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Push and Pull: The Struggle Is Real

There ever comes a time when the journey of learning a musical instrument reaches a plateau. These long improvement-less stretches start to feel like stagnation if linger they do too long. Upon one of these vast leveling off stages is where I find my fiddling today.

Exactly four months prior I reported on my finishing Brad Leftwich's Learn to Play Old-Time Fiddle videos. Since then I've pushed myself to learn from recordings, but the process is slowed by the pull of other obligations that limit my available time to sit and listen, to study and puzzle out a new tune.

RELATED: Leftwich Lessons: The Fun's All Over

There is also the problem of my limited knowledge of technique. There remains a wide gap between what I hear and how I replicate those sounds. My rudimentary solutions to these challenges is often outmatched by the complexity of a tune. Maybe I get too caught up in trying to create a bowing pattern for a tune, but having a repeatable right hand motion helps me remember a tune.

I don't necessary subscribe to what some call "pattern bowing," by trying to shoehorn a tune into a fixed combination of ups and downs. However, I do apply snippets of those patterns where my brain allows. By and large, though, my bowing strategy boils down to saw strokes and a shuffle or two.

While I have a strong desire pushing me to learn what I call "the Ohio repertoire," my skills are still too deficient to accomplish that in a less than an eternity. Instead I've found myself seeking out more instruction material to improve the technical side of playing the fiddle.

RELATED: Field Recorders Collective: An Ohio Old-Time Connection

My focus in the search for teaching aids has been on videos, as learning the fiddle from a book just doesn't interest me much. Although Wayne Erbsen's Old-Time Fiddle for the Complete Ignoramus got me started, I've found more advanced books (i.e., those with more complex tunes) are just too difficult to follow. Also, seeing and hearing how a tune is played on video seems more akin to how I might learn tunes from a real live, actual human person.

I'm always pining for more time to attend local old-time sessions, and I sometimes think about seeking out lessons from some of the local masters, but my time is limited. The struggle to learn the fiddle is fraught with the push and pull of desire and distraction.

While there is plenty of desire, there are too many unavoidable obstacles to distract me from that goal. That's not to characterize my obligations to work and family as a distraction, but the fiddle ranks No. 3 among these priorities. That makes improving a greater challenge. Meanwhile, I keep plugging away during what time remains, trying to find a way off this plateau and back on the steep upward climb of learning the fiddle.


  1. To a great extent, this is a part of normal adult life. Treasure those times you can spend fiddling, and accept the leasrning rate that comes with it. In a short time, children go from toddler to teen. Your head will spin with how fast it went, and you might find yourself looking for another fiddle for those young hands to learn on. (Although the fiddler in my family insists it's a violin, and I don't play it under either name.) We did play Ashokan Farewell together, on violin and dulcimer.


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