Wednesday, July 30, 2003


My First Victory

I have won my first musical competition.

I chose to compete in the Senior Novice grade at the Virginia Scottish Games this last weekend. I chose to do a March/Strathspey/Reel set, and chose Stella's Trip to Kamloops, The Laird o' Drumblair, and Cuir's a Chiste mhoir mi as my tunes.

I got to the competition at 10:30 AM on Saturday, and registration wasn't until 11:00. Fiddlers had begun to arrive at the fiddle tent, and had taken out their fiddles and were beginning to tune and warm up their sets. It was getting to be a bit of a cacophany, so I decided to do what pipers warming up to compete do: I left the judging area and wandered off to warm up. Apparently this is not customary for fiddlers, but I didn't know it. I wandered 150 yards away, past the clan area, past the event staff parking, to a gap in the parking next to a tree-line. I began to practice.

Mainly, I was warming up, but I was also making sure that my 2nd time through each tune had the intended variations: a bouncier feel in the first part of the march, reversing some of the dots and cuts on the strathspey, droning on the first part of the reel. I had really begun to get into it, was on my last couple of times though the set, when I noticed a white-bearded fellow with a kilt listening to me play. Apparently my playing had attracted his attention from some distance away, and he came over to size me up.

I remember being somewhat annoyed at first. I'd wandered 150 yards away to concentrate, not perform. But since I started practicing the pipes in a park, I've gotten used to onlookers and interested inquiries. And it was a good day, so I forced the feelings aside and acknowledged the fellow when I finished my last run through the set.

"That was very good", he said in a Scottish brogue. "Are you competing today?"
"Yes, I am, actually," I replied.
"Well, you better hurry, they've just started registration."
"Yes, I was just on my over."

Cool, he must be another competitor, I thought. He asked me about my tartan, I replied that it was Walker and that it was newly registered. As we walked toward the judging table, he said, "Well, we always need as many good fiddlers as we can to compete."
"This will be my first competition ever, actually," I replied.
He noted my fiddle club T-shirt, and asked if I knew certain people from the fiddle club. I replied, "This is my first year in the club, so I pretty much know people by face, not by name." He then asked my my name. "Pete Walker," I answered, and stuck out my hand.
He took my hand and shook it. "John Turner", he replied with a smile.

I sat down and read over the competition rules sheet. At the top of the page was written: "Judge: John Turner".

My playing was good enough to attract the judge over to listen and compliment me on my playing. I was stunned.

The competition began. As it happened, there was only one other person competing in Senior Novice. We competed. I did competently, but not as well as when I was practicing. It still clearly impressed everyone.

I stayed on to listen to many of the open players, and was surprised that at least half had played worse than I had.

Before the awards ceremony, John Turner admonished us: "Now, judging is always subjective, and anyone who says otherwise is deluded or lying. Some of you have competed before, for some this is your first time out. Now, competition is a scary thing. If we made buttering toast a competition, none of you would be able to do it as well as you do it at home. So I can only judge you on how you played today. You probably played better practicing at home, you didn't play as well as you did over by the trees. But this is how you did today."

And then he gave out the awards. The other Senior Novice got second, and March of the Day.

I won Senior Novice. There were few comments on the score sheet: with the exception of being a little light on the bow during the march, he stated that I played all-around good renditions of the tunes. I scored 88/100 on the march, 86/100 on the strathspey and on the reel. I definitely would have ranked in the upper middle of the open-grade competitiors had I gone for that grade. He did write on the comment sheet: "In the future, remember to play like you were playing by the trees". I can only wonder what my score would have been had I played like that in competition. Perhaps when I'm used to playing before a judge, I'll know.

In all, I am very happy with my performance.

I did fairly well with the fiddle club performance on Sunday as well. I came back to the tent later in the afternoon, and they were having an open session. I sat content to listen for a while, but they were playing mostly tunes I knew, so I finally broke down and opened my fiddle case. Of course, by doing this I invoked Murphy's law, and they started playing mostly tunes I didn't know. Oh well, I got a dozen or so tunes in, and it was fun.

