How To Practice Fiddling

Playing with a beat is a simple way to improve your timing and make practice more enjoyable. It also prepares you for playing with other people. You can do it with scales, exercises and tunes.

In this beginner’s guide to playing with a beat, I’ll talk about:

  • When to use a beat.
  • How to use it.
  • Where to find beats.
  • An seven step beginner’s guide to playing with a beat.

If you’re working on something that’s very difficult for you, then playing with a beat is not a good strategy to start with. First you have to work out the mechanics with your fingers and hands in free time (without a beat). When you can play that difficult thing in a more relaxed manner and can start to hear what you are doing, then you are in a position to start working with a metronome or a beat.

A fun metronome

Playing with a beat is like using a metronome, except that, in my opinion, it’s more fun, because you feel like you’re playing in a band. It’s a good practice strategy for things you’ve already learned that you need to repeat. You get better at that thing by improving timing and flow.

One advantage of a metronome is that you can change the tempo in small increments and more easily track your progress. This is good for speeding up a difficult part.

I myself like the metronome quite a bit, though I prefer to hear a bass drum instead of a click. Just a simple a “four on the floor beat” can be the perfect practice vehicle.

Where’s the beat?

OK, so playing with a beat sounds like a good idea, but maybe you’re wondering, “Where can I get a beat to play along with?”

There’s a few ways to find a beat.

On there’s a page called Beat Central where I’ve arranged some beats tailored for fiddle practice: waltzes, hoedowns, jigs.

Here’s an example of how to play Coleraine with a jig beat:

There are five different tempos for each beat. In addition to standard folk beats, there are simple metronome beats as well as more untraditional beats. You will be surprised by how much fun you can have playing fiddle tunes with more exotic beats.

Try playing a polka to a hip hop drum track.

Or try playing a reel with a reggae beat.

A home electronic keyboard of some sort is a fun source of beats. You can find these things for cheap on craigslist and ebay. Here’s a fun home electronic instrument that I LOVE called the “omnichord”.

Just select a beat, find the right tempo and start to practice with it.

The most old-school approach to playing with a beat: play with a percussionist. If you know someone who is happy to keep a simple beat on a conga drum or bodhran or whatever, then play with them.

Playing along with a beat for beginners

Here’s a step-by-step process for learning to play with a beat and stay in time. I recommend starting with a medium tempo. Somewhere around 70 bpm (beats per minute).

  • Let the beat play and just listen. Feel it in your body; tap your foot or sway.
  • Play something very simple: single quarter notes on an open string. If you struggle with this, just take a break and listen. You’ll eventually get it.
  • Next, try to play simple rhythms on an open string with the beat:
    • Hoedown (long short short)
    • Tucka (4 shorts, two longs)
    • Triplets
    • Reverse and split these patterns
    • If it becomes difficult, then simplify to single notes
  • Next try to play 2-4 notes from a scale. You can do it slow or fast. If you can do this, move on to a full scale.
  • Play the first few notes of a tunes with the beat. If this is easy, play the whole first quarter.
  • Move through the tune, looping on each part with the beat until you can do it with flow.
  • Assemble small parts into bigger parts until you can do the whole thing with a beat.

Every once in awhile, pause and ask, “Is it the right speed for where I’m at?” Adjust accordingly. You may want to between slow and fast.

The goal: Try to let go of thinking and just play music.

Not only will playing with a beat improve your timing and flow, but you will more deeply learn that tune or that scale. You’ll also be better prepared for playing with other musicians.

And when you feel comfortable with the beat, try might want to try to tap your foot and play at the same time.

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