Tips for Playing
Rebecs and vielles can be played 'de braccio' ('on the arm,' or like a violin) or 'da gamba' ('on the leg,' or like a cello). Historically speaking, it seems that when they were introduced into Europe from the Middle East in the early Middle Ages, they were played downwards. Gradually, however, they were moved up to the arm. This probably had to do with the use to which the Europeans put them- it is difficult to dance while holding vertically in front of you (see illustration). Also, it was socially improper for the low-class musician to sit in his employer's presence.
Today, these instruments can be played successfully either way. A violinist will find playing on the arm more natural, while a cellist or gambist can hold the fiddle in their lap.
The following remarks are tips for playing on the arm.
Rebec and vielle technique is similar to the modern violin, but with some changes. These changes generally involve relaxing muscles and using less control than with the violin. While it may seem awkward at first, it can become delightfully comfortable.
Rather than holding the instrument between your shoulder and chin, medieval instruments are played 'on the arm,' or down in front of the body. Hold the fiddle about in front of your left armpit. Some larger vielles are too big for this, in which case you hold them on your shoulder, but with your chin to the right of the tailpiece. Try to keep your head free and relaxed, and not grip the vielle with your chin.
Cradle the neck of the instrument in your left hand, with the neck lying in the web between your thumb and first finger. The neck should lie against your hand- this is different from modern violin technique. Most of what holds the instrument in place is the natural friction between your palm and the instrument's neck.
Hold the bow as you would a modern violin bow- with your fingers draped gently over the top of the stick, and your thumb curving into the stick from underneath. The tip of your pinky should rest lightly on top of the stick.
As you play, keep your shoulders relaxed. The advantage of playing down on the arm is that your body can work symmetrically. Both arms should hang loose — don't try to hold your bow arm up. This is another difference from modern violin technique, and the biggest trick for violinists will be to convince your muscles that they don't need to work as much.