Friday, March 27, 2009


Warning: beginner violinists sound terrible. Their most earnest attempts at making music are most often compared to ill, battling felines, or fingernails on the proverbial blackboard. Why these mean spirited stereotypes, you ask? Because beginner violinists sound terrible. This is why you must proceed with caution or leave now before your sensitive ears are utterly abused.

I get a kick out of this photo, because it reflects the equipment end of my current passion. The little violins are the girls', and then the full-sized violin is mine -- the big brother on the left is our teacher's kick-ass viola, which she generously let me borrow for a few weeks. It's got a gorgeous tone -- deeper than a violin -- not low like a cello, but fuller and warmer and one string lower than violins.

But the real purpose of this post is to reveal a sound-bite glimpse into my winter hobby. Why even record these fumbling attempts, never mind share them with the world? For the same reason I keep this blog -- I like having a record of the process of our lives, even if the product isn't always particularly interesting or pleasing. I already like seeing video clips of my playing a few months ago when it was even more awful, so even the small progressions are satisfying. Seeing this today after witnessing virtuoso James Ehnes in concert last night makes my attempts feel even more comically bad, but it was inspiring. Anyway, six months into the violin experiment, and this is what it sounds like (by special request from several loyal readers):

A couple of notes on these clips:
  • The first one is a faster fiddle jig called "Gary Owen" that I'm just learning now...keeps the fingers moving.
  • Another fiddle tune called Clare Jig that Ivy and I learned from Liz last week -- I'll have to get some video of Ivy whipping through it too.
  • A little bit of a harmony part I developed to accompany Clare Jig. It led to one of my most fun recent musical moments when Liz played the regular melody and I got to try this second part out with her -- I was grinning like an idiot and had goosebumps because it sounded even better than I had hoped. Because it mostly uses the lower strings, it was one of the reasons Liz suggested lending me her viola, which has been super fun.
  • A simple classical piece that my mom has generously been playing piano accompaniment for, along with a half-dozen other songs from the first Suzuki book. The few times we've tried, it's been a lot of fun for both of us. Violin duets with Ivy on the same songs have been fun too, so we're looking forward to trying trio versions at some point.
  • And finally, the only viola bit, on a song I came up with and have been practicing this week -- Liz has a pickup on the instrument, so I was able to add some reverb and amplification for an even warmer, bigger sound. Now if only I could play in tune! Just takes time...


Chris said...

Nice...that's sounding pretty good. Your intonation is impressive! That is what usually contributes to beginners sounding bad to my ear...not so much the grating sound of inexperienced bow work, but the wonkiness of the tuning.

The Clar Jig is often also referred to as the Mug of Brown Ale. If you want more fiddle tunes, have a look at A lifetime of Irish tunes awaits you there.

Look forward to playing with you someday! Bring the fiddle to Princeton this summer, that's the best way to pick stuff up!

Jeremy said...

Yes, you're right -- it's the intonation that makes or breaks it, and I've still got a long way to go. I can hear it when I'm off, but it's very difficult to correct on the fly. Scratching out some semblance of the notes in the proper order is easy...scratching them out in tune is not. I blame the lack of frets! But perhaps that's part of the challenge I've enjoyed.

This must be a different version of Clare Jig, as the listed sheet music appears to be quite different. Of course I really prefer the Mug of Brown Ale as a title.

I'd have to muster major courage to take the fiddle to Princeton...

Anonymous said...

Way to go Jer, perhaps you know already but your Mom's cousin, Don Hildebrand in Toronto has played the fiddle for years and used to go to camps in Nova Scotia during the summer for a few years.
Nicole also has a violin, it was my Dad's one, I had it totally restored by one of Don's friend, now you have to try to get her going on it, it has been gathering dust at her place for a couple of years now.


Jeremy said...

I knew Don played guitar, but didn't realize that he was a fiddler too. When I was little, I thought he and Fred Penner were the same person...I think he played "The Cat Came Back" at a Hildebrand gathering or something. Seemed like a super cool guy, gentle and fun. Would be great to meet him now.

Instead of encouraging Nicole to play that beauty old fiddle, I'll actively discourage her ("it's not that fun anyway, too much work, etc"), and then see if she'll sell it to me instead of letting it gather dust.

Anonymous said...

We were able to view and though we cannot dissect it we do know that you have mastered so much in 6 short months. We were amazed at the skill level and thoroughly enjoyed it. Keep it up. Pearl

Ang said...

That was tight. We'll need to be updated in another 6 when you're on your freak'n world tour.

Nikki and Shane said...

Woah, woah, woah! I love that my dad is giving me flack for not learning a FOURTH instrument in my lifetime when in fact he's never taken the time to learn even one :)

I don't think I can be convinced to sell it - too much history and dad would probably kill me if I even considered it. I am actually quite intrigued to learn, just a little fearful which is what's holding me back to date.

What dad fails to realize is that I do pull it out to fool around with it every once in a while - I just haven't managed to fit lessons into our budget yet :)

But ... the real point of my posting is that I think you have picked it up incredibly quickly and I think you should be very proud of your sound thus far! Can't wait to hear more in years to come.

Jeremy said...

Thanks, Pearl. Come on down to Summerland in April and you can hear it in person!

Jeremy said...

You're too kind, Ang. Or you're mocking me. Either way is ok.

Jeremy said...

Ha haha...Nicole, I got a good chuckle out of your dig on your dear ol' dad. It really should be him learning to play Iron Butterfly on that old family keepsake, shouldn't it?

What were your first three instruments? I'm guessing flute and piano, maybe...I didn't realize you had played so much!

As far as violin lessons go, you can learn a lot without paying. I found Todd Ehle's intro videos very friendly and helpful. Violin for Dummies is good too. Although it's hard to get over that initial hump where everything sounds awful, it can be quite rewarding to stick with it.

Nikki and Shane said...

Good Lord, can you imagine Iron Butterfly on the fiddle? :) My dad doesn't have a musical bone in him so I'd love to see that happen.

Thanks for the leads on the videos - I'm totally going to check them out!

Good guesses on the piano and flute - then I went out and learned how to play Trombone so I could join my school Jazz Band. I LOVED Trombone.

Jeremy said...

Too cool. I played baritone in the school band, sort of like a mini-tuba...a close relative in sound to the trombone, but minus the nifty slides!

Perhaps that will have to be my next video assignment to post here: In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida on the fiddle.

Garth said...

From metal to bluegrass - what a transition?! Interestingly - I picked up the mandolin about 5 or so years ago - would be a quick learn for you to get into that instrument as well with the same tuning. Not sure if you've heard of Nickelcreek but some gorgeous mandolin, violin, guitar, & double bass as well.

Jeremy said...

Not a transition, Garth -- more of a musical spectrum. Truthfully, I've never much enjoyed listening traditional fiddle tunes, but they're easy to learn by ear and it's fun to feel successful on them.

I like most classical styles, but they're way more difficult. The sweet spot for me might be in the classical-indie crossover stuff like Clogs and Bell Orchestre -- I'd love to compose music like that. I'll check out Nickelcreek too.

Cool that you picked up the mandolin. I didn't realize that it was the same tuning as the violin.

Bill said...

Wow I was ready for living hell the way you set that up Jeremy. That is really impressive! Excellent work.

Jeremy said...

Well Bill, you're one of the rare people who has actually witnessed this in you must have known what to expect.

Elizabeth said...

Congratulations! You're the only adult I've ever known to learn the violin and you're doing a damn fine job at it, too.

Jeremy said...

Thank you Elizabeth. I probably expect too much of myself -- should just give myself some credit for doing something hard and somewhat unique (like you say, at this age).