Monday, November 19, 2018

There are some turns where I will spin

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In the first week of October, I did something I'd been waiting to do the whole two and a bit years I've been learning to play the fiddle. I went to a week-long fiddle camp.

I was a very raw beginner when the inaugural Stringmania was held in 2016. I'm not sure I'd even heard about it in time to register but I wouldn't have had the guts to do it at that point anyway. I did, however, time a trip to Melbourne to be able to go to a couple of concerts by the tutors.

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Last year, the timing was a bit too close on the heels of our UK trip to take more time off work. To be honest I guess I also still really didn't feel ready yet for a full week of playing and cramming new tunes into my brain/fingers.

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But I was determined to go this year and I registered and paid my deposit nice and early. As the time approached I got really anxious about it. Irrationally so. My inner voice was telling me that everyone there would be accomplished musicians, all the other campers would be friends already and clique-y. Also, I would sound bad and piss everyone off, would not be able to keep up, and on top of that, I would be overwhelmed by being with people all the time (including sleeping in a dorm/cabin).

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Tutors Alasdair Fraser, Natalie Haas, Nicholas Ng and Jingjing Lu

My rational side did think it would probably be ok. But the truth is, it turned out to be pretty much everything I could have hoped. The atmosphere was warm and inclusive. I struggled to keep up sometimes (and did sound bad sometimes) but I quickly found some comrades who were in the same boat, and we were able to get together outside of class and try to help each other with some super-slow sessions.

All the classes focus on learning by ear - we only received the sheet music some time after camp - and you place yourself in a level based on how fast you like to learn by ear. I enjoyed the challenge, but I wished I was more experienced and quicker to grasp the tunes. This is as much about my physical ability to play my instrument as it is my ability to remember a tune (this is where singing it first helps, enormously).

I'm so glad that I can read music, thanks to all the music lessons I had on piano. With my lovely regular teacher I learn some tunes by ear and some with the 'dots'. I'd already worked out that although I can play it through sooner with the music, if I do the hard work to learn a tune by ear (or even mostly by ear, fixing up a few notes later) I will learn it by heart much sooner and retain it better.

Which is all well and good, but for me it's a big ask to internalise several new tunes in six days, in time for the concert at the end of camp. (With or without sheet music). It was impressive to see lots of people who can do this fairly effortlessly. When it came to the rehearsal/arrangement session on the day of the concert, I quickly realised that even some of the tunes I had more-or-less learned were going to be played way too fast for me. So then I found myself at the last minute trying to listen in to the cellos and learn a couple of bassline phrases to use instead.

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Lucy Wise and Holly Downes


When it comes to the music and musicians that I love, I've always been on the outside looking in. And that's pretty much still the case, but the camp experience broke down those barriers to some extent. I saw and heard incredible musicians doing cool things, sure, but also people who are more like me. People who maybe haven't been playing all their life. I feel like I got to see a bit of the magic where a lot of elements come together into something wonderful - sometimes quite quickly and without too much trialing or planning. I have to acknowledge the very skilled tutors and director did do some planning behind the scenes. But even so, many of the tutors come in relatively cold, and some of them may have never played with the others previously. I'm so impressed by their skill and openness, coming in to a group of 100+ people and teaching them at all levels, on a wide range of instruments, and pulling it all together into a credible performance.

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View from the back of the stage, rehearsal before the concert.

The other day I caught up with a friend from camp and we talked about attitudes to music-making. I said I felt I was still personally a bit stuck in the mindset that (theoretically, as I am not performing in any capacity!) I would need to practice a piece a lot, to get it to being performable. She likened this to a classical way of thinking, and we talked about the idea of community music which is primarily about the *experience* of playing together. Of course this is exactly what session music is and what the camp was really about. I still feel though that my lack of physical skill in playing my instrument is quite a barrier. It's a slow process but I have to stop at times and notice that it is improving.

I can't begin to analyse everything I learned or took in at camp - some things I probably haven't even acknowledged. I know I want to do it again.

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Hanging out at the back of the stage and contemplating my chances of hitting one note in four.

Monday, November 05, 2018

sew no silken seam on a fine May morning

1 September 2017. Our first full Glasgow day we... got the hell out of town. We wanted to do a day trip down to Port William and Monreith, and this day promised the best weather for it. My great-uncle Tim had taken the train up from London to stay with us in Glasgow for a few days. He was quite happy to join us for a day trip out of town.

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We had a very short coffee stop in Ayr. It was a beautiful day.

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We wanted to explore this area because it is where our good friend grew up - though he has lived in Australia since his late teens. We went first to subtly check out  Monreith House. His parents lived and worked on this property back in the day.

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Then we moved on to Port William, a pretty charming town.

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I will say, I had some amazing vegetarian meals, largely in pubs, in Scotland... but this day's pub lunch wasn't one of them. I think we were a bit off the most popular tourist trails, there weren't a lot of options... it happens.

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We drove on to Monreith Beach. Tim decided to rest in the car while we took the steep stairs down to the beach.

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The whole time we were there I was obsessing over my 'secret ambition' for the Scotland trip. We were days away from leaving Scotland and this seemed to be my last best opportunity for a skinny dip... nice weather, nice beach, not too many people around. If only I had remembered to bring a towel!

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I remembered that on the track down from the road we had passed a little public toilet. I went back to check and it turned out to be amazingly well-stocked with paper towels. Jackpot!

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I did it! So much fun. K did not play along, but guarded my clothes. I didn't stay in long as it was pretty cold. Yes there was a little boat out there but far enough away I didn't really care.

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Monday, October 15, 2018

And sent him homeward tae think again

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Well. In this virtual re-living of our trip to Scotland, I've left us hanging in limbo a long time. Let's get moving again.

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31 August 2017 - we left Edinburgh with a few hours to spend making our way to Glasgow. The main place I was keen to stop was the Helix Park in Falkirk, to see the amazing Kelpies.

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We loved them. And what a great spot. Really nice accessible park, boats on the canal, and then there's the huuuge horse art. This was something really different to everything else we saw in Scotland.

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We were on a deadline, as we planned to get in to Glasgow to meet my uncle's train (he came up from London to spend a few days with us) in mid-afternoon. Just enough time for a very quick visit to Stirling Castle.

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We didn't go inside, but I can never resist a look the gift shop. There's a bottle of whisky I still wish I had bought there. The views outside were gorgeous. The drive up to the castle, winding through the town, was memorable too.

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Robert the Bruce.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2018

A full few days in Edinburgh

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Edinburgh was the one place in Scotland that I had actually visited before, way back in 2001 when I went to Poland and the UK with Grandma. On that trip, we took a train from London to Edinburgh and stayed two nights in a (not Air-) B'n'B. We hadn't booked accommodation, we just went from the train station straight to the tourist information booth, and they found something for us.

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One day we rode the red tourist bus, and the next day we rode the blue tourist bus. We didn't go up to the Castle because it was too much for Grandma, but we did visit the Art Gallery which I adored and was thrilled to return to on this trip.

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28 August 2017: We pulled ourselves a bit reluctantly away from St Andrews in the early-mid afternoon. Time was a factor because our accommodation in Edinburgh was booked through Air B'n'B (I have now joined the 21st century), so we had to make it on time to meet our hosts. It's a trade-off when booking accommodation - staying at a hotel, you can usually rock up at almost any time. On some travel days, that flexibility is really handy. But on the other hand, in Edinburgh, we scored a really lovely two bedroom apartment in Leith for a very reasonable price.

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After settling in, we wandered down to the centre of Leith to meet my aunt and uncle for dinner. They live in Queensland but happened to be in the UK for a holiday at the same time as us. Our time in Edinburgh coincided just for this night - they were leaving the next day, heading into the west and Highlands. (Which - yes - still gave me a pang or two - I must go back to the highlands and islands before too long.) We had such a nice time catching up with them in a sort of fancy pub/restaurant down by the water.

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The next day we hopped on a bus and took the short ride into Edinburgh proper. We wandered from the new town into the old. We visited (K) and revisited (me) the slightly heartbreaking Greyfriars Bobby statue.  We also, without really trying to, went past The Elephant House where apparently J.K. Rowling used to write. We bypassed its enormous queue and went for a cuppa next door at the French place instead.

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We wandered the Grassmarket, and then we took on Edinburgh Castle.

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It's big. We joined a tour and managed to see some decent proportion of the place - less than half, I'm sure.

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The Great Hall

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St Margaret's Chapel - the oldest surviving building in Edinburgh.

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Cemetary for soldiers' dogs

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The next day we packed in lots more Edinburgh touristy experiences. We climbed the Scott Monument (the blackish tower in the right of this photo). The upper staircases were very narrow and a bit claustrophobic...but doable. It was totally worth it for the views and also for the gorgeous decorative elements like stone dogs and other sculptures.

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Seen from the Scott Monument: Edinburgh Castle, Scottish National Gallery

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In the afternoon we wandered the new town and checked out the Oxford, Inspector Rebus' favourite bar. Walking in, the few people at the bar in the front room all turned around to see - it felt like maybe it was a locals place and they are sick of tourists? Anyway we settled in a back room happily enough. Later we went nearby for Mexican food, and then, the search for folk music sessions.

We managed to find sessions in three bars through. At the Captain's Bar, we found not a lot of people (it may have been a bit early) and only one musician, a man playing guitar. After a while we moved on to the Royal Oak, a tiny bar full of people, about half of whom were jammed in the corner playing music. Not the trad folk I was really keen for but more singer-songwriter acoustic guitar-based songs. Pretty sure we heard American Pie here. Finally we went to Sandy Bells, a bigger and also very popular pub. The music here was excellent, with a large, very tight ensemble who seemed like they probably play together a lot, cranking out the trad tunes. The musicians were all jammed into an end room/space and with the bar quite crowded, it was hard to find a good spot to listen. But when you wanted to go to the toilet you had to squeeze right past them, trying not to bump anyone while playing! It didn't feel like a session where a newcomer could join in, but I don't really know session etiquette so I could be quite wrong about that.

We did go to a session back in Aberdeen as well. For some reason I didn't write about it in the earlier post. That one drew a group of 8-10 musicians, almost exclusively older men. They played a mixture of American songs (yes, American Pie!) and celtic tunes, the style and genre really depending on who started up each tune. We sat there for quite a while so it was good to observe a bit of the group dynamics. There was a younger man who arrived with a fiddle and played hesitantly along for just one tune. Then he went to sit with his friends again but let one of the old guys pick up his fiddle and show us all how it should be done.

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Above - a very Edinburgh-specific photo, the floral clock in the Princes Street Gardens. I remembered this park well from my 2001 visit, as well as the very bold little grey squirrels.

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On the other hand, this street scene really could have been taken in any big enough town/city in the UK. Ubiquitous USA Nailz. (Oh and Indian food.) It's so interesting to see 'USA' used as a selling point. I don't think that would play so well in Australia.