Master the fiddle
"Is this Scotland?" asked 3-year-old Calum as he stepped onto the dock. During the 25-minute ferry ride he had rummaged in his minute backpack to find his kilt to grace the occasion.Skip to next paragraph
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Calum's confusion was understandable. Although the boat had arrived at Thompson Island, in Boston Harbor, the old wooden jetty was filled with fiddlers playing Scottish reels, jigs, slow airs, and strathspeys to greet the new arrivals.
The newcomers were visiting the first Boston Harbor Islands Scottish Fiddle School. Fifty-five participants and staff, including Calum's mother, spent a week in mid-August studying and playing Scottish fiddle music. (There is no physical difference between a fiddle and a violin - it is the style of music that determines the name.)
The fiddle school was the brainchild of Barbara McOwen, a Californian now living in Arlington, Mass., who has dedicated most of her life to teaching, performing, collecting, and interpreting Scottish music. Working with Marcie Van Cleave, executive director of the Folk Arts Center of New England, she had spent a year planning for the first event of its kind on the East Coast.
Ms. McOwen invited three fiddlers to teach at the new school: John Campbell, one of the leading exponents of Cape Breton-style fiddling, who was born on Nova Scotia and lived there much of his life; Hanneke Cassel, a young rising star in Celtic music and a former North American Scottish Fiddle Champion; and Angus Grant, a celebrity performer and composer of Highland-style music, from Fort William in Scotland, with whom McOwen is currently collaborating on a book.
Two classes were held each morning at basic, intermediate, and advanced levels. The afternoons were reserved for private sessions, instruction in special techniques, dance classes, or "rest and practice." (We did quite a bit of practice, but rest was definitely lacking.) Most of the tunes were taught by ear, but sometimes a teacher could be persuaded to give out sheet music to those of us desperately trying to find that missing G-sharp.
In general, however, the Celtic tradition is one of oral learning. The nuances of the tunes are learned through listening - the grace notes in the pipe marches, the swelling and dying away in the slow airs, the syncopation in the jigs, and the unique Scottish snap in the strathspeys.
Evenings were spent dancing, playing for dancing, listening to concerts, or - that mainstay of Celtic music aficionados - enjoying a session. (A session consists of a group playing familiar tunes at what seem to intermediates like me to be impossibly fast speeds. However, there is a tradition that the fiddler who starts a tune sets the tempo, so boldness can have its own reward.)
Scottish music is alive and well and living all over the world. New pieces are constantly being composed, some following the traditional style, others merging with jazz or rock.
The three teachers at the fiddle school differed in style and in choice of tunes. Angus Grant favored slow Gaelic airs - some of them very old, with intriguing names like "Maid With the Long Golden Tresses" and "The Sheiling Song." He also taught traditional reels, jigs, and strathspeys that have been used for Scottish country dancing for centuries.
John Campbell liked the perky Cape Breton jigs and reels that accompany the clogging/tap dance style of Nova Scotia. Hanneke Cassel taught a modern piece with a fast, driving rhythm that took the school by storm - "Maggie's Pancakes" - as well as a wild piece she had composed, together with a dance, called "Boston Urban Ceilidh." (A ceilidh is a kind of talent show where people sing, dance, recite, or play tunes - it helps to pass the time during the long, dark nights of the Northern winter.)
The music and dance of Scotland attract people of all ages and from all walks of life. Most of the participants at the fiddle school were from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New York, but some flew in from as far away as California, Arkansas, and Virginia.
My roommates were Linda, a psychological assessment officer; Sarah, an MIT graduate in robotics; and Isabel, just laid off from AT&T and looking forward to a period of early retirement. Across the corridor were Bruce, a glass-blower; and Gary, a just-retired archaeologist.