Dance your way to lightness!
If you want to learn to play jigs, it helps to learn to dance first. Fiddle music is dance music, and even if you don’t dance often, knowing how makes you a better musician. [Find a contra-dance in your area.] Contra-dancers love jigs and these tunes energize the crowd! And once you’ve danced to a well-played jig, you know what that groove sounds and FEELS like.
It all comes down to one common denominator, regardless of the regional style – LIGHTNESS. Even a heavily accented pipe march in 6/8 gets ‘under your feet’ and makes you walk lighter.
Focus on the bowing
Just WHERE and for how long the downbeat and offbeat stresses fall are the essence of jig timing. ANY left hand ornaments have to fit over that timing, so get the timing just right before tackling the ornaments. The first of each group of three eighth notes usually gets played a little longer and stronger than the two that follow it. But this is a subtle difference. Again, dancing to the music yourself helps to put these rhythms INSIDE your body, so coaxing them out of your arm is much easier!
Don’t overplay the accents or they’ll sound heavy and ponderous instead of light and bouncy. The most common mistake of string players is to give the three eighth notes in a beat equal time and volume. Unfortunately, that kills the timing, which needs room to breathe. Danceability is the bottom line, and here’s where you find it (no kidding!):
The – space – between – the – notes
Fiddlers don’t FINISH everything and we are constantly listening for the places where we can leave things out (and you thought all we did was add notes to tunes!) We leave space to anticipate or delay a downbeat, to syncopate a phrase, to perform a left-hand ornament. Space is a beautiful thing. But to leave space successfully, a player needs a pretty solid sense of the ‘one’ beat or downbeat for every bar. Fortunately, DANCING is a great way to ‘naturalize’ rhythm into your body! Do you see a theme here?
Finding the groove
Listen closely for the beats – it’s our job to mark them. I like to find a spot just a bit behind the downbeat. I can stay there in the groove for a long time, nudging the tune forward from behind. If I get in front of it too far, the beat is chasing me and I’m running away, getting faster as I play. Settle on one spot that makes it EASY to play. That’s your cue that you’re doing it right.
Less really is more here. Use the bounce/balance point of the bow (the weighted center, where you can hold the stick parallel to the floor) as ‘home’ position. You’ll get more bounce out of your jigs. When you play there, it takes almost no weight to get a good sound and a light bounce. From there, you can use bow speed instead of weight to produce micro-dynamic changes in volume.
Advice from a fiddler who used to: AVOID playing at the tip of the bow. There is no real ‘bounce’ or power at the bow’s tip. It’s inefficient, offering poor control of dynamics and nuance. Yeah, I know, it LOOKS easier. But trust me, it’s not, and if you play hard at the tip, you can easily hurt yourself (like I did).
The only formula I can offer is to listen to the best fiddlers you can find and play along with them on recordings.* And if they’ll let you sit in the back and play along with the band at contradances, do it! You’ll also get to dance! There’s no better way to hone your timing on fiddle tunes than by playing for dancers!
*I strongly recommend using slow-down software as a practice aid to prep you for jamming with friends. You can slow jam with mp3s and boost the speed as your skills increase. I use The Amazing Slow Downer from ronimusic.com. It’s cross-platform, plug and play, foolproof, and you can loop, tune and slow down phrases.
OK – what’s a jig?
In the 1700s, a ‘jig’ was a dance and ‘to jig’ meant to dance, a meaning it still retains. For fiddlers, a jig is usually a dance tune in 6/8 meter, but it originally meant an Irish dance tune in 12/8 meter. Many of those original 12/8s survive today as ‘slides’ in Ireland, while many morphed into 6/8 time.
A double jig has a near-constant pattern of 8th notes, grouped into two beats of three notes each in a bar, with a ‘RAT-a-tat, RAT-a-tat’ rhythm. A ‘single jig’ is actually more of a march in 6/8, with a ‘HUMP-ty DUMP-ty” rhythm. Most tunes combine both single and double patterns in their melodies.
