Friday, February 2, 2007

Anything worth doing

... is worth doing poorly.

I heard that gem from the wise old folkie Faith Petric on a radio interview. I was in the early stages of learning to fiddle at the time. Still searching for the 'real' notes, still screeching and scratching, still playing everything ultra, painstakingly slowly.

Her quote stuck in my head because, besides the stark truth of it, I remember quite clearly that the class motto when I was in 7th grade was the more common "Anything worth doing is worth doing well." I suppose that motto is intended to motivate people to do their best. But, with fiddling, there's no way you're going to get to the doing-it-well stage until you get over the doing-it-poorly stage. Seems like that trips people up sometimes.

What to do?

Concentrate on learning how to tune your instrument and tune it often. At least at the start of each practice. The newer clip-on electronic tuners are great. They pick up the vibration of the instrument and ignore background noise. Most folks like the ones that have a lighted display. Otherwise, you'd have to bring a flashlight to the late night jams so you can see your tuner display. Also, fine tuners installed on the tail (see the pictures below) really help. I don't know how people cope using only the pegs for tuning.

Do your playing away from the ones you love. A big house helps, but also jumping at the opportunity when your loved ones are away. Or, find a group that meets somewhere away from where you live.

Get those waxy ear plugs for your significant other, if you live in tight quarters.

Get some sort of ear plugs for yourself, for that matter. I found that muffling the sound makes it somehow psychologically less punishing.

Use a mute. Doesn't have to be an expensive thing. Clothes pins on your bridge will do. You can snap one on each side of your bridge for the maximum muting. (I found this helpful in getting me to experiment with altering the bow pressure as well.) If you're bashful at a jam, using a mute might help you be less self-conscious on the off notes.

Play with a recording. This will mask your oopses and get you more ready to play with others. Digital recordings will be a tad superior to cassette tapes or very old recordings. The digital recordings will preserve a truer pitch, making your fiddle sound more in tune with the recording. Cassettes may have been recorded on one piece of equipment and played back on another piece of equipment, thereby changing the playback speed and pitch ever so slightly, enough to make you feel like you can't get in tune with the recording. Very old recordings, eg. off of some 78 RPM vinyl, might have used a different standard of tuning and not the standard A 440 that is used today. (Remember, I'm talking about learning to fiddle by ear. So, if you're playing with a recording, try, try, try, try to not read the music at the same time.) And, don't set yourself up for defeat ... choose some slow recordings. Waltzes work well for this purpose.

No one's opinion about your playing should influence how you try to play. If your spouse or kids or roomies make comments about how you sound, remind them that beginners have to start somewhere and congratulate yourself for trying. Too often, disparaging comments serve to make us more shy or less likely to persevere. If you want to fiddle, you have to fiddle. Don't let anyone throw you off your course. Just add another clothespin.

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