How to let go of left hand tension

Practicing fiddle is like stretching your muscles: it lets you notice areas that need attention and give them extra care until you notice improvement.

For many people, the area that needs a lot of special attention is their left hand, where tension commonly builds up. To counteract this, you should consciously and consistently relax your hand. 

“Sure, relax,” you say, probably doing the exact opposite of relaxing as you read that piece of advice for the hundredth time. “But how?” I hear you. It’s not always intuitive, so we’ve created a simple warm-up structure designed to help you release tension in your left hand. Look at this warm-up as some targeted TLC for the days when your left hand needs it (and sometimes, that’s every day.)

1. Begin with the Popcorn Fingers exercise.

To do this exercise, begin by getting your left hand in position with an open palm, straight wrist, and curved fingers. Then, beginning on your A string, pop one finger at a time down on the string so that you can hear the “plunk” of each pitch as your finger lands. Try this on every string with every finger. Since you don’t have to focus on bowing at the same time, you can monitor your left hand closely to notice tension and release it.

2. Move on to thumb taps.

Reset your left hand posture before you continue to this exercise. The reset is important because, even if your hand “feels right,” you might be reinforcing old habits you don’t even know you have. After you reset your hand, you’ll love how simple this warm-up is. Take your left thumb, where tension is often stored, and tap it gently three times on the neck. Then place your first finger on the fingerboard and tap three times again. Continue this process with each finger on each string. Practice pushing your fingers down without gripping in your thumb. Thumb taps are also great to mix in throughout your practice to keep your hand relaxed.

3. Practice neck slides.

Again, reset your left hand posture. This time, practice sliding your left hand toward you up the neck and then back down to where it began. Then pop your first finger down (lightly) and repeat the slide process. Go through the steps again with each finger on each string. Remember, we’re not using a bow at all for these first three exercises. That’s because the goal isn’t to sound good (or sound at all.) The focus is solely on calming your left hand, so put all your attention on that. 

4. Play mindful scales with a mirror.

By now, you’ve gotten some good practice being mindful of your left hand. You can always return to any of these exercises throughout your practice session when you need to release tension again. To finish this mini-warm-up, let’s combine what you’ve worked on by playing scales in front of a mirror. 

You’re probably accustomed to watching your right hand when you practice in the mirror, but right now your left hand is still the star of the show. Before you begin, be sure your left wrist is straight, your palm is open, and your fingers are poised to land on their tips. At a very slow tempo, play a scale (I recommend G or A), still focused on just your left hand. This is the first time in this sequence you’ve used a bow, so fight the urge to spread your attention too thinly. Only focus on your left hand. Keep it soft and open as you play on every string, and play through the scales several times. Check the mirror repeatedly to see if your hand is doing what you want it to.

Voila! You’re cured. Wait, what’s that you say? You did the warm-up and your left hand is still tense? Before you get down, know that you’re not the only one who has a hard time with this. It takes time to change habits, and left hand tension is an especially sticky habit. Despite that, it’s a challenge that you can overcome. I promise, no matter the shape of your hands or the history of your fiddling, you can get to a place where great left-hand technique feels second-nature to you. Trust the process and you’re on your way.

Six Ways to Energize Your Playing from Home

by Celeste Johnson

 

Let me guess: you’re reading this from home. 

Hopefully, you’re also wearing your favorite pair of slippers and sipping a good cup of something. But even if you’re happy to hibernate at home for a while, some of the changes in our routines can be hard to navigate, and music is no exception. That’s why we’re spending some of our time in quarantine writing this Fiddle from Home series! 

In these posts, we’ll give you strategies, support, and inspiration to help you navigate your new musical routine while everything’s topsy-turvy. This series is here to support you, so tell us: how can we feed your fiddling right now?

In office hours, emails, and social media, all the questions and curiosities you share help us create content that meets your needs and nourishes your musical life. Let us know how we can support you by sending your topic suggestions, questions, hurdles, and eureka moments to learn@fiddleschool.com.

In this first Fiddle from Home post, let’s talk about six ways to energize your playing while we’re all cooped up at home right now.

1. Read a book. Although it’s indirect, reading is a great way to incorporate new meta-concepts into your musicianship. especially if you’ve been stuck in a rut or frustrated with music lately, which happens to all of us. I love reading when I feel this way because it feeds the part of my brain that loves to understand the process of how things work. If I can see how successful, motivated people approach their craft, I feel much better equipped to look at mine in a positive, motivating way too. Need book recommendations? Check out our Fiddle School Reading List under the resources tab in the Fiddle Lounge and drop your own suggestions below!

