The main difference between classical music and traditional Irish fiddle is bowing patterns.

Classical violinists are taught to identify and play strong- to weak-beat bow patterns.

Traditional sheet music may appear deceptively easy due to the basic rhythms and no marked bowings. But Irish music must be played with Irish bowing patterns, not classical. In order to understand these bowing patterns, consider the two most popular tune types: the jig and reel. The Jig Offers Freedom of Choice The jig is a dance tune in 6/8 time, played in 2, which means you feel each group of three eighth notes as one beat, so each measure has two “bigger” beats. When first approaching a jig, play the entire tune legato with separate bows, holding beats one and four slightly longer than the other beats. (Playing a dotted eighth to two 16ths is too extreme.) The undulating jig rhythm is very subtle. Practice by saying: po-ta-to, po-ta-to with the emphasis on the “po”; then play this pattern on an open string.

Secondly, place slurs only between beats six and one, and three and four. Never slur beats one–two–three or four–five–six; this would be incorrect.

Another element of Irish fiddling that can be challenging to a classical violinist is the freedom of choice. In the jig, you do not want to play the entire tune with a weak-strong bowing pattern because it would create a singsong effect. Therefore, you must choose when this bowing pattern sounds good, and at all other times, play separately, leaning toward connected, legato bow strokes. I suggest putting in three to four weak-strong slurs per the A or B part of a tune. All other bowings should be separate. The jig bowing pattern also works for 9/8 slip jigs.

The Reel Has a Driving Pulse

The reel is a dance tune that is written in 4/4 and performed in 2. It should be played with phrases starting on a down bow to accentuate the downbeat and to emphasize the harder, driving pulse of a reel. However, the addition of weak-strong slurs and three-note slur patterns will improve the melodic phrasing. When approaching a broken arpeggio section of a reel (which occurs frequently in this tune type), apply a weak-to-strong bowing commonly called cross-bowing. Cross-bowing—like most things in Irish fiddling—can be done several ways.

Another bowing pattern to use is the three-note slur with cut (a cut is a quick, percussive grace note). It should be applied only to a group of four eighth notes where notes two and three are the same pitch. This pattern frequently occurs in the B part of reels.

When approaching measures 3 and 4, or 7 and 8, of a reel (especially in the A part on the final phrase), you’ll often encounter a run of eight eighth notes. Play them with a three-note slur starting on the “and” of beat 2 or as groups of two-note weak-strong slurs.

Right-hand bowing technique is—as with classical violin—the more difficult skill to emulate. Practice bowing patterns slowly and then build to actual tempo. After learning 25 tunes correctly, you’ll begin to automatically play the proper bowing directions and will spend considerably less time thinking about them as you build your repertoire.

3 Types of Ornamentation

Now to the fun stuff, which is deceptively secondary to bowing—ornamentation! The most popular ornaments in Irish fiddling are the cut, the roll, and the bow treble. A cut—the aforementioned quick, percussive grace note—cuts two eighth notes of the same pitch. First-finger and second-finger notes will be cut by the third finger, and third-finger notes will be cut by the fourth finger.

The most common roll is the first-finger roll. These long rolls are always used in place of a dotted quarter note in sheet music. On a first-finger note, rhythmically cut the note with the third finger, go back to the original note, then cut with the open string. Think fingers: 1, 3, 1, 0, 1. Second-finger rolls are: 2, 3, 2, 1, 2 and third-finger rolls are: 3, 4, 3, 2, 3. Hold the first note longer and add weight in the bow.

A bow treble is right-hand ornamentation used in place of a dotted quarter note or two eighths and quarter note. It is often used on open-string ornaments, since rolling an open string is very rarely done. Push in the bow and add a little “crunch.”

That’s a good start. Irish music encompasses a vast, diverse, mysterious, and controversial realm of players, listeners, poets, and critics. Consider yourself a student on a journey. “Let go of your ego,” is what a flute-playing hitchhiker told me as I searched Ireland for the mysterious crux of traditional music several years ago. Only by letting go of your classical archetypes and embracing a new world of sound can you capture the heartbeat and the heart of Ireland.

Listen & Learn

My first advice to students is to start listening. Brian Conway’s First Through the Gate, James Kelly’s The Ring Sessions, Liz Carroll’s Lost in the Loop, and Oisin Mac Diarmada’s Ar An Bhfidil are all excellent examples of modern Irish fiddle recordings with a variety of regional styles. A classic historical fiddler who should be in every fiddler’s collection of recordings is Michael Coleman. After emigrating from County Sligo, Ireland, and settling in New York at the age of 23, he released an estimated 80 78-rpm records between the years of 1921 and 1936. Coleman is considered the fiddler who popularized Sligo-style Irish fiddling both here and in Ireland through his excellent musicianship and vast recordings.

After listening to these artists, you might be surprised at the different interpretations each fiddle master lends to the same tunes. Regardless of regional style, each player’s touch is distinctly Irish at its heart. These minor differences—the melodic lilt of a phrase, and the rhythmic heartbeat of a reel—can not be found in tune books because Irish music is not written like it sounds. Although a few eager ethnomusicologists have attempted exact transcription, it is virtually unreadable for practical purposes.

The best approach to capture the Irish lilt when interpreting sheet music is to identify and execute authentic bowing patterns and ornamentation. —K.I.T.

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