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When I lived in Boston, I never once drove a vehicle. Since moving back to Cape Breton, I’ve been doing a lot more driving – it’s a must in Cape Breton to have a car – and I’ve realized how much I’ve missed cruising to the tunes- and how much practice time I’ve been missing out on. I always tell my students that listening time is just as valuable as hands on practice time. But without driving, I wasn’t making much time myself for listening. I’m not much for walking while listening to an iPod, or working in the house while listening to music unless I’m by myself, but these days, I’ve been doing a lot of solo driving and accomplishing a lot!

I’ve had one particular album in the car for over three months – just that one album because I love it that much- and one day last week I finally decided to take a crack at the new tunes I’ve been hearing on it. I pretty much had them exactly upon the first try. When you drive you probably do a combination of subconscious and conscious listening. Have you ever had a song or tune that you’ve been listening to a lot randomly pop into your head without trying to recall it? This is the first step to learning by ear- having the tunes firmly in your head so they just flow out of you.

So the next time you feel you don’t have time to practice, pop some of your favourite tunes in the car. Perhaps try and find some good recordings of the tunes you are learning if you don’t have any already. You don’t have to keep listening to the same recordings for 3 months (!)- but let them seep in for a good while. You’ll be surprised at how much you can’t get them out of your head!


I must be still basking in the glow of having been to Ireland for the first time! Here is another common tune shared both in the Irish and Cape Breton repertoire that I personally just discovered and I get very excited at those discoveries!

The West Mabou Reel:

I had always known the West Mabou Reel to be a Cape Breton tune. Like Miss Lyall’s Strathspey and Reel, it is a staple of the repertoire and often played for dancing. I didn’t realize that it had its origins in the Irish repertoire until just after returning home from Ireland when I had a listen to the fabulous recording, Jig Away the Donkey; Music and Song of South Ulster by Gerry O’Connor (fiddle) Martin Quinn (button accordion) and Gabriel McArdile, (vocal and concertina). I heard a tune that sounded exactly like the West Mabou Reel. The parts are in reverse and the melody has a few slight differences but it is the same tune.

After hearing this version of the tune, I referred to Kate Dunlay and David Greenburg’s The Dungreen Collection: Traditional Celtic Violin Music of Cape Breton which is a fabulous collection of not only Cape Breton repertoire but source information about the tunes. For the West Mabou Reel, the Dungreen lists ‘The Mayo Lasses’, Johnny When You Die’, and ‘The Old Maids of Galway’ as Irish sources for the Cape Breton version of the tune. On the album I cited above, the tune is listed as ‘Traynor’s Rambles’.

Here is a youtube video of the West Mabou Reel played by the Cape Breton fiddler Donald Angus Beaton (1912-1981) of the Mabou Coal Mines:

To compare, here is a youtube clip of ‘Johnny Will You Die’ from Jackie Daly and Seamus Creagh:

Again the parts are reversed compared to ‘West Mabou’, but you can certainly tell it’s the same tune.

I think it’s amazing how tunes cross into another repertoire and evolve into a new version which then becomes a new standard. According to the Dungreen, in Cape Breton, the composition of this tune is sometimes attributed to a Dan (Domhnull Iain an Taillear- Donald the Taylor) Beaton (1856-1919) of the Mabou Coal Mines. However, as I wrote in another blog post, Cape Breton fiddle music was significantly influenced by Irish music. As the Dungreen speculates, perhaps Dan Beaton heard it from an Irish-style fiddler in Cape Breton or he learned it from one of the tune books in his collection that may have contained Irish tunes. Whatever the case, the West Mabou reel is a great example of tune evolution.


Just back from my first trip to Ireland. What a fantastic time and of course lots of great tunes!  I’m always fascinated at how much the Cape Breton repertoire shares with the Irish and how the tunes that we share have evolved in both traditions. Some tunes we share are played in different keys in Ireland, and are sometimes played as a different tune type- a hornpipe in the Irish tradition may be heard as a reel in Cape Breton. In this post I’d like to draw attention to two of my favourite tunes that are staples of the Cape Breton repertoire and common in Ireland as well:

Miss Lyall’s Strathspey

Miss Lyall’s Reel

In Cape Breton, the strathspey is often followed by the reel or amongst tunes from the King George medley. They are often heard played for step dancing.

Miss Lyall’s Reel in Ireland is known as ‘Paddy Ryan’s Dream’. Miss Lyall’s Strathspey is commonly known as ‘The Cat that Kittled in Jamie’s Wig’. Although strathspeys are a Scottish and Cape Breton tune type, they are also a part of the Donegal tradition. There, they are known as Highlands. County Donegal is in the north west of Ireland, very close to Scotland. Migrant workers brought their music to Scotland and also brought back Scottish tunes and thus, the Donegal and repertoire and style is very much Scottish influenced.