2. Reorganize your practice. The way you practice makes a difference. If you feel like you’re not progressing as quickly as you’d like, it might be time to overhaul your practice routine. By streamlining your practice, you can use the natural structure of the learning process to your advantage and become more efficient to boot. If you don’t know where to start, check out our article about how to use a practice journal.

3. Listen to new music. And I don’t just mean fiddle music. Listen to whatever gets you jazzed, even if it seems like it has nothing to do with fiddle. Just the act of listening to something new inspires me and makes me curious to discover my instrument all over again. If you feel frustrated with your practice, this is a lovely way to remind yourself why you fell in love with making music.

4. Buddy up. One of the best parts of fiddling is the community that sustains the music. That community sustains us musicians too, but it can be hard to feel connected when we can’t play together.Now more than ever, it’s important for you to know that you’re never alone on your musical journey. The best way to remember this is to find a fiddle buddy. You can decide what you do together: maybe you Zoom every couple weeks and show each other the new tunes you’re working on, or maybe you swap new listening recommendations. Maybe you just check in with each other every once in a while. Do whatever works best for you. If this idea sounds a little awkward, step out of your comfort zone and give it a try. It might be just the jump start you need.

5. Change your strings. Every time I put on a new set of strings after a long run on the old ones, I feel like my fiddle’s just had a spa day. I hear my fiddle anew, as if I’ve somehow been playing underwater for weeks, and the crisp, clear sound makes me want to practice for hours on end. If you’ve been playing on the same set of strings for a while, do yourself a favor and switch them out.

6. Connect with your local fiddle organization. Are you part of your statewide fiddle organization? Good! Reach out to them and see how you can support them and stay involved (can you make a donation? write them a publicity blurb for the local newspaper? attend their next meeting?) Since many summer fiddle contests are getting canceled, these organizations are feeling the burn and can really use support and involvement from the communities they serve right now. If you’re not a member of your state’s organization, now is the perfect time to join.

I hope these tips help keep you inspired and remind you that we’re still part of a strong, vibrant, passionate musical community. We can still be here for each other, even when we’re not with each other.

Chance Happenings: How Fiddle Found Me

You know the little forks in the road that completely change the course your life? Crossroad moments that, if they hadn’t happened the way they did, would have left you a completely unrecognizable person? Maybe it’s the story of how you found the love of your life at a party you almost didn’t go to, or the time you traveled to the other side of the globe with someone you met when you went back to school on a whim, or that time you encountered a wizard on the street and discovered that you yourself have magical powers far beyond what you ever would have expected… I digress. For me, it was a chance happening like this that began my journey as a musician. I often find myself wondering how my life might look if that lucky encounter hadn’t occurred. Would I have become a scientist, or a politician, or a really good juggler? Or was I always destined to fall in love with music? I’ll never know, but I’m glad I dodged the bullet on the juggling thing, at least.

This divine moment of serendipity happened when I was only five years old, walking down Pearl Street in Boulder, Colorado with my family. The street was full of interesting novelties: colorful kites, jugglers, bustling shoppers, candy stores. And then, amidst all the chaos, I saw her: a street musician sitting humbly behind her case, playing something beautiful on her violin. I paused and stood there for what felt like an hour until my parents gently pulled me back into the real world. But for the rest of the day and months afterwards, I couldn’t stop thinking about what I’d heard. Even today, I sometimes think back with gratitude and send thanks out into the universe to that musician.

Later that year, when I wrote my letter to Santa to tell him what I wanted for Christmas, I begged him to please bring me a violin. As long as that happened, it didn’t even matter if he ever brought me any other presents ever again, I said—big talk from a five-year-old. And lo, on Christmas morning, a quarter-size violin appeared beneath the tree (thanks, parents, for heeding my constant babbling). I kept opening and closing the case all day, running my fingers over the orange varnish and plucking the strings. I even tried playing it once or twice, but the instrument’s immediate complaints made both me and my parents believe that perhaps, if anyone were to go on living without a constant headache, it would be best to seek out a teacher to help me get started.

Thus, a couple months later, I found myself sitting across from Miss Carol, a wonderful woman with the patience of an old oak tree. She taught me in the Suzuki method for about a year and then she decided to host what she called a “fiddle boot camp,” a weekend during which she invited a local fiddle teacher to come give some workshops. From the moment I heard the first fiddle tune that weekend, I was hooked. The local newspaper even stopped by to get a look at all the musicians and snapped a shot of me (the one pictured above), my neck craned, jaw slack with awe as I looked up at the teacher towering feet above me. As you can see, my rest position was still a work in progress.

