In this lesson, I’ll show you how to practice well and overcome the physical challenges of fiddling. It’s a long article so I’ll give you the take-home message up front:

The best way to overcome physical challenges is to break down complex problems into simpler practice tasks.

There are three main challenges you’ll face on your fiddle journey:

  • Practice Challenge
  • Physical Challenge
  • Emotional Challenge

So far I’ve talked about the Practice Challenge and how that can be overcome by removing resistance to daily practice. I know you can do this if you create a good practice environment and commit to at least two minutes a day. Establishing a consistent practice habit is the first and most important step to learning fiddling (or any skill).

Once you’ve made practice a regular part of your life, the next step is to learn how to practice well so that you can overcome the physical challenges of fiddling.


After 25 years of giving in-person lessons, answering emails, comments and forum posts, I’ve identified common physical challenges that my students have dealt with:

  • Getting the form right for bowing and fingering
  • Getting a nice sound with the bow
  • Playing in tune
  • Overcoming fatigue and muscle pain
  • Playing at a steady tempo
  • Remembering to do all these things
  • Once you’ve remembered all the things, doing them all at the same time 🤯

It can be overwhelming! Here are five actionable strategies that will help you to learn any tune on any instrument.

I’ll now go into more detail, giving you an action step for each strategy.


1. Micro-practice

 

Micro-practice is the process of breaking larger, complicated tasks (like a whole tune) into smaller pieces that are the perfect level of challenge. You learn to master each little piece of a tune. Or you break a complex skill (like adding double stops to scales) into sub-skills that can be easily practiced.

OK. Let me pause. If you learn nothing else from me but micro-practice, if you don’t read any more of these emails or watch any more FiddleHed videos, then your time will have not been wasted. Seriously. After you establish a daily practice habit, you need to do micro-practice in order to really learn (anything).

Say you’re learning Arkansas Traveller. If you always charge through the whole thing, it will be a struggle. You’ll be practicing the easy parts as much as the difficult parts. In this way, your progress will be slow, because you never give those difficult parts the extra attention they need.

The power of micro-practice (also known as “Deliberate Practice”) is that you learn to isolate each challenge of a tune. That way, you’ll see an improvement in those parts.

Ask yourself, what’s the hardest part of a tune? Then ask yourself, “What’s the hardest part of that hardest part?” Once you’ve mastered these small bits, then assemble them into bigger pieces. And before you know it, you can play the whole tune.

Action step #1: Micro-practice On A Tune

Let’s use Arkansas Traveller as an example. A lot of students find the fourth quarter of the A part to be challenging. So instead of always playing the whole A part, focus your time and energy on that difficult part:

Fourth quarter: A3-2-3-0-1-3-0-D3-2-0-1-2-0

 

Next we break down that difficult part into smaller parts that aren’t as difficult. So for most folks, the hardest part of this hardest part is A1-3-0-D3. Now practice those four notes.

A1-3-0-D3

 

You might discover that the hardest part of this hardest part is going from open A0 (open A string) to D3. Now just practice that.

A0-D3

Soon you’ll find that you can do this! Then integrate that bit back into the whole by working your way backwards.
Do this on each section of the tune until you’re playing the whole thing with flow. Repeat the process for any future tune you learn. Eventually this process will become second nature. At that point you’ll use micro-practice to learn any new tune or technique.

2. Separate the hands

When you learn an instrument, you have to do some serious multi-tasking.

A simple way to work on hard parts in music is to separate your hands. I mean, keep them attached to your arms and everything…😛 If you find that you’re struggling, simply focus on one hand at a time.

Break down problems according to what each hand is doing. This is actually a form of micro-practice (your new super-power). You’re breaking down complex problems into simpler practice tasks. (Wait, did I already mention that this was important? 🤓)

Action Step: Right, Left, Synchronize

Here’s a practice strategy you can use on any challenging tune or technique. We’ll use the phrase from Swallowtail Jig as an example. In the first bar of the A part you have to play challenging left-hand fingering while also doing an intricate string-crossing pattern:

D3-1-1-A1-D1-1

  1. Focus on the right hand by just bowing the part on the open strings: A0-D0-0-A0-D0-0. Rest your left hand in beginner’s position on the fiddle.
  2. Next, focus on the left hand. Set down the bow and just pluck out the left-hand fingering: D3-1-1-A1-D1-1. Plucking is easier than bowing. So you can devote more mental resources to learning the left-hand fingering.
  3. Integrating step: Slowly play the first three notes with bowing and fingering. This combines the left and right hands in a manageable step. Once you can do that, you’re well on your way to doing it with larger and larger pieces.

