Origins of the Melody

Origins of the Melody

Over the next three weeks, I’m going to explore the fascinating topic of fiddle tune variations, of course in the context of Texas-style fiddling. The three topics I’ll cover are: Origins of the Melody, How to Learn Variations, and How to Build Variations. So, keep following my blog posts here….

As cool as variations are, I personally do not look at variations as superior to the traditional melody. In fact, as much as I love playing variations, there are hundreds of tunes that I choose not to vary at all. And there are lots of recordings that have zero variations and totally rock. Here are a few of my favorites: The Tommy Jackson Compendium Volume 1, 2, & 3 (with Red Recktor on mandolin), Kenny Baker’s Master Fiddler, Georgia Slim’s Raw Fiddle, Eck Robertson’s Old Time Texas Fiddler: Vintage Recordings 1922-29. (Full disclosure, Eck does play in those recordings an incredible “Sally Goodin” with several seminal variations that I’ll talk about in future blogs.)

Now, let’s look at the origins of the melody of a fiddle tune. The evolution of a fiddle tune is akin to playing telephone. As the tune gets passed down by ear from generation to generation and from fiddler to fiddler, little changes naturally occur. Variations are then added, and the tune grows over time. The melody of any fiddle tune can also vary from fiddler to fiddler, especially as certain variations become commonplace enough that they get considered to be part of the tune. Still, because respect for the melody of a fiddle tune is a central aspect of an unspoken code among fiddlers, even the oldest melodies remain recognizable.

If you take one part of a fiddle tune, you can break it down and find the “points of the part.” These points make up the undeniably important notes (and rhythms) in the melody that give a tune its musical skeleton, or you might even say, its musical identity. This can include something as small as a single note, a common phrase, or a signature accent on a specific note. These points remain in their traditional places even as variations are built around them. And the presence of these points keep the tune recognizable.

When I first sit down to learn a breakdown, my starting point is always to figure out where the points of the part are. To find the true melody, I will search back as far as I can in recorded history for the oldest recording I can find. Then, getting as close as possible to the original tune, I begin to see its evolution: how variations gradually became accepted as parts and by looking at these now integrated variations, I begin to decipher where the actual points of the parts are. All tunes have their history, their lineage. It’s our work to dig into that and appreciate how they come to us in the present day. Now, this process of discovery is not always as black and white as I just described it, but all in all, I find the exploration worth the blood, sweat and tears. And it is always educational. You might notice how fiddlers who do this work wind up internalizing the melody so deeply that they venture into variations only after a long period of integrating the concept of the tune into their musical being.

After you’ve learned the melody, sought out the oldest documented version you can find, and deciphered all the points of the part, then you might well have some clarity on how variations developed over time. And once you do, you also might well be ready to learn them from a deeper place than just reading notes on a score. I know this can feel a little heady when all you want to do is learn some fun variations, but bear with me here, I promise it’s worth the effort. Why not start out by creating a playlist with all of your favorite fiddlers playing the tune that you’d like to have a variation for. Because therein lie the keys to the kingdom. All you have to do is take the time to listen – to really listen – and lo and behold, you’ll find yourself developing an instinct for not only how to put variations together but also to create them yourself! I don’t need to tell you how thrilling that can be, how rich it is to go that deep into the music you love. Stay tuned for next week’s blog where I’ll talk about How to Learn Variations.

Written by Katie Glassman with Adam Kulakow


How to use a practice journal

It’s a challenge to practice regularly, and if you do, you might still feel like you’re not getting the most out of your practice. Students often go home from their lesson with a long list of things to work on and as soon as they sit down to play, they either can’t remember what the list contained or they don’t know how to start on it.

Enter practice journals! There are many ways to keep a practice journal, but here’s what we recommend to get started. Once you get in the journaling routine, feel free to make edits that help your practice get even smoother, and let us know how it goes in the comments or on Facebook!

1. Start with a notebook or binder that is dedicated only to your practice. In addition to your journal, you can also include sheet music, information about upcoming performances, and anything else relevant to your playing. The important piece is that you reserve the notebook only for musical purposes—no grocery lists popping up in the middle that will break the flow. This separation of your music notes from other papers will help you mirror that effect in your practice mindset by keeping your thoughts focused and present without distractions.

