Fiddling Techniques | Bowing Down Home
Holding the Fiddle
To allow for less stressful bowing mechanics, many Island players hold the fiddle tilted at an extreme angle so that the face of the instrument is almost perpendicular to the collar bone. This allows the fiddler to maintain arm and elbow at a relatively low position; it also permits him or her to reach the fourth string without significantly elevating the arm. Some Prince County fiddlers hold the fiddle closer to the horizontal, and at opportune moments simply rotate the bass-side of the instrument up to bring the fourth string into the path of the bow.
Positioning the Noting Hand
Most Island players brace the palm of the noting hand on the underside of the instrument, wedged firmly against the heel of the neck. The wrist is then collapsed backwards and the fingers are positioned so they are hovering directly over the strings. This position helps stabilize the instrument and allows the fingers to be set more or less exactly to play within the range of notes employed by most fiddle tunes.
For most Island fiddlers, the act of playing involves virtually the entire body. While the fiddler's upper half is engaged in manipulating the instrument, the lower half is busy beating out the time.
Island-style foot-tapping is a sedentary dance whereby time is kept by alternately striking the floor with heel and toe. There are one-footed and two-footed tapping styles. In the one-footed style that predominates among eastern-PEI fiddlers, the heel is levered forward with supporting action from the hip to stomp out the down beat, then the toe is levered back with support from the knee to mark the offbeat. When playing reels, either heel or toe generally hits the floor four times per measure, or about every second note. In the two-footed tapping style that is popular primarily among western-PEI fiddlers, the player appears to be virtually step-dancing on the floor. The various movements are timed so that heels and toes strictly alternate, ensuring that for a reel either a heel or a toe hits the floor eight times per measure, or just about every note.
Most Island players use the saw-stroke as their essential bowing motion. In a saw-stroke, only one melody note is obtained per bow-stroke, giving the appearance of a "sawing" action. This sawing approach allows the fiddler to bring the same high level of attack to bear on each note.
To reduce wear and tear on the bow arm, many Island fiddlers use a relatively small portion of the bow for each stroke, and many play with the locus of string contact near the tip of the bow, where balance is easiest. That said, those fiddlers who use slightly longer strokes with a locus closer to the center of the bow generally muster a more powerful, singing sound.
Slurring (obtaining more than one note from a single bow-stroke via action of the noting fingers on the bowed string) can certainly be found in Island fiddling, but the technique is generally used either for ornamentation (see below), or to set up a particular direction for the next bow stroke. Paul MacDonald describes the strategic use of slurring in Cape Breton fiddling, but his assessment also applies to the Island variety.
Syncopation via “Suppressed” Strokes
The suppressed stroke is a method used by many Island fiddlers for creating strong syncopations. When a fiddler wants to specially accent a weak-beat note (generally an upstroke), he or she lightens pressure on the following downstroke (the strong-beat), so that only the slightest "scratching" tone is heard instead of a pure note. This creates the impression that the strong-beat note has been omitted altogether, and that the preceding weak-beat upstroke has been accented. Here are illustrations of the suppressed stroke technique from Louise Arsenault and Robert Arsenault.
For an alternative syncopation strategy, see below for a discussion of Scotch snaps.
To increase sound volume and resonance, Island fiddlers often bow two strings at once. Here are some of the ways in which double-stringing is used:
open neighbor strings: When bowing a melody note, the fiddler takes the higher or lower open neighbor along for the ride
priming: The player doubles the sound of an open string by also playing the same pitch on the lower neighbor string.
two-string fingering forms. These are fingering patterns – which some Island fiddlers refer to as chords that yield a series of double-strings for a given key.
Since the non-melody string in any double-string pair can be above or below the melody, the overall effect is of a second musical line that corkscrews around the melody. This spiraling second line is a distinctive feature of Island style.
As in most fiddling traditions, various kinds of quick notes and rhythmic figures are employed in Island fiddling as decorative devices. Such ornaments can be added either via the bow or the noting-hand fingers.
The snap or Scotch snap is a rhythmic device performed by a quick pair of alternate-direction bow strokes, always beginning on a downstroke. It is usually written as a sixteenth note followed by dotted eighth note (1:3 ratio) but on PEI and Cape Breton they are played so that the second note is only twice as long as the first (1:2 ratio). An example: There’s a Scotch snap, for example, at the opening of King George IV Strathspey.
Although snaps appear primarily in such quintessentially Scottish tune-genres as pipe-marches and strathspeys, many Island fiddlers integrate them into their renditions of reels and jigs to provide a weak-beat accent, or syncopation. When played in jig-time (6/8), a snap is expressed in notation as an eighth note followed by a quarter note.
Cuts (known in Scotland as birls) were probably adapted to fiddle from the bagpipes. They are generally played as three quick bow strokes. Paul MacDonald of Charlottetown recounts how this technique was was first explained to him.
Noting Hand Ornaments
Here are some of the common noting-hand (i.e., left- or fingerboard hand) ornaments found in Island fiddling. All of them are produced by slurring. Click on the links for explanations and illustrations.
Slow grace or delayed note: the player bows a note just below an important melody note, and then slurs into the melody
The slow grace and priming: the player performs a slow grace into the stopped note used for priming (see double stringing)
The quick or double grace: usually performed by quickly touching an open or stopped sounding string with a free left hand finger
Compound graces: grace notes within grace notes
Irish rolls: serve a similar function to the bowing ornament known as “cuts.” They are borrowed from Cape Breton fiddling, which in turn adopted them from Irish fiddling
The hard vibrato: turns a common violin technique into a fiddle-tune ornament.
Here are two video illustrations of ornamentation techniques:
Tonal System (Pitch Sense)
As in most Celtic-based traditions, most Island fiddlers have a somewhat different notion of pitch from the one dictated by the “equal temperament system” that prevails throughout most of the western world, and which is represented by the pitches on a piano keyboard. In terms of the major scale (do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do), traditional Island fiddlers tend to play the third scale step (mi) and the seventh step (ti) somewhat flatter than on a piano, while the fourth step (la) is often somewhat sharper. For a major scale in the key of A, then, Island fiddler tend to play C# and G# somewhat flat, and D somewhat sharp, relative to the piano.
To complicate matters further, there are some tunes where the fiddler intentionally plays the third note of the scale at a pitch that is about halfway between its major-scale and minor-scale values, yielding what is known as a neutral third. In the key of A, for example, a fiddler might play a note lying between C# and C-natural, yielding the pitch known as C-neutral.
Here are some musical selections in which the different tonal system used in Island fiddling is particularly salient:
Mirimachi Fire, played by Sid Baglole
Dusky Meadow Strathspey, played by “Young Peter” Chaisson
Pride of the Ball, played by George MacPhee
Growling Old Man, played by Dennis Pitre