One of my favourite things to look ahead to in the diary is heading to Ullapool to work for Fèis Rois, be it for the Junior, Senior, or Adult Feis. This May it was for the later, something I enjoyed immensely 3 years ago with my bandmates in RANT.
The Fèisean movement is a mighty thing. I learned so much of my traditional music in my youth attending the music camps of Fèis Rois, and feel very fortunate to have an organisation which still supports my music right into adulthood. For that reason alone it’s always special to be in Ullapool - but that personal connection aside - a Fèis is such a great occasion, a creative environment which always nurtures learning and fun in equal measure.
Fèis Rois Inbhich (The Adult Fèis) attracts around 260 adults to Ullapool every year for a long weekend. I find there’s a big mix of participants, some who do the ‘circuit’ of music courses, others who maybe attend weekly Fèis classes, and some people who are maybe trying traditional music / song / dance for the first time. All abilities are catered for, and I suppose with the nature of the fiddle’s popularity, there were at least 7 different fiddle classes on the go at one time.
As much as I like to be well prepared for these things it’s notoriously hard to prepare exactly what you are going to teach until you see ‘what you’re working with’. This year I was down to take intermediate fiddle and groupwork. As I walked into my first fiddle class I could quickly asses that I’d had at least half the class at other music courses within the last six months. That put a fair bit of my current favourite teaching material out the window. I find a lot of people are quite happy to cover old ground, but I like to begin with everyone ‘on the same page’. The style of teaching I’ve developed over the years means I like to teach tunes which reinforce strong elements of technique, and segments which can be removed from the tune as exercises. This can make it a bit harder to think of material ‘on the fly’.
I had a lovely class who were all up for a bit of a challenge, so we got stuck into strathspey bowing and a tricky gaelic air in b flat. The classes always seem to fly by, and the timetable is well structured.
In the afternoons I taught groupwork with long-term Fèis music buddy Mairearad Green, and top percussionist Signy Jakobsdottir. Our brief was to share music from ‘The Seer’ - a 45 min commission based on the life and prophecies of The Brahan Seer. Feis Rois commissioned me to write this music for a premiere at the start of 2017, and it went on to become an album released in Sep last year. I had taught 3 of the pieces to the Senior Feis in October, some to an adult workshop in Dec, and some with Ceilidh Trail participants, so I had a fair idea of what worked in a teaching situation.
Luckily for Mairearad, Signy and I, we were given a week’s heads-up on what instrumentation we had, so I set about adapting parts for the instruments in our group which the piece hadn’t been originally scored for. Namely; whistles, flutes, cello, and tenor horn! The music itself is not hugely complex, but I had to remind myself that it was initially written for professional musicians, and in that regard, some things had to be adapt to suit the class.
The group again were really up for a challenge. They were interested in the writing process, and the stories involved with the pieces. I spoke a bit about one of the important musical elements of a tune we were looking at called Tomnahurich which was cross-rhythm. I used this a lot throughout the commission and the rhythmic tension in a lot of the music represents the idea that a character like the Brahan Seer divides opinion. Everyone has a different take on his prophecies, such is the way an aural history develops. Signy was great at getting everyone thinking about rhythm with drum-stick exercises. This interactive part of the class got everyone engaged quickly. In all we tackled three pieces and the group did tremendously well sight-reading through all the parts.
As a tutor you are very well looked after at the Adult Fèis, and worked hard! On the Saturday night we performed The Seer in full with the album line-up, in a double header with The Shee. It was a packed concert in The Macphail Centre in Ullapool and I was a bit overwhelmed to receive two standing ovations for our performance. Audiences seem to really connect with the story of the Brahan Seer. It’s rare to meet a Highlander who can’t immediately relay a few of his prophecies. The amazing musicians involved were Megan Henderson, Rachel Newton, Anna Massie, Mairearad Green and Signy Jakobsdottir. Barry Reid did a fantastic job on the sound and we used the beautiful visuals Somhairle MacDonald created for the album as a backdrop.
I plan to tour Scotland with this piece with the full-line up in June 2019.
As always, you come away from a Fèis event like that fairly exhausted, but hugely fulfilled. I do a lot of adult teaching, and whilst it has it’s challenges it can be hugely rewarding too. I always take the time to remind myself that those participants have taken the time out of their busy lives to come and learn from you, and strive to always inspire their musical journey and further ignite the passion we all share for our traditional music.