Fiddle and Fiddling

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Scottish Fiddling:


    I began studying violin at around age 6 using the Suzuki method, and continued until age 16, by which time I had become involved in other hobbies to the point where I just wasn't practicing anymore.  I always intended the break to be temporary, but little did I realize that it would be another 15 years before I took lessons again.  As I became interested in playing Celtic music, instead of just listening to it, I picked up the fiddle again, had it restrung and the sound-post replaced, and started messing around on some session tunes in the fall of 2000.  Dissatisfied with my progress on fiddle, and as my piping began to show significant progress, I began to look for an instructor.

    I found that teacher in Elke Baker, the 1995 U.S. Scottish Fiddle champion, who teaches from the Washington Conservatory of Music, in Bethesda, MD, and began studying with her in January 2002.  Elke is a great instructor, and in addition to pushing me along with the fiddling, has been a great source of information for the concepts in Scottish music in general, something I've been able to carry over to my piping.  Elke is also a specialist in 18th century Scottish music, and I plan on making full use of her knowledge as I delve into period performance. I've spent the last semester (fall '06) being introduced to backing, accompanying, and harmonies. In the previous semesters, we read through the Fraser and Skye collections (spring '06) and Marshall and Gow tunebooks (fall '05), the particulars of playing in the Scottish Country Dance style, and on to a study of repertoire strathspeys and slow airs (spring '05), and broadening my knowledge of repertoire reels, or rather, "the reels every Scottish fiddler should know" (fall '04).

   Elke is also the music director for the Potomac Valley Scottish Fiddle Club, which meets once a month around the D.C. metro area, except in summer, where its members often perform, solo or as a group, at the various summer Celtic festivals and Highland games.  I first joined for the 2002-2003 year, and have really enjoyed the meetings since. This year, I was more active than I have ever been in the club, attending six of the nine monthly meetings.


    Oddly enough, fiddlers aren't as single-mindedly focussed on their equipment as pipers are.  In fact, my Scottish fiddle teacher goes to great lengths to point out that one can get excellent tone from an expensive fiddle, inexpensive string, and so on.   For her, the bow is key. I talk more about my bows below.

Mahr Baroque Violin 1 Mahr Baroque Violin 2 Mahr Baroque Violin 3 Mahr Baroque Violin 4 Mahr Baroque Violin 5 Mahr Baroque Violin 6 Mahr Baroque Violin 7 Mahr Baroque Violin 8
   The main violin I use for solo performances, recording, and period reenacting is a baroque set-up violin made by German violin maker Walter Mahr in October 2004, and purchased from Lark in the Morning. The top of the violin is tightly-grained spruce, and the back and sides are flamed maple, with an imitation old spirit varnish. The instrument is set up for the late baroque, with a solid ebony tailpiece and fingerboard. I've strung it with Pirastro Chorda gut strings for the upper three strings (D, A, and E), and a silver-plated gut G string. The instrument is very beautiful aesthetically, and has a wonderful and addictive warm tone, and an extremely powerful low end. From the first time I played this instrument, I was instantly enamoured of the rich sound it produced, and soon was using it for all of my practice. Because this is a baroque set-up instrument, the neck is in the same plane as the body, rather than angled back from it as in a modern violin, and is glued and nailed in place, rather than glued and morticed. The walls of the body are much thinner, making the instrument appreciably lighter than a modern violin. Also, the fingerboard is much shorter in length than a modern violin, and it lacks a chinrest. And, of course, there are the gut strings, which make a warmer sound than metal, but are less stable under changing temperature and humidity. The main downside of this instrument is the tuning; gut is inherently more sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity (though once it settles in, it can be quite stable), and on top of this, the tuning pegs are not the self-tightening modern variety, and tend to slip when not regularly pushed in. I'm still learning how to manage the tuning difficulties. Though many people tune baroque instruments to a standardized A = 415 Hz, studies of pipe organs and tuning forks indicate that A wasn't nearly that low in the baroque, and this instrument tunes quite easily to modern 440 Hz.

Amped Fiddle     My original instrument is a E. R. Pfretzschner student violin made in Germany in 1970, which was bought by my parents from a former violin instructor around 1982.  It's taken a few knocks, nicks on the finish, and a corner broken off the upper face, but I love this fiddle dearly.  It's as old as I am, and it's been with me for 20 years.  When I was first jamming with my friend Maggie Drennon, she commented that it had a "harmonica-like quality", "like the fiddle in the PBS Civil War series". The comparison is flattering, but I don't know if it holds up under scrutiny. Compared to my new violin, the sound is thin, and it doesn't ring particularly strongly. But it's a good solid instrument, and I've equipped it with a pick-up (see below) for bar gigs and the like. I tend to keep this instrument tuned to A = 440 Hz. The strings I'm currently using are Pirastro Evah Pirazzi medium Violin Strings and so far I'm pretty happy with them.

 I didn't use a shoulder rest for my first three years as a fiddler, not to make some "I'm a fiddler, not a violinist" mission statement, I just found it perfectly comfortable to play without, and it makes it easier to grab the instrument and start playing. This also will make my period performance with the Jacobite reenactment regiment I've joined much more comfortable. However, as I've begun to play more tunes that require vibrato and 3rd and higher positions (like Skinner's The Sadness of Life, I've begun to do as classical musicians did - hold the instrument like a violin instead of like a fiddle.

