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.
I began studying violin at around age 6 using
the Suzuki method, and continued until age 16, by which time I had
involved in other hobbies to the point where I just wasn't practicing
I always intended the break to be temporary, but little did I
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
I found that teacher in Elke Baker
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
, 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.
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!
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.