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Fiddle Trek

Blazin' in Beauly - Fiddle & Keyboard Classes, October 2016.

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Blazin' in Beauly, Festival & Fiddle School, October 2016:

It was a good week but - me being me - I had a few reservations. I had prepared for weeks, playing Scottish tunes that incorporated vital techniques. I knew that the band specialised in cooler, jazzier, more 'Celtic' tunes, often of their own composition, but I had hoped to pick up tips on Scottish bowing techniques and ornaments. These cropped up only occasionally, while we were learning the cooler, jazzier, more 'Celtic' tunes etc. And I found that if I tried to implement the fancy bowing or ornaments, I couldn't also manage to pick up the notes by ear accurately. Afterwards, I couldn't remember what the bowing tips were. Nor could I remember the tunes, until the music was issued at the end of the week. Quite a few people in the group recorded the tutors as they played the initial run-through of the new tune. One kind lady offered to send me them by email, but I didn't want to put her to that trouble - and in any case, though I enjoyed learning the new tunes, and quite liked them, they weren't really my scene. I'm into the traditional Golden Age of Scottish Fiddle stuff, by Niel Gow, William Marshall et al.
On the first afternoon, my spouse found that he needed headphones as the keyboardist, Angus, taught the chords, then left his class of 7 to practise by themselves, coming round to check that each individual was getting on okay. So we went into Inverness to buy the headphones, and this meant that we missed the afternoon activities - a percussion session up against a 'fiddle masterclass' which would have been too hard for me anyway, and groupwork by John Somerville, learning a sequence of tunes that he'd written and using sheet music.

After that the pattern was set. We decided to skip the afternoon classes - we in any case felt brain-dead after two hours plus of learning new stuff - and instead go out to view the beautiful scenery. It seemed a pity to travel 530 miles, the furthest north we'd ever been, and not look at the countryside. So that we did - and it was fabulous. We did, however, attend two out of the three evening concerts. But not the sessions, which apparently went on into the small hours. There were quite a few older people on the course and unlike us, they 'did everything'. Gad - stamina!

On Monday, I had Jenna Reid. I'd been worried in case I'd opted for a class that was too hard for me - I was in Intermediate A, with two levels below and two above. However, I quickly realised, with relief, that I was in the right place.
Our class was held in Morrison's Ironmongery Store across from the Lovat Arms. We learned afterwards that it was the house where Scott Skinner had lived for a while, afterwards the home of another fiddler composer who established a local music society there. John's keyboard class was one of the upstairs rooms in the Phipps Hall, built in the early twentieth century, where Scott Skinner had performed. Awesome!
We began by learning 'The Big Tune' - it was a tune for everyone to play together on the Friday afternoon, followed by the Group Photo. In the event, we bunked off that too, because Spouse wasn't sure of his keyboard accompaniment or even if there'd be enough sockets for seven keyboards. So we walked round Beauly instead, and got to see the riverside walk recommended by Wood on Talk Classical.
The Big Tune was McFall's march, written by Jenna Reid. She taught it phrase by phrase & it was fine. Then after a coffee break at the Lovat Arms, we continued with a Shetland tune, Da Wast Banks.

On Monday evening we'd been told to assemble at the Lovat for 7pm to be surprised. We had to wait till 7.30 - par for the course! - and then we saw the tutors appear on the staircase in fancy dress. Bruce McGregor was Scott Skinner, Rua was Niel Gow, Kristan was James Hill, Jenna was a Shetland fiddleress called Jean Pole, and Anna Massey and Angus were respectively Aly Bain & Phil Cunningham - jokes were made about their drinking habits. We felt that was a bit of a cheek, to take off living people who were well-known locally.

Half of us went to the hall at the Lovat and half to the little hall at Morrison's to split us for two mini-concerts. We were at the Lovat Arms. First we saw Aly & Phil & James, and as well as the tunes & a lot of banter, we got some facts about their lives. After the interval - much waiting, surprise, surprise - we got Jean & Niel and finally Scott Skinner, and more tunes & facts & jokes. It was an enjoyable evening.

