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Fiddle Trek

Folkworks summer school at Durham, 2018

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We’ve just got back from Folkworks 2018, the thirtieth anniversary, held at Grey College, Durham. John wanted to go there so he could improve on his concertina as the tutor there this year was the renowned Alistair Anderson. I was playing fiddle, and the tutors were Sarah Matthews and Adam Sutherland.

We had a good week - the weather was very hot, but mostly bearable. We stayed in a self-catering place by the river in Durham, but we ate lunch and the evening meal at Grey College with the others - the food was out of this world!

I’d had a stressful year (my Mum died just before Christmas) and some sleepless nights this summer because of an ear infection, so we decided to pace ourselves, and went only to the ‘main instrument’ classes and the band classes. That meant we missed some of the ‘options’, though there wasn’t anything on offer that I bitterly regretted not going to. We also didn’t go to the nightly sessions in the bar - because they started at ten o’clock and went on till two or three in the morning. There seemed to be some sort of competition going on as to how little sleep you could get by on - it was mentioned, boastfully, at the beginning of the week that previous tutors had had to manage with only thirteen hours sleep for the week.

A friend who also went to Folkworks this week thought the sessions got far too loud as the week went on. One suggestion that I’m going to make when I get my feedback form is that a slower, more inclusive session be held during the day - maybe for one of the ‘options’. I should imagine that half of the adult Folkworks attenders were over fifty, so I can’t see the need for this competitive late night stuff.

We all met up in the mornings for announcements, warm-ups, and for learning/practising ‘the big tunes’. Not enough time had been scheduled, so it twice meant that we had to lose a huge chunk of the main instrument classes that followed. I also felt a little as if I was at a Red Guard rally in Maoist China, as we were required to sing Alistair Anderson’s specially composed song with fervour and fake smiles while the great man jumped up and down and waved his long arms around.
‘Here’s to thirty years, here’s to thirty years,
We’ve been singing and sharing and singing our song…
Sing together, sing as one,
We’ve been singing and sharing and singing our song -
We shall sing and let our voices soar
For thirty, yes thirty, yes thirty years more…’

Alistair Anderson was a nice man, but he did concentrate all week - in his class and the advanced band ensemble that he tutored - on teaching his own compositions and arrangements, which I think was a little self-indulgent. But that’s my cynical side coming out, no doubt. John enjoyed his week and thought he’d learned a lot, and says that he would definitely come again if Alistair was teaching the course.

The man who led the big tunes and warm-ups, and also mc-ed the final concert, was an accordionist, Ian Lowthian, who was a very talented player and a wonderfully warm and funny man. I’m very pleased that we’ll be seeing him again in a fortnight when we go to Iain Fraser’s Merlin Academy summer school at Abbotsford near Melrose in Scotland.

I was impressed and inspired by the fiddle tutor Sarah Matthews. In my first fiddle class with her, she asked us all what we wanted to achieve, and found good practical ways of helping us. I learned a lot about bowing technique, and how to add chords, harmonies, or different musical lines to a tune - all things that I’m not much cop at. But I now see a way to improve, thanks to Sarah. She was such a friendly and empathetic person, too.

I was very lucky that I was able to get my first choice of ‘band class’, along with John. We were in the group ‘Band with Dance’, led by Jo Freya (dance) and Sarah Matthews (band). We had a lovely group that included three concertinas, three fiddles, an accordion, a banjo and a mandolin, and we learned French dance tunes, traditional and newly-composed but traditional in style. The tunes were fabulous, Sarah was a fab teacher, and we all had such fun together. This dance band experience - we chose the name ‘Le Soleil’ for ourselves - was the highlight of my week. I do hope that I can be tutored again by Sarah at some point in the future.

The twelve fiddlers attending the course had been split into two groups, arbitrarily, so that we could have classes with each of the fiddle tutors. The other tutor, Adam Sutherland, is an amazing fiddler who composes breathtaking tunes - he played one, ‘Sushi 7/8’ at the tutors’ concert, and brought the house down. With him, we learned one tune by ear - Sileas by Doug Hunter- and spent most of the lessons talking about different treatments for it, including experimenting with rhythm, chords and harmonies. We also crammed in another tune - my group had to learn it from the music - which was a 6/8 jig or march composed by Phil Cunningham called Manus Lunny’s Plower Pot (sic), apparently the signature tune for Gregor Fisher’s Para Handy series. I really liked this one, but our group hadn’t enough time on it.
We learned about fiddle ornaments and bowing to improve it. However - and it’s just a personal view - I didn’t rate Adam Sutherland all that highly as a teacher. I felt that he spent too much time talking about his philosophy of life and music and too much time on little jokey experiments, such as showing that ‘sliding’ on the fiddle could even be turned into amusing motor bike imitations.
My learning of the melody of Sileas was rock-solid - unfortunately, I didn’t share the group feeling about it, and didn’t much care for it. I was bored, a little, in these classes, and irritated sometimes when I thought that time was being wasted.
The beginner in our group was very grateful to Adam Sutherland for his help in the beginner band that Adam ran, however - her group performed a series of drones for a beautiful Scottish lament played by Adam in the final concert. It was the item that I most enjoyed and will remember most.
Plus, Adam was friendly and had a lot of glamour and charisma - probably just my cynical side coming out again.

The final concert was held in Elvet Methodist Church - which was dreadfully hot, but beautiful - and what a lot of talented contributions there were.

Folkworks was a very good experience and I’d go again, if the programme and/or tutors looked suitable.