A Minority of a Minority

While I was busking with the English Concertina last Saturday, in the distance I heard a sound; this sound got nearer and then I saw the reason for it. A large group of Morris Dancers were passing by, they had been performing in the town centre and now they were heading back to their cars. They still wore their bright coloured costumes, decorated hats, and ribbons hanging from their clothes; the women wore colourful dresses; “Middle England” with bells on their shoes.

As the concertina is a popular instrument amongst the Morris dancers of England I gave them a smile. But nothing, no response! No interest in the music I was playing (a Northumbrian tune called “Lindesfarne”) no interest showed on their faces. They were quiet, they looked ahead, and they were passive. After a few had passed I resumed my stance of looking down and concentrating on the melody. I ignored them as they ignored me.

I was not asking for anything, except a smile. Let’s face it folk music is not that popular, whenever I am playing I often get a smile or some sort of facial recognition from people who like folk music, but I think generally it is a minority who actually listen to it and even fewer who play it. I would have thought like-minded people would acknowledge one another, not everyone but at least some, and there was many of them. They kept on coming; there must have been many groups in the town that morning.

Morris dancers and musicians are a minority of a minority in the British folk world, their dances are quite strenuous and need to be taught to new people, it is not the waltz or polka type of dances that you spin your partner round and round. It is not something that people do without training; the general public “watch them” do their performance, but do not join in, it is not that type of dancing.

I think the general public considered them a joke; they are often depicted in comedies on TV. People who dress up in costumes, with sticks, bells and dance around with ribbons hanging from their clothes is not “normal” behaviour for an Englishman to do, whatever is odd is laughed at.

It is not an opinion I hold, in the past I went to a rehearsal of Morris dancers in Carlisle. I wanted to play my pipes to their dances, but they were not interested in that. Instead, they got me to dance one of their dances; it was hard work, I was knackered after the first dance; it is not easy and you need to be fit.

I have a friend who likes Morris Men as they like drinking and so does he, they seem to travel a lot and enjoy themselves with other Morris teams; they dance, play music, drink have a laugh; well some do but not this lot, none of them seemed happy at all.

Another friend of mine gets very abusive when it comes to Morris Dancers, he gets very “hot under the collar” let’s say; and says “it has no place in English culture”. I would not say that, but I think it is an “acquired taste” by its very nature and those who perform it do not pretend to be non-elitist, at least these Morris groups did not try to be friendly to me.

Another man I know, who plays English concertina, went to another local Morris team only to come away feeling “unwelcome” and he would not go back. It is a pity as they do have a reputation of being a “good laugh”.

These Morris people were not the laughing type! It was a serious hobby for them; they did not want to associate with buskers, even though they played the same music as me, had the same instruments and were from the same cultural tradition. But I was not them.

For me, folk music is not a hobby; and I do not dress up in colourful costumes, in fact I dislike dressing up when it comes to playing or dancing to traditional music. For me folk music is about “now” not rein-acting a history long gone. Folk music or traditional melodies are much of today as they were from the past and I do not need bright new colourful clothes to play it.

They passed by and I played on, and I am pleased to say that the general people on that day found what I played interesting, even if the “minority of a minority” did not.

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Playford Dance Melodies

For several weeks now I have been playing for a dance group in a village hall near to Penrith. I play English Concertina with an accordionist and baritone English concertina. We play Playford melodies and the dancers form lines and swing their partners, a bit like a dance in a Jane Austin novel.

The format consists of 1 melody per dance and as the dances can go on, sometime for 15 minutes, it can be quite hypnotic, monotonous, entertaining, beautiful and taxing. Let’s say you get to know the melody well, it repeats and repeats. This is different to dances in Cumbria and the Borders as we often join a few melodies together to keep the dancer and the musician from getting bored. The melodies are different to the folk music I am used to playing, but I like it, different keys and finger patterns keep me learning new things about the concertina.

I have only known Playford melodies by playing a few pipe tunes, but Playford uses a range which is well beyond a 9 note chanter, so a concertina is ideal as often different keys are played and although they do not lend themselves easily to the finger patterns of the concertina, one can easily get used to them.

They are old melodies, mainly from England, roughly around the period of the 18th century. I had not played many of them as my version of the manuscript has been in “ABC” format and I am not comfortable with that, but there are a wide range of notated books that I follow.

The dancers are elderly; they belong to an organization that offers a wide range of activities, a dance group being just one of the activities. It is a small group, but there are larger ones and I think in the south of England they can be quite popular, with young people joining in.

For me it has been a new and interesting experience. It has led me to other activities connected with dancing and the experience of playing for dancing is quite different compared to solo playing or playing in a session. I am learning about tempo and group dynamics, which has added to my understanding of these old melodies and dance culture.

