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
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!
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