Master the fiddle

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

"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.

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.)

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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.

Wait, I can't fiddle that fast!

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.

Almost half of the attendees were teenagers. The youngest,11-year-old Bronwyn from Virginia, has been playing the fiddle for eight years. She told us she used to play classical violin "when I was much younger"!

Thompson Island proved a perfect choice for a fiddle school. It has an academic tradition - having hosted a private school under various names on the island since 1833 - and its records claim that in 1857 the school started the first boys' school band in America, with six of its graduates going on to join the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It also has a connection to Scotland, as its first "owner" was David Thompson, a Scottish churchman, lawyer, and explorer, who established a trading post there in 1626.

Island exploration

One sultry evening, I left the dancing to the high- energy teenagers and, still clutching my fiddle and wishing I had thought to bring a flashlight, I picked my way gingerly down the stony path to the jetty. There I spent a soul-restoring hour sitting quietly on a hunk of weathered wood playing all the wistful tunes of the sea that I could think of. In the dark, the city lights beckoned me a mile away across the black water.

Boston Harbor at night is remarkably busy with little boats buzzing by every few minutes. In this time of heightened security concerns, I wondered if one would come ashore to challenge me. But their engines drowned out my music, and I was uninterrupted until a coolish breeze and the fact that I had run out of tunes drove me back to the dancing.

As the last day arrived, I realized that I had still not seen all of the island, so I decided to play hooky and explore. It was a hot, sunny day when, behatted, sun-creamed, and mosquito-protected, I grabbed a sketchy trail map and stepped out on my adventure. For as much of the time as possible, I walked on the beach, letting the cool waves lap over my feet, the fine shale lodging in my Tivas resulting in an odd step-and-shake gait.

Unless you are dressed for swimming it is not possible to entirely circumnavigate the island on foot. Soon I came to an inlet, narrow but over my head, that fed into a large lagoon. There was a wire strung across, but I was sure that if I tried to use it I would drop right into the deepest part of the channel. I waited for a few minutes for a miracle - perhaps some small passing boat to take me across. Finally, I retraced my steps until I came to a path that crossed the island.

Here it was cool and shady with high hedges enclosing blackberry bushes.

Soon I crossed a large green meadow lined with stands of magnificent trees, looking like a Constable painting. And there was the other shore. I was at the top end of the island now, and it seemed wiser not to descend the steep, crumbling cliff.

I later found a path down to the sea again and watched a large fish leap and splash as it chased minnows for a late lunch.

Thompson Island, like the other 33 Harbor islands, is now part of the national park system. It is one of the few that can be reached by ferry. At low tide it has a land bridge to Quincy, south of Boston, but hurry if you want to stay dry, as the waters will soon sweep back over the causeway. The island has few public amenities, but for those who treasure nature without frills, it is a place of quiet and beauty.

There are many things that I remember about the week-long experience besides the islands' beauty:

A small circle of five gathered in our dormitory helping each other nail down half-learned tunes.

Sitting on stage and playing "The Road to the Isles" for a folk dance.

Getting at least part of each tune during the late-night high-speed jam sessions.

Playing a whole evening of slow airs without sheet music.

And, the most magical of all, hearing the masters of Scottish music play the tunes they had learned from their fathers and grandfathers. We were establishing a new venture, but we were all part of an ancient tradition that spans the world.

For more information, see www.mcowen.net/ fiddleschool.

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