An interview with Jerry Holland

excerpts from Fiddler Magazine, Vol.6 No.4.

Jerry, I've known you for about twenty years now, and from the beginning you were a mature player. Could you summarize your musical development, up until the time we met?

My father was a nice sweet player. He was an ear player. In his teachings I was to learn it note-for-note and phrase-for-phrase as I heard it from the player I learned it from, and I wasn't really to vary from that. Now, as time went on, I heard conflicting things between players playing the same tune, so I made choices as to which version I was going to learn. In some cases I learned both versions and played it in my own stylings, and used them as variations against each other.


In my late teens and early twenties, when the John Allan Cameron Shows started, I had the opportunity to work with my hero, being Winston Fitzgerald. Angus Chisholm was another great fiddler who was on the pilot shows and a couple of the first shows. Joe Cormier was another who was on some of the pilot shows... then Wilfred Gillis and John Donald Cameron, and myself. Now I felt I had to play my best in front of these people, and I worked at it. I had to really buckle down and listen to what old tapes we had, or recordings, whether it be 78s or the LPs, in order to get the right kind of feel.

I was a poor reader and still am to some extent today, although I can read and whistle a tune quicker than I can play it. It's just lack of practice on my part. But these fellows would help; where they either knew the tunes or had a version of the tunes to start with, they would teach them to me. John Donald Cameron was wonderful. Another person that was good at it was Winston. Wilfred would help at it when he could as well.

So you were learning in a combination of ways from those fellows. You were learning from them one-on-one, you were going back with tapes, and going to the books when you couldn't remember.

That's right. There was sheet music that would be provided for the shows. There would be anywhere from sixty to a hundred and twenty tunes. What would happen is that I'd leave from Boston and get into Montreal, and if I had the music beforehand I might have some idea, but I'd never get through the amount of tunes that they'd send. So being a quick learner and having a quick ear, I was able to get through the stuff, in some cases one tune at a time, or one grouping of tunes at a time. I could learn a grouping of tunes in say fifteen minutes. Even tunes I had never heard before, because the pressure was on and these people were gracious enough to take the time with me and play the stuff until I had an ear full of it and could reproduce it for them. So it was an incredible pressure, to have to learn so many tunes and play them like you always played them, like they were part of my repertoire. It was an unnecessary kind of task that they performed for me, and I'm very grateful for it. I think very highly of them for the time they did take with me.

You'd be learning sixty to a hundred and twenty tunes every show?

No, no, for the group of shows that we'd be doing there might be four or five shows a week, and it would be one week every five or six weeks. It would be a twenty-six week series, or a thirteen week series. In some cases they showed reruns, which gave us a breathing space of three months or better. There'd be pilot shows for another series of shows that they'd want to do and so on.

Since you did this [worked with the Cape Breton Symphony] for three years , it sounds like you had the best teachers possible for perhaps as many as a thousand tunes.

Yeah, I would say a minimum of a thousand tunes...


Would I be right in saying that a dance and at a house party you'd be more or less playing tunes off the cuff?

Yes, without question.

Would that be the same at concerts? Or would concerts be more prepared?

Concerts would be more prepared in a sense where you might have fifty groups of tunes to pick and choose eight or ten groups from. The groups of tunes would be somewhat rehearsed with accompanists over the years, and that's the comforting part of doing concerts with accompanists you're familiar with and that are familiar with your music. The more repertoire that they know and that pleases you, it won't take your attention away from playing… Looking for them to play a certain chord in a certain place, for instance… if they know the stuff, there's not going to be a distraction when they play with you.

Do your accompanists ever inspire you to play better?

Well, accompaniment does do a lot. It can make or break you. If you don't know the accompanist at all, it's just a hit or miss kind of thing and you just close your eyes and do the best you can, and whatever happens happens. And hopefully nobody's got a tape recorder! In the setting where your accompanist knows your repertoire, there's an extreme comfort zone there that really can't be matched. There's very few that I've played with that don't want to make you sound your best each and every time you go out to play. So in other words, they'll do all they can to make your performance the best it can be, as it's their performance as well.

Do you enjoy playing totally unaccompanied?

Yes, I enjoy that aspect of it as well, although I'd rather it be for the educated ear, say for other fiddlers. I prefer playing for other fiddlers unaccompanied not so much to "strut my stuff", as it were, but so that they can hear everything... anything from phrasing, to variations, to embellishments, to different embellishments the second time through a tune, the dynamics of it all, how you can take the same tune and change its character just by the type of drive that you'd give it or not give it, by playing in a laid-back fashion. So yes, there are times that I enjoy playing for somebody that really does understand what I'm doing or appreciates that kind of thing.


In Irish music, you often have just melody players playing together with no chordal accompaniment. How is that different than what we're talking about?