New English Concertina CD

I have started a new English Concertina CD, and I have been making some recordings this week and trying out my new microphones. I bought a new microphone for my concertina that has dual heads, 2 mics leading to one volume control. I can attach 2 mics to both ends of the concertina to get a balanced sound. The sound is excellent, not trebly or hissy. I can set a good level on the DAW.

I am playing tunes that I busk with, so they are well rehearsed and it does not take me long to record. The last CD was with a lot of new tunes and the whole process took me a long time to complete. I like the old CD, but perhaps it is not a representative of how I am playing and what I am playing while busking. The old CD was a mixture of Lowland Scots, Northern Spanish and Northumbrian melodies but with this one I am including some Irish into the mix as well.

I will be including other instruments too; the mandolin will be used to add extra rhythm to the melodies, and a bodhran on certain tracks for percussion. I also want to include a track with all instruments together including small pipes. The dominant instruments will be the concertina and mandolin, and the other instruments will be added for texture.

New Small Pipe Bag

I am making some progress with my small pipe bags. The success is down to finding some light weight material which is airtight; believe me it has taken me ages to find such material. I have been working also with a rubber solution to make the seams airtight yet flexible after gluing and sewing.

I made a bag with a “round” design, these bags are quite popular for small pipes and for gaita, the idea is that there is no bag protruding out from underneath the back of your armpit, so you can sit comfortable on a chair for example. But when I added the stocks for a bellow, I found it very uncomfortable to hold, I feel the “long bag” is ideal for bellows use.

Today I converted the bag into a mouth blown system by using some connecting stocks so I could fit a mouth piece. The original drone stock became the mouth piece stock; and the original blow pipe stock became the drone stock.

The design worked quite well, and I think I will keep it in the future and the new stocks line-up the mouth piece with the mouth very comfortably, without the need for cord to keep it in place.

I made a new stock for the bag to fit the Galician chanter in D, and played it without a drone. It worked very well; it uses little pressure and a good feel to it underneath my arm. I closed the chanter reed to make it play 2 notes above the octave (d’-e’- f#’). This is for the new tune book I recently bought by Matt Seattle, it is the repertoire of the 18th century piper Geordie Sims. These melodies have a lot of high notes, and it is common that e’ and f#’ will be used.

The next thing to do is to make the drones. I am thinking to make a drone stock so I can add 3 small pipe drones to the bag. So the Galician chanter will have a small pipe drone configuration D-d- d’. I hope to post some photos when I am finished.

Village Hall Ceilidh

The Solway Band, did a Ceilidh at Beaumont Village Hall, the band consisted of: 1 baritone English concertina; 2 treble English concertinas, a mandolin, a bodhran, whistles, a bouzouki, 2 guitars, 1 fiddle and 3 vocalists…in total 13 instruments, played by 5 people (I played one of the English treble concertinas and mandolin).

The “calling” for the dances was really clear and instructive and the people enjoyed themselves, some had never done these dances before and it was encouraging to see some young people attend the ceilidh. I was beginning to wonder if the local village dances were beginning to die out as the older generation gets too old to attend, but the young couples who attended enjoyed themselves and hopefully they will return.

I grew up with these villages dances, I did not attend that much because as a teenager I thought it “un-cool”, but my parents went and they were a familiar social event in our area. I am not confident with the dances (we never had a caller) so it was left to us to work it out ourselves, which is difficult to do; and another reason why I never went to these dances is that I never had a girl my age to dance with, they were not interested either. The young men who attended last night did have a girl to dance with and they had a go at all the set dances including the waltzes.

If you have never been to a village dance in the north of England then you might think it is a bit strange. The village halls are often in their original condition, some are old, over 100 years sometimes, made of stone but often they are wooden from about World War 2; I guess they were used to re-unite communities after the war. They were the centre of social events in those days with them being used for fairs and country dancing, bingo and dominoes and “tea and cake” social events, and later on discos and band rehearsal space…everything under the sun; our local one is still being used but not as much as it once was.

As a teenager I booked the hall to practice punk music with my band, and I went to a few New Years Eve celebrations, but the hall always felt “old fashioned” for me, not of my generation. If I was a teenager then, the people who attended regular must have been in their 40s, now they are not dancing and a lot of these halls are being used for other things, less strenuous exercises. I play sometimes for a Playford Dance group near to Penrith, and that hall is used for a variety of other events and people travel from miles around to come and take part, so it does not represent the village community any more.

I joke about it being like a scene from “Miss Marple” and I am just waiting for the murder to happen, but it is like that in a way, the tables are covered in flowered patterned table cloth, the event has a raffle mid-way through, and everyone “mucks in”… they get involved, it is a D.I.Y social event, less to do with technology and more about “holding your partner and having a pre-techno tête-à-tête”. It works for some and I guess it would work for a lot more if it was “cool” to do so.

