How hard is it to learn the fiddle?

The question I get asked often is: ‘Is it hard to learn the fiddle?’. There’s definitely a opinion that it is really hard to learn to play fiddle!

The assumption seems to be that it takes years to start playing tunes. Or even to make a nice clean sound.

But it doesn’t have to take long, or be particularly hard. But it does really help if you get a few things right from the start.

Is it hard to learn the fiddle? No!

Why do people think it is hard to learn the fiddle?

There are a few things that make learning the fiddle different from some other common instruments. The one that seems to get the most attention, concerns playing in tune. On the piano, when you push down a key, the note sounds in tune.

On a guitar, banjo, mandolin, ukelele and similar instruments there are frets that help you to get the notes in tune. If you place a finger anywhere between the frets, and pluck the string, the note will be in tune.

Frets may make it easier to play in tune on the guitar than on the fiddle

But on the fiddle fingerboard there are no frets, and no keys. So playing in tune relies on putting your fingers down in the right place on the finger board. Exactly the right place, ideally!

And this does seem to cause people a lot of concern. But in my considerable experience teaching beginners how to play fiddle it isn’t so hard to learn to play the fiddle in tune.

Learning to play in tune

Some beginners (and teachers) like to put stickers on the fingerboard in the spot where the fingers need to be placed. You can even buy sheets that stick on the fingerboard. These can help, I don’t tend to recommend them for 3 reasons.

  1. It means you have to look at your fingers the whole time, which isn’t a good habit to get in to for lots of reasons. Maybe I’ll do a whole post on this!
  2. The placement of your fingers to play in tune is far more precise than stickers can ever be.
  3. Most importantly, it distracts you from the most important thing – using your ears!

In my experience, about 99 out of 100 people can quite quickly learn to play a note and say whether it sounds ‘right’ — or in tune. The rest is about trial and error, constantly listening, constantly correcting your finger position.

Over time you’ll be able to bring your finger down in the right postition more consistently. But even very good fiddle players are constantly making tiny changes based on feedback from their ears. Even if they don’t know it!

What will really help with getting consistent tuning is to learn to keep you hand position approximately the same when playing with each of the different fingers, and on each of the strings. Have a look at my page on How to Play the Fiddle to learn a good starting point for how to hold the fiddle with the left hand.

And getting some advice from a teacher at an early stage is also a great idea to develop a nice relaxed left hand that will help you play in tune right from the start.

Is it hard to learn to make a nice sound on the fiddle?

The other thing that people worry will be hard when learning the fiddle, is making a nice sound. When you first pick up the fiddle, you may worry that it will sound awful. But again, I reckon I can get almost anyone making a nice sound in our first 1 hour lesson.

I’ll write another whole article on making a nice fiddle sound. But the basics are fairly simple:

  • to start with don’t press down with the bow at all – the weight of the bow will be enough (for now)
  • keep the bow moving smoothly and fairly quickly
  • Keep the bow parallel with the bridge, and halfway between the bridge and the end of the fingerboard

So what is hard about learning to play fiddle?

I spend a lot of time with my students talking about bowing technique. So much of your playing quality comes from the bow. The tone, rhythm, phrasing, lilt, pulse are all affected by the bowing technique. So it really pays off to invest time in your practice to thinking just about bowing.

I sometimes say to students: “You can learn to play fiddle tunes in the first year – the bowing is the lifetime project”.

Starting out with a good bow hold is an important place to begin. You want your right hand to be really nice a relaxed. But still have good control of the bow, its movements and its pressure on the string.

good fiddle bow hold
My fiddle bow hold

Think about building some simple fiddle bowing exercises into your practice.

Practising with your ears

It won’t take you too long to get some basic technique, get playing roughly in tune, and get a few beginner fiddle tunes under your belt.

Then the real work begins.

Learning how to play the fiddle isn’t hard. But learning how to play really well, that’s where the work is. But also enormous satisfaction.

And a lot of it starts, I think, with listening. That link will take you to a very small sample of a Irish fiddle players I recommend listening to. It is not comprehensive!

Listen to your favourite players; try to work out what they are doing that you like.

My advice would be: at the beginning, forget about 2 things – ornamentation and speed. You can add the ornaments later, you can build the speed as you progress. Slow and good is better than fast and bad.

Focus instead on what players that you like are doing with emphasis, pulse, phrasing and so on. Can you hear how they are using slurs between notes to create certain patterns?

This kind of listening isn’t casual, it is focussed. And it’s incredibly valuable.

Is it hard to learn the fiddle – no!

The basics of learning to play the fiddle are not necessarily hard. Some help from a good teacher will definitely set you on your way. But you can also teach yourself.

Focus on the fundamental stuff at the beginning:

  • a gentle, nice tone
  • good left hand hand position
  • a relaxed bow hold
  • smooth, light bowing
  • listening to your tuning

Then you will be well on your way!

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