Female Fiddlers

Female Fiddlers

Warning: potentially volatile subject matter to follow


From what I can tell, there seem to be many more highly regarded (professional) male fiddle players than female. In general, the only woman univerally agreed upon as a truly top-knotch fiddle player is probably Liz Carroll. Can any other woman come close to having the respect and status as a living legend that John Carty, Frankie Gavin, or Seamus Connolly have? It’s even more puzzling since there seems to be a very large number of amateur female fiddlers or fiddle-owners, to be found taking lessons, in slow sessions, and at workshops and concerts. Several fiddle teachers that I know have an overwhelming majority of female students. Why are there relatively few highly regarded female professionals when so many girls are taking fiddle lessons? Why are the fiddle competitions at fleadhanna disproportionately filled with boys? Even among younger gigging fiddlers, men predominate in numbers, and the relatively few women who move in those circles are rarely as good as most of the men (though obviously there are exceptions.)

There’s more: of those female fiddlers who do become well-known professionals—Eileen Ivers, Win Horan, Liz Knowles, and even Liz Carroll on her last two albums—there seems be a trend towards a particular style of flashy playing that is not just as marked with the men. Is it that they’re all just following in Eileen’s footsteps? Obviously there are counterexamples on both sides, but has anyone else ever noticed this? Several of the younger female fiddlers that I know also lean more towards that style, for example, the fiddler at the Nine Fine Irishmen in Las Vegas, and none of these are among the exceptions I was thinking of.

These comments are based on my experience and my opinions, as well as my awareness of the larger community’s opinions of various players. I would be very interested to know if anyone has noticed a similar thing, or if this is all in my head!

Re: Female Fiddlers

I’d agree in my session experience that there is indeed a preponderance of male fiddlers, but, here in Bristol, there are three Master Fiddlers - all female (one also an outstanding classical pro), and all the other local fiddle teachers I personally know are likewise female. In a local band of long standing two of the fiddlers are female (both also teachers) and one is also a classical pro. In another ceili band a few miles away the two fiddles are female, and one is the leader. All I can deduce from this is that the cream has evidently risen to the top in my area.
Trevor

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On re-reading my last post I’d like to make a correction. It’s true to say that at the regular pub sessions I go to most fiddlers are male, but at the well-known learning session at the Nova Scotia and other workshops in the Bristol area, including the Hibernia, I’d say that females predominate.
Trevor

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Could it be that in N. America (including Canada) fiddling is seen more as a male thing, and in Britain more as a female thing? Not that I would agree with such a division, I think people should do what they’re drawn to whatever their gender. But let’s face it, sexual stereotyping does happen, even if we fight it.

Helen

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I’m reflecting on my favorite (Irish) fiddlers and I don’t think I can agree with your basic argument about highly regarded fiddlers. It might be true that 50 years ago too many female fiddlers were playing at home instead of the pub and not getting public recognition, but nowadays it seems like brilliant female fiddlers just keep on coming: Liz and Yvonne Kane, Zoe Conway, Mairead Nesbitt, and April Verch. This month it’s Natalie and Brittany Haas I want to hear. To tell the truth I’m not hearing about as many new sensational male fiddlers as I am females. Quite a few of these fine fiddlers aren’t following the footsteps of Eileen Ivers.

Not to mention "old timers" like Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh, Natalie MacMaster, Liz Doherty, Maeve Donnelly, Nollaig Casey, and those you mentioned.

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I’ve always thought there were slightly more female fiddlers, or at least as many as the men. Strangely enough, it was mainly females that inspired me to pick up the fiddle.

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Don’t forget about Liz Knowles. She’s an inspiration - she can wail on fiddle tunes and play Bach with amazing stylistic interpretation and grace.

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I think It might have something to do with being in the limelight that boys seem to aspire more to than girls.
I know lots and lots of incredible, spot on players who are girls, but they dont do gigs, make cds or enter comps. They seem harder on their own playing than the boys. Boys dont seem to give a toss what anybody thinks about their playing.
I know alot of fanstatic fiddle players who are girls, they are not famous, that I suspect is there choice tho. Siobhan Peoples….do I need say more…..really!

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What are "the footsteps of Eileen Ivers" actually? I have one CD with her and I like very much what I hear, but I don’t know about her history.

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And the Kane Sisters are gorgeous fiddle players!

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Reading these posts, I wonder if this matter really might have as much to do with geography and/or demographics as well as social or cultural mores.
In the Greater Boston area, where I live, there is a very healthy and diverse folk scene which incorporates several genres, e.g., Irish, Scots, old-timey, contra dance, etc. Being a "college town," Boston draws a large number of young people who come as undergrads or grad students and often stay after they get their degrees, meaning there is usually a sizable population of 20 or early 30-somethings.
So, partly because of Boston’s educational or socioeconomic characteristics, I find there are plenty of female fiddlers to go around. It’s also fair to say there are any number of settings and opportunities in which they can play, whether in an organizational/institutional atmosphere such as Comhaltas or the Scottish Fiddle Society provides, or the various contra dances in the area, or, yes, at any of the numerous sessions we have here.
The point being, I guess, that if a female fiddler doesn’t like where she’s playing, there are more than enough other places to try. Obviously, the same point can be made for the male of the species.

