Another forum I was reading had a post that said good tone isn't all that important in Irish traditional fiddling and I am wondering what the fiddlers here think about that statement.  The poster said that since Irish trad "is dance music as is Old Time American music" that tone just didn't matter all that much as compared to rhythm.  I disagree but am looking for others' thoughts on this idea.


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Right and I know how lucky I am with my teacher.  We've both learned a lot from each other over the years, I think.  I could easily be his mother so it took a while for him to figure out it was more than fine to find fault, criticize, and push me.  

You're on to something with the idea that by the time someone gets all the bits together - they have also got a pretty good tone so it's hard to separate discussion of the role of tone vs. all the rest.  I still believe that knowing good basic VIOLIN technique does a person a lot of good regardless of genre they want to play.  

At least for me, I can't stand to listen to certain genres of fiddle music that elevates rhythm over everything else.

My favorite Irish fiddler - other than my teacher! - is Martin Hayes and his tone is gorgeous in my opinion.

Brid - I think you and I have reached common ground on this issue!  Not sure about anyone else, though!  chuckle.

I dunno Mary, I actually think that alot of the time classical grounding can be a hinderance more than a help to trad musicians, I can count the number of one hand of people who started classical who are now awesome trad players (at the moment I can only think of one). Most people can never lose the classicalness of their playing, which for me ruins it a bit, there is something almost too rigid, alot of the time the bowing isn't quite right, do you know what I mean? It must sound stupid - but it makes sense to me. 

I think if you want to learn trad fiddle - then you go and get yourself a good trad fiddle teacher - if there are none in your area, you move to Ireland. That's what I did anyways:) 

Having said all that - I have enrolled my son in violin -truth be told - I don't have time to teach a 5 year old fiddle - my aim is to swoop in and teach him trad just at the right moment (haven't worked out when that will be) before it (the classicalness) becomes too ingrained in him..that doesn't sound right - but do you know what I mean? 

Yeah - I do know what you mean!  I know that Kevin Burke has some classical violin training though.  He's not my favorite (too much slurring for my taste) but he certainly has a ton of fans.

Perhaps I just prefer a slightly "refined" sound?  Example - not all that fond of Tommy Peoples personally - a matter of personal taste.

You did the right thing with your son!  Believe me - you did.  My daughter is a good bluegrass and country music fiddler and her 15+ years of classical did nothing but help her.  She's working with a professional country fiddler these days - it's been great for her.  And she's having a blast.  

Locally one of the classical violinists in our highly regarded symphony orchestra plays a mean bluegrass fiddle when she's not playing the classical composers.

I guess generalizations maybe don't work all that well since we can all find exceptions to any rule.  

I love Tommy Peoples, but my all time favourite is his daughter Siobhan - love her style! 

I don't think I'd leave him in for 15 years though - I think maybe a year - but get him to start playing irish at the same time. 

Sure  - I can't see why your son couldn't learn some Irish tunes at the same time.  I suppose it would depend on the teacher or program.  I am not up on that stuff anymore!

Deirdre (daughter) loves classical music to this day.  And she has a grounding in theory which I wish that I had.  She went to college as a music performance major.

I bet your son will love his violin lessons and he will want to play the same tunes as his mom.  You'll be a great example for him, Brid!

My daughter and I relish the fact that we play different music - we share the instrument but respect that we go in different directions with it.  She's about a million light years ahead of me though!

One of my long-standing pals is Bill Amatneek who together with Bill Chugg from Devon and me comprised a Bluegrass Band called Amos Fitzberry and his Kansas City Playboys for just one summer in the 1960s.  Amatneek was an Armenian bass player from New York who lived in Philadelphia and played real nasty bluegrass banjo.  Bill Chugg was on fiddle and I played my lovely Levin Goliath guitar.  This is just by way of background.  

One evening we were gigging in a pub close to Keele University which the three of us attended.  Chuggie had been playing fiddle since he was knee high to his grandad whose fiddle he played.  A punter approached him and queried how Bill played certain tunes.  Bill just shoved his fiddle at the guy and demanded that he show him then.  "I can't play fiddle," said the annoying little ferret.  Bill told him to shut up and keep his opinions to himself until he could demonstrate his ability.

Amatneek  had learned 5 string banjo from Eric Weissburg and had had contact with bluegrass greats like Earl Scruggs.  One of his chums in the US had played fiddle during a coaching session.  The laconic comment from Scruggs was that he hadn't had enough classical to ruin his playing!

The point that I would really make about tone and all the other techniques is simply this.  Just as folk singing is carried out in a natural singing voice and avoids the highly engineered tones of bel canto, so too is folk playing carried out in a natural way.  Most folk fiddlers can't afford 'good' instruments and that accounts for some of the less than beautiful sounds produced, especially by those who are beginners.  

