Fiddle workshop
with Jerry Holland,
Celtic Colours 2001
at the Gaelic College,
St. Ann's, Cape Breton, NS
(13 October 2001)

No one was at their best by the time the fiddle workshop began on the final day of the Celtic Colours series. It was 1 p.m. Saturday, and many of those present had been worn down by a week of intensive music festivities that, in some cases, last 'til dawn.

"There's too much daylight to be playing," Jerry Holland, a master Cape Breton fiddler, told those gathered around him. It's safe to assume, based on the yawns all around, that most of the group agreed. That didn't stop Holland from spending the next two hours teaching the class how to play two of his recent compositions.

There was no sheet music for this exercise; Holland played the tunes through at speed before slowing the pace and taking each tune phrase by phrase, repeating each passage until everyone in the class had it down. "Quite a lot to learn in one blast, eh?" he joked.

Holland discouraged students from relying too much on written music, which he said should be used only as a reference for the melody. "It's quite wonderful to be able to read music, but if you get paper-dependent, you lose a lot and you can't give the music its due," Holland said.

Dynamics, ornaments and other embellishments are "a personal kind of thing," he said. "The next fiddler who plays a tune may have a different concept of it. That's what makes it his."

He reminded students that Cape Breton music is closely tied to dancing, and it should be played accordingly. "You want to portray confidence in your playing. ... You want to encourage your listener to tap his feet."

He also suggested saving most of the embellishments until the second time through the tune. "You want to let people know it's a coloration and not just sloppy playing," he explained.

Some students were able to reproduce the tunes fairly quickly. Others needed numerous attempts to get the notes right and never achieved a Holland-like sound. The instructor encouraged everyone to have patience when they practice. "If you're really having a struggle with a portion of a tune, whether it's a note or a phrasing, the best thing to do is take a 10-minute walk or make a cup of tea. ... Nine times out of ten, you'll get it the first time when you come back."

Never rehearse lazily or haphazardly, he added. "Play your best every time you pick up your instrument. You never know who's listening," Holland said. Also, he said, it's possible to miss mistakes made during a half-hearted rehearsal that might stand out during a more aggressive performance. "Dig into it," he said. "Don't be afraid to squawk it right out there."

A few hours with Jerry Holland didn't turn anyone into the next great Cape Breton fiddler. For the few experts in the room, the session served primarily to introduce them to a pair of new tunes. The rest of us came away with a better understanding of how Cape Breton fiddlers, and Jerry Holland in particular, approach the craft. That insight should serve us well in later endeavors and inspire us to better things in the future.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 30 December 2001