Research on Display

As part of making the research department more visible at The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland students and staff have been encouraged to contribute to a research instillation in a glass cabinet outside the Ledger Recital room.

This week I added my research contribution to the display. Showing main points of my fieldwork, key sources/practitioners and quotes that have been integral to my argument.

North Atlantic Fiddle Convention

In July 2018 I attended The North Atlantic Fiddle Festival and Symposium (NAFCO). The event ran for 5 days in Abdereen mainly hosted at the Lemon Tree and Anatomy Rooms with other venues across Aberdeen City and wider Aberdeenshire. 

The festival included concerts, workshops and talks all focused on the fiddle and fiddle traditions from locations across the North Atlantic. There were visting artists that I interviewed including Patsy Reid and Anders Hall. Patsy is a key practitioner in my research and Anders Hall uses the viola extensively in his work with The Nordic Fiddlers Bloc.

 I was presenting my first conference paper as part of the symposium on the Sunday. The title was ‘The Big Fiddle: Why the Viola is an Instrument in its Own Right.’ The paper was well attended especially as it was on the last day of a pretty intense week. Below is an overview of my slides and commentary:


My research explores the potential role the viola has in Scottish Traditional music. I have carried out contextual research to document current practice, identify if there is a need for the viola in Scottish Traditional music and to situate my practice and forthcoming creative contribution.

My overall research aims are: 
I have researched historical and contemporary context through qualitative research using field work interviews with key practitioners, focus groups with amateur players and a selected literature review in order to begin to address the second aim, specifically focusing on:
Today I would like to share with you some of the findings from my research so far to consider why the viola deserves instrument specific focus and how the viola might reflect current creativity in the Scottish traditional community.

Aitkenhead carried out Ethnograpic research in 2014 exploring the viola in English traditional music, concluding that there is need for a focus in Scottish traditional music. There is limited documentation of the viola in Scottish traditional music and more research is needed to address this. However the viola timeline is well documented in classical music research and it has been necessary to draw on this in my research, Cobbett surmised in 1929 that the viola was:
Damning as this assessment is, it’s important to note the role in part writing, an occupation that traditional music practitioners are adopting more and more in their creative practice – examples of which we will see later on.
There is evidence of the viola’s use in the revival period in the 1970’s example includes Iain Hardie in  Jock Tamson’s Bairns however, more often than not the viola in this instance, was mistaken for the cello in album reviews. This is something that I have noticed in my practice too, the viola being mistaken for the cello in album reviews.
In his book ‘On fiddles and folk’ Lockhart writes in 1998, about the playing of violist Mairi Campbell, quote, “One wishes more use was made of the rich tones of a viola in the traditional and folk scene” – I came to Scotland 4-5 years ago and I was struck with the lack of viola’s in the scene and I could see musical potential which lead to the current enquiry.    

These are the key practitioners I have identified and interviewed/planned interview so far. I chose the participants if they play the viola/have played the viola professionally in the Scottish music scene, if they play viola in another folk tradition and I interviewed Natalie as I wanted to gain perspective from a trad-cellist. I’m still in the process of analysing the transcripts and I’m sure there will be more people to interview as I continue my research. 
*NB* NAFCO faciliated the interviews of Patsy and Anders after the writing of this paper.

Scottish Violist William Primrose stated that the viola is, quote, ‘An Instrument Without Tradition’ (Primrose, 1988, said in 1978) this is both a blessing and a curse. Ultimately it should give freedom to practitioners to do what they want, and it does, but it can also place it, as being used as a token gesture which doesn’t help it gain any respect or lineage.   This quote from Primrose pertains to the viola in the classical idiom however it is reflected in current trad. practice: 

This is the practice that mainly happens in Scottish trad music with the viola; fiddle players use it for 1-2 album tracks or a fiddle player is employed to use it as a recording musician without any training. Although this sounds negative it is the situation of the viola in the scene at the moment. 

