Music Maks A’ The Differ Tae Life

By Fiona Grahame

This article first appeared in the May edition of iScot magazine.

“Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy” (Beethoven)

James Watson by Martin Laird ON

James Watson by Martin Laird

Over the next few months Orkney will abound with a cacophony of music festivals. The internationally renowned St Magnus Festival with its mixture of classical works through to the more experimental. The Orkney Folk Festival also of global significance sells out most performances before the tickets even go on sale to the general public. Orkney also hosts festivals for Jazz, Blues and Rock.

The success of the islands’ music festivals is no accident. From a very early age children are encouraged to take up an instrument. This can be done through the school system with highly skilled teachers and the provision of a free instrument for the selected student’s primary education. The schools provide opportunities to play in small groups and in orchestras bringing together students across the islands for a few days culminating in a packed out concert.

The Rendall Pipe Band by Martin Laird ON

The Rendall Pipe Band by Martin Laird

Traditional music is not forgotten and all ages come together through the Traditional Music Project founded in 1988 to support fiddle and accordion playing.  Orkney has pipe bands: Kirkwall City, Stromness RBL and Rendall. Singing is catered for too whether you want to sing as part of a choir or as an individual.

The Rendall Pipe Band in the Auld Motor Hoose by Martin Laird ON

The Rendall Pipe Band in the Auld Motor Hoose by Martin Laird

The standard of performance in Orkney is exceptional for such a small place. Musical theatre draws in the crowds and although these are amateur productions they are professional in their execution.

The result is that for its size Orkney has supported an astounding number of musicians with an international recognition for excellence. Folk musicians like Ivan Drever, young bands like Fara and Master of the Queens Music the late Sir Peter Maxwell Davis.

In Orkney the importance of music is seen as an integral part of the community and of education. Across Scotland Local Authorities are slashing the music budgets in Schools and of instrumental tuition. In some places only those children who can afford to pay will be able to play.

The language of music and rhythm: learning an instrument, reading notation, appreciating composition contributes to a person’s well being absorbing them into the creative process. When you play a musical instrument motor systems in the brain activate to control the fine and gross movements needed to produce a sound. Reading music employs the brain in deciphering the notation and converting it into physical movements. Responding to both the process and the music it creates produces an emotional reaction. To think that learning and playing a musical instrument is not an essential part of an educational programme reveals a stunted understanding of how we learn.

Einstein played violin, Edison the piano and Feynman famously the bongos. The mathematics and physics of music is a fascinating study in itself.

Perhaps most importantly of all is the satisfaction a person gets from playing an instrument or singing. The sheer joy of producing sound and rhythm.

The education decision makers who place importance on standardised tests in maths and language at the expense of other areas of the curriculum fail to understand the learning process. The one size fits all compartment that children in our inclusive schools are to squeeze into is counter to the founding principles of the Curriculum for Excellence where all areas of the curriculum should be equally valued.

Orkney has some of the highest performing schools in Scotland with 91% of school leavers having positive destinations.  57% will go onto higher and further education with the rest into employment. Being involved in music has not held Orkney students back and indeed some will go on to have successful careers in the industry. Involvement in music is why Orkney students are successful in whatever path they choose to follow.

iscot orkney news music martin laird 2 ON

Art work by Martin Laird

 “Music, when soft voices die, /Vibrates in the memory” (Shelley)

Music Festivals in Orkney 2018

Walter Gorman with the Hoodoomen by Martin Laird ON

Walter Gorman with the Hoodoomen by Martin Laird

Jazz: 20th -22nd April

Folk: 24th – 27th May

St Magnus International: 22nd – 27th June

Rock: 31st August – 3rd September

Blues: 28th – 30th September


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7 replies »

  1. I couldn’t agree more – music lifts, it calms, and it’s good to dance to.
    I believe it’s presence to be one of the basic human needs in our lives – right through the ages, and all cultures.
    What gets me is, that folk can still keep on making up new tunes – and good new tunes, too.
    Nice wig, Walter!

  2. Music has always been the most important part of my life. I’ve been playing it for 45 years in front of audiences and it’s a sheer need, not a hobby. If I can’t play I diminish as a person. For me the joy of playing music is particularly fulfilling when I’m playing music I don’t know with people I’ve never met before. Using absolute instinct and the cadence of the other players to try to walk the tightrope.
    Orkney has been a strange dichotomy for me. I’ve seen some of the most fantastic musicians here. The Chair are among my top 5 live bands ever- and I’ve seen most of the greats. I never tire of what Douglas, Brian, Gavin & Co produce on a stage. I also love Gnoss, and there is some very good rock music around, with Andy Taylor shining as a totally natural guitar player with a innate feel and flow that makes me deeply jealous, not to mention the sheer utter virtuosity of Stewart Shearer with country and folk-styles.
    But on the other hand Orkney is simply not an easy place to come to as a musical gypsy. There are fairly invisible but remarkably rigid lines that simply don’t bend, ostensibly open sessions that are anything but, and jam sessions that will never allow the magic that can occasionally happen to even begin to bloom. And that’s a shame. You can’t keep music in a box.
    This is something I hear regularly in my talks with people, many of whom simply withdrew as a result. I did that myself for over six months.
    But the call of music is too strong.

  3. I have to say a word, or ten, or so, about the Royal Music Nights.

    Johnny and Marie Mowat started them up, must be 7/8 years ago, upstairs at the Royal, in Stromness. They were truly inclusive – anyone could join in – we got everything from pretty painful ( and that includes myself, so I’m not insulting anyone!), through good/good fun, to people who just made you sit there, with your jaw dropped. The idea was, we all sat round the room, mixed up, visitors, locals, performers, non-performers. Johnny, as MC, worked his way round, and anyone who wanted to, could – sing, play, recite poetry, recite humorous monologues ( a nod to Dave and his drunken Oliver Reed recital!) – anything within the bounds of public decency!
    Johnny and Marie stepped down, and Sue Knowles took over for some years – doing a grand job organizing, sometimes being MC, and sometimes other folk would take that on.
    It worked, wonderfully – truly eclectic, welcoming all.
    It’s the only time I’ve met our revered Editor – I didn’t know she could sing – and she can – one song she did was ‘Can’t help loving that man of mine’ – and she nailed it.
    Another good thing about the Royal was….the number of folk who got the courage and confidence to perform in public, and who have followed that up, with continuing to perform. My own tale is ….I can’t sing, really can’t sing. I can bellow, and growl, but I can’t sing. Then, on a quiet night at the Royal, Mike Henderson said he’d play ‘Mercedes Benz’, if I’d sing it – so I did. Then, being very ill, gave me a bit of a “What the hell?” attitude, and I continued to below or growl at the Royal, whenever I got the chance. Here’s the point of this tale – one evening, a Welsh lady, visiting, sang the Welsh National Anthem, in Welsh, and it would tear your heart out, to hear her. She told me that, seeing what I did, she thought ”Well, if she can do it, I can.” And she wasn’t insulting me, she just saw someone being prepared to have a go – singer or not, and decided she would too. She’d never sung in public, before that evening. The difference was – my goodness, she could sing.
    A shame you missed out on the Royal music nights, Eamonn, you’d have been welcomed as an asset and addition to the craic. And a shame they faded away.
    They might be revived? We had some really good nights, usually ending in a ‘stramash’ of everyone who wanted to, joining in with….something ….something rousing to send us home with.

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