Hello there!
My name is Hayley Keenan and I am a full-time musician and educator.

I am a founding member of folk band ‘Talisk’ and play the fiddle alongside Mohsen Amini (concertina) and Graeme Armstrong (guitar). I am also a member of ‘Jim Jam Ceilidh Band’ and run a folk club in Largs called, ‘Largs Folk Nights’, which I really enjoy organising along with my family and friends.

Talisk have had a truly brilliant year so far, having just finished a busy summer of playing festivals all over the world. I am so grateful to call this a ‘job’ and get to travel to new and exciting places doing what I love – playing music.

The last year has been a huge learning curve for me.

I have always been a very decisive person and I always thought I knew exactly what I wanted in my life. This has been tested in the last 12 months and I’ve struggled with creating balance in my life. The last year has challenged me in ways where I have been in a position of having to make decisions, which I thought were ‘best’ for me at that time. Being a touring musician is an amazing job and one of only a few that presents the opportunity to play to audiences and experience different countries and their cultures. That being said, it can also be exhausting due to scheduling and minimal sleep. What I have learnt is that the key to success and happiness is all about striking a balance.

Being both a self-employed musician and a classroom Music teacher, I have been in the position of being worried to turn down opportunities and felt like I always had to say ‘yes’ to everything. I would go on tour, come back and throw myself straight back into teaching in schools and not give myself any time to neither rest nor reflect. A few weeks later, we would start another tour and all I’d done was work. I was tired a lot of the time and often felt like I wasn’t fully taking in some of these amazing experiences we were so fortunate to be provided with. I was trying to make everything work, but at the same time, wasn’t giving myself the space and time to breath.

I feel grateful to have choices, but this often puts me in a position of personal conflict.

At the start of this year, I spent a lot of my time working in schools. I love teaching and feel that it will always play a big role in my life. It is a completely different vocation to being a touring musician, but also comes with it’s own set of demands and responsibilities. I enjoy how different the dynamic of both jobs can be, and love this sort of diversity in my life.

Uncertainty is something you face on a daily basis as a touring musician. Things such as sleep, meals, transport, and accommodation can all be inconsistent. This summer has been incredible for the band and definitely our most busy yet. We were fortunate enough to travel to lots of different countries and play at some amazing festivals. The reality of touring is that you spend the majority of your time travelling together, spending lots of time hanging around at the venue and then playing around 75- 90 minutes on stage, every day. As a band, I’d say we are good at being respectful of each other’s space and have a very good understanding of each other. Over the last couple of years, we have definitely been better at taking care of ourselves and I can now safely say, we are experts at falling asleep on all modes of transport. Self-care is key when you are on the road, and I’ve tried to make things such as eating healthily and exercise a priority when on tour.

When I’m back in Glasgow, I try my best to ensure that I focus on having some sort of ‘routine’ in place. I like to go to the gym first thing, as it sets me up for the day and I try to implement this on tour. This is often easier said than done, but is a work in progress!

Earlier on in the year, I felt like I needed guidance in the gym and so started to get a few personal training sessions in Glasgow, from fellow Largs local, Stewart Penny (if you ever need someone to put you through your paces, he is the perfect guy!). I have found having these sessions very beneficial and Stewart has created a workout for me to follow while I’m away on tour, which means I never really have any excuse to not exercise regularly away from home.

Some of the things that I’ve learnt over the last few month is… sleep is number one and trying new things out that may be completely different to you or challenge you, can be a good thing. Mohsen often says to me, “You do you”, and this saying has played a significant role in my decision making over the last few months. You can’t please everyone all of the time, and sometimes, you just need to do things that are best for you at that present moment. I recently read a blog from one of my friend’s, Diana Ladio, (check out her blogs!) where she says, “Don’t look too far ahead, because it doesn’t exist yet”, and this is something I need to really try and embrace.

More often than not, I am guilty of worrying about the future, but need to learn to stop and appreciate each day as it comes.

I have a busy few months ahead with Talisk, and in a few weeks’ time, head back to the USA for our second leg of the tour. We then head to Canada for the amazing ‘Celtic Colours’ festival, which is definitely one of our favourite festivals. We have a tour in the UK in November, and then head to Japan, which I can’t wait for!

Talisk –
Jim Jam –

INTO THE MUSIC – by Tom Oakes

I’ve always had a bit of a problem with humanity’s desire to place someone based on fairly rudimentary questions: Where are you from? Errm.. What kind of music do you play? Errrrm. What’s your favourite album? Favourite guitarist/flautist? Or my particular favourite (sarcasm intended): Where did you ‘get into’ the music? Almost never implying music in general but a particular pool where ‘outsiders’ are at best unexpected and at worst unwanted. From getting ‘into’ ‘the’ music at the unfashionably late age of 14 in the very unfashionable location of South Devon it was for a long time a source of anxiety, doubt and an overwhelming obsession with ‘proving myself’ somehow (usually with the outcome of drinking too much, acting like a bit of a **** and generally playing a lot worse as a result). I lied a bit at first because it was easier; “Err Irish Family” (true distantly yes but with absolutely 0% of the reasons why I love Irish music); “Been playing since I was 3” (again I guess I had a Ukelele or something but in terms of playing properly a fairly late developer which is again incredibly unfashionable), “Born in a bog and raised by Matt Molloy’s sheepdog” (actually that one is true). You get the point..

I was raised (musically at least) mainly by the radio. John Peel, Andy Kershaw, Steve Lamacq, Mary Anne Hobbs ‘Breezeblock’ and occasionally (when we could could get the reception) long-wave radio from Ireland. Unfortunately the first Irish music I heard wasn’t in a family bar sitting on my grandad’s knee sipping a neon club orange but Dervish and Sharon Shannon alongside Sekou Keita and Y’ssou Ndour on Andy Kershaws radio show blaring out of my sisters bedroom whilst I tried to memorise all the words from ‘The Bends’ in a fit of arty teenage angst. My mum’s Pogues records. My Grandma’s John McCormack. A period of extreme boredom following multiple leg operations (and being rubbish at the borrowed megadrive) combined with a tiny G tin whistle lying around the house and the easiness of replicating Spider Stacey’s tin whistle solos (sorry Spider) began an obsession with and a love of a music as if it were my own. But was it? Probably not but then again who owns music?!

Skip forward a couple of years and I’ve all manner of flute and whistle recordings on tape, learning really niche traditional styles from all over and attempting to pronounce slow airs properly in Irish (still rubbish at that). At the same time I’m learning to DJ (sort of) – obsessed with Underworld, DJ Shadow, Radiohead, Iggy Pop and everything to come out of Glasgow’s ‘Chemikal Underground’ record label. I’d seen Trainspotting and had signed posters of Mogwai on my walls whilst my peers were obsessing over Oasis (urgh), but I never really saw that as a Scottish influence as such. It was just a culture and a mood that I liked and in the case of Mogwai and the incredible Arab Strap a sound and a rage that I definitely wasn’t getting from playing the tin whistle. Soon after that I saw Martyn Bennet’s Cuillin Music in a double header with Shooglenifty at Sidmouth Folk Festival and everything changed. For a really weird (and that’s complimenting myself big time) teenager seeing Martyn and Angus Grant bare chested, sweating like mad and looking like they would be too hardcore for the Hacienda (yet somehow getting a fairly twee English Folk Festival feeling like Ibiza in it’s heyday) was frankly incredible. The shy, awkward teenager who could barely speak to himself in the mirror was suddenly moshing like it was his last day on earth at the front of a gig.

What that moment did for me was to bring the two worlds of what I played and what I listened to together and though I guess at that stage I had no idea what the future was going to bring and where I would end up (both physically and musically) there was certainly a seismic shift. Something had changed.

I guess without going into a complete life history (available over a pint to those crazy enough to be interested) my path became one of collaboration and travel. A desperate hunger to explore other traditions not as some means of cultural appropriation but to add new ingredients and flavours to my own ‘tradition of me’. ‘Fusion’ hasn’t ever really been the aim as such. I’ve always been more interested in the techniques, riffs, tunes, chord progressions and message of everything I hear. I’m an addict and a mass consumer of music and over the years it has all fed (to one degree or another) into hundreds and hundreds of compositions some good, some terrible, some transcribed, some recorded and many lost to the mists of time. I used to rather eccentrically listen to DJ Shadow and try and copy the drum programming with triple tonguing on the flute/whistle (innuendo unavoidable). Huge amounts of my early chord sequences and riffs were based on ideas not really from ‘folk’ guitarists but from Radiohead and Mogwai, Buena Vista Social Club and The Commodores. I guess one advantage of not being ‘at the source’ was not having to drink from it. Though I made many the pilgrimage, travelling age 16/17, by bus (and hitching. Don’t tell my mum) around Ireland learning tunes from old guys in desolate bars and trying to find my way in a tradition that filled my heart.

Amazing opportunities to collaborate came in my student years through the various Ethno programmes (Google them and go) where huge groups of young, mad folkies from all over the world would meet and swap tunes and songs. We all benefited hugely through Erasmus (EU Student exchanges) as many students of all disciplines have. Indeed my first proper touring band was based half in Newcastle and half in Finland. I twice visited Morrocco for residencies after graduating and made music not only with Morrocon traditional musicians (Berber and Gnawa) but also with Arabic Hip Hop and Jazz. Was it a great collaboration? Possibly not but it did change the way I write music and think about it. The residencies came about because of an amazing couple and their passion for unity and peace. Terre Sans Frontier was set-up because the autocratic state of Morocco wouldn’t allow artists to travel to collaborate. In fact it was necessary at the time at least (and maybe still is) to have written permission from the King in order to leave the country. They had no rights, no freedom of movement but the music, the expression and the fight was stronger than ever.

