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Music

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. 😀 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. 😀

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!

Music

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. 😀

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:

‘Did you notice my bowing in the pump-pump-pump piece?’ asked Jack.

‘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. 😀 Very much looking forward to lesson #3!

Photos, Quebecois Music

My very first fiddle lesson!

On Saturday I had the great pleasure of visiting Lisa Ornstein for my very first lesson on the fiddle. And to my amused surprise, I didn’t play a single note on the instrument.

Yet I had a couple of hours of deeply satisfying conversation and instruction! So what did I do if I didn’t actually play anything?

A lot of exactly why I wanted to engage an experienced teacher: i.e., a lot of going over the overall anatomy of the instrument and the bow, to talk about what goes into making them and how they work. And a lot discussion of proper stance, both sitting and standing, and proper ways to hold both the instrument and the bow. I very much wanted to sit down with someone who knew what they were doing to go over this stuff, just because the violin does intimidate me a bit, and taking the time to examine it in detail helps address that problem. If I know something, it becomes less scary!

And as part of trying to make all that discussion stick in my brain, I’m writing it up now for all of you! There will also be pictures!

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Music

In category Simultaneously Exciting and Terrifying

So y’all know how I’ve been talking about going to things like Fiddle Tunes, and the Andre Brunet workshop in Qualicum, and how I’m desperately wanting to go to Camp Violon Trad? And in general kind of being sheepish about it because hi, not a fiddle player?

Well, um, yeah. I might be about to change that.

Because here’s the thing: those wonderful instruction experiences I’ve been having, in which I’ve been able to crash the party and slurp up tunes on my flutes while all the fiddle players are getting tips on technique and such, have been percolating around in my brain. My brain which, I might add, has always been partial to the fiddle. There are reasons Kendis is a fiddle player, after all.

Reasons like how several of my favorite musicians at this point are fiddlers (Bob Hallett of Great Big Sea, Alexander James Adams, the aforementioned Andre, Olivier Demers of Le Vent du Nord, the amazing Lisa Ornstein, Jocelyn Pettit, and of COURSE all the excellent fiddlers in our session group).

Like how some of my very favorite recorded songs in the history of ever are ones where the fiddle just takes me right out at the knees (AJA’s “Faerie Queen” and “Tomorrow We Leave for Battle”, Le Vent du Nord’s “Manteau d’hiver”, De Temps Antan’s “La fee des dents”, and that one sweet piercing moment in the Raiders of the Lost Ark theme over the credits where one long lingering violin chord just shoots right down to my bones).

Like how some of my favorite fictional characters have been violin players. Especially this guy!

Captain Aubrey

Captain Aubrey

And Kili and Fili from The Hobbit, at least the book! (I am sad, SAD I SAY, that that detail was left out of the movies, but what music we did get in the movies was awesome enough that I forgive them that problem.)

And really, fiddle players are all over the goddamn place in fantasy novels. Any fantasy series that involves bards, you’re going to find fiddle players. Urban fantasy, too. Huff and Lackey and de Lint all come immediately to mind as having books that feature bards in prominent roles–and if the protagonists of certain stories are not themselves fiddlers, then somebody they know WILL be.

But also Sherlock Holmes. And Data is worth an honorable mention even though he was never one of my major favorite Star Trek characters–I AM a Trekkie, so he gets to count!

And all of this has finally exploded in my brain with a huge urge to see if I can actually learn how to make noises on a fiddle myself. I have in fact been moved to rent an instrument, and I have now engaged the aforementioned Lisa Ornstein for at least a couple of initial beginner-level lessons. The plan here is going to be, see if I can get used to the physical mechanics of playing the instrument, with the help of an experienced teacher. And, depending on how that goes, then decide if I want to seriously pursue taking it up as a second melody instrument.

Because yeah, I really need the help of an experienced teacher here. Flutes and whistles, no problem, I can play those! Self-taught on the guitar? ON THAT. Sprinkling of mandolin and bouzouki, sure why not!

But the fiddle is its very own strange and wonderful beast, one that fills me with simultaneous awe and dread. Dara found me the perfect GIF to express what goes through my brain when I think of trying to play one without help.

This is About Right, Yep

This is About Right, Yep

Now, though? Now I’ve actually gone to Kenmore Violins (which, as it happened, is run by a gentleman who even lives in our neighborhood), and I’ve rented me a student-grade fiddle.

And I’ve arranged to go see Lisa Ornstein this weekend!

You guys. This is going to be FUN.

