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.

Friday, November 19, 2010

For Musicians - How to Keep Your Fingers Warm and Agile

     I play a lot of gigs outside in cold weather. I have a couple coming up actually. These are holiday events here, up north, in December. I’ve also played Punxsutawney as a strolling fiddler for Groundhog Day for several years running now. It gets cold in the winter. Fingerless gloves, although nice looking, make it hard to play an instrument. They also don’t really warm you up right to the fingertips. Here is a good tip for any musician out there who need to keep their fingers warm and flexible when playing outside in cold weather. It’s a trick I learned hunting and one that works well when applied to playing the fiddle.
     Get some of those hand warmers that come in the little orange and brown packages. They go by different names such as Hot Hands, Heat Factory, Grabbers. You can buy these at hardware stores and most major all-in-one department stores like Walmart or K-Mart. All hunting stores carry them. I’m surprised music stores don’t. They should.
     Here’s what to do:

     Wear a long sleeved sweater that fits snugly around your wrists. What you want to do is to warm the blood vessels in your wrists before it reaches your fingertips. Tuck the hand warmers between the cuff of the sweater and the inside of your wrists. Your fingers will stay nice and warm.

     Visit this blog again. I’ll be posting how to keep your pegs from slipping in cold weather - another common problem among fiddlers who play outside in the winter.

     If you like this tip please share it among your friends on Facebook. Thanks!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

How to Keep Your Pegs from Slipping

     Here is the recipe for Magic Powder
     That’s what I call it. That’s what the old timer who mixed some up for me twenty years ago called it. And yes, it works like magic!
     When the weather turns colder and we turn on the heat in the house, the air dries out. Our violin pegs and the peg box dry out as well. What seemed to hold in place just fine during the spring and summer all of a sudden doesn’t want to hold at all. Open the case and there you have it! The strings are totally loosened and maybe even the bridge has fallen down. Yipes! Here’s how to solve that winter problem of slipping pegs:
     You’ll need:

One stick of blackboard chalk
About a cubic ¼” of rosin - just a little bit
Pulverize both and blend well
Store it in a 35 mm film canister*
This should last you twenty or thirty years.

     You can get a 35mm film canister from your local CVS Pharmacy, or any place else that still develops film the old fashioned way. In fact, they’ll probably just give them to you.
     Loosen each peg one at a time. Using a Q-Tip or a bit of cotton, dab just a little bit of the powder on the peg where it fits into the peg box. That should do it. Put the peg back in place and tighten it up.
     In the spring when the weather turns humid again, you may find that the pegs become difficult to turn. Then you’ll need to clean the pegs off and use peg soap on them. More about that later. I’m going to go toss another log in the woodstove right now.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

"What's wrong with my bow!"

Question:  “There’s something wrong with my bow! I need a new one! This week when I practiced I sounded awful, all scratchy and weird! I even tried playing with my other bow and it sounded bad, too. Why would both bows go bad?”

Answer:  When a student comes in with a problem like this the first thing I do is play something using their fiddle and bow and see if I have the same problem. So I tried her bow on her fiddle. It sounded fine. I tried the other one. It worked all right, too. Then Elaine told me she had been to the doctor for TMJ - pain in her jaw. Aha! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: any tension in your jaw will work it’s way to your shoulder, down your arm and into your fingers. I had Elaine consciously relax her jaw which she had been tensing up on account of the jaw pain. Voila! Her “bad bows” immediately fixed themselves.

Appalachian Fiddle Mute

An Appalachian fiddle mute is a clip clothespin clipped onto the side of the bridge. An old-timer showed me this trick years ago and it does work. If you want to be really quiet then clip a clothespin to each side of the bridge. He showed me that, too.

Question: New Strings for my Fiddle?

A woman wrote to me and and asked:
Q:  I am getting ready to buy new strings for my fiddle which ones would you recommend? I usually use Dominant for the G,D & A and the E string is Gold Label.

