Weaning Yourself Off of Printed Music
by Carolyn Osborne
The problem with relying on printed music for fiddle tunes is that the music doesn’t really represent how the tune is actually played. Most fiddle tunes were/are played at dances, and if you play Bill Cheatham the exact same way for the ten minutes it takes to get through a set, then you are going to get bored stiff. So, fiddlers vary the tunes.
Also, fiddlers tend to conceptualize tunes differently from classical musicians. In classical music, we have a scale-centered concept of music. If you have a great deal of classical training, particularly music theory, then you are aware not just of chord changes but of which note in the chord you are playing—root, third, fifth, etc. So, when we hear a fiddle tune, we want to play the same thing note for note.
But traditional musicians, in my observation, don’t have the same concept of music. They tend to think in terms of chords and don’t worry so much about whether they are playing the root, third, or fifth of the chord.
Also, again from observation and listening to traditional players fiddle, I believe fiddlers think about a tune in terms of “key points” and “transitions.” Key points are typically played in a similar way from version to version but transitions vary. For example, Soldier’s Joy often begins in some kind of broken chord or scale that goes melodically from A to D and back to A, which would be a key point. In the A part, there are three key points with transitions between them (the first on a D chord, the second on an A7, the third on a D) and then an end that moves from A7 to D. When the key points are in time, and the transitions on the correct chords in time, the tune is recognized as Soldier’s Joy.
What this means is that when people transcribe fiddle tunes, they transcribe the key points and one way to get through the transitions, but not all the possible ways to play the tune. A classical musician playing a memorized version of a fiddle tune sticks out in a jam because he or she plays the tune the same every time.
Another factor which makes it hard for classical musicians to transfer to traditional fiddle styles is the imperative we all learned, to “get it right.” To play what is written on the page, perfectly, all the time. Fiddle players are concerned with quality, too, but not in relation to playing the tune the same way every single time.
How to get away from notation?
I think it is important to recognize the different ways of understanding music and to begin by listening to fiddle tunes played by traditional musicians. For example, one of my favorite fiddle players is Clark Kessinger because he was so inventive in his variations. Don’t listen in order to try to figure out what a fiddle player is doing note for note—because that’s really not different from playing by music. Instead, think about the concept of the music and think of each portion as a “lick”—a small piece of music that can be inserted as a functional element. You might take a key point pattern from Paul Warren and a transition from Kenny Baker.
The point is not to memorize a bunch of transitions and key points, but rather to hear the possibilities and then—here is the second key—to let yourself experiment. It’s really okay to experiment. Sometimes when you play something you didn’t expect (which is called a “mistake” in classical music) it ends up being better than what you were intending.
“Oh, but I don’t know how to play by ear,” you say. Okay. Then here’s how you learn. Start with familiar songs you can sing—Mary Had A Little Lamb, Christmas songs, patriotic songs, etc. Play them in a number of different finger patterns—e.g., key of A with open strings on A and E, key of A on fingered strings (G and D). The goal is to get your brain to connect the sound you are producing with something that you are imagining—the song.
Traditional players have heard fiddle tunes all their lives, so they are not learning something unfamiliar. While you are working on being able to play familiar songs by heart, start listening to the fiddle tradition that most intrigues you. Listen to the same tunes by different fiddlers and don’t worry. Your mind is bigger than you can consciously imagine and it is picking up the notes.
As you listen to tunes, there will be one that will stand out in your mind as something that you can do. That’s the first tune to work on. Don’t try to play with the recording because you’ll do the note for note thing. Instead use the technique that traditional fiddlers used when they went to a neighbor’s house to listen to the Grand Ol’ Opry on a battery radio and then wanted to play something they heard—sing the tune to yourself and work it out on the fiddle. Check with the recording to see if your key points and transitions are in the right spots. Work it out letting your mind relax and “let your fingers do the walking.”
It is possible to get away from learning by music and towards being able to play variations of a tune spontaneously. It requires developing a different mindset from classical music—and dropping the particular form of perfectionism that written music inspires.
about the author
Until recently, Carolyn Osborne was the co-director of the Gahanna-Lincoln High School fiddlers, Gahanna, Ohio. She teaches in the Dept. of Education at Capital University.