Since April 19, 2015, Fiddle Talk has been pleased to have Jim Dunleavy as a member. Jim has been very active on the forum. He has provided a lot of good advice and encouragement to members, myself included. How much do we really know about Jim Dunleavy? Well, I aim to find out a little more and see what we can uncover.
Thank you for agreeing to do this, Jim. We have all enjoyed reading your posts over the years. I think we would all like to know a little bit more about you in general and your music background, or just a broader picture of what we do know, based on your forum participation.
I would like to start out by allowing you to say as much or as little you would like to about yourself, like the area you live (not specifics, general area ie city, rural, etc), hobbies, whatever you would like us to know. Is there anything that might surprise us?
I was born and raised in a small coal mining town in County Durham, England. As a child, our home was filled with music; both my parents played instruments (my dad played violin to a reasonable level and my mam played piano) so it was quite natural for me to pick out tunes by ear on the piano at a young age and later learn to read music. My violin journey was a bit more complicated.
We moved to Tyneside (about 20 miles away) to be near my mam’s family after my dad passed away when I was 15.
My wife and I now live in Washington, Tyne and Wear, the ancestral home of the family that eventually produced the first president of America. Even though his branch of the family left the area in the 13th century and the rest of the family left here around 1600, the local tourist industry doesn’t let anyone forget it! Apparently you can still visit Washington Old Hall but typically, even though it’s right on our doorstep, we’ve never been there.
Washington is in a great position; it’s a sprawling suburban town made up of many small village centres and it has easy access to both coast and countryside. We love it here.
We have one son and a granddaughter close by, and another son, grandson & granddaughter living in Essex near London. All the grandchildren are grown up and we have a great grandson who we haven’t met yet, but are planning to next month (he’s 7 months old).
My ancestry on both sides of the family is Irish, which maybe explains my aptitude for, and love of, playing music!
Thank you for sharing so much of your background. That was lovely.
According to your intro, you played piano, flute and sax before picking up the violin after you retired. What made you decide to give the violin a try? Was that on your “to do” list for a while, or did you just decide to do the violin upon your retirement?
I was looking for a challenge. I knew I’d have a lot of spare time to fill after I retired and I’ve never been one for just sitting watching TV or reading the paper.
I probably chose violin because we have a family history of violin playing (as I mentioned before, my dad played and my brother plays). The other factor was that we had a violin in the attic so I could have a free try to see if I liked it or not.
As an aside, when I was 10 or so, I asked for a trumpet – instead my dad decided to try teaching me violin (can you blame him?) using the small instrument (maybe a ¾ size?) that my brother learnt on. I didn’t last long – I was OK with open strings but as soon as I tried putting down my left hand fingers it sounded so awful I gave up in despair! Maybe I secretly regretted not keeping it up though.
Funnily enough, I did eventually get to play a brass instrument (a cornet in a brass band) but not until I was over 30 – my brass band days lasted over 15 years and gave me a tremendous amount of pleasure. I played in 3 different bands in all, my longest time being with Westoe Colliery Band (you can look up their history online if you’re interested) and I used to particularly enjoy the trips to the Mineworkers contest which was held every November in the Winter Gardens in Blackpool, a popular seaside resort on the west coast – happy days!
I guess it isn’t just adult learners who have problems when those fingers on the left hand try to help.
What was the hardest thing for you to get used to or figure out about playing the violin?
I always thought that the hardest part of violin playing would be the left hand (maybe that came from my childhood experience). Much to my surprise, I’ve found the hardest bit is using the bow properly – almost everything to do with tone, sound and articulation comes from the right hand.
Yes, the bow. When I started, I thought the bows would be the easy part, and wouldn’t be that much of a factor. Boy, was I wrong!
As with the previous question, what was the easiest thing to figure out about the violin?
My experience of playing other instruments meant I could already read music fluently, so I suppose that’s the bit I find easiest.
Can you describe your violin? Is there something about it that drew you to it more than others? What makes it special to you?