A:  I've tried a lot of different strings. The one kind I don't use are the Dominant ones you mention. I don't use those because they take too long to break in (to lose the harsh tone and stay in tune) and then about the time they finally settle in, they're dead and don't sound good anymore. They also have a surface that doesn't work well if you like to occasionally or frequently slide on a note. I don't think they work well with fine tuners either.
     I have Super Sensitive Red on my outdoor fiddle because they're sturdy and stable and loud. I need that for outdoor gigs. But on my good fiddle, played indoors and out, I use Corelli Alliance Vivace - medium tension. They have a synthetic core but hold their tuning well and break in fairly quickly. I try different strings all the time but now only try those that offer a warm tone, have a medium tension and have a smooth winding. I'm not crazy about aluminum windings because they don't let you slide (bend notes) very well and with the style of fiddle that I play, I slide a lot. I have used Helicore and liked those but prefer a more buttery, warmer sound now. I loved Obligatos! But they price is sky high and they way I go through strings, I couldn't afford them anymore. Oh, well.
     As far as E, I stick with a gold one - less tendency to rust and get corroded. Forget gut strings unless you're a re-enactor into authentic sounding music.. They just don't hold their tuning. When I was a kid - that's all we had. Tried them once as an adult and hated them. Corella's and Obligatos sound much like gut in my opinion. Hope this helps you - I do buy strings from Woodwind and Brasswind - Strings division.  This is the link to their website: They have a very wide selection and good prices. Just don't order anything from them that is not currently in stock and ready to ship or you end up waiting forever for it (my experience with them.) Other than that, it's a great place to buy music stuff.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Ask a Question? Yes!

     If you have a question about playing the fiddle, learning to play the fiddle, or anything related to it, feel free to ask me a question.  I'll do my best to answer it right here - on this blog - for FREE!  And if I don't know the answer, I'll try to point you in the right direction.  Visit my website http:/ for more about the fiddle including legends and lore and free easy to learn songs written in fiddle tabs (for those who don't read music.)

Can I Trust My Ear?

     My first violin teacher put three thin strips of masking tape on my fingerboard. He told me that they were a guide so that I would know where to put my fingers to make the notes. Back in those days we started with the key of G. He showed us how the second finger on the A and E strings didn’t go on the second piece of tape to make the right note – but it went in the space just beyond the index finger. I was six years old. When I was seven the tape was removed. I had the fingering for the key of G down pretty well, and we moved on to the other keys. Although Mr. Ferrante would show me, as well as tell me, where the notes for each particular key would fall I was pretty much on my own for pitch. I had to trust my ear to match it exactly. If I was off pitch, Mr. Ferrante would plunk the piano and look at me with a pained face, which was my cue to listen to myself and move my finger accordingly till the pitch was right. Sometimes he’d say, “You’re flat.” or “You’re sharp.” But he never did specify exactly how flat or sharp I was. He never did say, “I think you should slide your finger 3/32 of an inch up.” He trusted my ear. I learned that my ear was trustworthy.
     I use the same method in teaching fiddle. At times, especially in the heat of the summer, a beginner student will begin to play a tune and find that certain pitches are off the mark. They say they can’t understand why that would be. They are putting their fingers right on tape, or in between, but some pitches are off. “Just last week I played and everything was fine!” I’ll take a look, see that 90 degree heat and sweaty fingers had caused the tape to slide, point that out to them and then say just like Mr. Ferrante, ‘The tape is just a guide. Trust your ear.” Sometimes I just take that piece of tape off altogether, kind of like removing the training wheels on a bike, and then say, “Now trust your ear.”
     Only once in my many years of teaching have I had a student who really seemed not to be able to hear bad pitches. I also found that he sang “Happy Birthday” and “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” pretty much all on the same note. After just a few short months he gave up on the fiddle and thought maybe a fretted instrument might be better.
     For the most part, though, we can discern pitches. We can tell when a note is right and when it is not. We can tell a harmony from a discord. As babies we learn how to speak by trusting our ears even before we know what that really is. We copy what we hear.
There are times when a more advanced student is playing a tune (the tape being long gone) and they will consistently hit a wrong note, then stop at the end of the piece and ask me, “Why doesn’t this sound right?” I always give them praise for knowing that a certain note was wrong, and then we go through the piece again, discuss the key, the notes of that key and where those particular notes are found in the key. We play a scale. Play the tune again. Problem solved.
     Upon occasion a student will come in all in a dither from a busy day, start to play a tune and find that the pitches are all over the place and it just doesn’t sound as good as when they were home the night before playing. I tell them to close their eyes and play. “Trust your ear.” It seems that with the eyes closed we can focus better on just sound as well as pitch. Even if a violin fingerboard had built in “lines” for each individual pitch, our eyes just can’t see exactly where we should press our fingers for just the right pitch. For one thing the size of people’s fingertips vary greatly. No matter. There is still just one point where each fingertip will stop the string to make the note we want to make. I love when I hear a student make a lickity split adjustment to a bad pitch and get on the right one. If you can hear when a note is bad, you can trust your ear well enough to make it right.
     This is the foundation of fiddle playing. First learn the notes and learn how to make the standard notes (notes found on a piano) then go on to the real art of folk fiddle – the subtleties in between the notes!
     For learning to speak – we copy. For singing – we copy. For playing a fiddle tune in a certain regional style – we copy. We hear what another fiddler played and copy. If a note was played intentionally slightly flat, slid up to, or slid back from, we hear that and copy. And how do we do that? We trust our ear. First of all, we’ve trusted it when we heard the deviation from straight-on-note playing. Then we trust it again as we mimic what we heard.
In fiddle playing a main difference between soulful playing and a sound akin to electronic music is that the fiddle players rely on their ear for what they hear and for the notes produced.
     Can you trust your ear? Yes! And so you should.

