There are some tunes that are just plain easy to play. They’re my go-to tunes when I have to start a tune at a session or play on command. I don’t quite know if I love playing them because they’re easy to play or if they’re easy play because I love playing them. Either way, I feel like I have them in the bag and can play them with my eyes closed, so to speak.
I was at the session at Salt Hill Pub in Hanover last week and I started a tune. The first time around it sounded pretty good but when only one person caught on and we were the only two playing, I started to flail a little and quickly switched to a new tune — an easier one. I remember thinking “why did I even start that tune, it’s a hard tune.”
I then wondered, what is it that makes a tune hard?
Prior to going to the session that day, I went to a workshop given by Fiddler, Randy Miller. He gave us the written notes to some Irish specific ornamentation as well as some exercises and examples of tunes and how he plays them. It reminded me that I should be practicing my chops more. I know that my rolls are sloppy, my bowing could use a little work and my intonation is far from perfect. Could this be why I find some tunes harder to get through than others? Or are some tunes actually more challenging?
Take Wellington’s Advance, for example. This tune always trips me up. It’s a jig that moves all over the strings and not just to the ones that live side by side. It starts with some notes on the D- and A-string then quickly goes to the E-string. So you’re bowing on the D-string and have to quickly take it up 2 strings without missing a bow stroke. It can get messy.
Then there are notey tunes like the B-part to the reel, The Wise Maid. If I get lost in that tune there’s no hopping back on the train – at least in the B-part. It feels like it has a lot of notes that seem to go all over the place. It’s hard to find where you left off if you mess it up.
And forget about the tunes that reach the high notes and require some 4th finger action like the Sandmount in the B-part. It’ll give your 4th finger a run for its money. I don’t know about you, but my 4th finger doesn’t get used that much so it’s always a challenge to stay in tune when there are a lot of high notes on the E-string in particular.
There are tons of other tunes that pose a challenge for me. I can’t help but wonder if it’s the tunes themselves or the player playing them. Maybe it’s a little of both. Either way, I need to go back to basics and start practicing my exercises again. I got some great ones out of Randy’s book called The Fiddler’s Friend – Forty Exercises to Improve Fingering and Bowing.
There are tons of other resources and exercises out there. The trick is to work them into your practice so that the tunes we deem hard become the tunes we love to share the most, our go-to tunes, the ones we have in the bag, and the ones we can play with our eyes closed.
Then the question will remain — what makes a tune hard?