Adding variations is a way to keep your brain in the game.
The body needs to do things over and over in order to learn, but the brain gets bored. Variations are a great way to keep the mind engaged in repetitive practice. And variations also help your arms, hands, fingers and ears learn music and solve technical problems. Adding variations is just a process of testing out and refining how to best do something on the fiddle.
Here are some good, simple variations to start with:
Slower / Faster
Once you know how to play a particular piece (tune, scale or exercise), you can practice it at different tempos (speeds). Playing slow is one of the most powerful (and underused) practice techniques. Your fingers have the time to find the best way to do things, and then to learn them deeply through repetition. If you always play fast, it’s easier to ignore certain glitches and weaknesses in your playing.
Playing slow tends to help people improve their sound and tuning. There is more time to hear each note and adjust if something is off.
Playing fast has benefits too. You can notice which parts of a tune are not learned as well because those are the points where you stumble. You can then focus on those parts, slow them down with looping practice. Playing fast also gives you a better picture of the tune as a whole.
And playing extremely slow (45-60bpm) to a steady beat is the secret way to play things extremely fast. You have to know something REALLY WELL in order to play it that slowly and steadily. When you go to speed it up, your fingers instinctively will know where to go.
Read more about this in the article Slow Down To Speed Up.
After playing something at the extremes of the spectrum, end by playing that thing at a comfortable, medium speed (70-80bpm).
Softer / Louder
Take the piece you’re walking on and play it very quietly with very little bow. Then play it loudly with lots of bow.
This perspective shift keeps your brain active. You are also practicing expression when you do this, or musicality.
Learn more in this quick-tip lesson: Soft / Loud / Soft.
One of my favorite forms of variation to teach is plucking, also known as pizzicato. For most beginners, plucking the strings with the left hand is a little easier than bowing, especially for challenging pieces.
Plucking allows you to focus on the left hand. It’s a great tool for working out difficult parts.
Plucking a tune will help you to better remember it. That’s because you could another perspective on the tune; more information is gathered. It’s like walking around a sculpture; you get the full picture that way.
Start with the variations listed above. They are the most basic and also the most powerful. Next you can add whatever fiddle variations you are practicing:
- Slur patterns
- Double stops
- Melodic variation
- Trill-based ornaments
Learn more about how to do this in the lesson How To Make Scales Fun.
For any variation you add, you are practicing two things at once: the thing you are adding the variation to and the variation itself. For example, say you pluck Arkansas Traveller. You are practicing the tune as well as plucking at the same time.
But wait there’s more! Act now and for a limited time….bla bla bla. But there is more. A hidden benefit of practicing with variations is that it prepares you for improvisation. You are engaging in the tinkering practice of creativity which leads to the creation of melodic ideas.
And going even deeper, variations keep your brain in the game. They help you to become more aware of what you’re doing, to be more engaged in this present moment.
How can you add variations to other parts of your daily activity? How can you be aware of what’s happening right now?
Fiddle with your life.