Interview - Maggie Duncan
March 2006: Maggie Duncan (Vol.2 No.3)
Interview recorded by S.Kenan on 18/02/06
Yarra Junction Fiddler's Convention woodpile was the setting for this
interview with Maggie. We both sat on logs and I let the tape recorder
run while we delved into her musical past. Later that evening, Maggie
Duncan was on stage leading the band, fiddling and calling the dances,
all at the same time. She has a sound knowledge of Old Time music and
dance calling but her musical ability goes further. Maggie plays
O'Carolan's compositions with a fine touch and at the recent Nariel
festival she played these airs beautifully with harpist Andy Rigby. Norm
Adams and Maggie published a book and double CD set called 'Old Time
Fiddle'. The book brings out her skills as a teacher as well as a
I started playing pretty young, at nine years of age. My
dad always wanted to play himself but he never had a chance because his
parents couldn't afford it so he wanted me to learn and I struggled
with it for a couple of years and then it got better. He bought me a
violin and I felt I had to persevere with it. The violin wasn't my first
choice of an instrument. When my parents got a piano I took to that, I
was about ten. Before I started learning I was listening to string music
because we lived next door to an old lady who played cello in a string
quartet. She used to play double bass until her mid seventies when she
found it a bit hard to carry around so she took up the cello. She used
to listen to me practice and offer encouragement. I kind of gave it away
when I was about twenty. I stopped having lessons. I got to the point
of playing in the Monash Chamber Music Orchestra and I played with the
Light Opera Company.
Q. What got you into fiddling?
of put the violin away for about five years. It was hard to really
express myself with that kind of music. I started singing in a back
porch style of group.
Q. Did they have a name?
did. Betty Bushrat and the Bogong Boghoppers. It started out as a duo. I
was born in England and came to Australia at age twelve. I lived in
Melbourne till my mid twenties and then moved to live in the Kiewa
Valley VICTORIA. I joined a band up there and one of the band members,
Ken Butler said "You have a violin, why don't you try out some tunes?'
This was in 1978-9. Then I started learning tunes by ear. Everyone was
giving me stuff to listen to. I spent a winter learning fiddle tunes off
Dave Brannigan when he joined the band. We put together a repertoire of
dance brackets that I still like and play.
Q. What recordings were influential?
Carter Family and the Ozark Mountain Daredevils. A lot of that Old
Timey, country, Bluegrass-ish, Appalachian revival music. The
Chieftains, Planxty, the Bothy Band.
Q. You have an unconventional fiddle hold. Sometimes you play with it down on your chest. What brought that about?
laziness. I wasn't particularly trying to do that. If I have to do
anything particular with my left hand I have to hold it under the chin
properly, especially if I am moving up to a higher position. Nowdays I
am getting a bit of arthritis in my left hand and I have to support it
properly otherwise I get really sore. It is very hard for me to play
with the fourth finger if I have got that palm against the neck of the
violin. I can't do it. I have got to get it around so I will get enough
pressure. And the classical hold is the most relaxed for me. It's the
most tension free.
Q. How do we get copies of the book you and Norm put together?
is not distributed commercially. I teach privately and also do
workshops. Norm and I do a workshop at the Piggery, third Saturday of
the month. At seven o'clock we start a fiddle workshop. The concert
starts about eight o'clock. The Piggery is at the Footscray Community
Q. You have done a lot of work with Norm Adams. How did you team up?
came back to Melbourne in 1981. I think that was when I met Norm. I had
met Mike O'Rourke previous to that, when I was still living up the
Valley. I was playing with Patterson's Steam Driven Bush Band. They had a
fiddler called Warrick Nottage and he went back to Adelaide and they
got me in to play fiddle. I met Mike O'Rourke at a party after a gig at
the Dan O'Connell Hotel then met him again by chance the next day
completely by coincidence. I asked him to teach me some tunes so we went
to the Dan and we played there in the bar in the afternoon and it kind
of went from there. I got into that Appalachian style he was teaching
and joined the High Times String Band. There were three fiddles, Mike
O'Rourke, Norm and myself. John Caldwell was on guitar and Ken McMaster
Q. Back to the technical side, there is a school of thought out there that claims that musical notation gets in the way.
that's why we did the book, because of the CD's. There's a fair few
books out there with a CD in the back of the book but you have to be
able to play the tunes before you can play along with the CD. So what we
did is have two CD's and one is at a slow speed so you don't have to be
able to read, you just learn it off the CD. We saw a need for this way
back. One Nariel we said right this is it, we need to do it now and get
it ready for the Fiddlers (Yarra Junction Fiddler's Convention) So it
was conceived and born in five weeks.
I write the tunes down
so I can remember them later. I don't learn tunes off notation because
if I hear someone play it, it's a completely different tune. I have to
listen first and then use the notation as a memory aid. If I transcribe
it from listening I really know it. So notating fiddle tunes is
murderous because you have to decide which version of bar three you are
going to write down because people are going to say "That's it." People
go, "That's not the way I learned it." And they have got one version of
one person's transcription of one time through and they have just put a
repeat sign at the end as if it's going to be the same. The nicest
transcriptions I have seen are in a book of Willie Clancy's playing.
(Pat Mitchell's book of the Uilleann piper's tunes) Some of those tunes
are written out seven times. He plays it differently, seven times
through and every time is different. They are all beautiful and worth
recording. But of course you can't publish stuff like that, not if you
want to just teach a tune, that's why we had to have the CD with it.
There is a very simple learning version, a basic tune or as far as we
could get to it. Then there is a more up to speed version where we can
play it a little more relaxed, more how it would be played.
Q. How do you define the differences between classical and fiddling styles?
huge. Classical tends to use a lot of vibrato and marcato, as if you're
playing Vivaldi, 'dum dum, dum dum, da, da da da da da da da da dum!'
It's too bright and it's too separated. Jigs just go 123456 instead of
'Dandenong Dandenong.' They just don't get it unless they are listening.
I had to stop doing all that because I wasn't listening properly, I
don't think I was listening at all. I was reading and if I didn't have
the music in front of me I couldn't remember it. I wasn't memorising, I
didn't know how to improvise, I didn't know anything about chords, well I
did but I learnt about them when I took up guitar and started singing
folk songs, Bob Dylan and that stuff. I wasn't taught about chords when I
was learning classical violin, you just didn't need to know. You just
played these dots. The whole thing was not useful to me. Technically it
was useful to me, I can play, I can get a good sound out of the
instrument but as far as playing music for myself it wasn't particularly
helpful because it didn't empower me.
Q. How do you develop a student's left hand technique?
think it's really important to learn the spacing of the fingers and not
just where the individual notes are so I encourage people to play
scales and arpeggios. Keep the fingers down because it encourages you to
learn how big a tone is, and a semitone, you have to hear that. With
beginners I put masking tape on the fingerboard.
Q. Tell us about Eileen McCoy
Eileen is an Old Time Australian fiddle player and she was such an
inspiration to me, she is eighty plus and still playing beautifully. I
had a recording of hers even before I met her that Alan Musgrove made of
her playing in her lounge room. It was so nice. She had recently lost
her husband who played guitar. I played the tape driving to work and by
the time I got there I was in tears. Wonderful, it was lovely.