As a classically-trained pianist, I learned at an early age that you play whatʼs on the page and donʼt deviate. And even though Iʼm a confident sight-reader, playing by ear and improvising terrify me. I donʼt want my students to have the same experience. They deserve to navigate freely between both worlds to become a more well-rounded and skilled musician.
Thus the reason for jumping on a train and then bus to the beautiful border town of Kelso, Scotland to dive in to the world of traditional music at the Winter Fiddle Festival, sponsored by the Merlin Academy of Traditional Music. And yes, playing by ear!
I love the concept of these festivals or fèis (immersive teaching courses, specializing in traditional music and culture) because people gather for an intensive period of time to learn new tunes during the day and play together in a session (a social gathering where folks perform in an informal setting - i.e. pub) at night. I arrived in Kelso Friday afternoon and walked around town taking in the sites, including 12th century Kelso Abbey (photo below left) and North Parish Church (photo below right).
What made this weekend even more thrilling is that I met Iain Fraser, the Director of Merlin Academy, who led many of the sessions. Ian developed the Glasgow Fiddle Workshop (where I take fiddle and mandolin lessons), has been actively involved in Fèis Rois, and was the principal fiddle teacher in the Scottish Music Department of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. He also edited Scottish Fiddle Tunes: 60 Traditional Pieces for Violin, which is the music book I had been using back in Juneau, Alaska to help prepare me for my trip to Scotland. Iain has been key to promoting and sustaining traditional music in so many ways throughout Scotland, yet this inspiring teacher is very unassuming. For me, it was like taking a photo with a rock star!
The experience of learning to play a tune by ear at a fèis was humbling. As others picked up the tune quicky, I found myself desperately trying to create a mental image of the sheet music in my mind. It slowed me up considerably, but my mind was clinging to old habits. At the evening session, I was way out of my league trying to play along with folks, but everyone was encouraging. "Just pick out a few notes and play those. It gets easier the more you try." Graeham, one of our instructors said, "Play what works for you. Mistakes can often lead to improving the song. Tradition isnʼt something thatʼs fixed. It moves, it lives - itʼs totally grand!" And David, a fellow participant, (photo below) shared, "Traditional music is molded by the people who play it." There was an encouraging, non-judgmental and inclusive feel to the entire weekend: young peopled performing with adults and beginners playing alongside advanced fiddlers.
At one point, when the music was just too advanced for me, I asked the father of one of the young fiddlers how to play the bodhran - an Irish framed drum. Since I played snare in the City of Juneau Pipe Band, I thought Iʼd have better luck. He was a great teacher and told me to remember that most of the rhythms can be played by thinking "Watermelon." And he was right!As we moved into Sunday, I was identifying more of the patterns and hearing the relationships between notes and phrases. The whole of the group played with more joy, musicality and connection to one another without music in front of them. This became even more evident when we were given music for one tune by a visiting musician. All of a sudden, heads were buried in the music. Yes, I felt like I could finally hang with the big wigs and shout out, "See, I can play!" but I could hear the difference in the groupʼs sound. We were disjointed, more mechanical and no longer focused on one another, but on a single piece of paper. We looked more serious than joyful. It reminded me of Davidʼs story.
Davidʼs Story: David plays the fiddle and learned traditionally by ear. He shared that his granddaughter was banned from school orchestra because she couldnʼt read music, yet played at an advanced level. David said it was fèisean like these where his granddaughter discovered that she wasnʼt alone and that another world existed where she could "play like her grandpa." She has since been invited back to her school orchestra. David said sheʼs learned how to navigate both worlds, but sadly has learned not to mention grandpa in school. I know this heartbreaking story has been told by others on both side of the Atlantic. I wonʼt forget this story, David. Thank you for telling it and allowing me to share it.
The videos below are just snapshots of this inspiring weekend. This first is a tune led by Iain Frasier and his brother, Alasdair. The second is one of the evening sessions with folks gathered in the common space of the hotel.
Many thanks to Director, Bridget Gray (photo to the right), for creating a community music program for all ages to experience the joys of making-music together. Click here for more photos and videos of the Winter Fiddle Festival. And for more information on the incredible work of the Merlin Academy of Traditional Music, including their weekly lessons and summer camp in August 2019, check out their website.
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.