Welcome!

My name is Jenny, and I'm glad you're here.

I'm guessing that you found me for one of two reasons:

  • 1 ~ You enjoy the music of my band, Circa Paleo and want to know more about it.
  • 2 ~ You have a Hot Violinist within and are seeking some tips on how to do all of this yourself.

I'm mostly focusing on the instructional stuff here, but this is also a great place to hang out if you want more behind the scenes info and unreleased previews of my music projects.

If you're just here to listen and watch, that's cool, but now a few words for you fiddlers and fiddlers to be:

I'm not claiming to be an expert of the violin, but I do know a LOT about starting violin "late" since I myself began my fiddle journey at age 18. I've also learned a lot about unique world music styles over the past several years of traveling all over the place.

Now I want to share all the quirky tips and music that I've learned. In other words…

I'm here to make YOU into a Hot Violinist.

Before we go further, lets define hot, shall we? Because the hot I’m talking about reaches far beyond smokin’ fiddle riffs and gym bodies. Check out my first blog post, "The Hot Violinist Manifesto," to read about what "hot" really means to me.

Q&A – Song Choices for Beginners

Q:

I want to learn to play some songs that are cool and sound great but are simple enough for a beginner. I don’t like the songs beginner books offer —  things like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star or worse, songs I’ve never heard of! Can you recommend a good book or specific songs to look for?

– Robert K., age 51

A:

I know exactly what you mean; it is neither fun nor productive to learn songs that you’re unfamiliar with. Because of the fretless nature of violin, you really have to know what you are going for before you can try to play the notes in tune.

I have searched high and low for a replacement to Twinkle as a first violin tune. I planned to proudly stamp my teaching materials with a big circle with an X through it saying “NO Twinkle Taught here!”.

But… as I’ve gone through the options, I can’t find anything that is as beneficial or accessible as a first tune on violin as good ol’ Twinkle.

I’ve looked through beginner fiddle tune books and beginner gypsy violin books, and it’s the worst of both worlds: the tunes are completely obscure so you don’t know how they are supposed to sound AND they still don’t sound very good or fun to play. On top of all that they are also sometimes still too complex for a beginner to tackle without incorporating some bad habits along the way.

Here’s my “beginner story”: 

I had no interest in playing classical music, so I studied with an Irish fiddle teacher for the first year and learned about 30 tunes. I didn’t know how they were supposed to sound, and my technique was all over the place. I was just kind of winging it to get the tunes out to the best of my ability, but after a year they all still sounded terrible. That’s when I went on my quest for a classical teacher to help me sort out these techniques. I went through about 3 teachers over the course of that next year but it all still felt very aimless. I remember sitting on my bed thinking, “Is there just something wrong with me? Maybe my arms just aren’t attached right to play violin…” 

Then I found a new teacher who started me on the Suzuki method. At that point I was so desperate to play a single thing with good tone that I didn’t care if it was Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. After about four months of going through the simple initial steps of the Suzuki method, I was able to go back to some of those Irish fiddle tunes I knew and play them well. After a year and a half of combining Suzuki method with my interest in world fiddle music, I had a few very simple Irish fiddle tunes under my belt that I could play for an audience and people would actually enjoy listening and maybe even dance. At the five year mark I was jamming many styles of world music, but I don’t think I would have gotten there without the Suzuki method.

Part of the process of learning violin is developing muscle memory for particular movements: bowing, left hand intonation, certain string crossing patterns, etc… This muscle memory has to be in place before you can put it all together to play nice tunes. If you try to go the other way around, it just makes the whole process take longer and many people quit before they get there because it feels convoluted and frustrating. It’s different from guitar or piano where you really can learn great sounding tunes right off the bat just by hitting certain keys or using a certain pattern of frets and strings.

I think the Suzuki method is the BEST for training your body to do those basic techniques. Each piece only introduces one or two new techniques while most tunes that actually sound good combine many techniques. Many of the pieces are recognizable melodies, and it comes with a CD so that you can listen to all the pieces and get them in your head. (I know… yawn….) But it works! And it doesn’t take forever. After about 6 months of going through the methodical process of the well designed method, you would be opened up to playing a wide variety of good sounding fiddle tunes.

I’ve dreamed about creating my own beginner method using simplifications of the cool fiddle tunes I know. Once I started looking closely at the tunes to see what techniques they require, and tried to analyze the sequence in the Suzuki method books, it gave me a much deeper appreciation for how genius Suzuki was. Even if it was possible to create a beginner book just as beneficial only with hipper tunes, I’m frankly not sure I’d have the patience! I’m pretty patient generally, but not like him! This method was his life work:

I have just ordered a new book in the hopes of finding something good: Mark O’Connors Beginner Fiddle Method. I will let you know what I think of it.

