I'm teaching a few young students the Swallowtail Jig in a fiddling group. I have mostly violins but also a viola player. I'm wondering what the best way is to teach this tune.

The trouble is that while the A section is quite simple to play on the D and A strings of the viola, the B section reaches up too high. It fits nicely on the violin's E string but not on viola. (My student is only able to play in first position). Is this arrangement (below) a good solution? I moved most of B down an octave lower and chose the end of measure 14 to jump back up to the higher octave. The goal here is to make it as simple as possible.

My proposed viola solution:

enter image description here

The original violin tune:

enter image description here

  • Why keep to the same notes? I'd be inclined to write out a simple accompaniment for viola, two notes per bar, that complements the violin part. And maybe get some fiddlers to play that too.
    – Tim
    Commented Nov 8, 2021 at 14:36
  • 1
    Not a bad idea, but in my experience the younger students do far better when they are all playing the same melody.
    – nuggethead
    Commented Nov 8, 2021 at 14:38

3 Answers 3


Yeah, this is the sort of thing that faces arrangers for beginning strings often. You've taken one option; just to spell them all out, they would include:

  • Who says it has to be E minor? You could knock it down a string to A minor and the fiddles still wouldn't go below G string. (Downside: As a fiddle tune, the E minor version is pretty well entrenched, and it just sounds different a 5th lower.)
  • Do a "harmony part" when it gets too high. Not a good option for a beginner group, since it's much easier to teach in unison so you can talk about specific pitches, not to mention holding your own on a non-unison part is its own learned skill.
  • The option you took, knock the violas down an octave when it gets high. Downsides include that suddenly you have a doubled-octave sound when you don't otherwise.
    • Sub-option that you took: jump back to the normal octave as the melody descends again. IMO, sure, you chose the most reasonable spot to do so. Another option might be to stay down until the A of the next measure.
    • Another option: Once you've dropped the octave for the "B" section, you could just stay down there until the double bar. Downside: First of all, the C# in the next-to-last bar means a raised 3rd finger, which your violist may or may not be ready for (or remember to do). Plus, repeating from the B section back to the A would then mean a jump of a 10th, crossing a couple of strings, which is a bit of a drag.

your solution is fine! When I did this same thing, I went what I consider 1 step easier in terms of teaching, and just had the violists leave out the F#.

The beginner violist doesn’t have to deal with a high 3rd finger this way, although they do need a solid 4th finger.

As a teacher, you have less to “change” for the violists so it’s easier to teach this in mixed violin/viola groups, especially if they are all learning the notes together.

viola part for swallowtail jig without the higher f-sharps


What you did, dropping down a section by an octave, is not only a perfectly usable option but actually makes for a nice contrast without adding anything that distracts from the folky simplicity. The low octave coming in makes for a slight buildup.

Where it gets a bit awkward is when you suddenly jump back in the high octave, this will sound like the low part has stopped playing again. This can be used for effect, but it's a bit risky unless you have a confident performer. At any rate I'd only do it once, so if you repeat the sections as is commonly done, I'd definitely recommend looking for an alternative in either the first or the second iteration.

What I'd suggest is to switch into an accompaniment part at the end of the second time the B-part is played, and then carry that on into the da capo. This will continue the dynamic buildup. A very simple pulsed bass part, basically just Es and Ds, would work great here on viola, though this does require that the player has good rhythm. Maybe combine it with one of the fiddles, like

%%score T1 T2 A
V:T1           clef=treble
V:T2           clef=treble
V:A            clef=alto
% 1
[V:T1] GEE   BEE  | GEE BAG | FDD   ADD  | dcd AGF    | G
[V:T2] B,2(B,z2B,)| B,3 G,3 | A,2(A,z2A,)| A,3 z A,A, | B,
[V:A]  E,2(E,z2E,)| E,3 E,3 | D,2(D,z2D,)| D,3 D,C,D, | E,

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