Hum It, Sing It: Learning a Fiddle Tune

When learning a new tune on the fiddle, how do you begin? I start by listening to the tune, or song, again and again. I hum it – sometimes I try to sing it (because I’m not a very good singer, I prefer humming). I do this until the melody keeps me awake at night, joins me for breakfast, for every meal, when I’m washing the dishes or while I’m driving or taking a shower. Then I pick up my fiddle and play the tune (Okay … I admit that sometimes I try playing it before my brain is well-oiled – I can’t help it).

I’m no musical prodigy, so I won’t make any false claims here and tell you that, once the tune is etched into my brain, I pick up the fiddle and play the entire piece all at once. I focus on one phrase at a time. For instance, if I wanted to play The Silver Spear, a reel in the key of D, the first phrase includes the following notes: F, A, three A’s bowed as a triplet, B, A, F, A. I would play that over and over until my fingers moved from string to string as if they possessed their own nervous system, or what is called “muscle memory.” In other words, you want your fingers to be able to dance along the strings without conscious effort. Then I would move on to the next phrase.

Years ago, at the Irish Heritage Festival in the Catskills, I participated in a workshop lead by master fiddler Kevin Burke. He told us that, when practicing a tune, he plays a phrase over and over while reading the newspaper. I’ve tried it, but I’m not very good at multi-tasking, and found myself getting too absorbed in the headlines, the news of the latest winter storm barreling our way silencing the melody in my head.

If you haven’t learned the tune yet, here’s a link to The Silver Spear. Give it a try and let me know how it goes.


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