Reel sounds of Scotland

7th January 2000 at 00:00
Traditional music is winning more fans and the country's major folk festival is helping. Kenny Mathieson reports.

Scottish traditional music has made remarkable inroads into the academic curriculum in recent years. The development of advanced courses at university level has been paralleled in schools, both informally at primary level and formally in the introduction of a Scottish music component to Standard grade music.

It is appropriate, then, that Scotland's major folk festival, Celtic Connections, which this year runs from January 11-30 at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, should have expanded its music education activities. The Scottish Arts Council's National Lottery Fund last year provided a grant of pound;200,000 for a three-year school and community project. It has helped to pay for 8,000 free tickets for community and school concerts, a Music Development Day and an education officer.

Nancy Nicolson is aptly qualified for the job. She taught in primary schools for 23 years, including four years on the governing board of Moray House, before leaving to concentrate on being a singer and songwriter. The teaching habit dies hard, however, and Ms Nicolson soon found herself involved in music education, initially with Grey Coast Theatre in Caithness, then with the New Makars Trust in Fife.

Her appointment as education officer commenced not long before last year's Celtic Connections. This year, time and money has allowed a much expanded education programme within the festival, as well as opportunities to visit schools throughout the year.

"My remit is to take the traditional and indigenous music of Scotland into the schools and communities of Glasgow, and to look at the tradition in a broad context," says Ms Nicolson.

"Songs and stories carried the wisdom and culture of peoples all over the world long before we had writing or formal education, and they are still a great resource not only for music, but also for what they have to say about our history, social studies, environmental studies and a whole lot more."

Ms Nicolson usually visits schools herself, singing and telling stories, but she enlists the help of musicians, such as concertina player Norman Chalmers, for special schools where the pupils often have additional difficulties with language. The children get hands-on experience of the instruments, which can be inspirational.

Ms Nicolson cites Lord Reith's dictum from the BBC charter as her own ideal. "My aim is to entertain, educate and inform, and I believe that you can't do one without simultaneously doing the other two.

"When I go into a school, I make four visits to the same class in successive weeks, and I also do a day of in-service training with the teachers. A lot of them already possess singing or dancing skills and are well able to pass that on to the children - all they need is encouragement. I not only think they should, I think they have a duty!" Although teachers are very open to the musi project, Ms Nicolson says there is an attitude that singing does not constitute proper school work. This, she feels, is short-sighted and she hopes to be able to do more proselytising work for the educational virtues of song and dance.

Celtic Connections' education programme includes free concerts featuring well known singers and musicians, such as the virtuoso Scottish fiddler Alasdair Fraser and the Cape Breton group Barrage, workshops, masterclasses and community outreach events in primary and secondary schools around Glasgow.

The Music Development Day on January 27 is aimed specifically at Standard grade. In the run-up to the festival, students from traditional music courses at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and Strathclyde University have visited schools and demonstrated the instruments and music forms. This work culminates in a morning concert headed by Alasdair Fraser.

"As far as I can see, teachers have been asked to teach (the Scottish music component of) Standard grade without any real extra training or resources," says Ms Nicolson. "It's one thing to study the notes of a reel or a Strathspey on paper, but quite another to see and hear it played by someone who really understands the form.

"In the concert, we will also explore the music's relationship with dance. That will be a really entertaining morning, but it's a perfect example of how entertainment can carry all this information as well."


Community Concerts.

* Mondays January 17 and 24: for community groups.

* Wednesdays January 19 and 26: for primary schools These feature artist in residence Alasdair Fraser and young local performers with two programmes, one illustrating links between Scottish and Canadian music with the group Barachois, the other with Scottish band Iron Horse celebrating Burns in the Millennium.

Music Development Day.

* Thursday January 27: for Glasgow primary, secondary and special schools To illustrate Scottish music for Standard grade exams.

University of Strathclyde Debates.

* Daily at 12.30pm and 6pm in the Concert Hall.

Exploring the cultural, historical and political context of Celtic Connections. Speakers include Tom Devine, Edwin Morgan, Bernard MacLaverty, Liz Lochhead, Sheena Wellington, Donny O'Rourke, Alasdair Gray, Robbie Robertson, Roseanna Cunningham, Tommy Sheridan, Margo MacDonald and Dennis Canavan.

Tradition Bearers.

* A full and varied programme at the Piping Centre.

Community Outreach.

* Around Glasgow. A concert a day in schools, community centres and venues from Easterhouse to the Gorbals and Govan.

Schools Outreach.

* Workshops in songs and instruments such as the fiddle, whistle and harp, and storytelling.

Public Workshops.

* Featuring traditional elements of Celtic music, plus work with the digeridoo, bodhran, spoons and overtone chanting, for participants ranging from nine to 90 years old.

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