Skip to main content

Learning Triumphs Over Stagnation

For a while it seems my fiddling has been stuck. The plateau has become a rut. The last time I talked about this I was trying to learn some "Ohio repertoire" tunes by ear. That has been a hard road to travel as the distance between what I hear and what I play still seems too expansive.

Instead I've been playing the same handful of tunes over and over and over in the attempt to master them. But my limited playlist started to feel like a jail cell. There's no way out but to play through it. And that's what I'm doing.

My cocktail of success has been rooted in three primary goals:
  1. To play faster.
  2. To improve intonation.
  3. To learn more tunes.
Practicing at lunchtime during the work week is still my ritual. As the chilly winds have made playing outdoors less comfortable, I've retreated to the confines of my car. While this is a less enjoyable atmosphere, it does facilitate the use of "Practice Hub" on my android phone. The app lets me combine a metronome and drone note, which I'm using to increase tempo and adjust my intonation by ear. That takes care of goals 1 and 2.

As for learning more tunes, I'm still working on playing those Ohio tunes by ear (using slow down software), but I've also decided to delve into Brad Leftwich's Old-Time Fiddle: Round Peak Style to learn some of the old chestnuts.

RELATED Push and Pull: The Struggle is Real

At the last jam I went to, someone kept asking me if I knew such and such a tune, all fairly common, but I knew none of them. Feeling this part of my playing to be lacking, I picked up a couple fiddle tune books from the library: Play Old-Time Country Fiddle by Jerry Silverman and Old-Time Festival Tunes for Fiddle and Mandolin by Dan Levenson.

The Silverman book was all in standard notation. If I work really hard, I can figure that out, but most times is more trouble than it's worth. Levenson's book has standard notation and tab, but the tab is geared toward mandolin.

A few words on fiddle tab: I've now seen three books with this written method of conveying a tune and all three have been different.
  1. Wayne Erbsen's Old-Time Fiddle for the Complete Ignoramus shows the lettered note by string and a rudimentary indication of rhythm.
  2. Leftwich shows numbers to indicate which finger to use (you determine the note by knowing the key) and has a fairly complicated method of indicating rhythm and bow direction, which makes sense when you consider his DVDs focus heavily on those areas.
  3. Levenson's tab (at least in this book) shows the corresponding mandolin fret number as you would find in banjo and guitar tabs.
Of the three methods, I prefer Erbsen's as it helps with learning the notes, but Leftwich's is a close second. Trying to think of the fiddle fingerboard as if it had frets just didn't work for me.

While I used to find Leftwich's fiddle tabs incomprehensible, working through his DVDs has helped me understand them better. It also helps that Leftwich is a superior player and listening to the accompanying CD helps clear up most of the confusion.

RELATED A New Year. A New Goal

I decided to start with "Joke on the Puppy (Rye Straw)," a tune I used to kind of know from a recording I made of my friend Russ Harbaugh. The next tune in the book is "Mississippi Sawyer," one of those chestnuts I play on banjo.

A funny thing has happened in the last week since I started down this new path. Playing the fiddle fills me with a renewed sense of exhilaration. No longer am I just going through rote repetitions of the same tunes. I'm learning new tricks and improving on the old ones. I'm adding new wrinkles to my brain and feeling like I'm making progress again. I've even carried some of these lessons over to my banjo playing. It's funny what a change in direction does.


Popular posts from this blog

Master and Apprentice: Banjo Builder Workshop in Historic Peninsula, Ohio

The 191-year-old Peninsula, Ohio, provided the backdrop to a parade of pedestrians making their way from station to station across the bucolic village for Music on the Porches on Saturday.

Inside the close confines of Bronson Church, founded in 1835, a master and apprentice presented a free workshop on the art of instrument building. That master being the renowned banjo builder and artist Doug Unger and his former apprentice Mark Ward.

Unger and Ward began the workshop by playing several old-time tunes, discussing their work and the music, and taking questions from the audience. Unger then invited the spectators to step up to the front to see the instruments.

Highwoods Documentary Not a Lost Cause After All

So, once upon a time, I tried to drum up support for a crowdfunded documentary project about the Highwoods Stringband. I donated money to help out, and more than a year later I provided an update on the slow progress. Last I heard, there was some old footage of the Highwoods they were trying to acquire. It's been three and a half years now that I first heard about the project, and I still haven't received my DVD.

I figured that's the risk you take with these crowdfunded, Kickstarter-type projects. I had all but given up the documentary as a lost cause. Until today. If I managed to convince any of you to help fund the project, I felt it my duty to pass along this update directly from Highwoods mainstay Walt Koken.
"After several delays and setbacks, we, the members of the Highwoods Stringband and Mudthumper Music have procured the vintage footage and photos in cooperation with the original producers and put them into the hands of another videographer, Larry Edelman, in …

2016 Year in Review / 2017 Look Ahead

Well, it's been a minute, hasn't it? The last year has been difficult on many fronts. Playing music was no exclusion. The amount of time I spent playing banjo and fiddle suffered the most. I didn't blog much either, which you already knew. But it wasn't all bad. Here's a look back at last year and a look ahead to my goals for the year ahead.

2016 Notes
I have now been playing banjo for eight years and fiddle for four years. My focus remains on the fiddle, as I try to learn general technique and tunes. Time spent playing banjo was mostly to keep up with a handful of tunes I like most.

Playing Time: Due to increased work travel and other factors, my playing time was dramatically reduced in 2016. As mentioned before, I log my practice time in the quest to reach that fabled 10,000-hour mark. This last year was my lowest (by far) amount of time spent on banjo and second lowest time on fiddle.

New Tunes: Despite my reduced playing time, I worked through two fiddle instruct…