Watson’s thesis on the emergence of a ‘New Traditional School’ in Scotland, demonstrates that the scene is filled with highly trained musicians, pursing professional careers and have taken time and care to hone their fiddle craft. Therefore, I feel justified in demanding the same level of attention to viola practice.Key practitioners also reflect Primrose’s remarks in reference to today’s scene.  Swedish trad. violist Mikael Marin noted the difference in technique required between violin and viola:

Furthermore, one of the overriding opinions through the key practitioner interviews was that it was important for the viola to not trace a copy of the fiddle style and technique. That to be successful it must forge its own path. Shetland fiddler Chris Stout is keen for the viola to be used in a way that makes the most of its tonal & supportive qualities: ‘It’s [the viola] capable of so much, I think that’s where people devalue it, because of its supporting role, but I think that’s it’s amazing strength.’ (Stout, 2017) He also went on to say:

Highland fiddle player Lauren MacColl has been very cautious in her approach to the viola, ensuring that she doesn’t treat it like ‘a big fiddle’:

Interestingly in my interview with Anders yesterday, he talked about how he does treat the viola as a fiddle, and even uses a fiddle bow in his playing. However if he was to pursue solo playing on the viola he would want to spend practice time developing his style and technique.In February 2017 and 2018 I led viola workshops at Feis Gleann Albainn – a workshop weekend for amateur adult players. I provided 10 violas for participants to use over the weekend and then I ran a focus group, 2017 and a workshop/focus group 2018. The participants in this study could all play the fiddle.  From beginner right up to professionally competent.  If not competent on the fiddle then on another instrument such as guitar.  Consequently all participants immediately compared the viola to the fiddle, as it being secondary to it; 

‘A different instrument once you’ve learnt the fiddle.’   

The discussion began quite negatively with comments such as the viola is ‘restrictive’, ‘uncomfortable’, ‘limited fiddle’ and ‘hard’.  The group were very open and forthcoming. They discussed the topics at length and concluded with a positive attitude towards the viola, ‘lovely gutsy tone’, ‘mellow’, ‘warmth and depth’, ‘adds a different flavour’, ‘more rhythmic possibilities’ [than fiddle], ‘more musical’ and ‘more choice of tunes’ if the viola was more established.  Also an enthusiasm for more viola in folk music education.

One of the surprising and pleasing responses was how phrasing structure of a tune could change when using the viola and they wanted to see more of that:

During my conversations with practitioners and amateurs, the choice of key for tunes was noted as currently hindering viola accessibility but perhaps experimenting with the viola will allow an overall trad expansion and creativity in the future. One of the things I have observed is the similarities between the current trad. scene in Scotland and chamber music. ‘The session’ is very much a modern day exponent of chamber music as the definitions of chamber music being ‘intimate’ and ‘virtuosic’ apply. Baron’s final assessment on Chamber Music in the 20th century and could easily be describing the current Scottish folk scene, I’ve swapped out chamber music for traditional music and will highlight a few key points from the quote:

Some of the best musicians in Scotland meet in Glasgow sessions, not only to play tunes, but to improvise and communicate at an advanced musical level. This level of musicianship demands technique and skill that would not be a stranger in some of the top orchestral and solo scenes. 

This is important to my work because it opens up a direct creative avenue to pursue for placing the viola in traditional music, from relating it to a genre that it is already established in, that I am very familiar with and that reflects the Scottish Trad. Music scene in contemporary practice 
Keeping with Chamber Music, the string quartet nearly constitutes a genre of its own, and as a concept, carries particular preconceptions of style and virtuosity.

In addition to my observations of chamber like qualities in trad, Mikael Marin asserted that he would like to see all string trad players have a knowledge of string quartet practice, as from an ensemble and compositional lens it’s good training to have, regardless of genre. As it happens, trad. String Quartets are beginning to emerge and I have drawn on their practice in my research. These include Canadian band, The Fretless, English band, Methera, Danish quartet, The Danish String Quartet who surprisingly, play Scandinavian tunes and my own creative practice with The Routes Quartet. 
I formed The Routes Quartet in 2014.  In June 2017 we released our debut live album, recorded in Drimnin Chapel on the Drimnin Estate in April 2017. The album contains original compositions and arrangements of existing tunes for the ensemble. In December 2017 the quartet were runners up the BBC Scottish Trad. Awards for Folk Band of the Year.
Here clip of the second tune in the set ‘Drimnin Otters’. The tune is called The Scottish Way composed by Rufus (cellist) and arranged by the quartet. We had lengthy discussion as to whether the viola ‘could play the melody, the worry being that the clarity would get lost in the lower register however this demonstrates that it is quite possible for the viola to take the lead in the ensemble. 
The next stage of my research is to pursue artistic research in the form of creative experiments and projects. I have carried out preliminary creative practice but unfortunately there wasn’t time to share this with you today. Here are the4 creative avenues I intend to explore:

