Newcastleton Folk Festival 2018

It was another good weekend in the Borders, due to the good weather and it being hot, very hot. Like with heavy rain the hot weather kept punters away, and who came were more into playing music and talking about music. The pubs were quieter, less drinking and trouble in the evenings (which is a common hazard with the Border towns) and people got round to singing, playing and meeting old friends they had not seen for 30 years.

This year there was a different type of organization at the festival and some thought had been given to who and where people meet, it was less “organic” when it came to singarounds, although the musicians still congregated where they wished. A room/s had been set aside for singers to meet and some well known names had been invited down to sing and to organize singing sessions throughout the day (and night). Singing sessions started at 12noon and finished at 2.30am

I am a newbie when it comes to singarounds, I was brought up with sessions where you “got stuck in” and joined in if and when you could. Singarounds are different, the singers sit around the room and each take it in turn to sing their song, when finished it goes to the next person sitting next to you (often clock-wise!!) and each person gets a chance to sing. This can be quite strange at first especially to one who is not into anything “formal” and if there is a large group in a large room, you can sit and wait a long time, but I can see its purpose as everyone get a chance to have a go, and is not crowded out by groups of people who dominate the session.

In the instrumental sessions, you can sit for hours without getting a chance to play or you end up walking from bar to bar looking for equally lost (musical) souls to play with. This dominance by certain musical styles or groups of musicians is getting bad; I have seen ongoing sessions broken up by a hoard of musicians just marching into a room where a session is going on, planting themselves down in an opposite corner and playing jigs and reels ignoring the people around them. These sorts of mafia tactics are becoming more noticeable and are boring, only interesting to people who know nothing about folk music (the drunks) or the egotists themselves who are doing it.

This year I frequented the singarounds more than the sessions. Trying to understand its “unwritten rules” and differences; I got the feeling that in some singarounds musical instruments are not welcome at all. “I thought it was strictly a singing session” one of the compares said. I was pleased to hear that “no, instruments are welcome; it is the noisy musicians which are not encouraged”. So if this attitude was adopted more openly then solo musicians as well as singers can get an equal chance to play and be heard.

The wealth of songs that were sung that weekend was amazing. General themes of the songs were: drink/drinking/beer and relationships: failed love/marriage/anti marriage, some local songs from the Borders as well as Cumbria (hurray) and some Border ballads; some self-penned songs and modern songs unaccompanied. Death and supernatural themes, war, anti war, and sex were also being sung about…what does that say about the society we live in?

I played mostly Northumbrian Small pipes, playing the 1 octave melodies that people are forgetting to play, and this fitted in nicely I felt, with the whole singaround atmosphere. This “strictly no instrument policy” if adopted in singarounds is just as mafia as the ignorant group of musicians who dominate sessions. Control the session by all means, but not exclude people who are serious about their music and are left out in the cold (literally in this part of the world) and who have come from all over the country to share their music. Let’s make festivals/sessions inclusive not exclusive.

The Small pipe workshop I gave on Sunday was a success also, the people who came were genuinely interested and I believe they left with a greater appreciation of the Small pipes. There was enough sets to go around and one boy who came with his father (he had heard me play in the concert on Friday evening and had asked his dad to stay at the festival until the Sunday so he could try them out) had never heard them before, let’s hope he continues with it.

The Festival committee had also tried to include local and not so local school kids to play in the concert and workshops. This added to the atmosphere and it was nice to see young musicians walking around and joining in. I think in general the new ideas that the Festival committee had introduced this year changed the feel of the festival to a more song based festival and more open to a “family festival” than a drunken-session-style Border event that I knew as a teenager.

For these type of festivals to succeed there needs to be more younger people getting involved, and I know families are discouraged if there are drunks drowning the performer out, or no sessions to go to as it is dominated by mafia musicians/singers who only care about how fast they can play or how “traditional it is”! Because let’s face it “folkies” are a minority, we do not need to exclude people for the sake of our fixed beliefs, let’s keep it open and keep it fluent. There is a difference between having rules and people who dominate and control; and rules that make it easier for to express ones musical talents.