To be fare the village hall is having a face-lift, the old ones are being knocked down and replaced by an architect’s vision of how a village should look like. This happened to the village close to us, the new structure cost millions and it reflects the changing face of village life… that village no longer has a post office or a village shop but they have a 21st century space-age designed village hall.

The ceilidh we played at was to raise funds for a new building, an architect will come and survey the area, then other businesses will be called to take the planning further, and this will lead to other fund raising events to pay for it all, all so they can build a new hall over the old hall. I guess the locals are hoping for the village social life to continue for many decades to come, but I wonder that in 20 years time when the older generation has passed on, will the young be there to continue the tradition? Or will these halls become a “glint in an estate agent’s eye?” we will have to see…

Scottish Small Piper’s Barbecue

Scottish Small Piper’s Barbecue is held on the Sunday after Piping Live. This was the 2nd time it has been run and it seems to be getting stronger. The Glasgow small pipers meet every Tuesday at the Piping College and work on tunes. Once or twice a year they have a big meeting where they all come together to play tunes and to have a barbecue in the Park not too far from Central Glasgow.

It was a relaxed atmosphere, with a mixed group of small pipers from a Highland/Lowland bagpipe backgrounds to total beginners. It was a mixed group of musicians also, with guitars, flutes, whistles, saxophone, and a Cajon. I was the only Border piper there but it gave the music a ‘top edge’ to the overall sound.

The LBPS book repertoire was on show, which was a good idea; I ended up buying Mat Seattle’s new manuscript of the possible repertoire of Geordie Symes, which looks a good read and some excellent tunes.

We had been sent several tunes to learn and we all played them together on the day. It went quite well considering we were all from different musical backgrounds. There were lowland tunes as well as Highland and even Spanish tunes.

A choir came along and sang a few popular melodies, and also individuals led a session, then it was back to the small piper’s to run through the set once more.
We are pleased we went and we will go next year, and I will try to go along to the Tuesday nights session also.

I came away feeling that small pipers and Border pipers should meet more often in localized sessions, and then to have a bigger meeting throughout the year. we meet too seldom and we rely too much on the internet to communicate our music.

Piping Live 2017

This year at Piping Live we saw good performances from such diverse countries and regions as Italy, Sardinia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Brittany, Northern Ireland and of course Scotland and northern England (Northumbria).
In the morning I went to the Clasp competitions and listened to the hypnotic melodies of the pibroch, not everyone’s cup of tea first thing in the morning, but it appears to be mine.

At noon the Street Cafe concerts start and this is where we let the different acts wash over us. I like the way the Scottish highland performances are followed by the international acts. I guess some would be happy with wall to wall highland piping but I prefer a variety.

I recorded all of the performances with the intention of archiving them for 5 or 6 years, then to put them online. My reason for this is to let time pass. To let the performers change their style, progress with their music, or even let the band’s break up, reform etc. Very often band’s do not think to record themselves to keep an audio archive, but this can be quite beneficial especially if you think of it like a CV. So by letting time pass you can see a band’s or a musicians progress. I have been coming to this festival for over 5 years now so I will be putting the recordings online soon.

I did not go to the World’s pipe band’s championships this year, due to the high ticket prices, I fall into a pricing category of concessions but i could not prove it, so i would have to pay full price. a few people i spoke to commented on the high prices and it would work out a lot of money for a family, and for me who came via Spain and spent a week in Glasgow I have reached my budget by the end of the week. It would have been better to have a cheaper price so all could go and if it is cheaper than more would go.

The week is not over yet on Sunday there is a Small pipe and Border pipe meeting in Glasgow I will be playing in that.

To see a listing of the acts and events that were at Piping Live 2017 have a look at the programme at this link
https://pipinglive.co.uk/events/

Rothbury Folk Festival 2017

I have just returned from Rothbury Folk Festival (in Northumberland), a really good festival with a lot of different music going on. The session on the Friday in the Queen’s was good, a nice mixture of Northumbrian songs and instrumentals.

Saturday was a good day for me as it started with Northumbrian Pipe music at 10am and all through the day there were opportunities for NSP playing, with the session after the competitions and later that evening with a session in the Coquetvale Hotel.
Fewer pipers there this year, but Saturday was still the main day for piping.

The weather stopped the open air concerts but the music continued in the Mart and by all accounts it was really good there with concerts and dances until the early morning.

On the Sunday I went to my first Ceilidh and observed (I did not dance, to the relief of the others) what went on. I had never been to one before, although I have started to play for a Playford group.

In the afternoon there was more sessions and in the evening also in the Queen’s.
Monday we left and are looking forward to going to more Festivals this summer.

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.