Spirited Music from Caithness, Scotland

The article below is from Ed Pearlman’s music columns in Scottish Life magazine. If you’re interested in future publication of a book containing nearly 100 columns such as this one, please click here and check off your interests, to be kept in the loop.


If you drive seventy miles north from Inverness, you come to the border of Caithness, the northernmost corner of mainland Scotland. Within another hour you can reach the rest of Caithness – the capital city of Wick on the east coast, or Thurso and John o’Groat’s on the north coast. Sutherland lies to the south and west. Historically a difficult place to make a living, Caithness is nevertheless a source of much joyous and sweet music. Often it seems that people in the toughest places create the happiest music.

Think of the hardship of living in Badbae in the old days, when during rough weather, children and animals were tethered so as not to be blown off 200-foot cliffs into the sea. Or imagine working as a herring girl in Whaligoe, packing your creel with fish from the boats, carrying it up 330 steps cut into the cliffs, and walking eight miles to the market in Wick. In the 19th century, Wick’s harbor was packed with over a thousand fishing boats on a bay that Robert Louis Stevenson called the “baldest of God’s bays.” He wrote of watching the Wick fishing fleet put out to sea “silently against a rising moon,” strangely and beautifully turning the horizon into a forest of sails.

And yet the rugged, treeless beauty of the Grey Coast has produced some wonderful music. (Perhaps not coincidentally it has also provided fine whisky as well! Wick’s Old Pulteney distillery was named World Whisky of the Year in 2011.) Continue reading Spirited Music from Caithness, Scotland

The Hebridean Celtic Festival

The article below is from Ed Pearlman’s music columns in Scottish Life magazine. If you’re interested in future publication of a book containing nearly 100 columns such as this one, please click here and check off your interests, to be kept in the loop.


A long time ago on an island far, far away, a new Celtic music festival was born. It was the summer of 1996, on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.

Festival director Caroline McLennan recalls chatting with workmate Fiona Morrison back in the spring of 1995 about the new Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow. Could such an event could happen in the Outer Hebrides? It did not take long for them to find six or seven others who shared their vision, and made a plan to try it out. They had hoped to use a site near the spectacular ancient standing stones at Callanish, but ended up situating the event on Castle Green in front of Lews Castle, in Stornoway.

The first Hebridean Celtic Festival took place in the summer of 1996, featuring great performers such as Davy Spillane, Dougie MacLean, Wolfstone, Natalie MacMaster, Iron Horse, and Shooglenifty. Fiddler Jennifer Wrigley, piper Rory Campbell, and Gaelic singer Christine Primrose, among others, were recruited to tour the local schools as an educational part of the festivities.

In recent years, HebCelt, as the festival is fondly called, has been named one of the UK’s top summer festivals (it’s the only Scottish one on some lists). Some 15,000 people are estimated to have attended in recent years, about half from the Outer Hebrides, 30% from the rest of Scotland, 10% from elsewhere in the UK, and another 10% from around the world. In many cases, people born in Lewis use the festival as an opportunity to come back for a visit, and sometimes, people meet there, fall in love, and stay on.

Continue reading The Hebridean Celtic Festival

Natural Ornaments

When we listen to music played or sung, ornaments are everywhere, but we barely notice. Stop and listen to a singer on the radio. Nobody sings without a slide or grace note note here and there, going into or out of a note.

That’s because ornamentation is part and parcel of the language. The use of these musical decorations varies depending on the dialect (the fiddle style), but it fits right in effortlessly, at least when you’re listening to it. In fact, most people hardly pay any mind to ornaments until we actually try to play them. Then we wonder how it’s done, and if we’re looking at it on paper, we struggle with making those grace notes sound like the ones we’ve heard.

Grace notes are not only integral to musical language, they’re also built into the way we speak. If we write lyrics to a tune, each note could be a syllable. But the grace notes, triplets, and slides are the consonants. Let’s take a look at some examples of this.

