Singing with the Fiddle
This article first appeared as Cooper's Fiddle Corner- 26 in FiddleOn magazine. You can subscribe to that excellent publication on line at www.fiddleon.co.uk
Accompanying your own singing on the fiddle -'fiddle singing', as it's become known - is considered a rare and amazing feat, usually by people who haven't tried it. It is actually not that difficult, at least at a basic level, provided you can (a) sing, preferably in tune, and (b) play the fiddle. Probably it's just one of those things that would come naturally to more people if nobody insisted on telling them how hard it is. So in a minute, if you're up for it, we'll give it a go...
There's a tradition of fiddle-singing among English (and Appalachian) fiddlers. No examples spring to mind from Ireland, Scotland, Shetland, Norway or Sweden, or from the classical or jazz worlds, but that could just be my ignorance. Irish tradition does include the 'lilting' of dance tunes ('skithery-diddley, idle-day' etc.), just as Scotland has its puirt-a-beul mouth music, but these vocal styles imitate instrumental music, they do not combine with it. In the early 1800s, however, fiddle players in England were actively engaged in the production and sale of 'broadside ballads' - lyric sheets illustrated with a woodblock or engraving, without music notation. Bert Lloyd describes in Folk Song In England how publisher James Catnach (1792-1841) of Seven Dials, London, would judge the merits of any new song-text by having it sung to an existing air played by a fiddler he kept on the premises. Ballads, 'to the air of -' whatever it might be, were then printed in their thousands and sold for a penny or less by itinerant hawkers, or 'chaunters', in town and country. Many of these chaunters were fiddlers, and would back themselves on fiddle when they sang the ballads at a country fair, or in a public house, to advertise their wares. (The guitar had not yet come into its own at that time, obviously, and Martin Carthy was still a century-and-a-half into the future.)
I'll assume that, vocally, you can hold a tune, either unaccompanied or backing yourself on guitar, banjo or some other instrument. Your throat needs to be relaxed, of course, and that means avoiding chronic tension in the neck and shoulders, so a secure, well-balanced fiddle-hold is particularly important. If your jaws are routinely locked while playing, try chewing some gum. I use my normal fiddle hold, mainly for ease of fingering, but holding the fiddle against your chest rather than on the shoulder is another option for some people (and looks very 'folk'), or even resting it on your left arm, as Mat Green does when dancing Princess Royal to his own fiddle - now, that is a rare and amazing feat.
Let's start by playing an open G , say, and then singing the same note. Depending on your vocal range, you may actually be an octave lower or higher than the fiddle note, but it doesn't matter. What we'll do is sing and play a scale passage - very slowly, fiddle and voice together, one note at a time. If the whole scale feels too daunting, try just the first few notes (G, A, B, C), then descend again (B, A) to the open-string (G). It may help to sing the notes first without the fiddle, then together. As you gain more confidence, include some more notes in the sequence. There's no rush. The point is to get used to the feel, and sound, of the two 'voices' together. Try to listen impartially, and balance the levels. Notice how the vibrations of the fiddle in your chest, neck and shoulders merge with the vibrations of your singing. You could go on to explore wider intervals, like thirds (G-B), fourths (G-C) and fifths (G-D), or sing and play an arpeggio. Or instead of starting on G, try the open D and discover how that key feels. Most people, I think, can get the hang of this unison (or octave) fiddle-singing with a little practice. If like many folk singers you tend to pick up songs by ear, it's actually quite interesting to discover what notes you are singing, and to 'map' your vocal range on the fingerboard. You'll probably find there are songs you already know that you can also fiddle, and tunes you can also sing.
There's plenty of traditional precedent for this unison style. In 1943 Peter Kennedy recorded Morris fiddler William 'Jingey' Wells (1868-1953) of Bampton, Oxfordshire, diddling along, 'La diddley doodle-dum, dum diddley da', to his own playing of the tune Highland Mary (and sounding a bit like an elderly bee in a herbaceous border), while Sam Bennett of Ilmington, Warwickshire also sang along with his fiddle. So did some of the west country gipsy fiddlers. A trip to West Virginia in 1978 first exposed me to a sort of equivalent of this in Appalachian music. There, if a fiddler sang a rhyming couplet, like, 'I've been sitting here all my life, ain't got nothing but a Barlow Knife', in the middle of an Old Time fiddle tune, it was regarded as no more remarkable than a banjo-player doing the same. Fiddle-singing seemed to have a certain throw-away quality to it - that lyric was in fact an advertising slogan from the 1920s - and struck me as very cool. It was not long before I was singing, 'Little Rabbit, where's your Mammy?', in the D-part of another tune, and learning verses to Cluck Old Hen.
