Fiddle (Masters of the Fiddle shows only)
“The violin sings, but the
It may be an old musician’s
proverb, but it’s one that fittingly applies to the unique
and contemporary style of master fiddler Donnell Leahy.
“Speaking from the objective of
a fellow fiddler, Donnell takes the violin and truly soars,”
Natalie MacMaster, Donnell’s wife and an expert on the
bow-and-strings in her own right.
“It is remarkable how he can
play with this intense power, but maintain the sweetness and
tone of the instrument. He’s absolutely precise and
articulate – a must-see t0 believe.”
Adds record executive Geoff
“Donnell Leahy is quite likely
the greatest fiddle player in the world right now.”
But you don’t have to be a
musician to appreciate the finesse that Donnell displays in
“You’re not a fiddler, you’re a
genius!,” a fan recently proclaimed after being dazzled by a
90- minute performance.
Donnell continues to dazzle: As
leader of Leahy, the Lakefield, Ontario-based eight-piece
family outfit that bears his surname, Donnell has helped
Leahy achieve more than half-a-million copies in combined
worldwide CD sales of Leahy, Lakefield, In All Things and
Live; propel them onto the global stage in a highly-praised
run as the opening act for Shania Twain’s Come On Over world
tour, and earn them multiple Juno Awards – including Best
New Group, Best Country Group and Best Instrumental Album.
Leahy isn’t Donnell’s sole
musical concern either: He also occasionally performs with
his wife, Cape Breton fiddling sensation Natalie MacMaster,
and the duo intend to take to the road for a three-month
tour spring 2010.
Spending time touring with both
families is crucial to Donnell.
“It’s phenomenal to be able to
tour with your family,” he explains. “I go out with my
brothers and sisters on tour, and my three brothers and me
may hang out together on a Tuesday afternoon.
“I know that other brothers
haven’t got that opportunity because they all have separate
and separate jobs. We really
like our family and our group – we’re just best friends. To
be able to hang out like that is amazing.”
And with three young children
of their own, it’s also important that he devotes meaningful
time to Natalie, a situation that can be complex when one
spouse is on the road without the other.
“Touring has always been a
challenge, and with children there are always a lot of
logistics to work out,” he explains. “But we want to be
together as a family, and we want to play together. Although
Natalie’s style is very different from mine, we love the
combination. Everything makes sense for us to tour
There is that third component:
Just as it’s impossible for
anyone to extract Donnell from his family roots, it’s
unfathomable to distinguish the self-taught master fiddler
from his instrument.
“The fiddle is such an
extension of my body,” he admits. “The bow is literally an
extension of my arm, and the energy I have in my arm goes
into the bow.
“It expresses my personality,
Not to mention a palate of
emotions that are verbally unspoken, but fervently
“I’m not the greatest with
words, but on the fiddle, I can tell the whole story
passionately,” says Donnell. “If you want to play a sad
piece, it’s easy to be sad playing it. I’m aggressive, a
quick mover, spirited, athletic and that comes out in my
fiddling. I’ve always been willing to take risks and try
anything on the fiddle.
“And I think I’ve learned that
you really have to believe what you’re playing.”
Those that watch the
mesmerizingly strident, exultant and high-energy performance
from Donnell – as well as his Leahy siblings Angus (fiddle)
Doug (fiddle), Frank (drums), Siobheann (bass, piano and
fiddle, dance and vocals); Agnes (dance, vocals, keyboards);
Erin (piano, vocals, dance) and Maria guitar) – are quickly
converted into believers, lapping up every amazing moment of
the troupe’s riveting concert, with the eldest Leahy brother
serving as its animated sparkplug.
It’s been a lifetime of
practice: Exactly how early did the Donnell Leahy story
“Probably when I was in my
mother’s womb,” he admits, half-jokingly – especially since
Leahy parents Frank and Julie led their own band.
