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Five Exercises to Make Your Fourth Finger Behave

Five Exercises to Make Your Fourth Finger Behave

A strong fourth finger is essential for good fiddling, but often that strength is difficult to develop. Especially if you don’t often use your fourth finger or you’re new to using it, this finger may put up a fight when you try to get it to do your bidding. But don’t assume that your finger isn’t capable of what you ask of it; it’s just not trained yet. Even if you’ve been playing for a long time and still struggle with your fourth finger, there are ways to improve its function and make it stronger.

When you have a strong fourth finger, all sorts of doors open in your fiddling. You’ll get that classic fiddley sound that can only come with a fourth finger, plus your intonation will improve and your left hand will feel much more relaxed. Fourth finger work isn’t always a favorite pastime, but I promise you that the effort you put into strengthening your fourth finger will bring a huge payoff.

When should you start adding fourth finger exercises to your practice? As soon as you can place your first three fingers on the fingerboard and play those notes, you’re ready to work on the fourth. You can’t start strengthening this finger too early. If you’ve already been playing for a long time, it still doesn’t hurt to return to pinky exercises once in a while, especially if you still struggle with this finger more than others. Basically, there’s no wrong time to do these exercises.

Without further ado, here are five of my favorite fourth-finger exercises to help you strengthen your pinky and improve your left hand function. With all of these, be careful not to overexert yourself and strain your fingers. Give yourself breaks, never tolerate pain, and don’t spend too much time with these in one sitting.

Exercise #1: Visualize strength

This first exercise doesn’t require that you use your pinky at all. Instead, close your eyes and picture your pinky doing what you want it to do. Think of a strong, arched shape with your pinky landing solidly on its tip. You may have already convinced yourself that your pinky is weak or incapable simply by telling yourself that it is. By reimagining this finger as strong and capable, you can set yourself up for success.

Exercise #2: Base knuckle hammers

When you lift and place your fingers on the strings, you should move them with your base knuckle (the knuckle closest to your palm). This conserves energy and keeps your hand relaxed as you play. To practice using your base knuckle to lift your pinky, set up your left frame of hand and place your pinky on the A string (no bow necessary here). Then use your base knuckle to lift the finger off the string, keeping it close. Bring the finger back down, again using your base knuckle to move it, and repeat. Be sure that you’re not relying on other joints to move the finger.

Exercise #3: Archery practice

It takes strength to maintain an arch as you place your fourth finger on the string. To practice keeping that arch in your finger, build on the exercise above. As you practice popping your fourth finger on and off the string on its tip, watch the arch in the finger. If you notice your finger buckling or flattening as you put it down, take your right hand and gently bend your left pinky’s middle knuckle to bring the arch back to it. Every time you place the finger, be mindful to preserve the arch. The more you do it, the easier it will get.

Exercise #4: Half scales

Once you’ve gotten your pinky to the point where it can land on its tip when you’re not bowing, try this exercise. On you’re a string, walk up a half scale (A B C# D E). When you reach E, use your fourth finger to play the note. If you need to, you can pause and adjust your finger so that it’s on its tip and arched. Once it is, walk back down to A the same way you walked up. Loop these half scales to get in some agility practice and build fourth finger strength. Try these on any string once you’re confident on the A string.

Exercise #5: Fourth finger and drone

For this final exercise, build on the half scales from Exercise #4. When you reach your finger in the scale, play that note with the next highest string (for example, play your 4 on A plus the open E string next to it). This exercise is twofold: it gives you the chance to check the intonation of your fourth finger and allows you to practice the fourth finger/open string combination that is so common in fiddling.

I hope these exercises help you develop confidence and strength in your fourth finger. Practice them little by little and you’ll be amazed by how much your fourth finger really does want to be part of your team.

Fiddle School’s Holiday Playlist

Fiddle School’s Holiday Playlist

As of the publication of this, it’s December 20th, and that means that there’s cheesy Christmas music pouring from every speaker you find. Even though I gripe about certain songs, I love the way good holiday music can set a warm, cheerful mood. That’s why we put together this playlist of holiday music we love for your listening pleasure this season. On it, you’ll hear lots of swinging classics and maybe a few tunes you haven’t encountered before. Yes, the first lady of this playlist is definitely first lady of song Ella Fitzgerald, but that shouldn’t surprise you. We’ve also got some Bob Wills, Billie Holiday, Elvis, Louis Armstrong, and a few more mixed in that we hope you’ll love. Go put on these tunes, drink something hot, and settle in for some swing. Enjoy.

