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An Easy Klezmer Piece | A Classical Violist Discovers Klezmer Violin

A Classical Violist Discovers Klezmer Violin

by Cookie Segelstein

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"So," my father, a refugee from the Carpathian Mountains in what is now Ukraine, said to me disapprovingly "You're playing that peasant music?" Such was his reaction when I began playing klezmer music about 15 years ago. It was the music of his childhood, Jewish wedding music from Eastern Europe. Klezmer is the music of the Jewish Diaspora, influenced by all the cultures among which European Jewry lived; Gypsy, Romanian, Hungarian, Ukrainian, Turkish, Greek, Russian and Polish. Like much music played for weddings around the world, it is meant to facilitate dancing.

My father was baffled as to why I, a professional classical violist/violinist would be studying old 78's and trying to develop a style that almost completely undid everything I learned in my Classical education. My vibrato went by the wayside, my hand position began to look too relaxed for the conservatory education I struggled to pay for, and I went back to learning music totally by ear.

In fact, this music filled my home as a child. Recordings of Yiddish singers, Romanian Gypsy and Hungarian Gypsy violinists, and wild Jewish klezmer clarinetists were often on the "hi-fi" in our house. There, not only the music, but the several languages spoken gave our home a taste of the "old country". And all I wanted was to be a regular American kid, with "normal" music and food that had English names and that wouldn't mystify my friends when they visited.

But after I had my first child, this music that I once rejected became my obsession. I interrogated my parents about their lives in Europe, about the wedding customs in their towns, and especially about the klezmorim, the musicians that played this music.

These days, although I am the assistant principal violist in the New Haven Symphony and principal in Orchestra New England, playing Jewish music on violin supplies most of my income.

Though many people who are familiar with klezmer music think of untamed clarinet runs, the most prominent instrument historically was the fiddle. Over that time period of about 300 years, an array of ornaments and elaborations specific to the fiddle have been developed in this genre.

This is not a genre that calls for improvisation in the way that we associate with jazz, but a player must be comfortable with ornamenting melody, and filling moments when the melody is static. As I tell my students, fills, trills, slides and krekhtsen. The last term, krekhts is the ultimate klezmer ornament. It is a Yiddish word that denotes the crack in the voice - a sob. This often provides the most challenge to a student learning this style. Here are a few, short explanations of some of the more general techniques.

Krekhts - a sob, the catch in the voice. This is achieved by interrupting a tone made with a lower finger, by using the 3rd or 4th finger while simultaneously stopping the bow stroke. The bow has to be drawn in a quick whipping motion to make this work well. I sometimes think of it as having the tone be "clothes lined". The stopping finger is kind of slapped on the string, but not necessarily all of the way down. A little of the harmonic (whistle tone) sound is fine.

Rumanian style trill - in which the upper tone is very close in pitch to the basic note, almost a quarter tone. I use a vibrato trill (shake my hand as if using vibrato, but glue my trilling finger to the finger below to make it sound like a voice quiver).

Slide - A scoop up or down to a note, used in many styles of music, achieved by dragging the finger up or down on the finger board to reach a note.

Fill - this is what gives each fiddler their individual style. Usually at the end or middle points of phrases, when the melody is static, often mode-wise up or down.

Rhythmic variation - Changing the rhythm of a phrase on the repeats.

Melodic variation - Changing the shape of a melodic fragment.

A note on the choice of notes in the basic and ornamented versions: In klezmer, the melody is the dominant factor, chords are secondary. Some older styles use chords very sparsely, sometimes using one chord through a whole tune. Often chord changes are not done on the first time through, but on subsequent passes through the piece. For example, although I have indicated an F chord in bar 5 , I would probably not play it. This kind of chord change is "modern", and probably not representative of the tune's origins. I would stay on the Dm until the G minor in bar 6. I might even play only D minor on the first time through, adding the Gminor in bar 6, and the Dm - Cm - Dm on the second time through.

Or I might even wait until I've played the tune through a couple of times to even add the G minor.

Here is an example of how to apply these ornaments to a section of a medium paced klezmer tune.

Cookie Segelstein, received her Masters degree in Viola from The Yale School of Music. She teaches klezmer fiddling at KlezKamp and The Festival of American Fiddle Tunes.

Her band, Veretski Pass, with Stu Brotman (3 stringed string bass, Polish folk cello, and drum) and Josh Horowitz (cymbalom, and chromatic accordion) have a new self-titled CD on Golden Horn ( For more information visit:

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