Tune in to cultural identity

With workshops and concerts, music has once again become a major part of young Orcadians' lives. Jackie Cosh reports

Jackie Cosh

At last year's EIS music teachers' conference, education consultant David Cameron talked of the "vital contribution to our cultural identity" that music tuition makes. Communities such as Orkney spring to mind, where the music has a distinct Norwegian theme and tunes and songs have been passed down the generations.

Once they reach high school, a large proportion of Orkney youngsters learn to play an instrument. But for many pupils in primary school and in the junior high schools, it is not so easy. The schools may only receive music tuition a few times a year, because of the remoteness of some of the islands.

Coordinator of the Orkney Youth Music Forum, freelance musician and composer Gemma McGregor organised a youth concert in Kirkwall on 17 March, one of the final events of the Year of Scotland's Islands, which ends this month. In preparation, she conducted workshops in primary schools across the islands, focusing on different types of Orcadian music, and culminating in the concert, which was a huge success.

"I think one thing that people forget is that some of our islands used to be very isolated. Now they are linked by road, but historically they would not have been. The musicians would have been playing in their own style, not playing like someone else, as they would only have met them once a year," says Ms McGregor.

Accompanied by a local musician, she visited schools in seven of the islands. "What I've done is identify a key musical person in the community to help set it up and to keep teaching the tunes after I've left, so I've made a folder of 12 fairly playable Orcadian tunes and played them at the workshop. Then I gave them a talk about Orkney fiddle music and some of the characters and played them archive recordings and showed them photographs."

As this was a one-off event, Ms McGregor had to be careful to organise the workshop so that some of it could be continued, with music being taught to a group of players and then left with the key community music person.

"I think one of the strengths of the project has been that we had community groups and school teachers working together, so the kids were left with something to work with after the visit," she says.

On the day of the concert, the children came together in a hall in Kirkwall from 2 to 4pm for a workshop on the music and then all performed it in the evening.

The aim was to have as many children as possible attending the concert. So they opened and closed it with all the isles children, about 70 of them, and all the people who helped them play. Then in between they had three acts of island musicians. "The show was a sell-out and the hall was packed full, with some others listening to the music from outside," says Ms McGregor.

Eday is one of Orkney's more remote islands and the eight children at Eday Community School only receive a visit from a music teacher once every four weeks. When Ms McGregor visited, she introduced the children to musical instruments they hadn't played before.

"They played the flute, the piano, and the accordion, which was good, as the children have seen flutes but nobody at the school at the moment plays the flute," says teacher Delores Firth. "The children were really engaged and excited. She told them a little bit about the history behind fiddles and music locally, they listened to the band and they got the chance to play in a concert."

Normally, they get an intense day of music once a month and it's very good but they have not got that regular input, she says. "Practising weekly is very different. It's quite hard for them and sometimes you have to remotivate them."

At Westray Junior High, Ms McGregor worked with all the fiddlers in the school, from P4 to S4.

"We don't often get the opportunity to do that, as there is no traditional music group on the island," says teacher Graham Garson. "Our teacher who comes out is really a violinist, and focuses more on classical technique, so it was good to give the kids a chance to play some traditional music from Orkney.

"We tend to be forgotten about in the great scheme of things, compared with the Western Isles tradition or the Highlands or the Shetlands tradition. The kids don't tend to get to hear many traditional tunes from Orkney."

At Shapinsay Primary, the teacher linked the music workshop in with a crofting project the school was doing.

"It fitted in beautifully," says acting head Anita Angier. "She spoke about Davie Eunson, who was an Orcadian crofter, and how as well as his crofting work he played the fiddle and made fiddles. She was able to tell us about the stories behind the songs, so thinking about events they had been written for. One song was about someone leaving his island home."

Music across the islands

The Year of Scotland's Islands has seen a programme of events, exhibitions and conferences run across the 42 inhabited Scottish islands, from April 2011 to April 2012.

The Orkney Youth Music forum is one of Creative Scotland's Youth Music Initiatives and was set up to improve awareness of existing music groups and to coordinate youth music activities of all styles of music, as well as to identify areas for development. The forum is made up of musicians and music teachers, with a remit of sharing resources and projects.

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Jackie Cosh

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