It all starts with the beat—and the spelling

by Donna Hebert

How many times have you heard someone (perhaps yourself) ask, “What’s the difference between playing a violin and fiddling?” Beyond the short answer, “spelling,” this age-old conundrum invites the ponderer to step beyond stereotypes and assumptions, and to explore music’s many meanings. I’ve encountered the question many times myself. I began as a classically trained violinist, then switched to playing folk music in my 20s. Since then, I’ve taught fiddle at universities, dance camps, and ASTA and NCOA summer camps, as well as at my own In the Groove Workshops and Groove Camp, in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Some fiddlers say that the only way to learn fiddling is to go hang out and jam with fiddlers, preferably primary sources. It’s what the vast majority of fiddlers past and present have done. Others say they’ve learned most of their repertoire from recorded sources, while some even learn by reading exclusively. Still, jamming remains the prevalent way of sharing fiddle music with others, and jam sessions are cultivated carefully in communities to maintain this opportunity. Dances (contra, square, Cajun, step, clogging) are what fiddling is designed to support, while jams are the ideal setting for actual learning.

There are as many styles of fiddling as there are communities with fiddlers in them, and each regional music has a physical and cultural home. The music fits and describes the place it’s played in, the people who play it, the kind of community it is, even the climate!

Be forewarned: After a lifetime of consciously not tapping your feet when you play the violin, it will start to creep back in when you play fiddle tunes. This is perfectly normal and nothing to be alarmed about: It means you’re hitting the groove, the place where the music flows like honey from your fingers. Welcome to fiddling. Here are 12 questions that classical players frequently ask about fiddling, and yes, even some written examples to help you make the connection.

1. How does fiddling differ from classical music?

Beat, beat, beat! Most classical music has a stronger accent on the downbeat, while fiddling accents the upbeat for dancers. Regional or ethnic fiddling styles use different left- and right-hand techniques to produce authentic sounds, with beat placements and degrees of swing changing from one style to the next.

Fiddle music evolved for dancing, and improvisation and spontaneous composition are the heart of fiddling. Jazz players compose a new melodic line over the chord changes. Fiddlers use the bow and left-hand ornaments to drum a new rhythm over the melody, accenting key parts of the dance with licks, drones, and dynamics, since dancers will use the tune to tell their place in the dance.

Fiddling is an oral tradition. Fiddlers learn hundreds, even thousands, of tunes, almost entirely by ear and in a variety of keys and modes. We learn from other musicians at jam sessions, and from recorded and (sometimes) printed sources. Most classical players use printed music to train the ear, which kicks in when sight-reading the music. But you can’t learn fiddle rhythms or styles from written music; you must hear it first. Fiddling pedagogy asks you to hear all the layered parts of a phrase—melody, beat placement, left- and right-hand ornaments, dynamics, chord changes and other moving lines—and then try to reproduce exactly what you hear.

Playing for dances is fiddling’s main function, but jam sessions are the important forum for learning style and for transmitting repertoire and fiddling culture. We learn to play with others at the jam, flowing with the group beat or groove. We create medleys, and arrange tunes creatively on the fly. At “slow-jam” sessions, we play tunes at a slower speed to allow everyone to grab the basic tune, then gradually speed up to a dance tempo: 115–130 beats per minute for hoedowns, hornpipes, and reels in 2/4, jigs or marches in 6/8, and marches in 4/4.


2. Why does fiddling sound so scratchy and out of tune?

There is no universal performance standard in fiddling, nor a universal scale, because scales and standards are culturally relative. We bend notes, raise a scale degree by several cents, and generally emphasize groove over a flawless tone. What you’d call “scratchy fiddlers” are likely to be what fiddlers call “primary sources.” We revere these ancestors and tradition-bearers, often trying to model their styles. Tommy Jarrell is a primary source among southern old-time fiddlers, and Franco-American fiddler Louis Beaudoin is always in my head when I play French-Canadian tunes. This modeling is done with the utmost respect, even reverence, for the source, hearing beyond limited technique or the infirmities of age to their rhythms, creative variations, and the soul they put into it.

3. Why aren’t you playing what’s written down for the tune?

Published fiddle music is usually a only a skeleton of what we play, often lacking bowings, dynamics, ornaments, variations, or even chords. Tunes are usually written unswung, with one full repeat of the melody line (usually two eight-bar phrases repeated—once through most square and contra dances). Variations, beat placement, and bowing syncopations are implied and change with style. Most of this “performance practice” couldn’t be read by the majority of fiddlers. Defining techniques are learned as part of a style, and applied to the tunes as a spoken accent is to a language.

4. Why does it feel like I’m bowing everything backwards?

Maybe you are! Some tunes play easier with an up bow on the downbeat, reversing what you may be used to. The bowing pattern may even reverse the next time we play the phrase. We may end up bowing a phrase in both directions, producing the same rhythmic accent both ways. Driven up bows are also common in some styles, while other styles slur across the beat and bar lines for more syncopation. We follow the groove and accent it, regardless of bow direction.

