As part of my inquiry project, I am researching how informal learning settings support an individualʼs well-being, creativity and identity. The Celtic Connections Music Festival workshops are just such a setting where learning is intentional but less structured and take place in the local community. I participated in several workshops: Storytelling, Try Your Hand at the Whistle, Step Dancing and Body Percussion, Try Your Hand at the Mandolin, and the Big Slow Session with Nigel Gatherer.
What was so refreshing at all of these workshops was how multi-generational they were. From the get go, instructors created a culture of inclusion and belonging - everyone is a musician (which is true!) In particular, I was impressed with Nigel Gatherer who led the Big Slow Session, a menagerie of instruments including mandolin, fiddle, accordion, tin whistle, flute, ukulele, keyboard, guitar and drums. Nigel began the session by weaving his way through the group, making jokes and welcoming those who looked a bit intimidated. He then got everyoneʼs attention by saying, “My goal is for us to have fun, put a smile on your face and play music with each other at a slow, easy pace. Itʼs about learning tunes, which are easier to learn with fewer notes.”
After playing a D scale, he than asked us to take out the G and C#. We played our new scale (G pentatonic) or what Nigel termed "the magical notes that allow you to play anything. You can noodle about with these notes and we all sound good." He asked us to play the magical notes by age groups, starting from oldest to youngest, by shouting out, "Anyone 60 or above...anyone 50 and above..." until he reached those under ten. Then so as not to be too intimidating he said, “Only play if youʼre young at heart." And with a burst of laughter from the group, everyone played with enthusiasm.
Nigel then shared his secret to learning tunes: understand the structure. Most Scottish tunes have an A part (repeated) and a B part (repeated). Within each part, the tune is divided into 4 phrases of 2 measures each – of which many are repeated or change just slightly. He explained that this approach allows us to use a reduced palette to make learning by ear and remembering easier. He then launched into a group composition 2 beats at a time. He was like a chef, sprinkling bits of Part B with A to create a new B part. We then performed part A and performed the newly composed B part. At the heart of all of this, whether telling a traditional story or performing traditional music, the leaders of these workshops modeled that these art forms are meant to be altered as long as the basic structure or framework remains.
In fact in my storytelling workshop, traditional storyteller Heather Yule likened her craft to music: the theme is the melody, but you as the storyteller add grace notes, flourishes, etc. that will change each time you tell it. This sense of lightness, joy and creative spirit shone through when Heather shared her definition of a ceilidh or a social gathering with Scottish music, singing, traditional dancing and storytelling is all about: "Tell a story, sing a song, show your bum and out you go!" Oh yes, and humor also plays a big part in all of this!
When I asked Nigel if I could videotape our final piece for my students and friends back in Juneau, he and the entire grand session of musicians gladly obliged.
This is a personal blog, sharing my experiences living in the UK from January - June 2019 as a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching scholar. This blog is not an official site of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State. The views expressed on this site are entirely my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations.