Learning to play traditional Irish music on the fiddle

If you are just starting out learning how to play Irish fiddle music, you may find that you are struggling to get your fiddle playing to sound authetically Irish. Or you can’t seem to replicate the sound of the fiddlers that you like listening to. So how can you achieve that authetic traditional Irish sound in your fiddle playing?

Fiddle player for hire

Well, partly the answer is lots of good old fashioned practice. But there are also some ways to make your playing sound like proper Irish fiddle music. Below is my advice if you are wondering how to play real Irish fiddle.

Listen to good Irish fiddle players

There really is no substitute for listening. Find recordings of the great fiddlers past and present, and listen to them carefully. Sometimes you just want to let the music wash over you and enjoy it. But I also talk to my students about ‘active listening’, by which I mean: really pay attention to what the fiddler is doing!

Once you are familiar with the tune listen for the details. Can you identify any ornaments that are being used? Are there any chords or drones (more than one note being played at the same time). Can you hear any variations that they might be using, changing the melody subtly as they go along? Are there any subtle changes to the rhythm or the ‘swing’ or ‘lilt’ of the tune.

Even better than recordings, go seek out concerts with proper fiddle players, and pay attention to what they are doing. Or find a really good quality Irish pub session. Listen carefully to see if you can work out what makes their playing special.

Throw the sheet music away!

Well, maybe not throw it away… but don’t rely on it. Learn how to learn tunes ‘by ear.’ Because most of what make Irish music sound so alive isn’t (or can’t be!) written on the sheet music.

The lilt and phrasing of a tune, the variations and many of the ornamentations are not written into most sheet music notation of the tunes. So you can learn the melody from the sheet music. But only once you can play the tune with all the things that aren’t written down will it sound like the real thing.

If you are new to learning tunes by ear, try my beginnners lesson video, in which I take you through a tune slowly, phrase by phrase and see if you can follow along.

There’s another good reason not to rely on sheet music. In my experience, a tune learned from ‘the dots’ on the page doesn’t stick in the memory as well as one learned by ear. The tunes that you remember best will always be the ones you learn by ear.

Rhythm is fundamental to playing Irish fiddle music

Playing Irish fiddle for a ceilidh
Playing Irish fiddle for a ceilidh

The roots of Irish fiddle music are in dancing. Reels, jigs, hornpipes, polkas are tunes played for specific kinds of dancing. And dancers care above all about the rhythm of the music – it needs to keep perfect time. It’s the same reason that Irish music makes us tap our feet!

So if you are going to play traditional Irish fiddle music, you must be able to play accurately in time. Thankfully this is something that anyone can learn to do. Head over to my page on playing with rhythm to find out all my advice on keeping good time.

How to play Irish fiddle ornamentation

If you want to learn how to play Irish fiddle music that sounds like the real thing, then you will need to learn about fiddle ornamentation. The word ‘ornamentation’ may make it sound like it’s an optional extra. But I think of Irish music as being made up of three parts: melody, rhythm and ornamentation. In equal parts. Take any one of those three elements away and the music just isn’t the same.

You can certainly try and learn ornamentation by listening to other players, but some of the techniques can be hard to learn on your own. Much better to find someone who can teach the proper technique to each of the ornaments.

By my reckoning there are more than 10 different Irish fiddle ornaments (cuts, long rolls, slides, crans, joint short rolls, casadhs, bowed triplets etc) and that’s even before you get into chords, drones, variations, improvisations and other elements beyond the basic melody.

If you would like to learn more about these ornaments, take a look at some of my videos on ornamentation.

Practice your bowing

Most people who learn how to play Irish fiddle music with me start out thinking the difficult bit will be the left hand. That’s the one that puts the fingers down to play the notes. After all, Irish fiddle music is often fast! Or they assume that playing in tune will be the hard bit. Especially if they are coming from another instrument with frets (like a guitar or banjo)

But actually, most people can learn to put the fingers down in the right place fairly quickly. The bit that is a lifetime’s study is the right arm – the bowing. So pay attention to your bowing, especially when you are starting out. Do lots of simple bowing exercises and build solid techique in your bowing. It will repay you with a nicer tone, better rhythm, and a more relaxed style of playing as you progress.

Learn from a good teacher

By far the best thing that you can do to improve your Irish fiddle playing, is to learn from a good teacher. You should find someone who is a technically accomplished player of Irish traditional music. But also a passionate and knowledgeable teacher.

And while there are certainly some classical violin teachers who also understand Irish fiddle music, there are also many who think that if you can play violin you can play fiddle, which just isn’t true! So find someone who really understands the music, its techniques, it history, and its differing styles.

Get good practice habits

If you want to improve you have to practise – there is no way around it. But making the best use of your practice time is really important. I make a distinction between ‘playing’ and ‘practising’. Find out more about my practice tips here.

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