Old-time fiddling: Playing the ‘wrong’ way

The Skillet LickersI feel that my involvement in old-time fiddling has proven extremely beneficial for both my playing and sense of musicianship in general. In order to justify this assertion, I would like to examine a few aspects of old-time fiddling and make a few short comments. These comments will be based on my short old-time fiddling experience and some general views on skill development and the acquisition of knowledge. I am aware of course that by no means are they valid among all practitioners of old-time fiddle, but I think they describe certain tendencies, strong enough to be ascribed to the very nature of this musical tradition and its performance.


Playing the “wrong” way

Old-time fiddlers very often adopt ‘unorthodox’* ways of playing the violin. ‘Unorthodox’ here will refer to approaches that on one hand do not satisfy the technical demands of what we can generally call ‘classical technique’ and on the other do not go beyond certain objective physical limitations. Playing the violin behind the back for example is indeed something possible (as several great performers have showed us) but it is no longer an unorthodox way of playing in the sense explained here.

There are two striking habits that appear among a considerable number of old-time fiddlers: their tendency to hold the fiddle against their chest rather than the classical way, and their tendency to hold the bow in all sort of weird ways, often gripping it away from the frog. For a classically trained violinist the image of someone playing this way is alien. However, these habits among old-time fiddlers should not be seen as restricting or simply wrong. I believe they are deeply meaningful and rooted in legitimate stylistic and musical aspirations.

But why hold the fiddle against the chest? Since the biggest part of old-time fiddle repertoire requires playing only in the first position, shifting positions in old-time fiddling is not very common. There is even a tune called ‘Quince Dillons high D tune’ obviously named after the fact that the fiddler needs to shift in order to play a high D note on the E string. At the same time, it is widely held that holding the violin the classical way allows for easier changing of positions. And this is obviously true. But many folk fiddlers around the world do not really need classical techniques in order to be fair to their beloved musical traditions.

So one basic reason for why old-time fiddlers often hold the violin against their chest is simply because they do not have to hold it otherwise. Consequently, there is absolutely no point in criticizing and commenting on old-time fiddlers’ technique from a classical point of view. On the contrary, I believe that holding the violin against the chest in this tradition is an excellent manifestation of economy playing. It is a theory-free habit, which crystallizes through time and the need to play favorite tunes. And of course the idea of economy of physical effort is of great importance in learning an instrument.

KAMARAS8948Holding the fiddle against the chest also allows performers to have optimum visual contact with their fellow musicians and the environment, something which not only enhances musical communication but also creates a healthier, more intimate and organic relationship with what is going on around them. In addition, it enables them to have a good look at their instruments while playing, something which helps in monitoring technical elements like bowing, etc. (In classical music there is a stigma that if you have to look at your hands while you’re playing then you’re incompetent).

Finally, it accommodates and develops the ability to sing while playing. This is a very interesting skill developed by some old time fiddlers, which may not seem useful for people involved in other musical traditions. For me it is a further sign of a wide ability to receive and respond to musical or non-musical stimuli while playing. Ask violin players to say a short phrase or answer a short question while playing something simple. I believe that in most cases their playing will collapse in a second.

It is a fact that a lot of old-time fiddlers have a wide capacity for incoming information during performance. This is not because they are talented or gifted. It’s simply because they operate within a musical tradition that encourages and calls for elements of communication and interaction during performance. Other musicians I have played with have such a narrow perception capacity, that they are unable to realize even on an elemental level what is going on around them musically and socially.

Being able to perceive, process and –even more so– to respond to information coming from outside is being able to interact musically and socially. It is an enviable performing quality and a big part of the whole musicianship discussion. I find it very interesting, worth investigating and developing.

As far as the variety of bow grips among old time fiddlers are concerned, they seemed to me very strange at the beginning, but in many cases these bow grips did not confine their musical goals in any crucial way. I think personalized bow grips largely originate in the need of old-time fiddlers to produce a percussive feel and effect with their bows, and to convey the dance feeling to their audiences. From that point of view, they constitute the bodily expression of a purely musical need rather then the implementation of a predetermined technical demand.

It is exactly this genuine and organic process that explains the development of a remarkably relaxed hand by some old-time fiddlers. I have come across old-time fiddlers whose right hand kinaesthetic quality would be envied by the average classical performer. And of course, the importance of a relaxed right hand while playing the violin cannot be overestimated.

