The spring 2011 issue of AMERICAN STRING TEACHER contains my article entitled "THE POWER OF UNISON: A Method For Including Fiddle Tunes in Classroom String Programs". It describes teaching methods I have developed over the years which I presented in four workshops on American fiddling for German classroom string teachers at a conference in Trossingen, Germany in April 2010.
When you pursue any activity thoughtfully over a very long time, you naturally by experimentation and observation develop an understanding of patterns and principles relating to that activity. I have been teaching fiddling in private and class settings for over 40 years, always trying to find the best ways to connect to students and to help them develop their skills, knowledge and talent. A few guiding principles and techniques have emerged, and I use them to help students along in their path to musical expertise.
1) Fiddling is an aural tradition, so students should listen to good fiddle music as much as possible. Putting the music in your head by repeated listening is a necessary precursor to learning to duplicate the sound.
2) Every student is unique. The same method of teaching doesn't work for every student. If one method isn't successful, try another one. I often ask students what method of instruction works best for them; sometimes they already know.
3) Listen to students as they express their needs and concerns, and encourage them to listen carefully to your instructions.
4) Sometimes spoken things have to be repeated before they are understood. Make sure you understand what your students are saying and make sure they understand what you are saying.
5) If you both talk little and play much, more gets done.
6) Always have new tunes to work on, even when focusing on technique. That way your playing won't get stale.
7) Make sure students learn and retain something at every lesson.
8) Repeated repetition is vital. I repeat: repeated repetition is vital. :) :) :)
9) Information needs to get broken up into easily digestible chunks.
10) Most people are not good at multi-tasking. Focus on one small thing at a time, make progress on it and move on.
11) Students shouldn't feel that they have to achieve perfection at one thing before they tackle another. Different skills work together in a complex interaction, so you have to work on many things, focusing on one thing at any given moment, and they gradually improve over time.
12) Students should have several things to work on at home so that they don't feel like they are getting in a rut.
13) Fooling around on your instrument is essential to the creative process and developing a personal style, but in the earlier stages of learning to fiddle, ten minutes of concentrated thoughtful practice accomplishes more than an hour of "noodling around" or careless repetition.
14) When it comes to playing tunes, if you are reading notes, you are not fiddling. Real fiddling begins after the tune is memorized. (This of course does not apply to improvised playing.)
15) If reading notes helps you to memorize them, that's okay.
16) If learning by ear helps you to memorize the notes, that's okay.
17) Real fiddling is much, much more than executing a sequence of notes. It's an amalgam of notes, sound effects, rhythms, complex bow dynamics, phrasing, tonal shadings and something people call "soul" or "spirit".
18) These things can only be learned by lots of listening.
19) Students need to listen to lots of great fiddling by great fiddlers in order to get beyond the notes. It's like the old saying: if you want to see farther than other people, stand on the shoulders of giants.
20) One of the most challenging things about playing the fiddle is learning how to play in tune. Intonation is learned by extremely slow play and careful examination of pitch. When practicing intonation, never let a note go by without correcting its pitch. Some students have a better pitch sense than others, so it's the teacher's job to provide ear training. Playing out of tune over and over simply reinforces bad finger positioning.
21) In the early stages, students need to have lesson time and quality practice time devoted to mastering fundamental skills, one at a time. It's the teacher's duty to continually reinforce these skills until the student performs them automatically.
22) Speaking of fundamentals, in fiddling there are many workable ways to hold the bow and fiddle. Different methods are advantageous to different styles of playing. If it produces the right sound, it's okay for that style as long as it does not cause physical problems. I personally adjust my bow grip, violin hold, and vibrato style according to the type of music I'm playing.
23) Some of the key issues that need to be focused on initially and revisited as often as necessary are:
a) Developing a workable and comfortable violin and hold;
b) Developing flexibility in the finger, wrist, elbow and shoulder joints while playing; all parts need to move, nothing should be stiff;
c) Developing balanced movements during playing so that movements are efficient, free and easy;
d) Eliminating unnecessary body tension while playing;
e) Playing in tune;
f) Developing a good bow stroke and learning to keep the bow at a right angle to the string;
g) Understanding the relationship between bow placement, bow pressure and bow speed and putting this knowledge to work to produce good tone, whether loud or soft;
h) Memorizing the building blocks of fiddle tunes; scales, arpeggios and roll patterns;
i) Learning how to transpose keys by playing the same tune in different keys in first position;
j) Learning how to play any given first position note pattern in 2nd, 3rd and 4th position without changing keys;
k) Learning how to shift positions smoothly; and
l) Learning how to execute sliding movements tastefully and musically.