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Concert: Newcastleton Folk Festival

I decided to have a theme for this year’s concert at Newcastle Folk Festival. Last year at the Friday night concert, I played a random set of tunes from the Peacock Manuscript. But this year I wanted to select different “variation” pieces of Northumbrian music played on the Northumbrian Small pipes.

These variation sets, are long pieces of music; similar to having 5 or 6 melodies added after each other. They are very characteristic of old Border Northumbrian melodies. There are suggestions why these variations came to be added after the main piece of music (the A and B sections of a melody). Some say they are for dancing, for the musician not to be bored; some say they are for listening, as in a concert environment and the player can express their virtuosity and skill.

Whatever the reason these variations can be simple or complex, often long in length sometimes having 25 sections; or as little as 2.

The old manuscripts have variation pieces in them: Dixon, Peacock, and Bewick are the manuscripts I chose to play from.

I started the concert with a reason why I chose to do the variation pieces. This was because 2 years ago I was sitting in a session listening to a friend of mine playing a variation piece on the Scottish Small pipes. As I was listening a man learned across to me and whispered in my ear “it goes on a bit”. He clearly did not like these long pieces of music. It is an expression I have heard before, especially from non-musicians. They do not understand why it is so long, or what the tune is trying to convey to the listener.

People have a short concentration span, 3 minutes on average, as long as a pop song; after that their mind goes onto other things. The variation piece needs concentration to listen and understand it properly; or the audience needs activity as in dancing. These melodies more makes sense when one is playing for a dance; it can get very boring to play the same melody over again, often 15 times while the dance is going on. It makes more sense to keep adding parts so the musician can keep an interest and therefore put some life into the playing.

The comment, made by the man in the session, kept in my mind for a while and I mused upon its reason and solution. “How could I make these traditional pieces of music more understandable and digestible for the listener?”.

In the concert at Newcastleton, I began with a very simple variation piece, Peacock’s “Highland Laddie”; mentioning that the 2nd part of the tune, is another melody called “Butter’d Peas” also from Peacock with the parts changed around. Instead of parts C and D, as in the Highland Laddie, they become parts A and B in Butter’d Peas.

With this example I began to mention my method for other variation pieces. I said “I began to chop up the variations into A and B parts, to make them more easily remembered, as well as giving them a life of their own, then when I had mastered the 2 parts, I joined them onto the variation piece once more”.

To demonstrate this I played Dixon’s “Highland Laddie” mentioning that I missed out the last 2 parts as I found it was “enough for me to play”. I wanted to say that musicians should play what feels comfortable to them, what they like and what they consider appropriate. There is no law that you must play all of the variations. Pick out the best parts and play those.

My next example was Bewick’s “Blackett O’Wylam” where I played all of the parts; followed by Peacock’s “Newmarket Races” where I only played the first 4 parts.
The next melody was Bewick’s “Sir John Fenwick’s” where I played all of the parts, and lastly I played Dixon’s “New Way to Bowden” where I played all the parts.

The concert was recorded and I will upload the recording at a later date.

Newcastleton Workshop 2017

It was my 3rd year running the Small pipe workshop at Newcastleton Folk Festival (always the 1st weekend in July). This year was different as a lot more people attended; in fact more people than sets of pipes. No way can I cater for everyone, I brought 5 sets of pipes and the group was good enough to double up during the workshop. I estimated 9 people came, as well as 3 others from the festival that had some role to play. 9 I thought was a nice size. I began by giving a talk about the construction, maintenance; and technique of blowing up the pipes; bag pressure; finger styles used with the small pipes, and bellows technique etc. and then a demonstration of what I hoped they would achieve from the workshop… to hold a note steady for 3 minutes.
Then I gave out the pipes for the students to try.

It is difficult to cater for the different age groups and sizes of the students. I made these pipes with my own body size in mind, but a young girl was there and she found them too big, and adults with a large waist was pulling the blowpipe out of its stock and due to the increase of girth. I am not sure how to cater for all the different sizes of people? It is a case of redesigning the pipes for workshops, something which might be difficult; and I guess, if they had more time, it would not be necessary, as they would master the correct position.

