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Fiddle Pedagogy, Research of the Irish Fiddle Method And A Pedagogical Outline:

Part One

by Cassie Wetherill

Fiddling is an effective alternative teaching method with a variety of advantages for string students, including aural training, advanced rhythmic and technique practice and ensemble experience. The fiddle method represents a variety of cultures and world sounds, one of the most influential of those being the Irish, fiddling method. There are fiddle techniques specific to the cello and many ways of arranging fiddle tunes for students who play viola, cello and bass. The advantages for my students who learned fiddle tunes were immeasurable. Fiddling teaches a diverse collection of sounds and techniques and should be used in the traditional classroom.

The Fiddle Method in Celtic Culture

Traditional music and dance have remained a central part of the Irish culture and the Irish fiddle has played an essential role in that tradition. There are few, if any, fiddle traditions that are so rich, dynamic and play an important part of the international profile.

Irish fiddle tunes are learned, practiced and passed on at jam sessions in pubs throughout Ireland. These sessions provide a clear example of the Celtic culture, relaxed, fun and social. Sessions are informal and anyone is welcome to sit down and join. There may be two or three musicians, or there may be a whole room. Typical instruments at the jam sessions include fiddle, tin whistle, flute, accordion, bodhran, tenor banjo, guitar, mandolin, bouzouki and uilleann pipes. Participants in the jam session take turns leading tunes which are typically repeated and then played in strings of 3 or 4 tunes at a time. The tunes are usually played in near perfect unison. A regular fiddler in such sessions will have a repertoire of hundreds of tunes, all learned by ear!

In the Irish fiddle repertoire there are several types of typical tunes. The largest group of tunes is the reel. The reel has two beats to the bar which is then split into 8 semiquavers, or sixteenth notes. [Reels are usually notated in cut time which may give the non-initiate the impression that there are 4 pulses per measure. - The Editor] Most reels have repeated 8 bar sections making them 32 bars long. Reels can be fast and flashy and show the fiddler's technique.

Jigs have a bouncy rhythm based on the dotted crochet (quarter note), or three quavers. They are usually in 6/8 time, called the single or double jig [depending on the frequency of quarter or eighth notes in the melody - The Editor]. Slip jigs are in 9/8 time and have a relaxed and airy feel. Jigs are occasionally three-part or four-part, but like most Irish tunes are usually two-part.

Polkas are more straight forward and are often associated with dancing. They are in 2/4 time and are played most commonly in the South West of Ireland. Hornpipes are thought to have originated in England but play a special part in the Irish fiddle tradition. Hornpipes are in 4/4 time and have a bouncy or even swinging rhythm with an alternating dotted crochet followed by the semi-quaver.

Slow airs and waltzes, while not typically played at sessions, are derived from the old style of Gaelic singing and make more demands on tone and intonation than other dance styles. The blind harpist, Turlough O'Carolan (1670-1738), contributed to this repertoire with ambitious and imaginative tunes.

Ornamentation and bowing in Irish fiddling gives the music a color, spice and traditional Irish sound. Without these ornamentations and specific bowing patterns, tunes would lack the sparkle that makes them so exciting. Bowing is crucial and usually very short and accented. Trebling is a common technique created by a flick of the wrist with the bow hand to create three quavers. Playing five bowed notes in a crochet is called double trebling.

The simplest fingered ornament is the cut, a single flickered grace note used to separate two notes of the same pitch. A double cut adds two grace notes within the same bow as the main note. There are also long and short rolls, five notes going first above then below and then back to the main note, all within the space of one crochet or dotted crochet. Part of the variety of Irish music and personal flare comes from the freedom to place ornaments where they seem appropriate.

Regional Celtic Fiddle Styles

Regional fiddle styles, like dialect, vary across the country. Luckily Irish fiddle traditions have been carefully studied and documented. The Donegal style, from the wild North West corner of Ireland, is fast and aggressive with emphasis on short powerful bow strokes and frequent bowed triplets. Finger ornamentation is sparse while double stopping and droning are common, reflecting the influence of Scottish piping. Tommy Peoples and Paddy Glacklin are leading fiddlers in this style.

