Studying Classical & Folk Technique is Beneficial

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Folk Fiddle By: Please log in to see tutor details
Subject: Violin » Folk Fiddle
Last updated: 27/06/2018
Tags: artist perfomance techniques, effective performance, folk fiddle, folk fiddle (violin), folk music

I teach both Classical violin and folk violin, and I notice that there is a widely held misconception that traditional and folk fiddle playing is a totally different - almost unrelated and substantially inferior technique.  It is often assumed by musicians approaching folk music having already trained in classical music that they should remove and substantially alter their technique, tone and posture in order to play folk music.  While it is true that there are fundamental differences to the approach of playing folk music, classical violin technique has evolved over hundreds of years to allow the violinist to be able to play almost anything on their instrument, and to start removing and debasing parts of this painstakingly learnt and perfected technique is totally unnecessary and akin to throwing the baby out with the bath water!  At the same time, it is also not harmful or detrimental to learn both styles simultaneously.  In fact, I would argue that studying both styles helps the development of the student’s musicianship, knowledge and approach to music immeasurably.

At a week of workshops I gave at one of the major music festivals this summer, it struck me how times have changed.  Even just a decade ago, many traditional musicians would have been easily identifiable by their poor posture, bad bow hold and indifference to tone.  However, there has been a sea change, with many more players coming through, having learnt classically, and with new avenues to progress along, including the folk degree courses at Newcastle University and Limerick University (both of which I teach on regularly).  This summer, out of the 60 plus participants in my workshops, the posture, technique and tone of all the players was considerably different and much more advanced than that of a decade ago.  There is now a real appetite to perform and play traditional music to the highest possible standard, and the whole traditional music scene is going through a renaissance, similar to that in the early music scene which has become so specialised and highly regarded, with its attention to virtuosity.

Having grown up studying baroque and classical violin, but also playing traditional music, I can see the benefits of both the classical and folk disciplines.  Almost every aspect of classical technique can be used while playing folk music, and I find that students who study both classical and folk music have a far more rounded and solid musical foundation and skill set.  

Although traditional music is often simple in its elemental form, this simplicity leads to an amazing choice of possibilities that the performer must make for themselves, often at the time of performance, meaning that ‘rehearsed improvisation' is actually being played, with the performer being hyper-aware of their performance and what they are giving to the music.  

In its simplest form, a 16 or 32 bar melody will only have six small elemental phrases to learn, yet the performer must develop a sense of how to play these repetitious gems without making them sound the same each and every time.  While classical music teaching can lead to a very analytical approach by both teacher and student, it is generally to a specific composer’s taste and wishes.  In traditional music, you have received the refined and honed cultural heritage of countless generations.  It is up to you to make it relevant and interesting for you and your audience, so that the chain remains unbroken, and that the next generation will identify its beauty and share their passion for it.

The discipline of gradually learning to spontaneous decisions about ornamentation, tone, bowing, volume, speed, articulation and intention, is incredibly complex, but develops the student’s ability to be an incredibly capable and aware musician.

Learning by ear helps to develop the analytical skills necessary to identify, isolate, perfect and perform the style and technique.  This new level of listening and concentration helps to develop the student’s ability to identify and self correct their playing, again leading to a faster-learning, more solid, musically aware and rounded musician. 

Through my work with the English Acoustic Collective, and the Summer School that we run each year, I have developed and perfected teaching techniques to nurture and allow students to take ownership of the music, make it theirs, to tell their story and convey their passion for it.

These skill sets immeasurably helps the student approach their study of classical music, as they have a much deeper awareness of the musical vocabulary, the choices they can make and how to perform the music and make it interesting for them and convey their story.  In turn, this investment in terms of skill, ability and emotional expression develops and fuels their enthusiasm for continuing to study the violin, as it is their story, their voice, their emotions, creativity and narrative which are being nurtured, encouraged and celebrated with each practice session and performance.

John Dipper Folk Fiddle Teacher (Salisbury)

About The Author

I've been teaching for over 17 years, and my knowledge, experience and enthusiasm combine to make me a much sought-after tutor. I regularly teach at the University of Newcastle, Goldsmiths and the University of Limerick on the BA and MA courses.

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