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Celtic festival puts aside money woes

Celtic Connections' schools events have been cut back but the quality should be as high as ever, Raymond Ross writes

Last January the Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow boasted 10 concerts and 44 workshops for schools. This coming January the figures will be halved, because the National Lottery funding has ended.

"After a fabulous six years of Lottery-funded Celtic music education, we are now on our own as far as funding is concerned," says Celtic Connections' education officer, Nancy Nicolson.

"The education programme was so well funded (pound;225,000 for the first four years and pound;95,000 for the last three) that its continued existence was taken for granted in some quarters, though not by us. Lottery money was only there for us to launch it and show what is possible."

The education programme is looking for new sponsors on top of the continuing support of the Educational Institute of Scotland, Glasgow Caledonian University and the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall (where the schools concerts take place). But Ms Nicolson is adamant that quality is being maintained, if not quantity. "We'd rather do less and make sure they are stoaters," she says.

The five concerts and 22 in-school workshops planned for January will feature artists and art forms from around the world, including the Siberian throat singers Huun Huur Tu, step-dancing from Cape Breton with Beolach, African-based gospel song and dance from Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir of the United States, music and song from the award-winning Glasgow group Brolum and a Burns session with some of the best bardic interpreters, including Wendy Weatherby, Mick West and Gill Bowman.

Step-dancing died out in Scotland around the time of the Clearances in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. "It continued to thrive in Canada, and because of our strong cultural links across the Atlantic it has begun to return," explains Ms Nicolson.

The step-dancing workshops are aimed primarily at infant and nursery pupils. "It's a form of movement that attracts children who don't necessarily go in for sport and competition, and it would be good to see it spread in primaries because it's not difficult to learn," says Ms Nicolson, a former primary teacher.

Siberian throat singing is not likely to be performed spontaneously by primary pupils, though it will undoubtedly make them sit up and listen.

"It's a totally different way of producing sound, a voice that starts nearer the heart without going through the prim bits of your mouth," says Ms Nicolson in a brave stab at definition.

"We want to broaden ideas of what culture and singing is.

"Huun Huur Tu will fascinate them and they will want to imitate and experiment. Why not?"

The inclusion of Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir from California in the Celtic education programme reminds us of another, more shameful Scottish connection , with slaves.

"Recently it has been well argued that jazz has strong Scottish roots because black slaves were as affected by Gaelic Psalm singing as anything else. You can see its influence in the call and response style and the wild harmonies of jazz," she says.

For schools interested in the concerts, Ms Nicolson's advice is to book early and to check the Celtic Connections website where some songs will be posted in advance. Schools audiences are expected to take part as well as to listen.

"It's not just fun. This is true education, opening minds, feeding the desire to learn and encouraging our children to contribute to the quality of life, both here and now and in the future," she says.

There will also be storytelling workshops (in English, Scots and Gaelic) in infant and nursery schools and songwriting workshops (in English and Scots) for secondary schools, led by Gill Bowman and Alistair Hulett.

Ms Nicolson believes that 90 per cent of all primary teachers could easily be taught to sing, dance and play a whistle. "It's really a matter of confidence. If you could fund professional development in this, it would impact tremendously on school ethos and achievement," she says.

"Funding is key to arts in education. As an experienced infant specialist, I know that the kind of work we do through the festival is essential to proper development of language, character and intelligence. We ignore it at the peril of future generations.

"Education remains the heartbeat of Celtic Connections. It's about producing future performers and tradition carriers as well as future audiences," says Ms Nicolson.

Celtic Connections, January

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