“Learning the fiddle is hard because there’s too much to remember all at once!”
I hear some variation on this a lot from people in comments and emails. As a student, it’s challenging to keep track of all the different things you have to do when playing the fiddle.
- Is the bow parallel to the bridge?
- Is the sound I’m making good?
- Am I playing the right notes?
- Is the fiddle in tune?
- Am I playing in tune?
- Is the timing right?
- What am I going to eat for dinner?
OK, so it would be better to not be thinking about dinner while playing! If you find the right balance of effort and acceptance, you can more easily do what you are doing right now.
Just to play a simple tune involves some serious multi-tasking. It’s overwhelming and frustrating. Maybe you’re learning a new tune. You’re starting to figure out how to finger the melody, but the bow sound is horrible. And it’s not in tune. And your left-hand position looks wrong. Arrrggghh!
If you are feeling this, then don’t despair! Even as an absolute beginner, it is possible to move from multi-tasking to a state of flow in which all the tasks become a single activity. And even if you are a more advanced fiddler, you also might benefit from this “beginner’s mind” approach to learning the fiddle.
The key is to focus on each individual activity until you can do it with flow. Then integrate two activities on a small bit from a tune. This is the crucial step. If this is a big struggle, then go back to single tasks. Don’t beat yourself up. Just keep alternating between the single tasks and the integrated tasks.
For example, let’s look at the first quarter of Kerry Polka. It’s a simple enough melody to remember, but it’s a bit challenging technically for beginners.
If this is hard, then start by just practicing the bowing:
Loop on this until it flows and sounds good. Absolutely master this. You can do it!
Next, practice fingering the notes without even making a sound. Focus on doing this with a relaxed left hand. Don’t lift your fingers high off the fingerboard. I call this technique Little Lift. Then, practice slowly plucking the notes from Kerry Polka. Then speed it up a bit. You can master this too!
Once you’ve mastered the bowing and the fingering separately, then try integrating the two tasks.
But it still may be a struggle! So what do you do? Either return to single-tasking. Or, practice a smaller bit until that moves from multi-tasking to single-tasking. So if we use the same example, just slowly practice A1-D0 until you can play that with flow:
Do the same for D1-0.
Then return to the bigger phrase:
Once you can easily do this little piece, then turn your attention to other aspects of your playing mentioned above.
- Are you breathing as you play?
- Are your shoulders hunched up or relaxed?
- Are your fingers forming a vise-like grip on the fingerboard or are they soft and loose?
The key is to check in on all these other aspects while playing a very simple piece. It’s hard to keep all that in mind as you do an entire tune (especially if you are just learning it).
If you can carefully do this process on the first quarter of a tune, you may find that your awareness of all the aspects of playing happens more naturally on the rest of the tune.
This applies to more advanced players too. As we get better at the instrument, we start to take certain things for granted. I recommend that advanced players do this process of separation and integration, even if you think you’re doing great. You may discover that you overlooked some aspect of your playing.
I’ve been doing a lot of exercises to practice string crossing with fingering.
I sort of thought I was good enough at this. But the more I do it, the more I discover points of weakness. I break it down, then put it back together.
If you are able to move from multi to single-tasking, then something magical happens. You go from thinking about what you’re supposed to be doing to playing music. This magical moment has kept me hooked to playing music for over forty years…
And even if you’ve only played for one day, you can experience this great feeling of musical flow.
OK! Give this a try and let me know if it helps.