After that camp, I wanted nothing but fiddle music and its bubbling, joyful sounds. I stopped taking classical lessons and took up fiddle lessons with the teacher from the camp. She gave me recordings of jam sessions and contests that I listened to constantly: on my Walkman, in the car when my mother wasn’t already too “fiddled out,” at night before I went to bed and in the morning when I woke up. I couldn’t get enough.

After a year of fiddle lessons, I entered my first fiddle contest. I was terrified. My hands shook, my stomach turned, and it seemed like I couldn’t wipe the sweat off my palms often enough. But I did it anyway, because underneath my nervousness was explosive excitement. I met fiddlers my age and saw grown-ups in the contest who sounded like the recordings I loved so much. In fact, I met many of my great musical heroes at that contest in the coming years, including Dick Barrett, Texas Shorty, and Joey and Sherry McKenzie, among others. And of course, it was where I met Katie for the first time. But I didn’t know any of those big names during my first year there. I only knew that playing in the contest gave me a rush of excitement and happiness like nothing I’d ever experienced.

I started attending as many contests as I could over the coming years, first going to the smaller summer contests at county fairs and then working my way to bigger contests. I found fiddle paradise when I finally attended the National Old Time Fiddlers’ Contest in Weiser, Idaho. At least it felt like “finally,” though I was only ten years old the first time I went. When my time to play came, I played the tunes that I’d prepared, but my nerves jittered and the voice in my head was loud and discouraging. The pressure felt intense and I made mistakes that I never expected to make. When I came off the stage with hands shaking, I felt defeated. I had come so far just to do that? My cheeks flushed and my eyes watered. I was so disappointed in my playing. But even though the competition rattled me, Weiser blew me away. It felt like I’d stepped into a dream world where everyone loved fiddle just as much as I did. There were all-night jams, a week-long contest, and an entire town that celebrated “fiddle week” right along with the contestants. It was a musical home and a family, and more than anything, I wanted to feel like I was really a part of it. And so I found myself at another crossroad.

That year, I went home and practiced harder than I ever had. Some days, my mom had to tell me to stop practicing so that I could eat dinner with the rest of the family. The more I played, the more I loved it. On days when I skipped a practice, I thought I could feel an ache in my left hand, as if my fingers missed the feel of the strings. The next year, I went back to Weiser feeling different about it. I didn’t go to try and “do well” in the contest. I went because I loved the music and I wanted to be surrounded by people who loved it like I did. That year, when I played my rounds, I smiled, took a deep breath, and played with more feeling than I knew I could. And that year, when I stopped playing for a trophy and started playing for a feeling, was the first year I won my division. It felt incredible, but the best part was the support and love from my fiddle family.

A few years later, as I began high school, I took my first lesson with Katie, another crossroad. Katie had always always a fiddler I admired, but when I started taking lessons with her, my appreciation grew to a whole new level. She modeled an incredible drive and attention to detail that still awe me today, and she opened my eyes to new styles of music that I’d never explored. She was also one of the first and strongest voices of encouragement to nudge me to pursue a career in music. Throughout several years of lessons with Katie, I came to see a world of possibilities in music that I’d never seen before. I started playing in bands, grew my teaching studio, and began to explore genres outside of Texas style. It felt like a time of change and possibility in my music, a feeling that continues today.

I’m still at the beginning of my musical life story, and that excites me. I know I have so much to learn and discover. Some days that feels daunting, some days it feels exhilarating. But every day, without fail, I give thanks that I have music to carry me through life and all its crossroads, and I’m so excited to see where those crossroads lead next.

Takin’ My Baby Along: Reflections on Music and My Life as a Fiddler

 

Sheet Music: Takin’ My Baby Along

Written by Katie Glassman, Edited by Adam Kulakow

Not long after I started playing in 1988, people called me a fiddler. And I liked that. In fact, it became the central part of my identity as I began traveling to fiddle contests around the country and sought out fiddle legends to learn from (many of the greats were still with us when I started). By the time I got to college, I felt ready to push further and explore the world of classical and jazz. Of course, a push like that entailed 4 hours of practice for each teacher in each class in each genre. I developed a routine: practice from 6 am – 10 am, go to classes all day, then it was back to the practice room from 10 pm – 2 am. The good news is that this actually worked. I improved. A lot. And what a rush that was: my biggest high came from musical progress, and I rode the practice train hard, even got addicted to compliments from my teachers (this was before the movie “Whiplash,” but yeah, I had one of those teachers – and he liked my work ethic). So sure, life was great, and giving up sleep gave me some extra time and so did skipping a meal or two. Why not? It was all about having time to practice. (Paying bills was another thing, as I found one day when my car got booted from unpaid parking tickets.) But practicing was my favorite thing to do and if that meant my car got a boot, well, so be it. And that was pretty much the story of my life from the time I picked up a fiddle until I was 22.

