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Social Music Making for Folk Violists

When I started having music lessons aged seven, my school was hoping to boost the viola sections of Bedforshire's young orchestras (I assume, anyway) and I started on the viola, not on the violin. Equal numbers of us were chosen to become violists and violinsts, and I think I was probably given a viola because I was tall and was expected to grow into a larger instrument.

Later, when I was fourteen, I became interested in playing traditional folk music. I was still playing viola, and didn't have a fiddle. I noticed that, although similar in construction, my instrument couldn't do the things that violins could, and that for most of the folk repertoire, it wasn't simply a case of copying what everyone else was doing: I had to change the key to make the tunes fit on my strings. I learnt the same fingerings as the violinists, but the tunes were all played down a 5th. This meant I couldn't just go out and join in playing tunes with groups of fiddle players with my newly developed folk repertoire. If I was to do so, I would have to play in 3rd and 4th position, which I found horrendously difficult. (And this didn't seem fair, given that the violin players didn't have to undergo this torture.) But I don't remember it bothering me too much; I just had to figure out different ways to join in - and in hindsight I'm glad I started out on the viola rather than violin as I think it made me into a more creative musician than I would have been if all I had to do from the outset was play the tune.

Of course, in a worked-out set in a viola-led concert band, none of this is an issue, as the violist may well put a fiddle tune down a fifth and everyone else in the band can work out their own parts around it. (This was what happened in my school folk band, where I built most of my folk-playing-confidence - everyone else involved played guitar.) Similarly, playing completely solo allows the freedom to simply play fiddle fingerings on a viola.

Difficulties only occur when playing a melody with one or more non-violists who also want to play the same melody, and a rehearsal and/or arrangement session isn't going to happen - the most usual situations being informal sessions, and scratch ceilidh bands.

While it may be tempting to just play a tune on the viola down a fifth and let everyone else in the session or band just deal with it on the basis that you have to do this whenever *they* play anything that goes out of the viola's range, in most sessions this tends to upset people and make them shout, "That's the wrong key" and change it back to the original key the next time through, unless they're a particularly proficient and creative bunch of people.

While a folk session might look like a chaotic free-for-all to an outsider, it is usually built on various established frameworks, and while these can bend in some directions, they don't shift in others (depending on the particular players involved, which directions are flexible can vary). But from a purely practical viewpoint, one person playing a tune in the key that they can play it in while seven other people who know the tune but can't play it in that key look on doesn't make for very efficient social music-making, which is, after all, the purpose of a session.

When I first started tentatively playing in folk sessions as a viola-playing teenager, I came up with three main ways to easily join in with traditional tunes that were written on the fiddle or melodeon or flute. Some of them are dependent on what the particular tune is; others will work for pretty much any tune.

  1. Play the tune down an octave.
    This works well for some tunes, but can be challenging even if they fit the range (i.e. don't go below C). Fiddle tunes in particular are written to fit comfortably and easily under the fingers when played at the original pitch. Put them down an octave and suddenly all the fingerings are completely different and can sometimes be awkward. Some tunes go lower than middle C on the fiddle, and won't fit when transposed exactly down an octave, but sometimes it's possible to swap octaves in different sections. I cover this technique in more detail on my dedicated folk viola website (which has sheet music that takes the guesswork out of octave shifting), and it is also demonstrated in this video:
  2. Pick tunes that use a lower register.
    Some tunes actually don't go onto the E string, and only use the lower range of the violin - they fit just fine on the viola without having to change any fingering.
  3. Don't play the tune. Play something else.
    Playing a harmony or chords on the viola adds an extra dimension to an otherwise melody/guitar chords/squeezebox chords-dominated affair. While it's possible to do this in unsociable and insensitive ways such as a violinist who came to a session and improvised very loud, high solos over the top of everything until people started grumbling under their breath (in England, people do not tell other people if they're doing something that is subtly or even unsubtly contrary to session-etiquette. They grumble under their breath and give them dirty looks), it is also perfectly possible to play viola chords or a harmony that adds something and support the melody.

In British and Irish folk music the melody is the skeleton (as opposed to, for example, a jazz solo, in which chord sequences are generally the most constant element, and the melody varies). Chords in folk were added many years after the tradtional tunes first entered the repertoire, when people started playing instruments that could play more than just a melody line. As long as you remember that a harmony or chordal part is predominantly in support of the melody, rather than being your special attention-seeking solo bit, you'll probably be all right.

Generally it's a good idea to check out the dynamic of a particular session before you start adding harmony parts, though: every session is different, even if only in small ways. Most that I have played at in England have been fine with the addition of harmony parts, but I've always kept fairly quiet to begin with until I had an idea of what might or might not be acceptable in each particular group. I have limited experience of sessions in Scotland and Ireland, and I have heard of some Irish sessions where nobody plays anything but the tune (no guitars, no chords, just the tune). If, after careful listening and observation, you're still in doubt, ask!

If you're not confident about making up your own harmonies, you could start with some of my pre-written parts. I have written multiple harmony parts for a small collection of popular traditional tunes, all of which can be played on the viola. There are also transpositions included for violin, flute or whistle, and cello, and version that will fit neatly on a string quartet. You can buy and download these as printable digital sheet music here. Demonstration recordings are included. These harmony parts could be used by individuals to play harmonies in sessions or ceilidh bands, groups who want to informally play around with adding different parts to folk tunes, or as a basis for a more worked out arrangement for a concert band.

Hear the demo tracks below: