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Pauline Lerner

Fiddle Retreat: Part Two

February 27, 2007 at 6:01 AM

Continued from my blog, 2/24/07

When I attended a Fiddle Retreat in January, I learned so many new, fun things in ways possible only at live workshops.

I’ve always been intrigued and intimidated by fiddlers playing in alternate tunings, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to attend workshops on the subject. We were advised to bring spare strings, but I brought a spare fiddle, and that worked even better. I now keep one of my fiddles at home tuned permanently to an alternate tuning. Elke Baker, champion Scottish fiddler and immensely talented teacher, told us about ADAE, AEAE, and AEAC# tunings and then focused on AEAE, which works particularly well for tunes in A major. She played the same tune for us twice, first on a conventionally tuned fiddle and then on an AEAE fiddle, in each case playing only on the two upper strings. I didn’t expect that the differences in resonances on the two lower strings would make such a big difference in the total sound, but they really did. The two renditions sounded dramatically different. I’ve been playing in AEAE tuning quite a bit at home lately, and I can hear the difference almost note by note. It’s a lot of fun to play tunes in A first on my GDAE fiddle and then on my AEAE fiddle. I get a kick out of it each time. The AEAE tuning gives a very open, almost twangy sound. Another instructor taught us some West Virginia fiddle tunes in a different alternate tuning, GDGD. This tuning gave a sweeter sound than AEAE. The double stop-unison pairs, G on the D string played with the higher open G string, sounds especially sweet and warm. When I play with this tuning, I have to adjust my habits and remember which fingered double stops sound good together. It is a lot of fun because old familiar tunes sound so pretty in such a different way.

Playing in Pairs: Scottish and Shetland Styles excited me in several ways. I love both Scottish and Shetland fiddle music and play quite a bit of both. Shetland fiddle music, one of my very favorite genres, is relatively obscure, and there are few opportunities to hear it played live or play it with other people. Playing in pairs is something I love to do, but I’ve been winging it, and some live instruction and opportunities to play came as a rare blessing. I discussed my fascination with Shetland fiddle music with Elke Baker, our instructor. The Shetland Islands, which lie between the Scottish mainland and Norway, are remote, sparsely populated, cold, windy, rocky, and damp. They have many inlets with interesting rock formations offshore. The land is flat, and the buildings are small and squat, like army barracks. There are few trees, and most of them only grow waist-high. Their height is limited by nearby brick walls which provide shelter from the wind. I told Elke that I find it curious that such an inhospitable looking land has produced some of the warmest, happiest fiddle music in the world. Elke said that all the warmth and happiness are within the people who live there, and they express it in their music. Fiddle music is very popular in Shetland. I’ve read that Shetland has a higher concentration of fiddlers than any other place in the world. Elke said that playing in pairs is very important in the Shetland fiddle tradition. The two members of a pair have a master-apprentice relationship. The apprentice part is easy to play, and it’s a great way to get a novice playing fiddle music quickly. It can also be fun for people of any skill level who enjoy contributing to communal music-making in a variety of ways. Only a very rudimentary knowledge of chords is required. One simply plays double stops in the tonic (most common chord), dominant, and subdominant. People generally pick the simplest combination of notes possible, usually using an open string. For example, in the key of D (the fiddler’s favorite), you can go far with A and D (G and D strings), B and D (G and D strings), and E and A (D and A strings). Of course, it’s more fun to try using different pairs of notes and switching among them frequently. Elke taught us the syncopated rhythm pattern used for playing back up with the chords. It’s easier to play than to describe, but I can say that you change bow directions and chords off the main beats. Elke divided the class into two halves – masters and apprentices. We played several tunes that way and then switched roles. The overall effect was a lot of fun, and I couldn’t decide whether I enjoyed playing as an apprentice or a master more. Elke also spoke about playing in pairs in other Celtic fiddle traditions. In Scottish music, she told us, the cello is often used to back up the fiddle. The cellist will walk up or down a scale, much as bassists and bass guitarists do. A fiddler can do the same thing in a low register. In contrast, in Cape Breton music, fiddlers generally don’t play chords or harmony at all. They simply double the melody in a lower octave. I asked Elke some questions about playing backup fiddle for a variety of musical genres. I had noticed that playing below the melody line generally sounded good. Elke confirmed this and added that this way of playing backup is “safe” because you don’t stand out from the melody very much. When unsure of myself, I like to play unobtrusively. She said that playing above the melody line also works, but it stands out more and is done less often. Playing in the same range as the melody is tricky. You need a close harmony to sound good.

The last workshop I attended, on Cape Breton Fiddle Tunes, was also taught by Elke. Cape Breton was settled by Scotsmen at the time of the Clearances, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when tens of thousands of Highland Scotsmen were evicted, often forcibly, from their homes and settled in Cape Breton. Their fiddle music diverged from that of Scotland and took on its own character. Cape Breton fiddle music is tightly linked to traditional Scottish/Cape Breton dances. We learned, first by ear and then by paper, several reels, marches, and jigs from Cape Breton. Elke, who has made many visits to Cape Breton, supplemented her teaching of the tunes with stories about prominent Cape Breton fiddlers and the dances where they play.

There was an amazing amount of learning about and playing fiddle music crammed into one weekend at the Fiddle Retreat. The best part about it is the enrichment of my own playing and listening which I’ll carry with me into the future.

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