The Reel Deal: Twelve Questions Violinists Ask about Fiddling

(Strings Magazine Master Class, May/June 2002). © 2001, Donna Hébert, All rights reserved

1. How does fiddling differ from classical music?

Some fiddlers say that the only way to learn fiddling is to go hang out and jam with fiddlers, preferably primary sources, so you can soak up the style you're most attracted to. It's what the vast majority of fiddlers past and present have done. Others say they have learned most of their repertoire from recorded sources, while some even learn by reading exclusively. Still, jamming remains the prevalent way of sharing music with others, and jam sessions are cultivated carefully in communities to maintain this opportunity. Dances (contra, square, Cajun, step, clogging) are what fiddling is designed to support, while jams are the ideal setting for actual learning.

There's no one monolithic thing called "fiddling," that has a single, simple definition. There are as many styles of fiddling as there are communities with fiddlers in them. So, like the tunes themselves, definitions shift and reverse themselves as you move around geographically. Each regional fiddling style has a physical and cultural home. The music fits and describes the place it's played in, the people who play it, the kind of community it is, even the climate!

Fiddling techniques change radically as you move around geographically. You hear long, fluid bow strokes in Texas give way to percussive, rocking, short bows in Cape Breton, with stops along the way in places like Cajun country, where you sway in hot dance halls to fiddlers playing constant drones in heavy, long bows over tunes that wander like the bayous, with the accordions' quavering response dying away in the steamy night. At other stops on your fiddling odyssey you find yourself on a front porch in a western North Carolina mountain holler picking tunes in "mountain minor" with a banjo player, and as evening falls you play along with the creek out back with an E, G, B run - there, hold your breath, listen to the creek. You can hear it rushing down the valley - an E minor chord!

Later on you might find yourself in Boston, Atlanta, Philadelphia or Washington D.C. at an urban contradance. After a night of dancing almost every dance, you feel the integration between the music and your body, how fiddling works to make you dance. After a lifetime of consciously not tapping your feet when you play, it starts to creep back in when you play a fiddle tune! Now you look for more dances on your journey so you can get more of that feel, that utter sureness of the beat in your body when you dance, and later, when you play. You are hitting the groove, the place where the music flows like honey from your fingers. Like El Dorado, it leads you on and on. So many tunes, so little time! Welcome to fiddling!

So, how IS fiddling different from playing the violin?(A) Beat! Beat! Beat! Rhythm cues are highly internalized, and fiddlers intuitively follow the strongest consistent beat among themselves; often no one person is formally chosen to lead the group. Most classical music has a stronger accent on the downbeat, while most fiddle music, as dance music, has an accented second, or offbeat/upbeat. [see Ex. 1] Then, each regional/ethnic style uses different techniques to achieve it's culturally authentic sound, with it's own take on scales and tunings, beat placement, ornaments, and degree of swing.

(B) Improvisation and spontaneous composition are givens in fiddle music, but it's a different sort of improvisation than you find in jazz. Playing jazz, we compose a whole new melodic line over an often-complex set of chords that remains the same. In fiddling we drum a new rhythm over the melody, restating the melody with variations instead of composing a whole new one, because the dancers use the melody to tell where they are in the dance. Fiddle improvisation played for a dance is rhythmic in character, following the dance, punching up the important parts of the dance with licks, drones, and dynamics in the style that fits the tune and the dance. We shape our interpretation of the tune on the dance. Phrase by phrase, we accent the important steps and figures so the dancers are able to dance them well. Fiddle improvisation uses different sets of left-hand fingering ornaments and right-hand bowing techniques depending on style. With their stylistically unique sets of ornaments and bowings, fiddlers from all over the world can and do create an infinite variety of rhythms over a melody.

(C) Fiddling is an oral tradition, and repertoire and style are largely learned and absorbed differently than is classical repertoire. Fiddlers learn hundreds, even thousands, of tunes, in a variety of keys and modes, and they do it almost entirely by ear. Tunes are learned from other musicians at sessions of all sizes, and from recorded and sometimes printed sources if they exist. Styles like Cajun music don't depend on notation at all so how DO you learn? Watch a fiddler you admire and mirror their arm and wrist movements, listen to and analyze their techniques and try to reproduce them, and if you can get them to teach you, even better!

Most classical players use printed music to train their ear, which kicks in when they sight-read the music off the page, after which they play more from memory, using the music for performance cues. However, if you can't read music very well, you must learn tunes exclusively by ear and by watching other players. Besides, you can't learn beat placement and style from written music; you must hear it first. Fiddlers learn a tune first by ear, and if they read music, they might write it out for their notebooks. Some fiddlers with a huge repertoire keep a small notebook with the title and first two bars of each tune as a memory aid.

Learning to hear all the layered parts of a phrase - melody, beat placement, left and right hand ornaments, chord changes and other moving lines - and then figuring out how to play that phrase yourself constitutes most of the pedagogy. This involves listening, analyzing, and playing it back repeatedly until you get it. The refinement of what you hear is ongoing. Come back in a year to a recording after playing the tune for a while, and you'll hear even deeper layers of what's being played. Fiddling's focus on learning by ear means that experienced fiddlers can pick up tunes after hearing them a few times. This comes in handy at a jam session.

Jam sessions are important forums for learning fiddling styles and transmitting the repertoire and culture of fiddling. The jam is where you learn how to play fiddle tunes with other people. You learn to flow with the group beat or groove, and with the rhythms that come out of the tune itself. You learn to play each tune with other tunes in medleys, and how to arrange those tunes on the fly creatively among the musicians present. At "slow-jam" sessions, tunes are played at a slower speed for a while to allow everyone to grab the basic tune, then the tune naturally speeds up a little every time until it reaches dance tempo.

2. Why does fiddling sounds so scratchy and out of tune sometimes?

The tempered scale isn't that old - only a few hundred years. Intonation is culturally relative, and modal and other ancient influences embedded in many cultures, broad in its range of intonations and scale degrees. There is no universal performance standard in fiddling, nor a universal scale. Fiddling standards are culturally based. What sounds right in one style may sound ridiculous in another. Some styles are also far more heavily ornamented than others, both rhythmically and melodically, and what sounds to an unfamiliar ear like percussive scratches and howls may be ornaments that form an integral part of the style.Back to the tempered scale - among older proponents of some styles of fiddling (Cape Breton, French-Canadian and Southern Old-Time) you can find a slightly raised fourth degree in the scale. In a tune in D major, the G on the E string could be several cents sharp. It's not wrong. You're hearing an unaccompanied style and scale with roots in history. To be able to differentiate between a fiddler playing out of tune as a mistake and one using different scale degrees, listen for what others in that style are playing. Listen to more than one fiddler in any one style (ideally you'll listen to many of them if you love that style!) in order to get a picture of what that style sounds and feels like. Every fiddler has a signature sound, a musical footprint. So does each regional style and dialect.

What fiddlers and ethnomusicologists call "primary sources" are often what a violinist would call old men playing scratchy fiddle music. But watch out! Fiddlers revere these ancestors and bearers of tradition, and many of us actually try to incorporate as much of their sound into our own as we can. Tommy Jarrell is a prime source among Southern Old-Time fiddlers, and for myself, Franco-American fiddler Louis Beaudoin had a sound I'm always trying to reproduce when I play his music. We are trying to get something elusive and wonderful that these old guys had. This modeling is done with the utmost respect, if not reverence for the source, hearing past limited technique or the infirmities of age to their rhythms, creative variations, and the soul they put into it.

3. You're not playing what's written. Lots of notes are different. Why?

The sheet music is only the bones of the tune, seldom published with bowings or double stops written in, and never with dynamics, and often without harmony or chords noted at all. Ideally, we never play it the same way twice!) Fiddle tune notation is usually un-swung, with usually one repeat of the melody line (32 bars worth of the tune) noted. Variations and bowing syncopation are implied based on regional style. Things like swung timing, offbeat-accented drones, variations, other ornaments, and slurred phrasings [Ex. 2] are seldom notated, particularly in older collections, and completely accurate notation could not be read by most fiddlers anyway. These defining techniques are learned as part of a style, and applied to the tunes within that style as a spoken accent is to a language

.4. Why does it feel like I'm bowing everything backwards?