3. Looping

A lot of students ask, “How do I make my fiddling sound more like fiddling?” Looping is the answer.

The basic idea of looping: instead of playing a tune all the way through, loop on a small piece until it starts to sound like music.

It’s hard to achieve musical flow for an entire piece. You find that you constantly stop and start as you hit difficult spots. But if you learn one little piece and then loop on it, you’ll start to feel the deep satisfaction of making music.

Action Step: Practice Looping On a Tune Phrase
Let’s use the tune Blackest Crow as an example. We start by learning the first quarter. 

A part, first quarter: A1-2-1-0 | D2-1-2

Use your super-power of micro-practice to work out all the little challenges of this piece. Having done that, then practice this in a continuous loop. When you get to the end, don’t pause; immediately start again so that it’s a flowing groove.
You may notice that you tend to stumble going from A0-D2. If so, then pause the looping practice and return to more fine-grained micro-practice on that section:

D2-2-A0-0

Once you figure out that sub-piece, you can loop that! And once you get the sub-piece, return to looping on the first quarter.

As you continue, see if you can relax the body and enjoy it deeply. Gradually move from a state of effort to a state of play 🕺🏾. Do this for any part of any tune you learn from now on, and you’ll be on your way to mastery.

4. Drone practice

I discovered drone practice when I got into Indian music. Then came a musical pilgrimage to India where I took lessons, went to concerts, met and played with other musicians.

You might be asking, “Hey Jason, what’s a drone?” A drone is a sustained reference pitch:

“OK, cool. But why should I use a drone?”

 

Action Step: Practice Drone Tuning
Use a unique drone to tune up each note on the fiddle. So if you’re practicing D1 (which is E), use an E drone:

Go further by practicing two-note intervals centered on a target note. So if you’re trying to play D3 (G) in tune, practice D3-A0 with a G drone.

Since the A0 is easy (an open string), using the G drone will help you to correct the tuning on D3.

I believe that drone practice is the best thing any fiddler can do to improve their tuning. I drone on and on and on about this .

5. Fiddle yoga

Awareness of body

Often when I practice, I find that I’m not breathing evenly or that certain muscles are tense (like my stomach or shoulders). When I become aware of this, I try to pause what I’m doing and connect to the body using a process I call fiddle yoga.

Bring awareness to the body, breath and mind as you play. This will help you to overcome tough practice challenges and make your session more enjoyable.

This relaxes me and connects me to the joy of playing. After I make this connection, I often find that whatever “impossible” thing I was practicing isn’t that big of a deal anymore.

Action Step: Practice Fiddle Yoga
Say you’re stuck on the ending of Tobin’s Jig. Pause on practicing that hard part and do some fiddle yoga.
  • Simply hold the fiddle and bow without playing. Become aware of the body, breath and mind, allowing them to relax.
  • Next, bow on the open D string with a D drone. Allow yourself to enjoy the sound. Don’t seek perfection. Just make a good simple sound.
  • Achieving that, take steps towards doing more complex things: a two-note interval (D0-1, D1-2, etc.) a simple scale, then a simple tune. See if you can keep that relaxed feeling through each step until you return to the current practice challenge.
Do this process before, during and at the end of your practice sessions. 🧘🏽‍♂️

Let’s sum up…

Here’s what FiddleHed Neil has to say about micro-practice:

“The way you teach by breaking down the song into part A and B and quarters is fantastic. And your patient and calm manner really helps.”
Using these micro-practice strategies, you can overcome any physical or technical challenge. In essence, you learn how to learn. Once you learn how to learn and practice, then you can continue your fiddle journey with whatever music interests you…
ps: After 40+ years I’m still learning to overcome The Three Challenges. Learning to practice and play is a life-long process. Believe it or not, I’ve learned a lot from good students like YOU (thanks!). As I learn better ways to teach, I can directly apply these learning techniques to my own practice and fiddle journey. 🙏


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