Posted in Fiddle

Two Years of Fiddle

While this isn’t the exact date of when I first picked up a fiddle to learn to play, it’s the day I’ve dedicated as my fiddle anniversary. About this time two years ago, I was just starting to become serious about practice.

This hasn’t been a completely seamless experience for me – I had a couple months in the first year when I set the instrument down and wondered if I’d ever pick it back up. But I did, and I’m glad that I did.

This past year has been a focus on evolving my practice and being as consistent as I can with practicing every day. As of February of last year, I’ve only missed about 5 days of practice (a day or two was due to things I couldn’t control). That is absolutely astounding for me, and I’ve learned a lot by sticking to a schedule as much as I did.

I learned to spend more time practicing songs, rather than just skipping off to the next tune in the book. I learned when to say when – identifying songs that were out of my skill range and were only causing frustration.

I found a way to consistently practice sight reading, and this has gone really well! I also started the process of learning vibrato – this has been a very slow, difficult journey. Honestly, I didn’t expect it to take as long as it has, but it’s been another learning experience.

I started to really focus on bowing exercises and found a more consistent practice book for scales. I also experimented with gear such as rosin, shoulder rests and chin rests.

I have to say that looking back a year ago, I’ve changed just about everything I was doing with practice except the fiddle and the bow! And even sometimes then, I do pick up my secondary fiddle just to mess around on it. 🙂

Being completely self-taught, I’m having to rely on resources in books and online for my learning. This has been a discovery process as I’m always looking to pick up some new knowledge and implement it to see if it works for me. I know that I probably would be much “further along” (whatever that means) if I had a teacher guiding me, but that’s not a reality for me at this time still. Maybe one day.

My focus for this year is to remain consistent in practice. I want to continue to evolve my practice exercises, work on finding good tone and clean string crossings, develop what I’ve started with my vibrato, and build up playing endurance.

My lack of playing endurance is what’s hurting me most right now. My practice sessions are getting longer, but my shoulders start to ache, and it falls apart near the end when I’m working on my most intensive tunes. I need to find a way to strengthen my shoulders in order to better finish out my daily practice and to just play longer over all.

Still so much to work on! I hope to be reporting good things come this time next year!

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Posted in Fiddle

Fiddle String Swing

Back in September of 2020, I picked up a set of Thomastik Alphayue strings for my Master fiddle. While I’m sure for the right instrument they could be a good set of strings, they just weren’t working out for mine. They sounded scratchy (due to certain rosin) and often muted on the G and D strings far more often than I’d like.

Also, when putting new strings on any instrument, there’s a period of time where the strings must stretch and settle. During this, you have to retune several times – sometimes even during a single practice session. I always check tuning before I practice, and a settled set of strings doesn’t usually need much tuning from day to day.

The Alphayue strings took weeks to finally settle. I’ve never had strings slide out of tune so much for such a long period of time after first putting them on.

While I did get the Alphayue on sale at a good price, I was still reluctant to switch them off for something new because I felt that I’d hardly gotten my use out of them. That’s when I noticed some discoloration on the strings of my Bunnel – indicating those strings would need changing pretty soon.

So, the idea came to me that I’d pick up some new strings for my Master and put the Alphayue on my Bunnel, which is my back-up fiddle. That way, those strings didn’t go to waste, and hey… they might even sound better and fit the Bunnel more. Who knows?

This time around, I decided to try D’Addario Zyex because not only do they have good reviews, but the D and G strings were available in silver. I’ve never tried a silver violin string before, but D and G on my Master have a history of being a bit nasal-sounding. So I was curious to see if this improved that.

I had an extra Hill E string (which remains my favorite) that needed to be put to use, so I only bought three Zyex strings and not a full set. My strings arrived yesterday, much to my surprise – they weren’t supposed to be here until Saturday – and I did the string swing between the two fiddles.