There is also another broader implication that arises from this question of ‘unorthodoxy’. It can be compressed into these words by Christopher Small: A fish is not aware of the water, since it knows nothing of any other medium. In order to comprehend the nature of a certain principle, we must familiarise ourselves with the ‘different, ‘wrong’ or the ‘unorthodox’.

KAMARAS8954This is where I think the importance of the ‘unorthodox’ in old-time fiddling lies: The ways these people play represent a different source of empirical knowledge, experience and information, with which we have to acquaint ourselves and understand, in order to have that ‘binocular vision’ that the anthropologist Gregory Bateson has described as necessary for an all-embracing image of our world. Our two perspectives then come into a single, more reliable perspective according to Bateson’s principle that ‘two descriptions are better than one’.

I have found a nice formulation of this concept on the web by Sylvia S. Tognetti in the section of her work on Gregory Bateson titled The value of diversity: Double descriptions are key to understanding relationships because these result from patterns of interaction that consist of stimulus, response and reinforcement, and provide a context for understanding behavior. I find this comment valid enough within a musical context. It explains why acquaintance with diversity is a key idea that can prove useful while learning how to play an instrument.

Herbert Whone also suggests a similar concept in his book The simplicity of playing the violin that can be applied in the learning process; it is called contraction and is the method of knowing a thing by its opposite. The student is encouraged to consciously adopt an unorthodox approach in order to comprehend and achieve what is considered as ‘correct’ or ‘desirable’.

This is in strong contrast with the incrimination of the ‘wrong way’ often present in violin methods and teaching approaches. Let’s take an example: I have met violin teachers who would happily place mines on the fingerboard on the ‘out of tune’ areas if they could, in order to prevent their students from experimenting. I think this is often the conceptual background of a ‘fixed’ performing attitude, which is reflected on the body language and, eventually, sound of the musician. Not to mention the fact that acquaintance with the audible relationship between random frequencies (and not just between ‘right’ frequencies) sharpens hearing and the ability to differentiate between in tune and out of tune.

Therefore, I would insist that in order to foster a free musical mind and body, a violin teacher should encourage students –according to the above idea– to freely explore the fingerboard, in order to familiarize themselves with the feel, the traps and the sounds of it. This kind of process can enable musicians to defend any performing or technical aspects of their playing, as opposed to slavishly following a purely dictated system.

stergiosClassical violin technique has of course its own rules and principles. They are the quintessence of human experience and laws of physics, and have good reasons to exist. (We should not forget of course that even within this framework of generally accepted rules there are different violin schools, like the Russian or the Franco-Belgian. There are even different bowing techniques in ‘authentic’ performances of early music, e.g. baroque, which involve different hand positions from the traditional classical/romantic way of playing). At the same time, they are also style-defining and therefore necessary only for those who are after the instrument’s maximum technical capabilities or certain sound qualities. These sound qualities are not necessarily ‘better’ than others and they certainly do not constitute a musical article of faith. Holding the violin the classical way is not really a prerequisite for playing or enjoying, since obviously not everyone is interested in learning how to play Paganini’s caprices.

The mosaic of individual approaches in old-time fiddling serves different musical ambitions, intentions and tastes. It represents a sizable reality in our musical world which cannot be ignored, and rightfully claims its stolen space of meaning and value next to everything else. It is not a threat to ‘orthodox’ violin technique, but explains it further, enriches it and probably questions it from time to time. In my mind, watching people adopting all weird approaches to playing the violin is charming on its own. Above all, it satisfies my strong instinctive need to see all the possible ways people do what I do, keeping my eyes and my ears thirsty.

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Old-time fiddling: The means being the ends

A very interesting principle I have found hidden in the way old-time fiddlers approach music is the absence of a rigid separation between practice and playing. For many old-time fiddlers the actual playing experience is the key element in their learning. In my experience, the word ‘practice’ is not often found in the vocabulary of old-time fiddlers.

But what is the concept of ‘deliberate practice’?