5. Why don’t you use all of your bow?

It’s a misconception that fiddlers don’t use the whole bow. Regional styles change and vary. Some use long fluid bow strokes—Texas, Cajun—and others—Cape Breton, French-Canadian, and some southern old-time styles—use short, repeated bow strokes. Many fiddlers work off the balance point of the bow, using the weighted center for power and mobility. One who favors the tip of the bow might compensate by choking up on the bow hold to shorten the stick length.

6. What’s that rocking thing you do with your bow?

Usually it’s a shuffle. Shuffles accent the offbeat for natural syncopation. The basic shuffle forces an offbeat accent in 2/4. We can create different rhythms by tying notes together over a two-bar phrase, often across the bar lines and beats. There’s a “split bowing” shuffle with two notes slurred, two separate over a pattern of four notes. The Georgia Shuffle is a three-slurred, one-separate bowing rhythm that can pop the offbeat out like an elbow in the ribs.

7. What about dynamics?

Usually the focal point of the tune is played louder, while some notes are played softer or even ghosted. Dynamics within a bar punch the offbeat like a heartbeat or breathing—soft, loud, soft, loud. One approach is to play a double-stop drone from the harmony on the offbeat.

8. Don’t you get sick of playing the same 32 bars over and over again?

We don’t play them the same way over and over. Learn the ornaments in any style and you’ll be able to vary the melody authentically in that style. We also medley tunes for fun and to avoid repetitive use injuries. Variations begin on the second or third repetition, and then we might vary the rhythm under the tune a little. It’s always moving somewhere, never static.

9. What about vibrato?

You won’t hear it much. Most reels are full of 16th notes played at 120 bpm, with no time for vibrato. You might use it in waltz, but all ornaments in any style are subordinate to the rhythm. If there isn’t room for the ornament “in the groove” we lose the ornament rather than lose the beat.

10. How do you set up, tune, and hold your instrument?

Most modern fiddlers have their instruments set up much like a violinist’s. Some fiddlers let the bridge do the work of playing adjacent-string drones, filing the top of the bridge’s curve down a bit. We may also keep a second instrument tuned to an open chord, say AEAE from bottom to top. In AEAE you can play either in A minor or A major—or both in the same tune. Many traditions—American old time, Cajun, Scandinavian, French-Canadian—have tunes that require retuning to (bottom to top) AEAE for tunes in A, ADAE for tunes in D, and AEAC# for A major tuning. Our fiddling postures are personal, based on physique and inclination (and yes, sometimes, ignorance), and often dictated by the rigors of the style we’re playing. You’ll see many variations on bow and instrument holds.

11. I can already play the violin. How long will it take to learn to fiddle?

First, it’s important to recognize the fiddling stereotypes lurking in your subconscious. A common one is the assumption that because “it’s almost all in first position, it should be easy, and besides, I can play already.” You probably have more left-hand position chops than most fiddlers, and are able to read almost anything with facility and speed. But don’t underestimate what fiddlers do. How many ways could you rearrange the notes in four or eight or 16 bars of music at 120 bpm, playing the tune authentically with good timing and ornaments, creating tiny rhythmic variations with each repetition yet never losing the outline of the melody, never playing it exactly the same way twice, keeping a rocking offbeat going all the while, changing tunes and keys in medleys and arranging all of them intuitively, without using sheet music?

Fiddling is another language and immersion is the best way to learn. Really loving a sound and style are key. Find a style you love and learn everything you can—tunes, harmonies, rhythms. Listen repeatedly so your fingers can catch minute changes in rhythm and melody. When you learn any tune the first time, you imprint it, so aim high and learn from the best. If possible, find a mentor you can play regularly with, and learn enough tunes to be able to play in a jam session. Keep a music notebook and write down every tune you learn, noting bowings, suggested harmonies, licks. At the very least, keep a recorded journal and a tune list.

12. Why should I learn fiddling at all?

There are two compelling reasons to learn and teach fiddling in schools and private studios. First, it satisfies all ten of the MENC National Standards for Music Educators: a) Singing, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music; b) Performing on instruments, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music; c) Improvising melodies, variations, and accompaniments; d) Composing and arranging music within specified guidelines; e) Reading and notating music; f) Listening to, analyzing, and describing music; g) Evaluating music and music performances; h) Understanding relationships between music and other arts, and disciplines outside the arts; i) Understanding music in relation to history and culture; and j) Integrating dance with music.

Second, how many of your string students will make it to an orchestra, teaching, or solo career as an adult, or even grow up to play in an amateur chamber group? Don’t you want them to have as many opportunities as they can to become lifelong musicians? Besides, you never know where the next Mark O’Connor or Natalie MacMaster is going to come from. Maybe one of your students?