Tebay (or not Tebay) – Slow Reel

Tebay originated at Tebay services in July 2017. I didn’t write it for viola or with any particular instrument in mind. It was a melody that came into my head as I was listening to the drone of the fridges in the service station. On playing it I realised that it sat perfectly on the viola. It’s in the key of B flat and in the style of a slow reel. I’d like to arrange this tune for an ensemble including a driving rhythm section underneath the broad main melody.

 

I performed this tune at Feis Gleann Albainn in February 2018 with Marc Clement accompanying on guitar. I’m happy to say that the tune was extremely well received by both peers and audience members. With many requesting a recording and/or the sheet music. Consequently, I’m excited to explore what arrangement and ensemble opportunities will present themselves when I work on the tune.

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.

10854406_10152614735305896_1124880179657890509_o

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.

Glory at the Meeting House – Student Folk Ensemble

I teach a high school student folk group once a week.  Each academic year the instrumentation and level of players changes slightly due to students moving through the school system. This year the ensembles consists of the following:

Violins x 9

Cellos x 2

Double Bass x 1

Guitar x 1

Clarinet x 1

and 1 viola.

The viola student receives instrumental lessons from myself on a Wednesday in school and then attends the folk ensemble on a Tuesday after school for one hour.  I’m going to call her Millie for the purposes of this blog.  Millie started learning in primary school at the age of 8 and is now in first year of high school (aged 12).  She is quite a shy girl but not unmusical.  I teach her both classical and trad focusing on technique/note reading and rhythm/aural skills respectively.  I’ve found that her strongest skill is her listening.  She quite easily hears a phrase and works it out.  Once she feels more confident in her technique I think Millie will be quite a competent player.

Tune Focus – Glory at the Meeting House

Currently at the folk group we are working on a set of tunes; Lucy Farr’s/Glory at the Meeting House (GMH).  GMH is an old time tune that I learnt from the playing of Laura-Beth Salter.  Below is the melody in treble clef:

 

GMH Treble Melody

For an intermediate viola player this would be achievable at pitch but only if the player is confident at shifting.  Furthermore, the swung style requires a secure relationship with pulse and rhythm.  The melody down the octave removes the necessity to shift but brings about some other hurdles:

GMH Viola Down Octave

In the second bar the F# is played as a slide from F-F#.  When this is up the octave it’s an easy low second finger to a high to an open D.  To achieve this on the 3rd finger, on the C string of a viola to a 1st finger D is a little trickier.  For Millie to play this I suggested she just played an F# and left the slide out.  The opening phrase here is harder down the octave.  Instead of an open D to 3rd finger A string octave the viola has to go from a 1st finger on the C string to a 4th finger on the G or open D.  Octaves are notoriously hard to get in tune so for the relatively beginner player this is not an easy feat.  Bar 6-7 are realised well down the octave.  The B part is an excellent high 3rd finger exercise for viola players, especially because it has to then be in a lower position 3 notes later for the C on the G string. One of the cellists, Joe, is a competent player therefore he is able to play this tune both up and down the octave without it causing an issue.  Millie is working at getting most of the tune.  Due to her shyness she is quite content to fiddle away behind Joe’s confident playing and get the parts of the melody that she is able.  I think as her skills and confidence progresses she will be able to play the melody part.

Teaching this tune to both viola and cello students has encouraged me to explore the melody both at pitch and down the octave.  Beforehand I would’ve shifted to play it at pitch and played something chordal and rhythmic in the lower registers of my viola.  Now I can do those things and also add a different texture by playing the melody in a lower register.  It’s a great tune to teach as it introduces students to a completely different style with relative ease.  The detail of going between C-F-F#-C is a good work out for both 2nd and 3rd fingers whilst encouraging students to listen carefully to the difference.  For a more advanced viola player this tune offers a lot of diversity that is less achievable on the violin.

 

 

The Viola Fiddler…

February 2013 – Holiday to a fiddle weekend, Fèis Gleann Albainn, Fort Augustus, Scottish Highlands.  Aim?  To learn some tunes, have a nice time, drink some whisky then return to Liverpool and continue with classical music career, settle down and live happily ever after. Reality? Fall in love with Scotland, Scottish music and 6 months later move to Glasgow with no money, no contacts, no clue on fiddling on a viola.  Fast-forward to February 2017 – freelance session musician/performer, instrumental tutor for local music service, Glasgow Fiddle Workshop and private students, Traditional Music Summer School, Workshop Leader, member of The Routes Quartet, Composer and PhD student.  No sleep, still no money but extremely happy.

That is a summary of how I became to be where I currently am, sitting in the library of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, 3 months into a part-time PhD course focusing on the Viola in Scottish Traditional Music and wondering how on earth to start a blog about it all.  Having never studied traditional music, of any nation, or not grown up in a folky-family surrounded by tunes, I came to Scotland overwhelmed and bewildered. 17 years of musical engagement seemed to not have prepared me for Scottish music.  All the tunes, how do people remember them? Why is there no sheet music? How can things go that fast?! More tunes. New tunes. Old tunes. Highland tunes. East-Coast tunes. West Coast tunes. Borders tunes. Shetland tunes. Cape Breton tunes. Orcadian tunes. Gaelic. Scots. Pibroch. Pipes, different types of pipes. Fèisean.  Armies of fiddle players. More tunes…

