Archive for the ‘Fiddle stuff’ Category

I really thought I’d have the job done by now. Insofar as I thought about it at all as a young violin student, I probably imagined a journey with a defined end-point; put in x number of years, and you’ll have mastered the instrument.  Let’s just say that turned out to be rather wide of the mark. Pablo Casals, when asked in his 80s why he continued to practise for 4-5 hours per day, is said to have replied ‘Because I feel I am making progress’. This is both very good and very bad news for string players; on one hand, it’s reassuring to know that even a master like Casals saw room for improving his musicianship throughout his life. On the other,the bad news is the job is never done.

Certainly, many of my young adult students tend to ask questions like ‘how long will this take?’, and I’m never sure how honest to be with them at the beginning. The truth might have a demoralising effect. (In an aside, it’s rather different with children. Learning seems to be no big deal for children –  after all, it’s the single activity that accounts for most of their time – and, consequently, mistakes are not a big issue either, nor do they look for results in the way adults do). Nowadays I teach only adults, which is highly rewarding in many ways, but there are challenges; adults are constantly seeking progress, tend to be very hard on themselves when they make mistakes, and in many cases are crippled by baggage around learning music, sometimes with the belief that they inherently have no right to be doing it (‘I never was a musical child’/’a teacher told me I was tone-deaf’ etc…)

A particularly common stick with which many adult violin students beat themselves is the notion that the shape or size of their hands makes them unsuitable for the instrument. I’ve heard it all; ‘my hands are too big’/’my hands are too small’/’ah but you see I’m left-handed’/ ‘you see, I’m right-handed’/ ‘i’m double-jointed’*. And here’s the thing: I have yet to encounter a students whose hands might constitute an obstacle to their playing violin. The bad news is that I have encountered students whose ears might hinder them. And here I have to invoke the wisdom of my very wise mentors at the Voice Care Network,  who teach that while we hear a lot about eye-hand coordination, as musicians we need to think more about the notion of ‘ear-hand coordination’, which is a massive part of becoming a violinist. Many students find the left hand technique very daunting – “how do you know where to put your fingers?!” – and they’re right to respect it; with no frets or keys to guide intonation, the potential for error is extremely high. However, focusing all your practise attention on the mechanics of where to place your fingers, without a corresponding time investment in ear-training, is a waste of time. And I wished I’d realised this a bit earlier in my violin training. The fingers can’t do anything that the ear hasn’t already prepared.

All this focus on the left hand challenges comes at another price, as well; we undervalue bow technique. It’s only relatively recently, through viola lessons with the excellent Lisa Dowdall, that I’ve come to appreciate how much of the artistry of string playing comes from the right hand. Which brings me back to what may well be the bad news; you never stop learning. Like I say, I didn’t think I’d still be learning the violin at this age, but, as it turns out, your relationship with your instrument is constantly changing. At the moment I’m trying to go deeper into this relationship with the bow, exploring the different sounds I can make by changing the bow weight, speed, breathing even, and now that I’ve started, that seems like another lifetime’s work. I still can’t decide whether it’s a good or bad thing that I didn’t know at the outset how long the journey would be; it might have deterred me from starting in the first place. But it might equally have helped me to know that a lifetime’s work can equal a lifetime’s reward.


*A student bringing up this old chestnut recently prompted me to find out once and for all what it actually means, having always been quietly puzzled by the term. A medical person assured me that, technically, it doesn’t mean anything, but is a term used by laypeople to describe a greater than average range of motion or flexibility in the fingers. Why on earth would that prevent you from mastering the violin?

A fiddle player’s thoughts on the etiquette of dealing with session musicians……….

