Plea from international musicians on fiddle tuition

International folk music stars and academics are putting pressure on Shetland Islands Council not to scrap traditional fiddle teaching in the islands and to reverse recent cuts.

A petition sent to council convener Malcolm Bell is signed by 44 people including such luminaries as US-based Scots fiddler Alasdair Fraser, the former Battlefield Band multi-instrumentalist Brian McNeill, Canadian fiddler Pierre Schryer, Irish fiddlers Liz Carroll and Liz Doherty and Shetland’s own Chris Stout and Catriona MacDonald. Many of the signatories have played at or attended the Shetland Folk Festival down the years.

The petition is led by US instructor Pamela Swing – once an assistant to the pioneering fiddle archivist and teacher, Dr Tom Anderson, and co-author of his book Haand Me Doon da Fiddle. She was prompted into action when concerns were expressed during the recent 2012 North Atlantic Fiddle Convention held in Derry, Northern Ireland, attended by most of those who signed the petition.

In her letter she maintains that fiddle teaching has been cut and consolidated over the past two years and “now may be eliminated entirely”.

However, the convener admitted yesterday he was mystified by that assertion. He said he knew of no proposals in the current review of music tuition to cut or cease traditional fiddle lessons, which are taken by around 200 pupils a year.

He suspected the petitioners’ approach was more an attempt to ward off potential cuts. “I think it’s possibly a pre-emptive strike on their part. I don’t think there is any conspiracy here [to axe fiddle teaching].”

The council’s music tuition service is still up in the air while councillors await the outcome of a lengthy review – the second in two years – aimed at cutting an extra £350,000 by the end of 2014 from the cost of teaching instruments to around 680 pupils in schools. The report is due in the autumn and may surface at a meeting of the education and families committee on Wednesday 29th August.

One of the proposals mooted earlier this year was to cut the ratio of pupils receiving music tuition from 40 per cent to 25 per cent by introducing aptitude tests and ceasing lessons in instruments other than fiddle and piano, which would affect around 280 pupils currently receiving tuition in drums, accordion, cello, trumpet and other specialist instruments.
Earlier this year the most popular instrument was piano, with 219 pupils, while 204 were learning fiddle.

Another proposal agreed but not implemented for 2012/13 was to hike the unpopular tuition fee from £140 to £210 a year for the service, which provides a minimum of 30 lessons lasting 25 minutes each.

In the meantime, Mr Bell has passed Dr Swing’s letter and petition to head of children’s services Helen Budge and education and families committee chairwoman Vaila Wishart to respond to. Mrs Budge was not available for comment yesterday.

Mr Bell said the petition could not be treated formally as such under SIC rules because it did not contain enough signatures from people ordinarily resident in Shetland.

With reviews of 52 council services currently taking place to save money the convener said he could not single out fiddle tuition and give any vote of confidence that it would be exempted from cuts. However, the council had to be mindful of the effects of any cuts.

“I think we have to wait for all the reviews to come in,” he said. “The situation we are in is not a good one but at the same time we have to make sure we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

Whether or not the international concerns for the fiddle tradition are well-founded, the intervention from an array of prominent people on the folk scene will be a reminder to councillors and officials that the world is watching how they look after Shetland’s cherished fiddle heritage.

Urging Mr Bell to protect traditional fiddle teaching, Dr Swing said in her letter: “In this era of globalisation and mass commercialisation it is more important than ever to support the continuation of unique local traditions such as Shetland music.

“There is no other island community in the world that can boast of such a high concentration of musicians grounded in a tradition that captivates all who hear it. Because of the suggested cuts the future of Shetland music is in jeopardy.”

She said the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) had recognised the importance of such traditions in its Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

While she and her co-signatories recognisd the hard times facing the council they suggested it was a time to tap into the reserves to fund fiddle teaching until it can be paid for from earnings from the Viking windfarm.

Dr Swing helped Dr Anderson in 1974 during the early days of his fiddle teaching in schools, following the 1973 plan by director of education John Spence to revive the playing tradition. “Over the last 39 years literally thousands of Shetlanders have learned fiddle in school,” she stated in her letter to Mr Bell.

“The Shetland fiddle teaching programme has been an astounding success and music is now thriving in Shetland. It is remarkable and noteworthy that the students who learned fiddle in school continue to play. Can the same be said of most of the other subjects learned in school? They continue because they love the music, love to play with others and want to perform.”

She continued: “Since its inception the Shetland fiddle teaching programme has received widespread interest in the United Kingdom and beyond. It has been cited and emulated as a sterling example of how traditions can be revitalised through the school system.

“The school teaching programme has given Shetlanders an opportunity to develop their musical potential to unprecedented levels.”

The campaign by distinguished members of the musical community follows the protest against the introduction of music tuition fees in 2010, which saw Aly Bain joining several thousand people who signed petitions or joined online protests.