I'd started fiddle-singing some years earlier when I got the 'Penguin Book of English Folk Songs' (now reprinted by EFDSS as 'Classic English Folk Songs') on my twenty-first birthday. I was an OK sight-reader on fiddle but had no experience of singing from written music. So I'd play the opening phrase of, say, A Sailor's Life, then sing the words at the same time over and over, before moving on to the next line, again relying on the fiddle to guide my pitching of the notes. By the time I could sing and play the first verse by heart, and eventually the rest of the song, I no longer needed the melodic support of the fiddle, and droned instead on the open G-string on alternate verses to introduce a change of sound. The drone happened to work well in that particular song because of the character of the air. When I attempted John Barleycorn it became clear that, although the tune was 'modal', some changes of chord would be necessary. I probably got as far as discovering the D-chord (open D with first-finger A on the G-string below) and C-chord (C on the G-string with first finger E on the D-string) - see Fiddle Corner-15 for more on fiddle chords .
Many of the issues around fiddle-singing, of course, like what chords (if any) to use, how to play them on the fiddle, what 'voicings' work best, what kind of bow rhythms to employ, whether to play in unison or harmony with the vocal, or go for something more grungey - these are basically the same questions that arise when you accompany any singer. It's just that the singer happens, in this case, to be you. The next stage on from the kind of unison I've described earlier is to develop the relative independence of the instrumental and vocal lines. To see what I mean, try another short practical exercise. Play a sustained D-drone while singing the first few notes of the major scale, rising and descending as before. Then try swapping the parts round - sing the drone, holding it steady, and play the phrase. Some people find it more tricky this way round. Or try singing the notes of a scale sequence (D, E, F#, G, A...), while playing thirds above it (F#, G, A, B, C#) on the fiddle. It's best not to focus too strongly on either one or the other line, but just listen with benign, diffuse attention to the overall effect. Once you've un-coupled the voice and fiddle in this way, they can be combined again to produce the most striking effects. The fiddle-singer I probably most admire is Bruce Molsky, whose fiddle parts on Appalachian songs like Peg and Awl mine harmonic riches the oldtimers never realised were there.
The revival of fiddle-singing in the performance of English folk songs, notably by Barry Dransfield in the 1970s, showed just how expressive the fiddle-voice combination could be, and artists like Eliza Carthy, Nancy Kerr, Chris Wood, Roger Wilson, Jon Boden, Seth Lakeman, Jackie Oates and several others have created fine arrangements. Very few of us, though,will ever be able to match Nancy Kerr's virtuosic Dance to your Daddy, singing the song while playing an unrelated reel. Chris Wood was the first person I heard to use two fiddles, differently tuned, held upright, one on each knee, creating a kora-like plucked open-string back-up to his version of Sweet Jane. Somebody who saw him carrying two violin cases apparently once asked, in jocular fashion, 'Do you play them both at the same time, then?', to which Chris was able to reply, quite truthfully, 'Yeah, I do actually.'
Pete Cooper © 2008
Speeding Up and Playing up to Speed
This article first appeared as Cooper's Fiddle Corner- 26 in FiddleOn magazine. You can subscribe to that excellent publication on line at www.fiddleon.co.uk
Keeping a steady tempo right through a tune, whether fast or slow, is something many players find challenging, and one reader has asked me for advice on the specific problem of speeding up. Of course there are tunes where you're supposed to speed up, like 'Hava Nagila' and 'Zorba the Greek', but that's a separate matter. What we're talking about here is losing control of the rhythm and letting the tune run away with you in a headlong rush to the finish (or total musical breakdown, whichever comes first). Speeding up is a common weakness among newcomers to folk and traditional music, and isn't entirely unknown among veterans either, though the latter tend to develop such face-saving ploys as glaring at the guitarist or banjo player when it all goes wrong. For the basic-level player, of course, there's the apparently different but actually related issue of learning to play up to speed in the first place - related because, as we shall see, it has a lot to do with developing a secure sense of the pulse of the music, the beat.
Playing in rhythm, and eventually up to speed, will be among your goals when learning any new tune, so give as much attention to the bowing as the left hand. It's useful to notice, for example, which particular notes of the melody fall on the beat, and which lie in between. 6/8 jigs have two beats to the bar, each subdivided into a group of three quavers, or into a crotchet-quaver pattern, as in so-called 'single' jigs. Reels, although sometimes notated in 4/4 or 'common time' (indicated by the sign 'C) instead of the more correct 2/2 or 'cut time' (the 'C' with a vertical slash through it), also have just two beats to a bar, each usually subdivided into four quavers. It will simply not work at speed to stress four crotchet beats, as maybe you did when first learning the tune, i.e. quavers one, three, five and seven. Try emphasising just the 'strong' notes (quavers number one and five - equivalent, in a bar of four crotchets, to crotchets one and three). Allow the weight of your bowing arm to bear down more on the string, contrastingly lightening up for the three 'weak' notes. As well as these two 'down' beats in each bar, there are also the two 'off' beats to consider, quavers three and seven (or crotchets two and four), which you could maybe accentuate once in a while instead of the down beat, to the surprise and delight of the listener. It's the pattern of alternating weight and lightness in the fiddler's bowing arm that conveys the inner life of the music, while the melody itself, often thought of as synonymous with 'the tune', really tells only half the story.