I graduated from the University of Colorado and put my fiddle in its case. If I could have locked that case up and thrown away the key, I probably would have. Instead, it went in the closet. That is, until I moved to Idaho, where I joined a band. As a fiddler? Not exactly. In fact, not at all. The fiddle stayed in its case and that was fine by me. I was now the electric guitar player in a Beach Boys cover band called The Wilson Project and I was also experiencing something I had forgotten about — and that was called having fun. Sadly, the money in Beach Boys cover music just wasn’t there in Boise in 2004. So, the fiddle came out of its case, and soon enough I was teaching 50 fiddle students a week. All the while, I told myself and everyone who’d listen that “I quit fiddle, it just doesn’t inspire me anymore.” And then one day a close college friend (Adam Ravelle) said that the world would end if I quit, and besides, he just couldn’t imagine it. When he happened to notice that I was playing my fiddle hours and hours every week teaching, he had the good sense to let me continue to think that I had “quit.” He knew that I was still “a fiddler,” but he also knew I was a bit burnt out from pushing so hard and so that whole musical identity thing needed a break for a while. I’d call myself a fiddler again when I was ready.

Teaching worked out. I bought a house in Boise and things were looking up. And then things got tragic: two previous tenants in my house died, and soon after that my neighbor got killed by a chainsaw in a lumber accident. Life was feeling very strange and sad. And just when I started thinking I really could use a change, I got one. I got invited to study jazz violin in France with my hero, a protégé of Stephane Grappelli named Didier Lockwood. Helpfully, my house had already doubled in value since I bought it. So within three weeks of that invitation, I got a home loan advance, rented my house, then put the rest of my life in storage and drove my cats to Denver where they could spend a year at my parents’ house. The night before I left, my dad asked if I could even string together a sentence in French. He knew I’d studied Spanish in school and pretty much blew that off to focus on music. Hoping I’d at least learn how to ask where a bathroom is, he gave me the Pimsler CDs and sure enough, I soon was able to say, “Ou est la toilette, s’il vous plait?” His bigger question was what was my plan once I got to France. Again,  he knew the answer. I had no plan. Which also meant I had no place to live and limited language prospects, despite the Pimsler CDs. So he got me a hotel in Paris for three days and pretty much prayed for my survival. Miraculously, that actually worked. I got a train ticket out of Paris and found a small apartment two blocks from Didier’s jazz school in the small town Dammarie-Les-Lys for one year. And over the course of that year, I learned French, I learned jazz violin, and I even learned how to become ok with the cheek to cheek kissing greetings twice a day all day with like 58 guys who were studying jazz too. Amid all that kissing, I almost didn’t notice the housing crisis of 2008 that put my house into foreclosure back in Boise. C’est la vie…

Forget the foreclosure crisis. My inspiration for the fiddle was back. All it took was a year with a jazz great, a lot of quality red wine and all that kissing (despite my germaphobia). It was time to get back to America, back to epic practice sessions, and back on stage. I decided to come home to Denver, rented a small house in a hip neighborhood and loved the vibe. But then the vibe changed. Neighbors on both sides of me died. Amid those two tragedies, I developed a 3-inch cyst on my right wrist. It hurt too much to play fiddle and doctors told me that I may not be able to play fiddle again. So, I took out my 1964 Gibson J-45 and started writing songs. People hear those songs today and think they’re happy tunes. Well, they’re not. They’re all sad. I wrote on my pedal organ too. Yes, those songs are also sad.

Fast forward two years and I recorded an all-originals album called “Snaphot,” which was indeed a snapshot of the life I just described above. Somehow that cyst had dissolved, and I was playing all the time. Only things were different now, I was playing with joy. Getting back in musical shape felt so good, singing felt so good, songwriting felt so good. All of it. And the whole journey took me back to where I started: the fiddle. I’m a singer, I’m a songwriter, I’m a teacher, I’m a guitar player, I’m a piano player… a musician. But really, I’m a fiddler. And that goes way back now.

Music has led my life to so many incredible people and places: it’s my identity, my passion and my connection to the world. But it’s also led me to a simple truth, if you play an instrument or sing, you’re a musician. You might be a great maestro in a world class symphony, or you might just be strumming a few chords in your living room. But if there’s music in you, then no matter what, it will always be there – and it will always be there for you. In these tough times, I hope that your music can lift you up and help you remember who you are. It does that for me every day.

Here’s a song I wrote in 2009 about my fiddle called Takin’ My Baby Along. I’ve included the MP3 and the chart, in case you’d like to learn it. The young Nashville fiddle star, Billy Contreras played twin fiddles with me on this one.

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!

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