     Helpful hint: To help with pitch control, try recording yourself and listen back for bad pitches. Beginners sometimes concentrate so much on the mechanics of playing, they forget to listen to themselves. Play the tune again, eyes closed if necessary, and
hear how you do.

What Do You Do with a Drunken Fiddler?

     You’ve been practicing those tunes and jamming for years. You know how to play nicely with others and you have enough tunes under your fingertips to play for a full hour without repeats. You have a reliable vehicle, proper clothing, and keep your fiddle and bow in good working order. Someone just offered you a job – a gig – to come play your fiddle. They offered you money. Will getting paid for what you’ve been doing for fun all these years take all the fun out of it?

     This question recently came up in my corner of the woods when a club where a group of musicians and I sometimes jam, offered us money if we would set a date and play music. Up till now the compensation has been dinner and drinks for the players and their spouses.

     Because of the band’s popularity when they did play there, the club offered to pay us. I said, “Great! How much?” (The rest of my thoughts to the bandleader’s words are added in parenthesis like this.)

     The spokesman for the band said, “That’s not the point. We don’t want to take any money because that would take all the fun out it. (It’s always fun to play there.)
      “For one thing once you start getting paid to play music you’re obligated to sound good.” (We must sound good already or they wouldn’t want us back.)

     “What if we make a mistake?” (It happens. A professional learns to cover for the others in the group as well as himself. Never let them see you sweat.)
      “We’d have to make sure we were there.” (If we say we’re going to be there- we should be there.)

      “Most of us have day jobs and have to be professional all day. We get free drinks at this place – and we like to relax and have a good time.” (Aha! Demon Rum! Now I’m no goody two shoes when it comes to tipping a few but I don’t drink when I’m performing because it’s just too hard to play easily and for me that takes all the fun out of it. Drinking after that gig is out as well because I have a thirty mile drive home.)

      So I guess what the band leader was saying was that if we were to all of a sudden get paid like a bona fide band we’d all of a sudden have to make sure we showed up sober for work, stayed that way, did what was expected of us, played well and didn’t slack off. What’s wrong with that? Paid or unpaid, that’s how I’ve always treated a gig.

     There is sometimes the mistaken notion that money spoils the soul of the artist. It doesn’t. If anything it should help relieve some of the stress associated with being a musician or artist. It helps support the artist. Back in the old days the itinerant fiddler was supported by the community in which he traveled. Better he should be offered room and board and keep the music coming, than have to hang up fiddle and bow and get a day job. These days a musician’s pay helps pay for strings, equipment, gas for the car, health insurance, food, housing and all the other things that normal people (people who aren’t musicians) are able to get because they go to a day job. Musicians, who get paid, get to keep playing music as their “day job” and because of that they get better at it. They become “professional,” a word that carries a lot of weight in any other trade or discipline. Somehow musicians have gotten the mistaken identity of being happy to be paid in drink instead of cash while they’re on the job. This doesn’t make much sense when you substitute other trades for “musician.” Would you feel comfortable paying your electrician in alcohol while he was working on your house? How about your dentist?

     Volunteer fiddling for a good cause or just to make folks happy is always in order. “Freebies” are also in order upon occasion and can be a lot of fun. The freebie without the set-list and the open jam session can be a good place to try out new material or a new technique without the pressure of having to perform perfectly. But turning down money just so you can get drunk and slack off instead of playing well? To me that makes no sense. The fun in music starts with good music and after all is said and done, that’s what it’s all about. 

