Wednesday, February 25, 2009


I’ve had an interest in folk music ever since I was in high school, when I stole all of my mother’s records from the sixties and sat for hours up in my room, guitar in hand, trying to pick up Pete Seeger’s banjo rhythms, or learning old Childe Ballads from Joan Baez. My romance with the guitar has been hot and cold—I can play a passable finger style tune, played with an impromptu bluegrass band called Rabid Rooster for a while, and even spent some time studying musicology during my first grad-school foray into anthropology. But like so many other things, that music got lost somewhere down in between the cracks of my life.

A few years ago, however, I found my way back. My father had started learning to play the bagpipe in his 50s, and watching his joy at learning a new instrument inspired me to follow something that had always been a dream of my own: Scottish and Cape Breton style fiddling. I bought a cheap fiddle, took a few lessons, practiced like crazy, and spent a lot of time listening to old fiddle tunes, trying to absorb the feel of the music into my spirit. Some days, it feels like the fiddle is an extension of my body. I play the music without thinking, and it just flows from me like I am an unconscious conduit. Some days, not so much. But every time I listen to a recording of some old-timer playing the tunes in a pub somewhere in the wilds of Scotland, I get chills.

So I can understand the drive the members of The Field Recorder Collective, a network of folk music collectors, many of whom have spent years combing the backwoods of America, looking for the hidden gems of traditional music, much of which is derived from the old Celtic tunes. I’m so glad there is a movement to save these recordings and bring this music back out into the public domain, before it is forgotten.

Check out their recording of ‘The Highlander’s Farewell’, from The Renegades here.


Lydia said...

This is an inspiring post for me. I don't read music, but two summers ago a fiddle workshop (fiddles provided) was offered for a week in our town and I went. It was so much fun and I actually did get a tune by the end of the week. The workshop was conducted by a violin (classical) teacher in our school system and a free-wheeling fiddler with his own band. Afterward, I bought an inexpensive violin and contacted the violin teacher about lessons. Back and forth we went with scheduling, as her mother was very ill. And then it just dropped away. I think the nerve I'd gathered and the excitement I needed sputtered. For my birthday in January I bought a DVD for beginners and haven't yet cracked it open.
From your description you have a real heart connection with the fiddle. If I even got to a point where I was having some fun I'd be happy.
Do you read music? How important is that, do you think, in learning the fiddle?

Wandering Alice said...

Hi Rose,
I learn a lot of tunes by ear, and so do most of the really great old fiddle players- so many grew up learning at the knees of a relative, or in house jams. I find that a lot of the nuances of the music are difficult to notate, especially with celtic styles, and a lot of times it's easier to tell what is going on by listening to it. There are certainly a lot of folks who make beautiful music without reading a note (Paul McCartney is one of them)

That said, I think learning to read can be very helpful as a guide. A lot of times I use the sheet music to "doublecheck" whether I've picked up the right note by ear, and make sure I'm on the right track. That helps a lot.

I think that for people who haven't had any exposure to an instrument that lessons with a good teacher can make all the difference- so much of fiddling is learning how to hold the bow right, or figuring out how to move your fingers more efficiently, and a good teacher can make all sorts of shortcuts for you. My teacher was ok at that, but once I got the basics down I stopped taking the lessons and have been doing it on my own. I also sometimes go to "fiddle club" gatherings that happen at various places in the region, which is a good way to meet up with other folks who play and learn informally. Perhaps you have something like that in your area?

Wandering Alice said...

Sorry, I meant to say Hi Lydia in the last post!

Lydia said...

I sure didn't know that Paul McCartney couldn't read music. Still, maybe I should ask my husband to tutor me (he plays guitar and trumpet). I really must re-connect with the violin teacher. If she's still in flux perhaps she can refer me. It's the celtic genre that I'd most love to learn. Thanks so much for this information, and for being an inspiration!

christopher said...

Alice, I have a couple of really complex works up on my keyboard which show hands down why fluent reading is ultimately required for a complete mastery of an instrument. I don't read well enough. I am like the barely literate guy who puzzles out books. I am barely good enough to sight read a bass line in chorale when it's written as one uses basses in the usual way. I so envy the fluidity with which some of my friends read, but not enough to do the work.

That's because I play so much better than I read. I lose patience with the puzzling. I have actually transcribed music using Print Music. I know how to write it. I just can't get fluent.

I'm an old guitar player who finally developed a pretty good ragtimey blues two finger pick style, and late in life picked up keyboard improv in Eb. Again I can noodle in other keys, but I am rather fluent in Eb. :) Don't ask me to play with anyone...

I absolutely love Celtic music.

Wandering Alice said...

Hi Christopher,
Do you think you need to read music for complete mastery of the instrument, or just of certain forms of music? There are lots of amazing musicians who play by ear and who wouldn't be able to read a piece by Paganini, but I would still consider them to be masters of their instrument. And there are many classical musicans who are lost without the music in front of them. Are they less proficient in their craft? It's an interesting thing to think about. I think that forms of music, jazz and celtic for example, that involve lots of improvisation are difficult to capture on paper-celtic music gains its heart through the ornamentation that augments the base tune, and that varies by region, style and individual taste. Someone learning only from the sheet music and who plays the tune with unvaried precision comes out sounding flat and lifeless, compared to someone who has deep understanding of how to subtly change the tune in a way that is appropriate to the style. I think it would be difficult for us to come to an agreement about which method of learning the music was "better". I like the fact that there are multiple ways for people to become fluent in an instrument.

Thanks for finding my blog- I really enjoy yours as well!

christopher said...

Thanks for your reply. Believe me I don't put down what I can do. It amazes me still, the keyboard stuff, so I bought an instrument at the low end of the high end stuff, about 2k worth of keyboard. I actually play better guitar on the board. :)

But there is to me a minimum requirement of well rounded capability and I fall far short.