How to Use The Fiddle Video Lessons
Tuning to “Cross G”
The first fifteen tunes in my Art of Bowing Old Time Fiddle Course are in what we call “Cross G” Tuning (GDgd), one of many “open” tunings used in the south, as opposed to what most people are familiar with as “standard tuning” (GDae). This choice is very intentional for the following reasons:
Cross G tuning reduces string tension on the fiddle giving the instrument a quieter, warmer tone. For a beginning student, volume is not a necessity but decent tone is. Nothing discourages practicing like a shrill instrument. Cross G instantly gives the student a leg up in the tone department until they can learn to create good tone in all tunings.
As a beginning fiddler you are learning the art of bow control; how to hit the correct string with the correct pressure at the correct time to make the desired sound. In standard tuning, hitting a wrong string at the wrong time can lead to discouraging amounts of discord. In an open tuning like Cross G, all the open strings become encouraging harmonic drones rather than discouraging wrong notes.
And it allows you to focus your initial energy on getting your bowing muscle memory built up without constantly worrying about wrong notes. In time you will gain control of your bow and then have no problem switching to other tunings that require more bow control.
Fiddlers in the south traditionally played in alternate tunings. So, if your goal is to sound like a southern fiddler the easiest way to do so is to play in the tunings that they themselves played in.
In some cases, such as the NC fiddler Tommy Jarrell, Standard Tuning (GDae) was used only in a very small amount of his repertoire and was by no means “standard”.
There are many “open” tunings utilized in Southern Old Time fiddling and we will explore a number of them in this course: GDgd, ADae, AEae, GDad, AEac# as well as “Standard Tuning” GDae.
The Gravitational Pull of Standard Tuning
Currently there is a lot of societal musical pressure to be in Standard Tuning. When my students start in Cross G, there are infinite amounts of musical situations that pull them back to Standard Tuning.
Conversely, the more comfortable people become in Standard Tuning, the less willing they are to branch out and experiment with alternate tunings. I highly encourage you to push past any fears you might have and give it a try, because…
It’s Fun and Easy!
Alternate Tunings are really fun, cool sounding, satisfying, and in many ways easier than Standard Tuning! I have been teaching for nearly twenty years and I have never had a student regret learning to play in Cross tuning. In fact, many of them prefer it to standard tuning!
The Standard Learning Progression
One way that I characterize my teaching method is Rhythm First, Melody Second. This means learning the bowing/rhythm first, separately from the melody and then later adding the melody notes. This allows our bowing arm to build the muscle memory it needs in order to go into auto-pilot mode when our brain needs to switch to focusing on the melody. This also allows time for the melody to solidify in our minds and bodies BEFORE trying to find the correct notes on the fingerboard.
The way most people learn fiddle tunes is by trying to learn melody and rhythm simultaneously and getting the two hopelessly confused.
So, the way I encourage you to use all these videos is:
- First, listen to the tune up to speed a few times to understand what the tune is supposed to sound like.
- Second, bow along with the bowing track until you have the rhythm solidly in your bowing arm. Rewind the video over and over. Do it until you can’t stand it anymore.
- Third, put down your bow, hold the fiddle like a guitar or ukelele, and then pluck the notes until you can play the whole melody at a slow tempo without messing up. This process insures that you actually know which notes you are searching for BEFORE trying to align it with the bowing.
- Fourth, join the bowing and melody together. This is the hard part. It’s really easy to simplify the melody to match the bowing or simplify the bowing to match the melody but what I am encouraging you to do is learn the tunes while maintaining the full complexity of both the rhythm and the melody.
The Learning Phases of this Fiddle Course
Phase 1: The Five Foundational Rhythms
The first five tunes in this course are designed to teach you what I call the “Foundational Rhythms of Old Time Music” They are definitely not the only rhythms found in Old Time Music, but they are definitely the most common and what should be in ever fiddlers tool kit.
Each of these five tunes use only one rhythm each so that you can learn each rhythm separately BEFORE trying to join separate Rhythms together.
I searched long and hard to find 5 melodies that could be played with only one rhythm that don’t sound silly. That is because most tunes are a combination of Rhythms that change frequently and at the whims of the fiddler.
The goal is that upon learning these first five tunes that you will have an embodied sense of the personalities of each of these 5 rhythms.
Phase 2: Combining Rhythms
Once you have the 5 rhythms in your tool kit then we can start with simple combinations of rhythms to create more dynamic rhythmic patterns.
Phase 3: Three Dimensional Bowing
Many beginners think of bowing as just back and forth, or up and down, but your bowing hand can actually make many different motions including, swoops, circles, and figure eights. I will show you what these shapes look AND sound like.
Phase 4: Building Repertoire
Once you have the main building blocks the next step is building your rhythmic and melodic repertoire. Over time you will start seeing that many tunes have similar patterns that can be predicted and anticipated. You will also begin being able to group tunes by various characteristics.
Phase 5 – The End Goal
Ultimately, being able to make rhythmic and melodic decisions on your own and up to speed is where we are headed and I will help you celebrate when we get there!
Mnemonics as Our Main Learning Tool
Mnemonics are simple memory devices. We use them all the time: “Lefty Lucy, Righty Tighty” or “Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge” In this course our main learning tool will be using a system of bowing mnemonics that I learned from one of my main teachers and mentor, Brad Leftwich.
I highly encourage you to sing the mnemonics along with the bowing as much as possible. This will help the rhythms ingrain in your memory banks enabling them to be recalled at will. This will also set a strong foundation if you decide you want to sing and fiddle at the same time down the road.
Eyes on My Bowing Hand
Whenever you are watching any fiddler, as much as possible keep your eyes on their bowing hand. That is where the magic happens. There is very little to be gained by staring at a fiddler’s melody fingers, but there is everything to be gained by staring at their bowing hand.
Specifically what you are looking for is the split second that my bowing hand changes direction. Changing bow directions is the main tool we will use to create rhythm and the timing of those changes is incredibly important. Try your best to sync up with my exact timing.
I am what is called a “down bower”. This means that I start my musically phrases on a down bow and end the phrases on an up bow. This sets me up to predictably start the next phrase, the next part, or even the next tune in a medley on a down bow thus saving a lot of energy that might be spent on course correcting when your bow ends up somewhere other than where you want it.
There are plenty of amazing fiddlers who are “up bowers” and you yourself may naturally be an up bower.
For the purposes of this course I encourage you to learn the tunes as a down bower so you can visually see that you are in symc with me and ensure that you are learning and playing the same rhythm as me.
Additional Content With The Videos
Each of the videos is accompanied by extensive additional content such as fiddler bios, videos, and related links. The intention here is not just to learn how to play old time fiddle, but to gain awareness about who were the people that played this music, what were their lives like, and what are the regional differences between fiddlers.
As much as possible I have added video footage of older fiddlers so you can hear what the sounded like and watch their bowing hand in action.