The violin I started on was an old Skylark outfit bought in the 80s; I put fresh strings on it and used the supplied (rubbish) bow. I also did some DIY upgrades (better chinrest, new pegs, new bridge etc) but it was never going to be a great instrument so after a few years I started looking for something better.
By that time I was a regular member of the Fiddlerman forum and was aware of the Fiddlershop and decided their violins were better instruments for the money than those I could buy in the UK. The only real issue was importing it, but with the help of Michael from Fiddlershop that was all sorted out and a Fiddlerman Master Violin outfit duly arrived at the Dunleavy residence in the Summer of 2017.
Having a decent instrument was a game changer and I loved playing it from the start (and still do!). It’s 6 years old now so probably due a set up and service to keep it at its best. I must get round to organising that!
Do you have a favorite bow? What makes it special?
I’ve never owned an expensive bow. At the start I used the bow that came with my Skylark, then upgraded to a £40 Brazilwood bow (which was better than the original, but still not great).
When I got my Fiddlerman Master violin I used the FM carbon fibre bow that came with it (which was fine), but rather than spend £50 or £60 getting it re-haired after a couple of years, I upgraded to a slightly better carbon fibre bow (a Col Legno Standard) for about £120.
I quite like the Col Legno, but it’s getting close to needing a re-hair now so I’m debating whether to pay for that or upgrade to something better (e.g. a nice pernambuco bow – they’re scarily expensive though!).
Do you experiment with different strings or are you pretty fond of one brand?
I went through a phase of trying a variety of different strings, but now I’ve settled on D’Addario Zyex; they seem to produce the best overall results on my violin.
Is there a particular routine you do when you pick up your fiddle before you start playing pieces? Exercises, warm ups, etc?
My routine has varied from time to time as I’ve progressed on the instrument but now pretty much matches the routine I’ve used successfully on the flute for decades: –
1. Warm-ups. Usually using various bowings, articulations and positions on a scale of G just to get my hands re-acquainted with the instrument and my muscles warmed up.
2. Scales. One major and one minor scale from the ones I know each day (changing to the next ones the following day). I use the metronome and practice my vibrato at various speeds while playing my scales. I use long bows and various different slurring patterns and articulations.
These first 2 stages usually last about 20 minutes.
3. Studies. I always have a study book on the go, and try to progress in difficulty level when I finish one book and move on to the next. Currently, I’m working my way through the Mazas studies; I’m up to No 13 at the moment, which is not the easiest (there’s a lot of notes to fit in on each bowstroke)!
4. Finally I work on some pieces. Currently I’m working through Suzuki Bk 4 and I’m at the last piece, the 2nd violin part of the Bach Double. I’ve also got a few random books of pieces that I play from as the mood takes me.
I play a couple of folk tunes at random places in the practice and finish off my session with a piece I know reasonably, well using an accompaniment track – it’s kind of a reward for all the hard work!
The whole lot takes around 50 minutes to an hour and I play every day unless it’s physically impossible or socially unacceptable (Xmas day for example! Lol).
What a great routine. Funny, I do the rewarding periodically during and at the end of a session, also. It helps.
You stated that you were self teaching in the way of a classical violinist when you started. But you also said you are, “also very into Irish folk fiddle.” Are you still following along the lines a classical instructor would do? If not, is it more of you doing it as you need it, or more as a fiddle player would self-teach?
I would say, still more along the lines of classical violin, and that’s where most of my practice time goes. The folk stuff is sort of tacked on. I enjoy playing both styles though.
Do you use classical music or fiddle music to learn techniques, theory, etc?
I would say I use both, but with the emphasis on classical music. Both styles have a wide variety of techniques when you look into them more deeply; for example I’m just starting to realise the importance of using the right bowing styles for folk music.
Is there a particular classical piece that is your favorite to play?