Continue reading Natural Ornaments

Finding the Beat, part 2

In “Finding the Beat, Part 1” we talked about how to figure out where the beats are, how many are in a measure, by feel and on paper.  Here we’re going to take a look at something more at the heart of the music.  The beat is, as its name suggests, the heartbeat of the music.  It is what creates the voice, the timing, the meaning.  The notes are like letters in a line of text.  Because of the beat we can actually hear those letters as words, phrases, ideas.

Where exactly is the beat to be found?  Is it just a metronome chirp?  If not, where and what is it?

Like the heartbeat in a person, the beat in music is really a pulse, not a hit.  Our hearts don’t go “boom, boom, boom” like a metronome.  Hearts go “ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom,” like the pickups in music that lead into each beat.

Beats are not merely a mathematical calculation.  (Do not tell this to metronomes or to any MIDI audio files because it would destroy their world!)  What makes music human is that our timing is responsive, just like our heart.

Studies about the human heart have shown Continue reading Finding the Beat, part 2

Covid Meets Online Fiddling

For years, we have been meeting online at www.fiddle-online.com to bring together learners from all over, people who have no teacher, or who like what we do, or who need to or prefer to stay home, or who want to meet and learn from great players from afar. Now the Covid virus is forcing us to stay home and do just that.  We’re responding by offering a new feature:  live concerts!

Fiddle-online.com is a great resource for those who need to be home, those who play or want to play fiddle music. Over 100 blog articles about a huge variety of topics to do with learning the fiddle, over 100 tunes to learn, over 60 technique videos, over 100 workshops with Ed Pearlman, some 20 guest fiddlers presenting concert/workshops — and all of these events have materials that are available to everyone — performance and teaching videos, audio, and fiddle-online’s unique interactive sheet music.

Of course we also feature unique live workshops, where learners can meet each other and the instructor, play with and for the instructor, and earn lots of points (you’ll have to attend one to understand about these!). There are also weekly online classes progressing from fiddle basics to intermediate level. If you would enjoy such a class, get in touch with me to learn about what’s available. If enough are interested in a beginner class, we’ll start one!

Now we offer a new resource — live concerts. In response to the Covid19 virus, and the cancelling of all gigs and income for so many musicians, we’re trying a series of concerts featuring many of our guest instructors. They’re free, and yet they allow those who can to donate to the musicians who are so hurting for income in these strange times of a pandemic. As I write this, the Covid Concerts begin tomorrow, with a daily fiddle concert online and free to all, from March 23 to April 4, 2020.

I hope you’ll listen to some or all of these concerts, and let them lift your spirits! If you can, please support the musicians who are donating their time to play for us.

If you would like to hear about future live concerts on fiddle-online, join our special concert email list, and feel free to pass the word to friends who might not be learners but enjoy hearing the music!  Just use or pass along this URL — http://eepurl.com/bifEmD — to subscribe to this special list, which will be used only for concert announcements.

We’re here 24/7 with lots of resources for you to enjoy, as well as fun live workshops where you can meet and get to know other learners from near and far.

Stay safe, stay healthy, and keep up your music!

©2020 Ed Pearlman

Falling in Love <3

I admit it, I can think of several musicians that I have fallen in love with, though it’s not quite as you might imagine. More than just enjoying their music, I felt all the symptoms of being in love. It was thrilling to be near them when they were playing. I felt the warmth of their music long after hearing it. The odd part is, these particular people were pretty much just acquaintances or casual friends; we didn’t know much about each other outside of the music. Is there such a thing as falling in love with someone’s musical soul?

Has this happened to you? Not just liking a musician or a band or meaningful lyrics, but feeling deeply moved by what you hear? If not, keeping listening, it will come your way if you keep your ears, and your own musical soul, open!

I can only offer a few clues about this phenomenon. One of them comes from a moment that astonished me. Continue reading Falling in Love <3

5 Most Popular fiddle-online posts!

Launched in February 2015, fiddle-online explores ways that the internet can best help learners, players and teachers of the fiddle.  About two articles per month have been posted to this blog since then, adding up to over 100!