2. Take notes as you work through Fiddle School and during your private lessons. Musical amnesia hits hard as soon as you set down your instrument and walk away from a learning session, so set yourself up for success and write down a list of things you need to work on as they come up. This could be technique exercises, learning a new part, or fixing a trouble spot in a certain song, among other things.

3. Before you begin practicing, write out a plan. It should start with an intentional warm-up (this could be a Practice Pal, some one-note jam, or other exercises) to get you in gear for the skills you want to build that day.

Next, write down tunes and technique that you’d like to check in with. During this part of your practice, you should play slowly and do many attentive repetitions to solidify good technique. It’s also a great place in your practice to use the Practice Circle concept found in Lesson 12.

Next, plan to learn some new material if that’s in your routine that day—otherwise, it’s plenty to work on solidifying tunes you already have. Again, slow and steady wins the race here.

Lastly, write down tunes that you want to play through start to finish a few times. This last portion is important, but is only a piece of the practice (for many people, this is often all they do when they practice, so be sure to give lots of attention to the other steps as well).

When you practice, follow the agenda you’ve written out for yourself, more or less. If something unexpected comes up that you want to work on, that’s okay. Just be sure that you’re not falling for your brain’s trickery if it tries to distract you into noodling or playing repetitions in a zombie-like state of disengagement (this can reinforce bad technique and leave you feeling unaccomplished).

After you finish your practice, cross off each item that you visited on your practice agenda and write down some things you found to work on in the next day’s practice. Do this day after day, and you’ll have a great record of your progress. You’ll also get a better handle on how to improve even more efficiently in the future.

How do you organize your practice? Let us know in the comments, and happy practicing!

To rosin or not to rosin?

I love rosin, and lots of it, so you’ll have to excuse me if I get a little sappy here. But folks often have lots of questions about this topic: When should you rosin? How much is too much? What’s the point of rosin, anyway?

Never fear! I’m here to answer all your rosin-related questions and help you avoid any sticky situations. Oh, yeah: this is also just a great excuse for me to make lots of puns. I hope that resin-ates with you.

What is rosin and what does it do? Let’s start with the basics: rosin is a sticky substance made from tree resin. It most commonly comes in cake form, although you’ll occasionally see it as a powder, and it’s the magic ingredient that makes the tone of the bow on the strings sound so good. When you draw the hair of the bow over the string, the rosin on the hair heats up and melts momentarily, allowing the bow to create more friction and thus more vibration with the string. And voila: sound comes out! Without rosin, your bow will sound quiet and won’t grip the strings. Because of this, rosin (and frequent applications of it!) is a must.

What kind of rosin is right for me? Rosin comes in light and dark varieties. The darkness of the rosin relates to how “grippy” it will feel on the bow. While many classical musicians prefer light rosin, fiddlers often gravitate toward darker rosin for the big, beefy tone it produces. It’s okay to experiment with different rosins until you find one you really like, but you can also find our rosin recommendations in the Fiddle Lounge.

How do I rosin? First, tighten your bow enough that the stick won’t rub the rosin when you apply pressure on the bow. Using a good, steady bow grip, hold your bow in your right hand and your rosin in the palm of your left hand. Start at the frog and use short, firm strokes to work your way up to the tip of the bow. Don’t be too ginger here: your bow can withstand some pressure and you’ll get a much better coat of rosin when you put some oomph into it. You can work up and down the bow with these short, firm strokes a couple times; then finish with a few smooth strokes along the entire bow. Ta-da! That’s all it takes.

How often should I rosin? Every day or every other day is a good rule of thumb. Most people don’t use enough rosin; don’t be one of them. And this brings us to our next question…

How much is too much rosin? If you have too much rosin on your bow, you might notice heavy rosin buildup on your fiddle and strings or a kind of gritty sound. If this is the case, no big deal: just wait a couple days and let the excess wear off with playing. No harm, no foul.

A well-rosined bow makes your playing easier and more enjoyable to listen to, so tree-t yourself to some good rosin! Last pun, I promise. After reading this, I hope you’re well on your way to becoming a rosin fanatic like I am. Now break out your fiddle, rosin up your bow, and get playing!

4 things to know when you’re thinking of hosting a jam

Jam sessions are one of the best perks of being a fiddler. Whether you’re a seasoned jam veteran or you’ve never experienced a jam, there’s always something to be gained from a jam session, even if you don’t play in it yourself.