Today I’m sat here in Edinburgh (where life led me eventually) after witnessing a house of commons showdown where I still don’t know if I will lose my freedom of movement due to our ridiculous and never-ending class war. Thinking though that without freedom of movement my ‘tradition of me’ wouldn’t exist and neither would the Irish, Scottish and the European traditions that I’ve loved and become somehow adopted by. Somehow I’ve gone from not feeling like I had a musical ‘home’ anywhere to feeling like music makes the world my home. I can’t wait to travel and learn more.

NO MORE COASTING – by Patsy Reid

When I was asked to write this piece, I figured I had plenty of time to decide what to write about and also plenty of time to write it, as I was going to be away music-ing without the usual distractions that home offers. But alas no, here I am on deadline day, backstage at Sidmouth Folk Festival via Skye, Dorset and Cambridge, making a start before doing a gig and driving up to Edinburgh for a rehearsal in the morning.

So, I’m busy. People have written about that on this forum. I’m juggling many hats but I’ve also read a great post about that on this forum. What on earth can I write about that people will find original and interesting? Well I figured I’d write about what I have been doing in my spare time over the past few weeks away from home, and more importantly, why.

Here is my confession: I’ve been learning to play my new tenor guitar because ultimately, I’m a little bored of the fiddle.

Don’t get me wrong, I have many limitations on my first instrument but I definitely feel like I need a fresh challenge and a new discipline with an alternate musical role to what is predominantly a melodic instrument.

Perhaps it stems from being pigeonholed as a melody player for 20 years and possibly even feelings of inferiority to musicians of the rhythm section. I want to be a member of that club and respected as a musician and composer, not just a fiddle player.

So it all started when I bought a Telecaster in a Cambridge music shop whilst on tour in 2015. I confess, I’ve found the 6 string guitar slow going, especially when I’ve no work-related incentive to focus on it in a big way. But each time I’ve picked it up to learn something, I’ve found myself getting more comfortable and familiar with the somewhat alien shapes. My next investment was a Fender Precision Bass, which I love and find navigating much easier, but there’s still little chance of playing it in the real world, which is fine – I’m not nearly cool enough!

It was when I bought my lovely tenor guitar last year that I thought I might possibly be able to take a guitar onto the stage with me, and last weekend, nearly a year later, I did just that at Cambridge Folk Festival. Due to the aforementioned busy-ness, I haven’t really been able to put much work in over the past 11 months but when the opportunity arose to accompany Maz O’Connor at Cambridge with the task of recreating her beautiful new album as a trio, I figured it was the perfect time to get my chops together. And I loved it. When accompanying songs on the fiddle/viola, I pride myself on staying out of the way, enhancing the song but never being in competition with the vocal. Sometimes with a violin, this means making the call not to play at all, but unless I had an alternative plan, this wasn’t going to wash with Maz! So I practised for hours and hours, day after day, working out chords and shapes, trying to eliminate buzzes and unwanted ringing strings, working it out as I went. I was pretty sure I’d chicken out at the last minute, especially when the reality of standing to play as well as simultaneously singing BVs hit me. But I kept my cool and went through with it. I was probably terrible and I’m sure I’ll cringe about it as I continue to improve but it truly scared me and maybe that’s what has been missing from my music making of late.

As versatile as the fiddle is, I find myself questioning the roads it has taken me down and the musical choices it has made for me. Something that I have been increasingly aware of over the years are the practicalities of singing and playing fiddle at the same time. Though there are great examples of fiddle players who do both very well, I’ve personally not found a way to sing and play in tune, whilst detaching my jaw from the fiddle in order to sing freely. With the exception of singing BVs with simple fiddle parts, I’ve always been dis-satisfied with my performance and for the most part unable to accompany myself whilst singing. To a certain extent, this has probably prevented me from pursuing my singing and until about 4 years ago I felt unable to even contemplate writing a song. Thanks to the persuasion of the brilliant Gordon McLean of Mull, I have now written and recorded 5 songs to date and the thought of playing them all by myself at an open-mic night is terrifying but strangely really appealing!

The prospect of playing this twangy stringed instrument has unlocked a desire in me to branch out creatively and stylistically as a musician and it’s exciting. Of course I love the fiddle and the music I am lucky enough to play and teach for a living, but the older I get, the more I want to be in control of the music I play and not just coasting because I can.


Irish traditional (trad) music is an engrained part of Irish culture. All over the world, where there is an Irish contingent or presence, there will always be music not too far away. We’ve seen so many amazing bands such as Planxty, The Gloaming, De Dannan all come from trad circles and which has become some of our most loved music. In recent times though, there has been a rise in the number of classical instrumentalists (in particular violinists) who play trad and bring with them all the knowledge and technique that comes with learning classical music and classical violin. By transferring all the technicalities that come with studying classical music into Irish traditional music, it has a lot of different effects on the way trad music is played, taught and perceived. So I’ve gone through various aspects such as contrast in styles, what is actually a ‘good technique’, and many others, as well as my own insight as a classically trained violinist in the trad world, to see what place it has in the world of Irish trad.

The origins of Irish Traditional music began almost 2,000 years ago when the Celts first arrived on Irish soil. It was initially an aural tradition; melodies and tunes would be shared around by ear, passed along from generation to generation up until 1762 when the first written collection of Irish music first appeared. This idea of an aural tradition is still kept up in Irish trad teaching today, led by the organisation Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. Comhaltas are the ‘foremost movement in preserving and promoting Irish traditional music’ and from growing up in a ‘branch’ of the organisation in Scotland, I have personally experienced the great teaching and promotional work that Comhaltas do, spreading Irish music all across Ireland and the world. Having been brought up in Comhaltas for 16 years, the idea of ‘preserving’ the music and culture is a huge part of their teaching, and classical violin technique training is potentially an aspect that opposes that idea. Through this idea of preservation, Comhaltas have successfully established hundreds of ‘branches’ around the world from Ireland to the U.K, from Japan to the USA and Canada. Within these branches where Irish music is taught, the idea of the aural tradition is still very much alive with young children from the age of 5 are taught tunes and melodies by ear. This training allows children to be able to remember hundreds of tunes, not needing music to be able to play them when at a music session or performing them at a concert. This major aspect of traditional music is possibly the strongest argument not to incorporate an alternative way of teaching into the Irish tradition. Comhaltas over the 70 years since they were founded have done an incredible job of spreading Irish music and culture globally. The Fleadh Cheoil Na Éireann, the biggest festival in the world celebrating Irish traditional music which was started by Comhaltas now has over half a million people going each year with around 2,000 musicians competing in competitions and thousands more travelling from far and wide simply to come and play music for the week. All this has been achieved through their own teaching, focusing on the ‘preservation’ of the tradition with ideas dating back 2,000 years still being taught today. They have been extremely successful in their work and it seems as if they will continue to do so. Why in that case change a fundamental part of the teaching to incorporate a classical technique when they have been so successful without it.

One master fiddle player from Co. Clare, Martin Hayes, is known and loved all around the world by trad music fans and musicians alike because of his unmistakable sound and the feeling that he puts across when he plays the fiddle. Growing up in Maghera, Co. Clare, Martin was taught by his father P.J and won 6 All Ireland fiddle competitions, including 2 consecutive Senior Fiddle All Ireland’s. Despite not being classically trained and having a flat palm against the neck of the fiddle (what some might say is ‘bad technique’) he is considered one of the best Irish fiddle players ever to pick up the instrument. His playing is derived from feeling and emotion and it is that which has made him so successful. In an interview with Irish comedian, actor and presenter Tommy Tiernan, Martin talks about where his music comes from.

“In the course of a few minutes, you can only just show a tiny snippet… in the course of an evening of music it’s a journey through feelings, it’s a journey through ecstatic expression, to pure energy and raw joy and wildness, and delicacy and sweetness and sadness… The big thing for me in Irish music was realising that in fact it’s a complete musical language and the full variety of expression can be expressed through that…almost all these musicians, humble and unheard of musicians, had glorious moments of joy and experience and so for me, I collected these moments in my memory and decided those are the moments that define the music. That’s what I’ve been attempting to do most of my life.” – Martin Hayes

Hayes describes Irish trad here as a ‘musical language’. It would be incorrect to suggest that Irish traditional music is the only genre that has its own language; all styles and genres of music have their own ‘language’ in their own right. However just as a Scottish person might not know how to speak French, or a Spanish person might not know how to speak German, a classical violinist might not be able to understand the language of Irish traditional music. Despite having the best foundations of technical violin playing, that often is not directly transferrable into trad music. Yes, all the technicalities will be present and yes, they will make a lovely sound, but the feeling and essence of the music and what it stands for and what it makes you and those around you feel, is rarely there. Martin Hayes like most professional trad musicians, grew up surrounded by this feeling; they could walk into any pub and play with their friends week in week out and experience this ‘ecstatic expression’ every time they picked up their instrument. It’s through taking those experiences and translating them through their playing to the audience that creates the best musicians and provides the best performances. A classically trained violinist would not typically have those experiences at hand to convey to a trad audience. While they might have many chamber and orchestral rehearsals and performances under their belt, it is indeed a different ‘language’ and a different musical experience which is not transferable into Irish traditional music.

