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Fiddle me this…

As some of you know, I have an old fiddle at home and I’ve been messing around with it, trying to learn to play. That’s more or less how I approached clawhammer banjo and while it may not have been the most efficient approach, I’ve been doing OK I think. Fiddle, however, caused me problems from the start. I really didn’t know how to go about it and my constant early failures were daunting.

I’ve played banjo with some ace fiddlers and listening to them play at close range, it seemed like something impossible. Could they all have done a deal with the devil? Unlikely, right? Are some people just born to be fiddlers? Well, I don’t know. Maybe some people have an early aptitude and have had an easy time of it, but most good musicians I know got that way because they work really hard at it for a long time. I suppose the exceptions are prodigies who at a very young age can make remarkable music, but let’s put the prodigies aside for now.

I thought what I need to help me get going on fiddle is a teacher. My idea was to get help building some technical chops early on and take it from there. As well, seeing a teacher on a regular basis also helps build discipline, right? You want to succeed and show your teacher what you’ve accomplished.

Then my brother sent me a link for an online fiddle course which looked really interesting. The course was devised by a neuroscientist, who has worked for many years on how people learn, and has used the learning of music as a workshop to demonstrate his ideas. This guy is Josh Turknett, the guy behind the “Brainjo” approach to learning banjo. Just as interesting is the primary instructor for the fiddle course, who is Adam Hurt. I’ve met Adam at Midwest Banjo Camp, taken some of his classes there, and also participated in jams he led in which he played fiddle. Adam Hurt is a really top tier player and based on my limited experience is also an articulate and thoughtful teacher. For this reason he is a sought-after teacher at camps and also for individual instruction.

The course, which you can read about online, is made up of many short modules, breaking down learning into small chunks. These increments become building blocks for playing fiddle. It’s taught by ear, which is the fiddle tradition. The course material suggests that one reason people fail at learning fiddle is they try to learn it using a classical violin method which emphasizes learning to play written music.

Fiddle for All is affordable (less than the cost of a coffee per day), and the first month is deeply discounted. I decided to jump in and give it a go. I’ve been at this for only a few days so far, and trying to do 3 or 4 twenty minute practice sessions each day. I’ve been working my way through a bunch of exercises and have yet to tackle a tune.

I did OK with the first exercises but experienced a hurdle when they engaged my pinky. My pinky objected. I found it difficult to make clean notes and accurate notes. However, I’m becoming more comfortable using it and it is sounding better, although I still find it somewhat difficult. I think it’s worth the effort to train my pinky to join in the fun so I’m working at it. . I’m also finding it somewhat difficult to bow two strings at once and achieve pleasant and consistent sounds. More stuff to work on.

From very early on, Adam has introduced slurs – playing multiple notes using a single bow-stroke. With the exercises, he asks us to play them one note per bow stroke, then two notes per bow-stroke, then 4 notes per bow-stroke. Where I am now, he’s introduced playing 1 note on a single bow-stroke followed by 3 notes on a single bow-stroke, and then 3 notes followed by 1 note.

The good news is that I can see progress already. I’m finding my way around, improving my intonation and my tone, starting to train my fingers to behave the way they ought to, and most importantly, I haven’t hit any walls I’m unable to break through. So far so good. I’m looking forward to sinking my teeth into some simple tunes soon.

Josh has set up a facebook page for adults learning fiddle, which I’ve joined. This includes the people in the course but also other adults learning to play. Good. Community can only help. As well there is now a forum to ask questions and learn from others.

 

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