Getting the Fiddler's Accent
“You Gotta Have the Accent
So the People Will Get Up And Dance!”
Harry said that. Harry D'Addario, an old time fiddler from new Berlin, PA who played for dances, dancers and the pure fun and joy of it during most of the past century. I had chance to meet Harry once when some friends directed me to his place and said he knew how to fix fiddles. Some years back my sound post needed to be set. Once Harry had it back in place - which didn't take him more than a minute - he motioned Come on and added, “How about we play some tunes?” So we did.
Although I had played tunes most of my life and even knew some of the shuffles and double stringing we weren't a half minute into playing when Harry stopped me and said, “Listen.” He played “Soldier's Joy” very slowly but with some very strong rhythmic accents. “You gotta have the accents,” he said. “So the people will get up and dance. Fiddle music is dance music.” So I tried it again. Better. Harry nodded. We played. Then went on to “Long, Long Ago” and old waltz with each of us taking turns seconding each other.
So many times the question is asked, “How can I get a fiddly sound?” “What's the difference between classical and fiddle?” “Why does fiddle music sound like it does?” Some have debated that it is fiddle music when violin is played - but with a scratchy sound. Nope. Not it. A fiddler might have that sound, but there are many who play a very clear noted fiddle style, long bows, slurs, easy trills and you'll still tap your foot. Some think it's a fiddle tune when it's done FAST! Nope. A waltz can be slow. Even a reel can be played slowly. Some think it's a fiddle when it's played using double strings and chords. Nope. Don't even have to have that. It's the accent - the steady, rhythmic, danceable accent.
In the tune “Garry Owen” the first run of notes (when played in the key of G major) is the G scale played from high G on the E string to G on the D string. Right down the scale. Try it. Play a descending G scale. Sounds like a G scale. Now try it with the 6/8 beat - the jig beat:
G F# E D C B A G…etc…
Voila! The intro to “Garry Owen!” The scale has become a jig.
Let's get a feel for the accent bow by starting with the single shuffle. Say STRAW-ber-ry. STRAW-ber-ry. STRAW-ber-ry. Now set your bow on the D string. Play STRAW-ber-ry. STRAW-ber-ry. Play it again and again. Make sure you play the first note loudly and the next two softly. Study the feel you have in your wrist. What did you do to make one loud and the other soft? I often feel that my wrist has a slight snapping motion to it and that somehow my fingers as they lay over the bow stick are drumming - same as when I drum out a beat on a tabletop. This might not seem visually evident, but the slightest movement from the fingertips can become magnified at the end of a bow stick. Think accent. Think dance beat. Think STRAW-ber-ry.
Try drumming a tune out on a tabletop. Notice that when you do this you don't generally use your whole arm to drum the tune. You'll use wrist and fingers. Actually drumming out tunes and beats with your fingers is really good practice for achieving a fiddler's wrist action. Set your bow back on the strings and play a tune that you can “hear” in your mind. Visualize the drumming motion of your fingers. Play the tune. Go ahead and exaggerate the accents for a while until you get a feel for it. All this comes naturally after a while but it takes teaching your hand and fingers to follow what your brain is thinking. Just keep at it.
Try different tempos. Using an exaggerated accent play a slow waltz, then gradually even out the volume of the notes some until it sounds pretty. The accent for dancing should still be there.
The best test to see if you have the accent is to play a tune for someone. If you can set their feet tapping, their fingers drumming, or get `em up dancing - you've got it!
This article was previously published in the newspaper of The National Oldtime Fiddler's Association
Copyright Beverley Conrad 2001 All Rights Reserved
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