How to Apply Dynamics When Playing the Fiddle - dummies

By Michael John Sanchez

When playing the fiddle, a musical piece can sound really nice if it’s played softer in some spots and louder in other spots. These changes in volume are called the dynamics of the music. This is another element in music that’s like the icing on a cake when it comes to hearing a great sounding piece.

Figuring out how to play more softly

If you’re just starting out on the fiddle, everything you’ve played has probably been considered loud. So, the new concept you have to master is how to play softer than usual!

Take a look at “Fiddlin’ with Dynamics.”

[Credit: Figure by Michael Sanchez]
Credit: Figure by Michael Sanchez

Do you see the forte symbol below the music? It looks like a cursive lower-case f. That symbol indicates you should play loud — or a better way to explain it is that you should play normal.

Next, notice the piano symbol in the third measure. It looks like a cursive lower-case p. This symbol indicates that you should play soft. Try out the following steps to play your fiddle more softly and still get a good sound:

  1. Take your bow and set it on the strings.

  2. Pull the bow about one-quarter the distance that you normally would.

    This will force you to slow the bow speed down quite a bit. Try to still keep the length of the note the same as if you were to play it with the whole bow.

  3. Go back and forth the one-quarter distance and lighten up your index finger pressure. You shouldn’t be gripping tight!

    Do you notice a much softer sound? If not, you need to loosen things up and possibly use less of the bow.

Listen to the fiddle playing dynamic differences. Now, try playing the song yourself and see whether you can make a big difference in dynamic levels between the soft and loud parts. The more difference you can make while keeping a clean sound, the better.

Many terms in music, like forte and piano, have Italian descent. Also, you’ll find the letter “m” in front of these letters at times, which means “medium loud” or “medium soft,” or the letters “pp” and “ff,” which mean “very loud” and “very soft.”

These aren’t as prevalent in fiddle music as they are in violin music, but they come up occasionally. To play medium loud or medium soft, simply use a little less or more of the bow. For now, though, don’t worry about working on medium loudness.

If you’re struggling with dynamics, it’s a sign that you need work on your index finger. If you find yourself getting unpleasant sounds while doing dynamics, this is a sign that you’re forcing the bow with your big muscles instead of using your small muscles.

Applying dynamics to a song

Now let’s take the fiddle tune “Old Joe Clark,” and put in some dynamic levels. (Remember, you have to learn the notes before attempting to put in dynamics!)

[Credit: Figure by Michael Sanchez]
Credit: Figure by Michael Sanchez

Pay attention to the key signature of this piece because you’ll have to put your first fingers in a unique position.

You play measures 1 and 2 in the lower half of the bow and measures 3 and 4 toward the tip of the bow. Then in measures 5 through 8, you play this entire part soft toward the tip of the bow. This requires you to have a nice relaxed bow hold. Remember, the bow doesn’t like to be squeezed hard!

In line 2 you switch off and on playing the eighth notes in different parts of the bow. Make sure you put your 2nd finger on the G string in the correct position because you have a B flat in the key signature. Your 2nd finger should be touching your 1st finger on the G string. Play the second part of line 2 soft at the frog, unlike the first line, where you play the soft notes at the tip.

Dynamics should always be the last thing you think about in a piece; you have to learn other elements of music first. Think about notes first, rhythms second, slurs third, and then the dynamics. Don’t overwhelm yourself with too much if you can’t handle it yet!