I have personally been playing Irish traditional music since I was 5 years of age, 2 years before I started studying classical violin. While growing up in that circle of music, I noticed a common denominator between many fiddle players that I learned alongside with or saw at a live performance. When looking at many Irish traditional fiddle players, whether it be in a local pub at a session or on a stage at a festival, one common theme amongst them all was a lack of what violinists in the classical world might call ‘good technique’. There are several areas where this lack of technique can manifest such as a flat palm under the neck, flat fingers on the fingerboard, a high right shoulder and a slouched posture to name but a few. The life of a professional trad musician can be extremely demanding. In a busy period, there will be gigs every weekend, lessons to teach and of course their own practice to do when they can fit it in. Because it can be such a high intensity job and they are playing and gigging constantly, the continuous exercise of the many muscles they are using, with incorrect technique and posture this can potentially lead to a lot of damage.

“Once a muscle is being held in an improper position for periods of time and then stressed (as when playing an instrument), trigger points (irritable spots within the muscle) and taught bands of tissue begin to form. These structural changes can create decreased blood flow to the muscle and misalignment of muscles creating a compromise of the muscle’s performance. “Tight” muscles can also create a strain on the joints of the neck, back, shoulder, and elbow causing pain in these areas as well.” – Piersol

As shown above, given the unnatural position of the hand when playing the fiddle as well as the relentless amount of hours playing it, it can just take one muscle to be put under stress for damage to occur. Bad habits such as having a high right shoulder can lead to serious muscular problems that can easily come back in several years’ time in their career which could cause severe pain and potentially mean retirement from performing. This is undoubtedly an area where having a good classical violin technique impacts positively on the world of Irish trad music. By having a solid foundation in good technique as a classical musician, it can be taught to children from a really young age which greatly reduces the risk of muscle problems if they go into the profession, making sure they have the best chance at a healthy and injury free career.

In addition, many studies have been conducted all over the world which aim to show the impact of posture on the development and health of a musician. One study, conducted by ‘Healing Arts Studios’, concluded these results from musicians who had issues with pain with relation to Playing Related Musculoskeletal Disorders (PRMD’s) and Repetitive Stress Injuries (RSI’s):

Playing Related Musculoskeletal Disorders (PRMD’s):

  • 75% of players suffered from finger and/or hand pain
  • Of those, 30% had tendonitis; 20% muscle problems
  • 10% joint disorders, 15% neurological disorders, 25% had elbow and forearm disorders

The statistics above are evident of the extent of the problems due to incorrect technique. The majority of people in this study had been suffering from pain in the hands and fingers which is not least surprising as these are the main areas of the body that are exercised the most when playing an instrument. For 30% of people to have tendonitis just shows how an incorrect technique and posture can have a devastating effect on the careers and lives of musicians. By implementing the teaching of a good classical technique into Irish traditional music, the risk factor of having finger and hand pain to this extent greatly diminishes. Because of the extremely busy nature of playing music as a profession, if good technique was taught from the beginning of a musician’s study, it would greatly increase the career length of professional musicians allowing for more years to continue to perform and teach. On a simply health based level, I believe that teaching classical technique across the board in Irish traditional music is something that should be implemented as soon as possible. A course of action to prevent pain or injury to any musician in the industry, is one that I believe should be taken at all costs. While all of these different arguments discussed above regarding the impact of classical technique on Irish traditional music are formed through research and determination, I feel that, because my own musical learning and subsequent career have been formed from both classical violin technique and trad, my personal experience of 16 years is of at least some value to this discussion.

When I first picked up the fiddle at my local Irish music branch St. Patrick’s Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (CCE), I picked up several bad habits that once I began classical lessons some of which I found very hard to get rid of. From a flat palm under the neck of the instrument, to a straight and stiff little finger in my bow grip, little by little these small inaccuracies in my technique started occurring simply because I was not taught any technique. Of course, there are several schools of ideology focusing on different things. American violin virtuoso, Aaron Rosand illustrates his idea of a correct standing posture for example as he writes: “Remember that the violin rests on your left side and is the reason for the principle weight on that side for balance. Do not spread your legs too far apart. Twelve to fourteen inches is enough to give you proper balance. Keep your knees flexed, do not stiffen, and your right leg must be relaxed.” (Rosand, 2017). When I talk about having a good technique, I do not mean specifically one school of teaching however; I simply mean to illustrate that by having a solid foundation of posture as well as right and left hand hold on the instrument, it provides the musician a good base from which to create any sound they want to make, or play any genre of music in fact that they want to play.

For many children growing up learning and playing trad in Ireland especially, whether it be as part of one of the hundred Comhaltas branches or self taught, a solid instruction on how to hold and command the instrument immediately opens so many more doors for progression. I believe once that solid foundation of technique is in place, the musician is in a position to be able to learn to play anything they want on that instrument. Implementing a form of classical technique in Irish traditional music has the potential to significantly add to the number of incredible professional musicians that are currently performing. Currently, there are a lot of people who are turned off by playing Irish music professionally because they think it cannot be done; it’s not a viable option for them, however even with this small change of introducing the teaching of classical technique to children learning trad, I believe it will boost the numbers of professional fiddle players especially, as well as shoot Irish culture which is internationally celebrated already, further up into the sky.

Since I began studying at the Junior programme at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in 2009 and subsequently started on the BMus Performance degree at RCS in 2015, I have learned so many things about classical violin playing. Through chamber, orchestral and solo lessons and rehearsals I have acquired a lot of information and learned so many new skills with regard to the music as well the instrument that I play. It is something that I will keep with me for the rest of my career and continue to develop for the rest of my life whatever I do in my performing career. When I started gigging Irish music at 16, and ever since then I have noticed how massively the classical technique and tuition has impacted my traditional playing. Being able to examine my own trad playing and use all of the knowledge I have gained from RCS has become invaluable. Self learning is not something that is common in the traditional music world. The culture surrounding Irish traditional music stems from playing with friends or in the pub at a session where you’re there to make music which of course is the whole point but when it comes to performing professionally it becomes a different story. In the trad world, I feel as if it can become easy to slip into the habit of playing the same thing over and over without critiquing ones playing or sound they are making. I have found personally that I am constantly at a battle with myself to question my own playing, the sound I am making, the colours I am trying to express. By applying techniques such as how much bow speed, tilt, pressure, elbow angle that I incorporate, as well as countless others, I am able to critically inform my own playing and with practice, improve the traditional music tunes (just 32 bars most of them) that I play. This is something in my musicianship which I find invaluable and something I think can be taught much more across the traditional music genre rather than just the more ‘standard’ genres such as classical, jazz etc. It’s an aspect of classical tuition that, in my own experience, has enabled me to grow hugely as a musician and I believe it can have the same effect on musicians that play Irish music also.

In January 2019, while still maintaining this critical self learning throughout my time studying on the classical degree programme as well as recording and performing my own Irish traditional music, I was extremely honoured to have won the BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year award at the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow. Within my 15-minute set, I played various contemporary/newly composed trad tunes (not common in the session scene) written by some of the scene’s most esteemed composers. ‘Melter’, a composition by Mike Vass was written and recorded originally on guitar which meant for me to play it on the fiddle, required a degree of position work up the neck of the instrument. The award winning album ‘Decemberwell’ which this tune features on, is a well known tune to hear however next to no musicians know it to play because it wavers from standard first position playing on the fiddle. It was only due to my technique and familiarity with the geography of the fingerboard that allowed me to learn the melody in the first place. The over-familiarity of first position playing on the fiddle in traditional music, using it as the only way to play is, in my opinion, the most evident flaw of trad fiddle teaching and playing. Not only is there so many more notes and colours that the violin has to offer that go unused, but there are well known tunes that no fiddle player attempts to learn because it goes further than 1st position. If the same technique was taught to traditional fiddle players that is taught in the classical world, then fiddle players would not be limited to what tunes they can and cannot play. It would also lead to more compositions on the fiddle, exploring the different notes and colours that would ordinarily untouched. Of course Comhaltas might differ in this. As discussed earlier, their job as preservers of the tradition would see this as harming the music and straying from the origins of the music and culture. There is a well known joke which goes,

  • “How many Comhaltas officials does it take to change a light-bulb?”
  • “Change?!”

I think this little joke sums up well the attitude towards evolution from the perspective of Comhaltas. All music, whether it be trad, classical or any other genre, in order to stay alive has to evolve and change. While the preservation of Irish music is of course important, if it is not allowed to evolve as well then it has the potential to die out completely. Incorporating classical violin technique into Irish traditional music is an evolution that can make much more of a positive impact than a negative one. By teaching young fiddle players good technique and teaching how to navigate the geography of the instrument it will open up so many more melodies to be played and composed in the music. Furthermore, with this increase in the number of tunes and people who have the technical foundation to play them, more and more people will learn to play traditional music giving the whole genre a massive boost globally. Throughout this article, I have explored above many of the different ways in which classical violin technique can have different effects on Irish traditional music. Beginning with the origins of traditional music and the alignment it has with the teaching of trad by Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, we can see why a change to the current teaching may not have a positive impact. Due to their success in promoting Irish culture, music and language across the globe, a change of teaching and belief on their behalf would not be a logistical move. However, when faced with the categorical evidence regarding injuries and the number of musicians that experience pain in their hands and fingers which potentially can result in pain for life and early retirement, I believe it cannot be ignored any longer. Implementing classical violin technique into Irish traditional music will result in less risk of injury for musicians, allowing them to play and perform for longer. Having a ‘poor’ technique simply because that is how the instrument was played when the tradition was founded in simply not a good enough reason to continue teaching to ‘preserve’ the tradition. A musician’s health should be at the top of the list when it comes to teaching ideologies, not tradition. As well as this, when talking about strictly the violin, Irish traditional music is possibly the only genre that doesn’t use the instrument to its full potential. In classical playing, the full tonal and colour range of the instrument is shown in a lot of music written for it. I believe that if the same technique was taught to trad fiddle students that is taught to classical violin students particularly in terms of bow control and geography of the violin, the range for exploration in traditional music could lead to some more amazing pieces like the Mike Vass composition ‘Melter’. To not use the instrument to its full extent is something that the world of Irish music is definitely missing out on. While the teaching and performing of the fiddle in Irish traditional music has come a long way and is recognised and adored throughout the world, there is no doubt places for it to develop and implementing a classical technique is as good a place to start as any.

