Folk Fiddle Vs. Classical Violin Techniques

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Folk Fiddle By: Please log in to see tutor details
Subject: Violin » Folk Fiddle
Last updated: 07/05/2017
Tags: bowing technique, classical vs folk, folk fiddle, ornamentation

After reading John Dipper's article on the relation between classical violin and folk playing I found myself thinking more about this and how it related to my experience as a classically trained folk player and teacher. I feel lucky to have had the chance to start learning when I was young, and I know that my classical background has had a big influence on my folk playing. However I have always thought that this was not always in a good way, and I still feel that there are some aspects of classical technique that have definitely held me back from becoming a good folk player.  So this article seeks to highlight some of the areas in which classical training is very different from folk and is not always helpful when faced with learning a 'simple' folk tune. One can of course benefit from both approaches and this is (I hope) the case with me, and I try to address this in my teaching practice.

Firstly there is the simple truth that 'folk' is a massive area of great diversity and I shouldn't make sweeping statements about folk violin playing without highlighting the fact that, for instance, a Swedish Hardanger fiddle player is a long way, stylistically, from an Irish fiddler. With folk, especially one tends to develop one's own style and this is a good thing, though if you want to play with others in a certain folk genre then you are going to have to know something about, and be able to play, certain stylistic techniques. 

I am going to concern myself, in this article, with certain examples that I am particularly interested in, and hopefully know something about and I will confess to being a fan of Irish instrumental music and have become a reasonable player in this genre, but not exclusively, over the past few years. So the areas are:

1. Reading music - not a very folky thing. If you look at the tunes on paper, and try to learn them exclusively in this way you are going to play them wrongly! (yes, there is wrong, I believe, or if not wrong, then badly).  Feel, ornamentation, and bowing are rarely written down and if they are, it's usually not much help.

2. Bowing techniques - there are no real equivalents in the classical tradition to some of the bowing techniques encountered in folk music, especially Scottish and Irish fiddle music.

3. Left hand techniques - again there are no equivalents in classical repertoire that help with some of the ornaments. e.g. trying to substitute a mordent for a roll is not going to work.

1. When I first started playing folk tunes I did what many people will do and went and bought some tune books. This gets you going and helps you find some tunes you like and they often seem very easy compared to some of the classical music repertoire but what you don't usually get is any indication of how to make something of the tunes and play them with some appropriate style. For instance jigs. 6/8 time, lots of groups of 6 quavers to a bar. Soo..... How do you play that? OK so here is a stream of consciousness sentence to illustrate how much there is in just that one thing.

'The first quaver of each group of three should usually have a stress and the middle quaver is often very quiet leaving the impression that the last quaver of each group is also a little louder, giving a lift, or skippy quality to the jig. Also the quavers are not really equal in length either but are slightly swung with the first quaver being slightly longer (as well as louder) and the second quaver shorter. Not going as far as a dotted quaver-semiquaver-quaver pattern, like in some Scottish jigs but more subtle.' So, as you can see, this is very difficult to describe and really needs to be heard to be understood. When I play a jig rhythm to one of my pupils they hear straight away what I mean and can then try to replicate it, which is strangely tricky and usually I give some exercises to help get the feel.

Another simple example, in a reel, is the unwritten swung rhythm, usually only transcribed for hornpipes, but all reels are normally played with this 'swing'. 4/4 time with 8 quavers to a bar. Again not really a full dotted quaver - semiquaver (like a hornpipe) but like a jazz swung quaver. 

Ornaments are the name of the game for Irish tunes and only a few books of tunes make any attempt to notate these. There are many different ones: Roll, half roll, flick, bowed triplet, slide, and more! If you don't know how to play these then your Irish tune playing is rather lacking and they are not easy for the classical player to play convincingly. English, Welsh and Scottish tunes have their own variants too and are all a bit different. 

2. Bowing for folk music is the most problematic thing for most of my pupils, and I'm guessing for most people too. If you use your bow in a classical manner with strong tone and vibrato you won't sound right. Folk style bowing is generally more relaxed, using shorter bows and maybe more akin to Baroque. If you play more English improvisational style folk then maybe a more classical approach is going to sound ok and bow control is certainly an important part of all violin/fiddle playing but getting a good feel with folk bowing is a separate skill, in my opinion. Classical technique is often concerned with volume and full use of the bow whereas folk is more concerned with clarity and precision with a far more restricted use of bow length. Certainly with Irish folk tunes anyway. Bowing patterns are another important area and this is again not usually notated in books of tunes but is so fundamental to fiddle style. 

3. I have already mentioned ornamentation and this is the concern of the left hand (and bowing arm). I'm not going into individual ornaments here but no seasoned folk fiddle player plays a tune without at least some ornaments and Irish players often play more ornament notes than the notated tune! Some of the most satisfying moments of my folk career have been when I managed to perform an ornament correctly for the first time. Full rolls starting on first, second and third finger eluded me for a long time and bowed triplets are not easy to get sounding really crisp without quite a bit of practice. 

To sum up I hope it is now obvious to anyone wanting to take folk fiddle playing to another level, that they may need to look further than their classical training. There is a lot to learn if we want to execute a convincing performance of many folk tunes. OK, maybe your slow airs will sound better than your exclusively folky friends but I doubt your reels and jigs will without some further preparation. Do try though as I can't think of anything more satisfying. 

Paul Keeler Folk Fiddle Teacher (Norwich)

About The Author

I am an experienced folk fiddle player and teacher with a background in classical and folk traditions.

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