Of course, if you put three of those beats together instead of two, you have a slip jig in 9/8 time. With four beats, it becomes a slide in 12/8. There are other names for jigs, but these three – jig, slip jig and slide – are the most often heard. Jigs can also have more than two phrases. Most reels are played AABB, but you’ll find a significant number of jigs with four to eight phrases instead of two. See Michael Gorman’s “Strayaway Child,” with six phrases, “The Foxhunter’s Jig” with four repeated phrases of four bars each, and probably the most famous slip jig, “The Butterfly,” with three phrases of four bars each.
Where do you find most jigs?
Outside of Scottish and Irish music enclaves, jigs are a northern phenomenon. Originally English, Irish or Scots in their source, they burst out of their islands, sailed to the new world and danced across the continent. While they remain a strong part of Canadian, Irish, Scottish, Midwestern and New England fiddling traditions, in other North American regional styles, jigs were heavily eclipsed by reels and breakdowns in 2/4 time.
Are they major or minor?
The short answer is both, and more! I estimate that of the major jigs, about 80% are in a diatonic major key. [The link is to my first Wholistic lesson blog about diatonic major tunes and chords.] The other roughly 20% are in the Mixolydian mode (one of those Greek inventions), using a major scale with a flatted seventh). I note that with these three scales and harmonic patterns: Diatonic major, Mixolydian major and Dorian minor, you have homes for nearly all the old Irish and Scots fiddle tunes and about 80% of the new ones. In terms of applied music theory, fiddlers use these three scale/harmony patterns on a daily basis.
I also find that more of the Mixolydian tunes tend to be Scots in origin, perhaps related to the bagpipe scale. By comparison, the Dorian (minor) below tends to favor the Irish repertoire. A smart musician would learn these two scales together. Both have a flatted seventh and their only scale difference is in the third, raised in Mixolydian and lowered in Dorian mode. The real link is in their harmonies. Both harmonies move from tonic to flatted seventh and back again. In Dorian, that tonic is minor rather than the Mixolydian major.
Here’s a PDF example of an A Mixolydian 6/8 pipe march with four phrases, scored for fiddle. It’s called Marching Down 5th Avenue, and I wrote it in 2007 when my daughter went off to NYU.
If the tunes are in a minor key, they are almost universally** Dorian. What’s that mean? D Dorian would be a C scale that started on D, spelled D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D. Harmonically, it moves between the minor (in the example, Dm) and it’s flatted seventh (C major) So you are moving from i to VII to i.
**How do I know these minor jigs are almost universally Dorian? Music nerd alert: I’ve played through every jig and reel in Ryan’s Mammoth Collection, O’Neill’s and every other book I could get my hand on. I had to go all the way back to the 1650s and Playford’s English Country Dance manuscripts to find minors that weren’t Dorian. There are a few melodies identified with songs that are in natural minors and that’s about it. Go try it yourself. If you find more than five fiddle tunes in the whole collection of either Ryan’s or O’Neill’s that are minor but not Dorian, I’ll send you a free CD!
Many guitarists who back up Scots and Irish tunes play in DADGAD tuning. This easily allows them to play drones of the 1 and 5 notes in a chord. They often leave out the third altogether, giving their accompaniment that characteristic open sound.
Here’s an example, a jig of mine in Dm and C called Kangaroo Jig. The PDF is scored for fiddle, viola and cello. Violists and cellists can drop the octave or not in the B part – your choice! The mp3 track [Kangaroo Jig/Geese in the Cloverleaf/Paddy Kelly’s Jig] is from the 1996 “Soirée chez nous” recording with my band, Chanterelle. André Marchand plays guitar on the track, Pete Sutherland is on piano and I wrote the first two tunes. The last tune is attributed to, if not composed by Paddy Fahy. Have fun!
Mp3 performances and PDFS of Marching Down Fifth Avenue, Kangaroo Jig and Geese in the Cloverleaf are © ℗ Donna Hébert, fiddlingdemystified.com. All rights are reserved.