So, you might argue, how can a fiddle be played naturally; surely you must have to learn it.  True, but that doesn't necessarily involve going through the classical training school.  Learning it involves playing and trying it for yourself; sometimes with suggestions from other players, sometimes just by listening to yourself; Even putting a track on a player and playing along with the recording.  That is the closest to the traditional way of learning that most can aspire to unless you live in an area with a living tradition.  I, like many others, came into playing folk music during the Revival.  It took a long time to learn and at first I scraped out the melody like anybody else.  Now I am convinced more that ever, that we should concentrate on playing first, playing along with others, and getting the music into the very fabric of our souls.  The technique flows from that and not from following the dots.

You may or may not remember the recordings that Menhuin made with Stephane Grappelli.  Menhuin desperately wanted to play jazz and traditional Scottish music.  (Older readers may remember his ill fated attempt to lead an orchestra of traditional fiddlers during the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh. Jocks nicknamed him Yehudi McEwen.)  I watched a TV interview with Menhuin and Grappelli.  Stephane was very polite.  "Well Mr Menhuin has this wonderful attack  but me, I'm just an old fiddler so I cuddle up to the microphone..."  Thing was that Grappelli could swing and Menhuin couldn't.  Grappelli  could improvise but Menhuin had to have everything written out for him, and then he memorised it.

Some can play from the inside out.  Some follow the dots.  Some can do both.  I know some very highly skilled musicians who can sight read for practically any instrument.  I sight read but not necessarily at first sight!  The sight readers are in awe of what I do as much as I stand in awe of their skills.  

The moral is to open yourself to listening to as much of the music that you admire as possible.  Join in with it, sing it to yourself inside your head, and play along with yourself. Eventually, you will achieve the best that you can and when others ask you to play, that's when you know you've got there.

About the importance of tone in Irish fiddling, as in the original post, maybe this example will help put it all in perspective.

From 2007-2010 I was an instructor at the Fiddle Hell event in Groton, MA in the USA. It's a weekend event in a very large old coach house, and there are jams and workshops, and it was at those workshops where I taught.

The fiddle styles were Irish trad, Scots, Cape Breton, old-time, bluegrass and jazz too. The ability range of the fiddlers was from just beyond beginner, through intermediate, to some at quite an advanced level.

The workshops were on tunes mostly, but a few instructors (including me) concentrated on technique, bowing patterns, etc.

During a break, I sat in on one of other instructor's tunes workshops for a little while, and the emphasis was on rhythm and dynamics, eg taking a very simple tune, playing it slowly, but getting it sounding better with bowing accents, etc. There was nothing on tone or intonation, and to be fair it was too much to include in a tunes workshop, because there simply would not have been enough time.

I gave a class later on that day on basic techniques - on tone, mostly. Some of the players from the previous tunes workshop were there, and some remarked afterwards that my class had helped make them sound better. One big problem was slewed or skewed bowing, ie on direction change the path is not straight, so you lose the bite on the first note on every direction change. Another one was using too little bow pressure, enough to sound the note, but not enough to draw out the full tone that the fiddle is capable of.

Anyway, with those things corrected, the whole thing sounded better, and they already had help with dynamics in the tunes workshop, so all in all it was very worthwhile for some.

Yes, but Jim, without all the other stuff - even with the best tone in the world its still going to sound all wrong. At the end of the day they are all important, no??

Brid and Jim - thanks to you both.  Because I do believe you've addressed my original question!  Someone did say on another forum that "tone isn't all that important in Irish Trad and Old Time" and I had an issue with that at least as it relates to Irish Trad (I don't play Old Time and have utterly no interest in ever playing it since I don't like it).  At the end of the day, I believe we might agree that ALL elements matter to the music and that we would do well to pay attention to more than rhythm alone.  Thanks so much.  

Yes Brid - I also think they are all important and I imagine that Jim does, too.  He was pointing out how much better the music was when folks got some help in improving their tone.  

Yes, but Jim, without all the other stuff - even with the best tone in the world its still going to sound all wrong. At the end of the day they are all important, no??


Absolutely :)

I’m a aspiring fiddler, and I’m hoping to develop a wonderful tone, but if I had a choice between listening to a classical violinist with great tone and impeccable intonation who was murdering the music with a lack of feel or a scratchy fiddler with less than perfect intonation who had great lift and pulse I have no doubt I would tire of the first rather quickly and enjoy the latter immensely. No doubt about it whatsoever.

I don't think either are preferable, and I'm not entirely sure good tone is limited to classical music either! Tone is extremely important in the sound of a piece, and in giving it lift. If you have weak thin notes that don't sound full then the piece will lack lift, likewise it will lack phrasing. How you attack a note, how it is sustained and how it ends affect tone production, all of which are essential in phrasing the overall piece and giving it life. I decided a year or so ago to start practicing tone exercises and must say it greatly improved my playing, especially of slow airs and more expressive pieces, not that I have mastered anything approaching perfect tone yet though!!!

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