One of the first things I learned to do back when I got my first cheap fiddle was how to change the strings on it. I know some beginners are a bit antsy to mess with this, but it’s really not that difficult. I’m saying that without ever having a string break on me, though. I think I’d be a little more scared if one should pop!

Also, I used to practice learning guitar back in my high school/college days, so changing strings isn’t something unknown to me. …Despite the fact guitar and violin strings are very different animals!

Anyhow, I have one practice under my belt with the new strings. It’s hard to tell yet because they’re still stretching and settling in, but I think these are a marked improvement in sound over what I was using before. I haven’t had time to experiment with the Alphayue on my Bunnel to see if they sound similar on different fiddles, either.

I’ll let you know on down the line how it turns out!

Posted in Fiddle, Fiddle Progress Report

December Fiddle Progress Report

I know it’s a few days late to post a progress report from December, however, I had so many goal posts to make around January 1st, this post just got pushed back a bit.

So what all happened in December? Aside from me deciding to move my blog posts from my dedicated Fiddle blog to this (which is still in the works)?

With the passing of Christmas, I finally put away the only carol I’d been playing since November, which was Silent Night. I started playing Silent Night last year around the same time, and this year I feel that I’ve certainly improved upon it. Silent Night isn’t a difficult tune, but it has a number of long bows and stops that I’ve had to work very hard to clean up and make sound better.

It was during this that I started getting frustrated with bouncing and jittering on long bows. I began experimenting with different things to figure out what was causing it. I changed bows, changed rosin and tried to loosen the bow some. Turns out, what I needed to do was actually tighten my bow more than I though I needed!

While I still have a bit of jitter and bounce sometimes, tightening the bow made it all sound a whole lot better! Live and learn.

I’ve decided I really don’t care for the Thomastik Alphayue strings on my Master. I just don’t like how the D and G strings sound especially. I poked around waiting for some holiday sales on strings that never showed up (I guess they held off after Black Friday sales).

Yesterday, I just caved and ordered a set of D’Addario Zyex with silver D and G strings. I figure I can afford it after getting an unexpected stimulus check, right? These weren’t terribly expensive (Obligato were much more), and I’ve heard good things about them. I wonder if the silver strings will improve the muffled tone that I’ve heard on other strings. I guess I’ll find out – looking forward to trying them and reporting back next month!

I stepped up my sight reading exercises to Level 2 in the Sight Reading Factory. Level 1 was getting to be a little too easy with just two strings and little note variation. This adds the G string notes (which I really need to learn to read), eighth notes, dotted notes and some rests. It’s taken some time getting used to the variety, but I think it’s been a good change.

I haven’t made changes to the tune lineup in December, other than dropping Silent Night. I’m hoping to finally get to a point where I feel I can move on from Russian Folk Song so that I can make progress in my EEI book. Maybe soon?

My consistency was pretty good in December. I missed two practices, one on a day that I was in the ER with family for 7 hours… so I just didn’t have the energy to even think about practicing. I’ve been a little bit more flexible in allowing myself time off from practice because I’ve been able to bounce back each time and get right into the habit again. But I still want to keep my consistency as high as I can.

Onward into 2021!

Posted in Fiddle

Fiddle Goals for 2021

One last goal setting post for this year – I promise it’s the last one! This time, I have a list of goals for learning to play fiddle for 2021. I actually have a number of them!

Finish Book 1 of EEiVolume 1 of Essential Elements Interactive was the first method book I started almost two years ago. Because I’ve hopped between different methods, and even set this book aside for a solid part of a year, I’ve still not finished this book despite all the time I’ve practiced.

I received book 2 as a Christmas present in 2020, so that’s a sign to me that it’s time to work through the remaining content in book 1 in 2021.

Increase my playing stamina – Meaning, I want to strengthen my upper body in order to be able to play longer pieces or the same piece for a longer amount of time before my shoulders and arms start to ache. I’m doing far better than I did when I first started to play just by virtue of practice, but I really want to research strengthening exercises I can use, especially for my shoulders which seem to get to aching first.

