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Music, Quebecois Music

Fiddle practice, now with added winds

Just to check in on the whole fiddle practice thing, here, have a post about that, y’all!

Today my practice actually also involved winds, because I determined that I need to practice my arpeggios on my wind instruments as well as the fiddle. There are two goals here. One is to get better at recognizing those patterns in general, and the other is to get better at reproducing them quickly on my wind instruments, since those are the ones I’m most likely to be playing in session right now.

My main scales for fiddle practice, and their related arpeggios, are G, D, and A. These map easiest to fiddle strings tuning (G-D-A-E), and also, the vast majority of tunes at our session are in these keys. So they’re the ones I practice in the most.

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Hey Seattle locals, Folklife needs help!

Any of you who have followed me on a regular basis know that my household are longstanding fans of Folklife, the big four-day music festival that happens every year at the Seattle Center over Memorial Day weekend. This year’s is imminent, and as always, Dara, Paul, and I are looking forward to spending time there.

But I noted with dismay this morning that the Seattle Times has an article up saying that unless they get more donations at the gate this year, next year’s festival is in danger of being canceled. πŸ™

According to that article, Folklife usually only gets donations from about 17 percent of attendees at the gate, and they take in around $190,000. They really need to bump that number up to $350,000 in order to afford next year.

So if you’re in the area, you love Folklife and what it brings to our local culture, and you’re planning to go this weekend, please please please donate anything you can spare at the gate. They need your help. Also, if you’re not going to be able to hit the festival but you still want to help out, you can donate to them directly on their website.

Please spread the word to other area locals! And if you’re going to be at the festival, hey, look for Dara and Paul and me, and say hi if you see us!

Music, Quebecois Music

And now, a fiddle report!

I’ve mostly been talking about this on Facebook as of late, but for those of you who don’t follow me there, I wanted to do a post to get caught up on where I am with the fiddle lessons!

The biggest news here is that since I got promoted at work and got a lovely bonus to go with that, I went ahead and bought the 3/4-sized fiddle I’ve been renting for the past several months. Which of course means that I now need to update the official list of the Murkworks Household Instruments! And this fiddle also needs a name. I’ve been half-jokingly calling it “Rental” for a while, but now that I actually own it, not so much? I dunno yet. Unless I can come up with an amusing pseudo-French word for “Rental”. ;D

I also invested in a much better bow, a process which took rather less time than I anticipated–in no small part because Kenmore Violins had only four 3/4-sized bows immediately handy. (The rest of the ones they had in stock needed to be rehaired.) And the first one I picked up just sounded so very delightful, so I went YES PLEASE and bought that one.

Brought the new bow home and the jump in sound quality was immediately apparent to Dara–who, although she has hardly any fiddle experience either, does have an excellent ear. I am still very much a fiddle newbie myself, but oh my yes having a much better bow makes the experience of playing so much nicer.

Materials-wise, the new bow is a wooden one, vs. the carbon fiber one I’d been using. And I would not be surprised if it had better hair on it. Sound-wise, it produces a tone that’s much richer, smoother and… creamier, I guess. I don’t know if that’d make sense to people with more fiddle experience than me, but that’s what it sounds like to me!

I’m also much more able to just hold this bow. I’d expressed frustration to Lisa, and also to the owner of Kenmore Violins, that one of the issues I had with the CF bow was that when I tried to hold it properly, my pinky kept slipping out of place. So far this hasn’t happened with the new one.

I’ve used the new bow only a couple of times so far, but so far it seems like I don’t have to flail so much to find the proper amount to tighten it, either. Which I daresay will help with my consistency of general sound. The other frustration I’d had with the CF bow is that I was having a hard time determining exactly how much it should be tightened for play–because I was trying to go by what Lisa had advised during our lessons, except that it seemed like that bow wanted more tightening than that. I kept getting a scratchy, airy, overtone-laden sound, and I couldn’t tell whether this was because the bow was sub-par, my technique was sub-par, or a little bit of both.

