Over the Style (sic) and into the Woods

I am a member of various fiddle groups on Facebook – and a question that seems to come up quite a few times is “what’s the difference between the various styles of playing?” Would it hinder me if I learnt one style and then decided to go to another? I thought I’d chip in my thoughts and comments on the topic. My purpose here is not to go through the different styles – there are acres of YouTube footage there for you to familiarize yourselves with the various styles but this post is more focused on the question should you focus on one as a general rule?

the answer to the question is…. long pause with heavy bass line and anticipatory drum beat – yes and no. Don’t you just hate that yes and no business? The thing is this: as we go through life we experience things, and learn things and learn from things; we are informed by the world around us and our experiences in it and of it. Very philosophical, you might say. We cannot simply dismiss our experiences or unlearn things, we cannot un-know things we now know and we can barely imagine what our lives were like before we knew them. For that reason if you learn to play in a particular style it might prove tricky learning a new style that necessitates a new bowing pattern, a different rhythmic structure, different tone production, dynamics and so on – our muscles might have to unlearn what it took us a very long time to learn if we want to experiment with other styles. So I guess that’s the yes bit: it could hinder you. But read on.

Now for the ‘no’ side of the argument. On the other hand I believe that, potentially, the range of skills that the human brain can acquire is limitless. I think it might be easier if we come at the subject from the perspective of a professional violinist – because the process of acquiring a new skill which might seem to undermine all those technical skills you have worked so hard to master must seem not only daunting but also a step backwards. If you are a relatively carefree and self taught big fisted saw-hand who is familiar with hacking out a howling tune any old how, (like me), with little regard for the ‘string highway’ of Jascha Heifetz (I pull over into a lay-by after a bit) then there is less to lose – at least perceptually. Apart from your friends maybe (like me). However, how many times have you heard about the true ‘greats’ in the music business who have distinguished themselves precisely because they have – and I’m quoting countless music critics here – THROWN OUT THE RULE BOOK? (Like me! ha – I never had a rule book to throw out in the first place!)

What does that tell you? These folks learnt to do it the ‘right’ way, by the established route. They put in the 10000 hours of practice; they dedicated themselves with passion and focus; they honed to a razor edge their skill and technique; perfection, precision; they were punctilious. (Can’t even bring myself to type ‘like me’). Then they ‘threw it all away’.

Except of course they didn’t really. They couldn’t completely indule in rule book heave-hoing. No more than you or I, could they have unlearnt all that they had learned – they could no more dismiss all that training and practice than any one of us. It’s all still there in the background. Everything in the background in addition to their new direction made them what they became. Every bit of learning; every experience informed their style, their interpretation. All of that came to define them.

When you are just starting out to learn to play an instrument I think it is probably impossible to imagine how you will make it sing with your own voice. After all you can’t yet get it to do much at all in the early days. Just a load of funny squeaks and squawks and bizarre noises off. But if you are really passionate one day you will make it sing. I use the term obsessive often when talking about playing any musical instrument because I believe that’s what it takes – and I am not wholly convinced it is particularly healthy – but it’s a trait I’ve seen in many musicians – myself included (or at least my wife says so) and I believe obsession to be absolutely imperative.

Keep going, keep practicing, keep the faith. Learn as many styles however contradictory they might seem, however inimical one might seem to others, keep thinking, and keep playing hard. You are forging your own style. You are dragging your own voice from the caves of your earliest human ancestors and learning how to communicate in that peculiarly musical way, in words molded from pure emotion and spirit – no language cluttering up the proceedings; no preconceived meaning. No easily comprehensible proverbs, epithets, common phrases or sayings arranged in neat order. Nothing getting in the way of how you truly feel, your music separating the fact from fictive life. Of course it’s difficult. If you learn one style then yes it might be a ‘bit difficult’ to learn others – but if you want to stay away from difficult things then stay away from the fiddle – or any other musical instrument – or even music – for that matter! It’s all difficult.

But don’t stay away. Don’t give it up. Please, I beg you, keep at it! If you are genuinely passionate about an instrument or indeed music in general you owe it to yourself and to me and every other living human on planet earth to share your perspective on it all. If your passionate it won’t seem so difficult anyway. Don’t tell yourself ‘I’ll have a break for five years’, if you do you will just be five years later achieving your goal.

All music is yours if you want it. Not just folk, classical, jazz, celtic, fado, flamenco or any other of the fabulous offspring of sound and rhythm – but all of it. From the simple heart-rending ballads sung by grieving, love lorn, unrequited country folk to the soaring Mozartian arias. Drink it in and experience it and let those experiences change you. I couldn’t imagine life without music any more than I could imagine life before I could play the guitar or the fiddle or piano or mandolin or trombone. Actually the last one was a bad example: when I play the trombone it sounds like a jilted dugong.

Be brave. Be fearless. Be obsessive. Sign up for Facebook groups about your instrument and watch, think, listen and learn from them.

Yours, most sincerely, Never Dun-Ranting…

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