Seán Heely: A Violinist with Beer Spilled on Him

Seán Heely: A Violinist with Beer Spilled on Him

By Jim Roberts


What’s the difference between a fiddle and a violin?

Seán Heely has a lot of witty answers at the ready, but one of his favorites is: “A fiddle is a violin with beer spilled on it.”

It’s appropriate, given the Chesapeake native’s upcoming performances in the Virginia International Tattoo, which derives its name from “doe den tap toe,” a 17th century Dutch phrase meaning: “Turn off the taps.” (That was the cue for regiments to return their barracks, which also explains the tattoo’s connection to the military.)

The Virginia Arts Festival describes its tattoo—now in its 21st year—as the “largest spectacle of music and might in the United States of America.”

Heely, who will be featured in two scenes—one Scottish and one Irish—has traveled extensively in Scotland and has attended the “grandfather” of all tattoos: the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. Aside from the fact that Edinburgh’s show takes place in a castle, Heely said Norfolk’s is every bit its equal.

“As far as the show itself, both of them are really incredible,” he said, “At this point, the Edinburgh tattoo might even be looking at ideas from what our tattoo does.”

Heely started playing violin when he was a student at Deep Creek Elementary School. By age 15, he was taking private instruction from Carol Thomas Downing, a member of the Suzuki Association and the founder and artistic director of the Virginia Children’s Chorus.

“It was clear he was a natural talent with a deep passion for all kinds of music: classical, traditional fiddling, world, jazz,” Downing said. “Seán comes from a supportive musical family and had all the raw ingredients to become a great violinist and fiddler: the ear, physical agility, drive and a sensitive spirit. Even as a teen, music was like breathing to Seán, and he had that rare ability to get inside the tune, to really listen and interpret—not just play the notes.”

Heely graduated from Deep Creek High School in 2011 and made his classical solo debut a year later, performing Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 with the Virginia Symphony. He went on to earn a degree in classical violin performance from the University of South Carolina and has since moved to Washington, D.C, where he teaches and performs full-time.

Although he bills himself as a “multi-genre violinist/fiddler,” Heely is earning international acclaim for his work in Celtic music. He has performed with renowned fiddlers Liz Carroll and Pete Clark and with cellist Natalie Haas. In March, he was one of only eight musicians invited to compete at the Niel Gow Scottish Fiddle Awards at Blair Castle in Scotland.

It was Heely’s 2016 victory at the National Scottish Fiddle Championship in Edinboro, Pennsylvania, that caught the attention of Scott Jackson, the general manager and producer of the Virginia International Tattoo.

“I watched some YouTube footage of him winning the National Scottish Fiddle Championship, and he was phenomenal!” Jackson said. “I couldn’t believe that we had this talented person in our own back yard and didn’t even know it! I arranged to meet him in person and felt like he was going to be a great addition to the show this year.”

Heely is excited to make his Virginia International Tattoo debut.

“There’s not many performances—in this country, at least—on this kind of scale that combine the music, the dance and honors our troops and military of different parts of the world,” he said. “The visual display is incredible, and any time you get all those pipers together or all those massed bands together, it’s just a powerful sound.”

The Virginia Arts Festival will host the Virginia International Tattoo from April 27-30 at Norfolk Scope. Ticket prices start at $20; discounts are available for students, seniors, military and groups of 15 or more. For more information, visit: