Sound of music

Plockton is not only serenaded for its amazing views, it is also where traditional Scottish music is taught. Jean McLeish visits the national music school to discover the secret of its success

Plockton is not only serenaded for its amazing views, it is also where traditional Scottish music is taught. Jean McLeish visits the national music school to discover the secret of its success

Even when it's raining in Plockton, breath-taking is a good way to describe this West Highland village.

People come from all over the world to visit and a good number come to play or listen to traditional music you can catch several nights a week in local pubs. Plockton's secret was out after the TV series Hamish MacBeth (1990s), but more often they are talking about "the music school" - shorthand for the National Centre of Excellence in Traditional Music at Plockton High.

The centre was launched eight years ago, after Highland Council bid for an excellence project from the fund set up by the Scottish Executive. The council recognised the opportunity to build on the momentum established by the Feis movement and was keen to encourage interest in traditional music and culture among all Scottish youngsters.

From the word go, Plockton students began to make their mark. In the first year, the six-piece band Bodega was formed and went on to win the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award in 2006. The band has been on tour in the United States and has released its second album. In January this year, 24-year- old guitarist and singer Ewan Robertson picked up BBC Radio Scotland's Young Traditional Musician of the Year Award.

Children of secondary school age from across the country audition for places and go to Plockton High during the day and return to the music centre, which is also their residence. Apart from one-to-one lessons in their chosen instruments each week, their musical education begins after school finishes.

There is an impressive range of tuition on offer on clarsach, accordion, guitar, fiddle, piano, pipes, flute and whistle and, more recently, the cello, increasingly popular as a traditional instrument. There are also lessons offered in Scots, Gaelic and Gaelic song.

Every month a dedicated music weekend gives more time for performance and exploring the music business with support from industry professionals.

After school, work starts with an hour's practice in their bands, and after tea, there's another hour's individual practice - a total of 10 hours a week, including two hours of individual lessons. That's the minimum, so they also practise in their own time and in ad hoc bands they set up with their friends.

Two significant developments this year have been a new option of six further periods of music study at the centre on the high school timetable for sixth years and the introduction of new exams devised with the Trinity Guildhall board to assess individual and group performance in traditional music. These measures will enhance musicianship and allow assessment to post-Grade 8 level, specifically tailored for traditional players.

This afternoon, next year's new intake is on day two of its induction week and has been split into bands to work on a song and find names for their bands. A sign on the noticeboard reminds them to get one now - so they're not still arguing about it before they go on stage in six months' time.

Between 15 and 23 students come to this residential centre each year to board, alongside other Plockton High pupils from more remote locations such as Applecross, who live in through the week. Students often come here for fifth and sixth year, having gained musical experience, but this new induction group includes some girls going into second year.

Among them is Becky Hill, 12, from Oban High, who plays clarsach and piano and is a Gaelic singer. "I started piano when I was about five and I've just started getting proper singing lessons," she says. Becky's been enjoying playing the piano and singing in the group of younger girls this afternoon during rehearsal but, like most youngsters of her age, she's not used to spending a lot of time away from home. "I have been phoning mum a lot," she says, smiling.

The centre's director, Dougie Pincock, is acutely conscious of the challenges all these changes bring for new pupils. He's friendly and approachable and has what the small ads call GSOH - in abundance. He has a son around Becky's age, which must help him empathise with the feelings of younger children facing up to so many new experiences.

Mr Pincock is a piper and former member of the top Scots folk group Battlefield Band - he also plays whistle, flute, saxophone and bodhran and on percussion is what he jokingly calls "a leading exponent of the shaky egg". He's an experienced teacher too, formerly at the National Piping Centre and on the traditional music course at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow, which is a popular next step for Plockton students.

"We take talented youngsters from all over Scotland and provide them with a specialist traditional music education which runs alongside their normal comprehensive education," he says.

