After a lifetime of playing the guitar, I had the bright idea two years ago that it would be fun to learn the Irish fiddle. The friends I play music with a dozen or so times each year are almost all guitarists like me, and I thought a new instrument would liven up the mix. My secret goal was to learn the fiddle part on “Don’t Pass Me By” from the Beatles white album, which is always a big party song for us.
On Christmas 2007, my family presented me with a nice basic violin. Ah yes, I remembered…no frets. I picked the thing up, dragged the bow across the strings and heard a sound like a bullfrog would make with his dying breath.
Some instruments – guitar, piano, harmonica – are democratic. A rank beginner can make a sound on them that actually resembles a musical note. Fiddle, however, is a lot less newbie-friendly. The first time you try and play it, the blasted thing seems to mock you with all sorts of god-awful, piercing noises. Twenty minutes into my first fiddle experience, I thanked my family for the lovely gift, and stuffed it deep in the back of my closet.
There it sat until August of this year, when I got an email from the Irish Arts Center in New York announcing a semester of classes, including one called “Fiddle For Rank Beginners.” At only about a hundred bucks for eight group lessons, I figured this was the moment, if I was ever going to take my shot.
Flash forward to our first class in September, which comprised eight bewildered adults sitting in a circle around the ever cheerful James, our teacher. There wasn’t much playing – I think most of us were afraid to actually touch our fiddles. We spent a good deal of time trying to keep the things from falling off our shoulders and waving our bows around in the air, chatting about rosin and other arcane violin topics.
The class had an easy-going feeling and, happily for me, almost no emphasis on actually reading music. As the weeks moved forward, James pulled us through the tunes with a “here’s the first part very slow” and “now here’s the second part” demonstration method that got everyone going more quickly than I thought it would it first. The guy is a very good teacher, and after eight weeks everyone felt pretty enthusiastic about an instrument that all players admit is a tough one. We played a polka together at an end-of-semester party and I think we were all a little shocked we could actually do it.
So here’s the deal with the fiddle. I’m planning to keep up with it. I expect it will take me a solid year before I can consistently hit the notes cleanly, or get the “intonation.” I think it’s important to not worry too much about about playing on key for at least six months. The whole thing is a bit like ice skating, which I’ve also done all my life. You only get a real comfort level with it when you log a lot of time practicing. But fiddle has the same magical quality as ice skating. When you first have those little moments of doing it right, there’s something truly, surprisingly exhilarating about it. All of a sudden you hear that beautiful, mournful sound, and when you play one of the old jigs or reels, you get a sense of connection to a very old and proud tradition. For guitarists, I’ll warn that the fiddle is a bit more like piano in that the two hands, fretting and bow, each require their own technique.
You may also find that when you tell your friends you’re learning the Irish fiddle, especially when you’re of a certain age, that they look at you like you’re a little bit nuts. I expect that when I play with my friends next summer, I’ll be ready to spring “Don’t Pass Me By” on them. Then they’ll realize that I was always nuts to begin with.