THE ART OF JUGGLING – by John Somerville

When I was fourteen, I took the notion to learn how to juggle.  I only ever managed three juggling balls at any one time, although I did learn a couple of tricks that mildly impressed my friends.  It’s safe to say that even if I had perfected the art and managed to work with several balls at once, or even several flaming clubs whilst balancing a seal on my nose, nothing would have prepared me for the juggling act that I currently find myself having to perform.

Academics and educators are currently very fond of the term “portfolio” artist.  Although it is a term that could possibly have been dreamt up in the corridors of Eton or Cambridge, there is a great deal of truth in the assertion it makes.  In this day and age, to survive in the creative industries most of us have to be adaptable and versatile. For most musicians, this usually means having at least one secondary source of income other than performance.  For me, this means wearing several different working hats, a different one depending on the day of the week.  I’m currently a performer (Treacherous Orchestra, Adam Sutherland band, Croft No.5), freelance composer, degree level ensemble mentor (RCS), youth music teacher (YMI, Falkirk), primary trad music teacher (Feis Rois), project manager (Falkirk Traditonal Music Project) and Ceilidh band member and business partner. I should also mention that I have two young children and am doing a music degree part-time.  My life is quite frantic.  There is never a dull moment and it certainly relies upon having a relatively organised and structured working week.  My point in this post however is not to talk about how I manage my workload.  It’s about positive adaptability and being happy and content within what you do.

Treacherous Orchestra (photo by ABCassidy Photography)

In 2016 I had a really busy year of performance gigging. Treacherous Orchestra was out on the road and we must have performed at over thirty festivals and venues that year.  For a band of that size, that’s a substantial number of performances and a behemoth of an exercise in logistics and planning.  Fast-forward three years and here I am with three festival gigs in the diary for this year.  It would be easy to take the negative route and start asking questions; why am I not performing any more? Am I no longer on people’s radar? Am I good enough to perform?

The simple answer seems to be that as you progress through your musical career adaptability is a huge asset. Certain elements of your working life, such as touring and live performance, may have to take a back seat for certain periods to allow other elements to come to the fore.  And guess what, I think that’s ok.  I know I can return to the experience of live gigging at a time that’s more suitable.  What is particularly useful is having all those other elements of my musical career to fall back on.

There seems to be a huge amount of pressure on young trad and folk musicians to become exclusive performers.  We can see the positive intent and passion of those involved in the music scene and how this translates into wanting to make money from the thing you love.  It may be worth considering this… I recently attended a workshop with a notable Scottish guitarist who has gigged with several top bands.  One of his opening remarks to his student audience was “musical integrity begins once the rent has been paid”.  Quite a cutting statement in many ways and one that is definitely open to question.  Of course the world is full of musicians, instrumentalists and performers who survived on the breadline for many years whilst writing music that would later go on to be regular household listening.  Against this current backdrop of a changing music industry and a society where mental health seems to be gaining more awareness (there are already some great blog posts on this forum) perhaps within his words he meant something else.   When viewed in a positive light, is he not simply saying that creativity is more free and likely to flow if the harsh realities of life are not an obstruction?  Should we be suggesting that working a couple of bar shifts a week whilst being a musician is not a step back from your art, but in many ways a smart move to allow your creativity to breathe?  It may open up more positive space if you are not consistently worrying about whether the rent or other financial constraints can be met.  A few private lessons a week, ceilidhs at the weekend, a job with a PA company, temping work, a couple of days of studio work, painting, picture framing, or any form of stable but reasonably flexible work might just be the answer to keeping you going through those periods of inertia.   The reality is these are all jobs that friends and musical acquaintances of mine have done, and some are well regarded and respected within the trad music scene. Personally, I’m currently relying a lot on the non-performance aspects to allow me more time at home with my family.  It’s definitely a juggling act but one that seems appropriate for this moment in time.

Life as a working musician is fantastic; it’s a life full of experience and social gratification.  As you progress through life you may find that adaptability is the key to remaining content. Getting some work experience under your belt sooner rather than later might ease the pressure further down the line.  Just a thought.  However it works out, and if you do find yourself working somewhere or doing something you might not have envisaged, remember you will always have the music – no one can take that away from you!

AIR IOMALL – by Hamish Macleod

Almost exactly two years ago, box player extraordinaire and famously tall person Joseph Peach invited me round to his flat to discuss the logistics and practicalities of transforming an idea he had into a film. The film was to follow a tall ship on it’s voyage round some very hard to reach islands, and at the end of the trip there would be a concert held in the highly unlikely setting of the church on St Kilda. I explained that while the film was almost definitely possible, you would need a few technically minded pairs of hands to help and the kind of financial support that only absentee landlords or eccentric sheiks would be able to provide. Some hours later, I left Joseph’s Cessnock flat dosed up to the nines with coffee and feeling sympathetic that he had become so attached to an idea that was essentially impossible without the limited might of a television budget at your back.


As such I was enormously surprised when I was awoken one morning the following summer by the unfamiliar pitching of the Wylde Swan, a tall ship which was at that moment rolling far from land in the Atlantic swell. Armed only with an unrobust beanie and a small Sony mirrorless camera, I had been charged with filming the travels of the exceptionally creative and bafflingly resourceful traditional music duo, Charlie Grey and Joseph Peach. Their quest would see them travel to some of Scotland’s most remote islands before performing a suite of music based on the human history of these places, in what was surely to be the most remote performance of the summer.

We set off from Ullapool Harbour at 6pm on the 24th of August, having spent the previous few hours drinking pints of IPA in the Ferry Boat Inn for lack of anything more productive to do. With the number of tricks we could each do with beer mats far exceeding our collective knot vocabulary, we decided our best bet was to load our bags onto the ship and then while away the remaining hours on land far away from the crew, for their own safety as much as our own. Later, as Ullapool disappeared into the stern of the boat, framed by a predictably picturesque Loch Broom sunset, each member of our party did their best to appear awed while figuring out who would last the longest before succumbing to sea-sickness. Delightfully, this proved a problem I would not have to contend with while on board, though I am certain everyone involved would plead a similar case.


We were to spend all of that first night and most of the following morning heading directly West, deviating from course just long enough to avoid crashing into Harris. While we ate lunch the following day and adjusted to the constant risk of plates sliding from our grasp and onto the floor, St Kilda drew itself up from the horizon, presenting a jagged array of sea stacks which were beautiful and intimidating in equal measure. It’s easy to imagine that without the luxury of a live aboard chef and central heating that these behemoths might seem more terrifying than enchanting.

The closer we drew to the bay, the more visible the MOD presence on the island became. This tempered our total amazement at the local geology with slight annoyance that the British army still felt the need to stake it’s claim at the far edge of the Hebrides, reducing one of the country’s wildest and most rarely visited places to a defunct missile outpost. Nonetheless, our enthusiasm for the task at hand could not be quelled and by the time we dropped anchor in Village Bay our excitement had long since bubbled to the surface.

Once we were fed and suitably immobilised by unwieldy buoyancy aids we began the nerve-wracking process of lowering thousands of pounds of camera equipment and musical instruments into inflatable boats already weighted with temperamental petrol engines. Minutes later, satisfied that our gear had made it onto the island as dry as it had started the day, we repeated the journey ourselves, aiming for the pier and the wheelbarrow upon it that would help us carry hundreds of kilograms of technology, wood and reeds to the stage door.


Once we had transported all our equipment into what was to be the concert venue, we took stock of the room that would form the basis of the film. The simply appointed church had also served as the schoolhouse, and the books and ink used by the pupils are still to be found sitting on desks in the next room, a fascinating and vivid insight into the lives of a people who have only just passed from living memory. Despite this I elected not to dwell on the generations of St Kildans for whom the building had formed part of everyday life, as I was fairly certain that this group of islanders, who for a spell stood out as staunchly Presbyterian even among their neighbouring islanders, would have been incandescent with rage to see their church cum schoolhouse used for such frivolous purposes. The least severe punishment we could have hoped for would have been a few choice cracks of the belt which, conveniently, was within easy reach of my first camera position below the pulpit.

