Learning Without Lessons

by Stacy Phillips

I learned to play fiddle without any formal lessons. But I did learn a lot by watching, listening and asking questions when I thought I was not going to be a pain. And if it was important enough, even when I was a pain.

I played dobro guitar in the band Breakfast Special with the great fiddler, Kenny Kosek. I watched him very carefully. When I first played a bit for him, he thought that I looked more like him than he did! I had internalized many of his mannerisms in the effort to get his sound which, of course, is not the answer. But the real key was listening to him.

It is critical to have the "sound" in your head. You should listen to recordings that inspire you. These should not be in the background while you do something else, but should have your complete attention. Having a very clear idea of what you want to sound like can help your body to do the things that will achieve that sound.

Watch live shows. Everyone has their own versions of tunes. And most great fiddlers play the same tune differently each performance. While it makes sense to, at first, learn one version of a solo, hearing a range of ways to play will help you learn the "language" of fiddling, ie. what variations and sounds "fit" and what does not sound "right".

Without an instructor's critical ears, you have to listen carefully to yourself. Tape record your versions of tunes. Play as slowly as necessary to play perfectly. With fiddling, speed and stamina are such important issues that they need to be addressed early on in your education. After you can play a piece at a coherent (be it slow, even stupidly slow) tempo consistently, it is okay to occasionally try and blaze through at a constant speed. Use a metronome or play along with a recording. Some classically trained violinists may be horrified by this suggestion, but fiddling has different aims than art music.

Try to play any new piece slowly and correctly before moving on to other practice. The body best remembers the last thing played.

In fiddling we all make mistakes, some of us, constantly. You have to learn to play through mistakes. Again, after getting comfortable at a slow tempo, learn to play through mistakes. Don't break tempo or rhythm. Practice getting back on board with no hesitation. If you make the same mistake twice, stop, isolate the error and slowly correct it.

These days there are many good fiddle teaching videos (even one by me, on bluegrass fiddle). Watching a video by a great art music violinist can also be very helpful. I can remember gazing just the right wrist of Jascha Heifitz for about half an hour. That taught me something about being relaxed while playing.

When practicing, pay attention to your body. Stop as soon as you feel any discomfort. Become aware the moment discomfort begins. Then analyze what you are doing to cause that strain. Watching yourself play in a mirror can help.

Have patience, and more patience. Don't get discouraged with what you think is slow progress. Correct playing at a sluggish, slow speed is infinitely preferable to sloppy fast. Speed will come.

More about practice habits in a future article.

Stacy Phillips

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