     It’s very seldom that playing music for pay or for free is not fun for a musician. One is the same as the next and the quality of the playing should never fall into a direct proportion to the amount of cash connected with it. Given away or handsomely compensated, the music coming from the true musician’s soul is most likely the best they have to offer.

Perfect Placement - Soundpost adjustment

     The soundpost of a fiddle is that little stick of wood inside the instrument that transfers the vibration of the strings through the bridge and throughout the body of the fiddle. You can see a soundpost by looking into the f-hole on the E string side of the fiddle. Is a soundpost necessary? Yes. Is it necessary to have the soundpost set in just the right spot inside the fiddle? Yes. It is if you want to sound good.

     Soundposts are not glued into place. They are set into place by means of a special tool either homemade or store-bought. It is the pressure of the top of the fiddle and the bottom that mostly hold it in place. String pressure also works some to hold it in place. Upon occasion a person might take all the strings off their fiddle at the same time. Sometimes the soundpost will stay put. Sometimes it will fall over. Many of us fiddlers have had the experience of picking up an instrument and hearing a rattle within only to find that the post has fallen over.

     Cold temperatures can also cause a soundpost to fall. The cold shrinks the wood on the fiddle and the pressure is lost. The soundpost falls over. Or the cold may cause the wood of the pegbox to shrink. The pegs become loose, the strings become loose – and the soundpost falls over.

     You should not try to play a fiddle without a soundpost. Some people believe that the soundpost is like a stud in a load bearing wall in a house. It helps hold the ceiling up. I say “some people” because I talked to one luthier once who said this was not true. Most of the others said it was true. Common sense tells me that it makes sense considering the amount of pressure that four strings tuned to concert pitch make. To be on the safe side should your soundpost ever fall over, loosen the strings somewhat and get the soundpost reset before you tune up.

     Can you set it yourself? You can try. It takes the patience of a saint to do so for the inexperienced person, but it can be done. In this article, I won’t go into how to do this. From the been there – done that department I can tell you that although you could try to do this yourself you will greatly appreciate the talent and knowledge of a professional violin repair person who really knows their stuff when it comes to soundposts.

     Over the summer one of my good fiddles took on an awful raspy sound. It sounded like it had a cold or had been at some close football game and spent three hours shouting. The strings were fairly new and broken in but the bridge had warped. I knew this wasn’t good so I took it to The Shop to see what could be done. The man at The Shop suggested I put on an adjustable bridge. I had one, handed it over and he set it right for me. He tried the fiddle, looked inside and asked if I would want him to reset the soundpost. I had got the fiddle at a flea market and since it wasn’t rattling inside, I tuned it up. It sounded ok.

     Many years ago I had opportunity to watch a show on TV about soundposts. A demonstration of just how important the soundpost is to the overall sound of a violin was given. (The show dealt with concert violinists and their instruments.) When the post was moved a little one way – the violin sounded bright. Moved a little the other way and the deeper tones came out. Eventually just where the post was set – as long as it was about where it should be – became a matter of personal preference. The man at The Shop tweaked the soundpost placement ever so slightly this way and that, each time playing it for me as I stood a room away, eyes closed so that I could hear the differences. When I finally said, “Yes! That’s it!” he handed it back to me. I played it and I’ll tell you – the effect was remarkable. That old fiddle has never sounded so good.

     It costs anywhere from zero to about $26 to have a soundpost set. The $26 price might seem a little steep but as one anonymous luthier said when asked what he charges:

     Setting soundpost: FREE
     Knowing how to set soundpost and adjust: $26.00

Rattlesnake Tail in a Fiddle? Why?

