At this stage in my life I had played very regularly in many sessions back in Ireland, mainly in Cavan (my hometown), Clare and Letrim. I'd also regularly travel to various festivals about the country. In every session I'd record a few tunes and enjoyed learning them once I'd got home. I didn't just learn my favourites - I learned them all! By the time I left Ireland I had accumulated a decent repertoire, so imagine my disbelief upon sitting in to the Ben Nevis session in Glasgow and only knowing about two tunes that were played! It was actually quite refreshing and I was excited about this new vast project I was about to embark on - to learn the tunes of Scotland.
I began by doing what I'd always done best - recording tunes and learning them. There were hundreds to learn, and not just Scottish tunes but new compositions I hadn't heard before by the likes of Mike McGoldrick, Brian Finnegan and Liz Carroll. New compositions by some of the musicians I was playing with in the sessions. Not to mention bluegrass, old time, Breton, French-Canadian, Eastern European (the list goes on) tunes. It was never ending! If you imagine the repertoire I had accumulated in Ireland, built on various sessions and festivals I played at regularly, being one single repertoire. I realised I was trying to learn about ten new different repertoires!
Within Scotland alone, being such a big country, there are so many different fiddle styles and tunes, i.e. West Coast, Highland, North East, Borders (south), Shetland and Orkney. I was learning a lot of tunes from fiddlers based in Glasgow such as Adam Sutherland (highland), Ruairidh Macmillan (highland/east coast), Jack Smedley (east coast) and Ross Couper (Shetland), all of whom grew up playing those respective styles. It is said there is now a more generalised Scottish style which younger musicians play, due to a number of factors; modern technology mainly, and the fact that more musicians are travelling around and mixing with other musicians. This was the main Scottish style I believe I was hearing in Glasgow.
I continued to join in to the sessions, mainly in the Ben Nevis and Waxy O'Connors, playing my newly learned tunes and recording even more. I preferred joining in rather than starting the tunes. There was something about these Scottish tunes that seemed "foreign". I couldn't quite put my finger on it but the main thing I noticed about them was they took me longer to learn initially, and longer to improve on them. I would start them in a session and get jumbled up! At some points during my practice the odd Irish tune or Mike McGoldrick tune would pop up that I'd need to learn and that was no bother to me. It was the Scottish tunes I had trouble with; mainly the reels, strathspeys and marches. Four part 2/4 and 6/8 marches. I couldn't get my head around them! They seemed to start off like typical strathspey-sounding tunes, but then would have a third part that sounded like the first part and a fourth part that sounded like the second part. Very confusing and hard to practice, my mind would start wandering as I was playing them, I'd end up just playing the first two parts over and over! There are countless Scottish jigs with the same formula but I did find these a little easier. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the tunes and loved them in sessions, but it was frustrating that I couldn't get them right.
It wasn't until I was having a practice in Fraser Shaw's house on Islay that I had a bit of a breakthrough. I was in the sitting room practicing a Scottish reel "Dolina MacKay", and he was upstairs. He came down and popped his head into the sitting room looking slightly amused and said, "you're playing that all wrong!". Being a little embarrassed, I asked why and he said, "no, the notes are right you're just playing it all rounded and Irish!". So he played it for me on his whistle and I learned it the "correct" Scottish way! Once I heard the tune that certain way, it actually made a lot more sense to me.
If you regard the style(s) of music I was trying to learn, it would be impossible for me to recreate that. I'm not Scottish! And I have my own style which I should be proud of, and not try to shed. It was the notes within the tunes, the very basics, the little sequences of quavers and crotchets that were hard for me to pick up immediately. For example the first few notes of Dolina MacKay are (roughly!) |A-A-,GAAB|BABD,E-DE| - it doesn't sound hard in theory, but it does sound quite strange to someone who plays primarily Irish music. These are sequences of notes I'd never played before, and all the tunes are full of them and take some getting used to! This, along with learning third and fourth parts that sound like variations on the first two parts, but are absolutely essential! I say this often and live/practice by it, that every tune deserves attention. And that includes the parts of tunes that sound like variations!
Once I got to the root of the problem, I focused my practice on learning the tunes this correct Scottish way. Up until then I was just learning off session recordings, which we all know to be hard to hear at the best of times. I began collaborating more with Scottish musicians and making sure I was learning my latest tunes properly, not to mention getting tips on some fancy Scottish ornaments. Not just your rolls, tips, pats and crans for me! It was great to be learning all these new tunes and really challenged me. I must reiterate at this stage that as all this was happening, I was still learning a number of other types of tunes, mainly bluegrass, old time and fancy contemporary tunes! I reached a stage of my musical learning curve, I was happy with: I knew I'd never sound truly Scottish but that was okay!