Hey Diddle Diddle

I'm learning the fiddle!  I know, I know, what is it with me and things that you do with pointy sticks?  What can I say?  It's an aesthetic.

But, seriously, I have always wanted to learn to play the fiddle--or, as they introduced it to us in fourth grade, the violin.  I don't remember the details terrifically well, but I know that there was some kind of assembly or such in which the kids in the orchestra played each of the instruments and the teachers invited us to choose one that we would like to learn to play.  I know I asked my mother if I might try violin, but she was already fed up with me for not practicing my piano (or words to that effect), so that was that.  It was piano or nothing.

And so I stuck with the piano--through the tears and frustration and teasing and embarrassment.  Through the scales and the new teachers and always feeling like I really couldn't play.  Despite the fact that I could read music, quite well, in fact.  Despite the fact that I practiced (once I got a bit older) an hour every day.  Despite the fact that I learned certain pieces so well that I can still play them now, over thirty years later without having practiced regularly since I was in college.  (Which, by the by, I really enjoyed--finally playing on an actual grand!)

But my heart was never really in it.  I know this, because my heart is in the fiddle now.  Sure, I used to be able to play Rachmaninoff on the piano, while all I can play on the fiddle at the moment is "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" and "Shortenin' Bread" without the shuffle.  But, oh, what gorgeous notes I can play!  How delicious it feels to slide the bow over the strings and feel the fiddle vibrating against my body!  How elegant the movement of the bow as it rides up and down, up and down in time with the music!  How easy it seems to learn the fingering, nothing compared with the anguish of trying to curl my eight-year-old fingers over the keyboard, never knowing how I was going to be able to stretch my hands enough to make the right chords! 

Maybe it's just that I'm older.  Or maybe it's that I have a better teacher now than I did then.  Possibly, just possibly, it's because I am actually learning in a group.  Which is what I desperately wanted and needed all through school: others to play with.  I remember being so jealous of the students in orchestra, wishing that I was playing with them rather than banging my way through Clementi and Bach all by myself at home.  No, I never thought of actually trying to play the piano for anybody else--that was pure torture.  Because, of course, I had always played alone and could never relax enough to play with other people listening.  I managed to play my Rachmaninoff (from memory, no less) along with a couple of other pieces so as to get credit in college, but I remember nearly dying of fright as I got up on that stage, even though it was really only my teacher and maybe a couple of other students listening. 

Piano always seemed so relentless, no way of covering it up when you made a mistake.  Fiddle (a.k.a. violin with a slightly lower bridge) is much more accommodating.  Make a mistake?  Our teacher has already (after only four lessons) shown us how to improvise around that.  Piano always seemed to me more or less mechanical (maybe it was all those Bach preludes, which, truth to tell, I actually quite liked, but there you go).  Fiddle seems rather to breathe.  It takes my whole body to play in a way that piano never did.  Piano was always about the fingering; fiddle is about breath and calm and taking your time until the notes sing out from the strings.  See?  Heart.  I am sure that there are keyboardists out there just itching to tell me how they feel the way I do with fiddle about playing the piano, and that's fine.  I like piano music; I like listening to the members of our church who play.  But my heart sings whenever I hear fiddle music, I can't help it.  I want to laugh and dance and sing in a way that I never do listening to the piano, not even Beethoven.

So, here I am, at 47 rather than 7, learning to play the fiddle.  Just like the angels who play before the throne of the LORD.


  1. My problem when I played violin (for about seven years as a child) was my truly atrocious sense of pitch. I couldn't tune the instrument to save my life--or at least, to save my parents' ears. I knew all the fingerings, but I could not adjust if my instrument was slightly sharp or flat. Of course, if it had really mattered to me, I could have bought an electric tuner.

    I'm glad you're enjoying it, though!

  2. Ah, tuning! We spent the first two lessons (although I missed the first, having a tournament that day) just learning how to tune. Funnily enough, my ear seems to be better than I thought (maybe all those years listening to the piano actually helped!)--after my first lesson, I could get my fiddle tuned fairly well without the electric tuner (at least, well enough to satisfy the teacher's ear). I did get a tuner, however, after my second lesson, because I realized it would help me judge when I was hitting the notes correctly with the fingering.* I did this for a week or so of practice, until I got comfortable hearing the notes played on the strings. Now I just listen and try to tell when it sounds right.

    *Plus, it's really cool when it changes from red to green to show you when the string is tuned correctly!

  3. Wonderful! And inspiring! I have wanted to learn how to play the fiddle for quite a while because I love Irish music, but then I was thinking I was too "old" to start an instrument. The comparison you make with the piano is very compelling, as this is the only instrument I know. And somehow I think the fiddle suits you perfectly: the bow is your melodious sword! :)

  4. I tried to comment last night from my phone, but I evidently messed up somewhere along the line! I think it's awesome that you're learning the fiddle at 47! If I had a motto, which I don't really, it would be that quote I've seen attributed to Michelangelo about "I am still learning." I took up ballet, which I wanted to learn as a child but never had the opportunity, which I was 27 and danced in a recital at age 29. And I'm learning to run marathons at 42--at least, we will find out Sunday if I've learned or not, when I attempt my first full marathon.

    I am a piano lover / not such a violin lover, though (although I like fiddle, especially bluegrass fiddle, quite a bit more than most classical violin music). I started playing the piano when I was about 8, and when I was 10 or so, my teacher gave me Chopin's Waltz in A Minor to learn. I used to practice really early in the morning, before school, and I remember vividly running down the hall to wake up my parents to hear it, because I didn't think I'd ever heard anything as beautiful before. I still love that simple piece, because learning it was what really taught me the emotional power of music.

  5. @Petit Saumon: Just think if you start now, how well you will be able to play when you are my age! ; )

    @ntbw: Good luck in your marathon on Sunday! I think I agree about violin vs. fiddle. I really, really love fiddle (all that Irish folk music I used to listen to growing up!), but it would be nice to be able to play violin as well. One song at a time! Now I just need to go practice "Twinkle, Twinkle" some more...

    1. Just getting back to say, yes, I did in fact finish the whole marathon! So evidently I did learn something. I also learned I want to do it again, which is not what I thought before I started the race. At that point, I thought I wanted to do it once and never again.

  6. Congratulations on taking up the fiddle! There is nothing better than making music, and I love how you describe playing the fiddle. Such joy! Some instruments speak to a person's soul more strongly than others--you'll start playing the instrument, and even if it doesn't sound perfect, it *feels* right. I hope the fiddle proves to be that for you. I know that for me, after playing the clarinet for eight years, I discovered the harp--the instrument that called me. Thirteen years later, I've never regretted the switch.

    If you're interested in eventually learning traditional Irish dance music, I know there's an "Irish Music School of Chicago." (They also host open sessions at an Irish pub, I believe). Though I've been told the Irish trad technique is slightly different. At least, I know it's close, but slightly different between classical and Irish harp....

  7. Thanks, Bram! And thanks for the link on your blog! Starting a blog is a daunting venture, but potentially extremely rewarding (or so I have found!). A little like changing instruments: it is writing, but in a wholly different mode from academic prose or fiction (not that I have more than a passing experience with this mode!). Good luck!


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