"What this place is not - and never will be as long as I am here - is a hothouse for professional musicians. There are a number of reasons, the main one being that it's actually very difficult to make a living as a professional musician - I know, that's why I'm here."

So while the centre helps youngsters who do want to pursue a musical career, if they want to go on and become lawyers or doctors or anything else, then that's fine too, says Mr Pincock. Children have to be good to get in here: "They either have to be pretty good or look to us as if they are going to get pretty good pretty quick," he says.

It's also important they have the personality to perform in groups in regular gigs. Performance is key to life here and students get exciting opportunities to play in this country and overseas - including a visit to play at Grand Central Station, New York, during Tartan Week.

After an evening meal in the residence, sixth-year pupil Mairiann Fraser talks about her time here. "I never thought I'd be able to say I'm in sixth year, I just assumed I'd get a job or go to college before that," says the 16-year-old, who's sporting turquoise nail varnish to match her vivid blue eyes.

She came into fifth year from Lochaber High and is going into sixth year to study Scots song, with tuition from one of Scotland's foremost traditional singers Christine Kydd. Mairiann will also study guitar accompaniment and harmony for the first half of the year, as part of the new module for sixth-year students. After that, she will concentrate on guitar with visiting tutor Jack Evans, who is a leading professional musician and founder member of The Easy Club.

Students choose a first and second study, and when Mairiann started, her first study was fiddle with tuition from top Scots fiddler Ian MacFarlane from Blazing Fiddles. But she has a remarkable voice and, with encouragement, decided to dedicate more time to singing.

When she leaves school, Mairiann wants to study Gaelic and Gaelic music at Lews Castle College in Uist. "I think my ignorance has prompted my interest in Gaelic. I didn't know much about it at all and because I am from Lochaber, there's a huge Gaelic influence in the area," she says.

Mr Pincock says a decision was made from the outset that tutors would be the best Scotland has to offer: "The kids here have the remarkable opportunity to learn from people whose music they listen to, whose CDs they buy, whose gigs they go to."

Later in the Plockton Inn, Mr Pincock joins a group of eight or so musicians, selecting something from his range of whistles and flutes as they work their way through a lively mix of tunes and songs. Guitarist Jack Evans is in the company - along with a former student who has brought two friends to visit his old school.

Eighteen-year-old Scot Wilson ("with one t just to be awkward," he says) studied at Plockton for two years before heading to Newcastle University to study a folk and traditional music course. "It's a good high school and it has a good reputation. For me, the music school was just great. In a way it opened my eyes to what's out there. I was brought up in a strict east-coast kind of dance band-type of music," says Scot, who plays accordion, piano and double bass.

"Without the music school I wouldn't be where I am today, I'd be stuck in Fife with all the same old tunes."

Scot didn't have it easy when he was playing accordion at school in Fife before he came to Plockton. "When I first went to high school, I used to get bullied and just got general abuse for playing the accordion," he says. "I was in a school of maybe 1,600 or 1,700 and there were two people who played the accordion."

When he was about to leave school, the headteacher asked him to play for the school assembly: "I thought, well, it's the last day, I'll just go for it. So I played this fantastic set of blinding tunes and got a music teacher with experience of folk music to accompany me on piano.

"I played on stage in front of 1,500 people, and at the end of it they just sat there with their mouths hanging open and I got a standing ovation after it. They absolutely loved it and I think that's the problem with music education in general: people don't know enough about traditional music.

"Just after hearing that, though, they thought, `Wow, that's actually quite good.' So I think if they started to introduce it a lot more at an earlier age, there wouldn't be so much of a problem with it."

Towards the end of June each year, the Plockton students head off on their summer concert tour which kicks off in Inverurie with a grand end-of-term finale in Plockton. The welcome is warm wherever they go and their performances are full of vitality and imagination.

They have written many of the tunes they play and from the outset the students run the show - introducing themselves and their work with confidence and humour. There is even some step dancing.

Dougie Pincock seems to have found a winning formula for excellence - "happy people make good music".

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