Maybe you are! Some Irish jigs can play easier with an up-bow on the downbeat, exactly the opposite of most classical usage, which tries to put a down-bow on the downbeat. And since you are accenting the offbeat, this reverses your accustomed accent pattern. Driven up-bows on the offbeat are common in some styles [Ex. 3], and these syncopations can be confusing to follow and will rarely be notated - remember the skeleton tune? The fiddler's job is to bring the skeleton to life, to make him dance!Fiddlers in some styles also tend to slur across the beat and across bar lines, creating an innate syncopation. It's also true that a fiddler must be able to bow a phrase in either direction and produce the same rhythmic accent both ways, moving the bow in opposite directions over a repeated phrase in the same tune. When you're playing a medley of reels for 20 minutes at 120 beats per minute, there's no time to worry about bow direction - you learn to feel the groove and make it happen in whatever direction it falls on the bow. This accounts for the myriad bowing styles fiddlers adopt or adapt to. I'd even say that the rhythms that we coax out of a tune might have a thing or two to do with those bowing reversals. Different phrasings will produce a different rhythm, a slightly different sound each time. Some of them are fluid and danceable, some are not. Fiddlers try to stick with the former.

While this bowing reversal can utterly confuse someone used to playing a phrase with the same bowing each time, it's a case of necessity mothering invention. A fiddler learns a basic bowing shuffle or lick to drive the tune on the offbeat, but that shuffle will show up to be bowed in either direction. Because you're constantly improvising, the bowing isn't going to work out the same every time. Don't expect it to. What you will often find, however, is a personal preference for an up-bow or down-bow in setting up certain licks. Presented with a phrase going in the wrong bow direction, a fiddler will lift the bow and come down in the desired direction. But, I have to say that fiddlers don't think about what the bow is doing all the time once we know a tune. We're drumming the tune in our head while we play, looking for new rhythms to play. It's an intuitive focus looking for new rhythms implied in the tune, syncopating around the melody.

5. I'm trained to be able to use my entire bow - how come you only use a little bit?

It's a misconception that fiddlers use mostly the upper half of their bow. Each style has different bowing uses and ornaments, and each fiddler varies that to fit their personal skills and body size, their hand and finger shape. The variations are endless. Some regional styles use long fluid bow strokes (Texas, Cajun) and some can use very short repeated bow strokes (Cape Breton, French-Canadian). Many fiddlers work off the balance point of their bow, using the weighted center of the bow to give them power and mobility in either direction. Many who favor the tip of their bow also choke up in their bow hold to shorten the overall stick length. Also, not every note fiddled is as fully sounded as it would be in classical music. Some notes get shortchanged, even "ghosted" so you barely hear them at all. [Ex. 3] This all serves the rhythm or groove in a tune, and is usually part of a bowing pattern.

We learn to use the bow to master a variety of techniques necessary to play our repertoire. The amount of bow use varies with and within fiddle styles, but some fiddlers playing in only one style may not need or use many classical techniques, and will find a part of the bow they like to play from and stay with it, whether it's frog, middle, or tip. Those who play in multiple fiddling styles are likely to have absorbed more bowing techniques. Our goal as fiddlers is to lay down a solid dance groove, which is more important than playing all the melody notes with equal weight, more important than achieving perfect intonation, than the licks we show off in improvisation, really more important than anything else.

6. What's that rocking thing you do with your bow?

Usually it's a shuffle - which comes in a variety of shapes and sizes according to the style being played. They range from simple to complex, and all serve to accent the offbeat, syncopating the beat. There's the basic shuffle, which gives you an offbeat accent in 2/4 [Ex. 1d]. It's often used in Southern Old Time reels. Then you can vary it into rhythms by tying different notes together over a two-bar phrase to syncopate the tune [Ex. 2]. The Georgia Shuffle is a 3-slurred, 1-separate bowing rhythm that can pop the offbeat out like an elbow in the ribs [Ex. 2].

7. What about dynamics? Is the tune all played at the same loudness?

No. The focal point of the tune (usually the reason we like that tune) is led up to and is played louder. And some notes are played softer or ghosted to serve the rhythm being played. Dynamics are used to punch the offbeat, so within a bar of music in 2/4 time, you start softer, get louder, then softer, then louder, like a heartbeat or breathing. One way fiddlers make this repetitive dynamic change is by playing a double-stop drone right on the offbeat on the open string matching the chord [Ex. 2].

8. Don't you get sick of playing the same 32 bars over and over again?

Real fiddlers don't play them the same way over and over at all. That's where ornaments and improvisation come in. Learn the ornaments in any style and you'll be able to vary the melody authentically in that style. We also medley groups of tunes at dances for fun and to avoid repetitive use injuries. Variations creep in the second or third time through a tune at the ends of phrases, then the middle, and then we might move the beat around a bit under the tune. The tune always moves, and is never static or boring. We're drummers, and the bow is our drumstick, beating new rhythms over the tune. Rhythmic improvisation in fiddling swims closer to shore than melodic improvisation in jazz. You never really lose sight of the tune, just noodle around it rhythmically a lot, trying a different slant on it each time [Ex. 2].