Here is a recording of the Cape Breton versions:

Miss Lyall\’s Strathspey and Reel

To compare, I’ve found some great clips on youtube from the Irish tradition.

This is ‘The Cat that Kittled in Jamie’s Wig played by the fantastic George Keith from the Boston area (it’s the second tune in the medley):

Here is Paddy Ryan’s Dream played by Tina Lech, another fantastic player from the Boston area. Compared to the Cape Breton version, it is more minor with ‘c’ naturals and ‘f’ naturals where the Cape Breton version is more modal with C#s in the B part.

I also found this great version of Paddy Ryan’s or ‘Mooney’s Reel from John Doherty who was a well respected player of the Donegal tradition. Interestingly, the version is more closely related to the Cape Breton version with the B part being more modal with ‘C#’s. (Also the second tune in the medley).

Hope you enjoy! There is so much beauty in all the stylistic differences in this common repertoire.



Happy New Year everyone!

No better way to start off the new year than by learning a new tune! This is another one of my favourites and of course it’s a pipe tune. I’m not sure of the name – if anyone knows, please let me know! I’ve included a version of the B part played on pipes; the fiddle version goes down to a low E which is out of pipe range. I’m not sure if the fiddle version grew from an original pipe version or if the tune was adapted to pipes. Again, if anyone has any info, please pass it along. In the pipe version, there is a C# which is not in the key of G, but is the fixed note on the pipe chanter. This gives it a distinctive modal flavour even though the majority of the tune is in G major. This is why I love pipe tunes – there are a lot of guts packed into simple melodies of 9 notes!

I’ve included two recordings- a slowed down version of the tune, and one up to speed.

Listen to

Listen to

Please let me know what you think of the tune- Enjoy!



Just finished a fantastic week at the Celtic Colours International Festival here in Cape Breton. It is always a wonderful time to catch up with musical pals and meet new folks as well.

I was a little nervous for this years’ festival just because I hadn’t performed in a few months due to the repetitive stress injury but I’m happy to say that things were feeling pretty good!  However, I was reminded that  performing and just playing with other musicians is much needed practice- not just practicing on your own. You’d think at this point in my career I’d take this granted! But I always find myself surprised to see the improvement in my playing and recollection of repertoire after good spells of playing with others.

I did mention this type of practice a while back in another blog but I think its worth reiterating. If you consider yourself a learner, you may feel like you are not ready to play with others. It’s true that you do need to work yourself up to a certain point-but once you have a few tunes under your belt that feel comfortable, it may be time to find some folks to play with. Things don’t have to be perfect.

Playing with other people helps spur the creative process. Things come together in ways you don’t think of. It’s a good opportunity to learn new repertoire. Just hearing the tunes and familiarizing yourself with the repertoire is a great help. It gives you goals to work towards.

So how do you find folks to play with? Start with a local session, fiddle club or group classes. I used to teach a Celtic ensemble at Club Passim in Cambridge, MA. After a few months of getting to know each other, the students began to get together regularly on their own to share tunes and ideas and practice what they were learning in class. The improvement was much greater than had they just gotten together for the weekly class and worked on their own. Their confidence soared and it showed in the music.

If none of these organizations are available in your area, the next best thing would be to attend a fiddle camp. There are tons to choose from and you’ll find them running throughout the year. A camp is a fantastic week of immersion through sessions, dances and other activities and you are more than likely to meet life long musical pals.


Hello everyone! I’ve crawled out from under my blog rock!

Over the past few months, as some of you know, I’ve been dealing with an overuse injury involving my wrist that has caused me to take a break from playing for a few months and has also limited my time at the computer. Regretfully, I’ve had to cancel most of my summer engagements but I’m happy to report that things are getting better I am now back to practicing- slowly but surely. So I thought I’d write a short piece relaying my story – I think we need to talk more about these issues as musicians- awareness is key to prevention.

Originally, I was diagnosed with having mild carpal tunnel syndrome back in April of this year. I did have a little tingling in my thumb, first, and middle fingers of the right hand, especially after typing and playing. But my main complaint was having stiffness in my right hand, and especially in my middle finger. The only thing that would relieve it was warm water and a bit of movement. The specialist I was seeing recommended that use the splint most of the time to keep my wrist neutral – especially at night- and to take Alieve.

