How To Play Folk Violin: Tips for All Skill Levels
The simplicity, authenticity, and storytelling nature of folk music have made it a beloved genre worldwide. And what better way to express the soulful and energetic melodies of traditional tunes than through the rich and vibrant sound of a violin?
Folk violin has an inherent charm, adding depth and emotion to every tune. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a complete beginner or an advanced violinist — folk violin is for everyone.
Below, we’ll show you some practical tips and tricks on how to play folk violin, no matter what your level of experience.
What is folk violin?
Folk violin is a genre of traditional music that dates back to the 16th century in Italy. It has its roots in folk traditions of various cultures and regions, including American, Irish, Scottish, and English, among others.
However, it differs from classical violin in terms of style and techniques.
While classical violin focuses on precision, technique, and structure, folk violin embraces the rawness, simplicity, and storytelling nature of the music. It’s often played by ear rather than relying on sheet music, allowing for improvisation and personal expression.
Classical violinists may find the transition to folk violin challenging at first, but with time and practice, they can explore its unique beauty and freedom.
Some popular subcategories of folk music include:
- Old Time Fiddle (commonly found in American Appalachian and Southern regions)
- Irish Fiddle (known for its lively and energetic tunes, often played in pubs and gatherings)
- Scottish Fiddle (features strong rhythmic patterns and ornamentation)
- Bluegrass Fiddle (characterized by fast-paced melodies and improvisation)
- Celtic Fiddle (a fusion of traditional Irish, Scottish, and Welsh folk music)
The violin, just like any other string instrument (such as the cello, banjo, or mandolin), can be challenging to learn. However, after learning the foundational techniques (like proper bow hold, finger placement, and posture), folk violin becomes easier to pick up and play.
How to recognize folk violin music
When you’re new to fiddle playing (or folk violin), it can be tricky to distinguish between different genres and styles of music. However, some auditory markers and motifs are unique to folk violin and can help you identify it:
Folk violin music typically has an infectious energy and lively rhythms — it’s almost impossible not to tap your foot along with the beat. The most common rhythms are 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4 time signatures.
However, each folk tradition has its unique rhythmic patterns and variations. For instance, Irish fiddle music is known for its use of syncopation (accenting off-beat notes) and the use of triplets, creating a bouncy and energetic feel.
Traditional tunes have simple and repetitive melodies that make them easy to learn and play by ear. They use scales (major and minor), modes (sets of notes with distinct patterns), and melodic ornaments (such as slides and rolls) that are essential for expressing emotions and telling stories through music.
For instance, long slides can evoke a sense of longing or sadness, while fast-paced tunes with lots of ornamentation can elicit joy and excitement.
Ornamentation is a defining feature of folk violin music that adds depth and character to a tune. These embellishments can be as simple as adding trills or slides to a single note or as complex as incorporating double stops, drones (sustaining one note while playing other melodies on top), and advanced bowing techniques.
A fiddler uses ornamentation to personalize and add their unique touch to a tune, showcasing their improvisation skills and creativity.
How to learn folk violin (for total beginners)
If you’re a total beginner to violin and want to learn how to play folk music, it’s never too late to start. The key is to take a structured, step-by-step approach that helps you build a strong foundation and gradually introduces you to different techniques and styles.
Connect with an experienced teacher
Getting your instruction from qualified and experienced teachers — like those from Trala — is the best way to learn folk violin. Your Trala teacher will create a customized learning plan tailored to your goals, offer personalized feedback, and provide you with resources like sheet music and backing tracks. And that’s not all:
- Trala teachers are experienced in 30+ genres of music, including folk music, so you’ll be learning from experts who truly understand the genre.
- You’ll have access to flexible scheduling and can take lessons from anywhere, at any time.
- Trala provides plenty of useful resources, including video lessons, practice exercises, and an electronic tuner to help accelerate your learning.
Choose the right violin
While many violins are suitable for playing folk music, some characteristics can enhance the sound and feel of your folk violin playing.
