Blaze a Trail
I live in North Carolina, USA, where I am a fiddle player, fiddle teacher, writer, and editor. I play Celtic music. Generally speaking, that means Scottish, Irish, and other music from the British Isles. Dance music is what I love best—Scottish country dances, English country dances, and Irish set dances, as well as contra dances, parties, and concerts with the fiddle-guitar duo, The Elftones.
I teach and coach students in the fundamentals of fiddle playing, introducing them gradually to techniques that make the music sound more Irish, or Scottish, danceable, lyrical, and most important, fun to play.
More About Mara
A Musical Beginning
Before I decided to be a full-time musician, I wore a technical writer and editor hat, working for 25 years with various large corporations. I am now a musician and fiddle teacher; a very part-time freelance technical writer; a volunteer, part-time assistant orchestra librarian with the North Carolina Symphony; and I also write a few articles and essays just for fun. A few years back, Mel Bay published a book that I wrote about Scottish strathspeys—one of my favorite types of tunes! Airs and Dances, a Collection of Scottish Strathspeys for Violin and Other Melody Instruments, is full of interesting tunes, some well-known, some not, with historical notes about the music, the composers, and the subjects of the tunes. You can also download audio files for each of the 100 strathspeys—nothing fancy, just me on solo fiddle playing the tunes.
You can hear me play on several recordings with The Elftones: an album of waltzes, and three albums of Irish and Scottish tunes. We also have a wonderful recording, All the Pretty Horses, graced with Rhiannon Giddens’ beautiful voice. One of my favorite CDs, Heather Hills, is with Dave Wiesler on piano, as we have a splendid time playing Scottish tunes for dancing, and for just listening. In June 2014, Julie Gorka and I recorded some of our favorite waltzes, for an album called In 3/4 Time. We've also recorded several English country dance singles, which you can hear on my Music page.
In 2017, The Elftones released their 20th-anniversary album called The Elftones--Naturally. We decided we wanted to play some of our favorite concert pieces on this one, so it has a real variety of music on it. Slow, meditative waltzes. A haunting, poignant French tune. Some old favorite contra dance sets that will get your toes tapping. Some of our own compositions, and a few by friends. As one of our first reviewers said, "This is a gem!"
Visit me on YouTube for a look at English country dance (what you might see in one of the Jane Austen films like Pride and Prejudice). Here’s a link to a YouTube video of a dance called “Northdown Waltz,” and one with the intriguing title, “The Physical Snob.” In the “Northdown Waltz” and “Physical Snob” videos, the music is played by a trio with the whimsical name of Syllabub--Julie Gorka on piano, Walt Robinson on recorder, and me on violin. We have had so many people ask us to record "Mister Beveridge's Maggot"—the famous English country dance music from the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice—that we finally released a recording of it, now available for download. Enjoy!
I play with many other delightful musicians. Rebecca McCallum, Jim Stevenson-Mathews, and I formed a Scottish music ensemble called Highland Oasis when we began performing at Mohonk Mountain House each year for their Scottish Weekends. Dean Herington, Pete Campbell, and I play in a very-much-fun Scottish country dance ensemble called The MacRowdies. Julie Gorka and I play as a piano-fiddle duo called Copious Notes, and we've recorded lots of downloadable tracks of English and Scottish country dances, as well as waltzes. Laura Lengnick, Karen Gaughan, and I are Good & Plenty—providing lots of twin-fiddle-and-piano energy for dancers. We are also all contra dance musicians, so you will find us occasionally playing for contra dances throughout the country. Our goal: to have fun and make good music!
I got into teaching fiddle by accident.
It wasn't long after I'd picked up my violin after a lot of years of leaving it in a closet, and discovered that I really like playing Irish and Scottish and English dance music. Someone asked me for some help playing her new fiddle, and she was scared to ask her teacher, for some reason or other.
Fifteen minutes later, she was so tickled that she could actually play what was in her head, that she blurted out, "You should be a real teacher!"
Now that was a sort of compliment, I think.
Anyway, I took her advice over the years, and gradually started teaching and coaching people who really wanted to learn to play some Irish or Celtic music. Some didn't read music at all. Some were classical players, and really good ones, far better than I would have ever been if I'd continued studying music in college. Some had never picked up any instrument before and had to start from scratch. Most of my students are adults, trying out something they've always wanted to do. Or they used to take lessons when they were kids, and burned out on the discipline and practice. Some are teenagers, who are taking classical violin lessons, and are burning out on the pretty intense competition and hard work. "Fiddle" lessons emphasize improvisation, listening, learning by ear, and conversing musically with other instruments.
Whatever their motivation, they all seem to like music, enjoy making music, and they are in the process of discovering it in themselves.
I'm not a classical music teacher. But I teach that good music is from the heart, and playing it should bring joy. I use a wide and varied selection of music for my students—baroque, English country dance, Irish, French Canadian, Scottish, waltzes, old-time—and try to teach good intonation, tone, bowing technique, and listening skills.
And I learn more from my students, young and old, as they learn how to listen and play with other musicians and learn more about themselves in the process. They'll never be in Jascha Heifetz' league (nor will I!), but they will perhaps be happy, and they'll keep playing music for the rest of their lives.
The art of writing.
Calliope is the muse of epic poetry, and closely associated with music, as are all the Greek muses. I don't write epic poetry, but I like the idea that good writing can be musical, rhythmic, and powerful.
I have an M.A. in English literature, with an emphasis in medieval studies, and I started out with the goal of teaching English in public schools. Somehow my path turned to scientific and technical writing and editing. As technical writing is a lot like teaching someone on paper, I suppose that's not too far off the original path.
I like helping people put thoughts on paper, whether it's a software manual, family stories and genealogy, or an autobiography. I've ghost-written books on Japanese culture for American businessmen, family histories, and Irish mythology. I've also written a lot of marketing brochures and materials for all kinds of businesses and non-profit organizations, along with shelves and web pages full of hardware and software manuals. But probably my most enjoyable writing project was a book that combined stories, history, and music...Airs and Dances, a Collection of Scottish Strathspeys for Violin and Other Melody Instruments.
And there will be a couple of other books of tunes in the near future...stay tuned!