Schools workshops and traditional music sessions in Orkney

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I arrived in Orkney on Monday after a very calm crossing of the Pentland Firth. Tuesday morning I was straight into a very full day’s work up at Kirkwall Grammar School. I started off meeting the viola instructors and working through some ABRSM repertoire as well as talking about all things viola-related.

After being well fed and watered in the staff room I hooked up with Gemma McGregor to work with young people ranging from S2 to S6 (so right the way through High School) on a composition workshop based on sounds from the Far North. It was a completely different way of working with music for most of the young people, but they embraced it with enthusiasm, recreating the sounds of creaking glaciers, birdlife, the wind and sea. I was impressed with the imagination they showed. It’s a big ask to create a group improvisation in 20 minutes or so, especially when it’s a new way of working. We asked Gemma how long it would take to write a 5-minute piece which was fully notated and she reckoned about 3 weeks, which helped the young people appreciate what they’d achieved.

Today Gemma and I travelled across Mainland on a dreich morning to work with the music students in Stromness. This time we were working with young people from National 5 and Higher Music classes, so we focused in a bit more on the compositional techniques we were using, especially timbre and structure. We started off by listening to recordings of geese, the sea, an Inuit song and ice and ravens recorded in Greenland. We created 4 very different pieces of music, from atmospheric soundscapes to a piece with guitars and vocalising that focused on the more entertaining aspects of the Inuit “Entertaining Song”!  There was lots of fun and laughter and we all enjoyed exploring instruments in new and different ways.

I finished the morning playing along with the string orchestra. Playing side-by-side is something I always enjoy doing and I’ve done it in most of the countries I’ve visited.

Many thanks to Creative Scotland, the Hinrichsen Foundation, RVW Trust and the Hope Scott Trust for their support, which enabled us to work with Orkney’s young people.

After lunch in the beautiful town of Stromness, I took the bus back to Kirkwall and spent some time in the beautiful 12th Century St. Magnus Cathedral. I find this building especially magical at dusk, with its warm red sandstone. St Magnus’ relics are in the building and there is the tomb of John Rae, the Arctic explorer born in Orkney who found the final portion of the Northwest Passage and reported the fate of Franklin’s lost expedition. It is, of course, just 3 days since the commemoration of the centenary of the Armistice and there were many reminders of Orkney’s part in the two world wars. A display of poppies on the altar was particularly striking against the sandstone.

After tea, Gemma took me down to the Fiddle and Accordion club at the Reel, the wonderful traditional music centre founded by Orkney’s famous Wrigley sisters. The best way to learn traditional music is to sit down and play it. I had a really fun evening and learned lots of new tunes, including some Scandinavian ones. Nice to see young and old playing together and to be made so welcome as a visitor.

Tomorrow, one of our transport sponsors, Loganair, will be carrying my other musicians over to Orkney. I’m looking forward to hooking up with Peter and Anne again and also playing a couple of tunes in the airport!

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