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Santa Clara Valley Fiddlers Association
Drawing by Hilary Cole (c)2006

Learning to Play at SCVFA

At SCVFA we encourage people to learn how to play traditional music. If you played an instrument when you were younger, give it a try again. Or if you have played other styles of music, come learn with us how to play by ear, and learn some traditional-music tunes and songs. Or if you have never played, rent or borrow an instrument, learn a few basics, and come on down. It’s never too late!

Most months we offer two groups: The Slow Jam, to help people learn how to play together in a jam group and to learn a few basic tunes, and the Tune Builder, to help intermediate players learn more tunes (more info below). One or more of our experienced members will generally lead each group, answer questions and offer various kinds of help. The leader(s) will normally be on hand for an hour or so, but it’s great when the participants continue to play together on their own.

All string-compatible acoustic instruments are welcome, so bring your fiddle, mandolin, guitar, dulcimer, bass, accordion, flute, pennywhistle or whatever, and give it a try.

Besides offering a place to play a little more slowly, we hope to help players get more comfortable playing by ear, learn to coordinate with others in an informal group, and build confidence and repertoire. Depending on interest, the leaders may also discuss ways to learn tunes, jam-group dynamics and etiquette, differences among styles, and more.

When and Where?  Both groups meet during most of our regular first-Sunday jams at Hoover Middle School. The Slow Jam group meets from 1:30 to about 2:30, and the Tune Builder group meets from about 2:00 to 3:00. Both groups meet near the regular outdoor jamming activity. The schedule may vary due to other activities at the jam, so check the Upcoming Jams / Events Page for updates — or at the jam, ask at the admission desk.

In summer we often move the July, August and sometimes September jams to the nearby Rose Garden Park, where the learning groups may not always be held. If you're interested, ask.

The Slow Jam (a.k.a. The Real Slow Jam)

Just starting out with traditional music, or haven't played in a while? Once you get down a few basics (tuning your instrument, being able to play chords or the melodies of a few tunes slowly at a steady rhythm), the Slow Jam is a good place to begin. It was started in December 2014 by Topher Heath and Claudette Earl, and has proven to be very popular.

The intent of the Slow Jam is to keep the tempo down, between 60 and 90 beats per minute (bpm) — 60 bpm being quite slow for most kinds of music, and 90 bpm being a comfortable, moderate tempo for many tunes. The tunes are played using a mix of old-time and bluegrass styles. (In old-time style everyone plays together, while in bluegrass style each musician takes a turn playing a solo melodic “break” (or one or more might sing), while the others play chordal or rhythmic “backup.”)

The Current Tune List: The set of tunes being worked on evolves gradually, and we try to print the current list in each issue of our newsletter, the Fiddler’s Rag, which is sent monthly to SCVFA members. Here's the list for June 2017, showing the title, the usual key and the date the tune was introduced:

  • Angeline the Baker / Angelina Baker (D; 9/15)
  • Arkansas Traveler (D; 4/15)
  • Girl I Left Behind Me, The (G; 1/15)
  • Jaybird (D; 11/15)
  • June Apple (A-Mixolydian*; 8/16)
  • Liberty (D; 12/14)
  • Mississippi Sawyer (D; 11/15)
  • Over the Waterfall (D; 11/15)
  • Red Haired Boy (A-Mix.*; 8/15)
  • Red Wing (G; 4/16)
  • Soldier’s Joy (D; 12/14)
  • Squirrel Hunters (A-Mix.*; 4/16)
  • St. Anne's Reel (D; 8/16)
  • Swallowtail Jig (E-Dorian*; 8/16)
  • Whiskey Before Breakfast (D; 8/16)
  • Wildwood Flower (C; 1/15)

* “Modal” tunes: A-Mixolydian: 2 sharps, mostly A & G chords; E-Dorian: also 2 sharps, mostly Em & D chords. To learn a little about modes see page 5 of our April 2014 newsletter. To learn more, see for example Pete Showman's tutorial on the circle of fifths and modes.

Finding the Tunes: Sheet music and listenable MIDI files for most of these tunes (and some others) can be found on the SCVFA Tunes Page. (Other tunes, and other arrangements of these tunes, may be found at various tune websites, including this collection of mostly old time tunes maintained by SCVFA member Pete Showman. See our Links Page for a few other tune sites.)

Tunes Formerly on the Slow-Jam List: The Slow Jam group normally plays tunes from the current list first, but Topher says any of the tunes played so far are also fair game. These include:

  • Boil Them Cabbage Down (A; 12/14-4/15)
  • Cripple Creek (A; 4/15-1/16)
  • Hot Corn, Cold Corn (G; 7/15-7/16)
  • Irish Washerwoman (G; 3/15-7/15)
  • John Henry (C; 2/15-3/15)
  • Kesh Jig, The (G; 2/15-715)
  • Little Cabin on the Hill (G; 12/14-1/15)
  • Long Journey Home (Two Dollar Bill) (G; 8/15-3/16)
  • Mountain Dew (G; 5/15-3/16)
  • Old Joe Clark (A-Mix.*; 12/14-1/16)
  • Will The Circle Be Unbroken (A; 5/15-3/16)
  • Worried Man Blues (G; 2/15-3/16)

The Tune Builder (formerly the Beginners’ Circle)

When the Slow Jam begins to seem too easy for you, give this a try. This group was originally our Beginners’ Circle slow jam, but has evolved to be aimed at expanding the repertoires of intermediate-level musicians.

The types of tunes will vary depending on who the leader is. Old Time has been common lately, and has the advantage for learning melodies that everyone plays all the time. We’ve also had bluegrass, Celtic, Scandinavian and other styles. Want to work on a particular tune? Ask!

Again, you can find some of the tunes that have been taught on our SCVFA Tunes Page, and on Pete Showman's tunes page, and elsewhere on the web. YouTube is also a great resource for hearing tunes played, sometimes slowly, sometimes not. Just search for the title of any tune you're interested in.

Volunteer to Lead a Tune Builder session

More experienced now? Pass it along. We like to have a variety of leaders for the Tune Builder session, to provide exposure to different kinds of tunes and playing techniques. If you're an experienced player and would like to help, let us know!

Special Thanks! to those who have volunteered in the past, including Jean Avram, Paul and Laura Barnett, Dave Barton, Gary Breitbard, Tom Clausen, John Heron, Norio Kawato, Sarah Kirton, Mark Llewellyn, Wes Mitchell, Jena Rauti, Pete Showman, Ann Whitesell, John Williamson and probably others.


Updated by PS 4/23/2017.

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