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!

Habit Hack #1: Game the Habit Loop

Are you ready to reinvent your routines? Get a head start with our seven habit hacks! We’re diving in with a fun challenge: reward yourself for good habits!

Choose a reward for for yourself when you practice and put it in play. My reward: every day I practice, I’ll mark it on my calendar. It feels really rewarding for me when I see a long streak of practice. Tell us what you choose to do for your own challenge in the comments!

Why is reward the first step to better habits? First, let’s lay some groundwork by looking at the structure of habits. Habits have three basic components:

  1. The cue or trigger
  2. The action
  3. The reward

Looks familiar, right? The tricky thing is, many bad habits have immediate rewards built into them. Eating ice cream instead of salad, skipping your workout for Netflix, or putting off practicing in favor of more time scrolling through Facebook are all things that satisfy your pleasure centers in the moment, even if they don’t help you in the long term. It’s easy to see why these things can seem so appealing, especially when you’re low on willpower.

But the same structure that makes it hard to resist bad long-term habits can also work in your favor if you hack the system. Here’s the trick: when you employ a good long-term habit, associate a short-term reward with it. 

When you go to the gym, treat yourself to 30 minutes reading a good novel afterwards. When you clean your house, turn on your favorite music and throw yourself a private dance party (I can’t be the only one that does this… right?) And when you practice your instrument, the same principle applies: find something that feels rewarding in the moment to help you make positive associations with the good habit.

My students often come to lessons frustrated that they “aren’t making any progress.” Here’s the thing: if you’re practicing and doing it well, I can assure you that you’re making progress. But I know how hard it can be to see it for yourself! That’s why rewarding yourself for tiny milestones, like playing for a certain amount of time, is so important.

What reward will you build into your daily practice routine?

Is it time to change your strings?

Is it time to change your strings? Here’s how to tell! 

But first, make sure you actually have a bridge, unlike the poor fiddle in this stock photo. If you’re bridgeless, you’ve got bigger problems. 😂

Is it time for a string change? Ask yourself:

1) Do notes sound fuzzy or muddy instead of their usual crisp, clear tone?

2) Do you have trouble tuning and keeping your instrument in tune?

3) Are the strings much quieter than they were when you put them on?

4) Have you changed then within the last 4-5 months? This is the max. I always shoot for the 3 month or less range, depending on playing time.

Treat yourself to some new strings! If you’re due for a change, new strings will make playing much easier and more enjoyable.

How to sync your bow and your fingers

Do you struggle with getting your left and right hand to sync up? Many people do. Grab your fiddle right now and let’s tackle this with one simple exercise.  

Find your trusty metronome (you knew I would say that) and set it on a slow beat, maybe 65 bpm to start. Then start playing quarter notes, syncing each one exactly with the beat. Don’t worry about your left hand at this point; just play one pitch and focus all your energy on bowing evenly.

When the even quarter notes feel more automatic, switch to playing eighth notes (still only one pitch) and make them just as rhythmically even as the quarter notes. 

Make sure you don’t move through these steps too fast. Follow each step of the exercise until you can do it reliably. Now, once you manage to get consistent, rhythmic eighth notes (and not before!), try playing a scale. Keep your bows even. 

Here’s the clincher: don’t try to sync your left hand to your right hand. Instead, sync both your left hand and your right hand to the metronome. Keeping a slow pace is key here.

Once your hands are in sync during your scales, try applying these same concepts to your tunes. Use the metronome to ground the timing of both hands and go slowly.

How did this go for you? What other challenges did you discover? Let us know in the comments!

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