Profile by Jane Ledwell
There’s a jam session at Ward MacDonald’s house. A cruise ship is in port, and three musicians from the crew—two American, one Irish—have spent the day on shore making music with the Island fiddler, known for his teaching as well as his performances in top-notch shows such as “Highland Storm.” Ward met one of the musicians at an American fiddle camp.
In addition to bringing home musicians from fiddle camps, in 2010, Ward brought home the PEI Fiddle Camp—a life-changing immersion in music and dance, for all ages and all traditional music players (not just fiddlers). Ward says, “It is one week of life and joy and music.”
Ward recalls, “I didn’t start to play fiddle because I wanted to be a musician. I started to play the fiddle because I wanted to play [Scottish] fiddle music… I know there’s a richness, a lineage in it, that comes from generations of players honing the music.”
Both Ward’s father and grandfather played fiddle. He says, “One of the things I was luckiest for was that I was listening to my father play tunes, of course, but I was also listening to him learning new tunes.”
By the time Ward began to play, he says, “I had hundreds of tunes in my head: I just didn’t know how to play them yet. The story was there: I just hadn’t told it myself.”
Ward’s passion for teaching music also goes deeper than passing on tunes. With 16 years’ teaching experience and a teaching degree from St. Francis Xavier University, he says, “What I offer is ear training, listening, memorization. Developing rhythm, swing, emotion—that’s important. Making people want to dance is the goal.”
One summer, Ward taught at three different fiddle camps and came to fully appreciate the powerful connection between listening, playing, and dancing: “There are evening activities at fiddle camps, and everybody dances. If you are trying to teach a jig on a Tuesday morning—hung over” (he grins) “that is hard to do. But when everyone dances to jigs every evening—they get it. They feel the jigs. It’s an immersion, where everything is in context.”
At the end of the Klondike Fiddle Camp in the Yukon, Ward recalls, “I was sitting in a hot tub in Dawson City,” and the organizer of the camp suggested Ward should organize a PEI camp. He couldn’t come up with any counter-arguments.
The skills were there for him to start a camp. Ward is an able and experienced event organizer, known for his work on the first Festival of Small Halls and as artistic director of the second. He has not been involved in the Festival for the past two years: his last year with Small Halls was his first with the PEI Fiddle Camp.
Ward says of the camp, “Our motto is that we want to teach people to learn, moreso than to teach you a tune. We want you to have a new bag of tools to keep learning and growing after you’ve left us.
Something unique to PEI Fiddle Camp is “ear-stretching” classes, bringing together teachers and students who play different instruments from each other. “Ear-stretching opens people’s minds to being able to learn from anyone. They can appreciate the instruments, appreciate the other teachers.
“You can’t concern yourself with what you don’t know,” muses Ward. “In fiddle terms, if you can’t play the tune right now, it’s not a big deal. Another tune may teach you that thing that you’re missing to play the tune you want. It might unravel the mystery of that other tune.”
Says Ward, “At some point exploring one style, you hit a roadblock you can’t understand, you can learn that from another style of music or another instrument. Even though I’m still a pretty raw piano player, learning piano made me a better fiddler. And it helps the communication with other players.”
As the cruise ship crew packed up their instruments, the Irish guitar player, assuming I had come for a lesson, said, “You’ve a great teacher here, I reckon.” I wished I was there for a lesson.