Mad For PlayingAn Interview by Brendan Taffe
How did you get started playing the fiddle?
'Twould have been from hearing it from a very young age. We lived with my grandparents until I was about seven. My grandmother was Kitty Linnane, who played piano with the Kilfenora Ceili Band and the band would have been pretty active at that time. I mean they were old, but they still practiced an awful lot. We moved to Toonagh then, and Frank Custy was the headmaster in school there. Everybody who went through the school played something. You would start on whistle, and then pick something and they would teach you the basics.
Was it your idea to start on the fiddle, or your father's?
I think it was just the obvious choice. I was about seven, so I don't think it was based on choice as such. It would have been Frank that gave me the fiddle at first and probably because Dad played it and he played it himself.
So, all of your mates at school played traditional music?
Everyone at the school learnt and played something. At the time, you weren't allowed to give it up until you left, but Frank just involved everybody. We would have gotten together a lot for competitions; ceili bands and duets and trios. Frank had children my age, so there were a few of us that were very interested and it was very easy to keep it up.
Which is quite different from players a generation older, who didn't have anyone to play with.
I had a bit of that later on, in my teenage years. I suppose that was the early '80s, and even people that did play didn't talk about it much. But I was mad for playing. I'd have been out all the time, but it was always with older people.
The other teenagers wouldn't admit to it?
We were all at school, and in some families you had to concentrate on your studies. But I was a bit rebellious that way. My grandmother, Kitty Linnane, would invite little groups to play; like keyboard and three musicians. I would have played with them a good bit from an early age, twelve or thirteen, and then with Dad as well. At about sixteen or seventeen, I branched away from family and met up with a few of my own friends and started to play with them. But it was always in a very safe environment and always very local; around here and in North Clare: Kilfenora, Corofin, Lisdoonvarna, Doolin.
Apart from being a fiddler in your own right, what's it like to be the daughter of such a renowned fiddle player?
Growing up I would never have noticed it, because I was so mad to learn what he knew, and was just mad for playing anyway that I would have kind of inhaled it. If Dad was playing at home I would have listened. I was mad to learn so I would have picked up a lot of his accent, his fiddle-playing accent. Then I would still have been a teenager, doing gigs with him in Dublin and meeting people. I think the problem was more with other people than with us. They'd say, "Ah, you play just like your father." Well, I don't really. "Ah, you do, you do." But you didn't play well enough like him, and you'd never be as good as him, and all this kind of thing, or you have to be better than him. It was never just, "Enjoy your fiddle-playing." It was always comparisons, and that was difficult.
The pressure of it.
Well, when you're young it's a pressure because you're only learning. You're a teenager; you're not even fully formed in thought or anything else, so you're kind of learning all the sames before you find out what your differences are -- outside of fiddle-playing. I suppose it would have undermined me a little bit at that time, but I wouldn't worry about it so much now. It still goes on, but it doesn't bother me.
Because you're more comfortable in what your own style is.
Absolutely. It's always going to be very Peoples-based. You know you can't get away from your family, nor would I have any desire to. I'm just more comfortable with the thought that other people have nothing better to be doing than comparing us.
Outside of family, who were major influences on your playing?
Frank Custy was a big influence. For fiddle players, I'd love all the northern connection -- Paddy Glackin, and any Donegal fiddle player you'd want to mention. Locally, Dad would have been the biggest; Paul O'Shaugnessy; this guy Maurice Bradley from Derry; my cousin James Gibson. When I heard Steve Cooney [the guitar player], he would have been a major influence, just because of the change of chord progressions. You went from a nice, safe piano and guitar back-up to mayhem, and it just seemed to suit my brain completely.
How did those chord progressions influence your fiddle playing?
It just opens up so much more possibility in a tune. Most of my variations would have been based on chord progressions, and when those chords were blown apart, and suddenly they're putting in notes that you've never heard of in that scale, or never heard played on a piano -- it would have influenced even the tunes that I write. I've been told since that a waltz I wrote sounds very Swedish. I've never sat down and listened to Swedish music, but it certainly doesn't sound like an old Irish tune.
I was very lucky in that I'm in the same age group as Dermot Byrne and Michelle O'Sullivan. I think when you see people your own age pushing out boundaries, influences are more about possibilities than actually copying something. You have to copy initially before you can adopt it to your own, but I think it's that they give more possibilities than actual ways of how to play something.
You've had some trouble with your left hand?
I lost the power of two fingers -- just for fiddle playing. They're perfect otherwise. It's just such a controlled space and a very small space, very limited, and the hand just kind of said "No." It was like that for a long time and just progressively got worse. I went to lots of people who could tell me what it wasn't, but there didn't seem to be much of a fix for it. So I just developed my own style of playing after that, which is basically with two fingers. I use these two, my index and middle finger mainly, and I have some little power back in this [ring finger] now, so I could use that for high B's. I'm going between first and second position all the time; it's not as difficult as it sounds. If you saw it, you wouldn't actually notice it. I position between the two, so it's all in the wrist.
And you can still get the rolls and the ornaments?
There's lots of things I can't do.
When did you first have that trouble?
When I was about sixteen or seventeen, I'd get a cramp, but it would be gone after a couple of minutes. Then a couple of years later it just kind of gave up altogether. I think a lot of it was panic. When I'd take out the fiddle I'd just tense up because I didn't know what was going to happen; you couldn't rely on it to be right.
Was there a period of time where you couldn't play at all?
I still can't play, if you know what I mean. I can play, but not play the fiddle the way it should be played. When I went to start to go to see people, they'd check and all this stuff and the first question was should I stop. They all said no, can't see any benefit in you stopping, because it wasn't anything obvious. So it probably did stop me from playing, but I didn't stop, if that's understandable.
How long did it take to develop this two-fingered style?
Ah sure, it was like learning all over again. I'd still be improving at it if you know what I mean, but it took a good few years. When you've learned something and then you have to do it differently, you have to forget about how you used to do it in the first place. I wasn't doing that with the two fingers and it sounded horrendous. Once I had kind of forgotten, I suppose, I started to learn. It's basically just having the trust in your judgment. I had everything else, and knew where everything was on the fiddle, but it was just judgment.
How do you think your style has changed because of that process?
Well, it obviously differs because of the physical limitations. I can't really do third finger rolls; even with the adapted style, it's a hard stretch. My style now is an awful lot simpler than it used to be, because it's limited, but I think in a way it helped me to listen to rhythm more. I hadn't many options when I couldn't do the stuff I wanted to do, so you have look for something else. Before it would have all been getting out your books and learning the positions. You want to conquer your instrument and that kind of thing. I couldn't do that, so I just got into the whole idea that basically all the tunes are there, but they're just a way of expressing the same couple of rhythms all the time. I've definitely concentrated on my bow hand more -- I'm still in the process of it, if you know what I mean, but I had come through the whole re-learning thing and come to a point where I could sit in any session. It's in the last couple of years that I'd be concentrating more on the power of the bow hand, realizing that it's half the instrument, rather than just something to express what you do with your fingers.
Has the scene here in Ennis changed since you were a teen?
Oh God, yeah. I used to do a night with Dad on a Tuesday in Brogan's, a pub that had a history of music. I'd say there was about five or six sessions a week back then in the whole town, and that would have been good. Cruise's opened here, next door, about eleven years ago, and it was strictly traditional seven nights a week. It was just great. For us locally we'd go in there, and they wanted you there for your music. Then some festivals started running, and the next thing people started moving to Ennis. I suppose economically the country was doing so well that it was easier to stay around; there wouldn't have been much here work-wise to keep musicians here earlier. I'd say you have four or five times the amount of musicians in the environs at the moment than you ever would have before. It's as good as anywhere else. ...
Now that that's done, and you've relearned how to play with fewer fingers, are there things you're hoping to do next, musically?
I'm thirty-one years of age, and I've been playing professionally for twenty of that. Part of me is screaming for a break from it all, and if I was to do that I don't where I'd end up afterwards. If I was to keep playing, I'd love to develop it more in a concert setting. In sessions, you're playing against loud noise in a pub setting. So I wouldn't mind doing it on a more intimate level, so that I could hear it and they could hear it, and there's more interaction. Now I think I'd actually like that, but I'd have to wait until the wee ones are a bit bigger. We'll be practicing around Ireland for a while before we take off with our big bus.
I'm lucky in a way because music has been in my family for so long. My grandmother did it as well; that was her career, outside of raising a family, and it's probably more acceptable for me to do it. I'm the third generation of it in my family, so it wouldn't be as strange for me as for someone who's the first musician in their family and suddenly they want to leave their kids somewhere for a week and head off playing music. There would be very much a sense of purpose -- I'm very grateful to my family in that way, that they're very accepting of what I do, and that I need to go away sometimes to play. I'd like to at least have the girls sitting in school, and more on their feet.
You feel a sense of purpose when you're playing?
Well, I mean I love it, really. If I was never to play professionally I wouldn't care; I don't know was I ever meant to sit on the world and proclaim from the fiddle. There are musicians that need to do that, and are here for that. I'd be quite happy just playing away here, if it didn't become the same old stuff all the time, just as long as there's a bit of a choice.
[For the full text of this interview and Siobhan's tune "Nicos' Mermaid," subscribe to Fiddler Magazine!]
[Brendan Taaffe is a farmer and teacher in central Vermont. He plays fiddle, guitar, and penny whistle. He has a CD called Come Sit By My Chair. www.brendantaaffe.com]