All that being said, here is a well organized website with a few beginner violin tunes (including audio so you can hear them): http://www.fiddlestudio.com/search/label/Beginning%20Tunes

Be warned, though: the offerings on this site have many of the common problems I talked about above. The first tune is legitimately a beginner level piece and it doesn’t really sound like much more than a bowing exercise. The second piece sounds very nice, but is a HUGE jump in difficulty level.

Good luck and keep me posted!

How To Amplify The Violin

Last September I was performing at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Festival and someone asked me, “How do you amplify your violin to get such a natural sound?”

I get that question a lot online, but this time, I had everything set up in position to shoot a quick video showing you exactly what I use.  It’s actually quite a simple set-up.

The video explains how everything works together, and you can also follow links to the exact equipment I use along with some alternative options depending on your situation.

It all begins with the pick-up on my violin which is the Baggs Bridge made by LR Baggs:

LR Baggs 4/4 V10 Transducer Mounted Bridge With Side Mount Jack Vwws

It’s a transducer style pickup that is embedded in the wood of a high quality violin bridge with a side mounted 1/4 inch jack, also known as a carpenter jack.  This all needs to be installed by an experienced violin luthier, because the bridge will replace your old bridge and needs to be custom carved to fit your violin.

The Baggs Bridge has no on-board pre-amp so you’ll need a piece of gear to boost the signal a bit before going to your PA mixing board.  I explain two options here:

Option 1 (which I use when playing at outdoor festivals)
A wireless transmitter which boosts the signal and sends it magically through the air to the corresponding receiver:

Audio-Technica AEW-4315aC Wireless Dynamic Handheld Microphone System – Band C (541.500 – 566.375 MHz)

For some reason on Amazon it is only available with the additional hand held mic.  Unless having the mic as another option looks like fun, I recommend getting a better price for just the Audio-Technica 4000 Unipak transmitter and receiver by calling these guys: http://www.northernsound.net/

And this is the unique cable that will plug into your violin and into the unique jack on the Audio-Technica transmitter pack:

Audio-Technica Guitar Input Cable for Wireless Systems

Option 2
Staying with an entirely cabled system.  If you don’t really need to hide cables (as in a Renaissance Faire setting), you can save a lot of money and get a slightly better sound this way.  When I’m playing indoors on a small stage and don’t plan to run out into the audience and dance on tables while playing, I use a 1/4 inch instrument cable like this:

Rapco Horizon SEGL-10 StageMASTER 10-Feet Instrument 1/4-Inch Straight Connector to Right Angle 1/4-Inch Connector Low Noise Shielded Cable

I like having the “right angle” connector to plug into my violin because it’s less visible and hugs the side of the violin instead of sticking straight out of the violin under my left ear.

Then simply plug the other end into a DI box or preamp.  I use this one, also made by Baggs:

LR Baggs Para Acoustic D.I.

Whether you send your signal to a wireless receiver, or plug right into a DI box, you will use an XLR cable to take the signal to the mixing board or amp:

Rapco Horizon SMM-15 Club Series Microphone Cable 15-Feet

This covers everything to get you from violin to the board.  If you’re putting together an entire PA system, and are curious about the rest of the PA gear that I use with my band Circa Paleo, here ya go.

We use this board:

Allen & Heath AH-ZED-22FX 22-Channel Mixer with USB Interface and Onboard EFX

JBL powered front speakers:

JBL EON 515XT Lightweight 2 Way 15″ 625W Self Powered Speaker (Each)

And a sub woofer for the drums and bass:

JBL EON 518S Portable 18-inch 500-Watt Self-Powered Subwoofer

For new players, I hope this helps you to get out there and start performing!

If you already amplify your violin, please let us know your fave gear in the comments below.

3 Ways to Deal with Nerves While Playing Violin in Front of People

I’ve been performing on tour with Circa Paleo for 20 weeks now, and have gotten waaay behind on answering emails and messages. I just got a Facebook message today with a juicy question that made me really miss interacting with all you fiddlers out there- it’s been so long that I’ve been on tour I can’t wait to get back to making videos!

Here’s the question from Michael Cannain that I can totally relate to:

“Hi Jenny. I have a question. What kind of advice do you have for those of us who play, but get nervous in front of crowds? Nervous up to and including shaking..sounds horrible on a violin…just wondering.”