But now I have a new lovely bow! So I can work more on my technique! πŸ˜€

As to what I’ve actually been learning: Lisa’s got me working on arpeggios at this point. I can more or less reliably produce the G, D, and A scales, and I’ve been working on the arpeggios in those keys as well, going through several simple exercises to practice the finger placements. If I’m feeling particularly ambitious, I also work on simple tunes. Mostly that’s still “Frere Jacque” and a bit of “Road to Lisdoonvarna” as well, just because I’m still not too good yet at doing string transitions at anything resembling proper speed. I’m still having to work on what Lisa has called “stop, drop, and roll”–the sequence of individual small motions necessary to jump from a note on one string to a note on another.

What’s made this more fun though is that Dara has started jumping in on practicing with me. Since I have specific exercises Lisa’s given me, Dara’s doing those with me, since she does have her own fiddle and a non-zero level of “whelp I might as well learn a bit more about this thing” interest. Dara’s also better than I am at string transitions–she can whip out a closer-to-credible “Lisdoonvarna” for example. But I’ve been sharing with her tidbits that Lisa’s been teaching me, such as the proper way to hold the bow, and what’s supposed to happen in terms of what angle you keep when you’re bowing. (You’re supposed to keep a straight angle. I don’t yet. I keep curving a lot and need to work on that.)

And yesterday when we practiced, we derped our way through the C and upper octave G scales. I wanted to do this in no small part because I wanted to see if I could pick out the opening notes of AndrΓ© Brunet’s lovely waltz “La fΓ©e des dents”. Which is in G–so I need C naturals in there. So I clearly need to expand the scope of my scales! But happily, C and second octave G use the exact same fingerings, just jump over a string. So that’ll be easy to practice.

I will also need to think about other keys suitable for session tunes. E minor, A minor, and B minor all come immediately to mind. If I can build up my list of scales, I can get closer to what I still do on the flutes to warm up to this day: i.e., work my way up through progressively higher scales. And I still have flute exercises ingrained into my subconscious that involve first doing a scale for a given key, and THEN doing the matching arpeggio. So I want to do that on the violin as well.

Relatedly, I’m finding that one of the very first exercises I remember playing in sixth grade band is popping out of the back of my brain again! That exercise works like this:

(Side note: WHOA there’s a WordPress plugin that does ABC notation! Which is how I did that bit of music up there! \0/)

The fun thing about that exercise is that I have a distinct memory of my sixth grade band playing through it like that, but then doing it again staccato. And boy howdy am I not prepared to do staccato on the violin yet. That’ll be for getting ambitious later!

ANYWAY… this is all exciting and I am now a fiddle owner as well as a fiddle student! I continue to have wonderful fun learning from Lisa Ornstein, and I do heartily recommend her for anybody in the Puget Sound region who wants to learn violin, particularly if you have an interest in Quebec trad or Old-Time music.

AND! Dara and I both will be heading up to Qualicum Beach this coming weekend for a fiddle workshop. Y’all may recall that last year I had an amazing time at the Andre Brunet workshop there. Well, all parties involved had such a lovely time that we’re doing it again this year. And this time I’m bringing Dara, because it’ll do us both good to hang out in a house full of musicians for a whole weekend. And this time?

This time I can come with a few more clues about the fiddle. Stand by for a full report, Internets. It’ll be AWESOME. πŸ˜€

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Fiddle geekery, and new question for the string players

(Doing this as a blog post instead of a post to Facebook, since this is really too long for a status update.)

Okay, so my monthly-or-so lessons with Lisa Ornstein have been going swimmingly. Yesterday I had another lesson with her, and we started talking about how to do string transitions so that I could start to do simple arpeggios and if I’m feeling really ambitious, really simple tunes.

The arpeggio drill has been good, letting me practice walking from the tonic, to the third, to the fifth, and then up to the octave, and then back down again. So yay!