The fiddle style of Sligo has been largely influenced by Michael Coleman, an Irishman who immigrated to New York in the 1920s to make the earliest recordings of Irish fiddle music. Coleman had a light, bouncy style that was rich in ornaments. Kevin Burke is among the leading players of this style today.

The Clare style is characterized by slower tempos, subtle ornamentation and the use of long fluid bow strokes covering many notes at a time. The current champion of this style is the widely revered Martin Hayes. He is famous for what he calls "the lonesome touch" by copying the breathing and sensitivity of the human voice.

Cork and Kerry, in the South West, have a strong tradition of polka playing. Dennis Murphy has given his name to numerous polkas. While there are other regional styles, the above traditional styles have been carefully studied and remain a key part of Irish history.

Fiddling Techniques Specific to the Cello

I have learned a great deal about arranging fiddle pieces for cello mostly through trial and error in my own playing. Along with this method, I attended a master class and lecture on fiddle arranging in the classroom hosted by Janet Farrar-Royce at the Ohio Music Education Association Convention. The lecture was highly informative and gave me many ideas for arranging for not only cello, but also viola and bass.

I learned that arranged pieces should stay true to fiddling. Pieces should be kept in the same key and only transposed through octaves. [This is the approach of a segment of the first generation of classically trained music teachers that have discovered fiddling. There is an alternative approach of transposing pieces down an octave to allow cellists and viola players to use the same bowing and finger patterns as fiddlers. Whether one or a combination of these will become more popular will have to wait for a few generations of teachers to absorb fiddling concepts. Certainly, some allowances must be made for the sheer length of a cello fingerboard. - The Editor.] This octave transposition should be made at appropriate times in the phrase as to not disrupt the melody. As cellists, when jumping down an octave, we have to keep in mind low F# and C# that seem to dominate the keys of fiddling pieces. I also learned that in jumping octaves, it is okay to created turns using harmony notes.

When teaching tunes to students, simple is always best. It is easier to stay on the D and A string if the melody does not require much shifting. The lower strings do not speak well, making this another reason to avoid them when possible.

Shifting is a problem for cellists when the fiddle tune is taken down an octave. We run into the problem of either too many string crossings to be able to play the tune quickly, or too many shifts to make the melody sound clean. Through my experience, I have found that shifting can be more relaxed in fiddle music and that it is okay for there to be a slide between two notes in the melody and many songs require slides. I have also found that turns (double cuts) and trills (cuts) can often be played with more ease if in a position, rather than including a shift in the middle of the set of notes.

All of these aspects are important to consider when teaching children. We should make fiddling fun and relaxed, yet we still have to have the techniques necessary to play the pieces well. With each new song, I figure out ways to make these techniques accessible to students of all ages.

End of Part One

About the Author
Cassie Wetherill is a recent graduate of Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. and holds a Bachelors Degree of Music in Education. As a music education major specializing in strings, Miss Wetherill completed an independent study with Professor and fiddler, Carolyn Cutler Osborn, on the pedagogical effects of fiddle music in the traditional classroom.

She is a Suzuki Certificated Teacher for cello book one through the Ithaca Suzuki Institute and taught private and group lessons with Suzuki Music Columbus for two years.


Haigh, Chris. "Irish Fiddle". Fiddling Around the World. 2007. 7 December 2008.

Royce, Janet Farrar. "Arranging Fiddle Tunes for Viola and Cello" "Writing a Bassline for Cello and Bass". Teaching Fiddle Tunes and Techniques. 2006. 29 June 2008.

"The Ash Grove". Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. 2008. 27 June 2008.

Weiser, Glenn Barrett. "Celtic Main Tunebook". Glenn's Celtic Music Page; Traditional Irish Music. 29 June 2008.

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