The Lighter Side of Learning to Play the Fiddle – #4 …or… One Froggy Evening

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Does anyone remember Michigan J. Frog? That talented little amphibian found in a time capsule in the 1950’s Merry Melodies cartoon called “One Froggy Evening”? He leaps out of the time capsule and does a rendition of the Michigan Rag that would bring the house down at Carnegie Hall. The construction worker that finds him knows he’s struck it big – this little froggy is going to make him rich! The problem is – the darn frog only performs in private – put him in from of any audience and the only sound he utters is “BRRRRR-RIBET.” No singing, no dancing …

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The construction worker tries everything – he coaxes, cajoles and threatens – nothing, nada, zip!

In the cartoon we’re led to believe the little guy is doing it just to be annoying – but lately I’ve begun to wonder about that. You see I am Michigan J. Frog myself. When I’m alone playing my fiddle I am a virtuoso. Music actually comes out of the thing! Yet put me in front of a single person and I fold – my fiddle sounds like a “screeching howling banshee” that scares small animals and sends even my dearest friends running for cover. I practice faithfully, it’s going great – then I get to my lesson and I am all thumbs and tone deaf. Today, I practiced Happy Birthday a kazillion times – had it sounding fairly decent – musical, melodious, wonderful! Then I got to my friend’s birthday party and froze up. I scratched out a barely recognizable facsimile, she smiled at me warmly and hugged me in thanks. (Thanks for stopping, most likely…)

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When I’m at practice with the “Silver Birch Minstrels” I can sing up a storm – belt them out like a pro (loud, not good, mind you… but still – there’s sound coming out of me and it’s sort of like music). Then Friday night rolls around, the seniors pour into the auditorium, I open my mouth and… nothing… “BRRRRR-RIBET.” I can only croak. My heart pounds, my throat is dry and my knees are knocking. I just hope I can make it through the show without keeling over with a heart attack.

Why is it that I turn into Michigan J. Frog in front of an audience? Why is it that I can lecture to an auditorium of 600 students with no jitters at all – yet I’m a bundle of frazzled nerves in front of anyone when I am holding that fiddle or trying to sing? I blame it on the mass media. A hundred years ago – most everyone who played an instrument would hop right to it in front of a crowd without being the least bit self-conscious. Everyone, good or bad, would sing along with them – bellowing out the song at the top of their lungs – mostly off-key and out of time with each other – all without being the least bit self-conscious. And they all enjoyed themselves immensely. It’s how people entertained themselves before radio, TV, and the Internet started bringing them professional entertainment.

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Now we are bombarded with musical genius from every direction. So we’re all scared to sing in front of our friends, because we know they’ll be comparing us to the likes of Emmylou Harris or KD Lang – and we will NOT measure up. How sad it is that? Bringing the luxury of world-class musical entertainment to everyone’s daily lives has taken away our ability to enjoy one of life’s great pleasures. After all – it’s definitely way more fun to MAKE music that it is to just listen to it. So – just so you know my friends – I am not going to let this get to me anymore – I AM going to keep torturing you with my fiddle and I AM going to sing whenever I can…

Are you ready? Ahem… cough… cough… “BRRRRR-RIBET”

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The Lighter Side of Learning to Play the Fiddle – #3

If you are interested in learning to play the fiddle yourself, you might want to go back and read my earlier posts on this – the Fiddle FAQ and The Lighter Side of Learning to Play the Fiddle – #2They explain some of the stuff I wish I’d known before I embarrassed myself…

My fiddle - a beauty to see and hear... if someone else is playing it!

Well folks – it’s now been almost 9 months since I started to learn to play the fiddle, so if you’ve been following this thread you must be wondering how it’s coming.    Have I rosined the bow again yet?  Can I find F# on the D string yet?  Did I give it up and use the fiddle for firewood?

Well – I must admit I’m a bit embarrassed.  That’s nothing new, everything about learning to play the fiddle has been somewhat humiliating.  But I’ve been kind of discouraged at times, too.  You see, I really thought I’d be a bit further along by now.  I kind of expected I’d be playing Turkey in the Straw and Orange Blossom Special by now.  I mean really – how hard can it be?  This guy hasn’t even learned to hold the bow properly yet and he’s doing it!   This gal can even dance around the stage while she plays the Orange Blossom Special!

I thought that, by now, I would be wowing my friends and family with jeels and rigs – oh wait, isn’t that reels and jigs?  Anyway, whatever.  I knew it would be slow going, but heck, this has been unfolding on geological times scales.  I am sure the continents drifted faster than I’m learning here.

