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Martin Hayes: 'One night my father said - a stór, maybe the fiddle isn't the instrument for you'

In this extract from his new memoir, the renowned fiddle player writes about his arduous journey to learning the instrument – and the support he got from his dad.

Martin Hayes

I BELIEVED I was a musician from the moment I saw the fiddle Santa had left for me on Christmas morning.

I was just seven years old at the time, but I figured it must be fate. If Santa had brought me a fiddle, then he must have believed I was a fiddle-player. I had the idea that I could just pick up the instrument and play like my father. It hadn’t occurred to me the level of work and practice that would be required to master even the basics, never mind play a full tune. This naivety I attribute to a fine mix of childhood optimism and the fact that my father and the musicians who played in our kitchen always made it look so effortless.

I remember being at the kitchen table one morning, my father taking down his fiddle and holding it under my chin. I suppose he was first sussing me out to see if the interest was there. Though I’d never tried to play the fiddle, I was always curious about it, in the way a young boy typically wants to be like his father. I wanted to do what my father did and play the fiddle, because it meant I would be just like him.

Martin Hayes Shared Notes Jacket High Res (1)

There was never one iota of pressure on me to take up the fiddle, not even after Santa had brought it to me. Receiving the fiddle on Christmas morning was certainly a gentle nudge of encouragement but I was never pressured to play it; that decision was mine alone.

On the Christmas Day I received the fiddle, I remember asking my father to show me how to play. It was then the penny dropped that this was not going to be as easy as I thought. In the coming weeks and months, my father would occasionally sit in front of me, slowly play a bar or two and ask me to follow along. It was just a matter of looking and listening.

There was no actual musical instruction, just an attempt to copy what he did. I wasn’t very good or fast at this, and there was no sign of any real aptitude or natural talent. I’d make a little bit of progress and then lose momentum because I wouldn’t practise regularly. After a week or two I’d have to relearn the tune and start all over again.

This frustrating circle of events went on for almost two years, during which I only learned a few tunes. I must have been almost ten when my father, who was very caring and gentle, said to me one night, ‘Martin, a stór. I don’t think you’re going to be able to do this. Maybe the fiddle isn’t for you.’ He just wanted to relieve me of the burden of struggling with something I didn’t seem to be naturally good at. I remember being absolutely devastated. I cried myself to sleep that night at the thought of losing my dream of being a fiddle-player just like my father, but somehow this incident sparked a determination to fight for what I wanted. I began to play regularly, and gradually started to get a small selection of tunes under my belt.

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My father was a humble and shy man with a very modest sense of his own musical abilities. He wasn’t competitive either, which was ultimately very important. Years later, in speaking with the children of some other prominent musical parents, I became aware of a more complicated dynamic that sometimes exists, where on the one hand the parent would encourage the child, but on the other, they did not want to be surpassed. This is obviously a serious impediment for anyone learning an instrument.

As the years went on I always felt my father never competed with me or stood in my way. He wanted me to play better than him, which was a very generous and supportive position for him to have adopted. 

The result was that I never felt competitive with him either. Over time, my father and I became colleagues and friends on our musical journey. By no means am I suggesting that we didn’t have the usual father-and-son difficulties – we had plenty of disputes – but they were never about music.

Shared Notes by Martin Hayes, published by Transworld, is out now. 

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Martin Hayes

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