Corrections or additions?
This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the May 23, 2001
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Natalie MacMaster: Dance to the Fiddle Music
Listen to fiddler Natalie MacMaster’s CD "My Roots
are Showing" and what you get is energy in the form of hard-driven
reels and hornpipes. With both abandon and authority, MacMaster plays
traditional Celtic tunes. Her music invites movement. It is hard to
remain motionless while this music plays.
Listen, however, to Natalie MacMaster talk about her art and you meet
a casual person who seems to have floated into her career. Striving
seems not to be part of her equipment. As she tells it, when you grow
up on Cape Breton Island in a family with roots in the area, playing
the fiddle is about as natural as breathing.
MacMaster and Grammy-award winning fiddler Mark O’Connor hold what
McCarter Theater bills as a "Fiddle Summit" on Thursday, May
24, at 8 p.m. Interviewed by telephone during some loose time that
MacMaster has on her hands because the bus transporting her and her
band to engagements in California has broken down, she describes the
McCarter program. "Mark plays the first half of the show,"
she says. "I play fiddle with my band in the second half. Then
the two of us play with my band." MacMaster’s band consists of
piano, guitar, drums, bass, and percussion. It slips out later that
MacMaster step dances while she fiddles. Her first priority in
however, is what she does above the knees.
MacMaster explicitly distinguishes between fiddling and playing
"It’s like night and day," she says, comparing how she
her folk dance music and how classical violinists approach their
music," she says, " is regimented. It’s taught. It’s more
technical. There’s a focus on emotion. Violinists spend many years
learning to do things correctly. Of course, whether it’s Celtic or
classical, there’s a correct way to hold the instrument. But fiddle
styles are not as strict as violin styles. We don’t do a lot of things
that classical players do. They know how to drive the instrument.
They have total control. It’s like being at the wheel. They can
any way they want because they have spent many years learning."
All of MacMaster’s apparent respect for the prowess of classical
is based on faith. "I have no classical experience," she says.
Now 29, MacMaster was born on Cape Breton Island, which makes up the
north eastern tip of Nova Scotia. Cape Breton Island was settled by
Europeans in 1521. It is now the heart of Scottish traditions in
MacMaster’s mother Minnie performed as a step dancer; grandmother
Maggie Ann Cameron sang to her brothers’ harmonica playing. Her great
grandparents fiddled. Her uncle Buddy MacMaster has an international
reputation as a Cape Breton fiddler, and appears with Natalie on the
CD "My Roots are Showing." When Natalie was a child her grand
uncle Charlie MacMaster in Boston, eyed the younger generation looking
for a suitable recipient for his three-quarter-size instrument. He
ended up giving it to Natalie. "It was inevitable that I should
play," MacMaster says.
"I’m a firm believer in how the environment influences music,"
she says. "People say that violin is the hardest instrument. But
for me saxophone would have been harder. I grew up surrounded by
It’s not really the hardest instrument when you grow up like I
She grew up in Troy, Cape Breton Island, population about 500.
population is the same now as it was then. People drive to other
to work. There’s no work in Troy."
MacMaster’s father, now retired, worked for 35 years at the
pulp and paper plant of Stora Forest Industries, a Swedish company,
in Port Hawkesbury. Her mother worked for about 11 years at Sears.
She quit when Natalie was in her last year of high school. She now
runs her daughter’s fan club and its E-mail center. Natalie’s website,
nataliemacmaster.com, includes excellent photo coverage.
The homepage shows Natalie, an attractive young woman with long blonde
ringlets and blue eyes. She looks upward with a glance that is at
the same time earnest, dreamy, and determined. In addition the site
contains a particularly thorough collection of articles about the
fiddler, who plays more than 100 concerts a year. Particularly
was the press coverage from Hawaii, where journalists readily latched
onto a shared background of island living.
Natalie has two older brothers. Kevin, the eldest, she says, plays
fiddle for himself. David, her younger brother, "doesn’t play
anything except for hockey," she adds. "They have musical
genes, but they didn’t have the desire for it like I did. My mom has
lots of tapes from when we were kids. My brothers were very musical
and they would sing."
Natalie grew up singing Gaelic songs, she says. "The house had
a radio and we heard not only fiddle music, but many records of
After receiving the three-quarter-size fiddle from her grand uncle
at age nine, she devoted herself to the instrument. "I chose to
play. It was my decision. The fiddle is part of me."
