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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.

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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.

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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.


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