Interview - Maggie Duncan

March 2006: Maggie Duncan (Vol.2 No.3)
Interview recorded by S.Kenan on 18/02/06

The 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 player.

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?

I kind 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?

Yes they 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?

The 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?

Just 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?

It 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 Arts Centre.

Q. You have done a lot of work with Norm Adams. How did you team up?

I 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 of course.

Q. Back to the technical side, there is a school of thought out there that claims that musical notation gets in the way.

Well 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?

It's 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?

I 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_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.