I think there's a different energy that makes it special but I also think that often with melody players playing together, you can lose your identity. There's stuff that you may have worked at that took you time to achieve... you don't have a place to show it. So you might question &emdash; was it worth learning? Was it worth growing? But there are other aspects of playing together with different instrumentation, depending on the setting and the reason behind it. For example, on my latest recording, Fiddler's Choice, [uilleann piper] Kieran O'Hare...

He learned so much of your music and made it easy for you to play because he studied your music?

Yeah, he put so much time into it, he learned embellishment for embellishment, for what he was able to conquer with the pipes. I'm sure there are embellishments that he uses playing with me that aren't in the everyday stuff that he plays. Playing with somebody of his caliber and his abilities is a real treat. It's an absolute honour to have somebody do that and think that much of my playing to have gone that far ...

That kind of duet playing, that's a little different than what I was getting at. In a session, people are often learning ... they're trying to learn tunes on-the-fly by following along. What do you think of learning melodies in that way?

Well, as you know, there are two different definitions of the word session ... here in Cape Breton, versus in Ireland.

I'm using the word in an Irish context.

In an Irish context, there may be multiple melody players sitting down playing. I think that's a very necessary type of thing that should be taking place everywhere in order to help the up and coming. It distributes tunes. I think there's a lot to offer from that type of playing that isn't done here (Note: since this interview Jerry and some friends have started a weekly Irish Style session at a pub in North Sydney.)

And in Cape Breton?

The type of playing that's called sessions here is where you go to a house party and take your turn and play anywhere from ten minutes to even as long as an hour in some cases. When you're talking an evening session here in Cape Breton, you have an opportunity to hear each person's individual interpretation of tunes that you may know, or may not know. The way you learn them is to ask where they got them, and to find out if there's a recording, or sheet music, or a book or whatever.

By learning in those two different ways do you think the end result is much the same?

I think there are different strengths. There's a strength in being a total individual as far as character in playing, say in Cape Breton, where there are no two players who play exactly the same unless they study someone's music, as we spoke of already. With the Irish-type sessions, it could be a confusing thing for the learner to hear multiple variations of tunes, or it could be a wonderful thing where they'd have the opportunity to hear better players than themselves, somebody to learn from, and so on. And somebody to play with. There's something to be said for playing with a group as well…there isn't a shyness factor, because you've got somebody to back you if you happen to screw up a note here or there, or that kind of thing. [In the Cape Breton session], there's a nerve factor there, possibly, for some. And then there are others, that are real close to me, that don't have a fear of much of anything! Jerry Jr.… he'd play "Miss McLeod's Reel" all night long for the pope if the pope would listen! But seriously though, it would be tough for the average Caper to make his first performance out there, after studying at home. But I think in the same vein, they'd be looking to show their accomplishment, and there may be a certain pride there that may help get over the fear of performing.

I know my experience here in Cape Breton, even right at the beginning, when I was struggling through tunes like The Irish Washerwoman, I'd go to house parties with very good musicians and they would always encourage me. I wouldn't play as much as the others… I'd be listening … but you'd still get to participate.

Sure, there's all kinds of acceptance of this kind of thing. You'd want to play your very best, you'd want to play the best tunes that you could handle, and the encouragement you'd get would, I'm sure, be an incentive to continue on. I'm sure each performance would not only get better, the places that you'd dare play after that would get a little bigger as well.

When you were first playing music, did you get most of your encouragement playing for public audiences, like concerts, or was it from the people at the house parties? Where do you think you were nurtured the most?

I'd have to say house parties and home performances. I enjoyed the response of dance playing and little concerts and talent shows and that sort of thing that I did as a child. But I think I got more gratification and enjoyment out of playing for folks that saw the progress of my playing, and knew where I was with it.

Jerry, changing the topic to composing, during the period that you were with the Cape Breton Symphony, you learned lots of tunes from them. But you had already started composing some tunes.

Yes, there were maybe two or three tunes that I had composed up to that point. Actually, one of them the Cape Breton Symphony did record was Mary Clare, a B-flat kind of a hornpipe-reel. That seemed to catch on extremely fast, even with folks that didn't know the music that well &endash; the cameramen were even whistling it &endash; along with the comments my musical associates made there was inspiration to continue on. Mary Clare was a tune that my father had started, but it was in a different key and had a little different bit of an ending. I made the B part for it and it went from there.

Other than having those great players play tunes like Mary Clare, what motivates you to compose?

Well, that's more me, the kind of person I am. I wasn't going to say, "This is a tune I made, I'm going to play it for you whether you like it or not!" I would play a tune, and if there was a comment about it, that would be fine. If it was a negative comment, there was a reason for it and I would go back to the drawing board, or I would completely scrap it out of frustration. I think looking at the tradition... I've tried to stay within the tolerances of what I think it would accept, and steer clear of what it wouldn't.

So when you do compose, you're thinking of the tradition and trying to make something that fits. You're not trying to push the tradition forward?