1. Build a stylistic language – My approach to building a stylistic language is to work through historical repertoire and established tune styles such as Strathspeys, Marches, Waltzes, Slow Airs, Reels, Jigs & Slip Jigs etc. from a solo perspective to form a bank of left hand and right hand ornaments that reflect traditional styles whilst showing the viola’s qualities of tone and depth. Part of the unknown with this is how the voicing of a tune will affect the ornamentation and consequently the phrasing. Equally the chordal, rhythmical and melodic possibilities that change dependent on keys and style of tune.

2. Set tunes for the viola – I intend to compose original tunes for the viola exploring keys out with the ‘trad’ norms.

3. Run a series of ensemble experiments – I intend to conduct a series of practical experiments working on existing and new repertoire in the forms of duos with viola & ‘trad’ instruments. I want to see how the viola fits with different timbres and styles that are already established in the Scottish Tradition. I have tried the viola with guitar, not extensively and with caution. On reflection, the guitarist needs to be sympathetic enough to treat the viola as a viola, not a violin. I have also performed viola tunes with Gillian Fleetwood on the Clarsach and with Adam Sutherland on the fiddle.

4. Chamber Folk Ensembles – Write for Chamber Folk Ensembles as I have identified a similarity with current traditional music and values held in the chamber music community. 

Historically the viola, in Scotland, has been implemented in orchestral, sacred and chamber music works. In the last fifty years, we can see evidence of occasional use in Folk music, as an addition to the fiddle tradition. The viola does not have a Folk music tradition of its own (unlike the various instrument traditions in Scotland e.g. fiddle, cello, pipes, harp, lute/guitar).

Key practitioners, performers, composers and learners agree that the viola has something to offer, not only to establish a strand of tradition but to facilitate the discovery of wider creative prospects for the ‘living tradition’.. Furthermore, previous research and existing literature explicity request and support the creative and critical exploration of the potential of the viola in this genre.

Traditional music practitioners are using the viola in traditional music composition, arrangement and performance. The majority are fiddle players, in search of a new sound or texture in their creative practice.

Primrose states, ‘the two great distinctions between violin and viola playing lie in the proper use of fingering and bowing.’ (Primrose, 1976: 174) Fiddle players are not yet employing the viola to full potential and few violists play in ‘the tradition’ identifying as a violist. For me, engaging with Scottish traditional music as non-native and a violist; the scarcity of violisits is overwhelmingly evident.

The context and preliminary creative work provide evidence that the viola is versatile, wanted by practitioners, interesting in its qualities and could be a vehicle for creativity in traditional music.

Practitioners have highlighted the viola’s potential in it’s sonorous qualities, being its richness, depth and warmth consequently holding quite an emotive place in the music they create. There is interest in exploring the middle line in traditional music more extensively with the viola being automatically suited to that due to it’s role in other genres.

The next stage of my research will explore the capabilities of the viola; what instruments it works best with, form a skills base for viola practitioners, challenge current roles of melody players and produce creative outcomes to represent the findings.

This research is fundamental to establishing a ‘creative space’ for solo viola-fiddle practice, composition, performance and learning.

The big fiddle has big potential and I’m really looking forward to exploring it. Thank you.



Feis Gleann Albainn up to 2017

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.

Gillian Fleetwood and Me FA 2015
Gillian Fleetwood and Myself Feis Gleann Albainn 2015

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…

FA Class
Fiddle Technique Workshop Feis Gleann Albainn 2015


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?

FA 2016
‘Glory at the Meeting House’ – Feis Gleann Albainn 2016


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.

Adam and Myself Feis Gleann Albainn 2017
Adam Sutherland and myself performing ‘Trinkamp’ at Feis Gleann Albainn 2017


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.