“They would play at local
square dances, round dances and weddings,” Donnell recalls.
“Our parents had plenty of house parties and ceilidhs. We
witnessed that as kids and it was just natural for us to
Encouraged to start early,
Donnell received his first fiddle at three-years-old and
Frank – a fiddle player -- and Julie – a pianist, singer and
step dancer -- started the lessons.
He credited his parents with
teaching him how to hold the instrument.
“It allowed me to shift into
all the positions and do things with my bow that one
probably wouldn’t be able to do if you didn’t hold it
Only one year later, Donnell
began playing competitively.
“You need a reason to play,” he
explains. “You can’t tell your kids just to practice – you
have to get them an audience and have a reason to play.
“I’d be the four-year-old
playing against the 12-year-olds,” he recalls. “I moved up
to the older class, although it wasn’t about the winning. It
was about getting better.”
Donnell would practice
incessantly on the family beef farm homestead in Lakefield.
“Dad would take me to the field
when I was a young lad,” Donnell recalls. “He’d be working
ground or baling hay and he’d put me under a tree with
shade. Every time he came round with the tractor, he’d be
able to watch me. Of course, I’d have my fiddle with me. I’d
sit there and play the fiddle under the tree. The next time
he came around I’d be asleep.”
Donnell’s competitive streak
spurred him on.
He became intimately familiar
with the music of New Brunswick fiddling sensation Don
Messer; All Ireland fiddle champion Sean McGuire, Cape
Breton master Jerry Holland, Ontario’s Graham Townsend, and
Quebec’s Ti-Jean Carignan, listening to their records and
learning each song
note for note by ear.
“I was exposed at the right
time to all these different styles of music,” Donnell notes.
“Along the way, I heard a bit of classical and then the
magnificent Stephane Grappelli.
“But my style is Canadian, my
As family members grew into
their instruments, the octet (out of 11 children!) Leahy was
formed: and then during a six month residency in Germany,
Donnell discovered the music of a young Cape Breton fiddler
named Natalie MacMaster and decided they had to meet.
“I met her music first,”
Donnell recalls. “We were playing in Germany and one of my
sisters had a cassette she would play. I asked her about it,
found out she was an 18-year-old girl from Cape Breton. When
I heard that style being played by a young girl, she tweaked
my interest, and I decided I had to meet her.
“The day after I got home from
Germany, I jumped in the car and drove to Cape Breton. I
found out she was in Truro at Teacher’s College, so I drove
there and asked her out for dinner.
“I said, ‘I don’t know what you
look like. Maybe if you brought your fiddle, I’d know who
you were.’ We went out for dinner, played some tunes, and
the rest is history. As Natalie put it – we dated for two
years, broke up for 10, and then got married.”
Although the Donnell
Leahy/Natalie MacMaster tour will mark their first series of
extended dates together, Donnell says this venture will
complement his studio and performances with Leahy.
“My performances with Natalie
and Leahy fulfill me in different ways,” admits Donnell.
“Both remain career priorities.”
And if life isn’t busy enough
for Donnell – did we mention he’s a farmer as well? – he
will also help continue to run the annual
Leahy Music Camp, co-hosted by Natalie MacMaster.
This year’s edition runs July 5
to 9 at Viamede Resort in Stoney Lake, Ontario.
“Three years ago we decided to
hold a music camp in our hometown and invite people to come
from around the world and learn the Leahy way,” Donnell
“Natalie and I had talked about
doing a fiddle camp, but we merged the idea of doing one
with Leahy. We provide teaching for fiddle, piano, guitar,
and step dancing – basically everything we do.
“It’s three days of solid
instruction with concerts, talks, special guests – and it’s
a great camp, if I
do say so myself. People attend from all over the U.S.,
Canada and Europe.”
No wonder Sir Yehudi Menuhin
once described a violinist – or, less formally, a fiddler –
as “half tiger, half poet.”
Donnell Leahy certainly fits