The Power Of Adding Variation

On The Endless Plateau

So you’ve learned the fiddle and can now play a bunch of tunes.

Do you feel like you’ve reached a plateau with your playing? Does it seem like you’re just going through the motions on a tune and it’s not sounding any better?

Adding variations to scales and tunes is a magic key to improving your technique and at the same time, bringing more joy into daily music practice.

Your hands and brain learn at different rates and in different ways.

Let’s say you’re learning a new tune, like Kerfunken Jig. Your brain will probably hear the melody before your hands have completely learned it. Your brain will get bored and nag you to do something fun and entertaining. “Go faster!” “Learn a new tune!” “Start learning another instrument!”

But your hands don’t quite have it yet. They are struggling on the second and fourth quarters of the B part. Your hands need more practice. You might even feel tension in your hands as they struggle and fumble in order to keep up with the brain.

The beauty of adding variation is that it will entertain your brain and develop your creativity. Once your brain is happily occupied, your hands get the slow, repetitive practice that they need to master whatever fiddle technique they are learning. 

Scales are your friends

When you have some kind of problem in your personal or work life, does it help to talk to an old friend? Do you find that by just talking about the problem, you start to see ways to solve it? Or perhaps you see that the problem is not really as big of a deal as you thought it was. And so you can accept the situation.

If you have ever found this process to be helpful, then I encourage you to look at scales as old friends. Whenever you learn something new, you can return to scales. They will help you to practice and learn that thing. The beautiful thing is that you’ll get even better at playing that familiar scale. It will be interesting again. And your sound will improve without any effort to do this.

If you practice different techniques on scales, then you might one day discover you’re doing the same thing on a tune without even trying.

Types Of Variation

I like to organize the different types of variation into families:

Think of scales as simple tunes. You get to know these simple tunes really well. Like old friends, your relationship with them will deepen over time. 

Environmental and practice variations:

Let’s start by adding some ‘environmental’ variations. This will open your mind to new possibilities with music and practice. Play with different approaches to how and where you practice:

  • Close your eyes
  • Alternate between sitting and standing
  • Move or sway as you play
  • Go to a different part of your home
  • Pay attention to the breath and body as you practice

Rhythmic variations:

You can add rhythmic as well as textural variations like tremolo. This is taught extensively in the main FiddleHed course. Practice rhythmic variations D major scale with variations.

Some examples: Two bows, Two bows staccato, Four bows, Split tucka, Hoedown, Throw-away bow, Triplets, Tremolo.


Transposition is when you play a tune in a different scale, or starting on a different note. The easiest way to transpose something is to start the same thing on a different string. For example, I usually teach Oh Susannah in D major, starting on D0. If you start it on A0, then it is transposed to A major, and will be played with the same exact fingering:

On the other hand, if you start the tune on D3, it is transposed to G major, and will be played with a totally different fingering:

This is more challenging. But once you figure out a tune with a different fingering, it becomes really fun. The melody has a fresh, new sound. And you more deeply learn both the new scale and the familiar tune.

Bowing and slur patterns

If you practice bowing techniques on scales, then you might one day discover you’redoing the same thing on a tune without even trying. Some examples:

  • Slur patterns (slur two, slur three, slur four, slur two-separate two, etc.)
  • Bouncing

Melodic variations

Melodic variation is just adding a little pattern to each of the scale. Suddenly the scales start to sound more like music. We’ll learn a lot more about how to practice this and apply it to tunes. In this example, you’ll play a variation called 1-2-3 on the D scale.

D0-1-2 | 1-2-3 | 2-3-A0 | D3-A0-1

Irish variations

We’ll use the same idea to practice Irish embellishments like mordents:

D0-1-0  {D0-1mord}-0 0-0

By the way, I created a deep-dive course on Irish Fiddle Variation“‹. In it, you learn how to add Irish style variations. You also learn how to be a creative musician.

In Summation

  • Scales are a good way to practice new techniques. These techniques are simply new variations to try on scales.
  • Adding variation entertains your brain, allowing your hands more time and repetitions to learn any given object of practice. So you get a lot better at that scale or tune while you practice the variation.
  • If you practice adding variation to scales, then you will naturally add variation to tunes. You might end up doing it without trying. If you’ve deeply practiced adding variation to scales, you may find that you will effortlessly add variation to tunes.

Have you discovered a cool variation that I did not think about? If so, share it in a comment below. Thank, and happy fiddling to you ?

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11 responses to “The Power Of Adding Variation

  1. Dear Jason,
    thank you very much for this new lesson !
    Like usually it’s not just a lesson to play fiddle it’s a lesson of life…Since I’m listening to your advices, not only have I made progress in music but also in my everyday life ! You’re a man empty of good sense and unpretentiousness,who gives a lot positif around him…
    Just a technical remark, could you specify the bows (simple or attached) in your lessons? I try to spot them but it is not always easy !
    Thank you !

    1. Good point Karine. I don’t go into bowing with as much detail as I could, and am trying to do that more.

      In the meantime, you can practice slur patterns on scales: slur 2, slur 3, slur 4, slur 2-separate 2…

      Best to you…

  2. Today is my birthday day. !! I’ve been playing for 18 ish months. Just started doing variations well trying to and it really ups the challenge and joy of playing thanks FiddleHed dude !!