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I think I’ve mentioned this before but in Edinburgh and Scotland generally, there are many great woman musicians coming up (including fiddlers) and they, on the whole, tend to be better than the men. It’s only a matter of time before they are regarded as "top league" musicians. Many of the so called top male fiddlers have been around for yonks and probably learned to play at a time when there weren’t as many female players or they were less motivated.

In many ways, it’s just like women’s efforts in other areas of life. Hopefully, it’s just a matter of time before they push through.

John

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sts - what I notice about Boston is that there are many top-notch female fiddle players and very few female flute players. I could name a bunch of these women fiddle players but won’t. I can only think of one female flute player and she hasn’t been in Boston that long.

Up here in Vermont, USA, there are tons and tons of fiddle players (all kinds of genres) but very very few wooden flute players.

Joyce

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A couple years ago, I signed my husband (beginner on fiddle) up for a Kevin Burke workshop and also attended it myself even though I play flute. I couldn’t believe all the fiddlers that came out of the woodwork in rural Vermont! There had to be over 50 people! The mix was 50/50 in terms of gender…….

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I know at least four female Irish flute players in the Greater Boston area by name, and have surely seen a bunch more. But I can only think of one pre-op transexual Irish traditional didjeridoo player in all of Khazakstan.

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Please don’t tell us who that is, it’ll be so much more fun to guess.

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Gary - I was referring more to professionals. But I only travel down there to visit and I don’t live there so I’m sure there are more female flute players. The ones I hear about all the time are Jimmy Noonan, Shannon Heaton, Peter Molloy, Peter Maguire and that guy who moved to Baltimore….I’m privy to a lot of gossip so I’ll ask about other female flute players next weekend : )


Joyce

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In addition to Shannon, there’s Sue Gedutis Lindsay and Andrea Mori, both of whom perform professionally, though less visibly. I guess the others I’m thinking of are just session players.

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I help teach ITM to both child and adult classes, and out of the 50 or so students (the majority learning fiddle), there are only 5 male fiddle players. Not only that, but from attending sessions, concerts and the like, it does seem that female fiddle players are finally starting to tip the balance 🙂

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Sorry I can’t find the album to give you more info but I have a cassette called something like A River of Irish Sound. There is a set of three reels including one called the Green Fields of Antrim (?) played by Eileen Ivers. Technically and melodically I have yet to hear better.

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Er… I thought one of the major factors for the Irish is that trad music was something girls only did when they were young. When a girl became a woman she was expected to spend her time on more womanly/wifely pursuits, and "playing fiddle" isn’t included in that. Mairead ni Mhaonaigh is a bit of a rebel in that respect.

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What decade (or century, for that matter) are you thinking of, Highland Sun?

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lol… I suppose this was last century, since you put it that way.
But it was definitely a factor Mairead had to contend with, and I’m sure it wasn’t only a problem for her.

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That’s a real shame. I hope that mentality changes soon.

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fiel asked "What are "the footsteps of Eileen Ivers"; actually? I have one CD with her and I like very much what I hear, but I don’t know about her history."

Boy are you right if you’re trying not to oversimplify.

When I took lessons from Eileen back in the mid 80’s I think she had just finished her math degree. At that time she had not begun to range out beyond the Irish influence. She was a very local daughter of very immigrant parents.

When and why her playing began to change are easy to explain, and she did that in a 1994 National Public Radio interview like this:

IVERS: I guess again, being pretty lucky, kind of living in New York, just kind of hooked up with a few different bands through the years and started playing a little bit of more blues violin, or kind of in a few rock bands and quickly discovered that electric fiddle and oh God, all those Boss pedals and effects that you can use and just started to have a good time just learning more about music, pretty much.
[http://www.npr.org/programs/thistle/features/2002/ivers_int.html]

Pretty lucky!

Why others women fiddlers may have taken a similar turn? Maybe with 25 years on the music sceen, Eileen is a role model. Maybe commercial forces are at work. Maybe these other fiddlers are just exploring. Maybe they’re influencing each other; many of the fiddlers mentioned here have been working together and travelling in the same circles for many years.

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hey ostrichfeathers, how did you get the idea "the only woman univerally agreed upon as a truly top-knotch fiddle player is probably Liz Carroll" ???

There are more male then female fiddlers in the "top knotch club" (which is a definition not fitting common standards btw), thats right. the reasons are pointed out: women had only restricted oportunities to participate on cultural public life for centurys and still work on catching up. But there are (and have been) more top knotch and well famed female fiddle players. Liz, Carroll, Julia Clifford, Zoe Conway, Liz Doherty, Maeve Donelly, Liz Knowles, Rosie Mulholland, Kate O

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The women fiddlers being mentioned in this discussion all seem to be from the the last few years of recordings. For an antidote check out Lucy Farr, Aggie Whyte, Julia Clifford, and Kathleen Collins.

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How about Cait Reed?

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*cough* Catriona Macdonald *cough*

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