Fiddling is fun. You will find it hard to keep your feet from tapping and your mood from lifting when playing fiddle music. I have been including fiddle tunes in my teaching for many years and have found them to be a great teaching resource. In addition to the infusion of energy and enthusiasm that playing fiddle tunes will generate in your students, they provide opportunities to build technique and rhythmic skills, and put music theory knowledge to good use.
I fell in love with Scottish music when I heard Alasdair Fraser play. His creative arrangements of the old tunes are very beautiful and exciting. I absolutely had to learn to play that music - so I signed up for the Boston Harbor Scottish Fiddle School and spent a week on an island learning from fiddlers Jerry Holland, Pete Clark, Hanneke Cassel and Laura Risk.
Laura Risk - North Highland Reels
I have been an enthusiastic and dedicated student ever since.
All of the students in my Suzuki program play fiddle tunes. I teach a list of ‘standards’ so that they can play them together. We often learn an 'All School Tune'. This tune will have an open string harmony for beginners, a melody and an advanced harmony. We just played Song From Sweden* as the finale to our March Group Class Concert. It was wonderful to have students aged 4 through 60 join together in three part harmony.
Learning by Ear
I teach all fiddle tunes by ear. As we Suzuki teachers know, music learned this way is so deeply imprinted in the student’s memory and muscles that they can call it up easily, even years later. Students who learn by ear in Book One often lose this ability when they start learning from the sheet music. Including fiddle tunes keeps this skill alive.
I had my first real crash course in learning by ear at Boston Harbor SFS. This was difficult for me, a traditionally trained musician. I learned the Suzuki literature by reading the music and then memorizing it. At Boston Harbor SFS we had four hours of classes each day where we learned solely by imitating the instructor, without seeing a single printed note. Pushing through to the point of being comfortable was a milestone. I gained insight into how to help my own students with this skill. As an added benefit, my ability to memorize written music has strengthened and I am much more comfortable when performing without it.
Here is how I proceed:
Before beginning work on a new tune I give the student an up-tempo recording for home listening so they are familiar with the melody and motivated to learn it.
When they are ready to learn it I play it for them and involve them in figuring out the form, key, important notes, meter etc.
I play an entire phrase several times and have them play along in any way they can. I have found it very helpful in my own learning to experience the big picture first.
Then we work details. I break it down into small sections by playing a little and having them imitate me.
The following well-known fiddle tunes are good ones to start with:
Boil Them Cabbage*
Boil Them Cabbage works well for Twinkle-level students. It is an excellent first ‘by ear’ tune. I find that students benefit from figuring out a couple of easier songs before they tackle Lightly Row. Use it to develop recognition of pitch direction and to introduce the Lightly Row bowing.
As with Twinkle, there are many possible variations of this melody. Tap your students' creativity by having them make up their own.
Old Joe Clark
Old Joe Clark is a good tune to introduce before, or along with Etude. It provides a fun and effective way to work on the low 2nd finger. The same 0121 pattern happens three times in the first phrase (six with the repeat).
Cup O' Tea*
Having trouble with intonation in Musette? It’s in D major, but mostly uses the Mixolydian or bagpipe scale. Learn the Scottish tune Cup O’ Tea (and review Old Joe Clark).
If your Book Two and Three students love to play everything fast, teach them the Devil’s Dream. In addition to giving them a reason to play at top speed, this tune will provide an opportunity to practice the rapid string crossings and covered 5ths they will need in Book Four. Don’t miss the opportunity to point out the relationship between relaxation and the ability to play fast.
* A Really Great Reels tune - complete with lead sheet, arrangement, teaching tips and recordings.
Interest in fiddling became so strong at my school that I formed the Pakachoag Fiddle Band. This group of young and very dedicated fiddlers meets weekly and performs often. I enjoy finding new and interesting tunes, creating multi-part arrangements and teaching them to the Band. We are now learning a Swedish tune called Troll in the Linen Machine, which I have arranged in three parts.
Not sure how to start? Try ‘Really Great Reels’ - a book of fiddle tunes for violin teachers who would like to add fiddling to their programs. ‘Really Great Reels’ offers tunes for four different student skill levels; Beginner, Easy, Intermediate and Advanced. The tunes chosen are the ones that my students have enjoyed playing the most and are drawn from a variety of styles including Scottish, Irish, Old Time and Swedish. For each reel we have provided an up-tempo recording with accompaniment for inspiration, a slow recording of the tune for ‘by ear’ learning, the sheet music, information about the tune and teaching tips. Also included are accompaniment parts for each tune to make them interesting to perform.