9. What about vibrato? How much should I use, and when?

In some styles and in tunes played fast in other styles, you won't hear it at all. Some tunes might use a slight vibrato on a long note, but vibrato takes time and most fiddle tunes are reels full of sixteenth notes played at 120 beats per minute - where would vibrato fit? Waltzes are usually played with some vibrato, but all ornaments in any style, including vibrato, are subordinate to the rhythm. It's not part of most fiddling traditions - there are many other ways to bend a note, and we use them instead. One of the places where using vibrato has become part of the fiddling tradition is in Québec, where fiddler Joe Bouchard, widely recorded in the 1950s, played even reels with a wide, fast vibrato. Those who follow him take that up as part of the style.

10. Is your fiddle set up and tuned differently? And how do you hold your instrument?

Today it's safe to say that most fiddlers have their instrument set up by someone who knows how, with little or no variation from a classical setup. However, there are fiddlers who like to let the bridge do the work of playing adjacent string drones, and they file the top of the curve down so that happens naturally. Some who play in both concert and other tunings keep a second instrument tuned to whatever key they like to play in most, usually AEAE from bottom to top. In AEAE tuning, you can play either in Am or A major - or both in the same tune - that mixolydian mode with it's flatted seventh really appeals to fiddlers! Many traditions - American Old Time, Cajun, Scandinavian, French Canadian - have tunes that call for retuning the instrument, using AEAE for tunes in A, ADAE for tunes in D, and AEAC# for A major tuning. If you play tunes with a diatonic instrument like the 5-string banjo or button accordion, you may also find yourself playing in the same key or family of keys for most of a session to accommodate their tuning limitations.

Our overall fiddling posture - how we hold and use the fiddle and bow - is totally personal, based on physique and inclination (and yes, sometimes, ignorance), and is also somewhat, but not entirely dictated by the rigors of the style we're playing. It's amazing how many different holds and postures can produce so much wonderful music, even within any given region or style! There's more good news! You can lower both your arms a little and relax your bow hold (even loosen your bow a little!) when you fiddle. Lower your shoulder rest a notch or two if you use one; lower your left arm if you don't. You won't be going up the neck so far and won't need the extra left-hand height. You will need to cultivate an effortless hold on the bow and fiddle, one that ultimately allows you to play sixteenth notes in syncopation at 120 beats per minute for a 10-minute jam or a 20-minute dance figure. Some violinists who have made the switch believe that learning to fiddle helps you relax your hold on the fiddle and bow and also conditions you to breathe better when you play classical music. Think of those visits to the chiropractor you could skip!

11. I can already play the violin. How long will it take to learn to fiddle?

First, it's important to put aside whatever stereotypes about fiddling you might have lurking in your unconscious. A dangerous one is assuming that because it's almost all in first position, it's easy, and besides, you already know how to play. As classical players, you can play in positions with more facility than most fiddlers, and you can probably sight-read just about anything you see with facility and speed. You can play symphonies and concertos, and while some of us could, most fiddlers couldn't. But don't underestimate what fiddlers do! How many ways could you phrase and rearrange the notes in 4, 8, or 16 bars of music at 120 beats per minute, while playing the tune in an authentic style, with the correct beat placement and ornaments, while creating minute rhythmic variations with each repetition, yet never losing the outline of the melody, never playing it exactly the same way twice, keeping a syncopated offbeat going all the while, as you change tunes and keys in medleys and arrange all of them intuitively on the fly?

How long it should take to begin to sound like a fiddler depends on two things you can control - how well your ear is developed, and how much you immerse yourself in the style you want to learn. Really loving a sound and style are key. The violin is an instrument you already know how to play, but fiddling is another language and immersion is the best way to learn. Just like you learned your classical repertoire, there are no short cuts. Find a style you love and learn everything you can - tunes, harmonies, rhythms. Obsess about some fiddler's style that you admire, listening repeatedly so your ear can catch and fingers replicate minute changes in rhythm and melody. Find recorded sources and try to learn from them, a phrase at a time. Learning to fiddle, then, is about moving from a reading orientation to one that relies on the ears.