Six months after receiving the instrument, Natalie played her first
concert for an audience of 250. She was comfortable performing. Her
formal fiddle study consisted of three years with Stan Chapman.
was one of those rare players who could play a tune from the first
time she picked up the fiddle," he told Kim Pittaway of the
magazine Chatelaine. In her middle teens she began recording, acting
as her own producer.
Music and teacher-training competed for Natalie’s attention, and she
left college three credits before finishing work for an education
degree; her performing schedule had become too demanding. Unwilling
to leave her studies incomplete, she earned a degree at age 25 by
completing her requirements through correspondence courses. An
CD-ROM and an instructional video, "A Fiddle Lesson," display
her teaching talents. In addition she takes part annually in the
fiddle camp of Mark O’Connor, her Princeton collaborator.
Despite her substantial swathe of teaching, MacMaster’s
main interest is performing the traditional music of Cape Breton
and recording it on CD for Rounder Records, based in Cambridge,
"Most of what I play is traditional Scottish music," she says.
"Some of the music is newly-composed by Cape Breton composers
in the last 50 years. They write in a traditional Scottish style.
I know some of the composers. Cape Breton is a small, close-knit
It’s not that big a deal to know composers. I’ve grown up with these
The music MacMaster plays avoids improvisation. "The less
the better, with the Cape Breton style," she told Don Heckman
of the Los Angeles Times. "It’s considered very respectful of
the music and the tradition to play the tunes the way they were
But you can hear the same tune over and over again by 10 or 20
fiddlers . . . and any Cape Bretoner can pick out each of the
fiddlers from their sound."
MacMaster prefers a French violin by Marc LeBert for performance.
"It produces a beautiful, rich, even tone. It’s a very sweet
I have five fiddles and this sounds the best of them all." She
uses amplification in her performances.
The hardest thing about playing fiddle, says MacMaster, is keeping
up with practicing. "I’m a procrastinator. I’ve always been. I’m
always torn between wanting to watch TV and practicing. But practicing
is important for keeping up with what I have and learning new
A typical practice session for MacMaster begins with playing familiar
tunes. "I put on a tape from home," she says, "and play
along. I have old cassettes from the 1950s on. I get warmed up and
in the mood for about a half hour. Then I try to learn new tunes.
I use old Scottish books. They contain notation for the melodic line.
I can read music. I just don’t use notation that often." Instead,
MacMaster relies on her instincts.
"I just look at the notation," she says. "I don’t even
notice the grace notes. They go in automatically and so do the double
stops, which are optional. I work from the melody line. I found when
I was teaching at fiddle camps that the ornaments written in are where
I would put them anyway. You have a sense for where to drop them
In her practice session MacMaster includes an hour or two with new
music. "Later at night I go back and fix trouble spots. I go over
them slowly. I don’t practice slowly otherwise."
MacMaster says that she has no habitual routine for the day of a
"Mostly, it’s spent on a bus or plane getting to where we’re
to be. Then there are the sound checks at the performing space. Then
I have something to eat. You’re lucky if you have an hour extra."
Asked if she has had any notable narrow escapes while performing,
MacMaster says, "A couple of nights ago I almost fell over. There
were monitors and cords on the stage, and I almost tripped over a
monitor. But I didn’t go down all the way, and I didn’t miss any
Don’t forget, MacMaster dances while she fiddles. "The
has become a part of my show over the past few years," she says.
"It’s not something that I necessarily do spontaneously. It’s
more for the sake of the show, because it’s really hard to dance and
fiddle at the same time. It’s not as comfortable as dancing without
the fiddle, and I only put it in because I know the crowd loves it.
Any time I haven’t done it I’ve heard about it."
What does MacMaster do to unwind after a performance? "I just
get off my feet," she says. "I get me to a chair. What tires
me most is the bottoms of my feet."
MacMaster gives audiences a chance to share her performing experience.
While she doesn’t ask the crowd to bring their own fiddles and join
in, by the end of the evening she does ask them to leave their seats
and move around. It’s a savvy recognition of the effect of her music.
"At the end of the night," she says, "I invite people
to get up and dance in the aisles."
— Elaine Strauss
Place, 609-258-2787. Natalie MacMaster and Mark O’Connor perform.
$27 to $38. Thursday, May 24, 8 p.m.
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