The Ultimate Pitfall for Beginning Fiddlers

A FiddleHed named Dave wrote to me because he was struggling with the advanced version of Blackest Crow. In his email, it became clear that he hadn’t been playing very long.

That version of the tune is challenging if you are new to the fiddle. It involves double stops, tricky triplets, slides and some fast embellishments: 

Even just playing double stops on two open strings is difficult for beginners. Not to mention, doing it on a tune with all the other things you have to remember and get right.

In a nutshell…

The ultimate pitfall for beginners: they try to do stuff that’s way too advanced.

And on a related note, they consume new techniques and songs too quickly. 

The antidote is to go deep on one simple thing and to enjoy it as much as possible.


I get it. You are super-excited to be learning the fiddle. You learn a few tunes and then when realize you are starting to get it. But soon you’re impatient to learn the next thing. Then it’s off to the races…  

The danger is that you might get discouraged if you play stuff you’re not ready for. You might start to think, “Maybe the fiddle is not for me after all.” 

Another danger for beginners: they don’t fully learn one thing because they’ve already leapfrogged to the next thing. 

The overall effect is that you are just treading water instead of swimming. In either case, all that excitement and momentum might turn into frustration and doubt.


How to avoid the Ultimate Beginner Pitfall

I recommend you view every tune and exercise as a journey. As with all great journeys, the trick is to enjoy the ride instead of obsessing over what happens at the destination. If you manage to stay with something awhile, it becomes a friend and ally as you learn new things.

For example, once you learn Oh Susannah well, you can use it to practice a new bowing like slur 2.

Let’s look at three things you can do to make the journey productive and fun.

  1. Deliberate practice
  2. Creative practice
  3. Enjoyable practice

Deliberate practice

This means you focus on specific areas of improvement. If your bow sounds scratchy, you don’t practice it by continuing to play Oh Susannah, or whatever tune you are learning. You practice bowing on open strings. If that’s hard too, then experiment with different, things: bow tilt, fiddle angle, pressure, speed etc.

If your bow is not scratchy on open strings, do progressively more complex things. If you hit a roadblock along the way, then that’s the point where you should practice. Perhaps you can play open strings without scratchiness, but going from A0-D2 is scratchy. That is where you should focus your time and energy.

This is the idea behind the way I present tunes in “Learning Chunks”:

Oh Susannah, first quarter learning chunks

Warm-ups
Key intervals:
D2-A0

A0-1

(D0-1)-2-A0-0-1-0-D2-0-1-2-2-1-0-1-1

Sing then play: Well I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee


Creative practice

So now you know your bow sounds scratchy when you go from A0-D2. You can employ a bunch of different practice techniques to work through this.

  • Looping with a drone
    • Practice this in a continuous loop with a drone (in this case D drone)
  • Play with rhythmic variation
    • Hoedown, tucka, triplets, swing doubles, etc.
  • Alternate between the challenge and a scale
    • Practice A0-D2 for awhile, then just play a D major scale
  • Start it on another string (transposition)
    • Practice D0-G2
  • Play it at different speeds
  • Add different textures: staccato, tremolo, plucking
  • Alternate between singing and playing
  • Play it with your eyes closed.

Enjoyable practice

Simply put, if you make it your goal to enjoy the practice, you will be much more likely to continue. And so I constantly turn the attention of the student to playing with a good sound.

If you can play one note with a good sound, then it seems clear that you could eventually play two notes with good sound. And then three notes, then a scale, and then a tune.

Sure, you will be challenged by new things that are hard and not fun at first. Be kind to yourself and pause on those from time to time to simply play a single good-sounding. Then go gradually to more complex and challenging things again.


The art and practice of fiddling

I often like to repeat the advice that Earl Scruggs gave in his banjo book, Repeat A Thousand Times. But this doesn’t mean that you should practice like a robot. Make the your sessions engaging and fun. Learn to practice one thing in many different ways. What can you do to re-invent it? This is both the art and practice of fiddling.

Travel writer Rick Steves says, “Assume you will return.” He’s saying that if you’re on a trip, don’t worry about packing every possible moment with sightseeing. Enjoy what you are doing as you do it.

The same philosophy can be applied to learning music (or learning anything). There is an infinite number of things to learn. Instead of worrying about what you might be missing out on, just get really into what you are doing now. I like to alter Rick’s saying to “assume you’ll get better”.

*if you practice.

 

You might find that you breathe new life into the tune when you approach it this way. You’ll also wind up with a better sound. This will give you the confidence to do more advanced tunes and techniques. The main benefit of this approach is that you give your body a chance to learn something well. This will feel good and bring joy to the present moment of playing music.


Further reading

Three Phases of Learning a Tune

Micro-practice

4 responses to “The Ultimate Pitfall for Beginning Fiddlers

  1. I ENJOYED and RELATED to every word, Jason. Thank you so much.
    Last year a bunch of friends put together a memorial for a friend who was a musician.
    My beginning dulcimer friend and I wanted to participate, so we learned Bile em Cabbage, Wildwood Flower and May the Circle Be Unbroken.
    We made songsheets for everyone to sing along, practiced with the band, and felt great by picking tunes we could learn and have fun playing. You can imagine a whole group of people and musicians rockin’ on Bile em Cabbage. Yes, simple and fun and the BEST! Thanks for all your inspiration.

  2. This is a great post and one every FiddleHedder should read often in my humble opinion. I’ve been rethinking my own approach to my fiddling and this reinforces some decisions I’ve made.

    Excellent Jason. Thank you

    Mike (Frank’s Fiddle)

  3. I watched an interview with Charlie Daniels. He was asked if he ever got tired of playing The Devil Went Down To Georgia. His answer was, no, because I have never played it perfect! Every time I play it, I play it better but I’ve never played it perfect.

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