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December 2006 · Bimonthly

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Arranging Fiddle Tunes Explored

by Peter Rolland & Mary Ann Willis

This issue features something a bit different, but I hope a precedent of more to come. In the following exchange of ideas, Peter Rolland and Mary Ann Willis discuss Mary Ann's article in the August, 2006 issue of Fiddle Sessions.

The subject is traditional settings of fiddle tunes and how to use fiddling as an aid to general violin techniques. Here is the exchange of letters.

The Editor

I took a look at Mary Ann Willis' article on Arranging Fiddle Tunes to Teach Violin Techniques, Part 5 (August 2006), and I feel compelled to comment. At the outset she quotes: "The intention of this series of articles is not to present the tunes as they are traditionally done. Instead the goal is to use easy, popular music as a vehicle for the student to practice and learn more advanced techniques."

I personally believe that modifying tunes beyond the bounds of common traditional performance variation to suit a pedagogical purpose ought not to be done.

The first half Mary Ann's arrangement of Liberty departs significantly from my perception of a standard setting in the last half of measures 2 and 4. She uses two quarter notes instead of the usual four eighth notes. To make it clear to the readers, these two measures are shown below from Mary Ann's arrangement followed by what I regard as a more standard setting (though certainly not the only possible setting) for those measures.

Mary Ann chose Liberty as a natural vehicle for teaching students how to rock the bow back and forth from one string to the next. She changed measures 2 and 4 in order to give the students more practice with string crossing.

Mary, despite your excellent intentions as a teacher, I think this approach does a small harm to fiddling and ought to be avoided, even if it is pedagogically convenient. Someone not steeped in fiddle traditions would probably think the change is minor and no big deal. But I'd bet that if you polled a lot of experienced fiddlers who heard your arrangement, a high percentage of them would say that it doesn't sound right. I think it's better to teach a more traditional setting of Liberty. The pedagogical objective would still be achieved. True, the student would only have to rock the bow 4 times instead of 6 times during the first half of the tune, but they would learn a version that doesn't conflict with common practice. I think that's a good trade-off. The students who learn your arrangement won't have any sense of doing it "wrong", despite your disclaimer, and even if they consider the possibility that it's not quite right, they wouldn't have a clue as to what's wrong with it. Why make a student go to all the trouble of learning a non-mainstream tune version? Why take such liberties with Liberty?

I've witnessed the following scenario a great many times. Children learn badly modified school versions of tunes in their orchestra class and then proudly show off them to other string students. Performing school groups play these bogus arrangements of tunes in public (shopping malls, retirement homes, etc.) where they meet with an enthusiastic crowd response. Some kids get very excited about fiddling and attempt to join the mainstream fiddle community. They go to fiddle contests and play these bogus arrangements at the competition. At their very first lesson with a real fiddle teacher, they demonstrate what they know, and the teacher has a real dilemma on his hands. If the teacher tells them that they should relearn those tunes because they notes are wrong, the student might very well resent the implied slur on their school music teacher, get discouraged and lose enthusiasm for fiddling. On the other hand, an honest teacher wouldn't want to sanction a bogus version. I'm usually forced to sidestep the issue and start the student on tunes they don't already "know".

I think the correct procedure is to seek tunes that in a traditional setting can be used to teach the particular technique. Don't monkey with the tunes & adjust them out of traditional bounds to serve a particular pedagogical purpose. Sure, players play them differently from region to region, from book to book, but let's try to keep tunes legit when we use them as teaching tools.

Mary Ann, I hope this doesn't seem too harsh. Please continue making your valuable contributions to the development of pedagogical materials as you have done with your numerous publications.

Peter Rolland

Response from Mary Ann:

Peter, thank you for writing. I admit having taken a "liberty" with "Liberty" as you said. I think it's standard pedagogical practice to simplify popular tunes so the student can play a fun tune with less hassle.

In this case, the four eighth notes I replaced with two quarters involved an eighth note string crossing over to the A string, followed by an immediate return to the E. Some students find this problematic, so in the interest of letting the student experience the song, and the main pedagogical intent of rocking the bow, I let it go.

That said, your point is well taken. It was certainly not my intent to pass off this "beginner version" as the original tune, yet I can now see how this could perpetrate into the community, to the detriment of the tune's original integrity.

I believe it all hinges on what's considered "right." In my experience, learning a fiddle tune is often an evolutionary process; a student learns it from one source and subsequently refines it with respect to his/her increasing technical abilities and/or exposure to other versions. Fiddle camps and jams offer excellent opportunities for this.

If you have some good sounding, dirt simple fiddle tunes for beginners, I'm all ears!

Warm regards,

Mary Ann

About the Authors

Peter 'Doc' Rolland is known throughout Arizona as a dynamic fiddling entertainer, teacher and custodian of Arizona's fiddling heritage. He traveled throughout Arizona for The National Endowment for the Arts and The Arizona Commission on the Arts from 1979-1981 collecting old-time music and fiddle tunes from elderly fiddlers. He has several self-published fiddle books and CDs. Although he works primarily a fiddling entertainer and teacher, he is no stranger to fiddle competitions and has won numerous state and national awards.

Mary Ann Willis
  • Professional violinist, performing and teaching in Houston Texas
    1977-1999 with The Gypsies. 2000-present with Moodafaruka
  • Author of eight book/recording volumes of ethnic and classical music for Mel Bay Publications (5 published to date under Mary Ann Harbar)
  • Played with numerous symphony orchestras throughout the United States, and the Festival dei Due Mondi in Spoleto, Italy
  • Houston Community College faculty member starting in 1988
  • BA in music from University of California

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