The means being the ends

Christopher Small comments on the way Western classical musicians tend to learn in his book ‘Music Society and Education’, contrasting this to the nature of informal musical training by saying that ‘one works hard not to gain mastery over his instrument (in fact the very idea of mastery is alien to a musician who regards his instrument as a loved colleague in the creative work) but to increase the fluency, expressiveness and naturalness of his playing, and this he does, not through technical exercises but through constant playing and exposure to musical experience within the framework of his society’. The contexts in which old-time fiddlers play music define that precious social framework.

I find the ever-growing dissociation between ‘practising’ and ‘playing’ an instrument false, dangerous and fabricated. It often thrives on grounds of expediency and antagonism ignoring the very nature of music. Deliberate practice defines an exchange relationship in which the more the musician ‘gives’ the more he ‘receives’ in terms of technical skills and musicianship. This should definitely remind us of the basic pattern in our lives according to which everything can be bought at a certain price. Deliberate practice is the currency with which we buy progress and technical skills. It is not always innocent and legitimate. It can exist as a by-product of an antagonistic environment, which demands from musicians to focus extensively on the final product. Subordination of the process to the canonised goal is the core philosophical principle of deliberate musical practice.

KAMARAS8955This absence of a strong notion of deliberate practice introduces further and broader implications. This is because ‘deliberate practice’ is ideally taking place in a remote and quiet place under socially sterilized conditions. On the other hand, the ‘playing’ experience of old-time fiddlers is associated with what usually non-musicians perceive as music: enjoyment and social interaction. In my experience, there are numerous musicians who have never interacted musically with others except maybe with their music stands. This is how music is divested of all its primary elements like enjoyment and sociability, in the name of hard work and undistracted practice.

A good example that illustrates that distorted approach is the concept of scales. Scales are widely considered as a must during the practicing process, despite the fact they are generally the nightmare of students who are asked to play them in an inapplicable way. There is really no point in executing scales without practicing their application in some real musical context or recognising their function in a given piece of music. Asking someone to execute scales for two hours in a musical and social vacuum is a purely mechanistic occupation which provides results of questionable value at an unaffordable and inadvisable price. Richard Addison in his 1988 article ‘A new look at musical improvisation in education’ in the ‘British Journal of Music Education’ stresses that ‘as an example of how time-honored pedagogical practices contribute to premature rigidity of conception we need look no further than the scales and exercises which countless pupils of all ages are required to practise unthinkingly’.

By developing their performing attitude as an integral part of the actual musical act old-time fiddlers develop skills and attitudes which seem more difficult to achieve when seen as a ‘requirement’ and are consciously sought. Old-time fiddlers often develop skills that may seem unnecessary for the average performer, but I still think they are valuable and indicative of a healthy performing attitude. A real social context is the privileged field of sharing and offering. This is where you can really build your identity as a musician, and this is where you feel a musician. Social and musical interaction not only can accelerate the learning process but can result in a more organic quality of playing which –in my mind– is not often found among classical violinists. This quality is the natural product of the fact that old-time fiddlers have a social role in store for their music.

Old-time fiddlers show us that enjoyment is not incompatible with learning and progress. They show us that the nature of the learning process is complex, contradictory and non-linear. Being aware of its complexity is the only way to be simple.

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Techniques, not Technique!

Techniques, not techniqueTrying to become a better musician is like walking up a beautiful mountain. The higher we get the nicer the view is. We know that the view is already worth all our efforts and patience and we can imagine that higher up the view is even greater. Along this path of musical development we are desperately looking for shortcuts that will accelerate our progress and will offer us a greater view of the musical world. These shortcuts are nothing more than mental frameworks that organize our work and provide useful answers. I want to share a few thoughts on the notion of technique as a mental framework that can be sterile and perplexing. I would like to suggest techniques as a mental framework that is more fertile and liberating.

Technique is an abstract concept. Just like ‘music’ is an abstraction of the real action of playing music, technique is also an abstraction of all our playing mannerisms. This concept of reification (turning an abstraction into a concrete thing) lies in the heart of the philosophy of Plato and often provides us with a distorted world view. It may be a crude example, but think of a farmer from mountainous Crete and a London businessman both being regarded and treated as ‘Europeans’. Or think how we -here in Europe- mentally treat a Texan farmer and a San Francisco hippie as ‘Americans’. So, what is wrong with ‘technique’ in music?

