Sounds of praise

30th June 2000 at 01:00
As the haunting strains of bagpipes drift in the evening air, the Scottish instrumental teacher of the year talks to Denyse Presley.

Annie Grant, a pipe major from Dunoon, has been named the Yamaha Scottish Instrumental Teacher of the Year. On a balmy evening, against a backdrop of rolling hills, Annie recalled her reaction to the news. "I only knew about three weeks before that I had been nominated, so I was happy just to go along and enjoy the awards evening. To end up as the winner was something I hadn't even thought of. I was absolutely thrilled."

Annie faced strong competition from the 18 other regional winners representing the entire musical spectrum. Jury chairman Tim Reynish explained why she was nominated: "She has achieved great competitive success as the pipe major of Dunoon Grammar School Pipe Band, as well as working with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and writing her own tutor book." She won because she is "totally dedicated to teaching and functions on a national and international level".

The prestigious prize, now in its third year, was the first to recognise the dedication and achievement of Scotland's music teachers. It is important, says Colin O'Riordan of the Heads of Instrumental Teachers of Scotland (HITS), because it raises the profile of music in schools.

Annie is particularly delighted about what the award says for piping. "I was the only piper. It's done a lot for the whole of piping."

There is definitely something in the air for Scotland's national instrument. In a recent Scottish Arts Council report on traditional music, Rab Wallace, editor of The Piper Press, says: "It was not so long ago that there was hardly a piper on the island of Skye and only a few scattered elsewhere in the Highlands. What turned things around was the teaching of piping in schools."

In the same report, Roddy MacLeod, music director of the Piping Centre in Glasgow, quotes one music adviser who would rather not know the extent of demand for piping tuition in case resources fall short.

Annie counters this concern with a practical observation. "I start off teaching classes of 30 at the primaries, but children drop out as they recognise which activities they are really interested in. The numbers are therefore reduced to manageable groups."

The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders used to be stationed in Dunoon. Many of Annie's pupils - who number around 100 from the eight Cowal primaries and Dunoon Grammar - have received musical inspiration from parents and grandparents who played with the regiment's band.

The Dunoon GrammarSchool Pipe Band is the current British and world champion in the novice juvenile grade. As the members, dressed in the green and black Ancient Campbell tartan, warm up for the Cowal Schools summer concert, Annie sums up her attraction to the sound: "It's so inspiring. It's not a concert pitch. There are slight discordancies in it which give it a chill quality."

Dunoon Grammar pupils have two days a week with their mentor, while most councils can only offer groups and individuals 35 minutes of tuition a week. But Argyll and Bute Council charges for musical teaching. "Parents have accepted it unwillingly," says headteacher Joseph Rhodes.

But the Highland community shows a passionate commitment to music. The 100-year-old annual Cowal Highland Games, held at Dunoon, hosts hundreds of musicians, including pipers.

Mr O'Riordan says that compared with England, the provision of music teaching in Scotland is good. There are 675 music teachers and out of 32 authorities, 12 do not charge. Edinburgh City Council, for example, has 80 teachers serving 5,000 children and is committed to free tuition, but "increased demand, particularly for folk and jazz, means that resources are increasingly stretched," he says.

Annie followed an unconventional route into music teaching. "I trained in physical education, which I taught from 1964," she says. "I was approached by the music department when the current piping teacher retired. I had been teaching the bagpipes in an extra-mural capacity since the early Seventies when it was introduced into the curriculum. I was torn between PE and music but transferred to music in 1984."

Excellent teachers such as Annie are important to the future of Scotland's traditional music. Catriona Macdonald, the Shetland fiddler and presenter of BBC Radio Scotland's Celtic Connections, recalls her teacher, Lerwick musician Tom Anderson, with affection. "He impressed upon me how everyone can enjoy playing music on different levels. It has stuck with me and now when I'm teaching workshops of 40 people of varying standards, I remember it's all about having a lot of fun and realising the pleasure people can get, even if they get out the fiddle just once a year at Christmas."

Recognising that most pupils do not intend to pursue a musical career, she makes a case for teaching traditional music because of its social as well as cultural importance. "The bottom line with the violin is that most people are not going to be classical violin players. If you've been taught traditional music you can pick up a fiddle and play a tune."

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