This week I started a one year sabbatical. Unlike some jobs, and contrary to popular fantasy, this does not mean a one year holiday from work. Basically, it just means that I can reduce my work week from 60 hours to 35 or 40 hours – or at least I’m going to try. It also means that I can work at home a lot of days, saving myself the 1.5 to 2 h round trip commute.
So what am I going to do with all this free time? Well, in anticipation of this sabbatical I decided to take up the violin – or to be perfectly precise about it – the fiddle. I’ve been at it for about six weeks now, so ya… I am barely getting started. So far it has been exhilarating, comical, challenging and downright irritating. In fact, I now realize that I have embarked on an odyssey that will likely last years. So naturally, I thought I’d better document the experience. For those of you thinking of taking on the same challenge, perhaps this will give you an idea of what you’d be getting into. For the rest of you, take it as an opportunity to laugh at me – especially if you are an experienced musician. Embarrassment seems to go hand-in-hand with learning to play this instrument.
For instalment 1 – we’re going to start with what I call the ‘Fiddle FAQ’. Questions that I have asked many times, and questions I have been asked many times. Here’s one that falls into both categories:
What’s the difference between a violin and a fiddle?
It’s basically the same instrument – the setup is just slightly different. For example, a fiddle typically has steel strings whereas a violin would have gut strings (synthetic or natural) or composite strings (where the ‘gut’ of the heavier strings are wrapped in steel). Another difference is that the tailpiece on a fiddle usually has fine tuning screws on all four strings – whereas the violin typically would have a fine tuning screw on the finest (highest) string only. In some cases the fiddle’s bridge may be modified a bit to set up the strings a bit lower, too.
However, according to most of the fiddlers I have met so far, the primary difference between the fiddle and the violin is actually in the nature of the musician. Fiddlers generally seem to consider violinists as stuff-shirted, snobby and overly serious people with a pickle up their… well, let’s say, they’re people who hold and play the instrument is a very fussy and particular way. Apparently they never drink and never have any fun either. Fiddlers on the other hand are easy-going, fun-loving people who hold the fiddle and the bow in whatever way feels comfortable and who are generally enormously likeable and entertaining.
How do you hold the @$%&@ bow?
This was the biggest question for me in getting started – in fact, it is still is my biggest problem. So far I have watched about a thousand YouTube videos on this. They are all completely consistent on three things:
- the thumb must be bent;
- the baby finger must be bent; and
- only the tip of the thumb should touch the bow.
One person says “keep it loose… when I am holding the bow, I am holding it so loose I could almost drop it.”
Another says, “you cannot hold it too loose – you need enough of a grip to control it – otherwise it will slide all over the strings.”
Frankly that doesn’t matter – I cannot keep both my thumb and baby finger bent and not have the bow flop around in my hand. So loose it is… And a nightmare it sounds…
Every single video I have watched has suggested a different way to approach the bow hold. One will say place your thumb first, another tells you to perch the bow on you index finger then load the thumb on next. Yet another says to place the middle and ring fingers first. All of these lead to the same basic result – and absolutely none help me in the least. Of course I have an excellent teacher – each week she patiently shows me the correct way to hold the bow – gives me a few exercises to practice and I leave her house secure in the knowledge that the bow-hold dilemma is behind me. But it takes 45 minutes to get home from her place and just 30 for me to forget completely what she’s just taught me. So I’m getting absolutely nowhere on that. In fact, I just went back up and added the expletive in the title – I’m getting irritated just telling you about it. I have come extremely close to swinging the fiddle into the wall more than once during this past couple of weeks. No doubt I will be coming back to the bow-hold in future posts…
How tight should you tighten the bow?
This one is easy – I’ve asked a half dozen fiddlers and only needed about fifty YouTube videos for this. They’re all perfectly consistent on it. Apparently you just tighten it “enough”. Yep, very helpful… The idea is that you want it tight enough so that the stick doesn’t mash onto the hairs when your “fiddling hard”. But you don’t want to get it too tight – or else the bow will bounce along on your strings. Right now I am able to mash and bounce simultaneously… I guess we’ll come back to this in the future, too.
And finally for today’s post – my favourite question…
How much rosin are you supposed to put on the bow?
I started out with a student rental violin (just rehaired) and fooled around with it for a few weeks before I finally found a teacher. I had asked the guy at the shop how much rosin to put on the bow and he told me my teacher would explain all that. So I used the rosin sparingly until I got to my first lesson. There I found out that I had virtually no rosin on the bow – making it impossible to play. No wonder I was getting nowhere on my own! Apparently you need to get it sticky enough for the hair to grab the strings. Well – if a little is good, a lot must be great – so I went home and rosined that sucker to the hilt. And when I bought my own fiddle and new bow a few weeks later, the guy in the store told me that I’d have my work cut out for me for a little while to get enough rosin built up on the strings and bow for it to work well. So I rosined that one up really well, too. He also said something about how to clean the strings – but I figured that was something you did when you were going out for the evening with it. You know, so it would look nice… Obviously irrelevant for now. So I rosined the bow two or three times a practice. I rosined it in the middle of my lessons. I even spent an evening in front of the TV rosining the bow. Not playing, mind you – just a good solid hour of rosining.
Now, if you are a guitar, mandolin, banjo or ukulele player – you’ve probably noticed already that the fiddle has no frets (an idea the violinists came up with, no doubt). After all – what kind of weeny needs to have visual cues for finger placement? So as I was struggling to find the right spots on each string – I noticed it was getting harder and harder. My beautiful instrument that had sounded so wonderful at the store – sounded like it was full of cotton when I played it. I couldn’t tell an F# from a B. So I took it back to the store – and they brought out the expert to check it out for me. He played it and said it had a beautiful sound. I had to agree, it did… when HE played it. 😦
“Am I out of my league with it?” I asked him. “Should I have bought one with training wheels instead of one with booster rockets?”
“No,” he replied. “But you do have the strings totally gummed up with rosin. And there’s enough rosin on this bow to last you at least two weeks. I’m surprised you can play it at all. Remember, when it comes to rosin – less is more.”
I tried not to blush too brightly as he showed me how to clean the strings. I nodded dutifully as he told me again that “less is more”. The other patrons and store staff tried not to laugh. I mumbled my thank-you’s, collected my fiddle and bow, and hustled out the door. I don’t know how they contained their guffaws of laughter until I made my escape. Obviously they were all fiddlers, not violinists.