Technology Can Help You Fiddle
By Carolyn Osborne
In the good ol’ days, when people put their furniture outside on a Saturday night and had house dances (Appalachia) or bals de mason (Cajun), youngsters learned fiddle tunes by listening and watching older fiddle players. After a few years of being around a fiddle player, a kid might openly borrow or sneak and borrow a fiddle and try out tunes on his or her own. In other words, kids learned fiddling the same way they learned to talk—by hearing other people talk and then trying out babbling, then words, then sentences on their own.
It’s not the good ol’ days anymore. We don’t have time for Saturday night dances and anyway you can always buy a CD, rip it to your computer, and synch it to your mp3 player. You don’t have to wait until Saturday night to hear music.
We also don’t learn fiddling the way people used to. Popular culture has made inroads into most isolated areas in the US and has disrupted many old traditions. At first it was radio. Now it’s television and the internet—I’m too busy playing World of Warcraft to go to a neighbor’s dance.
Yet as much as we may perceive that the internet has robbed us of important traditions, it has also delivered them not just to our doorstep but into the living room on our wireless laptops. Technology provides some important tools to help us to learn traditional forms of fiddling—not just the local form but any form we care about.
In the transition between traditional forms of learning and the internet were the days of sound recordings and radio. While you could watch Paul Warren on the Flatt and Scruggs Grand Ol’ Opry television show fiddle Durham’s Bull, that show only came on once a week and you only got to see him play it once. But if you bought the 78 or the 33, you could listen to it over and over again. You could even slow it down, although that entailed compensating in your mind for the drop in pitch.
But what you couldn’t do with a sound recording is to really tell how the bowing was done. Is Lily Mae Ledford slurring those two notes? How does Kenny Baker bow Jerusalem Ridge?
Now, we have Youtube.com and many of those old shows are posted. You can watch them over and over and like the little kid at the barn dance, learn not just by listening but by using your eyes. You can even download Youtube videos if you install RealPlayer (http://www.real.com) on your computer. With that software installed, if you pass your mouse over the upper right hand corner of the video, a box will pop up that says, “Download this video.” Click on that. It will download in fly or flash format. You can get a free fly to mpeg converter at http://www.rivavx.com/index.php?encoder.
You can look up specific fiddlers you know about from just about any tradition, although in some cases the fiddler may not be listed individually—you’ll need to know the name of the band. Alternatively, you can search the type of fiddling you like or just “fiddle” to see what you get. And there are instructional videos you can watch.
Also you can get archival material in a number of places. Smithsonian’s Folkways (http://www.folkways.si.edu/) has recordings and the Digital Library of Appalachia (http://www.aca-dla.org/) also has a lot of material available. My favorite fiddle tune from DLA is “Give Me Back My Hoed Cake You Long-tailed Nanny!”
Suppose, however, that you really like a particular recording you have on CD and there is no version of it on video anywhere. Technology can help you here as well. You can now get software that will slow down a CD or mp3 recording but not alter the pitch. Windows Media Player will do this. Under the menu “View,” select Enhancements and you will find “Play Speed Settings.”
There is an even better option and that is the Amazing Slow Downer, available at http://www.ronimusic.com/. You can try this out for free—the free version will play the first two tracks of a CD or the first 1/3 of an mp3 file. The Amazing Slow Downer will not only slow a CD down (or speed it up if you are a hot shot) but it will also allow you to adjust pitch to account for someone’s use of a capo or tuning too high. This software will also “loop”—you can choose a short section, say the fiddle break of a bluegrass performance, and it will play that bit over and over again.
In addition to sources for learning, the internet offers free metronomes (http://www.metronomeonline.com/, http://webmetronome.com/). A metronome can help you to get honest about your timing—with it you will discover where you are speeding up or slowing down. When you work regularly with a metronome you become a stronger musician.
We can long for the “good ol’ days,” but they are gone. In their place are some technological alternatives that allow us to preserve the music we love—and to learn it as easily as possible.
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.