Let’s say you’re a self-taught songwriter –  or an indie band  – and you’ve hired a session musician to put those final magic touches to your recording. There’s just one problem….you have no idea what to say to them when they arrive in the studio. Sound familiar? As both a session musician and a songwriter I’ve been both sides of this; I’m well aware that directing session musicians can be an intimidating prospect, especially for artists with little formal training. So here’s some suggestions:

1). Have a clear idea of why you want the instrument on the track

From my own experience, artists tend not to have very developed ideas of what they’d like me to play; they simply have a vague idea that it would be nice to have some fiddle on a track. That’s fine, but if you leave it as wide open as that there’s no guarantee you’ll like what I come up with. To a large degree this is just a matter of taste, and of what you’re hearing on the song fiddle-wise, but keep in mind I don’t have access to what you’re hearing in your head! Do you want it as a texture throughout the whole song, or do you want fills, a ripping solo in the middle of the track? A good place to start is to direct me to a track that you like (by another artist)* which features fiddle. Send me some samples prior to the session, maybe give me some examples of things you definitely don’t want, and I guarantee it’ll result in a more positive experience for everyone – you, me, and your engineer. And nobody wants an unhappy engineer working on their project.

2). Anything is better than a blank page.

You should expect your session musician to do a bit of homework before they show up for a recording session, but don’t make us fumble blindly for information that you’ve got and are not sharing. Most people I’ve recorded for send me a pre-production track and nothing else. Then I spend some time working out the structure & harmonic progression of the tune and build my fiddle line from there. You could save me some time by giving me some paper. Even if you’ve no charts and no idea how to notate lines, why not send me a lyric sheet so I have a road map to work from? Don’t be afraid to state what might seem to you to be obvious – you wrote the song so to you it’s self-evident which is the verse and which one’s the chorus, for example. Well I’m hearing this song for the first time, so it might not be so obvious to me.

Good example: I recently recorded for a songwriter who had some insecurity about his lack of formal training and continuously apologised for the fact that he doesn’t read music. But he sent me a clear plan of the song structure and chords, outlined which parts of the song did and did not require fiddle, and, best of all, was able to sing me a rough outline of the fiddle line he had in mind. Perfect. That’s all I need. And you don’t need to be able to read music to do that.

3). Respect your musicians’ time. Don’t call me in for 10am if I won’t be recording until 3pm.

This is a management issue, not a musical one, but it’s important. I’m amazed how often I’m called in for the start of a recording session, only to be greeted with ‘Oh yeah, we’re just starting in on the drums and bass now, not sure when we’ll be ready for the fiddle’. Did you think about that at all before you gave me the same call time as the rhythm section?! Unless you want a seething musician on your hands, it’s worth spending a few minutes scheduling your session properly.

4). If you’re asking me to work for free, do not, under any circumstances, try to make it seem like an opportunity for me.

About 50% of the artists who book me for recording sessions will try to get me to do it for free, or at the very least look for a discount because ‘we’re on a tight budget’. This is a bit of a cheeky thing to ask of a stranger, but ok, there’s no money in original music so I’m not completely unsympathetic. However if you try to tell me it’ll be good for my career – the classic phrase is ‘it’ll be good exposure’ – you can expect me to double my fee.


Hope that’s some help. Happy recording 🙂

*It is worth noting that most people pick either Fisherman’s Blues by The Waterboys, or Bob Dylan’s Hurricane.

I always get funny looks when I say this, but I’m oddly fond of January. If you’re somebody who likes eating healthily and working hard it actually has a lot to offer as a month 🙂 It’s also the time when musicians tend to get down to projects they want to work on but can’t make the time for the rest of the year round; there’s not many gigs going in January so many of us take to the recording studio around now each year. Early January was spent in Galway with the Lazy Band, a magical few days recording originals and covers in a series of live sessions with engineer Mike Nestor. 3 days, 17 tracks. Intense but rewarding.

lb pic galway1

jack mccarthy, stephen james smith, josh johnston at the Lazy Band recordings sessions, Galway

Next up was a session at Lamplight Studios  to put down some strings on Sive‘s new album which promises to be a stand-out collection of original music. Yes, she’s my friend and I can’t claim an unbiased perspective, but I can honestly say hers is a unique talent.Looking forward to hearing the finished product.

Then over to Jealoustown Studios for some video shoots with Don Baker. So, all in all, loving January so far. The one drawback? Recording studios, apparently without exception, are freezing in January.