Fiddle Forays This is the "RIGHT" way to play Irish Fiddle

This is the "RIGHT" way to play Irish Fiddle


I know what you're thinking... saying that there's one right way to play Irish fiddle sounds pretty dogmatic.

And you're right! With all the different regional and individual styles out in the world, there really is no one "right" way to play Irish traditional music. However, there are certain factors that need to be in place, working together to create a style that creates a real feel for this genre. In this post, I pulled 7 key factors out to examine more closely. If you put your focus on developing these areas, you are much more likely to come away with an authentic sounding Irish lilt in your fiddling.

Factor 1: Rhythm

This is the meat and potatoes of good Irish fiddling, especially if you plan to play with others in a session or stage performance setting. If you don't have a good steady pulse to your playing, you're going to end up sounding all over the place. While there is variation within Irish music, there still needs to be a structure in place. That structure is your rhythm!

It's a good idea to know all the meters for the different tune types, so you can then fit in your different rhythms. For a comprehensive guide to the different tune types, visit this post.

Factor 2: Tone

This is an area that iOs certainly up to personal preference, but is worth examining early on in your fiddle studies. If your bow is creating wispy scratchy sounds you don't like, or alternatively if you want a bit more grit in your playing, then you're going to want to spend some time improving your tone. 

I like to say there are 5 different elements of good tone: placement, parameter, angle, weight + speed. I cover these more in depth in private lessons and my online courses, so if you'd like extra help with these please do reach out!

Factor 3: Phrasing

Once you have your rhythm and tone locked in, it's time to play around with your personal style -- call it a dialect if you will. Most tunes are made up of 2 sets of 8 bar phrases: part A and part B. We can further divide these phrases down into a mini conversation. So your A part has 4 roughly 2 bar phrases. This is especially helpful to think of when you're memorizing a tune because it's easier to memorize a sentence that naturally flows together rather than a series of individual unrelated words. 

Factor 4: Listening

I usually start off with this one, because it really is such an important key when you're applying any of these other factors. You need to listen to expert Irish traditional musicians in order to have any idea what the rhythm is, not to mention gathering ideas for what you like to hear in the tone and phrasing categories. However, I decided to stick the listening factor in the middle this time so you wouldn't immediately write this post off as "obvious." 

After all, Irish music is primarily an oral tradition, with tunes being passed down generations through learning by ear. As someone who did not grow up playing Irish music, I can't stress enough how valuable it was to listen to Kevin Burke, Máiréad Nesbitt and Martin Hayes throughout my childhood even though I wasn't playing reel rhythms and ornamenting with rolls just yet. When I started getting more serious about Irish fiddling in my college years, a lot of the "real feel" or lilt came from all those recordings I'd listened to for years and managed to internalize. It doesn't matter how old you are here -- the more you listen, the more you're going to absorb and be able to directly translate to your instrument.

Factor 5: Ornamentation

It's important to have rhythm, tone and phrasing fairly well in hand before you start adding a lot of ornamentation. When you're ready to add some more nuance and characteristically Irish style ornaments to your playing, I suggest starting off with just one note. This could mean sliding up to a note, cutting, or adding in a grace note (also called a lead in). As you get more comfortable, you can start playing around with rolls and bowed triplets. 

Repetition will be your friend here because many of these movements go by so quickly that it will take a bit of time to build muscle memory. Once you've got the feel of the roll and other ornaments down, you can further challenge yourself by mixing and matching these in various patterns. Which leads us to...

Factor 6: Variation

Now that you have a good handle on all the foundations of good Irish fiddle style and a solid framework to your fiddling, it's time to go the next step and challenge yourself to vary up the tune. This truly is putting your own spin on the notes, whether you decide to change an individual note or switch up the types of ornaments you use each time through a tune. Liz Carroll is a great resource for coming up with new ways to vary a tune, and you'll find that more often than not you'll hear two fiddlers play one tune in 2 totally different ways!

Irish traditional music was not meant to be played the exact same way every time through the tune, so as you get comfortable with the different tunes and all the other factors, it's time to put in your extra stylistic flair to the tunes you play.

Factor 7: Having a Growth Mindset

Now that we're at the end of our factors, it's important to realize that there's no end to this stylistic journey of yours. Tastes change, and we evolve as humans and musicians. Therefore it's essential to always be curious, be willing to learn new things and familiarize ourselves with different perspectives. If you approach Irish music with a fixed, closed mindset then there is no opportunity for you to grow -- instead you stay on a flat path that goes on and on with no excitement and will eventually fizzle into boredom and apathy. That's not very characteristic of the playful, lively music we know and love!

If you'd like to watch the video version of this post, here it is!

I'd love to hear your takeaways and which factor you feel you need to focus on the most -- you can let me know in the comments below! Happy fiddling, my friend!


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