Playing fast: Bob Holt’s “Tomahawk” & the 2-point bow hold
So I admit, I got a little bit carried away with the post below. It’s about how to play fast for dances, and in the process of writing it I made a discovery that really helped me play up to dance speed in a more relaxed way. But it was so exciting I couldn’t stop writing about it!
In the video, I use Bob Holt’s “Tomahawk” as an example. It’s a fun, simple tune, and a great one for practicing playing fast, or for learning to play in standard-tuned A, if you’re more used to playing in cross-A. I don’t have a public-domain recording of the source I used, so I’ll link you to the preview on amazon and encourage you to buy the track or, better, the whole album. The video starts with me and my wife Martha playing the tune through twice fast, with the Missouri turnaround chord progression, then I demonstrate the two-point bow hold and play it through once slowly, stopping for a few pointers. Enjoy! And read on if you want to know more, and you have some time on your hands… 🙂
Playing fast for dances
I haven’t been playing much fiddle in the last few months, but a couple of weeks ago I realized I had a couple of gigs coming up and needed to get my playing up to dance speed. Experienced fiddlers out there probably know that feeling of finding yourself onstage, getting the nod from the caller, kicking off the first tune, and then suddenly realizing, “oh, crap–I haven’t played fast for months!” I hate that: for me it usually means at least a half-hour of pain and slightly lame playing before everything settles into place again. Or, even worse, a “speed it up” sign from the caller! Oh, the shame.
I never play at dance speed when I’m noodling around at home, so I can easily get lulled into feeling like my chops are in decent shape. It’s easy to forget just how physically challenging it can be to play at a nice crisp 120 bpm or more, especially with those notey midwestern tunes I’ve been using for dances lately.
This subject also came up for me because the dance I help organize in Portland, the Every Sunday Square Dance, recently had as its band my friends Maggie, Patrick, and Sophie, plus a big group of students from their wildly popular string band class. I kind of envied those folks, because I remember how exciting it was to play my first dance. But I also knew they were in for a shock: playing at dance speed for ten minutes or so is really hard work.
Bob Holt: fastest bow in the midwest
This all got me thinking about how we learn to play fast, how I do it and might do it better, and also about who my models were. And that led me back inevitably to Bob Holt. I first heard him when he was teaching at the Festival of American Fiddletunes. I wasn’t obsessed with Missouri fiddling yet at that time, but he still made a big impression on me. For anyone not familiar with him, he was a dairy farmer from Missouri, born in 1930, died in 2004 (here’s a great bio) and is considered by many to be one of the very best modern dance fiddlers, known for his speed and the economy of motion.
I remember Bob’s deep smoker’s voice, his mischievous humor, and his love of the fiddle. He came across sometimes as just as big a fiddle geek as all of us students. And, am I making this up, or did he carry around a recorder and tape tunes the same way we all did, back in the days of cassettes? I’m pretty sure he did, and that’s very unusual among the faculty at Fiddletunes. At any rate, I know he had no qualms about learning from records and from younger people, and he was always on the lookout for a good tune. As a teacher myself, I’ve always felt the best teachers are always the ones who are also still students.
The other thing I remember was that he loved playing with the many fantastic 5-string banjo players at Fiddletunes. They were apparently rare where he lived; tenor banjo was more common. I heard that he made an offer—I’m not sure how serious—that if any good banjo player wanted to move to Missouri, he would give him or her an acre of dairy land, or something like that. Maybe some of you were there and can expand on or correct this story in the Comments section.
Ever since that Fiddletunes, as I’ve worked on refining my bowing over the years, I’ve always had the image of Bob’s bow arm in the back of my mind. Like a lot of amazing human feats, the magic of it was that it looked like he wasn’t doing anything. You could hear the blazing fast shuffle rhythm, but the individual bow movements were almost imperceptible. It was economical and artful, honed by years of playing for people who danced economically and artfully too. And fast! The video below has a minute or so of him playing at a medium tempo, filmed at an angle where you can see his bow hold. I’ve cued to just before he starts playing (from Charlie Walden’s youtube channel, used with permission.)
“Tomahawk,” a simple fast dance tune
In the last few weeks I’ve been listening to Bob’s great record on Rounder, Got a Little Home to Go To—which, if you don’t have, is a must: it really captures the excitement of a live Missouri square dance—and watching all the videos of him I can get my hands on. For practice, I’ve been using his dead-simple tune, “Tomahawk,” so that I can concentrate on speed and not worry about notes too much. It struck me as a good tune for someone who might be gearing up to play their first dance. But it’s also a good one for veteran players to have in their back pocket, for those times when you find yourself on the bandstand, totally out of practice, just like a bad dream. You can’t help but play this tune fast, so if you start the dance with it, maybe you’ll loosen up, and everything else will fall into place. Or I sometimes save it for towards the end when I want to crank things up a notch.
Bob’s version of the tune is stripped-down and workmanlike. There are lovely fancier ones out there by Ward Jarvis (on this Slippery Hill page, #273) and by the ever-generous Charlie Walden, who encouraged me to pass these resources on to you:
- Free audio download of Charlie teaching the tune at the North Shore Fiddle Workshop.
- His sheet music page with a version of the tune.
- [Added 12/31/15: A youtube playlist with videos of Charlie teaching the tune in detail, and of both Bob and Charlie playing the tune up to speed.]
Bob Holt’s bowing
Here are some things about Bob’s bowing that I remember and/or see in the videos, and that maybe you can use. I don’t do all of them, but the last one, the two-point bow grip, has made everything I’ve been working on in the last couple of years come together.