My obsession with old-time fiddling began in the late '60s while I was working on my Ph.D in mathematics. I was apprehensive about telling my father Paul Rolland about my interest in fiddling, but he turned out to be very open-minded about it and encouraged my musical growth in that direction. An outgrowth of our discussions was that he began writing a violin method based on folk fiddle tunes. He asked Norman Burgess, a Canadian violinist and fiddler, and me to provide authentic tunes to work with and he planned to organize them into an effective pedagogical sequence. The project was temporarily shelved while his major work "The Teaching of Action in String Playing" book and film series was being completed. His unexpected death in 1978 summarily ended the fiddle tune project. During the 1970s and 1980s I began fiddling professionally, and I taught lots of fiddle students. I organized fiddling classes for adult students through university continuing education programs in Tucson and Tempe, Arizona. I also organized many private fiddling classes for children in various parts of the Phoenix area. Over the years I developed and honed a classroom teaching method that has been very successful. This past April I gave four workshops on American fiddling at a conference for German classroom string teachers in Trossingen, Germany. In addition to wanting to learn about American fiddling in general, their special interest was in learning how to incorporate fiddling into the German string classroom curriculum. Most of the teachers taught the German equivalent of elementary and middle school aged children. I prepared and gave them materials (described at the bottom of this article) suitable for that age group, and I showed them how to present and teach the materials effectively. In this article I'm going to give you these materials and describe this method for teaching fiddle tunes to string classes that has worked so well for me over the years. You can use the materials and method as an adjunct to your normal classroom curriculum in which you teach the fundamentals of good string playing.
I want my students to be able to play the tunes from memory. I like to teach by rote with the aid of transcriptions as a reference for both student and teacher. I use both standard notation and tablature in my teaching depending on circumstance. Sheet music can help students who can read gain immediate playing access to the tune, but students need to understand from the outset that if they are reading, they aren't fiddling. Experience has taught me that students who learn by ear can usually memorize more quickly than students who depend on reading. But using sheet music gives the reading student immediate access to the notes and a reference they can fall back on if they forget a note or phrase. I sometimes start beginners off with a form of tablature so that they can "read" the notes immediately. Tablature simply tells the student what finger to use and what string to put it on. I use it as a temporary device for beginners until they know how to read standard notation. You can decide what works best for your situation. Reading vs. not reading is not a key issue for me personally, because my real job as a fiddle teacher begins AFTER the notes are memorized, when we can focus in on elements of style, nuances of bowing dynamics, getting the kids to create that unique "fiddle" sound. What IS at the core of my message for classroom teachers is that I want the student to get very familiar with the melody by repeated listening and playing, and having the group play in unison regardless of instrument. I want the students to be able to hear the tune echoing in their head. I encourage that by giving them a CD of my playing of the tune fast and slow, and also by asking them to sing the tune along with me, an old technique that Celtic musicians call "lilting". When working with simple versions of tunes that have lyrics, we sing the tune together, and gradually the students absorb general things about the melody such as whether it goes up or down at a certain point. If no lyrics are available, I just combine syllables/words like "doo", "doot" and "doodle" to express the melody and rhythm of the tune.
Here's an outline of how I like to teach fiddle tunes to classes.
BEFORE THE FIRST CLASS:
1) I select tunes to teach that are permissible (i.e., no copyright issues) and are suitable to the skill level of the students. If it's a mixed class also involving viola, cello and bass, I select tunes that would have reasonable unison sounding parts for the lower instruments. I usually teach fiddle tunes in their original keys but occasionally transpose keys for pedagogical purposes.
2) I write the tune down using Finale's PrintMusic transcription software and mark bowings, dynamics and chord changes. Since I play by ear and improvise freely, having the transcriptions prevents me from changing the notes and bowings that I teach from one session to another. I use Finale's automatic transposition feature to create unison parts in first position for viola, cello & bass if needed. The unison feature of this method creates a "wall of sound" that strengthens the students' awareness of the tune and helps them find the correct pitch. I carefully adjust the parts for the lower instruments to eliminate awkward octave jumps and to maintain continuity in phrasing. If a unison note for a lower part is troublesome and awkward, and if transposing a larger section of the melody up or down an octave isn't practical, I substitute a harmony note from the underlying chord. Unison melody parts for the bass often work out well, but sometimes are awkward and sound muddy, especially with faster tunes. In the latter cases I have the bass players use a pizzicato alternating "boom-chick" bass line that follows the chord changes. This bass part will sound much better on faster pieces, and it helps to underpin the melody with simple bass lines. When appropriate, I teach the bass players how to "slap" the bass. Even very good bass players tend to approach that style for the first time with extreme caution, and I have to demonstrate it on their instrument and coax them to "whack it really hard!!".
3) I make a digital recording of myself playing the tunes at normal and practice speeds.
4) I import the digital files to my computer and burn a CD of all the tunes for the course at both speeds. I arrange the tracks in the order I plan to teach the tunes so that students can listen to all the tunes in order at normal speed, followed by all the tunes at practice speed.