Here are five of the most popular articles over the past five years.

1.  “A Treasury of Techniques, in short video form” —  click here
This article outlines the five different Technique Video Groups available on fiddle-online and describes how you can make use of these 62 short videos (about 10 in each group), plus the sampler that allows you to try one video from each of the five groups. These cover physical and ergonomic warmups, games to improve efficiency, expression and control, bowing techniques to bring your tunes to life, finger patterns, and ornamentation.

2. “When Push Comes to Pull … a New Year’s Resolution” — click here
Starting from the research that New Year’s resolutions don’t work unless they remove obstacles to your goals rather than impose wishful demands on yourself, this article focuses primarily on how to remove obstacles from good bowing technique by visualizing properly how your bow arm actually works. Did you know the downbow is a push, and the upbow a pull? Read this one to get a grasp on a way to improve your bowing instantly.

3. “Auld Lang Syne, the song and tune” — click here
Learn a bit of the history of this very popular song written by Robert Burns, who chose a different melody than the one popularly used every New Year’s Eve. To see both melodies, check out the link above, and to see the melody the popular version appears to be based on, read this one!

4. “Medleys 2: Compatible Tunes” — click here
This article gives you six approaches to finding tunes that are compatible with each other in a medley, and then tells you how to break the rules!

5. “Finding Your Style among over 150 tunes!” — click here
Here at fiddle-online there are well over 150 tunes available with videos, interactive sheet music, and more learning materials that were offered in past live online workshops. You have access to them all, and this article allows you to find tunes based on the styles you’re interested in exploring. One article gives an intro to these offerings and gives you links to the Scottish tunes and guests; the next article provides links to tunes of many other styles: Irish, Old-timey, American, Jazz, Scandie, Quebecois, Cape Breton, Klezmer.

Enjoy exploring these articles and the links they provide!

©2020 Ed Pearlman

 

Play Out & About!

Improving your playing is rewarding in and of itself, but a big part of the reward is getting a chance to play with others. An earlier article talks all about hosting a session at your house, which is one great way to play with others, but here I’d like to encourage you to consider playing out in your community.

You don’t have to be at a professional level to play for people who would really appreciate your music, and it does wonderful things for your playing. Here a few thoughts on where to play, and how to get ready for it.

You’ll want to pull some music together with one or more friends. Keep in mind that multiple fiddles tend to average out in sound, so don’t worry about a few mistakes here and there, or about a few bad sounds. When you play with others, it averages out into a nice sound. The big goal is to play in time, so you can stay together, and so that listeners can tap their toes or sit back and enjoy a slower tune. They won’t care about a few bad notes! So pull together another fiddler or two (or more) and a backup person — guitar is the most portable. You could even host some sessions in order to find the right people to make a good mix, and a good mix is more about compatible people than it is about what level the players are. If you have fun playing together, the listeners will love it.

I will say right now that I know someone who is, frankly, a terrible fiddler, and yet he has ventured out and played at some community functions where people loved having him and asked him back with his small group.

You’d be surprised how many opportunities there can be for playing your music. Continue reading Play Out & About!

Forget About Forgetting!

Forgetting is not quite what we think it is. Every time we remember something we re-mind ourselves, recreate it, collect all the clues and revisit it — contrary to the imagery about the brain that has dominated since the invention of the computer, our brain is not a computer. It does not process data like a computer. In fact, it doesn’t even contain data.

A fascinating article by the prominent research psychologist, Robert Epstein, totally debunks the notion that our brains function like a computer, although this has been the mainstream image among scientists and the public since the 1940s when computers were invented.

Epstein speaks of performing music or reciting a poem. “When called on to perform, neither the song nor the poem is in any sense ‘retrieved’ from anywhere in the brain, any more than my finger movements are ‘retrieved’ when I tap my finger on my desk. We simply sing or recite – no retrieval necessary.”

What happens to all that mental effort to memorize a tune? Continue reading Forget About Forgetting!