My favourite piece is usually the one I’m working on right now! At the moment, I’m at the end of Suzuki book 4 so I’m learning the 2nd violin part of the Bach Double violin concerto. I’ve really liked that piece since the moment I first heard it (may years ago and long before I had any notion that I might play it one day!). It’s a challenge!
Is there a favorite Irish Folk fiddle piece?
I’m currently learning ‘The Red Haired Boy’ – this is a lively Irish Reel and it’s my favourite out of all the ones I can play so far. I also really like playing Morrison’s Jig and Raglan Road.
What draws you to a particular piece you want to play. What makes you want to learn to play it?
Generally it’s just random chance based on my YouTube recommended videos or something somebody’s posted on the forum or FaceBook. I’ll hear something I like and try to find the sheet music for it (or learn it by ear if it’s a folk tune).
Do you use sheet music, either digital or printed, for pieces, or do you figure them out by ear?
I use both methods. For classical pieces I invariably use sheet music, but for traditional music I now try, wherever possible, to learn it by finding a great version on YouTube and listening to it over and over, then trying to find the notes on the fiddle next time I practice. Once you know the key it’s in, you know where to start, and it’s usually reasonably easy to work it out from there.
What part of playing a violin or fiddle is giving you the most difficulty at the moment?
Probably getting the bowing right – that applies to both classical and trad music. Each have their own unique challenges. I’ve recently realised that to give traditional tunes the right feel you must use the right bowing technique, so I’ve been making an effort to learn some of them (Georgia Shuffle anyone?).
Do you enjoy playing in public? Is there a particular form of music you find more enjoyable to perform in public? Where is your favorite place to perform?
When I was playing in brass bands I was out playing in public all the time – in the bandstands of various parks at least one day a week in the summer, and also concerts and contests all year round. It was pretty much a full time occupation, and I was working at the time as well, so didn’t have time for much else; eventually it became a bit of a chore which is probably what led to me giving it up.
I’ve done solo performances on piano and flute (not on violin so far) but I get too nervous and stressed to really enjoy it. I often get to play flute solos in orchestral pieces and I’m getting better the more I do it, and I really get a kick out of it; flute is a good instrument to play in an orchestra as you often get a chance to shine. With violin unless you’re the leader you’re always just part of the ‘choir’ (which has its own advantages sometimes of course).
Sometimes people kind of steer towards music or other art forms due to their childhood influences, surroundings, etc. Sometimes, they are way off in left field from their surroundings or family influences in their likes of a particular form of music. Does your interest in violin or fiddle music come from your surroundings, upbringing, other family members, a combination, or something else?
When I was growing up there was always music at home. As I’ve already said, my mam played piano and my dad violin. Added to that there was a decent selection of records (mostly classical) being played regularly. I remember listening to the Mendelssohn and Bruch violin concertos as well as such things as the Swan Lake and Nutcracker Suites and some Chopin piano pieces, and a lot of opera (which I wasn’t very keen on).
My older brother was fan of the Beatles (as was I) and bought most of their albums as they came out, and we played them over & over.
Do other members of your immediate, or extended family play an instrument? Do you get together and jam? If so, can you expand on this? Anecdotes?
My wife plays guitar and sings and occasionally we play together (flute/guitar or violin/guitar sometimes she sings as well). We’ve played a traditional Tyneside song called ‘Water of Tyne’ together, me on violin, her on guitar and years ago played Scarborough Fair and Geordie (flute, guitar and voice) among other things.
My brother sings and plays guitar, fiddle and piano and is heavily into folk music (he performs regularly at many folk clubs around the area). We have jammed together, but since we live quite a way apart it’s not a regular thing. If you search the Traveller thread you’ll see some videos of him playing the Traveller and the 2 of us playing a violin duet. Can I give his YouTube channel a cheeky plug? He’s John Dunleavy.
Of course you can share you brother’s YouTube channel.
What would be your first bit of advice for a young person wanting to learn fiddle?
I’d first advise the parents to invest in lessons from the best teacher they can find (and afford), always remembering that the best player does not necessarily make the best teacher.