Some years back I was at a jam session and one of the local fiddlers, an old timer, wanted to have a look at my fiddle.  After turning it this way and that, plucking a couple of strings, and tapping the back of it, he tipped it a bit so that the light would shine inside. 
“Checking the label?” I asked.
“Yeah - and the post,” he said handing it back to me.  “But you're missing something.”
 “The rattles - you're s'posed to have a tail inside - make it sound better.  I got one in mine,” he said shaking his fiddle near my ear so I could hear.  Swoosh!  Swoosh! Swoosh!
I told a friend about this and that year for my birthday, there it was all wrapped up - the rattles of a rather large rattlesnake for my fiddle and me.  One year a different friend had got me a silk scarf to wrap around my fiddle.  He had traveled with the Gypsies in Europe and told me that legend had it among them that a silk scarf wrapped around a fiddle when it was put to bed for the night kept the evil spirits out of it.  I had also heard that a fiddle string tied around your big toe would make you a good dancer and that you should always borrow rosin.  Keep a store bought block for lending, but don't use it yourself or you could get your fiddle in trouble.  I have borrowed rosin on several occasions, but generally use my own.  My fiddle seems not to have suffered - knock on wood.
Now about those rattles -- is there a truth to this bit of folklore?  There are many justifications for putting a rattlesnake's tail inside a fiddle.  One is that because the rattlesnake lives in dry climates it is wont to be thirsty much of the time and will suck up all available moisture.  The foggy Appalachians caused all sorts of trouble with the gut strings of years past.  I tried them once at a gig and took them off after the first set.  The finger fogs had grabbed hold of them and they just wouldn't stay in tune.  Today's strings don't have the same problem, but what about bow hair?  Would the thirsty spirit of the rattlesnake soak up the moisture that can flatten the hair to the stick on a humid night?  Not that I noticed, and that tail sat in my case for several years. Note, I said case, not fiddle.
From Texas comes the belief that a rattlesnake's rattle will ward off mice and rodents.  In Texas many times a fiddle was hung on the wall of the barn ready to go if the urge to dance hit the workers all of a sudden.  Any mouse eying a fiddle as a good place to set up housekeeping was scared off by the smell of the rattlesnake even if it is was just its tail. Snakes eat mice.  Mouse smells snake.  Mouse looks for another place to call home.  In Texas if a silk scarf is hard to come by, a rattler's rattle will also serve to ward off any bad spirits.
Some folks in the Appalachians believe that the swoosh and rattle of the tail will make the music sweeter.  Mind you, this belief was here long before the existence of a PA system that could “enhance” the sound of a fiddle by tinkering with a wire and a bunch of knobs.  It's a whole lot easier to just drop a rattle in a fiddle anyways.
In North Carolina there is another belief that because the fiddle is by nature a feminine instrument (which is another belief altogether) the introduction of a snake's tail made it masculine - or manlier.
One day when I was sitting out back on the swing, playing away with the fiddle tucked under my chin, right up close to my face, a big black bug crawled out of the F hole.  It was an ant, but it could have been a spider.  Another bit of the legend says that if you put a snake's rattle inside the fiddle it will chase away the spiders.  The constant swishing motion of the tail in the fiddle works like a mini dust mop and keeps the cobwebs from building up.  Truth?
The rattlesnake's rattler sat in my fiddle case for years.  It served its time well.  Kids loved looking at it and hearing the rattle, jumping back and bravely stepping up to have it placed in their hands.  At times it seemed that this was the highlight of any show-and-tell about the fiddle session.  It wasn't until just this past year that I finally tried it inside the fiddle.
There was one night I sat down to play and my fiddle sounded crummy.  High, tinny, wheezy - hard to describe, but it just didn't sound so pretty.  It could have been a change in the weather.  It could have been me.  Not wishing to wait for the winds to blow from another direction I thought to go for the quick fix - snake's tail in the fiddle will make it sound sweeter, or so I'd heard.  Out of the case it came and into the fiddle it went.  I just poked it through the F hole then gave the fiddle a good shake.  Cool!  It swooshed, it rattled, it danced around inside.  Maybe it was just my imagination but after a few turns of a reel and jag of a jig, the voice did seem to clear up, kind of like it cleared its throat.
              A few days later I upended the fiddle and gave it a couple of shakes, as a way of showing a student that yes, indeed, there was a rattlesnake's tail inside.  There was also a great big ball of dust, fuzz, cobwebs and who knows what else all gathered up in a neat clump ready to pluck out with a pair of tweezers.  It's not often we think to dust inside our fiddles when we dust the outside and as the years pass it stands to reason that things can collect inside.  My reaction, “Well, I'll be darned!”  There might just be some truth to the tale after all.

Copyright Beverley Conrad 2002
All Rights Reserved
This article was previously published in the National Old Time Fiddlers Association journal.
If you would like to reproduce this article in any form other than for personal use, please contact me.