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DISTIL Workshops: Reflection

Updated: Jul 6, 2022

It has been just over a month since I took part in a weekend of residential workshops as part of 'Distil' - a project run by Hands Up for Trad that aims to give traditional and folk musicians the chance to reflect on their creative practice and expand areas of their musical development.

The weekend was hosted at Wiston Lodge in Biggar, where I had last stayed about 10 years ago for a Tinto summer school. Arriving at the Lodge took me back to a time before I had come across the classical accordion, or even decided on music as a career. Which in itself was an interesting start to a few days of introspection, questioning and collaboration.

I was lucky to catch a lift up from Glasgow with one of the other participants, and on the drive we had a good craic about all the things we were up to - from rewarding experiences performing for Live Music Now Scotland to attitudes towards musical criticism in the Scottish Trad scene. It just so happened to be a gorgeous sunny day, which made the car ride through farmlands and hills of South Lanarkshire quite idyllic. When we arrived at the Lodge we were met by a group of children running about in the sun (one of the many groups that come to the Lodge for outdoor activities and camping), and greeted by Simon Thoumire (who looked like he was keen to be running about with the children as well!).

One by one the other workshop participants trickled in alongside the workshop leaders Dave Milligan and Ailie Robertson. Dave Francis and Simon Thoumire were also present over the 3 days, and introduced the format and structure of the weekend. I was coming straight from a week of intensive rehearsals of contemporary music for classical accordion at the RCS, and wasn't quite sure what to expect. I hadn't met three of the other participants before and neither had I encountered Dave or Ailie, despite knowing their music and reputations. However, the atmosphere from the beginning was very relaxed, which immediately put me at ease. It was soon made clear that the intention was to give us lots of space and time for individual reflection - Dave and Ailie would lead workshops and have one-to-one sessions with each of us, but apart from that there was a lot of time left for us to use as we pleased.

This free time ended up being a really special thing for me. The next week was filled with more rehearsals and the concert for the RCS accordion project, and so the 3 days of Distil felt like a moment suspended out of time. Away from Glasgow in a beautiful setting (the Lodge grounds have a fantastic woodland), and given permission to do whatever we felt was most useful. That for me was one of the aspects that really contributed to the success of the weekend: permission to take time off, not to be productive, not to be working towards something. In my own creative practice, I often find myself working towards performances, workshops, teaching, deadlines, moving from project to project, without time and space to reflect in-between.

A windy view from atop Tinto hill.

There was a lot that happened over the weekend, but a few things have bubbled back up for me over the last month. Number one is musical identity. This was not something we focused on much in the group settings (although musical vocabulary came up a fair bit - What musical language do you speak?), rather something that I spoke about individually with both Dave and Ailie. Speaking with them, who hadn't met me before, I had to introduce myself, my musical practice and the various projects I'm involved in. This is always an interesting question for anyone - "what do you do?" But perhaps especially for artists, as our work is usually very tightly bound up with our identity. I have always felt a little unsure of my musical identity - at least in the sense that I have never felt comfortable defining myself as belonging to a particular genre or style.

I grew up around a lot of traditional music and song from Scotland, and in some ways this tradition feels like base of my roots. And yet I have never quite felt wholly part of the trad scene in Scotland - I haven't been to lots of festivals, I don't keep up with all the current bands and I rarely go to sessions. I have a lot of friends within the scene, but have always felt on the fringes of these communities rather than a part of them. I also now have a relationship with classical music which I never expected to have - a passion for the classical accordion and for promoting its repertoire, history, and pedagogy in Scotland. And yet within the (admittedly constructed, narrow and exclusive) canon of classical music, this instrument is also on the edges of people's awareness and comprehension. I have wondered recently if that is what drew me to the classical accordion (but that may be the subject of another blog post!) And then there's blues, boogie-woogie, funk, swing, and basically a whole host of jazz styles and sub-genres which I've always dabbled in and yearned after, and yet still feel an imposter in.

When I was a bit younger, I agonised a lot over this question of my musical identity - like a lot of teenagers (and adults) trying to work out where I 'belonged'. In the last few years I have tried to let this go. I found that it became a barrier to a simply enjoying the music that I wanted to make, and to developing along the various strands of music-making that I follow. And that has helped me feel more grounded and comfortable in my practice. But grounded more in my approach to creativity, rather than within a particular style or tradition.

Both Ailie and Dave encouraged me to embrace this attitude, but one thing that I hadn't been expecting to explore was my relationship with the piano. Perhaps just because I wanted a break from the accordion, or perhaps because I wanted to make the most of the Dave's experience, in my one-to-one session with him I sat down at the piano and we began to talk about my playing. I cannot say that I have actively, consciously, "practiced" the piano seriously in the last 4 years. In my time at the RCS, my main focus was on getting the most that I could out of the accordion department and developing my technique and capabilities on that instrument. Piano became an escape. Partly because I felt I had more freedom on the piano, having played it for much longer than accordion, partly because I didn't have any lessons to prepare for - it became almost a therapy to sit down at the piano and just improvise. And improvising is really the best way to describe my approach to the piano at the moment. Even when I'm sight-reading through some classical repertoire, or learning a new trad tune, I am always improvising on the piano.

Playing for at Wiston Lodge, however, I suddenly realised that I hadn't had any feedback on my piano playing for over 4 years. I hadn't had any lessons apart from a brief stretch of second study jazz lessons at the RCS. And I felt a little strange, in fact, playing in that context. Piano had become quite a personal thing for me - a place where I worked out feelings, thoughts, and ideas. We talked about how it changes to be observed (or to know that you are being observed) when making music. That very morning, I had been up before anyone else in the morning and had spent an hour or so playing piano in the big living room with sun streaming in the window. It was a magical moment - one of the special times when everything seems to fall into place, and ideas flow straight through your fingers into the instrument. I was experimenting, pushing my limits in a relaxed, fun way - "playing" in the truest sense. And then I heard someone outside the door - I kept playing, but already the music had changed with the feeling of being observed.

In the end, it was a very positive experience to get some feedback on my playing. The enthusiasm and support for my playing gave me a sort of validation that had been lacking - it seems silly, but I think we all need a certain amount of that as performing artists. We need someone to say "what you're doing is interesting, keep doing it" in order to feel confident sharing it with an audience. So that was the second major thing to come out of the weekend - a re-established confidence in my piano playing, and a decision to seek out more performance opportunities alongside my accordion work.

There are a lot of other threads that are still waiting to be picked up, or perhaps will just fade into the background after the workshops: group improvisation, Pauline Oliveras, approaches to composition, acoustic vs amplified performance, FODMAP, the influence of space and surroundings on music and vice-versa...

But for now, I am looking forward to the final stage of the project: composing a piece for Mr McFall's Chamber, to contain a concertina solo!

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