Change Your Brain: How Learning Music at Any Age Makes You Healthier and Stronger

Change Your Brain: How Learning Music at Any Age Makes You Healthier and Stronger

Often, adults say to me, “I wish I’d never stopped playing ___________ (insert instrument here) when I was a kid. But it’s too late now.” I have news for you: it’s never too late to come back to your instrument or pick up a new one, and there are actually innumerable ways you and your brain will benefit from it. 

Before you get started (or restarted), get clear on what your goals are. You shouldn’t set out by expecting yourself to perform at Carnegie Hall or win the National Fiddle Championships. You’ll have opportunities for measurable accomplishments such as fiddle contests and performances along your musical path, but for people who stick with the instrument once they start, those flashy achievements are not the goal. The goal is to enjoy yourself and become a more whole person by feeding your creative side. Everything that you do as a musician should serve those ends.

When you’ve decided to pick up an instrument again and you’ve got your motives straight (enjoyment and improvement, not fame and fortune), the voices in your head might be loudly protesting. “You’re too old! You’re not good enough! You won’t be able to learn this!” You might hear many variations on this theme, even after you begin playing. But according to Norman Weinberger, a neuroscientist at University of California Irvine, 

“A lot of people believe the brain isn’t very plastic after puberty. In fact, the brain maintains its ability to change,” Weinberger says. “Is it as easy to learn something when you’re 65 as it is at 5? No. But can it be done? Yes.” (NPR)

If you’re returning to an instrument, it will challenge you in a different way than it did in your younger days, but that means nothing about your ability to learn. If you’re picking up the instrument for the first time, know that your age is no reason to miss out on the benefits of playing an instrument, which are vast.

I know it can often feel like you’re trying to pat your head, rub your tummy, drive a car, and pay your bills at the same time when you focus on the many skills that go into playing an instrument well. But when you put yourself up to the challenge, think of the workout you’re giving your brain. You’re performing different physical operations with both hands, maybe tapping your toe at the same time, thinking ahead to what notes you’ll play next, subconsciously (or maybe consciously) calculating rhythm and timing, and so much more. This is why, unlike with language, there is no one music center in the brain—there are many (NPR). It’s incredible that our brains can perform these functions, and when they do, they become much stronger in many places. 

Musicians, no matter their age, see improvements in brain function ranging from mood to executive functioning and more. According to Dr. Ronald Devere in Practical Neurology,

“Musicians have been shown to have greater volume of the auditory cortex (surface), premotor regions, cerebellum, and anterior corpus callosum compared to non-musicians. Musicians are likely to recruit both halves of the brain when performing music tasks… Studies have shown that elderly musicians outperform non-musicians on tasks assessing auditory processing, cognitive control, and comprehension of speech in noisy environments. This has also been shown to occur in elderly persons with minimal early music training and even after a short period of music training in those with no previous music training. In addition, music training early in life was associated with faster neural responses to speech in elderly individuals.” (Practical Neurology)

That means that, even if you only had a little musical training in your younger years, it had a lasting effect on your brain. And what if you haven’t had any musical training yet? Here’s what Devere has to say:

“In one study, musically [untrained] participants (ages 30-85) who received six months of piano lessons compared with no treatment control group showed improved performance on specific cognitive tasks that represent executive function, such as speed of processing information, verbal fluency, and enhanced mood. These studies suggest that music training may have a protective effect in the face of age-related mild cognitive changes and can occur even after short periods of training in the elderly.”

To sum up: no matter how old you are (the oldest participants in that study were 85!), even a short period of musical training can help protect your brain from cognitive decline as you grow older.

Every time you play music, you create new synapses between your brain cells. When kids play music, they actually build new brain cells. But we’re stuck with the ones we have, so building new synapses is the way that we learn new skills. Sure, kids have some advantages when they learn to play music, but you as an adult have plenty of advantages too. You can hear things in music that would’ve escaped you as a child, you have knowledge of a much broader range of music to inform your learning, and you have a lot more resources to draw upon (like virtual learning, for example). 

All the advantages you have as an adult learner combined with the benefits of learning music at any age put you in a great position to pick up an instrument or continue exploring and learning on an instrument you already play. You’ll strengthen your brain and cure yourself of the “shoulda coulda wouldas,” as my mother would say—not to mention have a great time. You’re up to the challenge, and in fact, this musical challenge is one of the best ways to prepare yourself holistically for the other facets of life and anything they may bring. So get playin’!

