My Early Life as a Fiddle Player

I’m a professional guitarist, but I began my musical life playing the fiddle.  There was always traditional music in the house when I was growing up; my dad plays the mandolin, and one of my earliest memories is hearing him play tunes to my younger brother and I while we were in the bath as tiny toddlers.

I remember learning the recorder through primary school music classes, and I had some kind of Disney keyboard that I used to experiment with chords (with headphones much to my parents’ delight I’m sure).  My formal music education really started when I began violin.  I was around 9 years old, and I was shown this leaflet, listing the range of instruments that could be learned.  I feel so lucky that learning an instrument at school was even an option; so many young people don’t have the same opportunity now.

After a little while of holding a pencil instead of a bow, and scraping through nursery rhymes and scales I managed to build up enough speed to learn some folk tunes.  My violin teacher didn’t show any interest in traditional music, but I didn’t have a shortage of possible repertoire to learn.  There were lots of tune books in the house, and my dad regularly listened to the folk programmes, creating mix tapes of his favourite tunes.  

I started joining in with the local folk sessions, along with the rest of my family.  Growing up in Dumfries and Galloway, a lot of the repertoire played in sessions at the time was Irish with quite a few tunes from around the world thrown in too.  I learned a lot of jigs, reels, polkas and mazurkas.  I remember thinking ‘if I can manage to play Spootiskerry, I’ll have made it as a fiddle player’.  Haha!

Whilst I was devouring a mountain of stock traditional repertoire, I continued my classical violin lessons.  However, it was getting more challenging, and rather than practice technique I was far more interested in learning tunes.  I’d hide from my violin tutor, knowing I hadn’t practiced the pieces I should have, as we waded through the Eta Cohen Violin Method Book 3. I’ve just opened the book for the first time in about 20 years, and I can see I didn’t make my way to the end of it.

It was around this time, not really satisfied with the sound I could create on the fiddle, that I picked up the guitar at home. My dad has a lovely old Fylde Goodfellow (not so old at the time I guess!), and I’d borrow it to play accompaniment to some songs I’d been trying. I taught myself chords from the boxes at the back of folk song books (pre-internet), and pretty soon I was accompanying tunes using the knowledge I’d developed from my keyboard experiments.

The guitar quickly overtook the fiddle as my first love, and although I played both regularly, it was the guitar that captured my musical curiosity. I wanted to learn new voicings for chords and work out how to back tunes in different keys. At 17, I moved to Glasgow for university, and over my 4 years of study, the fiddle spent more and more time in the case. I learned a lot of new tunes, but my technique stayed the same; an in-tune 4th finger, vibrato and position work were all skills that I felt were far out of my reach.

It’s been 15 years since I graduated university, and in that time I’ve built my career as a guitarist, singer and educator. The fiddle would often stay in the case for months and months, only opened for teaching weeks when sometimes it’s easier to play a louder instrument when teaching tunes. In October 2017, Marie Fielding gave me a fiddle lesson, with some great observations and pointers for how to take my fiddle playing forward. By October 2018, I looked back on the year past, and although it had been an utterly amazing year for music, my fiddle had barely made it’s way out of the case. I think I’d spent more time borrowing other people’s fiddles in sessions to play the odd tune than I had playing my own fiddle.

In November 2018 I decided to kick start my fiddle playing again, after hosting some sessions for my students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. I spend a lot of time playing guitar in the Glasgow sessions, but there are 10 amazing guitarists on the course, and I wanted them to lead the accompaniment in this session. I started flat picking tunes on the guitar, but although ripping through reels and jigs on the guitar is great fun, it can get pretty tiring, and I thought the fiddle would be more fun!

I decided that buying a new fiddle would be a great way to kick start my playing again. This year has been really busy, so I’d managed to save up enough money, and I bought a Scott Cao fiddle from John Robinson at Contemporary Violins in Glasgow. I felt like an imposter standing in his music room playing reels on the fiddle, but he was really helpful and gave me some great advice.

So here I am, new fiddle in hand. What do I do next? Firstly, I need to carve out enough time in my days to play it, hence why I started this blog. I have a decent knowledge and understanding of the fiddle, but I’m at the big hurdle where improvement doesn’t really come easy. Luckily my years of playing the guitar have helped keep my fingers moving, and already 5 tunes in I feel things are getting faster and a little more precise.

Filming myself playing has been really helpful in spotting the things I need to work on. The next addition to my blog will be ‘Areas of Improvement’.