In high school, when everyone in my orchestra was struggling to really nail their vibrato technique, our conductor told us that the violin is in many ways an instrument for approximating the human voice. This is why we use vibrato in classical music, he said.
Yesterday, in my first fiddle lesson with a new teacher, when it was time for me to start puzzling out a new tune that I was learning by ear, she told me to listen and try to sing along the first time she played it. Singing it would give me a good understanding of the phrasing and flow I would aim for when playing the tune, she said.
There are multiple musical traditions that use phonetic singing styles to teach tunes: what comes to mind immediately is canntaireachd, a scottish singing style used to teach pipe tunes. You sing in canntaireachd to learn the tune. Vowels are for the notes of the melody, and consonants are for ornaments. This also makes me think of classical Indian music and how certain syllables correspond to specific tones.
What I’m getting at here is that the voice and the instrument have a cyclical relationship. You play the instrument to embody the voice, and you sing to embody the instrument.
The thing about canntaireachd (which translates literally to ‘chanting’, by the way, and shares its English name with the chanter) is that it is very much tailored to piping. It makes me wonder what a fiddle-focused chanting would be: vowels for melody with dipthongs as slurs, and consonants for new bows and ornaments? Could I use a specific consonant for an up-bow and another for a down-bow? What about staccato, legato? Accents and pulses? Would a flick have a different consonant cluster than a roll? What consonant would become the allophone from which the musician could pick the specific phoneme they wanted to play?
What I love even more about all of this is that in theory, you could translate a sung song to a bowed one, with the same amount of accuracy as with written music (or, really, with even more accuracy). In some ways this might be an incredibly obvious statement, especially given that Celtic music is very often learned by ear. But what I really mean is that sheet music is a language in the same way that canntaireachd is. The western system of written music was just some system that someone thought up to capture a song and maybe even pass it to someone else, potentially many years away, across any number of borders. Written music in the western classical style does not contain the entirety of potential music in it; it is not prescriptive; it is possible to play music that cannot be represented on the western staff. In the same way, it’s possible to have a thought that cannot be perfectly translated into words. I’m thinking about the experience of trying to voice a thought, failing to really get it right, and finding on a second attempt that the original thought has evaporated in the effort to contain it. In writing words down, we lose some nuance, some of the music of it.
If canntaireachd is language, then so is fiddle. Music is speech, and music theory is all math, and math is all patterns, and so is language. Playing with someone else is a conversation.
Thanks for reading, friends! See you soon.