How do you find a jam session to attend? It always helps to get more plugged in to your local musical community, but even if you’re well-connected, jams are sometimes still hard to come by. That’s why we encourage you to set up your own jam session! Here are a few things to know when you start your own jam:

1. It doesn’t have to be big. A great jam can happen with as few as two people! In fact, many of the recordings you’ll find in the Fiddle Lounge are of jams just like this. In Texas style, jams always remain pretty small (usually a fiddler and a few accompanists at most). This way, the fiddle and the rhythm instruments can stay very attuned to each other. In other styles, the sizes of jams vary. If you don’t know a lot of other musicians to jam with yet, rest assured that you can have a great jam with just one other person and the tunes you know from Fiddle School.

2. Instruments may vary. You can almost always bet on seeing fiddles and guitars at a standard jam session, but you might sometimes find some more unusual instruments joining the jam. Upright bass is a great complement, as is piano. You can hear some recordings with the great piano accompanist Betty Solomon in the Fiddle Lounge. Every once in a while, a tenor banjo or even a mandolin will join in the rhythm section too.In Texas style, only the fiddler plays melody and there are no solos. In other styles, you’ll notice players pass the tune among themselves in different ways. One last instrument that’s fun to include: your voice! Singing songs can be a fun way to add variety, and many of the Fiddle School tunes have lyrics.

3. Jams are low pressure. Especially if you’re not used to playing with others, it can feel intimidating to participate in a jam. But jams should be a low-stress, non-judgmental space, and you can help create this kind of atmosphere when you host your own jam session. Encourage your fellow musicians, talk about what you’ve been practicing and listening to lately, and share your musical motivation with each other! Jams are first and foremost a space for us to lift each other and the music up. When you look at it this way instead of as some kind of performance or test, you’ll fall in love with jams just like we have.

4. Jams will help you practice better. Jam sessions are the perfect place to try playing the tunes you’ve worked on so hard with other people. This can feel so rewarding after hours of practice. Even more energizing is the feeling that you get after a jam session. You might feel inspired to learn a new tune you heard that night or practice a spot in one of your songs that needs a little TLC. Jamming is like a shot of motivation that can really help break you out of a practice rut or send you to the next level.

By now, I hope you’re convinced that you should find or start a jam session. It’s easy to pull together a couple friends and make it happen, and once it does, you won’t regret it. Let us know how it goes, and happy jamming!

How can I play better at my lessons?

“I swear I could play this at home when I was practicing by myself! I don’t know why I can’t do it in my lesson.”

Sound familiar? It’s common to practice hard all week, play well at home, and then fall apart at lessons. But you can avoid this pitfall! Read through these tips to help keep your cool in unfamiliar settings.

1. Establish solid muscle memory. Often, students practice a piece until they feel like they understand it mentally. Maybe they’ll play through it until they can “get it,” or make it through without mistakes. At that point, many people stop practicing for the day, assuming their work is done. But when you finally “get it”—make it through your tune the way that you want to—that’s when you should keep repeating it. Practice it over and over until you don’t have to think your way through it so much as feel it. I bet you didn’t expect to read a Bruce Lee quote here, but it was too relevant to pass up: “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”

2. Slow your roll. When you play somewhere you’re unaccustomed to, whether it’s a lesson, a jam, or a contest, take as much time as you need to gather your thoughts. Give yourself time to find a comfortable position, tune, and settle down before you play. As you’re fiddling, keep this slowness and intention in everything you do, from placing your fingers to moving your bow to following the tune in your mind. By slowing your entire playing process down, from the time you pick up the instrument to when you put it down, you start from a place of calm and give yourself the best chance of success.

3. Use deep breaths. Breathing exercises are an old standby for focus and calm. My personal favorite is a technique called “box breathing:” breathe in for a count of four, hold your breath for four, breathe out for four, and hold the exhale for four. Repeat this, increasing the count if it feels comfortable for you.

4. One at a time. It’s hard to focus all at once on the many elements of technique that you may be working on in your practice, especially when you’re in a different setting. It’s okay to narrow your focus to one or two things while you’re playing; in fact, you’ll probably play better that way than if you tried to keep everything in your mind at once.

