Position and Hold
by Sarah Nagell
When being used to play traditional Norwegian folk music, the Hardanger fiddle can be held in a variety of ways – in the left hand, in the right hand (rarely), against the chest or the neck or the collarbone, with one’s head resting on the instrument, with the instrument far away from one’s head, parallel to the floor, angled toward the floor, etc. The best way for you will ultimately depend on your body and what feels most comfortable for you as an individual. You may try several techniques during your life as a musician, and that act of exploration can be a fun and rewarding learning process.
If you are one of those musicians who already has a free and efficient playing technique, the following comments on the release of tension may seem redundant to you. For the majority of musicians, however, even those who have spent most of their lives playing their instruments, the quest for physical ease and agility in playing continues to be of interest, and it is for that majority that I write this article.
The word "holding" is particularly misleading in the case of fiddle playing. When one thinks of "holding", one thinks about gripping an object tightly or forcibly keeping that object in one place. These are two things that the good fiddle player endeavors to avoid. Rather than a fixed or tense holding position of the fiddle, a more flexible playing technique is desirable. If possible, try to strike a balance and find the least pressure necessary to support the fiddle in a stable position. Rather than wasting a lot of effort "holding" the fiddle, find out how much is really required to balance it safely, and put the rest of the energy you’ve saved into the music.
The main goal in "holding" the fiddle is to find a way of playing that brings a good sound from the instrument and is simultaneously efficient and pain-free. In fiddle playing, the saying "no pain, no gain" is a big fat lie. Prolonged painful playing can lead to physical discomfort and possibly injury. Playing the fiddle should be fun and pain free and an injury is neither fun nor pain free. Pain is an indication that something needs to change in order for you to progress further. So, be tuned in to how you are feeling when you practice, adjust and experiment!
When you are practicing, it is a good idea to do a body scan. A body scan is a mental exercise in which you focus your attention first on your head and ask yourself the question, "Am I unnecessarily tense anywhere here?" In response to this question, try to relax the muscles in your face, in your mouth, and even under your scalp and feel the difference. Notice the change in your face after you have relaxed it. Which features, if any, moved? It is very common for fiddlers to clench their jaw, stick out their tongue, scrunch up their eyebrows, frown in concentration, or exhibit a variety of other interesting expressions. Releasing some of this tension will free your body to relax and to focus instead on the music. After scanning the head, work down the body to the neck, shoulders (these are often tense in fiddlers), spine (is it in alignment?), arms, hands, ribcage, abdomen, pelvis, legs, and feet. You can also scan upwards starting with the feet if you prefer. At each place, ask yourself, "Am I unnecessarily tense anywhere here?" If the answer to that question is yes, give yourself permission to release the tense area. If the answer is no, great!
Once you release any unnecessary tension and your mind is clear to focus on the sound and the music rather than on “holding” the body in a rigid position, you will likely be amazed at the difference in the sound you are producing. However, since everybody is different, the body scan exercise will feel different for each person. The important thing is not so much the particulars of the exercise, but the process of thinking about your body and about ways in which you could make your movements more efficient.
While focusing on the release of tension, I do not mean to imply that playing the fiddle is always a relaxed and lethargic activity – quite the contrary! It is often energetic, exciting and vigorous. So the question becomes, "How do I relax my body and still play with vibrant energy and power?" Part of the answer to this question lies in the way that you think about your body position in relation to music making. The tools to powerful playing lie in the body’s physical ability to perform all of the necessary motions and subtleties efficiently and relatively easily.
Instead of "holding" the fiddle, perhaps a better term to use is "balancing" the fiddle. When your body is in good alignment, you are balancing a number of heavy limbs in a healthy way that allows you to do basic movements (sitting, walking, running, eating, and so forth). You think to yourself, "I’m going to get out of this chair and walk across the room," and your body obliges with a series of subconscious movements allowing you to meet your goal. Likewise, when you are in good balance with your fiddle, using the least amount of tension necessary to keep it upright and to keep the bow on the string, you are also balancing it as an extension of your body. You think, "play Haslebuskane", and your body obliges with a series of complicated motions that have become second nature to you.
When you watch a really good fiddler play, their instrument seems to be a part of them. Their bow is an extension of their right arm, and their fiddle seems to be an extension of their neck or chest. Their fiddle is not seen as a separate entity that they are clinging to for dear life, as it can appear in the hands of a beginning or intermediate player. Take a look at pictures and, preferably, videos of different master fiddlers and imitate their posture and movement to the best of your ability, noticing what feels the most comfortable for you and checking yourself in the mirror to see if you are imitating correctly, if you feel comfortable, and if you like what you see.
Balancing is an active activity, requiring constant adjustment and movement. If you try to hold yourself rigid while balancing on one foot, you will almost certainly fall on your face. However, if you relax enough to adjust to subtle pressures, you will be more likely to remain upright. In fiddling, balancing is an art of movement that requires pressing and releasing, giving and taking, pushing and pulling. Sometimes these movements can be very powerful and intense, while at other moments they can be slight and delicate. Being able to perform a wide variety of purposeful, expressive movements with the fiddle will give you more options and strengthen the quality of your playing.
Just as you balance the fiddle with your body, so too do you balance the bow with the fiddle – adjusting the pressure of your arm weight into the bow (affecting dynamics), the connection between the bow and the string (affecting tone), and the speed at which you draw the bow across the string (affecting dynamics, tone, and phrasing).
At first, any alterations that you make in the way you balance the fiddle may feel unusual in comparison with what you have done in the past. You may have to consciously change the way you think about the instrument in your hands and making that change may take quite a long time. However, with consistent practice of good habits, the playing will come to feel more and more natural. I would like to quote my high school orchestra teacher, Ellen Palmer, who said, "Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect." I believe one of the things she meant by this was that practicing bad habits over and over will only cement them into your muscle memory, while perfect practice, i.e. efficient, thoughtful practice done regularly, will work miracles.
Powerful and enjoyable playing relies on your being relaxed and aware of your body’s balance with itself and the fiddle. Freedom from unnecessary tension allows you to balance your body with the fiddle and to balance the bow on the fiddle strings, giving you more musical options than are available to one who "holds" the fiddle in a tense manner. Everybody is different, and it is necessary for each person to find his or her own path of least resistance when it comes to fiddle technique. When doing this, constant awareness of how the body is feeling and responding when playing will make the process of fiddling a more enjoyable, and ultimately a more sonically beautiful experience for both player and listener.