Now to be fair, I have come a long way since my last post.  Holding the bow?  Not a problem. Piece of cake – well at least that’s what I thought until I saw Danny Boy, the grand champion there – wow!  If I had seen THAT last summer I wouldn’t have had quite so many sleepless nights worrying about it!  Tightening the bow?  Not a problem.  The tip about the pencil turns out to be right on – another good one I heard recently was to never have more space between the hair and the stick than the diameter of the stick itself – which incidentally is about the diameter of a pencil!  I just love that kind of conceptual symmetry.

And what about rosin – did my gummed up bow indeed last until Christmas?  Oh ya, in fact it made it through January and most of February, too!  I did add a bit occasionally and, as before, hated myself for it.  I only just realized – duh – that I am wearing it out more quickly near the centre of the bow compared to the ends (should I be admitting that?)  So lately, I’ve just been adding a bit in the middle 1/3 or so and that seems to be working well.

I have managed to learn a few dozen simple songs, and I do know my notes – mostly.  At least I can tell when I am ‘off’ – that’s encouraging – and I am getting pretty good at reading music, as long as I don’t have to go too fast.  But, until yesterday, I have to admit, I was really feeling a bit defeated by the whole project.  After all, I am in my 50’s – I would like to be able to play it – for real, I mean – before I die of old age.  But yesterday, everything changed.  Yesterday my fiddle instructor started teaching me to play by ear.  Wow – I learned a new song in 20 minutes.  It was probably the most exciting part of the whole learning process so far.  So maybe I have progressed more than I realize.  Maybe it’s just such a gradual evolution that I don’t realize I am actually progressing.  All I know is that I can’t wait to pick up the fiddle and play again – it’s renewed my interest and enthusiasm.  In fact, I am actually starting to believe that I might be good enough to go to fiddle camp this summer as a ‘beginner’!

If you’re learning the fiddle as a child, young adult or middle-ager, I’d be interested to hear about your experiences – please use the comment feature to let me know. After all – misery does love company it would be nice to compare notes.  In the meantime – if you are looking for some good resource material – check out these web sites – they have some great sheet music and CDs for beginners – I have found them a huge help and a lot of fun!

Prairie Mountain Fiddlers – free sheet music for beginners – lots of great tunes!

The Fiddle Club Collections (beginner, intermediate and advanced books and accompanying CDs)

Cross Canada Fiddle tunes (beginner, intermediate and advanced books and accompanying CDs)

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The Lighter Side of Learning to Play the Fiddle – #2

If you are interested in learning to play the fiddle yourself, I suggest you go back and read my first post on this – the Fiddle FAQ – it’s all about the stuff I wish I’d known before I embarrassed myself…

About four months ago I decided to learn to play the fiddle.  Well actually, my husband said, “you should learn to play the fiddle.”   And of course I replied, “good idea! I will!”  I always agree with everything he says – it keeps him off guard.  😉

How hard can it be? I thought.  I learned to play the ukulele in one weekend.  I learned to play the guitar at 13…  These are both terrifically fun instruments that offer almost instantaneous rewards.  You pick ’em up, learn a few chords and pretty soon you’re strumming songs – at least well enough to accompany a roomful of drunken people who think they are singing.  Sure it might take years of practice (and considerable innate musical talent) to really explore the full potential of the instrument, but in the meantime your friends will not feel assaulted by your efforts, they might even enjoy listening to you, at least for brief periods.

Not so for the fiddle, I’m afraid – four months into the effort I have barely managed to get to the stage where my cat no longer howls and scratches at the door, desperately trying to escape my practice sessions.  Now she just slinks into the next room and cowers under the bed for the duration.  My family has stopped asking me to play for them – actually that stopped after about the first month… and I know that the torture I have put them through so far is beyond inhumane.   My dear sister-in-law comically describes fiddle practice as a “screeching, howling banshee-noise” in her blog, and the minute I open the violin case, my husband pulls on his headphones and fires up the MP3 player full blast.  It’s a good thing we live in the country, or my neighbours would have sought court injunctions by now. And my fiddle teacher? Well, as far as I am concerned, fiddle teachers are more brave and selfless than flight instructors – I cannot even begin to describe the horrors they have to put up with on a daily basis.

So – it’s been two months since my last report on this adventure – how is it going, you might ask?    Have I learned how to hold the bow yet?   How tight is “tight enough” when it comes to those bowstrings?   And of course, have I put any rosin on the bow since July?  Here’s the update…


How do you hold the @$%&@ bow?

