The fiddler who fiddles with this blog

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Selinsgrove, PA, United States
Beverley Conrad is a writer, musician, and artist who lives in central Pennsylvania. She's played the fiddle most of her life and has published books and once went on a book tour with her dog. She's currently working on a series of one hundred works of art of a dead fly to see where it goes, how it progresses.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Do It Yourself Fiddle Tabs

     There is an old saying that goes something like this:  You can give a man a fish and he will eat for a day.  You can teach him to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.  Over the years I have had many requests from beginner fiddlers to please figure out the fiddle tabs for different tunes.  Sometimes I already have the tabs on file.  No problem,.  I send them out.  Sometimes, it’s a pretty easy tune – so I figure them out, add them to the tunes in storage and send them out as well.  Sometimes it’s a tune I’ve never heard, an arrangement that I am not familiar with, or time just doesn’t allow it.
     Many times people write in and tell me that they have tabbed out many tunes and keep a personal file of them.  They print them out and have whole books filled with tunes that they wish to remember.  Many of my students do the same thing as they become more proficient at playing by ear.
     For fiddlers who haven’t become proficient at reading sheet music or just don’t know how to read sheet music for fiddle, tabs can be a great help.  If the tabs (fingering) are written onto the music page – you also have the timing for the notes as a reference.  Space doesn’t permit me to go through all the scales that a fiddler might use so I am including the most popular scale for the beginner fiddler here.  Another old saying is that a picture is worth a thousand words so here’s a picture:

            The names of the notes for the G major scale are (starting from the open G string – G A B C D E F# G (that is your third finger on the D string) A B C D (third finger on the A string) E F# and G (second finger on the E string.)
     What does # mean?  It means “sharp.”  I don’t want to confuse beginners with too much information here, but this means that your second finger or “middle finger” will be set closer to your third finger or “ring finger” than your first finger or “index finger” when placed on the fingerboard.  Allow me – another picture:

            The best test for this is to find a tune that you have always wished to play that at this point perhaps has been inaccessible to you because alas, you only have the sheet music for it.  See that it only shows one sharp # on the staff.  This means that it is in the key of G major.  Follow the diagram included with this article and try tabbing it out.  Does it work?  Were you able to play the tune – without music reading ability?  Great!  You will now fiddle for a lifetime!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Between Two Notes - How to Practice

Sometimes when trying to learn a new tune we stumble repeatedly over a certain group of notes, or section of the song.  It sometimes happens that after repeatedly messing up a section of a song while trying to play it, we actually learn to play that part wrong.  We have unwittingly “practiced” in a mistake.  Here’s a tip for how to clear up this problem. 
 Find a place in the tune where you stumble or stall or have trouble going from this note to that.  For example, from the third finger on A to the second finger on D.  Play those two notes about ten times in succession.  Twenty times really locks it in.  You will never again have trouble with those two notes.
Maybe those two notes are with a group of four notes.  Add one of those four notes to the two you just practiced.  Play those three ten or twenty times.  Add the fourth note – play the group ten or twenty times in a row.   Go as slowly as you need to go to get them right.  This is an exercise in accuracy.   There is no point practicing a mistake.  Then play it a little faster.  If for some reason you’re still messing it up – go on to something else for an hour or two – doesn’t matter what else – a different tune, mowing the lawn, playing with the dog.  You need time for your brain to build up more of whatever it is it uses up when you’re practicing music so you give your brain a breather.
With music although we learn songs and notes and carry those in our minds, our fingers and hands learn the mechanical motion of playing those notes on an instrument.  A stumbling block in a musician’s fingering is always between two notes – not the whole tune, not even a whole measure.  As you go on to more songs you’ll find that certain groups of notes – certainly couplets of notes – show up over and over again.  So every time you learn one group, or couplet – it gradually becomes easier to get through a whole tune without so many struggles.  You’ve already learned most of the fingering for it.

One more suggestion is to never practice the whole tune any faster than you can accurately play all of the passages.  Sometimes we have a tendency to speed through the parts we know well, and then slow down for the parts we can't play as easily.  As you gradually increase your overall speed this can lead to once again, learning a mistake.  The speed of a tune is all relative.  You'll make the mistake of learning to always slow don for that one area, no matter how fast you eventually go.  Keep it even.  Bring the entire piece up to speed gradually as you get better at it.

Monday, November 7, 2011

My Dog Has Fleas

Which would be the tuning notes for a ukulele.  I've tried to teach myself ukulele but have never gotten very far with playing anything even passably on it.  Once again, too much of a learning curve to remember where the notes are for melody as well as chords which are totally different than those on a fiddle or a guitar.  I have too many years of being a one trick pony - just a fiddler - to try to add anything too different to what I know.

So today I had to got out to Harry the Vet's office to pick up flea dabber stuff because my dog has fleas. I threw my banjo in the car. If Harry is not too busy sometimes he'll play music.  He's a musician as well as a vet and has two guitars and a stereo record/cd player in his office as well as the things you need to take care of cats and dogs, maybe an occasional bird or guinea pig, but mostly cats and dogs. But for answering questions from people over the phone which rang a lot, it was a pretty slow day so I said, "Hey, Harry, I bought a banjo."  "Do you have it with you?"  "Yep.  It' in the car."  "Well, go get it!"  So I did.

Straightaway Harry sat down and started to play it.  Surprised me!  I knew he played guitar and clarinet but not the banjo!  I took note of how he was strumming it.  Right arm braced on the head, all four fingers strumming down.  Note to self:  learn to do that.  He started chording and plucking out notes, naming chords which I could see were wrong from how he was naming them so I told him about the difference between the Irish banjo and tenor banjo and how one was tuned like a fiddle.  He picked up the difference right away.  He knows a lot about chords.  As well as being a vet and guitar player he's also the band director for the local city band.

