Playing Style | Bowing Down Home
Island fiddlers are as a rule very much aware of the issue of playing style, and most can clearly describe their own place within the stylistic universe of eastern Canadian fiddling. On the individual level, each player is seen as having his or her own unique style or sound, which is seen as an inherent expression of the personality. Efforts to consciously imitate the styles of other players are generally discouraged.
Most people are so familiar with the individual styles of the fiddlers who live in their area that they can generally identify players at musical events sight unseen. If they don’t know the musician personally, they can generally tell from his or her playing style where he or she comes from.
Click here for a description of the Island’s several Regional Playing Styles.
General Characteristics of the Prince Edward Island Fiddling Sound
The Island sound in general has the following characteristics: strong rhythmic accents, an approach to bowing which bites into the strings and swings precisely with the rhythm of the music, enhancement of resonance and color through an elaborate system of double-stringing, (bowing two strings at once), plus at least some fleshing out and decoration of melodies via a wide range of bowing and noting hand ornaments.
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Placing rhythmic accents appropriately – often referred to as “putting timing on the notes" – is what seems to best define liveliness, the crucial musical characteristic that makes people want to get up and dance. For a performance to be considered lively, the rhythms of a given tune must exactly reflect the tempo and rhythmic nuances of Island dancing. Ultimately, such dance rhythms become inseparable from the melody, and thereby serve as a universal and indelible aspect of the Island fiddling sound.
Once tunes are introduced to the Island repertoire, they often undergo a subtle transformation that allows for the insertion of favored dance-accents. The case of St. Anne's Reel, which first appeared on PEI in the 1930s via Québec radio, provides an excellent illustration of this phenomenon.
Biting into the strings with the bow is often referred to as “taking sound out of the fiddle.” In the old days, enhanced bow pressure helped fiddlers project their music above the din of house parties, weddings, or benefit dances. What’s more, “taking sound out” serves both as the method of choice for marking rhythmic accents and as an important way to communicate higher levels of intensity to dancers or audience.
Manipulating the bow so as to achieve the right “swing” and accents for Island dance music is one of the main challenges that youngsters faced when learning to play. They would watch and listen carefully, for example, to pick up the proper rhythm for the swing-partner maneuver of Island square-sets. Alternatively, there was a certain swing and tempo that step-dancers needed to hear before they would even consider getting on the floor.