5. Clear your head. When you go to a lesson or a performance, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by intrusive thoughts. “Did I practice enough? Is she judging me? Oh man, here comes that spot I always mess up.” But these kinds of inner voices are only harmful. Instead, embrace positive thoughts and let go of perceived judgment. “I have worked really hard. I’m proud of myself. I love the music that I’m making!” These kinds of uplifting thoughts will bolster you and you’ll be amazed how much better you feel and play.

Next time you go to a lesson or get onstage, take these tips to heart and remember why you play in the first place: to enjoy it!

Fiddle School Mountain Retreat Student Review

I want to thank you for your amazing Fiddle Retreat this weekend!! I have been trying to process my learning experience and reflect on our time together!!

I have never been to any type of fiddle/music camp experience that was as impactful, focused, supportive, and fun as your Fiddle School Mountain Retreat! To have so much individual attention, fabulous teachers and support in a warm, fun and very focused learning experience is a tribute to you and your skills as both an incredible teacher and talented performer!! I had no real idea about the style of bowing and how, when, and where to use it! I really thought is that the genre of music would dictate the style of bowing but at camp, Chad really explained the history and all of your instructors and staff demonstrated how to use the techniques of long bowing, short bowing in a consistent, smooth and thoughtful purposeful manner. When you use the smooth bowing and add the swing pulse, it makes swing music sound danceable, jazz becomes interesting and smooth, old-time fiddle music becomes more interesting and enjoyable!  If I understand it correctly, the smooth and longbow method, Texas Swing style, will enhance any piece of music for me, and will clean up my playing, making it more enjoyable and correct! I have already improved so much that my friends have noticed and approved!

Your instructors are all outstanding and are able to reinforce and instruct us in their own individual ways, taking each of us as an individual and sharing their expertise fitted to our own needs and skill levels! We were really blessed to have only 12 students with 3 teachers and 2 staff support that were all amazing!! That is almost a 2 student to 1 teacher ratio!!! That is really a gift!!! All of the staff are on the same page and are able to communicate with each other and all of the fiddle students!

The cabin in Estes Park was terrific, the weather couldn’t be better, and the food cooked an served by Brian and Linnea Kenney was superb!! The atmosphere was warm, friendly, fun and all were so driven to learn and experience as much as we could! I loved the staff performances during Happy Hour!  You are all so talented!!

I was very glad to be given the music and videos in advance!!! We were able to learn from it rather than struggle slowly to learn each piece cold. It also showed which students really wanted to learn and were dedicated enough to get something from each other and the staff!

Jeff and I had so much fun and I look forward to growing and learning, expanding my skills and just sound better and better, play with friends and in jams, fiddle away my days!

Thank you, and I am planning on Retreat #2!!

Peggy and Jeff Waller



Habit Hack #5: Break It Up

Breaking up is hard to do, in the famously catchy words of Neil Sedaka. With that haircut, I’m sure he would know.

But here’s the good news: when it comes to habits, the opposite is true! Breaking up your good habits into smaller chunks will make your life so much easier.

In this habit hack, we’re sharing the best time management strategies to make new habits stick.

Try working toward the goals you set for yourself in smaller chunks throughout the day instead of one large one. For example, if your new goal is to play 45 minutes each day, try three 15-minute chunks. I’ll bet you find yourself more engaged, efficient, and effective.

Anyone incorporating new habits is doing some major neural trailblazing by developing insulation (myelin) around their new neural pathways. The more they use a certain pathway, the more insulated it becomes and the easier the new habit is to maintain. (For more on this, check out the book The Talent Code.)

But even though we need to practice many repetitions to cement new habits, research shows that practicing longer is not the best way to go. Instead, short bursts of practice usually work better for the brain. They allow you to stay engaged and focused much better. So take a break or three! 

Practice while you’re sharp so you can make real progress. When you start to fade, put your fiddle down and come back to it when you have the brainpower to make real improvements.

Habit Hack #4: Talk About It!

We need to talk. 

Oh, lighten up. It’s time for our fourth post in the habit hack series–that’s all we had to say. And today we’re talking about talking, because if you want to stick with a new habit, one of the best things to do is tell others about it!

What habit goals have you set for yourself lately? Shout ’em from the rooftop! No, really, that’s the fourth habit challenge: let someone know about your new habit. It could be the Fiddle School community, a close friend, your mailman…

Actually, maybe not the mailman. Depends on how close you guys are. But you get the idea.

