Skill & Generosity – Fiddle as a metaphor 4 life

Someone said to me recently, “One thing I’ve noticed time and time again: The more skilled the player, the more generous he seems to be.” He was complementing me on being very generous in a performance where I shared the stage with another fiddler who, although he is a very accomplished fiddler in his own rights, is rather new to the Celtic genre. There are many levels to his observation, and our ensuing conversation covered a lot of ground. I’d like to focus on just one aspect of his statement.

Skilled musicians do have a tendency to reach out and share tips and bits of wisdom with less experienced musicians. Although I find this fact self-evident, I was initially surprised that this concept seems unique to a lot of people. I’ve been thinking about it ever since, and I believe I better understand where that surprise comes from.

When I first started fiddling, I had one book: The Fiddler’s Fakebook. I was a trained classical violinist, could sight-read new material easily, and I found the music in the Fakebook extremely easy … and boring. No matter how fast I played the music, I was unable to capture the “feel” and “sound” of a true fiddler.

I hooked up with a group called the Utah Old Time Fiddlers Association in Salt Lake City, Utah. I went to their jam sessions. I found, for the first time in my life, that I was uncomfortable playing in a group that consisted of kids, adults, and old farts. I didn’t want to embarrass myself, and so I played very little. I even considered giving it up entirely.

Before I could quit, however, one of the old-timers and better fiddlers came up to me. He said, “Mike, you’re a great player … but you play like a classical violinist. Let me show you a few tricks that will help you sound like a fiddler, and I’m certain you’ll quickly get the hang of it.” He showed me simple things, such as “swinging eighth notes”, “Georgia Bowing”, and taught me how to use the discography in the Fiddler’s Fakebook to find recorded examples of the tunes so I could compare what was written on the page with how it is traditionally played. It made a huge difference in my playing, and I quickly regained my enthusiasm for the genre.

Now that I’m an old fart myself, I find that I have forgotten the gentleman’s name. I haven’t forgotten the impact his sharing made in my life, however. In an attempt to “pay it back”, I arranged and produced a selection of tunes commonly used in their jam sessions, published it in book form, and recorded a group of the session members playing those tunes. I gave the Association all this material and told them that they could sell it if they wished and use the proceeds in the Association. I was gratified to learn that to this day, some twenty years later, they still utilize the book.

Fast forward a few years. I’ve recently moved to Southern California and I am playing in a rodeo band and my own Country Western cover band. Through a series of happy coincidences, some of which I’ve related in previous blog posts, I have fallen in love with Irish music. I start my own band, called Sligo Rags, and begin to play a couple of residencies.

One night, a fan of the band comes up to me during a break between sets. He says to me, “Mike, you’re probably the best fiddler I’ve heard in an Irish band around here, but I gotta be honest with you: You don’t sound Irish.” I was flabbergasted. I thought I was pretty hot-shit, and I was really excited that our band was having so much success early on. Of course, I asked him to explain. He said he really couldn’t explain it, just that I didn’t sound like any other Irish fiddlers he’d ever heard before.

I respect this kind of honest critique, so I didn’t take offense at his words. His comment, however, bothered me immensely. What about my playing is so damn un-Irish??? Again, feelings of inferiority and insecurity began to seep into my psyche. I started listening to more and more recordings and comparing them to recordings I made of my own performance. I read every book I could get my hands on. Still, understanding eluded me.

Then one day, a fiddler more experienced in the genre than me said something that changed everything: “Your accents are all wrong. In Irish music, we put the accents on the off-beat. You know, like a mandolin plays the rhythm in off-beat chunks. Think of it as adding the accent where a drummer would normally hit the snare on the back beat.”

Bingo! That one little tip changed my entire playing. It took hours and weeks, even months of practice to change my playing style to accommodate this off-beat or back beat accent, but when I had it to the point where I could utilize the technique effortlessly, it totally changed my sound.

So, as I was mulling over my friend’s comment regarding skilled musicians being more generous than less skilled players, I began to understand why such a generous nature might seem surprising to someone who is anxious about his or her skill level. It’s difficult to imagine that someone would care enough about you and your playing that he would offer constructive suggestions to help you grow and improve … especially when that player seems so far above where you see yourself at that moment.

It is easy for me to understand why skilled players love to lift their fellow travelers up from the lower levels. I have so much fun playing this music that I can’t even imagine turning my back on anyone who is struggling. They should be having as much fun as I am. As I share what bits of wisdom with those who are open and receptive to my advice, I find that I am enjoying myself even more.

Perhaps it is just “pay back”, as I mentioned earlier. I think it’s a little deeper than that, however. Sharing what I know brings me something akin to soul food. It fills some empty space in my soul every time I am able to help someone enjoy playing this music I love so much.

I met someone this morning who is a master of her craft. She is a writer and a poet. She is also a wonderful teacher. The joy she expressed while discussing how she enjoys seeing her adult students start to “get it” was obvious. She absolutely glowed as she related story after story. I felt a strong connection with her passion for sharing the joys of reading with those who never had the opportunity when they were younger.

Look around you: There are so many masters of different life skills all around us. If you enjoy using Facebook or other such types of social networking, you see them every day. Sometimes it is easy to ignore their input as just more “internet noise”. Day after day, however, you see certain people who stand out as attracting the most attention and consistently sought out for their opinions.

It is the same in almost any social situation. Sitting around a table for coffee with a group of your friends, there are always “expert” opinions. Sometimes these opinions are only proffered up as a way to get attention, true. But it is very easy to recognize good advice coming from someone with more experience. There is a real desire to make a difference in someone else’s life by sharing wisdom garnered over a lifetime of experience and practice.

It gives me hope that, in this world of strife and turmoil, people of skill and character are willing to share their wisdom, simply because it gratifies them to lift up their fellow travelers.

I hope you enjoyed reading this latest installment of my mental meanderings. I encourage you to leave your comments and any thoughts you’d like to share regarding this or any of my previous blogs. If you truly like what you read, I’d be pleased if you followed me here on WordPress, or on my Celtic Fiddle Tune learning website, There you will find an abundance of material I offer, free of charge, to those who wish to enjoy playing Celtic music, as I do. It would gratify me greatly.


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