 

Sources:

https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=98754560

https://practicalneurology.com/articles/2017-june/music-and-dementia-an-overview

The Rare Magic of Fiddle Contests

The Rare Magic of Fiddle Contests

By Celeste Johnson

People often ask me why I like fiddle contests. They seem like an odd thing to many people. “So you’re telling me that you get up on stage to be judged on purpose?!” And when it’s put that way, I see how contests can be off-putting. But when I go to a fiddle contest, I don’t go up on stage to be judged. In fact, that is the least important part of a fiddle contest. So let me paint a different picture of fiddle contests—let me show you why I love them. And spoiler alert: it’s not because I like to compete.

When I was a child, I heard the fiddle for the first time and have not stopped thinking about it since. When I first got a violin of my own, I marveled at it every day, looking at it and gliding my fingers over its cool strings and smooth body. I thumbed through pages of sheet music I did not yet know how to read, coursing with the excitement that I might one day play the notes written there. Every week when I walked into my teacher’s warmly lit house, I felt like I was entering a different, magical world. I quickly fell in love with everything about fiddling: the beautiful instrument, the challenge of learning, the happy tunes, and the way that it made me feel like I belonged to something and something belonged to me.

About a year and a half after I began taking lessons, my fiddle teacher Chris Daring suggested that I enter the state fiddle contest that was approaching a few months later. My stomach plunged with fear at the thought of entering a contest, but I felt an electric excitement at the same time. I decided to do it and began dutifully preparing my two tunes for the novice division (I believe they were Arkansas Traveler and I Don’t Love Nobody).

Months passed. The contest came closer and closer. I circled the date on my family’s calendar and watched for its arrival. Finally it came. I woke up around six in the morning, feeling like I would throw up. Despite my mother’s urging, I refused to eat much for breakfast. My hands were shaking before I even got to the contest site due in equal parts to nerves and excitement. When I walked into the practice room for the first time, I was taken aback. There, fiddling, were several other kids like me, small and scared and excited. Some of them loved playing, you could tell, and some of them were there because their moms wanted them to be. Regardless, they were there and so was I, and we were all part of this thing. I remained nervous but my excitement grew to tremulous new levels as I unpacked my fiddle among these newfound peers.

The rest of that day is a blur in my recollection. The few snapshots that stay with me are feelings more than memories: the warm comfort of getting ready with my guitar player, the breathless terror that overcame me in the moment before I walked onstage, the explosive joy I felt each time I met a new person who shared the same love for the music that I had.

I left the contest hungry for more chances to immerse myself in fiddle music and discover the rich community I had glimpsed there. After that day, I went to as many fiddle contests as I could. Each one was a little different, but they all had one thing in common: every contest exists because of a community of people who love fiddle music and care about it deeply. That feeling of community was what made my first contest experience so transformative. It is without a doubt what has kept me fiddling and attending contests all these years later.

That community stretches across the country and brings the same people together year after year to connect to the music and to each other. Never have I been part of a more intimate, passionate, and generous community than the one I’ve discovered through fiddle contests. The community I became part of by participating in contests has shaped my very concept of what it means to belong to something.

I made my first great friends at fiddle contests. At first, my “friends” were people I would briefly talk to in my uncomfortable seven-year-old way before I went back to practicing in my corner. But year after year, as I kept going to contests and seeing the same people return, I got to know them. Some of them I know in friendly, familiar passing. But some of them I know almost like family. We help each other warm up for our rounds and cheer for each other on stage. Afterwards, we stay up late into the night laughing and playing tune after tune together, relishing the specialness of each other’s company. The happiness that sparks between us is pure and infectious, the kind that comes from people doing what lights them up together. It is rare magic to spend time with people who love what you love as much as you do.

When each contest ends, we all go back to our “regular lives.” Most of the time, it feels like the shock of waking up from a good dream too soon. After being immersed in fiddle music for several days, it’s jarring to hear a pop song in a restaurant or to be met with silence, rather than a late-night jam, when it’s time to go to bed. It’s odd to try to explain what just happened to people who weren’t there. “How did it go?” they ask. I realize they’re asking how I placed in the contest. “It was incredible,” I usually respond, and leave it at that. It doesn’t come close to describing the experience of a fiddle contest, but it must suffice. I want to capture the experience in words. I want to hold onto it for a lifetime, but I know it’s impossible. Instead, I hold onto the idea of what the future holds: another contest, another jam, another night among friends. Rare magic.