First, I think ‘technique’ is almost a non-musical concept. It bears no organic relation with all the elements that make musical meaning to the human ear like repetition, melody, pauses, dynamics and interaction. These musical elements can be honored and practiced with minimum technique. Furthermore, the notion of technique cannot really explain why I enjoy playing music with my buddy who picked up the guitar just 2 weeks ago. Percussionist Ken Hyder has said in an interview that ‘technical virtuosity does not interest me as a player’ (…) ‘the aim is to create magic moments, and magic moments are often created with the minimum use of technique’.

bongosSecond, the notion of technique has no universal value whatsoever. It may refer to different things around the world. What’s more, appreciating music is very often style-sensitive. A classical virtuoso will never be able to play a single note in the jazz idiom and a reggae singer will most likely sing bad opera, unless they both spend time internalizing the particular expressive devices and techniques of jazz phrasing and opera singing. We would never criticize them for their bad technique outside their musical territory. Different musical idioms use different playing and interpretation techniques and it is these techniques that most often define the unique sound and character of a musical tradition.

Third, I feel the concept of technique is more tied with the linear and deterministic view of learning I have discussed in a previous post titled ‘How people learn and what it means for us musicians’. Progress is non linear and asymmetric involving jumps, spins and turns. Deliberate practice on the other hand encourages the idea that you need to practice something first before you are able to play it. I think experience tells otherwise. My weak memory suggests that I have not actually practiced most of the things I can play. They were quietly developed and shaped while I was satisfying my childish curiosity listening and playing my favorite music. I was not in a ‘now I am working on my technique’ mode. What we can do with our hands and mind develops in a much more complicated way than the linearity implied by technique.

Django-StephaneFinally, let’s look at the music of Django Reindhardt and Stephane Grappelli as an example. Their 1930’s recordings largely constitute the foundations of the gypsy jazz tradition. Django himself had to come up with his own unique technique of playing the guitar after his 3rd and 4th fingers were paralyzed in a fire accident. By using only his index and middle fingers of his left hand he came up with unique lines, chord inversions and a soloing mentality that eventually defined the Gypsy Jazz sound. Grappelli on the other hand improvises playing only in 1st and 3rd position most of the time. His improvisations are made of notes that can be hit by a technically intermediate violinist.

In addition, they certainly did not play perfect in any sense of the term. No matter how much forgiving these old recordings are, you can still hear imperfections and misses. What makes their music great is not the idea of a polished final product. It is their innovative approach, the musical accidents that happen and the risks you hear them taking while they are looking for that one live take they would eventually put on their record. I could simply say that their music is basically human and honest. In that sense, it has great artistic value.

For these reasons I have started to believe that thinking in terms of techniques is a lot more fertile and liberating. The concept of techniques comes in handy while learning and accounts more effectively for what goes on in the musical world. I find it more helpful in organizing my work instead of generally thinking ‘now I am working on my technique’. It can offer more tangible answers to the question: what can I really do on my instrument? When I listen to my favorite musicians I notice that they either have the ability of creating an interesting variety or they are very good at doing one single thing. A single technique may be a musician’s stylistic hallmark. There are many great musicians who became well-known just because they introduced that one single thing or technique they were good at. Being good at ‘something’ has real musical value. It helps us build our musical identity and provides us with the power to share and communicate our music.

I have to say that this discussion touches more on improvisational music than Paganini’s caprices. When attempting to play music exactly as written then the concept of technique turns into something more objective and confirmable. I am just weighing the abstract concept of technique against self-expression and the enjoyment of music. Many music educators question the dominance of technique during the learning process. The idea of a polished performance often grows at the expense of expression, musicianship and enjoyment. It eventually tends to objectify artistic performance and its appreciation. Eddie Prevost explains the admiration of technique as a broader political issue. He says that ‘obsession with, and admiration for, technique merely reflects the ethos and values of the new elitism which is gaining strength in our world’. (In ‘Improvised Music: Some answers to some questions’ in Contact, a journal of contemporary music 33, p. 14, year: 1988)

In a nutshell, I personally find the concept of technique a bad verbal and mental tool for understanding, appreciating and learning music. If there are people playing music without even having a word for it (Swahili) then we could definitely live without ‘technique’.

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