Had your high school math teacher heard Christian Lemaitre counting in a lecture hall in the NAU music building, she would have furrowed her brow in confusion. “1,2,3,4,68…1,2,3,4,6,8,” Lemaitre counts in a French accent that is as thick as he is slight, and strong as he is tall.
This man standing, swaying, and singing in front of a dozen or so amateur fiddle players is a member of Celtic Fiddle Festival. He has been called, by the Washington Post, “[One of] the three finest folk violinists anywhere.” And last night he counted out the rhythm of a tune that he taught to members of our community. First, he introduced his pupils (a group of fiddle-playing Arizonans who had registered for the workshop through Living Traditions Presentations) to Bretton dance tunes. Bretton is an area in France with distinct Celtic roots. Lemaitre is French by birth and plays fiddle in the Bretton style.
“Bretton Dance tunes have no name, which is great for us because we don’t have to remember their names,” he spreads this wisdom with a chuckle, that in contrast to his scholarly carriage and soft spoken nature comes out bright untethered and stumbling.
He taught his class a slippery, dark, and elegant d-minor fiddle tune, called an An Dro. His style is specific to one area of the world. An area that many of his pupils-for-the-evening will never see. For one night only he is their key in to Bretton—a portal to the knowledge of a Celtic tradition that they otherwise might not have access to.
“I think it was a great opportunity for musicians of many levels to gain experience with three Celtic styles, with three master fiddlers,” said Kari Barton, director of Living Traditions Presentations.
Lemaitre was not alone. He was joined in giving workshops by his bandmates Kevin Burke and Andre Brunet. The three where the star teachers of three workshops, 35 minutes in length, that Barton’s organization brought into being.
Where Lemaitre was soft spoken and reserved, Andre Brunet’s personality came bubbling out in his boisterous delivery of his lessons. Where the floor in the classroom Lemaitre took up was tapped by the toes of high heel boots, and size nine women’s flats, Brunet’s pupils kept rhythm in pink sparkly Sketchers and turquoise Chuck Taylor’s.
“I can tell he’s good with kids,” remarked 12-year-old fiddler Clyde Ellis. Ellis was one of Brunet’s pupils, and his observation was fitting. Brunet was teaching the children’s class.
He clogged on his stomp board to keep rhythm as he taught. “Let’s do it the Quebecois way!” He booms in his French Canadian way, “Un, duo, twoi,” Then he plays a phrase that the children in the class copy-cat.
This learning-by-ear technique is an essential element of the Celtic musical tradition. Something that Kevin Burke (the Irish fiddler in the group) remarks on to his class. He is, in effect teaching Henry Higgins to speak like Eliza Doolittle. He is teaching the class of classical violinists.
He explains Irish fiddle ornamentation, and the distinct differences between fiddlers and violinists. An orthodox violinist often takes pride in the clarity of their sound, and like the fact that each bow change can be picked up on by a listener. The Irish fiddler masks his bow changes, making the clarity and precision of the piece fall away to make way for what Burke calls, “Very viable dance music.”
Workshops like this one are offered through the Grand Canyon Celtic Arts Academy (Living Traditions Presentation’s partner organization) in the summer, and sporadically throughout the year.