And here’s what I said:

Dear Michael,

This is a great question!

I used to get nervous and shake as well. I know- it makes it completely impossible to play the dang thing.

There are a few personal tricks and warm ups that I could demonstrate better in a video. I will add this to my list of videos to make in the new year. But for now, I still wanted to share the three most basic helpful tips for managing nerves while playing in front of people:

1) Be Prepared.

It helps if you have practiced the tune a LOT on your own time. Try this confidence building exercise:

Give yourself a challenge to play the piece or sections of the piece 10 times in a row with no mistakes. If you make a mistake, play only that section 10 times in a row. Once you have the section down consistently, then go back to playing the whole piece. Once you’ve achieved the 10 times all the way through with no mistakes, celebrate and take a break.

2) Keep doing it!

Playing in front of people is a separate skill that has to be practiced. It’s sometimes difficult being a capable adult to accept that other people will watch us learn, or in other words… see us while we still suck at something.

Seek out every opportunity to play in front of people even though it’s scary. Start with one or two of your best most prepared tunes. Play for an individual friend, or small groups of family- just anyone you can get to listen. Tell them that playing in front of people makes you nervous, but that you are trying to overcome it. When you are ready you can step it up to playing for strangers. Many hospitals and nursing homes have programs for volunteer musicians, and you will find very appreciative small audiences.

3) Breathe

Holding your breath is a common unconscious reaction to playing in front of people, and it makes things infinitely worse. If you can remember to breath, you might find that helps your body stay more relaxed. Thinking about breathing also gives you something to distract you from the fact that there are people watching you. Try practicing at home with designated spots to breathe in rhythm with the tune.

And stay tuned on youtube, because I will be very interested to answer this in more depth when I get back to making videos next year.

Keep playing!
Jenny

If anyone else has a tip for Michael, or experience with getting over nerves, please leave your ideas in the comments section below!

How to find time to practice as an adult in a hectic world!

I could totally relate to this question sent in by Rodrigo in Mexico city:

“I’m 32 years old, and I am very busy most of my day. I have a sales franchise and work in a consulting firm here in Mexico and most of my day is spent on my work. However I’m very enthusiastic about learning to play the violin. Could you please give me some advice on how I can learn despite my hectic schedule?
-Rodrigo”

It can feel damned near impossible to find time to practice as a busy adult, and I believe this is one of the top reasons that adults think they can not learn. Some slight adjustments to how we think about practice can go a long way in violin progress!

1) You can progress on the violin with a very SMALL amount of practice each day. As a beginner, focus on frequency rather than duration. In other words, it is much better to practice for five minutes a day, than to have longer less frequent practices. Five minutes a day IS enough to progress through the first stages. Five minutes twice a day is even better. Most of the actual progress and learning happens in between practice sessions when your subconscious mind can chew on what you’ve done.

Try to create a habit of practicing for five minutes just before your lunch break, and again before you end work for the day. By lumping your practice time together with your work day, it may feel less like you are sacrificing precious down time. And you can use the momentum and focus of your work day to assist your violin playing. This can be easier than trying to get focused back on the violin after beginning your evening relaxation.

2) Take lessons via video Skype for 30 minutes once a week. This is a big one. The violin has many technique tricks that are hard to figure out on your own, but very easy if you have someone show you. A good teacher can keep you on track and help to avoid frustration and bad habits. By using the video Skype, you can cut out the time of traveling back and forth to lessons. Having a weekly check point gives your practice sessions focus throughout the week. If you have a great practice week you have someone to show off for at the end of the week, and if you have a busy week and can’t practice at all, you can have a chance to refocus and recommit yourself for the next week.

It is a big motivator to have put some money on the line. By paying for lessons you can make a clear statement to yourself that says, “this is important to me!” I’m amazed once I’ve paid for lessons, I will step up to get what I’ve paid for and put in the practice time. My Skype teacher is Corrin Evans and I highly recommend her: www.rosincloudschool.com.

3) Keep your violin outside of the case. Use a violin stand or shelf to display your violin so that it’s easy to pick it up without having to go through the whole process of unzipping the case. This saves time and keeps the violin on your mind. Try keeping it at the office so you can pick it up to practice before leaving, or put it in a prominent area so that it’s the first thing you see when you get home.

4) Practice your bow hold with all sorts of objects. Learning a comfortable bow hold is the first and most important thing to learn. To practice this you don’t even need to hold the violin or bow. You can learn to have a comfortable and relaxed bow hold by taking 20 seconds to stop work, think about your right hand, and try a simple relaxed bow hold with your pen or pencil.