For the young student I’d say don’t skip over the basic techniques – they are the key to faster and further progress in the long run – and practice every day if you possibly can, even if it’s just for ten minutes.
What great advice. I love that tip about “the best player does not necessarily make the best teacher.” What would be your first bit of advice for an older adult wanting to learn fiddle?
Know what you’re aiming for. If you’re happy to just have a go at some songs you like and have no ambitions to play at a high level, chill out and enjoy your adventure.
If you want to become the best player you can be you need to plan a route for how to get there. It might involve face-to-face lessons with a teacher or watching YouTube videos or both, and will likely involve following some kind of method books and/or a good online tuition system.
Above all be realistic about the level you’re likely to reach and how long it will take to get there (and how long before your family and pets will stop running out of the room every time you pick up your fiddle).
In either case, record your playing either with your phone or a video camera and critique your own playing – you see a lot more when you’re watching it back than you ever notice while playing. Plus there is plenty of free, non-judgemental feedback and advice available if you are happy to post your videos online – and of course joining the Fiddlerman Forum is a must!
Very sound advice for the adult learner.
If there was one place you would want to play or person/people you would want to play for or with, where or who would it be? Do you plan to ever do it?
I’d like to join a classical string group of some sort, though my back problems make this difficult (I had to give up the beginners’ orchestra I used to attend as it was too much to do two orchestras a week and I really didn’t want to give up the one where I play flute – my main instrument).
I make the occasional visit to my old beginners orchestra when I’m feeling up to it, but I don’t foresee it ever being a regular weekly thing again.
You live in the UK. Have you found much difference in the way those of us from the United States go about learning or talking about the violin or fiddle?
As far as I can tell, since the internet took off it’s pretty much the same everywhere. YouTube seems to be the go-to resource for budding musicians, even ones who are already taking face-to-face lessons, and players seem happy to use forums anywhere in the world as long as they can speak the language and get what they want out of it.
I love how the internet has brought everyone together on Fiddle Talk. Do you still play the piano, flute and sax?
I still play piano and flute, but I don’t bother with the sax any more – I seemed to reach a dead end where I didn’t know where to go with it; I did try joining a wind band but had trouble with embouchure fatigue so I didn’t really enjoy it that much.
I would say the flute is my main instrument now – I play with a local community orchestra on a Wednesday afternoon and it’s one of the highlights of my week.
What other hobbies or talents do you have? What do you like to do when you are not working on your music?
I’ve had many hobbies throughout my life (in fact I’ve always been a bit of a butterfly as far as hobbies are concerned, getting obsessed with one for a while then moving on so something else). The main one that I stuck with long term was brewing (I was a British Real Ale fan) but I’ve had to give that up because of my back trouble (brewing beer involves a lot of heavy lifting).
Music is pretty much the only hobby that’s survived all the way through my life.
When I’m not playing music (or reading about it online!), my wife and I like to go out walking by the coast or in the countryside – luckily we’re spoiled for choice where we live. One of my sons and my youngest granddaughter live quite close by and we are lucky enough to spend a lot of time with them.
It is great that you have some family close by.
Thank you so much for letting us into your life in the UK, Jim. This was so interesting and we have learned so much about you. The “pond” shrunk a little. On behalf of Fiddlerman and I, thank you.
I would like to include. few links to a few of Jim Dunleavy’s posts
Party Room, see post 38 on Pg. 2
Jim has posted some Fiddlerman Tunes a Week in the Share a Video. These are great!
Jim hosted the Traveller. His first post as hosting is post #1201. This may take some time to load because the topic thread is so long.
Jim has participated in 7 Fiddlerman Group Projects:
2015 – Addams Family
2016 – Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
2018 – I’ll Be Home For Christmas
2019 – Little Drummer Boy
2020 – Amazing Grace
2021 – White Christmas
2022 – Wexford Carol
Here is a link to Jim’s first Fiddlerman Group Project participation, Addams Family. The finished project is post #157