Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Observations from a beginning

I've always toyed with the idea of learning to play the fiddle.  Since my wife plays fiddle I've always had one around the house that I could pick up and mess around with.  It usually never got much further than some horrendous screeching and the quick realization that learning fiddle has some serious hurdles that would take a long time to overcome.  And that is just to get it to NOT sound like fingernails on a chalkboard.  Actually making music on the thing takes much longer.

Of course all instruments take time to improve at.  Each one has something that makes it difficult to work out.  The guitar is easier than a fiddle to make sound good right away but that fretboard.  Learning the fretboard of a guitar is something one could spend their whole life working on.  Just learning the major scale in one or two keys could take years to really get a handle on.  Then there's arpeggio's and chords (lots of complicated chords).  The guitar fretboard is a vast wilderness to explore and map out.  The fiddle is more like a wild beast you have to learn to tame and coax into trusting you.  Over time it will befriend you but how long that takes is up to the fiddler.  You've got to show it lots of love to get it to sing for you.

My decision to dig in and start working on the fiddle was made the moment I heard a John Hartford bootleg where he not only plays fiddle but dances rhythm AND!! AND! (no understatement here) calls the square dance at the same time.  AT THE SAME TIME.  I'll repeat that in case you don't get it.  He does all 3 AT THE SAME TIME.  Now, if you've never square danced before that's to bad.  It's good fun and is a great way to feel like a kid again.  Go try it.  Then you can appreciate what Hartford is doing.  I mean just playing a good fiddle is hard enough.  Calling the dance is a full time job by itself.  And dancing too!  I was inspired.  I had to at least start working on the fiddle.

Here's a link to an audio clip of Hartford calling and dancing at the same time.  

I started practicing with fervor in January.  It's late July now.  So 6.5 months later I finally got out and jammed a bit with a buddy of mine.  I basically only know one tune and can only play it slow and in tune about 1/2 the time.  But I think it's a good start.

Here's what I've learned.

  • The first 3 months felt like I wouldn't get anywhere.  Intonation seemed almost impossible at first.  About 4-5months later I started to see some improvement with it.  Almost magically one day it felt easier and started to sound better.  
  • I never tried to play fast or learn more than I was ready to learn.  I think this is important.  So many beginners I see get hung up on playing faster than they are capable of.  I've not even tried to play fast and I've enjoyed playing fiddle greatly.  I think my technique is improving faster as a result.  Don't worry about speed.  I only know about 3-4 songs and I'm just really working on making those songs sound as good as they can.
  • I practice fiddle about 4 days a week.  Usually for about 30-45 minutes at a time.  Lately I've been practicing more.  Maybe 2 hours a day.  I can tell the extra time is helping.  This isn't a tremendous amount of time.  But now I can play some tunes and I've started to see real improvement.  
  • So let's see.  About 25 weeks.  3 hours a week or so.  That's 75 hours of fiddle so far.  I doubt I've actually practiced that much.  But it's a fair estimate.   Only 9,925 hours to go to mastery.  At this rate that's going to take more than 10 years.  I better practice more. 
  • I love just getting the fiddle out, tuning up, and sawing on the strings.  It's such a cool instrument.  I don't think I would have kept at it if I didn't like it so much.  It's so damn hard to play.  Love what you do.