We were sharing our trip with about thirty other people who, rather than venturing to an island in the sun or inspecting the Caribbean from the deck of an ocean liner had elected to come aboard the Wylde Swan for a week. This in itself reveals a lot about the character of the average person aboard the ship, and luckily our generous and patient studio audience was comprised almost entirely of these intrepid souls. With the church as full as it would have been at the height of the St Kildans religious fervour, Charlie and Joseph embarked on a half hour long performance which was impossible to divert your attention from, incredibly expressive and utterly captivating. Unless you were trying to get as many passes as you could on camera before it got dark while multitracking audio, in which case it felt like a fringe event. Having said that, even with several minor technical gripes gnawing at me, the music they performed left me stunned and they should be richly rewarded for composing such a unique and moving body of work.


On our way back to the boat, a crew member, Charlie and I became stranded halfway between the pier and the Wylde Swan. The cable responsible for getting petrol to the engine of our tender had snapped in two, and while our predicament would be considered dangerous by only the most mild-mannered spectator, the situation left me with plenty time to contemplate whether I had sufficiently documented a place that had been on my mind for years. I began to wonder whether there would even be any footage left when I checked or if my lightning fast Sandisk cards would have been reduced to useless bits of salty plastic by the sea spray. As such, by the time we arrived back in our cabin I was thoroughly in favour of getting to know our shipmates better and investigating the supply of whisky they had taken on board, with some evidently anticipating being stranded at sea for several months.

This sequence of events established a very satisfying pattern which was to be repeated each subsequent day. An overnight course running into the morning which would allow us to explore a new island each afternoon, with every destination seemingly more inspiring and less accessible than the last. Apart from Lochboisdale, which was very much as expected. Over the course of the journey, I was able to manage my constant fear that I was not capturing enough footage during the day by exchanging grain alcohol and lies about my life on land with others on the boat by night, arguably creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It was not until our penultimate day aboard the ship that I would finally be satisfied that there was enough in the can to make something worthwhile. We arrived on the Shiants about forty five minutes before sunset, leaving just enough time to hoover up some general views of the island before using the glorious light to film some tunes inside the small hut on Eilean an Taighe. The island features a small bothy that was once used by Compton MacKenzie as a bolt hole for writing, and which is decorated in the standard style befitting a Scottish wilderness refuge. Lamps are foregone in favour of candles melted into empty bottles of Laphroaig, while the pantry is stocked with a dazzlingly strange array of canned goods left by kayakers. OS maps that look thoroughly out of date are bundled in the corner of a bookshelf and the skull of a ram sits above the fireplace, enough of a deterrent that only the clinically odd would wish to outstay their welcome.


In the dying light of the day we filmed a set of tunes that beautifully captured the melancholy atmosphere surrounding our trip home. Over the past week, deprived of any useful phone signal and stripped of all distractions, each of us found our omnipresent millennial dread fading and being replaced with a sense that maybe life on the high seas would suit us. Perhaps risking crossing paths with highly trained counter-piracy units was a fair price to pay for absolute calm. I even got so far as to wonder whether I might be able to train one of the nearby nesting puffins to parrot my most threatening mannerisms before the ferocity of the midges dragged me from my reverie. As Joe and Charlie completed their final interview perched outside Mackenzie’s old haunt, the sole sheep on the island shuffled past, making it clear that whoever was in charge of its shearing had long since sold their means of travel to the island.

That night we shared a three course meal with the full complement of crew and passengers, and I can only assume that afterwards rumours began to circulate of a new tax or duty that would be levied on any leftover spirits as soon as we returned to shore. A gentle cruise back to Ullapool the following day from our overnight anchor next to the densely populated sea cliffs of Garbh Eilean presented ample opportunity for contemplation, as the bow effortlessly sliced through the placid waters of the Minch. The scale and immutability of the islands we had visited served as a potent reminder that almost nothing we do has any real consequences: morbid, but comforting all the same. This is slightly ironic as I would spend the next few months tearing my hair out in post-production, but for now I was blissfully savouring my maritime epiphany.


On the whole I am happy with the film. At points, the driving Atlantic wind lashing off radio mics makes me wince, and at others the unforgiving midday sun forces me to squint. However, there are pictures which successfully convey the vastness of the Atlantic, sequences which portray well the character of the subjects and the beauty of the Hebrides is delightfully apparent in places. I hope the film will allow viewers to follow lightly in Joe and Charlie’s footsteps, to places that are less well travelled than some of the world’s highest peaks. While it is important not to romanticise the gruelling subsistence lifestyle of the people who lived on these islands, it is hard to resist the astonishing natural beauty and complex cultural identity of these far flung chunks of gabbro and gneiss. Who needs the Himalaya when you have Hirta?

The film will screen in Glasgow on the 21st of August at the CCA cinema. £7 (£4) + £1 booking fee.


This blog was originally posted here:


Air Iomall is available to pre-order here ahead of the album’s launch on the 9th of August. The film will screen at the CCA, Glasgow on Wednesday the 21st of August. Tickets available here. Further details can be found at:

The project was supported by Help Musicians UK and Creative Scotland.


Take care of your body – it’s the only place you have to live.
By Corrina Hewat

(Photo above by Sean Purser)

I have written and rewritten this blog dozens of times already and I find I am writing too much information to digest in one go.  There is too much I am not yet ready to share with anyone, let alone leave it sitting out there in an online blog. Out there, to me, it feels the same as it was – the cultural landscape still resonating a sense of shame at my desire to have my voice be heard in a still overtly male world.  And as I write, I find each word and thought shifts my boundaries, changes my awareness, lessensmy sensitivity, as if I were a tree nourishing my ever-strengthening roots as I stand tall in my own truth.

I am a musician, singer and composer. I have been playing professionally for 25 years with a degree in Jazz and Contemporary Music on pedal and lever harp, I’ve toured internationally as a vocalist and harper and am founder member of bands Bachué, Chantan and Shine. I also co-founded and am co-MD of the gargantuan Unusual Suspects with Dave Milligan plus being Musical Director of many other large shows with strong women throughout the years, such as Voices of the World & Songs of Conscience with Karine Polwart, The Cape Breton Connection with Mary Jane Lamond, Scottish Men with Maggie MacInnes, State of the Union with Kathryn Tickell and Harp Heaven while also producingthe TMSA Young Trad Tour for a decade.  I’ve released around 50 recordings under my own name, band names and as a session musician/singer/composer in others.

I have learned from many great musicians in my time, and through my desire to share their expertise and keeping that dialogue open for myself and my continuing development, I tutor harp and ensemble harmony-singing internationally and am Scottish harp tutor in the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.  I have led choirs, from scratch groups in festivals to 60-strong voice Sangstream to 350-strong Love Music Choir.  I am founder of the ‘Harp Village’ a weekend intensive harp course in the Highlands of Scotland and am currently the programmer for the Celtic Connections Festival public workshops.  I haveaccomplished the writing of 15 large-scale commissions to date with each commission reflecting a time and a place in and of my life.

Writing this blog has opened my eyes to where my determination to be heard and to help others be heard has come from.  I have made my life and living sharing my voice and my music with the world, my skill set borne from my upbringing; good listening skills, learning quick-fire adaptability and improvising in the moment and a good work ethic. An essential part of this is the desire to allow others a space to be heard and in doing so allow myself to be heard as I have encountered circumstances thathave proven to take my voice away and I have practiced my own self-imposed silence in times of trauma.

In the past, I would adapt to what was around me; emotionally embodying whatever was in the room and carrying it with me so that others didn’t have to.  This was honestly a help to me when I was younger, when I wanted to be an emotional support to my family and it was helpful when I started playing music.  Soaking up tunes by ear, singing harmonies to songs I was learning at the moment they were being sung.  I find myself adopting an accent when I’m travelling in different countries. I really don’t mean to. If there were feelings of anger or hurt, sadness, pain or confrontation in the room then I’d embody them too. No matter that it’s not my business or I have no control over the outcome, or I’m in pain or I have my own plans which I’m ignoring. Nomatter.  I held it all so others didn’t have to. I learnt I had this capacity when I was young and have been trying to let it go ever since! It was useful then.  It’s not useful now.  And this has made for a tense life.

What do I mean by a tense life?

It is this; being unable to breathe. Chronic tension, powering on through no matter what, muscle spasms, chronic pain, joint stiffness, headaches, insides a mess, grinding teeth down, depression and frustratingly fibromyalgia, where breathing and moving were painful until eventually even clothes hurt to wear. Brushing past someone in the street, just an innocent small bumping into someone, would feel like being stabbed and you’d find yourself recoiling in pain and shock. That.

I was taken to the doctor when I was in the last few years of school. He had to teach me how to breathe again, as at that point I spoke so fast I couldn’t be understood and breathing was speedy and functional, nothing more. Until one day I just stopped talking altogether. You were lucky if I grunted yes or no back to you, nothing else. It was the ultimate protest. Just when my mum and dad had physically split and we’d moved to another house. I regret now to never having apologised for that time. I made my mum and my sister’s life hell. And bullies were making my life hell. I held it all in, storing the shame and sadness and anger in areas of my body that were easy to hide, thinking that hiding it all was akin to eliminating it.  Let me tell you now that doesn’t work.  Hiding it just removes it from your immediate attention, nothing more.  

I chose to grow up always in a state of anxiety, frequently in the fight, flight or freeze mode, worried that I was the problem, as it couldn’t possibly be anyone else. A few individuals bullied me through my teens and early twenties (vulnerable kids are always the easiest targets).  And the #metoo movement brought up another well-buried experience from my college days, which when remembered knocked me for six, as I realise my silence has enabled an abuser to remain unchanged.