The phone rang.  Harry said over the phone, "Hey, Bev's here.  You know Bev.  She brought her banjo!"  I said, "Who's that?"  "He said, "My Dad.  He's on his way over."

Soon enough in came Harry's father.  91 years old and still getting around on his own!  Straightaway he sees the banjo and says, "Play me 'The Robert E Lee!'" which I know of, but I don't know how to play it.  But I do know how to play "Hot Time in The old Town Tonight" but not sing it, but can at least "Da da da..." the melody along to the chords which are pretty snappy.  So I played that.  Then I played "The Girl I Left Behind" - just plucking out notes, mind you, but pretty quickly nevertheless. Harry said he and his Dad will have to stop up to Purseil's and hear us play.  I'm going to learn "Robert E Lee" just for his Dad.  A challenge.  A goal to strive for.  Oh!  This banjo is great fun.

Then Harry got his tuner out and tuned my banjo properly and he said he thinks it's always best to tune a fretted instrument a wee bit flat - just a wee bit - because playing the frets makes you go a wee bit sharp.  The new tuners (old tuners but better than the compression tuners that were on this used banjo when I got it) were sticking a little so Harry went and got some sewing machine oil out of the back and we oiled the tuners.  They work better now.

Then I went home and put the flea stuff on my dog who is doing much better now.  Thanks for asking.  
     I bought a banjo.  It occurred to me on several occasions that although I can sing a few songs while playing the fiddle, a banjo makes a better accompaniment for singalongs.  Many years ago I was able to play the guitar but now the neck on a guitar is too wide for my left hand.  It causes problems when I go back to playing the fiddle.  It makes my hand hurt.  Oh, well.
     A couple of weeks ago I started looking up banjos on the Internet.  Although I had tried to play a regular five string bluegrass banjo over the years, learning the chords and trying to find the notes for melody picking always eluded me.  I was used to guitar chord patters and too used to finding notes on the fiddle.
     I looked up four string tenor banjo.  Fond that they are tuned CGDA same as a viola.  I can play the viola.  There's not much difference between playing a violin to playing a viola.  It makes for a nice change and a different sound and mood for certain tunes.
     Tenor banjo links lead me to Irish banjo links.  An Irish banjo is tuned GDAE - same as a fiddle.  Same as a mandolin although I do not play a mandolin because I don';t like the feel of the double strings.  The strings on an Irish banjo are thicker than those on a tenor banjo and the instrument is actually tuned an octave lower than a regular fiddle.  This is to make is easier to sing along with.
     I figured I should buy one.  Luke and I play a regular gig at Puirseils Irish Pub in Lewisburg, PA every Thursday night and lately people have been asking us to play songs that they can sing along to.  This Irish banjo - if I could learn to play it passably - seemed just the ticket.
     First stop -eBay.  But it occurred to me that I would be buying an unknown quantity and might have trouble returning the instrument if I didn't like it or if it just wasn't any god.  So I found one pictured online, a used one, c. 1920's at Schoolhouse Music in Danville, PA.  Scotty's been there for a long time.  Trustworthy.  He opens at 10 am I was there at the shop at 10:15.  Ten minutes later I had the Irish Banjo in it's falling apart case in my car. 
     The learning curve for this banjo, given as how I can chord on the fiddle - was nil.  Straightaway I could play a three chord tune in G major.  D followed quickly.  I could find the melody notes to tunes I already know on the fiddle.
     We have already started bringing it along a I have been singing along to it at the gig at Puirsels.  Luke sounds great when playing his tin whistle along with my simple chording.
So if you're a fiddle looking to find a relatively easy to play chording instrument, get an Irish banjo.  I'm just beginning to learn how to really play it.  Rough as it is now, it can only get better.  At least I can find my way around this one. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Learning how to Shuffle

     Learning how to shuffle without thinking about it can be daunting for the new fiddler.  Here are some pointers.  This is in response to a woman who wrote and asked for help.  She has a teacher, but wondered what advice I might offer.    
     90% of the music we produce from a violin (fiddle - same thing) is dependant on the bow and the use of it.  So many times people watch a fiddler's left hand thinking, "Wow!  Are they good!" because the fingers move so fast.  But it really is the right hand - the bow hand - that produces the music and the beat we respond to.
     I'm telling you this because chances are you have spent much time memorizing fingering patterns, which is good.  That is necessary as well.  But time must also be spent teaching your right hand (bow hand) the same motor memory.  In other words, start slowly, really slowly, and go through the bowing pattern, in this case the Georgia shuffle.  I suspect your teacher has taught you how to accent a note, how to play one note louder than the other.  If she hasn't, then ask her how one does this.  Accents must also be practiced with the bow hand because at some point you'll be going lickity split and that bow hand must learn how to play loud soft loud soft loud soft soft - whatever - at a fast pace.  Or slow, depending on the song.
     So to learn that shuffle, start slowly, but keep the notes even and to time.  Accent where you should, crossing the strings, changing the notes, going through the song or the exercise.  Only do this for about 10 minutes at a time.  Then take a break for an hour or two (day or two) before you go back to it.  Gradually pick up speed.  This is how to teach your hand to memorize.  Eventually, and this may seem light years away to you at this point, but trust me, eventually you'll learn to do this without thinking about it.  I actually remember where I was and when my bow hand started to shuffle automatically, just keeping up with the song but not thinking about my hand.  (I was jamming at the Jerseytown Tavern on the song Old Joe Clark)
     Just take it slow.  Keep it accurate and devote at least 10 minutes a day at a time to it.  You'll get it.