Friday, April 22, 2005


My first paying gig

On Wednesday night, I played fiddle for a Scottish Country Dance class at the Durant Center in Alexandria, VA as my first paying gig, with Julie Gorka on piano and Becky Ross on lead fiddle.

Because this was going to be my first time playing solo for a dance, the teacher had suggested that a more experienced fiddler be hired, and that I play second fiddle, so to speak. This was very helpful in some ways, because I had forgotten how fast Country Dance reels are played, and wasn't ready with the tunes to keep up at that pace, especially with tunes I didn't know well. On the other hand, it was an ad hoc arrangement, so I didn't get the tunes until Saturday afternoon and didn't get one of the reel sets at all (fortunately, I knew two of those reels very well). And I knew the strathspeys, jigs, marches, and waltz we played well enough that Becky often left me to play melody and she played a harmony.

The dancers were all very complimentary and encouraging, and several said I was welcome to play for them any time. We'll see how the teacher feels!

If I were to assign myself grades, I'd give myself a A- on the strathspeys and waltz, B+ on the jigs & marches, and a C- on the reels. Next time I'll pick the sets myself, and have 2+ weeks to prepare. I'll also play the reels at tempo with a metronome.

Still, not bad for my first professional outing. Here's hoping I'm asked back to play for them on a regular basis.

Friday, April 15, 2005


The Face of the Virginia Scottish Games? and... Giving in to the Shoulder Rest

The fiddle chair for most of the DC-area Highland games approached me at fiddle club, and asked my permission to use pictures taken of me last year's games on the Virginia Scottish Games brochure and website. The pictures are of me at the fiddle contest, competing in ~1715 Highland garb, which I wore to hang out with the Appins. The pictures are great, and I'm going to try to get a friend to get a really good scan of one photo, which we'll use Photoshop to brighten (it's a dark image), and I'll probably give Martha to use, if her own negatives don't come out well. Does this mean I'll be the "face" of this year's games? Does this mean more exposure for me, and for the fiddle tent? I can only hope so!

In other news, I finally gave in this week and began to use a shoulder rest again, for the first time since I started noodling around on the instrument again in fall of 2001. The main reason for this is that in practicing The Sadness of Life, I was finding changing from 1st to 3rd to 5th position and back difficult to do consistently with my baroque violin, and doing "real" vibrato (as opposed to the "fake" vibrato I had been using) almost impossible. I was relying too much on my hand to hold the violin, because it's impossible to hold it in a vice-grip between the chin and shoulder without either a chin rest or a shoulder rest. The addition of a shoulder rest made a huge difference, and I will continue to use it for all tunes that require vibrato and position changes in the future.

I've always understood that in the classical world (and classically-influenced folk music) that style of technique and style of composition were a feedback loop, but this really drove it home. In the baroque, changing position was rare, and vibrato only an occasional ornament. At some point, though, to make these and other tasks easier, the way the violin was held changed, from pointed downwards to one's front to horizontal to one's left. Once this change evolved, and things like vibrato and position change became easier, composers started using them more, and it was then almost impossible to play any other way. This also would mark the permanent break between folk fiddle and classical/romantic violin. The most erudite of Scotland's folk music, which was more urbane, kept using the classical techniques, and some composers, like J. Scott Skinner, wrote specifically for these techniques.

But in that case, is it even Scottish fiddle anymore? Obviously the wild Highland style is fiddle, but what about Grand Northeast and Skinner's own style? Perhaps this sort of player really is a "Scottish Violinist".

Tuesday, April 12, 2005


The Hazards of Playing Scotland the Brave at a Session

There is a hazard to playing Scotland the Brave at a Scottish fiddle session. There just might be a piper in your midst, and he just might have his practice chanter with him.

It did get quite the laugh when I pulled out the practice chanter and marched back into the room at this week's post-fiddle club session, but it's always dicey to try to play in tune. The low hand was pretty close to 440 Hz, but the high hand was flat, and I can't push the reed in any further. I joked, "If you have 20 pipers playing practice chanters, they'll be playing in 30 different keys using 50 different intonation systems!" The fiddle club meeting was pretty cool, and we got more good tunes. One I'll probably adapt to pipes and pitch to John for the band, since it was a Skinner march done in the style of a pipe 4/4.

