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Fiddling Fender Benders:String Crossing
by Hope Grietzer
In a way, playing the fiddle and getting a good sound from it can be a lot like driving a car. The Driver's Ed instructor I had way back when told our class that if we only remembered one thing from his course, we should remember that 85% of all car accidents happen in an intersection. Driving along on a road can be pretty mindless, but when you reach an intersection, suddenly there are decisions to make, signs and lights to pay attention to, and of course a myriad of other drivers to be wary of. From years of teaching fiddle students, I've found that, like the percentage of accidents in an intersection, a good percentage of the squeaks and squawks that muddy up fiddle playing can happen when crossing back and forth between strings.
Playing notes on just one string of the fiddle is a lot like driving down a straight road. Your bow is set at a good angle, your fingers land squarely on the string and you may be pretty pleased with the sound you're getting. But suddenly the tune you're playing requires you to cross back and forth between strings, maybe several times in a row, and it's like reaching that intersection in your car. Your brain suddenly has many more factors to deal with: coordinating the change in bow direction with the change in angle of draw, synchronizing the timing between moving the bow to the new string and moving the correct finger to the new string, changing your bow angle just enough to hit the right string and not overshoot, and possibly doing all of this several times back and forth in a row. Throw a combination of slurs into the mix and you can have all kinds of not-so-fun noises floating up out of our beloved wooden boxes.
If you find yourself prone to some of these fiddle fender-benders, here are a few tips to help you avoid them:
First, SLOW DOWN in your practice session. In order to solve a problem you have to be able to identify what it is. Slow your playing way down and really listen, try to identify exactly which string crossing the nasty noise is occurring on, and which notes it's occurring between.
Now isolate that string crossing, play just that little bit several times in a row. Here are a few questions to ask yourself while you're doing it:
At the moment my bow changes direction, is it squarely on the new string or is it lingering a split second on the old string, causing some "overhang" from the previous note?
If you're lingering on the old string, practice slowly playing the first note of your problem spot, pause, rock your bow angle to the new string, change direction and play the second note. Do this several times slowly. Practice it starting on a down bow, and practice it starting on an up bow. (Sometimes the problem can show up in one direction but not the other.) Gradually increase your speed between the notes, eliminating the pause while keeping the bow change clean. Don't let that "overhang" creep back in!
When my bow reaches the new string, is my left hand finger solidly on that string ready to play or is it a little late arriving or just starting to touch the string?
If your finger is late arriving, you may hear either the open string underneath for a split second or you may hear a harmonic squeak as your finger just touches the string, before it's fully planted. Try moving your finger into place a little sooner, with a firm, confident plant of the finger. Keeping all of your fingers hovering over the strings (roughly 1/2 inch or so) will help you get them where they need to be quicker. When your fingers have to travel from an inch or more away it's more difficult for them to be fast and accurate.
- Is my bow angle overshooting the target when I cross strings, causing other unwanted strings to chime in?
Place your bow on the A string. Now draw a long down bow, rocking the angle of your bow toward the D, back toward the E, back toward the D, etc, but ONLY TOUCHING THE A STRING. Depending on the arch of your bridge, you will find that there are several angles your bow can be at while playing on just one string. You want to choose the bow angle that is closest to the string you're crossing back and forth with.
For example: Place your bow on the A string again, this time at an angle where it is just clearing the E string. Draw a long down bow, and with small rocking motions move your bow between playing on the A string and playing on the E string, with a minimum amount of change in bow angle. Practice feeling how small a bow motion is really needed to change back and forth cleanly between the two strings.
Am I keeping my bowing straight, perpendicular to the strings, roughly midway between the bridge and fingerboard?
Often when all of the other distractions of string crossings creep in, the fundamental bowing skills that we take for granted can get lost in the mix. The result can be noises from the bow straying too close to the bridge or over the fingerboard, or from being drawn at such an odd angle that the tone from the strings doesn't ring true. Slow down your playing when practicing such phrases to give your brain time to learn to integrate everything it needs to do to produce a clean sound. Watch your bowing in a mirror to make sure you're drawing in a straight line and in the best possible spot between the bridge and fingerboard.
I hope these tips help out. May all of your future "road trips" on the fiddle be both delightful and sound great!
About the Author
Hope Grietzer currently fiddles for concerts and contradances at her new home in the Southern Tier of New York. She teaches workshops and group fiddle lessons at music festivals, through Broome Community College, and through the Tioga County Arts Council. Hope is president of the Southern Tier chapter of the New York State Old-Tyme Fiddlers' Association. Find out more at www.happyhollowmusic.com.