What is Interval and Ear Training? How Our Newest Lesson Can Change Your Musicianship

What is Interval and Ear Training? How Our Newest Lesson Can Change Your Musicianship

We’re so excited to release our newest lesson on August 24th. This is one of the most jam-packed, content-rich lessons we’ve ever released in Fiddle School. It’s a goldmine of information to improve your musicianship and technical ability. Here are some FAQs and our answers about Lesson 23.

What is Lesson 23 about? 

Lesson 23 is totally focused on interval and ear training. It builds on your innate knowledge of music to help you better learn by ear, play in tune, and become more confident on the fingerboard.

What does it contain? What tunes are taught? 

Lesson 23 contains eight core concept videos, two fiddle tunes taught by ear, and play-along tracks, listening examples, and sheet music for each tune. The tunes in Lesson 23 are some of my favorites yet: Rye Straw and Kentucky Waltz. Among the concept videos in this lesson, you’ll find:

  • 5 ways to improve your intonation
  • Interval training
  • Dissonant and consonant intervals
  • How to play in tune
  • How to use scales to practice intonation
  • Practice Pal #17, a guided warm-up customized to this lesson’s skills

What skills will I gain in lesson 23?

At its heart, Lesson 23 is designed to help you play more in tune. But the benefits also include:

  • more ease when learning by ear
  • more fingerboard awareness (knowing where to find the notes you want)
  • a better understanding of musical structure and music theory
  • better tone (when intonation improves, so does tone)

 What is interval and ear training? How can it help me?

An interval is the space between two notes. Interval training teaches your ear to recognize those spaces when it hears two notes. It’s music theory with an immediate, practical application you can hear. You can use interval training to:

  • check your intonation by adjusting the interval of the note you’re playing. No more search and destroy; understand the note you want to produce and find it easily on the fingerboard
  • transcribe pieces of music you hear by learning them on your own instrument
  • write songs by turning the melodies and chords you hear in your head into something you can play on your instrument

I’ve tried everything to play in tune. What makes this different?

In our newest lesson, Katie talks directly about this issue. If you’ve done the exercises and put in the practice time but you still struggle to play in tune, we see you and it’s normal. The difficulty can come from inconsistency, musical myopia (zooming in too close to what you’re working on), or difficulty telling when you’re truly playing in tune and when you’re just close. This lesson addresses all three of those issues. 

If you struggle with inconsistent intonation, you’ll learn how to make it more predictable in “Five Ways to Improve Your Intonation” and “How to Play in Tune.”

If you’re a person who hyperfocuses on one issue until tension and tunnel vision get the best of you, you’ll learn a lot from “How to Play in Tune” and “Practice Pal #17,” where Katie helps you get a broader, more musical perspective on intonation.

If you have trouble hearing when a note is in tune or not, “Five Ways to Play in Tune,” “Interval Training,” and “Consonant and Dissonant Intervals” will be eye-openers for you. Remember, the ability to hear whether a note is in tune or not isn’t something you just have to be born with. It can be learned, and that’s what these videos help you to do.

What is the format of the lesson? Do I work on it by myself?

When it releases on August 24th, Lesson 23 will be available for you to work on 24/7/365. It’s asynchronous, so you can use any of the materials any time. You won’t get graded or tested for the lesson and there are no time limits to how long you can use it. Just watch the videos, do the exercises in them, rinse and repeat. 

While you watch and rewatch the concept videos, you’ll also work on learning the tunes in the lesson (one  at a time). Similar to the concepts in the lesson, the tunes are taught in bite-sized videos you can learn at your own pace. Katie breaks down the bowing, fingering, timing, harmony, and more in each tune so that you leave with all your questions answered. And of course, if you do have more questions, you can always visit our active, worldwide community forum for Fiddle School students and teachers or get a private lesson for additional support.

This lesson is so valuable for players at all levels. In it, you’ll find a step-by-step road map that will make you sound like a different person by the end of a month. We can’t wait to welcome you into Lesson 23 and see what it does for you!

Inside the World of Jam Sessions

Inside the World of Jam Sessions

What’s your favorite kind of jam session? Do you love playing in unison with other fiddlers or do you prefer to be the only one in the hot seat? Do you prefer taking improvised solos on the fly or playing crafted breakdowns? Do you like to sing or is that best left to someone else? Everyone enjoys doing different things at jam sessions and there’s a jam for every taste. 