No. If there's a phrase that seems to stick in my mind that seems like nothing else or could develop into something, I usually try to see if it can fit into one of a few categories: Does it sound like an Irish tune? Is it more like a Cape Breton tune? Is it a pipe tune? Or is it a cross-over tune that could be played by both the Cape Breton Scottish and Irish traditions? The initial phrase may dictate which tradition it may fit better in. Take Brenda Stubbert's Reel… I knew it was going to be a pipe tune after the first phrase of the B part. I didn't know for sure how it would fit the scales of the pipes, but I had certainly hoped it could be adapted, because the phrasing and the feel of the whole tune said pipes to me.

How would you describe the process of making a tune?

I guess there are a few different ways a tune will take shape. It usually starts with a phrase, and not necessarily with an instrument, but it will come quicker with an instrument. There are half-tunes that will come … I could be driving a truck or doing carpenter work, I could be in many different settings and not have pen or paper or a tape recorder or an instrument to finalize it. Some of them will stick long enough until I can get to something of that kind to keep record of it. In some other cases, it will be just a short phrase, maybe a two-bar phrase or a one-bar phrase that may instigate seeing what can come of that by noodling around with it. I might get as far as an A part for a tune, or what may end up being a B part for a tune, and all of a sudden the creative juices will dry up and it will sit on the shelf. The tune I wrote for my mother, "For My Mother Dear," sat on the shelf for the best part of three years before I finished it.

Do you think that composing is something that you can learn? Can you give advice to a beginning composer?

To somebody who's already in progress with composing, depending on what their composing has been, I could offer them pointers. Know as much, learn as much about what tunes are in the tradition in order to have some bit of a gauge of what is accepted.

So you need years of playing the old traditional tunes before you should start composing …

Well, that kind of thing. You've got to know what works and what has worked if you expect a tune to stick around for any period of time. Was it the life? Was it the dynamics? Was it the difficulty of the tune itself? As you know, my belief is that simple music is some of the prettier music that you'll hear, and that's maybe more of a difficult type of music to compose &endash; a tune that has all the qualities of something that will stay around, a nice melody, something that has life and yet is both easy to learn and attractive to players of many different ability ranges.

And yet still is original &endash; I guess that's the real difficult thing, to make something that's simple &endash; yet original.

Exactly. I think there's another aspect to composing, and that is what you play it with &endash; the character and type of groupings that you put together. I think grouping tunes together is an art in itself. You wouldn't want to play three tunes together that sound very similar, because each one would lose its identity against the others if they sounded too much alike. You'd look to have a character change. I don't think you'd look so much to have a key change, but that would certainly be a possibility, but not by any means a necessity. Some of the old people here, as you know, figured that if you had to change keys you didn't know many tunes. So with that kind of an understanding of what the older people thought of that kind of thing, you'd stay away from key changes to some extent. That was only introduced in the last thirty years maybe. You'd want each tune to complement the other, and for there to be a character change…

What about the way that Cape Bretoners put groups of tunes together with different rhythms, building from slow air to march to strathspey …

The traditional thing is to start with anything from a slow air to a march, it could be a couple of strathspeys, and anywhere from two to four reels, depending on the tunes themselves and how many parts there are to them. A group of five or six minutes is plenty long enough. Anything longer than that and you're going to lose the audience's attention, I would think. You'd have to have some extreme die-hards who'd enjoy a twenty minute set of tunes. Shorter, I think, most times means a little bit better.

What about jigs and reels &endash; can they be played too fast or too slow ... and does dancing affect tempos?

Dancing definitely affects it. Different areas where you play for dances can dictate how fast you're going to play, or how slow you're going to play. I'll start off a little slower than I normally would for places that I know dance a certain rate of speed, and if I see they're struggling with it being too slow, I'll pick it up. Usually I don't have any negative comments, and by the end of the first set I've got a grip on it.

One thing that a lot of people notice about your musicianship, Jerry, is your sweet intonation. You always seem to be perfectly in tune. How do you learn to get that real sweetness of tone in every key?

First the instrument has to be in tune with itself. I find it's important to use the same pressure when you're tuning as you intend to use playing, because the tuning will change as soon as you look to use a different bow pressure on the strings. So when I tune for say a group of jigs or reels, I use the pressure that I intend to play at. If I look to play a slow air that's going to take a little less aggression, if it's the only tune I intend to play, I'll check the tuning again, using the pressure that I intend to play with, which will alter the tuning just ever so slightly…

One of the things that was a help to me was playing scales, as hateful as that can be… playing scales in the different keys, in different modes, and so on. Scales, and matching them to a piano that's tuned well, is a starting place, anyway. When I was learning, I had a piano, and I played the guitar a bit as well. So if I was in question as to whether I was in tune, I could compare it against the piano or the guitar and make a mental note of it. You go through the do re mi fa soh kind of thing in your head for each key that you're playing; that's a basic starting place for keeping the intonation sharp in every key...


Excerpted from a longer interview published in Fiddler Magazine, Winter 1999.