Getting motivated to change your routine is one thing, but staying motivated is a whole ‘nother question. When you let other people know your intentions, you’re more likely to stay accountable once the newness wears off.

What’s more, letting people know about your new good habits is a great way to set yourself up for celebration down the road! A month from now, when your friend checks back in with you about “that thing you were doing,” you can proudly tell them that you’ve stuck with it. That’s a great feeling.

Remember that good habits snowball. When you let others know about the changes you’re making in your own life, you share your positivity and momentum. Spread the love and tell a friend what you’re working towards! You may just give them the push they need to chase one of their own aspirations.

What new good habits are you making part of your routine? Tell us in the comments!

Habit Hack #3: Set Bite-Sized Goals

What do you and this adorable little fellow have in common? You might be biting off more than you can chew! 

If you struggle with setting realistic goals, this habit hack is for you. Did you miss the first two habit hacks? You can find them here and here

For this habit challenge, set a goal for yourself you know you can achieve this week– not in a month, and not through unrealistic means, but this week. Make sure it’s something you can attain by working towards it regularly at a sustainable rate. Some examples:

  • “I will memorize two more parts of my new tune.”
  • “I will practice scales every time I warm up.”
  • “I will listen to new music that inspires me every time before I practice.”

Tell us your bite-sized goals in the comments!

Often, when people set goals, they think of their loftiest aspirations:

  • “I’ll learn a new language.”
  • “I’ll shred at the gym for an hour every morning at 5.”
  • “I’ll place well in a fiddle contest.”

But those goals seem a little different when you look at the big picture:

  • “I’ll learn a new language before my cousin’s wedding in Mexico next month.”
  • “I’ll shred at the gym for an hour every morning at 5, even though I go to bed at midnight and I haven’t been to the gym in years.”
  • “I’ll place well in a fiddle contest, even though I just started playing this year.”

Now they sound a little… harder, shall we say? Actually, I think the word would be unrealistic. There’s a difference between the two: when something’s hard, you know you can get there with dedicated work. When something’s unrealistic, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment, no matter how much crazed effort you put into it.

So here’s the trick: you can make your goals hard, but don’t make them unrealistic. 

When you consistently take on small challenges, you can do hard things while still being realistic about your expectations. After doing this for a long time, the things that were once unrealistic will be within your reach. 

To sum it up: I’m not telling you that you shouldn’t aspire to awesome, sky-scraping goals. I’m just telling you that the way there is by a staircase, not an elevator.

What small step can you set as a goal this week? Tell us below!

Habit Hack #2: Understand Your Habit Cues

As humans, we’re defined by our habits, so it’s in our best interest to make those habits as positive as possible. That’s why we wrote this 7-part habit series to help you achieve more with your routines!

Today we’re talking about habit cues, the sneaky component of habits that can either keep you stuck in a rut or lay the foundation for constant progress.

For this second habit hack, choose a practice cue and stick with it. Play every morning after you brush your teeth, every day after lunch, or first thing when you walk in your door at night. Don’t want to use an activity as a cue? Make an event on your calendar, set a reminder on your phone, or do it the old-fashioned way and leave yourself a Post-It.

What cues work well for you? Tell us below!

Examining your personal habit cues is perhaps the best thing you can do when you want to build a new habit or kick an old one. Remember the anatomy of a habit? It looks like this:

  1. Cue or trigger
  2. Action
  3. Reward

We often don’t see habit triggers at work; for example, when you pick up your phone to check the time, how often do you also end up checking social media? Cues like these are sneaky, and they can lead little actions to snowball into rock-solid routines.

If your habits were an iceberg, your actions would only be the tip of that iceberg. Your habit cues, which often go unnoticed, are the nearly invisible bulk of the iceberg lurking beneath.

That invisible bulk of cues is why you can’t change a habit simply by trying to change your actions. Instead, you have to address the big picture, and that means taking a close look at underlying triggers.

This might seem overwhelming, but don’t worry! Just like the reward part of the habit loop, habit triggers can work in your favor. Over the next day, try to recognize all the triggers that lead you through your daily routine. When you recognize your habit cues, whether they’re good or bad, you have the power to consciously respond to them.

The most powerful thing you can do to hack your practice habit? Intentionally build a consistent practice cue into your daily routine. After a while, it’ll feel so natural you won’t even notice it anymore.

What are your best (and worst) habit cues? Tell us in the comments!

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