Thoughts on Getting Started as a Fiddler

by Stacy Phillips

As a teacher I am often faced with adults with little or no musical background who wish to learn to fiddle, be it bluegrass, Celtic, old time or even swing. Here are my thoughts on the first steps that should be taken. There is no one correct way of getting started, or of holding the instrument, so read what follows with that in mind.

I am a self-taught musician. On the violin that involved intently watching fiddlers I admired, constructing mental and aural pictures of their form, and copying them. It also involved lot of analytical listening to recordings of my favorites. I experimented with different holds of both bow and violin and went through several overhauls and the drudgery of breaking habits that were inhibiting my playing.

To avoid some of that I often recommend that complete beginners take a couple of months of lessons with a classically trained teacher. An experienced teacher of this sort has spent a lot of time with the details of a grip and posture that works for a large percentage of the populace, i.e. standard classical form. They can also point the direction toward drawing a good tone with your bow. However, the typical bow grips can be a bit too stiff if your aim is being a dance fiddler (where you might need to play for long periods of time).

One possible negative of this approach include being saddled with an instructor who is unaware of non-art music styles, and tries to force everyone into one mold. Happily that breed is becoming rare. Of course if you find someone who knows how to communicate the basics, and plays the kind of fiddling you like, latch on to him or her.

That does not rule out self-teaching. It's just that violin is such an inhuman thing to do. Many players develop physical ailments from the stress. Be very aware of aches that crop up when practicing. Keep both wrists loose. See if you can develop the habit of loosening your wrists should they tighten, even as you are playing.

Establishing effective practice habits is a universal concern for instructors. As an adult it will take longer to train new muscles and tendons than it would a child. Don't get frustrated if things don't come as quickly as you would like. Learn as slowly as necessary to play correctly and in time - even stupidly slow. Every time you repeat a mistake without correction, you are learning that mistake. When you get it right very slowly, you are ready to begin positive reinforcement.

Most beginners are psyched out by the absence of frets and the challenge of playing in tune. They spend all their time with noting. Be aware that your bow hand is as important, and more subtly difficult. You should spend about as much time on your bowing as your noting when you commence learning. Do you want slurs, accents, particular notes on down bows? Practice in front of a mirror. Is the bow always perpendicular to the strings? Do you look relaxed? If you look tense, you probably are.

If an instrument is next on your shopping list, that subject could take up a whole column. It is best to have a fiddler with you so you can listen to your prospective purchase. You can spend from $200 to $500 on a beginner's violin at the local music shop or at violin specialist. Many of the latter don't stock instruments below the $1000 range. It can be a shock to realize that a minimally decent bow can cost the same as the fiddle.

        Stacy Phillips

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