I grew to be an alcoholic music student with a secret desire to act, which was another dream I hid well. I was unhappy and judged myself, and everyone around me, harshly.  I drank because I knew it and it felt comfortable.  The traditional musician’s life I was embracing was surrounded by the culture of expected social drinking, over-friendly and intense, immersion in the extreme. And alcohol helped me to fit in, to hide and to disappear. I wanted to merge. But my body, gut, head, heart and soul knew different and yet I continued to ignore them and battled on, carrying the conflict with me. This impacted my technical ability on the harp, through muscle fatigue and tendonitis and, as I discovered, even grief had the power to take away my voice in the year after my mum died through my belief that it was necessary I ‘power on’ no matter what. I couldn’t get through one half of a gig without losing it. Tension in extreme circumstances can actually mute us. Finally through the NHS I met a speech therapist who taught me exercises to help my vocal cords work again while also relaxing my face, throat, neck and shoulders.

A tour to the Philippines was a defining moment in my journey.  I was with the band Lammas and had all the jabs and was taking Malaria tablets in preparation.  I developed severe laryngitis, which resulted in me not making a sound the whole trip.  And I was the damn singer!  Oh eternal shame.  Once home, I couldn’t shift itmy body was shutting down and I had no control over it.  I couldn’t hold my head up, nor walk or talk without utter exhaustion.  I lost the ability to think clearly.  And of course I tried to power on, premiering my large-scale commission ‘Making the Connection’ at the first New Voices series in Celtic Connections 1998.  I would hide and cry with despair throughout that time at how debilitated I was.  Depression followed, CFS (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) was diagnosed and anti-depressants prescribed.  The psychiatrist labelled me a ‘Manic Depressive’, which started a long journey of pill popping to remove all the ups and downs in my life, with more pills to counter the side effects of migraine and insomnia, with the dose being upped and upped and changed and upped until I was rattling with them, unable to stop. 5 years of extreme pills, followed by 5 years of recovering from them. After some good advice from my mum, I went to a Chinese herbalist.  It took 6 solid months of boiling herbs and stuff in muslin in pots on the stove, which stunk out the whole street! But little by little as each day I emptied out more of the little white dots in the pills as the herbs balanced my being, I became more capable.  Of course life still carried on outwith this, and I was straight into an Unusual Suspects tour after that 6-month journey which I know now was not the best way to maintain an even headspace.  I remember very little from that time.  

I made the choice to stop drinking alcohol.  That decision and loss of my ‘crutch’ certainly added to my depression at the time, as it impacted on my working life, my social life and how I related to others in sessions and gigs which had all previously been ‘easy’ and which were now surprising difficult, as I had nothing to hide the physical and mental impact of the long hours, intense work and the massive energy needed to keep up the constant interaction, enthusiasm and technical ability. The decision has always been one of my better ones though, as I now, after much personal work, have a much healthier attitude to alcohol and can enjoy a drink every once in a while.  And although I am a vegetarian, I knew my insides weren’t happy so I had taken my own measures to cut out certain food-types.  This brought an extra layer of vulnerability to being a touring musician on the road, which became quite problematic.  I remember a month-long tour through England with Kathryn Tickell where thepromoter in each village had kindly taken note of the specific dietary requirements and provided hot meals before every gig; so we had baked potatoes and veg chilli for 32 days straight. I was mortified my choices had led to everyone on that tour being affected.  It took us all a fair while after the tour to be able to even look at that meal again.

What was important to me was not repeating the normal route of going to the doctor and being prescribed pills to relieve the symptoms without going deeper into the root cause of these symptoms.  Natural alternative methods seemed much more akin to how I wanted to live in the world.

I sought counselling and have continued this through various means to this day.  I visited an Alexander Technique practitionerin Edinburgh, also having a massage every so often.  I then found Shiatsu was fantastic for easing specific tension, as was the chiropractor.  It took me a long while to admit to myself that playing the harp impacts intensely on my body.  As harpers, we literally encircle the instrument when playing, and its size and weight is no joke although it’s often an easy target.  Good posture and strength are essential for longevity when practising, rehearsing, travelling, gigging and teaching.  Resilience in body and in mind.  The old adage ‘you make it look so easy!’ is so far from the actuality. When I had a baby in 2009, it exacerbated the issues I was having with my back, which resulted in me having two back operations, in 2012 and subsequently in 2015, whichtook literally years of recovery.  I was lucky enough at this time to live near a Craniosacral practitioner who also did visceral manipulation, kinesiology and muscle taping.  She was a lifeline for me, which I am so thankful for.  Help Musicians UK supported my treatment for a time, as I couldn’t have afforded it otherwise.

I taught my brain in different methods of thinking, as I realised I was replaying repeating patterns but not able to shift out of them. My brain was not being utilised productively, so this brought me to NLP, which helps build new neural pathways in the brain.  I took up some serious study in this, and found my ability to find a different perspective is immense. CBT (working on learning different perspectives) was also a big help and I could access that through the NHS. There are aspects in both these methods I have found very useful when teaching one-to-one and larger groups.

I do Tapping and take herbs/vitamins/minerals, plus daily stretching of muscles, and intermittent Hypopressives, KCR and Dry Needling. The dentist made me a mouth guard so I don’t grind my teeth so much while sleeping which was bringing on chronic headaches in the morning! And with a good pillow, I finally learned to sleep better.

I am grateful every day for the changes over these last thirty years.  I am a cheery introvert, shy and preferring the quiet to the noise but I feel no shame in that.  And I will never again let myself be mute.  There is room in the world for everyone, including me – my voice, my body, my energy, my music.  My daughter reminds me of the heady days of youth and I revel in thememories. And I am learning to access my creativity again after years of grief making it feel like an impossible task.

I’m no longer trying to be everything to everybody.  I’m content enough never to be a social media authority, living a constantly updated online life as much as an off-line life, although that appears to be a requirement these days in the ever-changing arts world.  I don’t feel guilty about that, as there are many wonderful people out there who do it better than I, and I am happy to hire their skillset.

There are so many ways to find help these days and I have written down just a few things that have helped me over the last thirty years. My pain is a shadow of its former self and I have a toolbox full of interesting ways to manage if it reappears.  Less judgements, more connection – communication is key.  I mean communication with people, with the land and with all the wonderful life on earth.  I have a beautiful partner in life, David, who makes me laugh and laughs with me. I have a child who teaches me love and self-care every day through her own natural ways.  And I know dancing in the kitchen in your jammies is also very good for the soul, as is eating a hearty meal and checking in with your body every day as to how it’s feeling.  And as we all learn how to care for the earth and lessen our impact on it, I ask you to stand barefoot in the grass and thank the world for its wonders.  Take care of your body – it’s the only place you have to live. I wish you well.

I’ll note below the contacts, which you may find useful.  This is by no means a full list, rather it is a list I know, have experience of, was recommended by and recommend to others.

Chiropractic help – Scotia Chiropractic in the Borders is still somewhere I go to occasionally.  The BAPAM website (address added below) has an extensive list of practitioners across the UK.  
Alexander technique – practitioners easily findable throughout the UK, although I accessed Napiers clinic in Edinburgh
Kinesiology is also an interesting way of finding out what is going on in the body without any invasive treatment. It tackles physiological, biomechanical and psychological mechanisms of movement.
Muscle taping can be really supportive if you have a specific injury.  Again you can access many sports therapists online for this.
Herbal medicine and eating well Nick Polizzi a great help with his online tutorials on what/how herbs can support us,and how we can access nature for our medicine. Accessing a food allergy test can determine what your body thrives on – healthy gut, healthy mind.
EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) and Tapping.  Nick Ortner has an online resource and an app that has some free sessions or subscription, that are extremely useful in quieting the mind, focussing on issues you may have and tapping on them to ease or give you clarity.
Chinese Herbal Medicine, Acupuncture and Dry Needling – I was recommended Ming Chen in Leith and Glasgow for acupuncture and she was immense.  She remembered treating Martyn Bennett all those years ago. I have now found someone closer who does Dry Needling and I am finding this exceptionally good for awakening the nerves that are damaged from long-term sciatica.
NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) I found this to be extremely helpful and I have referred back to the advice ever since.
CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) Another programme trying to help you manage issues by shifting the way you think and behave which may be habitual, circumstantial but not beneficial.
Hypopressives – an excellent core-building programme. Especially useful if you have had a child and you need to strengthen your core back up, or you sit too often!  Abby is the only trained tutor in Scotland as yet.
Physiotherapy – offered by the NHS but to be honest I found the NHS services in this area to be lacking, and ended up with a practitioner who prescribed me Gabapentin which I then became hooked on and it took me bloody ages and masses of herbs and pain killers to get off the damn things. I wasn’t in any position to change this.  But I know many who thrive on physio help so it’s worth looking into!
KCR (Kinetic Chain Release) treatment, developed in the 80’s by Hugh Gilbert, which is a body-balancing treatment, non invasive, really relaxing and I always find I am stronger afterwards.
CBD oil – I am finding this very interesting to use!  There is no ‘high’, but it seems to work with all systems of the body.  I know a great guy in East Lothian who is producing natural oils and pastes, teas and all sorts.
ACEThere is also information online following up on Dr Nadine Burke Harris’ work on the impact of childhood adversity and the ACE system, which may be useful.
ThriveI would be happy to share the info with you if you want to get in contact personally.  It is basically taking probiotics and other plant-based mixtures to support your insides all neatly packaged into an easy, although rather expensive, daily routine.  
Pedro de Alcantara visits the RCS intermittently and I have found his advice inspiring


Incorporate wellbeing into your life a course from Yale, free and online.