If you can remember to this a few times each day you will exercise the “bow hold creation passages” in your brain much more effectively than by beating yourself up for 30 minutes straight some evening in an official practice session. When I was first beginning I would think of the bow hold very often and try it on all sorts of objects including my steering wheel when stuck in traffic.

Does anyone else have time saving tips for busy adults? Has anyone tried these? Do they work? Please let me know in the comments section below!

Happy brief and frequent practicing, everyone.

Love,
Jenny

Hot Beginner Tip #1: How to Hold the Bow

The bow hold can vary and still be “good” just depending on the style, but here is a basic starting point that is good for any style of music. Please let me know if it makes sense or not and send along any questions that come up when you try it. If you don’t have a violin or a bow, you can use a pencil just to see how awesome you are at this.

Original “Hot Violinist” Video Reposted

My heart skipped a beat when I heard that “The Hot Violinist” which features the full length performance of The Kiss and just passed 900,000 views was removed from YouTube. But now it’s back! It was a little sad to see it go (so close to a million!), but I can’t complain because Contragear, the original poster, has been so super supportive of me! Apparently he wanted to clean up the ending of the video so here it is in it’s new and improved form:

I’m glad it’s back, because without the reference of the original popular YouTube video I appear to be a crazy girl seemingly going around calling myself Hot all the time! Please share this video with your friends if you feel inclined to help me rebuild the groovy momentum that the original video had going for it. Thanks guys!

How to Play Last of The Mohicans Theme!

Attention fiddlers! This will get you started on the ornamentation needed to play this tune:

I will soon be posting the follow up Parts 2-4 as well as some beginner tips, so hop on over to the YouTube channel to subscribe if you don’t wanna miss one. If you still need the sheet music, just click that green link in the sidebar to sign up for the FREE sheet music.

Soon we will have a worldwide orchestra playing this tune~ Muah-hahaha!

Oh! If you get a chance to try this technique, please leave me a comment and let us all know how it’s going for you.

How to let music flow through you

Jordi Wave, thank you for the kind and thoughtful comment:

“From inside, this is the secret
It is clear that the music flows in you.”

I wanted to respond because I feel like I am on to a little secret of how to connect with music in a way that will help listeners to respond emotionally.  I actually didn’t realize what I was doing until a recent experience in an acting class in which the topic was “Inner Imagery.”  Actors use this technique to help performances be honest and real by holding specific mental images.

So, here’s the secret: When I play these songs, I think about stories and moments in my life and others that I’ve heard or could imagine.

An Armenian Harvest Dance, for example, could inspire me with the image of a tribal woman from 100 years ago working to prepare grain just brought in from the field.  I imagine a pain in her back and the colors and smells of spices on her shelf. Or maybe I would think of a personal experience that goes with the feel of the song.  No one in the audience has to know what you’re thinking.  It creates a circle where the thoughts make the notes come out a bit differently, and the notes coming out in rhythm conjure new emotions or thoughts.

The most fun is to look out into the audience, and see a facial expression that reminds me of something I’ve felt before.  So then I focus on that experience. 

This way of responding to the audience personally feeds the moment and makes the performance feel fresh and different each time.  And helps immensely with nerves and stage fright.

I’ve played that Last of the Mohicans song literally thousands of times, and without this technique I’d probably have gone crazy. Do you guys do this when you play? Anyone care to share a song that brings up images for you?

Original Tune in a Gypsy Scale

I wanted to share some music from our recent performances in Ohio:

This is an original tune, written by me and Mark Varelas, in a Gypsy style. We used an exotic scale that was introduced to me as the Greek Hitzaz scale.  Here are the notes of the scale in A:

A, Bb, C#, D, E, F, G, A

The G can also be sharped while improvising, which sounds especially good while going up the scale.

Sorry the camera is kinda shakey.  I handed my flip cam to a fan in the crowd who couldn’t seem to stop dancing.  Next time I’ll pick someone who seems to like the music less ;-)

The inspiration to yell “hela!”  came from a very old recording I heard that sounded like it was in an actual hash den in Turkey.  You could hear the background noise of the room. There was a sparse instrumental intro but when the singer yells “hela” a cacophony symphony of flutes, drums, plucked strings and violins comes in.  The next time I heard that word was it was being shouted in the distance of a Ren Faire campground.  I followed it to investigate and found the whole crew of the Greek gyro booth trying to push a truck out of the mud.

I’ve since been told that it means “come on!” or “bring it!”

Would you guys like sheet music for this?  If I have enough interest I will write it out.