5) If circumstances allow, I send the digital sound files to the students over the internet so they can begin to listen to them ASAP and burn their own CD on their computers.
TEACHING THE FIRST TUNE TO THE CLASS:
7) I hand out the sheet music for the tunes and CDs to the students who could not burn their own copies in advance of the class.
8) I teach the first tune as soon as possible. If I'm teaching students who are complete beginners to their instrument, obviously sufficient time must be spent teaching absolute basics of handling the instrument, how to hold it, how to use the bow, how to make a good sound, etc. But my goal is always to get them started working on a tune as quickly as I can.
9) I like to begin a teaching session by playing the tune for the students at performance tempo at least 2-3 times, always starting with the reference (written) version, then often launching into more advanced versions and variations.
10) If the students can read well, I have them sight read through the tune a couple of times. Then I tell them to turn the page over so they can't see the notes and we work on it by rote. When they get frustrated because they can't find certain notes, I allow them to "cheat" for a moment and check the sheet music. If the students can't read or choose to learn strictly by ear (many do!) I respect their limitation or choice and teach by ear.
11) In teaching the tunes, I try to play much and say little. I rely on demonstration and sound to convey the message. I teach tunes in short passages that can be a note at a time, a few notes at a time, or a short phrase at a time, depending on their skill level. I play the notes for them on the fiddle or piano at slow tempo and then we all play it together. I want to give them a very clear and loud example to follow, and with large classes I sometimes resort to amplifying my fiddle or playing the tune loudly on the piano or keyboard with each hand playing the tune in octaves. We repeat this several times until I can hear that most students have acquired those few notes. Then I teach the next note passage the same way. Then I link the two passages together and we repeat that until most are successful at reproducing the notes. I continue that way until we can get through a major phrase. Most fiddle tunes follow an AABB format, so after learning the A part, we tackle the B part. After students can get through the B part, we play the whole tune together in unison at a slow tempo. We repeat the tune a half dozen times or so, increasing tempo with each repetition of the tune until it can go no faster without falling apart. It's a pretty intense workout. It is amazing to see the order come out of the chaos. Trust me, it will.
ADDING NEW TUNES IN SUBSEQUENT CLASSES:
After the first tune session most of the students will have the first tune stored in short-term memory. The next task is to move the tune to long-term memory. I encourage the students to listen to the tunes on the CD as much as possible and practice what they learned. That's one of the great benefits of the CD and the transcriptions. Some students will work at it at home, and others will just wait for the next class experience. Therefore, I begin each new tune learning session by having students review the more recently tunes. I move things along pretty quickly at rehearsals. I know this is a gradual learning process in which repetition over time is a key factor, so I don't let myself get bogged down in a search for perfection. Periodically I'll devote class time to reviewing older tunes so that students will retain those as well. At the end of the semester we give a "concert" by playing all of the tunes and invite family and friends to attend.
To help you to get started using the method, I would like to share a dozen tune transcriptions arranged in unison for violin, viola, cello and bass, as well as digital sound files for each of the tunes played at normal and practice speeds.
The tunes I prepared for use by the German classroom string teachers at the Trossingen conference (and now by extension, for your use) are listed below in the order I would teach them in: Boil The Cabbage Down, Soldier's Joy, Cripple Creek, Old Joe Clark, Over The Waterfall, Drunkard's Hiccups aka Rye Whisky, New Britain aka Amazing Grace, Red River Valley, Put Your Little Foot, Spotted Ponies, Animas Valley Waltz, and Jawbone. Most of the tunes follow the AABB format. NOTE: four of the tunes have more elaborate arrangements.
Boil The Cabbage Down starts with a simple beginners version using only quarter notes and half notes--> a version more like the way one would sing the lyrics with some syncopation (dotted quarter notes and eighth notes)--> simple beginner's version using the shuffle bow pattern--> a more difficult shuffle stroke bluegrassy version using drones and double stops--> a "romp" through the tune using elements of Texas and contest styles of playing. This arrangement was done for the personal benefit of the teachers, so they could try out different ways to play the tune. New Britain (the melody of Amazing Grace) moves through the keys of F, G and A. It's a good way to introduce the concept of transposing to students. Red River Valley is another exercise in transposing and moves through the keys of C, D, G, and A. Finally, Soldier's Joy starts with a simple beginner's version using only quarter notes and half notes--> a slightly more difficult version using half, quarter and eighth notes--> a fairly standard fiddler's version.
I hope you will find the method
and materials useful. If you
contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org I will send you the urls to get free
downloads of the Finale files and the digital sound files. I encourage you to try them out and
give me your feedback. By the way,
the method will work equally well with tunes of your own choosing, but then you
will need to generate your own customized materials, namely written
transcriptions and sound recordings to distribute to the students.