Friends – There are many traditional musicians now following their own self-care and have information to share.  Or take their recommendations of counsellers.  Talk out loud and share your thoughts.  You’ll find a lot of the same feelings going on in others.  


A few books I have found beneficial reading to help ease chronic tension and helping build confidence back up:

Brené Brown – Daring Greatly might be my first choice of hers and she has many more.
Dr John Sarno’s books – his whole philosophy is about the fact that non-traumatic chronic pain comes from deep-rootedpsychological issues rather than physical problems.  Honestly, I read the first few chapters of ‘Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection’ and I didn’t feel any pain for two weeks! It was a bloody miracle. Then it came back but in bits and bobs but I then had a way of taking my mind away from the “Oh no my back is going to go again!!!” panic and ease it into the more useful “what’s going on in my subconscious which is creating this pain?”
Bessel Van der Kolk’s book – The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma by


And you can also access specific support from:


Help Musicians UK who helped me when I was unable to work for a few months after my first back operation.
BAPAM British Association for Performing Arts Medicine For performers and students of the Arts, a wealth of information and good advice online here, plus a list of practitioners BAPAM will subsidise to make it affordable(physiotherapy, osteopathy, counselling, hypnotherapy, psychology).


Anyone who knows me well understands that I have a slightly unhealthy relationship with gadgetry. This ranges from phones to automated WiFi controlled lights in my apartment… I can’t seem to get enough! It’s something that has crossed over into my musical life too, so when I was asked to write a blog entry for TMF, I figured this could be a good opportunity for me to talk about this bordering on obsessive gear buying habit and explain what I use and how it all works. Maybe it’ll help me in a sort of a counselling type of way, or maybe it’ll make me worse, who knows?!

WARNING: The rest of this gets pretty nerdy… I’m going to be talking bouzoukis, guitar pedals, MIDI and synths etc. Those with a weak disposition for this sort of thing should change the channel 🙂

The Instruments

Probably the most important music gear I have are my bouzoukis. I only took the bouzouki up when I was in my early twenties – I was originally a fiddle player and had always fancied giving the bouzouki a go. So I bought myself a cheap Chinese made thing and taught myself some chord shapes. Fast forward 15 years and I’ve forgotten how to play the fiddle and now pretty much mainly play the bouzouki for a living, with occasional mandolin and guitar thrown in. My first proper zouk was made by the legendary luthier Nigel Forster, who was based in Newcastle at the time. I’ve now had 5 of his instruments, with two still in my possession. I keep trying to consolidate my collection down to just what I need, only to find that they’ve multiplied again. They’re a bit like rabbits, turn your back for a few minutes and before you know it there’s another one!

Like I say, I’ve currently got two bouzoukis, and not only are they stunning to look at, they’re also beautiful sounding things. But, the rabbits have been at it again, it looks like another zouk is on the horizon… whoops! I’ve realised that my shiny NK Forster instruments are getting a bit of a bashing on the road with some of the bigger tours I’m involved in, and it breaks my heart to see them manhandled by roadies going in and out of trucks etc. My band mate, Tom Callister, has been playing a carbon fibre fiddle for years, and it seems to survive the harshest of conditions. So I’ve asked the guys at Emerald Guitars in Donegal to make me a carbon fibre bouzouki! Apart from maybe a nuclear explosion, I think those things can pretty much withstand anything, and if what I’ve seen online is anything to go by they look and sound great too.

The Accessories

Something that a lot of bouzouki players talk about is capos. The Irish bouzouki as an instrument kind of lends itself to needing a capo, especially with the more open tunings so that you can cope with the various keys. I’ve probably tried every capo that exists, it sounds sad but I honestly don’t think there’s a capo that I haven’t tried. My conclusion is that none of them are perfect! The ones that sound the best are too slow for key changes in the middle of sets, and the fast ones often grip the strings too hard and pull the strings out of tune.

The most popular capo around is probably the Kyser, but I find they squeeze the strings too hard and also the handle part of the capo is a long long way away from the playing position – so not great for fast changes. The fastest capo for changes I’ve tried is the QuickDraw. It just stays attached to the instrument and slides up and down the neck with your left hand. I’ve found that these tend to pull the strings out of tune too though, and are either too loose at one end of the neck or too tight at the other. The best all-rounder capo I’ve found, for my instruments at least, is one made by D’Addario – the NS Tri-action Capo. It has a similar sort of look to the Kyser, but the handle is way closer to your playing position. It’s also got a much more even grip on the strings, so doesn’t tend to pull them out of tune too much.

Another bouzouki curse is sourcing the strings. While there are some manufacturers making bouzouki sets, their gauges aren’t always right. So bouzouki players tend to make their own sets up by buying single strings. Once again, D’Addario come to the rescue here, as they make a wide variety of strings sold as singles. For any bouzouki players who are interested, I’m currently using Phosphor Bronze 45s and 34s with Nickel Wound 20s and Plan 12s. A handy online store that tends to stock loads of single strings – Strings Direct. They’re often able to get you what you need by the next day too which really helps with the last minute post tour panic.

The Tech
So, where does the bass come from?

Possibly the most frequent question I get asked by the people at the CD stand is ‘where does the bass come from?’. Anyone who uses octave effects similar to mine will sympathise with this I’m sure. To be fair to the audience members asking this question, it’s entirely my own fault for using the stupid effect in the first place. But I don’t think I’ve had a gig, when using my octave setup, where that question hasn’t been asked, so I’ll tell you!

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s become a very popular effect in recent years, especially on the trad music scene. You’ll be listening to a band that has no bass player, and at certain points in the gig you’ll hear/feel a booming bass line coming through as if by magic. The simple answer to this question – the bass is coming from the guitarist or bouzouki player.

There’s quite a few ways musicians can accomplish this effect. The simplest is by using an octave divider pedal like the Boss OC-3. This lets you dial out a range of higher notes from your guitar, leaving the pedal to use just the lowest notes and make an octave sound. I could never get this to work well with the bouzouki, perhaps due to the double strings or something.

Another option is to use a special polyphonic pickup (separate pickups on each string) on the guitar/zouk, which creates MIDI from what you play that can be used to trigger synthesisers. I tried this using an RMC pickup on a previous bouzouki of mine, but I found that the saddles used by the pickup affected the acoustic sound of the instrument too much, and the gear needed to make the rest of it work felt a bit overkill at the time… if only I knew the black hole I’d got myself into though!

Here’s Ian Stephenson showing how he uses the RMC pickup on his NK Forster Guitar, sounds class!


The third method is to have a single string magnetic pickup for just the bottom string of the instrument, and send this on its own to a pedal like the Boss or a POG or something. This works pretty well, but when I tried it I found that I needed to add compression to smooth out the sound and stop higher notes being louder, I also needed another pedal to mute the signal, and possibly getting a bit carried away I had another pedal for bringing the bass down yet another octave at certain times. A bit like the bouzoukis, the pedals were multiplying like rabbits and I had an enormous rig just for this one effect! I was sure that there had to be a simpler solution that sounded great and was easier to travel with.

After a lot of trial and error, I combined a few of these options to make what I ended up sticking with (ish… this is a serious gear buying habit after all). I now have a single string pickup just picking up my bottom string, this goes into my laptop (controversial?!) and via an amazing bit of software by a Danish company called Jam Origin, this gets converted into MIDI and triggers a really big solid sounding bass synth.

Here’s Nigel Forster showing my Irish Bouzouki just after he’d finished it, and briefly showing the Ubertar Single String Pickup at the end of the video too:


Finally I now have an octave setup that sounds awesome and only involves a tiny pedal board so is easy to travel with. Using a laptop gives a ridiculous amount of flexibility too. I can trigger audio samples, backing tracks, click tracks, control my own in ear monitor sound…. the possibilities are endless! I’ve also been using my regular zouk sound through the Jam Origin plugin to trigger string synths and create string pads based on what chords I’m playing. It adds yet another layer to the band sound without needing an extra musician and mouth to feed.
I’ve been gigging with this setup now for a good few years, and on the whole I’m very happy. Well, kind of… gigging with a laptop on stage has its drawbacks.

The most obvious one is that you have a very visible laptop on stage, and bearing in mind that I play trad music, this looks a bit silly. The big glowing Apple logo beaming out from the stage like a signal for Batman (Appleman?!..) is a bit off putting.

Also, laptops have a tendency to crash. It’s something that happened a lot when I first tried this, but over time I managed to iron out the creases and get it pretty stable. However it still happens very occasionally, and this does not contribute towards an enjoyable gig – just waiting for that dreaded moment where I have to stop the gig and restart the computer while a fellow band member makes some sort of quip over the mic about me checking Facebook.

This leads me to the other issue with the laptop setup… laptops take a good few minutes to boot up, and for for my setup to work properly the various bits of software need booting up in a particular order. I’ve got this down to a fine art, and can get it done pretty quickly, but it still takes a good few minutes, and not what you want while hundreds of people are sat staring at you impatiently!

So guess what?… I’ve just this week been on another shopping spree. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while ever since I found out that Jam Origin made an iOS version of their plugin as an app. What if I could ditch the laptop and just run the guitar/MIDI stuff off a mobile device, maybe an iPad, or even better, an iPod Touch! Ultra portability, it can all be mounted on a small pedal board, and it all launches in seconds.