My repertoire of tunes I can play with sheet music is now around 120 for Scottish tunes, 30 for Irish. When I can double that, I'll be very comfortable in a session, I think.

So all goes very well on the fiddle front.

Thursday, July 10, 2003


Tunes for the Future

Well, it seems my instructor is thinking ahead. Of the 3 2/4s he gave me to learn, one was a Grade III tune, the others Grade IV. He really liked my execution of Prince Charles' Welcome to Lochaber. I was lucky I could remember it. I hadn't tried to memorize the tune, and I forgot to bring the sheet music. All I needed was a "how does part 4 start?". We'll work on The Cock of the North next week, that'll be my first attempt to get a 6/8 Quickmarch up to speed.

Getting him to teach me a pibroch is like pulling teeth. I told him, "Think of the children! You wouldn't want me learning about ceol mor out on the streets, would you?". I think he's convinced. Maybe in 2-3 weeks we'll start on that.

It is very nice to have moved on to learning tunes, and types of tunes, that I want to learn. Up until now, everything he taught me was geared towards making me into a band piper: first the Chesapeake Caledonian's tunes, then the City of Alexandria tunes. But I'm not driving to Annapolis to play the CCPD, and I've pretty much got the CAPD set list under my belt.

The flute is coming along nicely. I think it was modifying the Pachelbel Canon to fit on the wooden flute, and then learning to play it, that has made the difference. My embrochure is much better, and I'm timing my breaths better as well.

I just finished transcribing the tunes for the fiddle club performance at the VA Highland Games into a tune book. It surprised me how easy they seem to be. Oh well, I might just be getting the hang of this...

Monday, July 07, 2003


Smithsonian Folklife

The Smithsonian Folklife festival has come and gone, with their focus on Scotland (and Mali and Appalachia). In all, this was an incredible exhibition. The musical talent was fantastic, and I especially liked the fact that they (deliberately, it seems), downplayed the Highland Pipes.

Hamish Moore was there, and I got to see his smallpipes, reel pipes, and 1780s Highland Pipe set up close. Very attractive. I think I'm going with a set of smallpipes first.

The most amazing bit for me was the Mitchellson brothers. Aside from being great Highland dancers, they also did a demonstration of Scottish step-dancing. Everything I'd read indicated that it had gone extinct in Scotland, with only the Cape Breton derivative surviving. Apparently not. They come from a family of dancers, and Scottish step seems to have been experiencing a revival in the last couple of years.

I'm beginning to "get" music in a new way. Part of it came when I arranged Pachelbel's Canon in D for flute, viola and cittern for Jay's and Elizabeth's wedding. I won't end up using the arrangement, but in the process of writing it, I had to compose 30 measures of counter-melody, and it was surprisingly easy. Then twice in the last weekend, while singing along, I spontaneously began to harmonize, and fairly well at that. Small advances to an old-timer at music, one imagines, but they seemed like huge events for me, at this stage.

I have a new favorite 2/4 march on the pipes: The 24th Guards Brigade at Anzio. It's sweet and bouncy, with a hint of contemplation. I'm playing it on fiddle for Jay's and Elizabeth's wedding as the recessional (Castle of Dromore on flute as the processional), and am learning it on pipes as well.

Speaking of marches, I've started learning Grade IV competition tunes on the pipes - 3 2/4s and 2 6/8s. It's going well, and as soon as I have those under my belt, my instructor will be teaching me the urlar of my first Pibroch. I'm very excited about that - you're not a real piper, IMO, until you have some skill at the ceol mor.

I've got 3 weeks to perfect my fiddle competition set, and learn the tunes for the Potomac Valley Scottish Fiddle Club performance at the Virginia Scottish Games. I'll probably compete again on fiddle at the Lingonier games, both times in Adult Novice. Next year, I'll compete in Open grade, and will probably be competing on the pipes for the first time.

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