- Resonance: A violin with a resonant sound (a deep, full, and rich tone) makes the instrument more responsive and easier to play. This adds warmth and depth to the sound, which is essential for playing folk music.
- Comfort and playability: Folk music often requires quick shifts between notes and fast tempos, so look for violins with a slightly flatter bridge (for easier string crossing) and a lower string action.
Master the basics of the violin first
Before you can comfortably play folk music, you need a good grasp of the basics of violin playing. This includes proper posture, bow hold, finger placement, and basic music theory and notation.
Trala offers structured one-on-one beginner violin lessons that cover all these aspects in detail, with video tutorials, practice exercises, and helpful resources to help you learn quickly. With Trala, you’ll master the basics before progressing to more complex techniques like vibrato and double-stops.
Start playing simple tunes
It’s helpful to start with simple and familiar folk tunes to help you develop your ear and motor skills and build confidence. Trala offers a huge collection of easy sheet music for beginners, featuring a whole “Folk & Traditional” category, which is great for practicing bow strokes, finger positions, and dynamics. Other popular folk tunes you can start with include:
- “Yankee Doodle”: Has a catchy, straightforward melody that’s easy for beginners.
- “Sur le Pont d’Avignon”: A well-known children’s song and folk dance with a simple melody.
- “Mayim Mayim”: An Israeli folk dance song with a repetitive and straightforward melody.
- “The Dawning of the Day (Fáinne Geal an Lae)”: A beautiful, slow-paced piece that makes it a good introduction to Irish music for beginners.
Listen to live folk violin performances
Live performances allow you to see and hear skilled musicians in action, observe techniques and styles up close, and connect with the emotions and stories behind each performance. You can also interact with other folk music enthusiasts and musicians, learn from their experiences, and discover new tunes and styles. This can greatly accelerate your learning and motivate you to improve your skills.
How to learn folk violin (for intermediate students)
As an intermediate student, you’ve already mastered the basics of violin playing and are ready to explore more complex techniques and styles in folk fiddle. This is when you transition from simply playing notes on a page to conveying stories and emotions through your instrument.
To reach this point, you have to put time and effort into learning folk-specific techniques and lessons. How? Let’s explore!
Work on more advanced violin techniques
Intermediate violin players greatly benefit from honing more advanced techniques to enhance their playing in folk music. This includes:
- Understanding complex rhythms, such as swing and syncopation
- Mastering various bowing styles, like staccato, spiccato, and détaché, to add texture and nuance to your playing
- Developing left-hand techniques, like shifting, vibrato, and double-stops, for more expressive melodies and harmonies
Trala’s online violin lessons provide comprehensive instruction on these techniques and more, with a structured curriculum and personalized feedback from professional violinists to guide your progress.
Enhance your improvisation skills
Improvisation has a rich history in folk music as a means of self-expression and storytelling. It lets you add your personal flair to traditional tunes and create unique interpretations of folk melodies. To improvise, you need to deeply understand the music’s structure, scale patterns, and chord progressions.
A keen ear and quick reflexes also help you respond to others’ playing and create coherent melodies on the spot. And most importantly, you’ll need to develop the confidence and creativity to take risks and experiment with different improvisational techniques and styles.
Fiddle players who have mastered improvisation can transform simple folk tunes into lively and engaging performances, capturing the essence of the music and captivating audiences.
Play along with folk backtracks
As you develop into an intermediate violin player, you may build the confidence and skill to start playing as part of an ensemble. But if you’re not quite ready to dive in with a live group, you can simulate the experience by playing along with folk backtracks.
This gives you the freedom to get creative and come up with your own contribution to the tune in a comfortable setting — without feeling the pressure of a real group performance (yet).
- "Ashokan Farewell”: A poignant American tune evoking a Scottish lament, widely recognized from Ken Burns' documentary series "The Civil War".
- "Drowsy Maggie”: A spirited Irish reel known for its lively tempo and infectious melody.
- "Tam Lin (The Glasgow Reel)": A fast-paced Scottish reel, rich in energy and traditional Celtic flair.
