Old World or New, Sacred or Profane

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Fiddle vs Cello

This post is copied from my parts of a recent post on Cello Chat, in response to a newbie asking for book recommendations regarding folk music. "Folk music" can mean a lot of things, but I think he probably means fiddle tunes on cello.

Over the past four years of participating on those chat boards I’ve seen quite a few beginners interested in the folkie side of cello come, and then disappear. Off-hand, the only one I can think of that has really stuck with it besides myself is Maricello, who unlike me, is sensible enough to not stick foot-in-mouth there on Cello Chat, as I do [Note: I forgot to mention PFS. Hey, PS, how are you doing on that?].

What Maricello and I have in common is a solid background with another instrument, we take classical-type lessons regularly, practice near daily, keep in touch with and play with the local fiddle/folk instrument community, listen to the folk-type cellists, research and think for ourselves, and realize this is a slow process that will take some years to develop.

I think it’s fair to say, of the usual folk instruments, fiddle is, by far, the hardest. The coordination, ear training, precision, and touch requirements well exceed that required for the fretted instruments, like banjo and guitar. A mandolin or harp, for example, can make nice tones (in tune!) if picked or plucked by a total novice. Not so, the bowed fiddle (and the cello!). Still, a highly motivated and reasonably talented adult, taking fiddle or violin lessons, and practicing daily can be decent enough to play in jams and keep up with a good number of tunes in a year. A violin student that has, for example, completed Suzuki 1 and 2 well, is ready for fiddle tunes.

For cello, make it at least four years (for fiddle tune melodies, that is). I suggest that’s one reason why it’s not a usual folk instrument. Some may dispute it, but for us, typical fiddle tunes are as hard, or harder, than a typical fast movement of a Vivaldi sonata, or a typical student concerto/sonata piece that you’d find in, say, Suzuki 5.

Why? First off, it’s the keys the tunes are usually played in. Virtually all fiddle tunes make full use of the E string (Why? ‘Cause it’s there!). We ain’t got E strings, so we shift --- lots and fast. True, for some tunes we can put it down two octaves, rather than one octave, from the fiddle, but that gives us slower response and often that gets just too slow, thick, and muddy.

Also, it’s the speed. From my own simple-minded approach, there are two basic types of folkie tempos – singing tempos and dancing tempos. For me personally, dancing tempo is where it’s at, but that’s 100-120 beats (foot steps) a minute. For reels and polkas, that’s usually four eighth notes per step. For jigs, we get a break --- only three notes per step, but they also tend to be at the upper range of dance tempos. So we’re looking at 360 to well over 400 notes a minute. It’s going to take quite some time to even be able to perform major scales at that speed, yet alone tunes, yet alone tunes that require constant changes of position, yet alone be anywhere close to in tune.

Why are we so slow? Well, for one thing, the strings are much heavier and much further from the fingerboard, so it takes us longer to finger, and longer for the string to respond. Secondly, our bow arm is not in an optimal position for speed. With their down arms near their side, fiddlers can bow single notes or shuffles very quickly by merely opening and closing their elbows a small bit. With us, we have to either awkwardly hold our arms far out to the side, or move the entire arm from the shoulder for that fast bowing.

Also, without using open strings, a fiddler can play diatonically without shifting. We cannot. We cannot go to, say, 5th position, and just stay there, unless we use the thumb, which is a quite advanced technique.

We have lots of disadvantages, which I think partially explains why there as so few successful professional cellists in the folk world.

But then, we have some advantages too, so if I haven’t scared you off I’ll write about those, maybe tomorrow.


cellodonna said...

Great post, Terry. I like your explanation about why it's difficult to play fast on the cello. The conductor of our pops orchestra likes to take Sousa marches and Strauss polkas and marches at breakneck speeds. Some of the other instruments seem to do this effortlessly, and I'm sure in most cases it's because they are more skilled and experienced than I am. However, your explanation makes me feel a little better about why it takes me so long to get some of those sixteenth note sections up to speed.

Mellocello said...

Hi, its been 4 years since you posted. Wondering how it's going since? I was grateful too for the explanation as to why its so hard for cellists to play fast and do 'e string stuff.'

Nevertheless, I've had an intersting introduction to folk cello playing which might give some people a few ideas as to how to approach things.

I learned classical cello up to grade 4 and didn't play for a long time since school except in private. I never was that good at playing dead accurately and was very stressed about getting lost or making mistakes, so I just played for my own pleasure.

As a middleaged adult, I moved to a tiny village in the Yorkshire Dales and was asked if I would join musicians for the annual carol service. I was pretty unsure, but went along to play with an accordian, guitar, flute and fiddle. I asked where their music was and they said, oh we just play by ear...

I panicked but vaguely remembered some alto lines from school choir (30 years previously!)so I bumbled along and nooone seemed to mind or expect more. To my astonishment, I found I could play with them as carol tunes are practically hardwired in your brain, and do a harmony or simple baseline to most things, and it did enhance the carols. A bit of practice later and some laughs we had a lovely service.

After that they set up a folk session in the village to encourage local musicians to come out of their closets (me and one or two others). A long time folk guitarist with a huge repertior of songs recorded 20 things they planned to play regularly to get the newbies going: one verse one chorus, for me to play with at home on the CD player and I found it hard at first but managed to improvise some easy baselines. We played a couple of times a month, and have done for several years, during which I've had lots of encouragement, tips, patience and laughs from lovely people. I don't have music written down for any of the things I play in sessions and discovered i'm quite good at improvising and accompanying solo singers. (Judging by the complements I get these days.)

If you listen to guitar accompanyment you can start to hear the lower notes patterns in chords and pick them out. This you can practice with any music you like at home on a CD.

I have got alot from listening to and really admire Natalie Hass and Alasdair Fraser. She does lots of interesting meaty drones to fiddle tunes, and slap rhythms and drifts in and out of melodies and shows off the huge diversity of ways to play folk cello according to your skill level. Hers is astonishing of course!

You can make yourself hum the cello part as you listen to the CD, to get the hang of the drones and simpler lines as you hear the melody. You don't HAVE to be able to play the fast diddly fiddly stuff to play well with fast fiddlers (or cellists come to that).

That said, I have got one or two of the paltry selection of folk music books for cello with a CD so I can work out base lines and learn some of the easier slow tunes to join in with the melody.

Oh and singing harmony lines (with others) for any songs you hear in sessions also helps train your brain to think harmonies more readily to play later.

So there are many ways to approach folk with a cello and enjoy it. Just get your cello out and do it any way you can!

Terry said...

Hi Mellocello, Yeah, the years go by fast. I still play, slowly getting better at playing faster (How's that for an oxymoron-ic statement?). I want to acknowledge your post for now, and respond more soon. Later...

rachel said...

Well it has been almost a year since these posts. I came across this blog because my daughter who is has been playing cello for years and has been fiddling with her sister. She can get those fingers going so fast it isn't funny. The reason for my search is to find a teacher, mentor, or someone interested in helping me further her musical education. I can find cello teachers all over the place. But to find one who is willing to let her fiddle is another story. She is in the end of Suzuki book 3 by the way, but she has a much better ear than eye. Meaning she can hear the music and play it better than reading it. Probably because she has heard her sisters fiddle since she was 2 and those songs are there for her. So, I would be interested in your comments, suggestions, help!!!

rachel said...

PS she is 12 and her sister is almost 15

Terry said...

Hi Rachel, Yeah most, but not all, cello teachers are into the mechanical aspects, but care nothing about the other aspects -- especially of writing or improvising one's own part. But that is changing.

What area are you in? BTW, Does your cellist know music theory well? Someone with a really good ear could be composer, of whatever genre she wants.

Some teachers are using a new Mark O'Connor method for strings, but its use is still early and sporadic, and probably very little for cello.