I am delighted to say that I finally have this beast under control – check it out… 

  1. Thumb bent?   YES!
  2. Baby finger bent?   YES!
  3. Only the tip of the thumb touching the bow?    YES! 

We won’t talk about those middle two fingers for now – they should wrap around a little farther – but hey, I’ve got pretty short chubby fingers – and that’s not a firm rule anyway, so I’m working with this bow hold for now, at least…


How tight do you tighten the bow?

I hate to admit it – but the right answer was indeed “tight enough”.  Or, to be more precise, it was “just experiment with it”.  So far, I would say to err on the loose side is better than having it too tight. A good rule of thumb I read somewhere on the web is to just have room to fit a pencil between the stick and the hairs at the centre of the bow.   I have actually, occasionally, made semi-musical sounds come out of the fiddle with this setup; it helps to take the pencil out first though.


How much rosin are you supposed to put on the bow?

If you read my last post – you know that this was the cause of much embarrassment for me.  I had the bow, and the strings, totally gummed up with rosin.  Since mid-July I have only rosined my bow twice, and I absolutely hated myself for it after.  I think I’ve still got enough on there to last me until Christmas –  but, hey, who knows – maybe I should just add a little here…


So – with all the beginner preliminaries (mostly) out of the way – I have moved onto bigger problems. For example…


What? No frets?

Before I started this adventure I thought that this would be the main problem – and now that I have graduated to such high-class worries, I’ve found it is definitely the worst one yet. As a guitar and ukulele player, I wondered how the heck I was supposed to know where to put my fingers on the fiddle, with no frets to guide me.   Like most beginners, I started with the fake frets – little bits of tape positioned to mark the locations of certain notes.   However, they’re sort of like the training wheels you had on your first 2-wheeler bike as a kid – having them on there makes you feel like a baby and you just can’t wait to get them off! 

I found they helped a lot at first for general finger positioning, but the tapes are about a half centimeter wide and I found that a mere millimeter either way can make a huge difference in the pitch of the note I am playing.  So I got frustrated again pretty quickly and took them off, then I put them back on, then I took them off again.  Two months into the learning process I took them off for good.  I just read somewhere today that you should try not to use them past about 6 to 9 months!  So maybe I gave up on them too early.  Maybe I would have progressed faster if I’d left them on.  Anyway, I have been working without them for the past two months and I have tried a couple of alternatives with varying success.   

First I tried a chromatic tuner. Basically, it’s a gadget that displays the note you are playing – so you can move your finger up and down the fret board until you find the note you want to play. It worked well for finding the notes on the E and A strings (the two thinnest strings) but not for the dreaded D string. I have spent the past 6 weeks on the D string. All I can say is that it’s a good thing I bought an expensive fiddle because otherwise I would have given up by now, or even worse, I would have smashed it into a million bits! One millimeter, one frigging millimeter, is the distance between playing F# too sharp and playing it too flat. I was convinced that the actual F# note didn’t exist on my fiddle’s D string… and you can’t find what isn’t there, right?

The second thing I have tried is playing along with recordings of the notes, first in easy songs and now, lately, with recordings of the scales that my teacher has made for me.  This is, by far, the best approach. I feel almost like I am learning exponentially now.  Okay, at least I am finally making some incremental progress.  The other thing that has helped is to focus on playing along with very slow songs only.  It’s just too hard to be accurate when your fingers are racing around the finger board.


The bowing complicates things…

If you play the guitar or some other stringed instrument, you know all about the difficulty with playing notes on one hand while strumming or picking with the other.  It’s like trying to rub your stomach and pat your head at the same time – it requires intense concentration and things can fall apart quickly.  I find the problem is magnified by a factor of about a million when it comes to bowing the fiddle.  I get so intent on finding the notes, that the bow starts wandering all over the place – that’s when the “banshee screeching” noises start. Fortunately this one is easier to fix – just boring.  I just have to practice bowing without playing any notes.  My dogs love this – especially when I get to the high pitched E string – they too now run when I open the violin case…


So – I am practicing my notes and my bowing – this could fill hours a day if I only had the time – and I am finally getting into playing a few slow songs.  Hopefully, it will all come together in… let’s say about a year?  Actually, my husband rushed into the den one night this past week and exclaimed, “wow, that sounds really good!”  Unfortunately, it was the recording I was about to practice along with that he was so impressed by – I hadn’t started playing yet myself…  😐

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