Pocket Violin 1 Pocket Violin 2 Pocket Violin 3 Pocket Violin 4 Pocket Violin 5 Pocket Violin 6 Pocket Violin 7 Pocket w/ Baroque Violin 1 Pocket w/ Baroque Violin 2
    The "kit", from "pocket fiddle", also known as a "Pochette", was the instrument used by dance masters in the 18th and early 19th centuries, who would make house calls to teach their dance classes. They would bring this tiny violin with them to play as they instructed their students in the latest ballroom steps. The kit is a quiet instrument, and comes in a variety of shapes and tunings. This instrument was made by Colonial Wiiliamsburg luthier Michael Thompson in 2001, and has a nut to bridge distance 80% of my Mahr fiddle. This allows me to tune it a perfect fourth above violin tuning, or an octave above viola tuning. It's got a bit of a thin sound, as it lacks a lot of the subtleties that make the baroque and modern violins so much more advanced than their medieval progenitors. But if one gets the intonation just right, one can really make it ring. Like the medieval violin, the kit's scroll, neck, and body are made from a single piece of wood, to which a top and fingerboard are attached. I purchased this instrument from Ted Borek, a Revolutionary War era reenactor, after he bought a new antique kit, and I mentioned I was interested in getting a Michael Thompson instrument. Ted said he had one, and was willing to part with it and the wooden box case it came in - but not the bow, which he intended to play with the new kit. After a few days of playing it, I sent Ted a check. And I got a great deal for it. Ted included a Knoll full length baroque bow with the kit, and I commissioned a friend to cut down the bow to fit in the wooden case that came with the kit; often in the 18th century, kit bows were indeed cut down from full-length ones. In addition, Ted gave me a back-up bow, basically a 1/4 size (child's) modern fiberglass bow (seen in the picture to the left).

   When played, the kit is held against the chest, like the medieval violin, or vielle, and not under the chin. This makes it a bit of a challenge to play; the instrument tends to rotate in the hand, it's hard to access the low strings, and higher positions are out of the question. In addition, intonation is tricky, because of the smaller scale length. The finger spacing in 1st position is like playing in 3rd position on a full sized instrument. The kit is a fascinating and little known instrument nowadays, and is always a conversation starter when I take it out to play. I intend to use it mainly for historical demonstrations; but it also is great for travelling.

Bows    I'm currently playing with a carbon fiber Coda Bow Classic (top); the bow is pitch-black, and the inspiration for my moniker, "The Black Bow", and my website domain. I use this bow for all but my period performances. I bought it in June '04, knowing nothing about the reputation of the bow, or that it's apparently the "new hotness" among classical violinists. I was trying out bows, to find a second wooden-bow (my other one, below, had lost all its hair when the glue failed), and the violin shop staff laid out a large variety of bows for me to try. I used the Coda Bow, and instantly fell in love with it. I especially loved how it felt in the hand, and how I could produce very quiet but clear tones in slow airs without a surfacy sound or bow bounce. And it felt very comfortable in dance tunes. The balance point of the bow is a good distance from the frog, and I think that has much to do with how it feels when being played.

   My alternate modern bow is a heavy brazil-wood bow from A. Lorenz (upper middle), which I bought a year before, in 2003. The weight is a bit different from the Coda bow, much closer to the frog, and the bow's flexibility is also different, but it's a good bow. I purchased both bows at the Brobst Violin Shop in Alexandria, VA.

   For period performances I use one of two period bows (bottom two) made in 2004 by Walther Mahr in Germany, and purchased from Lark in the Morning. Note the distinct shape of the bows - they decend from earlier bows, which were really shaped like an archery bow. These bows are well-balanced, and made of brazil-wood with ebony frogs and fittings. Though a true period bow would be clipped into place, making the tension adjustable only when the bow is rehaired, these bows incorporate a discrete modern screw mechanism for tightening the bow. Some modern conveniences are too handy to give up, even on a reproduction period bow!

Combo Pickup Front    The Combo Pickup Backpick-up I'm using on the Mahr violin is the Fishman Concertmaster system. It consists of a piezo-electric bridge pickup, combined with a condenser microphone on a gooseneck. The electronics, pre-amp, and balance and volume controls are built into a shoulder rest. This is a very versatile amplification system - it allows me to put all piezo in the monitors, reducing feedback, and a balanced mix of piezo and condenser into the mains for the best sound. Unfortunately, the piezo that came with the system was designed to fit in the slot in a modern bridge, and thus did not work with a baroque violin. I corrected this by replacing it with a Barcus Berry 3100 clamp-on piezoelectric violin bridge pickup. I simply swapped connectors between the Fishman and Barcus Berry piezos, and I was ready to go. All in all, it's a great combination, and can be installed or removed almost as easily as installing or removing a shoulder rest.

    The pick-up I'm using on the Pfretzschner violin is the V-02 Std. Pickup system from Schatten.  It's a single piezo element built into the bridge, which does have to be shaped to fit the player's preferred height and thickness (I used a Dremel tool grinding wheel and my old bridge as a template).  I've been very happy with it so far; it's designed to sound good without a preamp.

    I also received a violin kit from Grizzly Industrial, Inc. as a 33rd birthday present from my father. I'm taking my sweet time building it, but as I go further with it I'll post pictures of its construction and assembly here.

Irish Fiddling:

    I started studying January '04 with Philippe Varlet. It's all still pretty new to me, and we started off with marches and polkas, of both the Leitrim and Kerry types, and looked at double jigs and slides, concentrating on rolls, equivalent figures, and melodic variation. I'm getting a lot out of it, and though my specialty will remain with the Scottish style, having competancy in a generic Irish style will broaden my skills and range greatly.
   Unfortunately, because of financial and time concerns, I've taken a hiatus in my Irish fiddling, though I hope to resume lessons in 2007.

The page background is the Walker Hunting tartan, registered by Robert Walker Hawks of Tennessee in 1991.  Hunting tartans replace the main color (usually red) with a green, and usually incorporate other color substitutions.  They are worn for informal occasions, often (but not always) associated with the outdoors.

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Last Updated 26 December 2006, 6:23 AM ET