On Tuesday, Kristan taught our class and we learned a lyrical tune called 'At the Ebb', written by Jeana Leslie, a member of another band that Kristan played in. Again, we learned phrase by phrase, and all was well, but afterwards my memory was a blank.
On Wednesday, we had Rua Macmillan - the tutor that I rated most overall, because he asked us what we wanted to do. Someone said a pipe tune - someone else specified a 2/4 march - and he came up with 'Arthur Bignold of Lochrosque', which had lots of snaps in it, and also some 'birls' (bowed triplets). He embellished his initial playing with 'finger birls', which sounded so like bagpipe ornaments, and corresponded to some ornaments I'd heard on our Alistair Fraser cd. It was a long tune with 4 parts so it took all morning. He'd begun, though, with a 4-bar riff which looped itself hynotically and could be harmonised by playing a scale of G up and down: Looking Through by Mike Vass.

Rua's class was the closest I got to the techniques of traditional Scottish fiddle that I'd hoped to learn, and afterwards, when he said he did skype lessons, I asked for his email address, and I'm seriously considering it, though first, of course, we will have to install skype.

On Wednesday evening, there was another concert. It was meant to start at 7.30 in the Phipps Hall, and we joined the chilly queue outside at about 7.10, but they were doing a sound check, so we didn't get in till 7.30. The concert started at 8.00. In the first half was a guest fiddler, Elspeth Hanson, who was very skilled but whose playing seemed to lack bite - for example, she finished with Czardas, full of little notes & ornaments played in the high positions, but I preferred the way my fiddle teacher played it, with gusto. Just a personal taste. Then we had Anna & a box player from Ullapool, but though Anna as usual was very funny, we thought their tunes a bit 'bash'. So at the interval we bunked off again.

We were very naughty codgers this week, but thoroughly enjoyed our skiving. We knew that the concert was bound to go on, maybe till 11.00 (it did), and also we knew that in the second half we were getting the Finnish guest tutor Esko Järvelä and that he'd be playing some 'jazzy' pieces. So we gave it a miss.

On Thursday, my class had Esko for its tutor. We all felt a bit daunted and one person actually chose not to turn up. But in the event most of my class felt that he was the most rewarding teacher, because of his method. He played his tune over and over and told us to join in when we felt able. Then after looping round and round together, he went over the phrases to iron out any mistakes, and we played it round and round again. We learned three tunes this way. They were rather simpler tunes than the others - a polske, a schottische, and another dance - but they were nice. However, I can't remember them now, and Esko has not yet put the dots up on the Blazin' in Beauly website, though Bruce has said that he will.

On Friday, we had Bruce, the Man himself. This was the hardest class for me, because I was already very tired, and also because Bruce asked us to begin the tune with a 'scrunchy' unison, C# sliding up to D, and this threw me so I didn't pick up the notes properly until I decided not to try out any of the advised ornaments. I think many of my classmates had the same trouble. He taught us Anne's Waltz, one of his own compositions, written for a lady's eightieth birthday, and it was a nice tune. In fact, the previous day, a woman in his class had burst into tears & run out of the room & on returning said, 'That was *so* beautiful!' I did cope in the end, but it was hard - and I'm very glad to have got the music.

There was a concert on the last night, but we decided not to go. We'd have liked to see Blazin' Fiddles, but they'd have been on last, after several other acts, and no doubt the concert would have begun and ended late. As we had 300 miles to drive the next day and packing to do and the cottage to clean, we gave it a miss.

My spouse got the most out of it, as he found Angus a very nice teacher, and his classes built one on another, and he was learning some new skills about chord accompaniment, with some necessary music as they needed to know what they were accompanying. But I also had a good week - it was a lovely part of the world, a great atmosphere, and both the tutors and the other learners were very friendly, warm and funny people. I don't know if we'll ever go again, but I would recommend it.
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Updated Oct-19-2016 at 16:44 by Ingélou