The symptoms seem to have coincided with physical therapy I was doing for my shoulders. You may remember a blog that I wrote a while back, “Fiddling with Injuries “, about a chronic shoulder injury that I was dealing with. My pec muscles have grown extremely tight over the years and I noticed that when I tried to stretch them out I was feeling pain in my right wrist rather than a stretch through those muscles. The specialist said that this could be related to with the issues I was having in my wrist but the diagnoses and treatment was still the same. I was referred to another physical therapist who specialized in performing arts.

To make a long story short, over six weeks things seemed to get worse rather than better. The less I moved my wrist the worse the symptoms got. It was an extremely frustrating process – and expensive. I felt that the specialist and the physical therapist were not listening to my symptoms. In my gut I felt but I was not being treated for my actual condition. By the time it came to the faculty concert, at my first camp I could barely move my fingers at all. I knew then I needed an extended break.

Eventually, I found another specialist and therapist that I trust and carpal tunnel syndrome was pretty much ruled out. A program combining acupuncture as well as comprehensive stretching and conditioning seem to be doing the trick. I have a lot of work to do but I am happy that the symptoms are improving.

So through all of this I’ve learned many things can mimic carpal tunnel syndrome. Finding the right help is imperative and there is a lot of help to sort through. It can seem overwhelming to find the right professionals to work with.

So far so good. I’m gearing up for the Celtic Colours International Festival in Cape Breton in October. I will keep you posted about my progress through this blog.

Please feel free to share any of your experiences with injuries in the comments section. We can all learn from each other!


For many of us, finding the time to practice is challenging. Even for me, finding time for practice often takes a back seat to the business aspect of music and the many things we have to take care of in everyday life. Finding practice time is challenging in part because we think we need a lot of time – 30 mins or more. However, it may seem more manageable if we think about aiming for 10 mins a day. A smaller chunk of practice time done consistently tends to be better than 30 mins or more once or twice a week. Consistency is the key to improvement.

Therefore, I am issuing a 7 day 10 minute practice challenge! I got this fabulous idea from the wonderful Michelle Stewart. Michelle, who is also from my home town of Sydney Mines, is an incredible bodhran player and teacher who has an extremely successful online teaching site: Michelle is also learning the fiddle and last September on her blog she issued the 10 Minute a Day Practice Challenge.

I am going also going to take this challenge- who is taking it with me?! If we can do it for 7 days then we can do it everyday! I will also be announcing this on my Facebook fan page and will keep you posted on my progress. I hope you will do the same!

Some ideas for making the most of your practice time:

Leave your instrument out of the case- Keeping your instrument handy and ready to use provides a lot more incentive to practice than having to dig it out of the case.

Listening and observing is also practice- If you don’t have time to physically pick up the instrument, get some listening time in while driving, doing the dishes, etc. Or if you are working on the computer, take a 5 minute break to watch your favorite player on youtube. Make note of a new tune you want to learn or take good notice of their technique- bow hand, fingering hand, etc.

Visualize the tune you are learning- Again, if you don’t have time to pick up the instrument, take 5 minutes when you catch a short break to visualize playing through a tune or just part of a tune that you are working on. Picture every fingered note and bow stroke, slur, etc. If the mind can do it, the body will be sure to follow soon enough

Make a clear, focused plan- Instead of just playing through a tune, take the 10 minutes and pick a phrase that is particularly troublesome and loop it. If you play piano or some other accompaniment instrument, pick a chord pattern that is difficult and loop that. You may choose to work on issues in bowing, coordination, intonation, etc. For example, if a 16th note passage is giving you trouble in a tune, try spending the 10 mins doing an exercise like I’ve outline in this video:

Please join me in this challenge and let me know of your progress! Who is with me?!


I have a very special affection for pipe tunes and this is one of my favorites. This is the pipe version of ‘Caber Feidh’ or the Deer’s Antler’s. There is also a very common version in the key of C.

What I find fascinating about this tune is that it is pretty much the same tune as the ‘New Copperplate’ from the Irish repertoire. That tune is in the key of G major with the melody containing C naturals while the pipe version of Caber Feidh is in A modal with C#’s. Even though the tune starts on the G chord, the tonal center is A.

I first heard this tune from the playing of Mike MacDougall who was a great Cape Breton fiddler from Ingonish. Both Mike’s father and grandfather were pipers and this piping influence is very evident in his style and repertoire.
Here is a clip of Mike playing this tune from documentary that was aired after he passed away. (this particular tune is played around the 1:35 minute mark).


I thought I’d start a series of short video blogs that address technique and style issues. In this video, I demonstate an exercise in coordination that I often work with in the lesson videos and with my private students to line up our bowing and fingering in difficult phrases. Please let know what you think!