When you learn any tune the first time, you imprint it, so learn from a good model. Ideally you should try to find a teacher or mentor you can play regularly with, and learn enough common tunes to be able to play in a jam session in the style you want to absorb. Keep a music notebook in pencil and write down every tune you learn, keeping track of bowings, suggested harmonies, and licks you like to play in that tune. Then you can go back and refine your bowings and ornaments in a year or more when you find you've changed them all to sound more authentic in your fiddling. At the very least you should keep a cassette or mini-disc journal of your fiddling practice, and a play list of your favorite recorded sources. It's also important to date and document your new material so you can keep track of what you've learned. When not played regularly, tunes learned by ear can slip out of memory if they aren't documented somewhere. Date these and keep them documented as to what tunes are on them and who is playing.You can begin to sound authentic in one style after at least a year of immersion in it - meaning that you regularly listen to fiddlers in that style, you research sources, learn tunes, buy CDs, look online for listening and printed resources. You have to find a live mentor to become really at home in the style you choose. Then you just keep listening (a lot) and polishing your skills - the styles and the possibilities are almost endless, and the levels of technical difficulty can be very challenging. Your bow will do things you never knew it could!

Let me reassure you that no knowledge is ever wasted. You won't get bored. Put aside your fears - you won't lose your classical chops. Your ear just gets better and that improvement plus the one in your internal rhythm will carry over into your performance of classical music. In other words, you'll become a better all-around musician in addition to learning some great melodies. As you already discovered about the learning process, there are lateral benefits you may not see for months, and then suddenly you jump to another level of playing. After a year of playing Cajun fiddle with its constant open string drones, my intonation was noticeably and humblingly cleaner in everything else I played.Here's the most important thing about fiddling - don't just go for the tunes or the chops - fiddling is rooted in community. Go for the whole ride - the jams, the festivals and contests, the food at potlucks, the kids learning how to play and step dance, the babies dancing down the contra line on their daddies' backs. Go for the people. They come with the tunes, and they're why the tunes have life and meaning.

12. Why should I learn fiddling at all?

There are two compelling reasons to learn and teach fiddling in the public schools. The first is that doing so satisfies ALL of the National Standards for Music Education set by the Music Educators National Conference, especially the new tenth standard that focuses on dance.

1. Singing, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music.

2. Performing on instruments, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music.

3. Improvising melodies, variations, and accompaniments.

4. Composing and arranging music within specified guidelines.

5. Reading and notating music.

6. Listening to, analyzing and describing music.

7. Evaluating music and music performances.

8. Understanding relationships between music, and other arts, and disciplines outside the arts.

9. Understanding music in relation to history and culture.

10. Understanding dance as it relates to music.

The second is several related questions: How many of your string students will actually make it to an orchestra, teaching, or solo career as an adult, or even grow up to play in an amateur chamber group? Don't you want them to have as many options as they can find for playing music their whole lives? How many people do you meet that say "I used to play violin" when you mention that you're a teacher? Fiddling is something you can find in almost every community, and even if you haven't played in years, you're welcomed into the music scene when you arrive in a new place. And then there's the tantalizing possibility that you never know where the next Mark O'Connor or Natalie MacMaster is going to come from. Maybe one of your students?

© 2001, 2002 Donna Hébert,


Donna Hébert
Donna Hébert
Donna Hébert


Donna Hébert is an extraordinary fiddler and backup musician, able to find the heart of any piece and play from there. Adept as well at helping others to find their musical groove, she teaches fiddling to individuals and groups at schools, conferences and festivals. A recognized master of Franco-American fiddling, she has worked under state arts council sponsorship with fiddle apprentices from CT and NH. Adjunct fiddle instructor at Amherst and Hampshire Colleges, and will teach Northern fiddling at Mark O'Connor's San Diego Strings Conference in July 2006.

Donna is also completing an extensive fiddling guide for string players, fiddlers and teachers. Fiddling Demystified's first volume includes string arrangements of 30 tunes set authentically in regional styles, with audio instruction for each tune. Fiddling Demystified will be available online at in June 2006.


site, design, all recordings © 2005 Donna Hébert / Fiddlestick Graphics.

Fiddling Demystified
Chanterelle Franco-American heritage & folk music
Groovemama - Old-Time, Blues & Contradancec
The Beaudoin Project Collection and performances
Mist Covered Mountains Celtic duo with Max Cohen
AND Donna's online anthology about fiddling: The Muse of Joy and Sorrow: why we play the fiddle