All hands: BRACE FOR FIDDLE.

Quebecois Music

Andre Brunet Fiddle Workshop, February 2016!

This past weekend I had the very great pleasure of being able to attend a small fiddle workshop featuring André Brunet of De Temps Antan! The workshop was held on Qualicum Beach, at the home of the same wonderful couple who hosted the house concert I attended in August 2014. And I was overjoyed to be invited to come back up to Qualicum for this–because as I’d written in that post, for the chance to learn from André, I’d do that long drive again in a heartbeat.

You will notice that this was a fiddle workshop, and that I am still not a fiddle player. But I am a flute player, and moreover, just hanging out in a fiddle workshop was valuable to me as an exercise in hearing assorted tunes broken down into smaller phrases. Even after a few years of trying, I still struggle to keep up in a full session environment. So it’s hugely helpful to hear someone break a tune down into bits that I can then try to reproduce by ear. It works in my brain the same way that trying to read French does. I.e., it lets me better understand the overall structure and feel of a tune. So I will be leaping all over any tunes workshops I can get.

And you guys, this past weekend? Amazing.

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Quebecois Music

Album review double-header: Celtic Fiddle Festival

Being the raving fangirl of Quebec music that I am, I’ve happily identified several skilled musicians who are now well and thoroughly in the category of “I want to purchase every single note these people EVER RECORD EVER”. And very high on this list is André Brunet!

I didn’t know it at the time, but I first discovered André when I saw La Bottine Souriante perform for the first time. And when I brought home the album Rock and Reel, one of the tracks I fell most strongly in love with was “Autumn Sky”–which I know now of course as “Ciel d’Automne”, one of his earlier compositions. These days, he’s one third of the fantastic trio De Temps Antan, who I’ll be scampering off to see perform in Canada in one more month! (Of which there WILL be extensive coverage, O Internets, and as many pictures as possible. With mammoths!)

But only in the last few weeks have I learned that he’s also a member of a quartet called Celtic Fiddle Ensemble. This group just dropped a brand new live album, Live in Brittany. This was reviewed by Hearth Music right over here, and on the strength of that review plus André Brunet, I snapped this album right up. In the process I actually wound up getting an older album of theirs as well, Équinoxe, because Loftus Music’s mail server kept mailing me confirmation mails over and over and they kindly offered me a complimentary CD for the trouble.

(And because the person I spoke with in email was so awesome about giving me that free CD, let me plug their site directly: they’re right over here! Seriously, go check them out and see if they’ve got something you’d like to buy!)

Anyway, survey says re: both albums: if you’re a fan of excellent fiddle, check these guys out. There’s masterful, expressive playing all over every single one of these tracks. You can definitely tell which tunes are Quebecois whenever André kicks in with the podorythmie, which of course pleases me immensely–but there’s plenty of goodness on the non-Quebecois tracks as well. And some of these tunes I actually recognize from hearing them played in session, which gives me, as a newbie session player, a particular little kick of pleasure.

Now, like it says on the tin, these guys specialize in fiddle. But their guitarist is by no means an afterthought. As I’ve come to learn in sessions, you don’t want more than a single guitar backing up the melody players–but this means that whoever’s on guitar has the responsibility to provide suitably skillful accompaniment. Rhythm and tempo must be maintained–and whatever chord line is getting hit, ideally, should be just as interesting to listen to as the melody. So that rhythm needs to not only support the melody, but sometimes provide counterpoint to it as well. And that’s not as easy as it sounds. I’ve tried it.

I was very happy to observe that the group’s guitarist, Nicolas Quémener, is absolutely up to the task of accompanying three master fiddlers. While André, Kevin Burke, and Christian Lemaître are over there laying down the law on their instruments, Nicolas lets fly with return fire on his guitar. You’d think that three fiddles versus one guitar wouldn’t be a fair fight–but with these gentlemen, you’d be wrong.

Équinoxe is an earlier album, dating back to 2008, while Live in Brittany is of course the brand new album. If you pick up both of them, listen to Équinoxe first, just because it’s fun to see how the group progresses from studio album to live concert album, and what happens as they get five more years’ experience between them. If you get just one, get Live in Brittany–but get one! Because wow, these guys can play.

Loftus has the live album right over here in both CD and MP3 form. Ditto for Équinoxe, here. You can find the older album on iTunes as well, and both are on Amazon, but honestly, since Loftus Music’s rep was so awesome to me–buy ’em straight from Loftus. You’ll be glad you did.