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Photos courtesy of the NAC.

Interview: Natalie MacMaster on farming, fiddle, and family

By She Who Must Be Obeyed on December 20, 2016

Natalie MacMaster, Donnell Leahy and their children will be on stage at the NAC for a sold-out performance on December 21st. The show is part of a tour showcasing their new CD, A Celtic Family Christmas. Finding novel questions to ask the superstar MacMaster wasn’t easy but I gave it my best go when I chatted with her. This interview has been condensed and gently edited for clarity.

Apt613: What was the biggest adjustment to joining a large extended family and moving to a farm?

NM: When we were still dating, I remember saying that if one of us had to move, I’d move to Ontario. It was so obvious in my mind that him coming from a farming background and having lots of cattle and owning a home and owning farm acreage and me renting an apartment in Halifax it was the right thing to do. It would be a very unloving thing to say, “Come live with me! Abandon all your generations of farming and the land that you love.” And knowing that, there was no strain, no pulling, it just was.

Farming is a 24/7 commitment. How do you manage to tour for 1/3 of the year and still keep the cows fed?

With the best brother-in-law in the world! There are three boys who run the farming operation. So between them, when one or two are away, they manage it and there are a couple of relatives who help out as well if necessary.

I remember your husband saying that he and his siblings couldn’t read music. Did you also learn strictly by ear? Is that how you’re teaching your children?

Yes [and] yes. That’s in the world of fiddle. Our kids are taking Royal Conservatory [of Music] piano so they’re learning notes there. But in terms of us teaching them fiddle, we don’t use notes at all. Not that we’re against notes.

But I definitely think if you can only have one or the other, the most important thing is your ear. The ear comes first and the notes are second. That’s just my humble opinion.

It’s a natural way to learn. It’s where music comes from. It’s not passed down through notes as much as it’s passed down through ear. You keep the purity by having kids hearing it and feeling it before seeing it. It internalizes better.

How important to you are other Celtic traditions?

The kids are learning a bit of Gaelic, and on the new CD they sing “Silent Night” in Gaelic. I don’t speak Gaelic and neither does Donnell. Our parents spoke it but it definitely skipped a generation. They all know how to do the traditional Cape Breton step-dancing steps and the steps that Donnell grew up with – the Ottawa Valley style step-dancing.

What is the current Celtic music scene like? How has it changed since the Riverdance days?

Twenty or maybe even thirty years ago, there seemed to be more of a focus on Celtic music and Riverdance and Rita MacNeil and the Rankin Family. That fad has come and gone but there’s always a demand for Celtic music. It’s an ancient music. What we do is not new. It has longevity even if it’s not the current fad and not on Top 40 radio. It stands the test of time.

She Who Must Be Obeyed homeschools her kids, as does Natalie MacMaster. Check out their chat on the subject at For more on Natalie MacMaster, visit her website, or find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.