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Beating the drum

A major teaching award has been won by a Scottish musician with an island-hopping itinerary. Douglas Blane reports

Russell Gair is a far-travelled musician, even when he isn't touring with popular Shetland band Drop the Box - whose style, energy and tight musicianship, say the critics, have captivated audiences from Glasgow and Cambridge to Russia, Scandinavia and the US.

"This morning I'm at the school on Mid Yell, which means I have driven 50 miles and jumped on a ferry," he says. "Then this afternoon I'm off to Unst, which is another ferry journey away. I drive 300 miles a week and go through a lot of cars." Home for the young drummer and instrumental teacher is the largest of the Shetland islands, far from metropolitan Britain.

Unst, his destination this afternoon, is the most northerly inhabited island in the country. It also holds the unofficial UK record for wind speed, clocked at 177mph in 1962 - just before the measuring equipment was blown away.

But in one respect these remote islands are right at the centre of things.

Music is the vibrant heart of Shetland communities, with a reputation extending far beyond its windswept shores, both for traditional sparkling reels on fiddle and accordion and, nowadays, for more modern music with eclectic influences and greater appeal to the young.

The dynamism and creativity of Shetland's music scene helps explain why David Jones, one of the organisers of the annual quest to find the Yamaha Scottish Instrumental Teacher of the Year, said after this year's awards:

"The great news is that the winning region hosts the following year's event, in this case Shetland. I've got my bags packed already."

But it only partly explains how Russell Gair managed to beat off the challenge of dozens of entries from all over Scotland to be named Instrumental Teacher of the Year. Belonging to a culture receptive to your subject is an advantage to any teacher, but young people still have to be motivated and educated.

"When they see their teacher going out and playing music it inspires them to stick in and maybe make a career of it too," he says. "I have to ask permission from the schools if we have a gig during term-time, but they are pretty good about it.

"Also being quite young I think is an advantage. The pupils relate to my way of teaching: I find out what kind of music they are into, then base my teaching around that. It keeps it exciting for them and works much better, I think, than going in with fixed ideas."

Now in their seventh year and established as a key event in the music education calendar, the annual Scottish Instrumental Teacher of the Year awards scheme recognises the outstanding contribution made to pupils and communities by instrumental music teachers. "These people are often unacknowledged and work tirelessly to create the orchestras and musicians of the future," said a Yamaha spokesman.

Proposed by the headteacher and pupils at the Mid Yell school he visited this morning, and subsequently selected as regional winner, Mr Russell then had to endure a long day at the finals in Carnoustie before the winner was announced at the evening's celebration dinner: "I was a wee bit nervous because the judges were pretty important people in the music world, and I was the last one they interviewed. But once they got me talking it went fine - in fact I think they were glad when I finally shut up.

"It was the teaching they were really interested in. They got me to talk through various scenarios and explain how I had solved particular teaching problems."

Special needs was one area of particular interest to the judges. Russell Gair has done a lot of work with children with Tourette's syndrome and autism. "A teacher might say some kid is having problems with schoolwork but has a bit of rhythm, so can I work with him?

"If you put these youngsters behind a drum kit or a pair of timps and let them loose, they can be just amazing. They really enjoy themselves and often they have music coming out of their fingertips. In some parts kids with these sort of problems are kept separate, but I like to get them involved, playing with groups, bands and orchestras.

"We try to treat every child as an individual here, and give them all the same opportunity. It's not just me - Shetland has a lot to be proud of in that respect."

To play percussion well you need rhythm, he says. But real proficiency demands balance and co-ordination as well, since hands and feet can all be doing different things at the same time. "Youngsters need some physical and mental maturity. But one of my students is only six and doing really well."

Another aspect of Russell Gair's work that impressed the judges was his continuing efforts to bring prominent musicians to the islands to work with schoolchildren: "We managed to get Steve White, regarded as the best drummer in Britain, and I'll be talking to him soon about coming again."

Russell Gair currently teaches 100 pupils around Shetland, a third of whom are girls. The influence of TV programmes such as Pop Idol and Fame Academy, he says, means more young people than ever want to learn to play.

"Kids today seem a lot more interested in music and are really keen to form bands at a younger age. It's great. I have no trouble finding pupils - in fact I've a waiting list."

The pound;2,500 award is very welcome, says Mr Gair, but it's the title itself that means most to him: "It gives you a bit of credibility and recognition. It puts your mind at rest. You believe you are doing a good job - this tells you that other people think so too."

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