Learn vibrato (better) – I started the process of learning vibrato last year. I’ve been working on learning the basic motion for many months, though I’m only able to do it slowly. All of the videos I’ve seen tell me that the next step is to set up a metronome and focus on getting a consistent vibrato at a specific speed. Then, once that’s achieved, speed it up a notch. This is the part I need to focus on now.

Listen to more great fiddle/violin music – I’ve listened to masterful Irish fiddle music all my life, and that’s the basic area of interest. However, musicians say that to develop an ear for what good violin playing sounds like, one has to immerse oneself in good music. So, this year, I’m going to research and expand the music I listen to in order to help develop my ear a bit more. Not just Irish/Celtic fiddle, but old time fiddle and classical violin as well.

I’m sure more goals will pop up throughout the year, but to start this year off, these are the areas I really want to focus on!

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Posted in Fiddle

Violin Tips I Learned in 2020: Experiment with Shoulder and Chin Rests

This has been a year of experimentation in gear for me.

I have a shorter neck, so I’ve always thought that I needed a shorter shoulder rest and chinrest combo, too.

I think I’ve found the right chinrest for my needs. I’ve been using the WAVE for several months now, and I still really like the way it feels.

But my adventures with shoulder rests have been a different story. I knew that the standard shoulder rest, even with a little bit of flexibility in how to set it, felt too high. For a while, I tried the Play on Air shoulder rest, thinking the lower I went the better.

I did like the Play on Air, though sometimes I’d have to reinflate it from time to time. It also came off the violin back a bit too easy if I was not careful.

However, after a time, I started to notice that my violin posture wasn’t all that great. The Play on Air had no resistance or support at all, and allowed me to droop my fiddle down – where it was easier for my shorter arms to reach it. But the downside to this was that I felt I was holding it more and more incorrectly and it was effecting my play.

So, I researched shoulder rests yet again, and decided on a Wolf Forte Secondo shoulder rest back in September. I’ve found this to be a very comfortable and very adjustable shoulder rest over all. At first, I was a little taken back by the design, but now that I’ve used it for a while, I appreciate what it has to offer.

It doesn’t feel too rigid, but it does provide the support I need. And I found myself actually making the shoulder rest setting higher than I thought it should be in the beginning, to help support the violin under the E string so I can play better.

I was truly surprised that after a while I didn’t leave it on the lowest height at all! I really appreciate that I can experiment to find a height setting based on issues that have come up in my practice – especially with the E string.

Of course, all of this probably could have been resolved quickly by a teacher (again). But this was a learning experience for me. Don’t let your expectations become your “facts” because it could turn out wrong! Be open to experimentation and find what works best for you!

Posted in Fiddle, Learning to Play Fiddle

Violin Tips I Learned in 2020: Tighten The Bow More

This was one of those things I’m sure a teacher could have eyeballed in two seconds. For me, it was a learning experience that I want to pass along.

So, I own two different bows that I use depending on which violin I’m playing and where I happen to be practicing. One is a Fiddlerman Carbon Fiber and the other is a Holstein Sandalwood Violin Bow (which I also got from Fiddlershop).

I was having so much trouble with bouncing and bow stuttering when playing long notes during songs, but not when I was just generally doing long-bowing exercises. This was especially true of the Holstein bow, and it was driving me nuts when I was trying to play Silent Night the last few months.

I tried everything – changing rosin, switching bows, loosening the bow, tightening the bow a little bit… but in the end, I learned I was simply not tightening the bow enough.

This came from reading a review about the Holstein bow saying that the customer had to tighten it a bit more than they expected to get a solid sound. So, instead of loosening it, I decided to tighten it more than I thought I needed to. Sure enough, much of the bouncing and stuttering went away when I did!

I’m not going to say my long bowing is perfect now, but the issues I had due to the bow tightness are no longer causing the warbling I hear. I now know that it’s something to do with my bow technique when I get this sound and not the bow.