- Very short bow strokes using the middle of the bow. If it’s more at the tip end, you have to move your arm a lot more to rock or change strings. Plus, you have to press a lot harder. With short strokes, you sacrifice one way of creating volume (those big long strokes that classical players use), but if you use the two-point grip, you can compensate for the lack of volume by applying pressure. The trick is to do that in a sustainable way, so you’re not pressing too hard and wearing out your arm.
- Fiddle held sideways so the bow moves almost straight up and down. There’s less effort spent in raising the bow arm.
- Bow held with the thumb on the stick, not the frog (as I and lots of Missouri fiddlers do). Again, there’s less motion this way when you change strings.
- No fancy bowing, just straight shuffle with a few variations. When I first started using Bob Walters tunes for dances I wanted to do justice to them, and so I’d try to put in all of the ornaments, slurs, and bow shakes. That’s insane. There’s no time. The dancers don’t care. They want a rhythmic groove, and that’s what shuffle bowing does. And as I’ve mentioned before in this blog, the shuffle is really more like an ornament: just a little shake at the end of each stroke. It’s not really an 8th note plus two 16th notes. I’m not saying you should always play this way, but when you’re playing fast for a dance, it just works.
BOW HELD ONLY AT TWO POINTS: near the base or first joint of the first finger, and the thumb. And while pictures rarely show this, I would guess that, viewed from behind, the two points are as far apart as possible. None of the other fingers are used: his middle finger floats, his third is just along for the ride, and in the picture to the right it’s actually behind the bow. His pinky is completely off the bow. (The picture is clipped and enlarged from one near the end of this great article, “Old-Time Fiddling,” featuring Bob Holt, from Bittersweet.)
Even more on the two-point bow grip or the “old-man fiddle claw”
I’m so excited about that last point that I just have to say a little more about it. In the past I’ve jokingly referred to this kind of grip as the “the old man fiddle claw,” since it’s so common among all kinds of traditional fiddlers. Strangely, though, you hardly ever see younger fiddlers doing it: even if they’re doing two points (rather than the more proper three), their bows aren’t high up on the index finger, and that’s the thing that makes it work. I think most of us, especially if we’ve had any violin training, are just not willing to go there. At first it feels very, very wrong. But, at least for me, there was a huge “a-ha!” moment when it clicked. I demonstrate the hold in the video and in the pictures below.
After using the two-point grip, high on the index finger, for about a week and for one square dance, I’m becoming convinced it’s a sort of golden key to old-time fiddle playing. My tunes are all coming together and ripping along nice and fast with hardly any effort. Of course that’s also because I’ve been doing something else in the last week I hardly ever do, namely practicing. But the grip is a huge part of it.
The genius of the two-point grip is that it’s so specialized. You can’t play Paganini with it, but it’s perfectly suited for what you need to do in old-time fiddle, especially playing for dances: keeping the bow on the strings and applying pressure automatically without wearing yourself out. It does that really well and sacrifices all the other things you might need for other kinds of music—control, articulation, dynamics, variation in bow speed and attack, etc.
It’s worth trying. Even if you don’t completely switch, it’s good to have some options. Here’s what it looks like from behind, both with the thumb on the stick the way I think Bob did it, and with it on the frog, the way I do it. It’s hard to see, but none of my other fingers are touching, just the thumb and the index.
How to practice playing fast
Here are a few more ideas, based on things I’ve been doing as I practice at home to get my playing back up to speed. I can think of many great dance fiddlers, though, who probably don’t do anything on either of these lists. This is just what works for me. They’re not rules.
- Use a mute. I do kind of hate the way they sound, but the fact is I find it really unnatural to play super-fast by myself around the house. It just seems so loud and frantic. So unless I have a mute on, or I really feel like making a racket, I tend not to do it. I just lapse into my usual lopey tempo. The mute helps me let go. I’ve been liking the Tourte mute lately.
- Use a metronome or a metronome app sometimes. I know, it’s not very old-timey, but it sure helps keep you honest. And the metronome works so much better when your fiddle is muted, so you can hear the beat easily. Start slower, work your way up.
- When you get to the speed you want (shoot for at least 120), practice counting off without the metronome, with “and,” like this: “one and two and three and four.” Something about putting the “and” in really helps. For me, I know the tempo is about right if I can pronounce the “and” clearly but with no spaces around it: “oneandtwoandthreeandfourand.” The tempo is on the fast side—maybe 130 or so—if I can almost not fit in the “and” and still pronounce it clearly. Lately when I listen to bands at dances I’ll sometimes count along with them to kind of calibrate myself. If the band sounds too slow, I’ll be able to say the “and” very easily, and there will be space around it.
- When you start a tune, try counting off quietly to yourself (“one and two and…”), before you do the four taters to count the band in—maybe as the caller is getting to the end of the teaching. It’s funny, I’ve played hundreds of dances, and I can get in the ballpark of a good dance tempo without doing this, but now that I’m using a whole new style and a challenging new repertoire—mostly Bob Walters tunes—I’ve noticed I have a tendency to start too slow. So I came up with this method in order to counteract that.
- Or here’s another way of thinking about it, from my fiddle pal Amy: “hear the tune at the tempo that you want it to be at, either in your head or by humming. Tap along with your foot. Keep tapping your foot, play potatoes, and start the tune.”
- Finally, there’s no substitute for practicing by playing fast with live humans, obviously. 🙂
There’s a lot more that goes into playing for dances, but I wanted to keep this focused just on how to play fast. Here’s Charlie Walden’s excellent recent blog post, How to Play for a Square Dance, and a video, below, of Bob Holt talking about the same subject (again, from Charlie Walden). For Bob, it was about the rhythm and the “drive.” He says, and I agree, that you have to play the rhythm of the dance, and you can only do that with short bow strokes, no long bowing. He ought to know, he was the master.