Another comment was that the bellow of a student was pinching into the student’s wrist, indicating that I should put padding around the edges of the bellows like the Irish piper’s bellows. I should have pointed out that the shape of the bellows is traditional and there was never any padding on the bellows cheek. What could be happening is that the posture of the student was not correct and this put the pressure on one side of the bellow, making the other side to rise and cut into the wrist. It is a case of the “beginner is always right and the instrument is wrong…” errrr no! If a student spent more time getting the basics right then they would see that the basic technique is important. They all seemed to be in a hurry to play…but without these techniques you cannot play.

To be fair on the student, what is required from them is nearly impossible, to master a technique that would normally take days to master. They have just over 1 hour. It is a tall order for anyone.

Another comment was that my pipes are quiet. Well small pipes are relatively quiet, I think what might be happening is that they hear pipes being played in a session, a Border pipe or a Scottish small pipe made by a highland maker (possibly the Reel pipes,) which are made for a Highland player, and these require more pressure and give out more volume, and they think all small pipes are the same, which they are not. My pipes are intended to give a quiet sound as I do not want 5 pipes playing loudly in a small room. They are meant for the student to listen too, but ideally not for the other students to hear them.

Another point I noticed was that the student wanted to play the chanter. So they ignored what I was saying in the introduction, that “if you can keep a steady pressure and play a steady note continually for 3 minutes, you have advanced a lot”. They immediately went for the chanter and seemed to think the pipes were at fault because they could not get a good sound. These things are natural of course, who would want to play 1 note for 3 minutes when more notes are there to try? But next time I might just start off with a chanter without holes, just a piece of tubing would have been more useful and if someone can get that right then give them a chanter to try. Most had difficulties in holding the chanter anyways, so it would be one less thing to worry about if the chanter was left to dangle and not to worry about covering the holes.

Over all I think the workshop went well. I improved my delivery to the students, and I learned more about how to present the small pipes as well as dealing with a bigger crowd.

Workshop: Newcastleton Folk Festival

This weekend, there will be a workshop (3rd year running) at Newcastleton Folk Festival in the Scottish Borders. It is for beginners, showing the basics of playing (bag pressure, holding a steady note etc.) how getting started on the small pipes. Some sets will be available for people who want to have a go, or bring your own if you want to start. More details will be given at the Festival Office, but the workshop will be on Sunday morning, about 10am and will officially last 2 hours (but in practice it continues!).

Northumbrian Smallpipes

This years Newcastleton Folk Festival (2016) was enjoyable for me, I played various pipes (Gaita, NSP, Border and Scottish Smallpipes) and played at a few concerts and gave my workshop on the Smallpipes.

I was asked to play at the opening concert in the Church, part of it was video’d. I played for about 30 minutes and I really enjoyed the atmosphere. The melodies are all traditional Northumbrian/Border mainly from the Peacock manuscript (1800)

Newcastleton Folk Festival

We spent another good night at the Folk Club in Newcastleton in the Scottish Borders. The Folk club is on the last Tuesday of each month and is partly a singers night as well as musicians. There were interesting songs from all centuries some unaccompanied others with guitars. Mandolin and button accordion, recorder, Anglo Smallpipes, and Galician Gaita were the instruments used for the instrumentals.

We had spent the day with Liz and Dave (organizers of the folk club, as well as being on the committee of the Newcastleton Folk Festival) and we learned about the structure of the Festival for 2016 which is held this year on the 1st weekend of July, a 3 day even from Friday until Sunday (check out this blog for last years description)

My Smallpipe workshop will be on the sunday morning at 11am until 1pm. Where I will be giving basic instruction on the bellows blown bagpipes, covering technique to get you started. I will not be playing any melodies, it will be a workshop on bellows technique, bag pressure, and combining all this with chanter and drones. It may not seem a lot but it is when you consider it needs to be crammed into 2 hours!

I will be providing some sets of smallpipes for those who do not bring their own, but these will be of limited number so get your name down at the Festival Office, or contact Liz via her “Newcastleton Folk Club” web site; or contact me below this blog.

I will also be taking part in the concert on Friday night, for those of you who come for the weekend camping.