September-October 2010

Learning Session Tunes  -

Two reels as played BY
Kimberley Fraser

By Roland Sturm

There are thousands of tunes out there and the number is growing daily. Nobody can learn more than a small fraction of those. So if you want to play with others, where do you start? I thought I ask some professional traditional musicians for their suggestion: "Among your favorite tunes to play,which ones are session standards and/or commonly played by other people?" My first guest is Cape Breton fiddler Kimberley Fraser who recorded two reels for us: Primrose Lasses and Brenda Stubbert's .

Kimberley grew up in Sydney Mines, Cape Breton Island, and started playing fiddle when she was 6 years old. Her first teacher was a member of a well-known family of fiddlers that lives in the same town, the Barra McNeils. After many years with local teachers, Kimberley graduated with a degree in violin performance from Boston's Berklee College of Music. She is now a touring solo artist and also in demand as an accompanist on piano. Kimberley has released two CDs, Heart Behind the Bow in 2000 and Falling on New Ground in 2006 and is planning to finish a third CD next year. Kimberley plays a custom-made instrument from Cape Breton because she plays left-handed.

While many traditional musicians disdain tune books and sheet music, Kimberley thinks that they are an important source of material.According to her, many leading Cape Breton musicians built up their repertoire from tune collections, with some of the older Scottish collections being particularly important. However, she also emphasizes that you need to have mastered a style in order to make good use of written music. The notes in sheet music only provide a small part of the story and much of what defines a musical style and makes music attractive is not notated (and cannot really be notated). Without expertise in a musical style, you need to use sheet music together with recordings (or a teacher who plays that style).

The first tune Kimberley plays for us is arguably the best-known tune from Cape Breton: Jerry Holland's composition


Jerry Holland died last year, so this is obviously a new addition to the repertoire, not a centuries-old piece. Despite its short history, Brenda Stubbert's has become immensely popular among Celtic musicians and would be a safe choice for any intermediate Irish or Scottish session. It is included in many tune books, but you can also easily find a free version onthe internet, so I didn't bother including a transcription here. One interesting aspect in Kimberley's interpretation is that she plays the melody an octave lower the second time through. I have often heard that in old-time music (especially in cross-tuning), but Kimberley told me that it is also a standard approach in Cape Breton fiddling.

Primrose_Lasses.jpgThe second tune is

, which is one of Kimberley's favorite reels and popular in Cape Breton. It also is a standard in Irish sessions and included in O'Neil's collection, the key collection of tunes for Irish session musicians. I met this tune myself years ago in a slow session, so it is played at all levels. There are many recordings, the most recent one I have is by Solas on Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers. Because it is a traditional tune, a number of variations exist (and not only of the melody, there are variants on the title, as well). Kimberley's version is somewhat different from the one I know (or the one in O'Neill's or the one by Solas), so I transcribed her version here, but they are all the same tune. Kimberly plays a variation inbar 5, a phrase that is unique, making her version more interesting. More commonly, bar 5 would be the same as bar 1. In the B-part (from bar 9 on), you can play triplets as in bar 10 or two single notes as in bar 9.

Roland Sturm is Professorof Policy Analysis at the RAND Graduate School and usually writes on healthpolicy, not music. He is the talent coordinator of the Topanga Banjo FiddleContest and leads the monthly Celtic sessions at CTMS. These days he mainly plays upright bass and mandolin.


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