I'm still playing catch-up on my practice. On pipes, I've finally begun looking at Ghille Callum, as another example of a 4-bar phrase strathspey (along with Bob of Fettercairn). I've also continued to look at Struan Robertson's Salute, with an eye to competing with it, instead of Lament for the Old Sword, later this year. My new competition 2/4 will be 24th Guards Brigade at Anzio, and as with last year, the 6/8 will be Cock of the North, and the Slow Air will be Hector the Hero.

My fiddle competition set is shaping up, but it's requiring me to work on technique. Skinner's The Sadness of Life requires me to master "real" (as opposed to "fake") vibrato, along with accurate shifts between 1st and 3rd position, and good intonation in the key of C-minor. So I'm spending 30 minutes a day on just these technical exercises, along with bowing exercises (to improve the use of the wrist and fingers in my long bow strokes), and intonation more generally. Captain Cameron's Volunteers still needs development, but Dean Bridge of Edinburgh and Banks are sounding pretty decent, ready to talk about variation and ornaments.

I've started playing on smallpipes again after a long hiatus. I need to get them re-reeded, and the 3rd drone (which I have playing G, but could also play E) has a cracked mount on the end, which I'll ask EJ to replace. For now, I'm playing with all drones corked, so I can concentrate on the bag, bellows, and chanter.

My "home studio" is almost ready to start using, all I need is better audio capture software than what I've been using, namely CD Spin Doctor, but that will still do in a pinch. I imagine Anders will help work out the kinks next time he's here.

Still no news on the demo CD from Anders. Apparently, he has it with him now in Houston, is going to play it for mutual friends at Beltaine, but he hasn't sent me my copy yet! Bad Anders, no biscuit!

Friday, April 08, 2005


In the Band

Last night, Pipe Major John Sprague announced that I was the newest member of the City of Alexandria Pipes and Drums.

He reminded the band that I had kept with tradition, ditching my first band gig (the Apple Blossom Parade) for a competition (Southern Maryland Celtic Festival).

People make fun of the pipes a lot, and there are certainly people who can't stand the sound of them, and that's fair. But it's also easy to underestimate how much of an impact they have on some people.

The City of Alexandria Pipes and Drums does a monthly gig at Pat Troy's Ireland's Own pub in Old Town Alexandria. On the first Thursday of the month, at 10:00 PM, the usual folk-singer stops, and we march on stage, play a 20 minute set, and march off. Though last night was my first night as a full member of the band, I've been playing with them for this gig for almost a year now. In the past, there's been really light turn-out, but recently there have been more and more people at the bar, so we've had more of an audience, and they've been especially enthusiastic.

Last night was one of the best nights so far, at least when I've been there. We played very tightly, did our usual tunes. It was a big crowd, and they were rapt by our playing. Most people, if they ever see a live pipe band at all, see a fleeting glimpse of them at a parade before they march on. Doing this all the time, I forget how rare it is that people get to see and hear a band literally standing in their midst, and while we were just in our regular clothes, the full band can still leave an impression. Their applause was enthusiastic, but what especially struck me was that one woman, a pretty blonde in her early 30s, was so moved by the band that when we finished, she walked over to our tables in back and made sure to shake everyone in the band's hand, and thank us for playing. Just as she was finishing up thanking us, the Pipe Major tells the pipers they're to go back on to play Amazing Grace. It had been requested by a young Marine who had lost his best friend last February, killed in action in Iraq. The crowd stood in silence while we played, and the Marine was clearly very much moved by our gesture.

Last weekend was the Royal Mile Scottish session. Very light turnout, just me and Doug Scott for the first two hours. This gave me plenty of opportunities to solo. I twice played my E-flat Strathspey/Reel set, both times to appreciable applause. That was fun. Towards the end of the session, a charming Irish gentleman by the name of Neil Foley joined us, playing Si Beag, Si Mhor on whistle, then borrowing a fiddle of mine for some tunes. He was especially fond of slow airs, which he had learned from his grandfather, Paddy Foley; and which his father Tom had insisted be included in the competitions in the '50s, because all anyone was playing those days were jigs and reels. Very charming fellow, I hope he joins us again. I'd love to learn some of his tunes.

Friday, April 01, 2005


Highlander's Farewell to Erin

I had to discontinue my Irish fiddle lessons for financial reasons, starting this month. I suppose it's a good thing for now, I really haven't been able to concentrate the effort that I wanted on the Irish style, since I was concentrating so much on the Scottish fiddle and pipes, and the pending band.

I'm hoping I'll have the money to resume lessons next year, not to mention the spare time.

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