Monday, 18 November 2013

Old fiddle, new tricks

I've got a new hobby. 

I fiddle with Kirsty.

No really, I do. We get out our instruments and...

Ok, I'll stop being smutty, especially given you knew it was nothing that interesting anyway.

It is interesting though, for me anyway, because I've done something I never thought I'd do.  I've dusted off my violin, and every couple of weeks I go out and I play folk music.

And it's both utterly bizarre and utterly brilliant.

It's also both much, much easier than much of the music I've played before, and impossibly much harder.

There's no written music.  They don't even call it music.  Instead, very scathingly, they call it dots.  We sit there, in someone's front room, or upstairs in a pub, and someone plays a tune, and then everyone else picks up their violins (which I am having to learn to call a fiddle, but it is, as I had to explain to a friend the other day, exactly the same instrument) and plays the same tune, while I struggle to work out what note they started on and maybe work it out by the time they've finished.

Eventually, someone says Who wants the dots? and I, sheepishly, stick up my hand and say Me!

I just wasn't taught that way.   If you learnt music in school, or with a teacher at home, or whatever, you'll almost certainly have learned as I did. I was taught to read music, and the music, like the text in literature, is the thing from which all else flows.  A friend was recently telling me that she asked her daughter's piano teacher to teach her (the daughter) to play some tunes she already knew because she thought she'd enjoy it.  He explained that he doesn't give his pupils pieces they know because then they play by ear, and don't learn to read the music.

This is the absolute opposite of how, I am discovering, folk music works.  In classical, you play what you see; in folk, what you hear. So I find myself trying to unlearn my years of training, and re-educate my ears so that I can reproduce what I hear with my fingers.

But while sometimes that feels virtually impossible, parts of the folk are easier too. If the truth be told, I wasn't much of a classical violinist (and anyway I actually abandoned it and played viola from aged 15 to 24) but even allowing for that, and in my rusty state, the folk music (when I do get to see it) is technically easily playable, at least at the level I am at (there is some fiendishly difficult folk music out there, don't get me wrong - check out this from Fiddlers Bid at the Cambridge Folk Festival).  That, though, isn't what makes it feel easy. That's the non-judgmentalism of it.  Classical musicians are very snooty about folk, probably because the notes are, mostly, less technical, but for the rusty fiddler, the fact that if I get it right or I get it wrong no-one cares because we're all having too much fun just making the music is refreshing and welcoming and inspiring.

I loved playing classical music. I loved singing classical music (it's how I met B), and I'd love to do either or both again, but it's the folk that's getting my toes tapping on a Monday night.


  1. Replies
    1. It is! I'd say come and listen, but I'm not very good...

  2. I checked out that clip, and yup, it looks pretty difficult.

    1. That should give you absolutely no idea of what I am like whatsoever.

  3. I can hear the pleasure you are experiencing in the way you talk about your new-found hobby. Isn't it great to do something for yourself which involves music. So good for the soul.

    1. I'd forgotten how much I'd missed music. B has filled a choir shaped hole with the opera (although he's not doing it this year) but until now I've not done any music for over three years. It's so great to have it back...

  4. I don't know how I missed this post. Sounds really really fun - good for you! I too hear the pleasure you are experiencing and it kinda makes me smile - in a I'm really pleased for you way.

    Question though - I heard (don't know from where and perhaps it's from multiple sources) that you can learn music the way you can learn anything but that some people have an "ear" for music in that they can reproduce it just by listening. But that not everyone can do that. Is that misguided? Can people learn to reproduce music by ear even if they don't have the natural aptitude for it?

    1. I don't know. There are definitely people who can do that - there was a girl I was at school with who could sit down at the piano and play anything you asked her to, and I'm not sure you can learn that sort of skill, in the same way that you can't learn to have perfect pitch. But I think like anything else you can get better at it with practice - so to use the perfect pitch analogy again, I don't have perfect pitch but I've done enough music that I have good relative pitch and I can sign you an A, or a pretty close approximation of it, without thinking. That's not natural talent though, it's just having heard it often enough.

      I'm hoping that the listening is the same - certainly, Kirsty who I go with has been fiddling for three or so years (and I think was a better violinist than me in the first place, which will help) but she says she used the music (aka dots!) for at least a year before she managed to remember her first tune and now she finds she picks them up much more easily.

      I live in hope anyway!


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