Alasdair then turned to melody and showed us a few melody ornaments. First were grace notes. Commonly used patterns for grace patterns are one under the main note; the note preceding the main note in the melody; and one, two, or three notes up from the main note. To make things a bit more complex, one can also play up one single (ex., B-A), up one double (ex., B-A-B-A), etc. Other ornaments include turns and slides, although these are used more commonly in Irish music than in Scottish music.
At this point, Alasdair taught us a tune by ear and let us try the things we had learned while playing it. He said that if we had any trouble picking up the tune, as paper trained violinists often do, that’s OK; just play whatever notes seem to you to fit. I learned the A part of the tune easily enough but the B part eluded me. I am, after all, one of those paper driven players. However, I took his advice. Since the tune was in the key of D, I just noodled around in the key of D or played notes from the D chord in the same rhythm as the melody. It worked fine, and it helped me stay relaxed about what I could not do. When we had learned the tune, Alasdair divided the circle of players in half again. One half played melody while the other half played rhythm and then we switched. It sounded really good and it showed how well the fiddle can perform as a rhythm instrument.
“Learning music is a lot like learning language,” Alasdair told us. He said that he had studied French in high school and it was a complete waste of his time. He just didn’t learn well by memorizing vocabulary and grammar. He said that he would have learned a lot more if he had gone to France and picked grapes for a summer. He told us that a country’s traditional music is similar in sound to its traditional language. He illustrated his point by speaking a few words in Scots Gaelic. In a departure from his heretofore jovial manner, he spoke with sadness about what the English had done about the English language as spoken by Scotsmen. With mass media came a standardization of the spoken English. Up until about 15 years ago, there were no radio announcers in Scotland who spoke English with a Scottish accent. He also deplored what the English had done to Highland bagpipe playing. For centuries, the English had banned the playing of the pipes in an effort to separate the Scottish people from their own heritage and make them loyal to England. (It didn’t work.) When the English decided that they needed Scotsmen, notorious warriors, to fight in England’s wars, they condoned the playing of pipes in their traditional role of revving soldiers up and getting them into battle. However, the English added their own touch to piping. They standardized it. All pipers played the same grace notes, etc. at the same time. The custom is still in effect today. In pipe band competitions, for example, one criterion of success is having the band sound like one piper amplified.
Alasdair gave an interesting perspective on the standardization of the pitch of A, which is now set at 440 Hz (cycles/sec) It has been creeping up in pitch for a few hundred years. The A used in the seventeenth century was close to the G# used today. The trend continues to this day, as some orchestras are using 442 Hz for A. Alasdair said that as the frequency increases, so does the volume, but the quality of tone decreases.
How could three hours have passed so quickly? I had so much fun. I know I’ll continue having fun playing with all the things I learned at the workshop.
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