Bowing workshop

Hi, everyone. I taught a fiddle bowing workshop at the 2017 Indiana Fiddlers’ Gathering a few days ago, and I thought it might be good to give it a recap in a blog post.

Introduction

I feel like it’s really hard to make simple statements about old-time “bowing rules,” because there are always exceptionsevery player is different, and techniques that sound right coming from one fiddler sound totally wrong coming from someone else. However, I think that in general there are often a few guidelines that can help someone who would like to improve their sense of old-time bowing.

Old-time rhythm

Distinct from other styles like bluegrass or jazz, old-time has always been associated with dancingwhether that be social dancing such as square or contra dances or individual dancing like clogging. I believe that it is this connection to dancing that has cemented such a strong, straight rhythmic component in old-time music.

In most old-time music, the emphasis is on the strong beat rather than the weak beat. Because it is easier (and, in my opinion, feels more natural) to put an accent on a down bow rather than on an up bow, I believe the more common style of old-time bowing is the “down-bow style”where the down bow is on the strong beat and the up bow is on the weak beat. There is also an “up-bow style” where things are vice versa, but it is not as common. I can’t really do it properly myself, either, so I don’t feel qualified to teach anything about it!

Common old-time bowing patterns

That said, I’m going to try to introduce some common patterns that I’ve encountered in playing, listening to, and observing old-time fiddling. These patterns all start on a down bow.

  • Sawstroke (1-1-1-1) (D-U-D-U): This is just changing the bow direction for every fast note. It works very well until you have longer notes!
  • Two-note stroke (2-2) (D-D-U-U): This happens naturally when you’re playing longer notes, but you can also slur every two fast notes for a fairly rhythmic sound.
  • Nashville shuffle (2-1-1-2-1-1) (D-D-U-D-U-U-D-U): This is the “potatoes” bowing — it almost always comes in pairs, so if you do the first 2-1-1 then you’ll also do the second 2-1-1.
  • Georgia shuffle (1-3 starting on off-beat) (x x D-U-U-U): This is good for playing notey tunes that don’t have too many string crossings. Here is an audio example using the tune June Apple. (It plays slow, medium, then fast.)
  • Synco-shuffle (1-2-1-2-1-1) (D-U-U-D-U-U-D-U): This is a slightly syncopated pattern that I’ve heard some more modern-sounding fiddle players use. Here is an audio example using the tune Brushy Run. (It plays slow, medium, then fast.)

“Three equals one”

When I’m thinking about bowing, I notice there is the concept that “three equals one.” This refers to how if you slur three notes in a row, you end up on the same bowing as if you had not slurred at all. For example, down-down-down (slurring three) ends the same way as down-up-down. This means that you can slur three notes in a row and your bowing won’t get “backwards.” (By “backwards,” I mean that the down bow now is on the weak beat, instead of the strong beat. This feels rather unnatural to me, and it goes against the “down-bow style.”) In contrast, if you slur just two notes in a row, your bowing does become “backwards.” So, if I’m playing a bunch of notes on the same string, I will often slur three in a row because it feels smoother than just playing sawstrokes.

The pulse

The other big topic I discussed was the pulse. As far as I know, it is fairly unique to old-time fiddle music, though it is not essential (there are old-time players who don’t use the pulse).

I view the pulse as a way to retain a strong sense of old-time rhythm during points in a tune where there is not as much going on in the melodysuch as when there are longer notesespecially at the end of a part.

The pulse is almost always during an up-bow, and it usually involves two simultaneous actions:

  1. a gentle push with the right index finger on the bow, to add an accent to the up-bow
  2. a switch from bowing one string to bowing two strings, without changing the bow direction. The added string is always in the higher-pitch direction than the first one. For example, one might start by bowing the up-bow on the G string and then switch to the G and D strings. Or one might start on the A string and switch to the A and E strings.

Here is a video that demonstrates the pulse using the tune Sail Away Ladies (played slow, medium, and fast). There is a pulse at the end of every phrase in this version of the tune.

 

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5 thoughts on “Bowing workshop

      • Well, I’m a classically trained OT convert, so it’s super helpful to see the bowing patterns broken down slowly and then to see them in an up-to-speed context. I do a lot of slowing down YouTube videos, but that’s not nearly as clear as having someone standing in front of a camera demonstrating. As for your question: Selfishly, I’d love to see you do a tune bank of these demos. Aside from bowing, another area that would be helpful is to show a tune and then break down some variations.

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      • A tune bank would be difficult, simply because it takes quite a bit of time to do each tune. I have to dissect my own bowing so that I can play it slowly, and then record it at different speeds. I am working on another tune, though — eventually these kinds of demos might collectively form a tune bank.

        I don’t think I’d know how to break down variations in tunes — I think of variations as more of a stylistic thing, rather than a tune-specific thing. Certain patterns in many tunes can be replaced with certain similar patterns — rather than “this phrase in this tune can be replaced with this other phrase.” I could make a post about it, but I would have to think for a long time on it. That’s a whole can of worms! I will have it percolate in my head and we’ll see if anything comes out later. 🙂

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