We’ve also been talking about four types of string transitions:

  • Open string to open string
  • Finger on a string to open string
  • Open string to finger on a string
  • Finger to finger

And, Lisa’s advised me that when I’m doing scales in particular, and I’m coming down from an open string (the fifth) back down to the fourth on the string below, that’s an open-to-finger transition. And she’s got me doing a “stop, drop, and roll” thing that’s seeming to click well with my brain to try to make the scale as smooth as possible. I’ve just tried it today, and it’s gotten me the smoothest scales I’ve managed to play yet.

Then I tried to get a bit ambitious, and this is where the question for string players who follow me comes in.

I’ve been toying with “Frere Jacque” since it’s a real simple little children’s tune, and I figured playing with something like that to start with would be within my capabilities. So we did a bit of that in yesterday’s lesson, applying to it the same techniques I’ve done in workshops learning session tunes: i.e., breaking it down into pieces and thinking about how to play each piece.

I also asked Lisa when I should be changing bow directions, and she told me, I should change direction when I change notes. (IMPORTANT NOTE: I already know just from observing fiddle players in session that there are plenty of times when this is not in fact the case, and just from screwing around on my own instrument, I discovered that oh okay playing a bunch of notes on a single stroke is apparently how you do slurs? But for purposes of this question, I’m assuming I need to keep it simple for my newbie self and stick to “change directions when I change notes.”)

Given this, and given breaking “Frere Jacque” down into its constituent pieces, it seems to me like the bowing pattern gets a little weird and I’m not entirely sure how to handle it. The pieces look like this:

1st piece: Fre-re Jac-que, Fre-re Jac-que (Down-up down-up, down-up down-up)
2nd piece: Dor-mez vous? Dor-mez vous? (Down-up-down, down-up-down)
3rd piece: Son-nez les ma-ti-nes, Son-nez les ma-ti-nes (Down-up-down-up-down-up, down-up-down-up-down-up)
4th piece: Ding-dong-ding, ding-dong-ding (Down-up-down, down-up-down)

So it’s the 2nd and the 4th pieces that are confusing me a bit, because those are tuples, not doubles. And I can’t do two down strokes in a row, right? So should I go down-up-down, up-down-up? That would seem like the right thing to do, but I am not a hundred percent sure.

Any string players want to advise me?

Music, Quebecois Music

Fiddle geekery, October 2016 edition

This past weekend I had my latest lesson on the fiddle with Lisa Ornstein! We’ve more or less settled into a “once a month” kind of schedule, which is working out pretty well. And it’s a nice long lesson, too. Which is good, because if I’m going to drive all the way down to Olympia, a couple of hours of learning time makes that drive very, very worth it.

Lisa has told me some very gratifying things about how, since I have a bit of an analytical mind, this is standing me in good stead when it comes to understanding the various aspects of playing the instrument. And I certainly have to admit that coming at this as an adult student with a prior musical background is speeding things up a bit–Lisa only has to teach me the physical aspects of playing the instrument. She doesn’t have to teach me how scales work. We just have to focus on how to hold the instrument, how to hold the bow, and how to make noises that don’t suck.

I haven’t been practicing as often as I should, probably. (This is what happens when I have a full time day job AND I have writing to do!) But I do try to pick up the fiddle at least every few days and work my way through scales, and review how to hold the bow properly. We’ve wound up reviewing my bow grip at the beginning of the last couple of lessons, and this past weekend in particular Lisa had me move where I’m putting my thumb. I’ve had a bit of trouble getting it to settle properly on that notch between the grip and the frog–my thumb has a way of bending too much and coming in at a bad angle there. So Lisa had me move the thumb out to rest against the metal sleeve that holds the very bottom end of the bow hairs. She said this was often what Suzuki beginner students are taught, and during the lesson it certainly seemed to me like that gave me a more stable grip on the bow. Moving forward, I’ll be holding my bow like that and we’ll see where that takes me.

(More fiddle geekery behind the fold!)