I’m happy to say I can now play by ear, actively engage in sessions and have a bank of tunes in my head.  Being primarily a viola player but with no violas in sight initially I picked up my violin (fiddle) and spent most of my time learning through the fiddle but always with the view of someday transferring my skills back to the viola.  It started in my teaching at first, encouraging younger students to try tunes, by ear, on their violas.  I began to notice recording artists including viola on albums, played by fiddle players and I also started a folk string quartet, The Routes Quartet, in which I play the Viola.  Through this I started composing tunes on my viola and eventually sharing them with friends and peers.  Feeling like I’d made some head way and having always been relatively studious I looked to linking my endeavours to some sort of study, maybe a Masters, I thought. After a few meetings with academics, a two year contemplation period and a research proposal I find myself a PhD student of The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

This blog is intended to help me reflect on my creative, artistic and research practices.  Consolidate ideas and develop a coherent writing style… First things first though, I must remember to write in the actual blog. I’m not ignorant to the perception that this might also seem a little self indulgent, of course I want to develop my own playing and knowledge for my own ends but who doesn’t? Can research, performing and composing not be beneficial to more than one person? Who knows how long it’ll take, I’ve been faced with so many PhD horror stories but I just want to focus on now and hopefully my research will contribute something…Something to students, to fellow musicians and maybe even something to Scottish Music itself.

I welcome all thoughts, feelings and contributions from friends, family, colleagues.  Please share anything information with me.  I am an open book.

My Viola’s First Sunday Funday: Observations and Questions for Future Sessions

On Sunday I decided it was time to take my Viola to the sessions; Waxy O’Connor’s, The Flying Duck and The Ben Nevis.  My tune knowledge on the fiddle is still very limited therefore working out unknown tunes down the octave or shifting to play them at pitch or playing tunes I know on the fiddle without accidentally forgetting that I was holding a Viola all at speed (especially in the Duck and the Ben) caused me some apprehension, even before I left the flat! I didn’t have any preconceptions about what the Viola ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ be playing; I merely wanted to see what felt right, musically explore and to try and determine if different tune types lent themselves for the Viola to be used in different ways.

I started at Waxy’s as this tends to be a more relaxed tune and Grainne Brady, who I play with regularly, was leading the session so automatically I felt less pressure/expectation.  For a little while I just listened, maybe plucking quietly to see if I could figure out the tunes.  Eventually I began to play along with a tune I recognised and that I play confidently on the fiddle, Sporting Paddy. I was amazed at how easy this felt under my fingers even though I had never played it on the Viola before.  I had thought that I learnt tunes by listening and my hands remembered the finger/tactile pattern but this made me think otherwise as I could play Sporting Paddy with ease even though the finger patterns were different.  Therefore this lead me to think that as long as I know the tune my brain will adapt my fingers.   There were many fiddle players at this session, all of varying ability which allowed me to start picking out harmonies and bass lines instead of playing the tune.  At one point Grainne played a tune that we play together in The Routes Quartet and it was nice to relax for a second and play freely!

I then moved onto The Flying Duck session and took my fiddle out instead of my Viola.  I felt like I was cheating a little bit, going back to familiar territory, but the pub was busy and loud making it very difficult to hear the other players.  Furthermore the tune was extremely fast and already had a huge texture of instruments; 2 Accordions, 2 Guitars, 4 Fiddles, 1 Flute, 1 Cello and Bohran, leaving little musical room (I felt) for my Viola’s first session outing however, I think with a little more time, I’ll be able to join in when the session is how it was in The Duck.

Once I moved to the Ben Nevis I got my Viola out again.  The pub and tune was incredibly busy but I managed to get a seat between a second guitar and a banjo.  I knew a lot of the tunes played and being sat next to a loud guitar allowed me to quietly test out a tune before joining in on the second or third time round.  As I grew in confidence with this I noticed that bringing the Viola in and out of the melody line actually had a distinct impact on the sound of the session and doing this altered the texture quite a lot, as opposed to just playing the all of the time like fiddles/’tune instruments’ have a tendency to do.  This was the same with any harmonies I played or counter melodies.  Equally, on tune transitions it was nice to begin with the Viola playing, then bring it out, then bring it back in with a counter melody and then harmony and eventually back to the tune.  I began to mess around with these textures; not playing, playing tune at pitch, playing tune down the octave, counter melodies, bass lines and chords.

I also took the Viola along to the Lismore Bar Session last night.  Here there was a good balance of tune/accompaniment instruments and it was easy to hear what was happening.  I took the same approach that I had ended up with in the Ben Nevis and to the same effect.  There were several positive comments on the Viola’s sound; Andrew Waite observed that, ‘It’s taking space in the session that no other instrument is currently occupying and it sounds good, especially the harmonies.’  A smaller group of us moved to the Oran Mor to continue the tune, a Bouzouki player and fiddler players that are keen on old time tunes.  In this line up the Viola played a much more prominent role, more bass lines and chords.  Even at one point I started a chordal rhythmic riff in 4/4 in G minor which prompted others to improvise over the top which later developed into a tune.

The past few days at has made me think around the following questions; Is the Viola just a tune instrument?  Can it successfully occupy a space of tune and accompaniment? Could it hold the tune on its own if there were no other tune players present?  What instrument would accompany best, Banjo? Guitar? I found the Viola’s sound could easily get lost alongside the guitar, especially with the tune in the lower register but alongside the Banjo and Bouzouki the timbre difference allowed the Viola tune to come through more.  I didn’t really get onto noticing a difference within tune types but I will endeavour to do so in the future.  I will continue to take my Viola to sessions with a clearer view of general questions I’d like to explore and with a hope of generating more focused questions as my confidence builds.