- "Valse de Wasso": A lyrical waltz rooted in the French Manouche jazz tradition, exuding both romance and nostalgia.
Get regular, real-time feedback from your teacher
Regular feedback is the best way to improve as a violin player. It’s especially important when learning a new genre like folk music, where nuances and techniques are specific to different styles and regions. Having an expert-level mentor or teacher who can provide real-time feedback, answer questions, and guide your progress is invaluable.
The Trala method leverages customized lesson plans, personalized feedback from your teacher, and interactive learning tools like the Trala app that listens to your playing and offers real-time feedback. This ensures that you’re continually improving and honing your skills, while being mindful of stylistic elements unique to folk music.
How to learn folk violin (for advanced students)
Advanced students have already acquired a vast repertoire of techniques and skills, such as improvisation, ornamentation, and dynamic control. At this stage, it’s all about refining and mastering these skills and learning to elevate your playing to a professional level by seeking further mentorship and joining folk music communities.
Use these advanced student tips to excel in playing folk violin:
Practice tackling more advanced folk pieces
It’s easy to get comfortable playing traditional folk tunes you already know. However, it’s essential to challenge yourself with more complex and technically demanding pieces to scale up your skills, such as:
- “The Mason’s Apron”: This fast reel will test your bowing speed and coordination.
- “Tam Lin (or “The Glasgow Reel”)”: This reel has some tricky passages and changes that challenge even seasoned players.
- “Devil’s Dream”: A classic American fiddle tune with intricate fingerings and bowings.
- “Reel de la Tuque Bleue”: A challenging reel with characteristic French-Canadian foot-tapping rhythms.
- “Vårvindar Friska”: This traditional Swedish tune involves fast fingerings and nuanced bowing.
Collaborate to understand ensemble dynamics
Playing folk music is often a collaborative experience, with musicians coming together to create beautiful melodies and harmonies. It’s important to understand the dynamics of playing with other musicians and how to create synergy within an ensemble.
This involves actively listening to other instruments and responding with complementary melodies or harmonies, balancing your sound with others, and adapting to the overall musical direction of the group.
Start honing your personal style
Folk violinists often have a distinct sound, style, and personality that shines through their playing. You should try to find and refine your unique folk voice, adding personal flair to traditional tunes.
Experiment with different bowing techniques, ornaments, and improvisational styles to develop your personal style. Embrace mistakes and take risks as you explore your musical identity. You’ll soon develop your own signature sound that reflects your personality and passion.
Record and share performances with others
Recording your performances is an excellent way to track your progress, identify areas for improvement, and share your music with others to receive valuable feedback.
With the rise of social media and online platforms, it’s easier than ever to connect with other folk music enthusiasts and share your performances. You can also participate in virtual open mic nights or online competitions to showcase your skills and get constructive criticism from experienced musicians and instructors.
Continuously practice and learn with your teacher
Most advanced students always feel like they have reached a peak in their playing, but folk violin is a journey of continuous learning, with new techniques and styles to explore and master at every stage. A mentor who can guide and challenge you to push your boundaries can help you take your playing to the next level.
Trala’s teachers work with students at all levels (beginner, intermediate, and advanced), meaning you can stick with the same teacher throughout your entire violin journey. This continuity allows the teacher to understand your playing style, strengths, and areas for improvement, so they can provide personalized feedback and guidance in line with your goals.
Trala’s expert teachers make it easier to learn any genre of violin
Folk violin, with its rich history and diverse sub-genres, offers endless possibilities for learning and growth. As a beginner, it’s crucial to lay a strong foundation by mastering basic techniques and familiarizing yourself with popular tunes.
Intermediate students can further hone their skills by exploring more complex pieces and collaborating with other musicians. For advanced students, it’s all about refining and mastering techniques, developing a personal style, and continuously learning with the guidance of a mentor.
With Trala’s expert teachers and resources, anyone can embark on a fulfilling journey of learning folk violin, no matter their skill level.
Dive into this dynamic genre: Sign up for your first Trala lesson today!