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A bit more fiddle geekery

It’ll be a bit yet before I’m able to have fiddle lesson #3 with Lisa Ornstein, so in the meantime, here’s a bit of an update as to what’s going on with me and the instrument, for those of you who haven’t seen me geeking out about this on Facebook.

First and foremost, I switched out what instrument I was renting from Kenmore Violins–trading in the full-sized one for a 3/4th sized one, as had been recommended to me by Alexander James Adams! This turned out to be a very wise choice. The issues I have experienced getting my left hand into the proper angle go away when I handle a smaller instrument. There’s a slight twist to the left that you need to do with your left hand to get it into position, so that your fingers can land correctly on the strings. (This is what you get for trying to play an instrument you hold at an angle out from your shoulder, as opposed to perpendicular or parallel!) When I try this on a full-sized fiddle, it is actively uncomfortable. On the 3/4th sized one, it feels a lot more natural.

The proprietor at the shop told me that in his experience, more adult players should play 3/4th sized instruments than actually do! He told me about a quite small woman, just under five feet (so quite a bit smaller than me) who was giving herself bad hand pain trying to play a full sized instrument. When he encouraged her to switch to a 3/4th, that was much easier on her. So yeah. πŸ˜€ I’m a fan of not hurting my hands–I need them to type with after all! Not to mention playing my other instruments.

And now that I’ve got a smaller instrument, I can move forward with actually learning how to make coherent noises on it.

So far this has mostly involved trying to do scales. The fingering is familiar to me, since I have prior experience with the mandolin, which is tuned the same way. Which means that my main goals are a) getting used to where to put my fingers without the use of frets, and b) getting used to the motions of the bow.

The first of these has proven so far to be less difficult than I expected! The lack of frets on a violin has always been one of the things that’s intimidated me about it. And while I do know about how many beginning students put tape on their instruments to mark the proper locations–Dara’s fiddle has such tape on it–I’ve also read about how some students get by just fine without it. The reasoning here is that if you don’t have the tape, you rely less upon the visual cue of where to put your fingers, and more upon muscle memory and the aural cue of where your fingers have to go to make the notes actually sound right.

And given how one of my ongoing musical goals is to get better at training my ear, this appeals to me. So right now, at least, I’m trying to do without the tape. And as long as the fiddle is tuned correctly, I’m doing okay so far in finding the scales and figuring out exactly where my fingers need to land.

The bowing, on the other hand, is still a bit of an adventure. I can semi-reliably get a good clear tone off a bow stroke, but that’s only semi-reliably; I don’t have a good sense yet of how to always do that on purpose. Sometimes the noise I make is very squeaky. And sometimes I wind up hitting two strings at once, or hitting the one string in such a way as to generate weird harmonics.

But then, this is exactly why I wanted to engage a teacher! So now at least I have a real good idea of what I’ll be asking Lisa about at the next lesson. πŸ˜€

Because yeah, now that I have an instrument I can handle without pain, I do want to continue for a while with this and we will see where it goes! If all goes well, perhaps when I show up for next year’s Andre Brunet workshop in Qualicum, I’ll actually be able to bring a fiddle with me!

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Fiddle lesson #2 happened!

Today I took another jaunt down to Olympia to see Lisa Ornstein and have fiddle lesson #2. So far, most importantly, I am delighted to report that I am still enjoying the hell out of this, and that there WILL be a lesson #3. And I think the big thing that I took away from today’s lesson is that I need to give myself permission to be patient with myself–because this is not going to be a fast process. I’d like to get to a point eventually where I can play something coherent on a fiddle, but there’s a lot of groundwork that needs to happen to get me there.

So today, Lisa and I did more of that groundwork.

Bow hand

Lisa mentioned a few different ways that players can use to get their fingers into the proper configuration to hold the bow. What appears to work best for me right now is doing a “bunny” configuration, which involves sticking my thumb between my middle and ring fingers, which become the “teeth” of the bunny. My index finger and pinky become the ears.

Then I bring the bow in under the “teeth”, which land first. Then my index finger comes down. Then my pinky, curled so that it sits on the bow. And my thumb comes in to sit in that little notch between the grip and the frog.

And I will definitely have to tell the folks at Violon Trad Qualicum next year that I remembered “don’t crush the bird!” I.e., to try to keep that curl in my thumb. Although this may now become “don’t crush the bunny!” in my brain.

Once we got my bow hand settled, we practiced just moving the bow around in various ways. Pretending to stir soup, and, while holding the bow vertically, raising and lowering it. This is all intended to just get me used to how the fingers feel while holding the thing.

All of which totally reminded me of the conversations at Fiddle Tunes last year about fiddlers and their bows being very much like Harry Potter universe wizards and their wands. The urge to yell EXPELLIARMUS when I’ve got the bow up is strong. Or maybe LUMOS MAXIMA. πŸ˜€

And given that I set the Aubrey gif as the featured image of this post, I must also note that I even mentioned Aubrey and Maturin to Lisa, just because of being reminded of that lovely bit in Master and Commander when Jack and Stephen are playing together for the first time:

β€˜Did you notice my bowing in the pump-pump-pump piece?’ asked Jack.

β€˜I did indeed. Very sprightly, very agile. I noticed you neither struck the hanging shelf nor yet the lamp. I only grazed the locker once myself.’

I will count it as a victory if I manage not to hit the lamp.

Neck hand

This was harder. I have a pretty good idea at this point about how to get the instrument into place on my shoulder, but there are still challenges with getting my left hand where it needs to be.

Namely, trying to find the optimum way to hold the neck so that my fingers fall in a natural curve, and so that my pinky doesn’t wind up trembling because it’s trying to do too much.

Lisa says that this is a function of how I have pretty tiny fingers (which I knew already and which has proven a bit of a challenge on some of my bigger flutes). So we had to experiment some with how to hold the neck. We tried various thumb placements, as well as settling the instrument in my lap as if it were a guitar, which is more familiar territory to me.

We haven’t yet found the optimum way for me to do this. I’m going to experiment more.

Bringing the hands together

I did actually make a couple of noises, it must be said! There was some general plucking on the E string, just to practice landing my fingers in the general area of where they need to be to hit notes. I surprised myself a bit with not missing the frets as much as I was expecting, though having no frets did still wig me out a little. But I did manage to land the notes in the ballpark. Not perfect, but they didn’t have to be; I am, after all, a total newbie here.

But we did also get me to the point of laying bow on strings and playing a few open notes, just pulling the bow back and forth in short motions and then a couple long ones. Which began to answer some of the questions that have been bubbling around in the back of my head re: how exactly bow motion on the strings works. Getting to actually experience that was fun!

More experimenting will have to happen there, too.

Overall

I told Lisa about my medical history, which was relevant to the lesson in that it impacts how a lot of my back muscles, my shoulders, and the base of my neck tend to get cranky and carry a lot of stress. So we worked a lot on practicing being aware of my shoulders and neck, and how to stand and hold the instrument in a way that puts least stress on those parts of my body. And we talked about several exercises I can do to gently strengthen my abs, all in the name of laying more groundwork.

Because, important to note: what I’ve already learned because of my medical history about my pain thresholds and being on top of that has to apply here. If I start hurting my wrists and hands, or any other part of me, that means stop what I’m doing. Playing through the pain is not necessary, and not useful, and is in fact actively harmful.

And the other lesson here is this: it’s okay to go slow. I need to give myself permission to be patient, and not expect to get immediately to making coherent noises. If I want to play a tune right now, that’s what I’ve got the flutes and whistles for.

The violin is a totally different experience, though, and I need to give it the respect it deserves and proceed slowly and carefully. After all, I didn’t learn to play the flute immediately, either. Or the guitar.

This lesson even turned out longer than expected–but we covered a lot of ground, and made it worth it that I drove all the way down to Olympia for the afternoon. πŸ˜€ Very much looking forward to lesson #3!