This may or may not apply to your bow as every bow is different, but just something to keep in mind if you’re also experiencing a lot of bouncing and stuttering on long notes.

Posted in Fiddle, Learning to Play Fiddle

Violin Tips I Learned In 2020: Practice Sight Reading

I’m the type of person who can eventually learn the tunes I’m playing by ear.

This seems great at first because it means I toss the sheet music over my shoulder after a certain point and just play. Of course, I’m also only memorizing simple tunes at this point, so I have no idea how this will relate to more complex songs in the future.

Talking with my brother-in-law, who is a music teacher (but not of orchestra), one of the first suggestions he told me was something I already knew deep down: I needed to try to learn and practice sight reading even if I tend to memorize the music instead.

But when you don’t even mean to memorize songs and it just happens, how do you find fresh material to practice on daily without trying to learn another song?

I did some research and I found a solution that has worked wonders for me: Sight Reading Factory.

Yes, it costs a low yearly subscription to maintain, but it has been absolutely worth it in the long run. SRF generates a new random “song” each day – or as many as I want to try – and challenges me with truly different notes to read every time. It’s not so random that it doesn’t sound like it could be a song, too.

I adjust the difficulty of the exercises, as well. Just lately, I felt like level 1 sight reading had gotten pretty route and easy. So I tuned it up a notch to level 2, and boy am I being challenged again. In a good way!

Since most of the methods books I play rely on notation (along with a CD), I’ve found myself much more comfortable and confident in approaching practice tunes now that I practice reading notation consistently now. I have a feeling that this is only going to become more important as I move into more difficult music, so I’m certainly glad that this is a practice habit I’ve built into my plan!

Posted in Fiddle, Learning to Play Fiddle

Violin Tips I Learned in 2020: Write a Practice Plan

As this year winds down to a close, I wanted to write a short series of posts about the things I discovered in 2020 that helped me with my violin practice.

Some of these are just live-and-learn situations (which could have probably been solved easily with a teacher’s input) and some are somewhat obvious. But here they are!

So, since February 2020, I have only missed 3 days of practice – and once because it was out of my hands to play that day. The year before, I struggled quite a bit to make practice a consistent thing. While working from home was also a big factor in giving me some extra time (not having to commute to office), I also think that structuring my practice played a huge part in practice success.

About a year ago, I began to write out a practice plan at the beginning of each week. I called this a Fiddle Focus as it allowed me to think through what exercises and tunes I wanted to approach, and in what order I’d practice them in.

I know it sounds like such a simple thing, but once I started structuring my practice in this way, I found it easier to just sit down and actually practice. Gone were the days of saying – Well, I guess I’ll try this song today. And maybe this one… I always knew exactly what I was going to focus on.

Each time I practiced, I was consistently going over the same material, rather than just randomly pulling tunes from a book. I feel like this has been another factor in helping me improve my sound because I’m working on the same songs for weeks, sometimes even months if I feel it’s required.

I also started to see my own learning patterns the longer I worked with songs. For example, I recognize now that the first week or so of learning a tune will often be shaky and uncertain sounding. Then, comes a time that I sound a little better, but don’t quite have it memorized yet. After about two to four weeks, I usually have a tune memorized, and I’m working on playing it slowly. After that, I generally start adding the backing track if there is one, and try to play it up to full speed over time.

So I now recognize the stages of my knowing and playing a song a lot better now that I consistently focus on the same song for as many weeks as it takes before I feel comfortable in moving on. Even then, I sometimes work on a song a week or two more, despite feeling like I’ve “got it.”

These are all things that came out of setting up a consistent and structured practice routine and writing out a practice plan.

I still keep a practice plan, but I’ve found it tends to be the same tunes and exercises with very little change. Every now and then, I’ll “graduate” from a song and move on to the next in a book. But that can take weeks or months of practice. Maybe this sounds really slow – sometimes it feels very slow – but I feel the overall progress I make in doing this is much better than my previous slap-dash approach.