It’s never quite as simple as you want though. I’ve become quite reliant on my ability to create an octave bass sound and string pads at the same time, and for this to work on a mobile device I’d need two instances of the Jam Origin plugin to be running, which isn’t possible. So, I’ve purchased a tiny wee dongle made by Sonuus that converts a monophonic (one note at a time) signal from a guitar jack and outputs MIDI via USB. If I let this handle the single string pickup bass stuff, then that frees up the Jam Origin app up to do all the string synth stuff.

After a quick trip to the Buchanan Street Apple Store, I now have an iPod touch on a pedal board, and the really great thing is that it seems to work perfectly! There’s an awesome app called AUM that ties everything together, letting me join up the various audio in/outs, MIDI synths and the Jam Origin plugin. This can be controlled by a MIDI foot controller pedal for turning stuff on/off with my feet while playing. I use the Keith McMillen Softstep 2 as it’s completely programmable and really portable. Another great app I’m using for the actual sounds is called ThumbJam. It comes with a load of great default instrument sounds, but also lets you load up your own samples and create new instruments. So I’ve sampled the notes from my old bass setup and loaded them into ThumbJam! It also lets you load up multiple sounds at once, and the AUM app can direct the MIDI to the relevant sound. I’ve also downloaded an incredible sounding orchestral sound app called iSymphonic to handle my string sounds. With these three apps on a tiny iPod Touch, I am able to reproduce most of the stuff my monster MacBook Pro was doing for the last few years!

Now I know this is dragging on a bit, but there’s one more bit of kit I need to make this all work. To get the two bouzouki audio signals into the iPod I need an audio interface. There’s loads of options available for this ranging from really portable and cheap to full on studio quality. The thing is, being a gear addict I also need something to create other guitar effects like delays, reverbs or whatever. With the laptop I just enabled virtual guitar effect plugins as and when I needed them, but I don’t want to overload my pour tiny iPod with yet another load of plugins. So after some digging I’ve found something that kills these two birds with the same stone.

Line 6 have a compact multi-effect pedal that also acts as a USB audio interface, the HX Stomp. Plug this into a tiny USB hub along with the Sonuus Guitar MIDI dongle and my MIDI foot controller pedal, plug that USB hub into the iPod Touch via Apple’s lightning to USB camera dongle (allows it to charge at the same time) and everything is now going into the iPod. The apps sort out the bass and strings sounds, the output from these apps comes out from the Line 6 HX Stomp and straight out to the sound desk. The Line 6 handles any other random guitar effects I need, and I’ve got another output from that going into a headphone monitor amp that mixes this together with a stereo monitor mix from the monitor guy. This then all feeds into possibly the most used and appreciated gear purchase I’ve made in the last few years… my Vision Ears IEMs. Without adding too much more info to this already way too long gear related post, I literally use these every day, from watching Netflix on flights, listening to music, and of course when gigging.

They sound actually incredible and fit so well you don’t know they’re even there.

So, could this be it? Have I finally reached the end of my gear buying habit? Well probably not, but hopefully this latest buying spree will satisfy my gigging needs for at least a few years.


Hello, for those of you who don’t know me, I’m Becca. I’m a harp player who works with two wonderful projects: Tannara and HEISK.

When I was originally asked to contribute to this blog I was initially delighted. However, I started to think: honestly? me? Why would anybody want to read what I’ve written? I surely don’t have any experiences that would be deemed blogworthy. So, after talking to a few pals I realised that this reaction should probably form the basis of what I’m going to talk about today.

I’m aware that Innes Watson wrote a fantastic blog about mental health last month. Therefore, I originally felt that I should move away from this theme. However, after a bit of deliberation I thought, why not? Let’s carry on the conversation, surely the more experiences shared in this area the better.

I deal with mental health issues on a daily basis. I don’t really talk about it with my close pals and I don’t really know why. This means that writing this blog here feels like quite a big thing for me. (I’m even second guessing myself as I type.)

I’d like to talk about one aspect that I feel affects my mental health and that is Imposter Syndrome. I didn’t really understand what Imposter Syndrome was until recently when I was working with a group of young people. The context of this work was to discuss the main barriers facing young people (especially those from marginalised backgrounds) when trying to pursue a career or education in the arts. A lot of what these young people spoke about was how they felt unworthy, incapable or just not the right person to pursue a pathway in the performing arts or accept any opportunities that came their way.

Whilst feeling terribly frustrated for them that they felt this way I was also incredibly impressed that they could identify this in themselves. I suddenly understood that Imposter Syndrome was something that could affect people no matter what stage they are at in life or what success they had achieved. Success was relative to an individual’s own achievements. This was a complete light bulb moment for me; it chimed with so many moments in my life, both social and professional. I have definitely turned down work and not pursued opportunities all simply because I didn’t think I was good enough.

The thing is, I now know that I’m not alone. People are affected by Imposter Syndrome in all walks of life and I know it’s a huge thing for those working in our industry, especially as our social and professional lives overlap so much. I think this is because we spend so much time in this conflicted environment where we hear the opinions and judgements of others and can’t help but apply them to our own ability and wonder, is that what people think of me?

Perhaps I just need to grow a thicker skin or learn to tune out at times, but at the end of the day it still affects me. I walk into situations and ask myself, do I deserve to be here? Have I worked hard enough for this opportunity? Would someone else do a better job of this than me?

The best solution to this problem that I have found has been to create a platform for myself, one in which I feel supported and encouraged to grow in and most importantly comfortable to share my thoughts and feelings. This came around from setting up the band HEISK. This has definitely been one of the best things I have done for my mental health and my feelings associated with Imposter Syndrome. It is a space in which I feel I am represented and empowered; it has been an incredible coping mechanism.

I would encourage anyone who feels that they’ve recognised something I’ve said today in themselves to find a space that will provide them with empowerment and confidence. The difference I see in myself after finding the space to shed my anxieties is night and day.

Good luck folks, this is an awesome industry we work in; it can be tough sometimes but you just need to find a coping mechanism that works for you. |

Photo by Somhairle MacDonald


MENTAL HEALTH TALK – by Innes Watson

Hi everyone! First I’d like to say that I am so glad that the Traditional Music Forum exists, doing what it does.

So, mental health is on the agenda of late. We’ve seen a vast increase in the number of people with issues that we can now highlight as “mental health problems” within and outwith this scene. I have been an open sufferer of mental health issues since 2011 and I’m so proud of all those whom have helped brush away some of the stigma that surrounds it. Having the confidence to share my inner thoughts has helped me to deal with a whole host of problems within.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy was my first port of call.

I had worked based in Glasgow for almost 10 years by that point and had struggled with lack of stability, lack of financial regulation and a lack of confidence in self. I have since realised we are not alone in that experience. At the time I thought I was in the wrong, not only acting in a self-destruct manner but also suffering from self-deprecative thoughts on a regular basis and finding myself in a cyclical torrent all the while putting on a confident/brave/carefree facade.

I later learned this is a very common issue in the fight against one’s “artistic resistance”, from “the war of art” (a fantastic wee book suggested to me by Hamish Napier). It highlights the internal struggle between artist and cause/reason/drive to create whatever may be in your heart/mind/fingertips. Reading this book opened up a new way of thinking. Understanding that so many creatives have come and gone before us really helped. Their struggle at the cost of their aspirations, their drive for recognition and difference from other creatives who have gone before, allowed me to write-off a whole host of issues I was having as a creative in this industry.

It is an industry, the music industry. The difference between us and those who feel they are destined to be “famous” or “popular” or “liked” even, is that we have a cultural axe to bear. We feel that however we came to realise our abilities we did it through the hard work and struggle of hundreds of humans before us. We must not forget this. Everything we do is a fight for unquestionable recognition from ourselves for what we do. Only once we become worthy of ourselves do we become worthy of criticism and by that point you have already criticised yourself to the nth degree proving to yourself that what you are doing is WORTH IT. Long before this point, however, we are culturally significant. Everyone is.

My struggle has not been whether or not what I do is worth it. My struggle has been with living up to my own understanding of what the “universe expects” from me. I was an entertaining child, apparently blowing my own nose at 2 (and my own trumpet at 34), I just kept on surpassing the mark throughout my developmental stages. Eventually I reached a stage where even I expected more from myself because I had always managed to exceed the mark. At that point i felt “the system” had failed me. “It” expected things that I had shown myself capable of and when I didn’t hit the mark I felt incompetent.

  • That still happens to this day. My incompetence is only seen by me and the path I have chosen rarely shows up the cracks in my ability to perform (as was my curse at an early age). I had to over-act in order to exist because performance had become a part of my being, not just something I was good at. It became how I learned from other humans, it became how I engaged other humans and made them like me, it became how I made friends, it became how I managed to get by, despite my lack of understanding in certain situations.

Innes Watson is not broken (he says, in the third person) but he is struggling (always has and always will) with the responsibility of having to understand and explain who he is all the time. He is capable of survival, of adapting, of acting and encouraging. Without this he would not have lasted as long as he has. I have. I have endured.

I believe we are on to something absolutely extraordinary here. It will take effort to succeed on the most valuable and significant cultural voyage we all embark upon each day. Go Trad Music, it’s life changing. Working together is a vital part. Share your experiences, pass on your stories, live your life as if it’s the one you are supposed to live – because it is. You have one chance on this fickle earth and woe-betide anyone who wastes that. I should take my own advice sometimes. My soapbox is short, but it is a soapbox nonetheless…