Scaling down, and fiddling around

Scale idea, and bowing patterns.


When I was playing scales today, I had an idea. Maybe the important thing about the “scale capability” of a good improvisatory piano player is not their ability to play a scale from bottom to top and back again—but instead their ability to play the smaller parts of scales that correspond to various chords. And as the most important chords are I, IV, and V, I could say the most important parts of scales that one should be perfectly fluent with using are these:

  • scale degrees 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 (I chord)
  • scale degrees 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 (IV chord)
  • scale degrees 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 (V chord)

Each part corresponds to a certain hand position. I noticed that when I improvise in C, my thumb (and my hand with it) is usually resting in one of those three positions: either the C, the F, or the G. Here’s a short improvisation that illustrates the idea.

Thus, if I want to be good at improvising in other keys as well, it’s likely more important to have my hand fall comfortably into the I, IV, and V positions, rather than to be able to play the entire scale a few octaves. Today I improvised using that structure in all 12 keys, spending a couple minutes in each key. I think this will give me more direction in my attempts to branch out to other keys. And once I’m good enough at those, I’ll practice the scale portions for i, ii and vi.


After that, I started thinking about fiddle—specifically, bowing.

For a while, I’ve wrestled with explaining the bowing that I use when I play the fiddle. I use many variations, and it’s all fairly automatic and unconscious. I tried to slow it down and look at it today, though.

A common rhythm in fiddle tunes is eight quick notes. I found that the variations in bowing that I use generally encompass the first six notes, and then the bowing for the last two notes is just finagled so that I start the next phrase on a down bow. So I’m going to illustrate a few different bowing patterns, and I’ll include the last two notes in parentheses if they aren’t part of the pattern. I’ll repeat the pattern once, so you’ll see sixteen notes.

So—this is a list of bowing patterns that I commonly use. It’s not an exhaustive list, but it’s something.

  1. Saw stroke: D U D U D U (D U) | D U D U D U (D U)
  2. Relaxed saw stroke: D-D U-U D-D U-U | D-D U-U D-D (D U)
  3. Smooth syncopation: D-D-D U-U-U (D U) | D-D-D U-U-U (D U)
  4. Rough syncopation: D U-U D U-U (D U) | D U-U D U-U (D U)
  5. Georgia shuffle (off-beat accent): U-U D U-U-U D U- | U-U D U-U-U (D U)

I made a couple recordings to illustrate some of these patterns.

Here’s me playing Give the Fiddler a Dram. I use pattern 4, rough syncopation, pretty much throughout the entire tune.

Here’s me playing June Apple. I use pattern 5, the Georgia shuffle, throughout the entire A part.

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