I don’t write out a new practice plan every week anymore, and allow myself more flexibility to change things out through the middle of the week if I want. But every day I practice, I sit down to the Focus page and work through it as if I’d written a new one every week. And every weekend, I take time to reflect on my progress and determine whether it’s time to try something new or continue working on polishing what I know.

Tip Summarized: Write out a practice plan each week and follow it. Discover your own patterns of learning and mastering music through consistent practice.

Posted in Fiddle Progress Report

November Fiddle Progress Report

I really, really wanted to write an October Progress Report, and just failed to do so.

I was disappointed in that because October marked the one year anniversary of the arrival of my Fiddlerman Master. I’m happy to report that I did not go out fiddle shopping with any great need or intention since it has arrived. I’m still pleased with it and enjoy playing it very much! I don’t foresee me needing a different fiddle anytime soon.

Now, on to consistency. On Thanksgiving, I finally broke my practice record of playing every day. I’m a little sad about it, but at the same time, I think I can grant myself a holiday considering I’ve practiced every day since February. The important thing is that I don’t let a day off effect consistency going forward. I actually think it’s a good test to see if I can allow myself a break here or there and still continue to be consistent otherwise.

Back in my September progress report, I’d just gotten a new Wolf Forte Secondo shoulder rest. I really like this shoulder rest, though I’ve been spending time adjusting it in order to play more comfortably.

At first, I kept all of the height settings to a minimum, still thinking I really needed a short shoulder rest for a short neck. But then I found my fiddle sorta… drooping… which makes playing on the E string challenging. So I started to adjust the side of the chinrest closest to my chest higher to prop the fiddle up more under the E string. Then I started to wonder if I’ve been slouching too much overall, and adjusted the other side of the chin rest higher as well. I’m still getting used to it and trying to find a good balance for comfortable playing – I have learned that the lowest setting is not good, though!

Back in September, I also put on a new set of strings – Thomastik Alphayue. Overall, I don’t feel like these have produced the best sound I’ve heard on my fiddle. I don’t know how to explain it — they’re more prone to be scratchy (to my ear) for some reason. I considered buying new strings during the Black Friday sales, but it seems a real waste to replace them so soon – though I have considered putting these on my Bunnel since I think I see some corrosion on the strings there.

In the end, I didn’t pick anything up for Black Friday. But I might look into it for Christmas sales. I’m not sure what to try next – I’ve heard D’Addario Zyex are nice. I also have a set of D’Addario Helicore on my Bunnel which sounded fairly good – but again, I don’t know how it will stack up for my Master.

Let’s see… I’ve added string-crossing exercises in conjunction with my long-bowing exercises this month. I feel like this is really something I need. It came to my attention that perhaps it’s playing on a 7/8 size fiddle that makes it easier to accidentally hit strings I don’t mean to, so putting time into mindful string crossings can help.

I’ve even rotated the bows I’m using again. I was playing with the Holstein sandalwood bow since about a year ago, but I wonder if it’s been causing me more bouncing and scratching issues than it should. I switched back to my original Fiddlerman carbon fiber bow and it feels lighter and a bit less scratchy. It could be player error, so who knows. I’ll keep experimenting.

I’ve got a much better grasp on 4th finger now – much thanks to the scales exercises and EEI tunes that have pushed me to incorporate 4th finger into things. I’m not perfectly great, but I’m doing a whole lot better than I was a few months ago.

I’m still working on colle, and improving on that. But vibrato has been a long, slow progress for me. I’ve even watched additional videos and implemented some tips from those. They helped, but I still see this as a long road to making anything close to a good sound with this technique. I just can’t seem to rock my hand fast enough at this point. Not going to stop practicing it, of course!

Other than that, I’ve been focused on moving very slowly through tunes now days. Much, much more slowly than I did last year. I’ve even been practicing Silent Night since last month – some days it sounds better than others.

That’s really all I’ve got for this update. I feel like I forgot a few things since this covers October as well as November. I’m just going to continue to focus on my practice and look forward to holidays in December!