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2021 fiddle workshop: Sarah Armstrong's Tune

Updated: Oct 27, 2021

Here is a video of me playing Sarah Armstrong's Tune at slow, medium, and fast speeds.

Here are the notes from the workshop:

About Sarah Armstrong's Tune

Today we're going to be learning Sarah Armstrong's Tune. This is a popular tune in many old-time jam sessions. Sarah Armstrong was a fiddler from Pennsylvania, born in 1883, who grew up listening to her family play fiddle tunes. She herself played both fiddle and cello with her family, and she ended up contributing about 40 tunes to a compilation book ("Hill Country Tunes") that was released in 1944. It's not clear whether she wrote this tune or learned it from her family, but her version is what was transcribed into this book, so that's the original source for the tune. I personally learned this tune from local jam sessions in St. Louis.

Bowing in Old-Time Fiddle Music

In old-time fiddle music, bowing is everything. Often what really makes a tune sound like fiddle music is the bowing. When I talk about bowing, I'm thinking like this: when you have 8 fast notes in a row, which way does the bow go for each of those notes? Does it go down-down-down? Does it go down-up-down? Or something else?

Down Bow Fiddling

Most fiddlers, including myself, are what's called down-bow fiddlers. This means that usually, when we start a phrase, we will begin on a down-bow. Imagine you are counting a beat like "one and two and three and four and". In old time, we think of the "one", "two", "three", "four" as strong beats, and the "ands" as weak beats. In general, down-bow fiddlers try to play down-bows on strong beats.

How Fiddlers Learn Bowing Patterns

Most fiddlers do not actively learn bowing patterns or usually think about bowings. Instead they learn by osmosis while playing in jam sessions or learning from a teacher. So, these patterns are only meant as a jumping-off point to get your fingers used to some patterns.

Common Bowing Patterns in Old-Time Fiddle

Sawstroke (D U D U) (1-1-1-1)

Two-note slur (D-D U-U) (2-2)

Three-note slur (D U-U-U and D-D-D U) (1-3 and 3-1)

Nashville shuffle (D-D U D U-U D U) (2-1-1-2-1-1)

Georgia shuffle (D U-U-U D U-U-U starting on the off-beat) (1-3-1-3)

Smooth shuffle (D-D-D U-U-U D U) (3-3-1-1)

Synco-shuffle (D U-U D U-U D U) (1-2-1-2-1-1)

Changing the Notes or Bowings

In classical music, often it's very important to play the notes a very specific way. In old-time, it's okay if you change the notes, or play with a different bowing. For example, if you decide to apply a different bowing pattern than usual, for example, and it is making you add a note in somewhere, that's totally fine.

Tune Versions in Old-Time Fiddle Music

In old-time there isn't "one correct way" to play a fiddle tune. If you go to ten different fiddle players and ask them, "How does this tune go?" you're going to hear ten different versions. Sometimes the versions are similar –other times they are so different that they can't even be considered the same tune. So, often in jam sessions, people will have to agree on which version they will play, before they begin playing.

Importance of Rhythm in Old-Time Fiddle

Probably the most important thing in old-time is to have a strong rhythm. Fiddle music has a strong relationship with folk dancing, so try to make your playing toe-tapping!


Tune Walkthrough (Personal Notes)

Continue if you dare! These are my personal notes of how I walk through teaching the tune. Please be aware that unless you were at the workshop, these notes may be difficult to understand, since it's hard to describe musical techniques purely through the written word.

A Part Chords:

|: D G | D D | A A | A A

D G | D D | A A | A D :|

B Part Chords:

|: D D | A A | G G | A A

D D | A A | G G | A D :|

A Part Notes:

- If a melody is difficult to learn, it can help to break it into small parts and learn those parts slowly, then gradually put them together into larger parts.

- It can help as well to learn and memorize a tune's melody first, before learning to play it on an instrument. My favorite way to do this is to listen to the tune and make sure I can sing along with it, then try to sing it by myself without listening to the tune. (Humming works fine, too.) Once I am comfortable with that, I pick up the instrument and find the notes.

- It can be helpful to learn a tune by patterns. For example, throughout the A part, the melody follows an ABAC pattern; the first phrase is the same as the third phrase.

- In addition, in the A part, the second phrase is the same as the first phrase but all the notes are moved one string over. For example, the first phrase starts on A (first finger on the G string), and the second phrase starts on E (first finger on the D string).

- Special bowings I am teaching in the A part (please note these aren't ironclad, but just to help people get used to fiddle-style bowings):

--- End of the first phrase (0:14 in the video): Two up-bows in a row, to prepare for a down bow in the next phrase. This happens at the end of the second and third phrase as well.

--- Middle of last phrase (0:31 in the video): Two up-bows in a row to prepare for a down-bow on the strong beat.

--- Middle of last phrase (0:31-0:32 in the video): Three up-bows in a row. This is only added for smoothness, and is optional because 3 up-bows ends the same way as up-down-up.

B part notes:

- B part follows an ABAC pattern as well -- the first and third phrases are the same.

- The last phrase of B part also shares an ending with the last phrase of the A part, so when you learn the first two phrases of the B part, you have already learned every phrase that is used in the tune; it's just a matter of putting it together.

- Special bowings I am teaching in the B part (please note these aren't ironclad, but just to help people get used to fiddle-style bowings):

--- In the first phrase (0:59 in the video), there is a pattern of 3 downs, 3 ups, and then down-up. (D-D-D U-U-U D U). In the U-U-U section (1:00 in the video), there is a string crossing, and there is a special motion that's needed. The D-D-D is on the A string, the first U is on the D string, and the second U is on the A string. So, it is jumping to the D string just for a moment. This jump should be entirely a wrist-motion; the arm should NOT move when the bow travels to the D string and back. This motion happens again in the second and third phrases of the B part (1:05 and 1:12).

--- In the second half of the first phrase (1:03 in the video), a bowing pattern called the "Nashville shuffle" is used. This means that no matter what the melody is, the bowing goes like this: D-D U D U-U D U. It has a groove to it and can add a very fiddly sound to a tune, but make sure not to over-use it. Also note that there is another wrist-motion to the D string on the last up-bow in this phrase (1:04 in the video).

--- The second phrase starts the same as the first phrase (1:06 in the video) -- same bowing (D-D-D U-U-U D U with the wrist motion), and the notes are similar too. The ending of the second phrase (1:08 in the video) is different: D-D U-U D-D U-U.

--- There are no other new bowings; the bowing at the end of the B part is repeated from the end of the A part.


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