Conversely, however, a phrase in which you habitually stumble over the notes, or fluff the ornamentation, will never slot into the rhythmic flow until you've sorted it out. In the excitement of almost being able to play a new tune it's tempting to ignore the tricky bits, hoping that if you just keep going, and play fast enough, all will be fine. It's better to identify what's causing the glitch, and fix it now. One technique I find very helpful is to 'subtract' the left hand from a difficult phrase. Nine times out of ten a problem that appears to be related to the fingering is in fact more about the bowing, particularly where string crossing is involved. Try bowing the phrase on just the relevant open strings first in order to clarify exactly what the bow is up to, then put the left-hand fingering back in. And particularly with repeated string crossings, make sure you're not using more length of bow than necessary. Strokes that are too long can be cumbersome, and distort the rhythm.
OK, I'll assume you can now play the tune round a few times without undue mishap, maybe not on autopilot yet, but at the stage of 'conscious competence', i.e. you get it right as long as you pay attention (see Fiddle Corner 12 for the 'Sternberg' learning model). Focusing as we are on tempo, this is a good time for a reality check. Set the click of a metronome to roughly the speed you're playing at, or maybe a little slower, and just see what it's like to play along to. As well as encouraging you to actively listen to an external sound source while playing - an essential skill for music-making with others - this exercise will show whether you are keeping to the same speed all the way through. A metronome is hardly the ultimate in musical expression, but it's a useful practice tool, and on many, as well as the click, you can watch a flashing red light for extra help if needed. Our subjective sense of timing, as of intonation, only develops fully with practice, as we internalise the beat. Anyone who's tried playing to a metronome will of course be familiar with how the click seems to speed up on the difficult bits, and slow down on the easy ones - or so it's reported. In fact, it's just as likely that an unconfident player, perhaps still at the 'conscious incompetence' stage with regard to the tune, will actually speed up at the approach of a 'problem' phrase - if so, breathe slowly through the nose, relax your shoulders, and slow down. Find the beat; always return to the beat. Our primary aim here is rhythmic consistency. If you're trying out a set of two or more tunes played consecutively, one of them perhaps less familiar than the other, select the (probably slower) tempo of the more 'difficult' tune.
Speeding up, in the 'good' sense of getting the tune up to tempo, can change our perception of its shape or character. It almost sounds - and feels - like a different piece. A number of Irish and Scottish reels even include a series of individual notes, maybe just one or two per bar, generally on a different string from those around them, which when played up to speed present themselves as a kind of semi-independent counter-melody. Co. Donegal fiddler Liz Doherty is brilliant at this kind of playing - listen to the reel 'Brendan's Favourite' on track seven of her CD 'Last Orders' - and so is Cathal Hayden when playing reels like 'Jenny's Chickens'. (J. S. Bach's solo violin sonatas and partitas also furnish many instances of this countermelodic effect, the one fiddle almost sounding like two.) Whether featuring such devices or not, reels are conventionally played at between 112 and 120 beats per minute - that's one bar, or as many as eight quavers, per second; which can seem impossibly fast if you're still at the stage of barely managing to stay with a click of, say, 72 or less. Much patience and practice is needed, taking the tempo up one notch at a time, until you eventually get there. (Playing for a ceilidh, you might start moderato while the dancers learn the figures, speeding up on a signal from the caller; but then stick to the new tempo with no further acceleration.) Even at this late stage, as the starship 'Tune' approaches warp speed, it's possible that a hidden structural weakness will be exposed, and need to be repaired. As a general rule, faster playing requires much smaller, more economical fingering, and shorter bow strokes.
And what about speeding up in the 'bad' sense? Performance anxiety, of course, or 'stagefright' (see Fiddle Corner 9) can be a factor here, with the increased flow of 'fight or flight' adrenalin distorting time perception, particularly in solo performance. If you've done your homework, though, and know what kind of beat it is and precisely which notes fall on it (and which do not), and make a sufficiently clear distinction between the two, this preparation, along with general economy of movement, should limit the negative impact of 'nerves'. In a group situation one can sometimes feel pressurised, rightly or wrongly, by the other players. It's like when you've just passed your driving test; you're motoring along at a legal and appropriate speed, but the mere sight of another car in the rear view mirror is enough to make you feel that you ought to be going faster. Actually your speed is fine, so just stick to it. It's true that young players, excited by a new tune, may embark on a quest for the ultimate tempo rush - and lemmings too probably get excited as they approach the edge of the cliff. Personally I don't object to a bout of youthful tres grand vitesse once in a while, provided there's a groove and we stay on the rails. The most rewarding sessions to my mind are those where all the musicians find the same groove, be it fast or slow, and momentarily transcending individual egos, just play the music together.
- Pete Cooper © 2008