I once heard a quote from a music business executive who said that although up-tempo songs are the ones that get the most radio play, it's the slow songs that actually sell CDs. Slow music tugs at our heartstrings in a way that fast music can't compare. It fills us with longing and lifts us to a place where emotion can take flight in a thousand directions. It's no wonder that we are more likely to shell out the mere cost of a CD to repeat that experience over and over.
Although listening to a quick fiddle tune is exciting and great fun, some of my favorites to listen to are slow waltzes and airs. When playing slow tunes on the fiddle the bow gives us the amazing ability to draw out a note until it aches, to change a note's volume midstream, taper its ends, and seamlessly flow and combine it with the notes around it into swells of music that flow from the heart of the player to the heart of the listener. Alasdair Fraser once told a workshop that to get the true raw emotion from a Scottish air, try playing it with absolutely no vibrato, adding all of the emotion to the tune with the bow only.
As fiddlers, many of you know that it can often be more difficult to play slowly than it is to play quickly. In judging fiddle contests, I've seen time and again players with great sound on their hoedown and tune of choice lose points with all of the judges because of lesser ability and tone quality in their waltzes. Playing slowly and fully utilizing the capabilities of the bow can be almost like learning to play a new and different instrument.
In slow playing every instant of every note that's played is bare and exposed. Longer bow strokes force us out of the safer "middle zone" of the bow and into the frog or tip areas. For some, longer bow strokes are more difficult to keep in a straight line, and they can stray over the fingerboard or too near the bridge. But the biggest hurdle can often be making the leap from playing dry, rather mechanical slow notes to those that move and stir the heart of the listener. Let's take a look at a few ideas to help. Pick your favorite waltz or air to practice these on.
Changes in Bow Speed
The fundamental building block to remember for adding emotion to your playing is this: quicker bow movements are louder, slower bow movements are quieter. Here are some ways to use this basic tool:
- Feather in a note. This works well on an up bow. Start the note softly with a slow bow, increase your bow speed as you approach the middle of the bow.
- Taper off a note. This works well on a down bow. Start the note confidently with a strong bow, slow down as you approach the tip.
- Create a swell in a single note by combining the two techniques above. Start the note with a slow bow, increase your speed in the middle, then slow the bow back down at the end. (Caution: a slow bow near the frog end will cause crunch sounds unless you lighten your pressure. You may even find yourself "carrying" the weight of the bow a bit near the frog.)
- Create a swell across notes. Are you familiar with that glorious run of ascending notes in the A part of Jay Ungar's "Ashokan Farewell"? That's a great place to try this technique out. Start with a slower bow on the low notes of the run. As the notes move higher, increase your bow speed and volume, changing direction on each note, until you reach the high "F#" on the E string. This will be your strongest note; it's like reaching the top of a mountain and seeing the view. You'll notice your bows become longer and longer as you increase the speed of draw. Important: increasing bow speed is NOT increasing tempo, be careful that you don't rush as the notes get louder.
Know the Effects of Your Bow
- A down bow can create a slightly stronger sound than an up bow since the bow is heavier at the frog end. Strong down bows can be used to add passion. An up bow is easier to start with a lighter touch, and can be used well for a gentler start to a phrase.
- Pay attention to how you slur notes together, try not to let notes slur randomly. Too many long slurs, or the same number of notes slurred in each consecutive bow have the potential to rob a tune of its energy. Slurs create a softening, blending effect. Single bows have a deliberate feeling. Experiment with mixing the two to create an emotional effect that pleases you.
- You have options on how to handle changes in bow direction. You can make them range from strong and deliberate to seamless and soft, nearly invisible to the listener. Practice both types of direction changes and listen to how they affect the feel of a tune.
Think in Phrases
When we speak we don't spit out a monotone sequence of words like the clacking of a typewriter. We use subtle pauses between words, phrases where the tone of the voice goes higher or lower, where its volume changes, where the words suddenly come out quick and excited or slow and relaxed. These changes give our voices emotion.
Experiment with approaching the slow tunes you play not as a sequence of notes but as a sequence of phrases, like lyrics from a singer. Each phrase has its own character, its own beginning, middle, and end. Use the techniques above to help define the character of each phrase and to define those phrase beginnings and endings. What is each phrase trying to say? Is it wistful and full of longing? Is it happy and excited? Confident? Sad and mournful? Is it building up the emotion of the tune or winding it down? Try to make your fiddle's voice speak in manner similar to a human voice and it will have a greater effect on the listener.
Learning to make your fiddle's voice speak can be wonderfully rewarding and can elevate your playing to another level as you gain subtlety and finesse in your bow control techniques. Happy fiddling!
About the Author
Hope Grietzer has performed extensively at major festivals throughout Colorado and the Midwest with the band "Black Rose", and currently fiddles at her new home in the Southern Tier of New York. Hope teaches fiddle at music festivals, through Broome Community College, and through the Tioga County Arts Council. She leads monthly adult and kid fiddle tune jams, and is president of the Southern Tier chapter of the New York State Old-Tyme Fiddlers' Association. Find out more at www.happyhollowmusic.com.