Exams and competitions

It’s been a week of exams and competitions for me in a surprisingly sunny Scotland. Last Saturday I adjudicated the clarsach competitions at the Moray Music Festival in Elgin. It’s the first time that clarsach has been part of this successful competitive music festival and though it was a small field it was a good standard and bodes well for the future.

Then after a few days back at base camp it was on to the National Centre of Excellence in Traditional Music (Sgoil Chiùil na Gàidhealtachd) at Plockton High School. This is the 5th year that students from the Centre have entered Trinity Guildhall exams, using traditional repertoire and instruments – ie what they work on all year. The opportunity for students of traditional music to be able to gain an external, internationally recognised and validated music qualification, without in any way changing or compromising what they play, is very valuable.  Trinity are a great organization to work with – they really do appreciate the nature and character of whatever music they are asked to examine, and never try to squeeze music to fit their rules.

Trinity have worked with the Centre, allowing us to set our own criteria for these exams – note that we don’t set repertoire lists just general things such as by the Advanced level the recital should demonstrate a good knowledge of the full range of Scottish tune types – while obviously keeping to the standard criteria of timings etc. The idea is that this is the chance for a student to perform (unaccompanied unless it’s an ensemble exam) the material they’ve worked on with the tutor during the year and get an external critique and a qualification. It gives them the kind of experience in programme planning, stagecraft, presentation and solo performance that will be very useful for future performances from auditions to gigs.

There are no supporting tests as there are in grade exams, so no one is disadvantaged by lack of sight-reading ability or formal theory knowledge (though our students do work on these!). It’s strictly a performance exam – and I can’t see any downsides to it all. Likewise for the kids doing the clarsach competitions at Elgin last week – they got the experience of performing a piece in front of an audience and getting feedback from another player than their teacher. As long as traditional musicians  can play our music honestly and in traditional style then I think exams and competitions have their place. Trad music has moved into the educational establishment here in Scotland, and though that’s not without its dangers, you can’t unring the bell, so let’s make sure trad players get the same opportunities and with that the same qualifications and responsibilities as classical players. Any thoughts anyone?

Oh and by the way, our students all did very well!

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How do wire players find new material?

Over the past few years I’ve been involved with the Wire Branch of the Clarsach Society. We’re an international, scattered bunch and many folks don’t have regular contact with a teacher or group of players. When I edited the branch’s newsletter, Wire Strings, I made sure each issue had music arrangements in it, just to try and keep up with the demand for new pieces. But then it was brought to my attention that not everyone could just pick up an unfamiliar tune off the page and run with it, without having heard it first. The branch runs monthly workshops in  Edinburgh, but of course that’s not a lot of use if you live more than a couple of hours away.

So, to the new development that has been stretching the technical side of my brain this week – why not make the workshop material available to buy online from my website? A pdf of the sheet music will be emailed out, along with recordings (mp3) of the tunes, played slowly, along with any notes, techniques and other info needed to get working on the piece. And all for the price of a cup of coffee and a piece of cake! It seems so obvious I don’t know why it’s taken me til now to get it together.

At the workshop on Sunday we worked on Imir fein, a Choinnich chridhe (Row thou, dearest Kenneth) from the Patrick McDonald collection. It’s arranged in 4 versions – an easier one, a more difficult one, a coupled hands easier and a coupled hands more difficult. They work individually and also build up into a progressive arrangement.

I’ve also made available the pieces I taught at the workshops in September and October – music from The Gesto Collection. Bill Taylor, who also teaches for the branch will be doing the same. So – give it a go  if you fancy learning something new and feedback is always welcome!




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Tune for a rainy day

This track was recorded for the Harp House CD which the Edinburgh International Harp Festival released in 2004. It seemed like a good thing to post on a rainy day here in Edinburgh!

The tunes are Helen’s Farewell which I composed and a traditional piece called Dhomhnuill o Dhomhnuill which I found in Frances Tolmie’s collection One Hundred and Five Songs of Occupation from the Western Isles. The Tolmie book is a great resource and well worth getting!

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Welcome! Failte!

To the new blog – where various aspects of Scottish music will be pondered – especially as they relate to the harps of Scotland – the modern gut-strung levered clarsach, the older wire-strung clarsach and the buzzing bray harp!

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