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Ryan & Brennish Thomson

Updated Feb 2, 2024

Report to the Strathspey and Reel Society of New Hampshire of my visit to the 2001 

Festival of American Fiddle Tunes

By Ryan Thomson - Dear NHSRS,


This is a report of my attendance at the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in July, 2001. I would like to sincerely thank the SRS for assisting with my expenses to attend the school.


This week long music camp is located in Port Townsend, Washington, on the site of a former army base. Fiddle is the major focus, but there are classes in many other folk instruments as well. There are fiddle classes in many styles of dance fiddling including Scottish, Cape Breton, Irish, Appalachian, Klezmer, Mexican, and others.


I focussed on piano accompaniment for fiddle tunes. Cape Breton piano was taught by Doug McPhee who comes from a prominent Cape Breton musical family. His grandfather and father both played the fiddle and his mother was one of the most popular dance piano players of the area. His grandfather placed 2nd in a large contest in Boston in 1926 which was judged by the famous Scottish composer J. Scott Skinner. 


He told many stories of growing up in a musical household where well known fiddlers were often invited over to play. On a music making night he would scramble to help his mother with household chores prior to the arrival of musical guests. He began his own piano playing at age 12 when he was already familiar with hundreds of tunes that he had grown up listening to. The older piano players, including his mother, used the "boom chuck" method of chording, and simple 1, 4, 5 chords, which is quite different from the popular modern pyrotechnic styles. His own style has evolved into a modern form which uses almost the entire range of the piano.


I was interested to discover from Doug that Cape Breton fiddlers have been heavily influenced by Irish fiddling, particularly from the playing of virtuosos Sean Mcguire and Michael Coleman. A large body of Irish and Scottish tunes alike are considered part of the general repertoire of the region. Another distinguishing feature of this fiddling tradition is that many new tunes are being composed continuously by many different players.


Doug came to the camp along with fiddler David Greenburg, who, according to Doug, has become a recognized master of the older Cape Breton fiddle style. I spent many hours listening to them play together. Scottish fiddle was taught by Calum McKinnon. I enjoyed hearing him discuss differences and similarities between Scottish and Cape Breton fiddling. 


I picked up a number of playing tips and techniques on both fiddle and piano which I will practice diligently in the coming year to incorporate into my own dance playing style and to impart to my students.

This article by Ryan Thomson, 2002

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