Today, we’ll look at a well-known three-part Donegal tune, The Boys of Malin:  I’ll show you how to make this tune come to life on the fiddle with effective bowing.  Firstly, here’s the basic version of the tune as you might find it in a collection or online:

This is the usual way to write reels, although the straight quavers don’t necessarily convey the right rhythm.  It’s certainly the easiest way to read the music, which is a good thing.  But it’s good to be aware that some players might play the tune very straight like this, while others will add a swing to the rhythm.  What this means is that, if you take each pair of quavers, the first will be slightly longer, and the second slightly shorter.  This technique gives the music a real swing with an infectious foot-tapping quality.  It’s used in a more pronounced way with hornpipes.

Playing this version exactly as written, though, would sound rather wooden.  In order to make it come alive and make people want to tap their feet, some changes will need to be made.  The first priority when approaching a tune like this is to sort out the bowing so that the tune will flow.  Ornaments are of secondary importance and can come later.

Below is the same tune with bowings added:

What I’ve done here is add some slurs, of which there are three types

  1. Up-bow slurs that last for 1 and a half beats that go across a barline.
  2. Up-bow slurs that also last for 1 and a half beats, but that go across the middle of a bar.
  3. Down-bow slurs that go from the last note of a triplet into the next note

With reels, the aim will be to put the emphasis mainly on the 2nd and 4th beats of the bar and these slurs will do that for you.

When you play 3 slurred notes in an up-bow you have to move the bow slower (or you’ll run out of bow!).  Moving slower makes for a quieter sound.  Then, after the long up-bow, you need to do a fast down-bow to compensate for the amount of bow used in the slur.  Moving faster makes it louder.

There’s no need to press harder with the bow to play louder – just moving faster will do the trick.

So, with the slurs where they are, the louder down-bow that follows will occur on either

  • the 2nd beat of the bar (with across-the-barline slurs) or
  • 4th beat of the bar (with across-the-middle-of-the-bar slurs).

It would be too repetitive to use slurs like this at every opportunity – the mixture of slurs and separately bowed runs of notes works best.

See more on reels for fiddle players here