In this post, we’ll talk about our three favorite styles of jams: square dance-style jams, swing jams, and of course, classic Texas-style jams. (Psst: you’ll find each of these three jam styles at our Fiddle School Mountain Retreat in August 2021 and beyond).

Square Dance-Style Jams

A square dance-style jam is where many fiddlers play each tune in unison. You may also hear these jams referred to as “old-timey” jams. This style of jam is popular in many different genres of fiddling, from Irish to old-time sessions and more.

Features: 

  • So many fiddles! The sound of lots of fiddles playing together at once is beautiful and uniquely powerful. And you get to contribute to it!
  • Lots of support. If you don’t feel comfortable in the spotlight by yourself, a jam like this is the perfect answer. You get to play your tunes with the help of your fellow fiddlers. If you get tripped up, the song goes on and you can jump back in.
  • A great community builder. Jams like this are a great reason to gather with other fiddlers in your community and create bonds with them. Over time, you can build up a great shared repertoire and get to know the nuances of the other fiddlers to make the jam even better.
  • Uses shared knowledge. Jams like these require that the fiddlers know the same tunes and play them the same way, more or less. Establishing this shared knowledge is a great way to grow as a musician and build community, but it does take a little planning ahead, like any jam.

Swing Jams

Swing and Western Swing jams are usually based more around “songs” than “tunes.” What’s the difference, you ask? Simple: a song includes sung lyrics while a tune is instrumental. 

In a swing jam, an instrument usually plays the “head” or melody of a song to introduce it, then the singer sings it, then people take solos, and the song ends with the melody one more time. This format leaves space for different instruments to shine and incorporates lots of variety throughout the form. It also allows for improvisational solos, which neither square dance nor Texas-style jams do.

Features:

  • A chance to improvise. In swing jams, you’ll have the opportunity to take an improvised solo. It’s a great time to be creative and put your chops to work. When you play your solo, you’re participating in a song’s musical “conversation.” 
  • Lots of variety. Swing jams rely on many different instruments to alternate taking the lead in a song. This creates an engaging sound for the listeners and an engaging format for musicians. Fiddles, voices, and other instruments can all find a place to shine within a swing tune.
  • A different repertoire for a different setting. Swing jams call on a different repertoire than fiddle contests or Texas-style jams. This is your opportunity to bring out another side of your musicianship and play swing songs from the 1920s-1950s that you’ve learned for just this occasion.
  • Highlights different skills. Swing jams are a great place to sing a tune, try out a solo lick that you’ve transcribed, or bring in some subtle fills that you’ve learned.

Texas-Style Jams

Texas-style jams are my heart and soul. In these jams, one fiddler takes the “hot seat” and a couple accompanists (up to three) back them up. The fiddler stays and plays several tunes in a row: anywhere from three to dozens, depending on the situation. The tunes are planned out in advance and the fiddle is the only featured instrument (no improvised solos here). These jams focus on crafted variations, rhythmic feel, and the connection between the fiddler and their accompanists.

Features:

  • Small and intimate. Texas-style jams are small for a reason: since the fiddle can easily become drowned out by too many backing instruments, three accompanists is about the limit to maintain a tight sound and keep the focus on the fiddler. This creates an environment where each musician can deeply connect with the others in the circle.
  • Fiddle-focused. When it comes down to it, Texas-style jams are centered on the fiddle—period. In these jams, a fiddler really gets the chance to show what they’ve worked on and what they can do. For fiddle lovers, this is a dream come true. 
  • Rhythm-focused. Just because these jams are fiddle-centric doesn’t mean that the guitar plays a small part. On the contrary, good accompanists are what make a Texas-style jam really shine. Without good rhythm players, a great Texas-style jam can’t happen.
  • A place for variations. Unlike square dance-style jams, Texas-style jams are designed to feature variations in a tune. The fiddler will usually introduce the melody of a tune first, then add in variations as the tune develops. When you listen to a fiddler’s version of a tune, you can often tell which fiddlers they listen to and look up to based on their choice of variations.

This only scratches the surface of some types of jams we love. Jam sessions are their own unique worlds with their own culture and etiquette. Like snowflakes, each one only happens once. Now take what you read in this post and go find a jam session you love (or start one!) Maybe we’ll see you there.

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