Canada Scene: Natalie McMaster, one fiddle, six children and the plan kicked in

Natalie MacMaster joined a collections of Canadian fielders in a concert celebrating the instrument and its musical legacy. Photo: Rebekah Littlejohn

Natalie MacMaster has been travelling across Canada for a couple of decades now and she knows how strongly connected the country is to the fiddle.

That’s why, she says, she is excited to play in a Canada Scene concert with other proponents of fiddle music on Saturday July 8. But when ARTSFILE reached her recently, she wasn’t only thinking about music. She was also concerned with family matters.

“All the kids were nicely working on chores. One is cleaning the tub and the other is folding laundry and all of sudden my husband said supper is ready and I’m thinking there is no way those sausages are cooked and I had to go down and make sure and sure enough they weren’t cooked.

“It was just a little misunderstanding. Someone had turned the stove off.” It’s the kind of thing that can happen when you have six kids aged three to 11. But MacMaster and husband Donnell Leahy seem to manage a musical career and raising a family pretty darn well.

The Ottawa show features performers from across Canada including: Karrnnel Sawitsky and his band The Fretless, the Ottawa Valley’s April Verch, Métis fiddler John Arcand, the Northwest Territories’ Wesley Hardisty and Cynthia MacLeod from P.E.I.

The roots of fiddle music in Canada begins with the arrival of Europeans in this country. MacMaster’s own family landed in Cape Breton in the 1700s.

“All fiddlers will have a story to tell about why they are holding the instrument in their hands and where it came from. My roots are Scottish. The music came over from Scotland in the mid-1700s. My ancestors came from the Isle of Eigg.”

She was nine and a half when she picked one up. In her family home there were fiddles but they were all full-sized instruments “so I wasn’t big enough to play one until then.”

That happened when an uncle in Boston, Mass., shipped up a three-quarter-sized instrument up for the MacMaster children to use.

“When I saw it I really took a liking to it. I just remember looking at it and it hit my heart. I thought it was really cool. I don’t remember having a profound thought. I started and when I look back now I can say that it was easy for me to pick it up.”

She, of course, was surrounded by musicians and music, especially her famous uncle Buddy MacMaster. But her own aptitude led to lessons and a career that blossomed in the 1990s.

Music lessons included learning to read music, something that she says she was impatient with.

“In my teens, my parents would bring me to another uncle of mine Kinnon Beaton. The purpose of that was to read music. I could not stand it. I didn’t have the patience for it. I was looking at those black dots on a page and I thought my eyes were going to pop out of my head. But I learned and I’m grateful.

“I use it to write down music and to remember music. If I have to remember 2o tunes in a row. I’ll write the first few bars of each one down on a piece of paper. I have books and books where I have written down a few bars of tunes. I wrote them down in my early teens and I’ll never forget them.”

The instrument has been such a part of her life one wondered if there was ever a time when she has grown tired of it.

“In my 20s I was touring and doing too many shows. I was really travelling making three trips across the Atlantic in a week. I can remember being really worn out. That’s 20 years ago now and I haven’t felt that way since.

“Now I realize how precious it is. I realize I am on a time limit here. I want to cram in as much living and playing as I can.”

She is still doing about 100 shows a year either by herself or with Donnell, but she’s sticking to North America. “I am not interested in going to Europe any more.”

The couple have settled near Peterborough, Ontario. They have even found the time to start a Celtic music festival called the Greenbridge Celtic Folk Festival. The first edition will be Aug. 25 and 26 and they hope to make it an annual event.

Celtic music has slipped a bit in prominence, certainly from the days of Riverdance when the sounds of Irish and Scottish music was ringing worldwide.

But MacMaster isn’t worried about its demise.

“It’ll never go out of style,  I can’t imagine it. It’s stood 1,000 years of testing.”

And if the Leahy-MacMaster children have anything to do with it, there’s another generation of players on the way.

MacMaster is teaching her children from three year old Sadie who plays a 16th-size fiddle.

Sadie, who has Down Syndrome, has broken three of them, because they are fragile and she’s three. However, “she has taken a liking to the fiddle. She cries when we try to take it away from her. One of the proudest discoveries in my life was to see how she loves the fiddle.”

Her four year old son Alec (named after her father Alexander) has started lessons. The six year old Julia is a firecracker, he mother says.

The eight year old, Claire, seems to have the ability to learn a tune and remember it. She also has a nice voice, MacMaster says. Ten year old Michael is playing the fiddle too as is Mary Francis the oldest at 11. They kids also play other instruments such as the piano and accordion. And they regularly appear in concerts with their parents.

“It’s a reflection of where we come from.”

The big family is … “Just hang on a second … the sausages may be burning…”

After checking, she picked up where we left off. “It’s just the way it worked out. I’ve got six kids.

“I didn’t want to close life off because of my career. When you are having a family no time is a good time so any time works.”

She had a few years when she and Donnell weren’t sure they would have children.

“Then all of sudden, the plan kicked in and then some.”

Natalie MacMaster: A Canadian Fiddle Celebration
Canada Scene
When: Saturday July 8 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Southam Hall

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.