Since my first visit to Fort Augustus in February 2013 I have returned each year. In my second year I went to learn more tunes but I also ran a ‘how to practice’ and technique workshop for fiddle players who were having trouble with aspects of their playing.
My workshops proved to be extremely popular (see photo of class size below!) therefore each year my involvement has grown more into tutor than student participant. I have still attended as many classes as possible to learn new repertoire but I extended my workshops and also took part in the tutor concert. I have tried to do as much in the concert on my viola as possible.
The first time I performed at the tutor concert on my viola was in 2015 alongside Clarsach player, Gillian Fleetwood. We performed two tunes as a set, the first a tune I had composed after visiting Feis Gleann Albainn for the first time called ‘Nora’ into a tune of Gillian’s called ‘The Walnut Waltz’. Gillian’s waltz sat really well in the viola’s range and the timbre of both the viola and clarsach worked really well.
I recall being very nervous during this performance, not only because I get nervous anyway but performing on that stage surrounded by some of the best traditional players in Scotland, at the festival that had sparked my interest in the first place, was very special. I think it went well, I’m not entirely sure as this course is not only renowned to be an excellent educational time but also very sociable. I might’ve been very sociable that evening therefore the details of the concert are a little hazy…
2016 I ran the workshops again and also performed a tune of my own alongside Guitarist Marc Clement. It was great to play with Marc, the tune I presented him with was ‘Portobello Waves’ which has just been recorded on The Routes Quartet’s debut album. It’s not the easiest tune to learn, play let along put chords to last minute! It’s a jig in C mix and Marc put really lovely chords to it that I had not considered. It was different playing with guitar accompaniment, than clarsach. The texture was thicker much closer together. Marc was sensitive to the set becoming muddy and therefore played with great delicacy, allowing the viola to speak. I think this is an interesting research point as so much of folk music today is played alongside guitar that I wonder if the guitar is suited to all melody instruments? Maybe a different type of guitar, tenor for example. Or is it the style of playing the guitar that compliments the viola appropriately?
This year (2017) not only did I teach the practice and technique workshops but I also ran a viola study. I hired 10 violas from Stringers in Edinburgh and took them to Fort Augustus. Here I handed them out to interested fiddle players and asked them to experiment with them over the weekend. The fieldwork concluded with a focus group on the third day of the course. In the meantime I took my viola to as many classes as possible. This is something I had not done yet at Feis Gleann Albiann. In past years I had learnt tunes on my fiddle, not wanting to be exposed by using my viola. However, in my 4th year I thought it was about time I learnt the tunes on my viola, alongside the students who where experimenting with the viola.
It was a different experience to learning tunes by ear, on the viola than on the fiddle. First of all I had to make a list in my head of all the possibilities to allow a tune to sit on the viola. Sometimes asking whomever was teaching the tune, ‘what is the highest/lowest note in the melody?’ Just to ascertain if I could play the whole thing at pitch or down the octave or if I would need to shift or split it in pitch at certain points or if there were a few options open to me. Secondly knowing the key of the tune allowed me to learn it quicker, thinking about hand shapes and string crossing, A major for example became less accessible to learn quickly than on the fiddle as the hand shapes on the viola required more stretching or I needed to shift to 4th, even 5th position to play the tunes at pitch. Thirdly, learning in a group of fiddle players meant that the viola stood out a lot! Luckily, some of my focus group participants were learning along side me but still, it was very apparent when a viola was playing. I was cautious that it might put some of the less confident players off learning the tunes. Consequently I tried, as much as I could, to learn the tunes at fiddle pitch and only put them down the octave when I was sure of the melody. Overall it was a positive experience, some tunes even took a different musical path because of the adjustments and variations that using the viola presented. For example Kevin Henderson taught a tune called ‘Deliverance’ which is a Scandinavian tune by Olav Mjelva centred around the key of G. This fitted beautifully at pitch and down the octave on the viola and it really added an extra quality to the tune. Also a tune ‘The Millhouse’, taught by Ross Couper, really came to life on the viola. It required shifting to play at pitch so immediately made the tune harder to play for amateurs however it fitted extremely well and was great fun to play.
After spending the weekend successfully learning new music on the viola I then performed a Breton tune, ‘Trinkamp’ with Adam Sutherland in the tutor’s concert. This is a tune I learnt on the viola from Jacky Molard at the Hands Up For Trad, Distil residential. Since then The Routes Quartet have arranged and recorded it therefore I was quite comfortable in performing this on stage.
Later that evening we had the final session of the weekend. It was one of the best sessions I’d ever been involved in. It started at 11pm and went on till 5am with myself, Kevin Henderson, Adam Sutherland, Gillian Fleetwood, Peter Morrison, Marc Clement, Owen Sinclair, Rebecca Skeoch, Innes Watson, John Somerville, Ross Couper, Laura-Beth Salter and Dan Thorpe. I switched between violin and viola dependant on how I felt.
Before the concert and the session I gathered together all of the participants who had borrowed a viola for the weekend and we had a group chat about their experiences. The chat started off with the viola being described as ‘restrictive’ and ‘difficult’ with many students commenting that they felt the viola required a higher skill level to achieve the same on the fiddle. We discussed these points at length and came to the conclusion that the reason participants felt the viola was ‘harder’ was because they were coming from the perspective of the fiddle. They all agreed that had they started on the viola, had training in that then they wouldn’t have found it as hard. Also popular fiddle tunes are all in keys that are easy for the fiddle, participants said that more music written in easy keys for the viola, C for example, would not only widen the pool of tunes available but also shift the focus away from D, A and G. The discussion ended with everyone feeling very positive about the viola, it’s tone, timbre, potential for experimentation and its chordal and harmony capabilities. I have written a full response the the discussion in my field work report.
It was amazing to see that a lot of people had tried the viola in the past, started as viola players or were really interested in pursuing the viola in trad; professionally and socially. If i’m lucky enough to teach at Feis Gleann Albainn 2018 I will see if it’s possible to run some viola workshops to allow participants to explore the instrument further.