In April this year there was a protest about the council’s decision not to replace a violin teacher, Alan Gifford, when he retired – a decision which was partly due to the continuing uncertainty about the future of music tuition and further expected cuts. Then in May it was learnt that brass instrument tuition was also at risk following the retirement this month of Roy Hughson.


Add Your Comment
  • Robyn Boyd

    • August 13th, 2012 0:04

    As someone who has been involved with bringing Shetland fiddle music to the US since the historic Shetland Young Heritage tour in 1993 I totally support what Dr Swing has written. The financial benefit to Shetland, from people who travel there from all over the world because what has been taught and treasured in Shetland, cannot be discounted. In music circles around the world “Fiddle” and “Shetland” are often synonymous and I believe this needs to be considered in any discussion of limiting fiddle tuition. Without the amazing young people…I was at the fFddler of the Year finals this year, there will not be the draw of the Fiddle Frenzy, the Folk Festival or the next Shetland ambassadors like Aly, Catriona, the Heritage Fiddlers or Fiddlers Bid.

  • ian tinkler

    • August 13th, 2012 22:49

    What a shame we cannot afford free music tuition to nurture true Shetland talent yet waste £12 million on Mareel. What a shame the idiots whom drove this project forward cannot be surcharged for the monies they have squandered. Just how many lessons could have been given for £12 million?

  • Robert Lowes

    • August 14th, 2012 15:32

    None. That’s how many.

    Capital Spending can’t go on service provision.

    One Mareel is up and running, if they’re so minded, they’ll be able to provide music courses at university level – much higher than is available in schools, all without leaving Shetland.

    Just as well you were so soundly defeated at the local elections Ian, given your flimsy grasp of local govt spending.

  • ian tinkler

    • August 14th, 2012 20:15

    One Mareel is up and running? I thought I was The Dyslexic one Robert. If they’re so minded, they’ll be able to provide music courses at university level. Sorry Robert, there is no such thing. Shetland music way above academic Bull Shit, clearly you are not. Thank God Shetland music has evolved away from academia and pretentions prats that are what makes it so original and great. How about a BA in tripe or a BSc in wasting public fund. How who is going to teach our children, is Mareel so minded to do so or remotely able to? I doubt if the present idiots are. Are you Robert Lowes? Have you that skill or any other?

  • Robert Lowes

    • August 15th, 2012 18:04

    Ah, I missed out the letter “C” from “Once”. Still, better than consistently missing the point, eh Ian?

    I see you’ve had to resort to the old Tinkler standby of the three ‘R’s. Rant, Rave & Resort to insults. You do realise Ian, that there are plenty of university level music course throughout the UK, and that music is one of our biggest exports, and is worth over £6m to the Shetland Economy, according to the SIC’s own 2003 report. Isn’t it worth capitalising on that within Shetland? Providing modern, state-of-the-art facilities to export it worldwide? Are you so blinkered that you can’t see the value in that?

    Tell you what, Ian. If you’re so concerned about that state of fiddle tuition, why not stage a benefit gig? It’d be a lot more productive than your usual foaming-at-the-mouth. I know a really good arts venue that’s about to open shortly, and I’m sure the staff will be very helpful – even to someone who brands them as “idiots”. Ironic really, given that you’re the one who doesn’t seem to know which monies can be spent on what or how.

    Do I have any skills? Yes. Apparently, I have developed an uncanny skill for touching a nerve.

  • ian tinkler

    • August 16th, 2012 12:57

    Robert, please do not misunderstand me. What I do, is not suffer fools well. Mareel has and is at this time a total disaster for Shetland and a true folly in every sense of that word. Due to inept and weak management, builders, architects and the Shetland weather have all but destroyed the credibility of Shetland arts. This unsatisfactory state of affairs has been further compounded by total idiotic and daft comments and laudations about the Mareel project, for example “The cinema screens have to be seen to be believed” (chance would be a fine thing, but how do they differ from any other screen.) “The main auditorium is a big performance space, but incredibly intimate” (incredibly intimate?! That defies decent comment, perhaps you meant the back seats of the cinema?),” “It (Mareel) will become as landmark a building for the FUTURE of Shetland culture as the Museum and Archives is for the past” (what pretentious codswallop) . The beformentioned piffle is what hits a nerve in me, pure arty, lovie senseless speak. However I do wish Mareel well and hope it defies logic and is successful, but if and when it goes bust it could make a great computing and software centre. Who knows Microsoft and Bill Gates may sponsor it out of dept., just a thought.

  • Karen G

    • August 17th, 2012 10:28

    Please try and tailor your language!! The word “idiot” is incredibly offensive and hurtful for some people and has no place in a conversation like this nor on a public website.

    Mareel has gone ahead, the money has been spent, whether it is wasted money or not is personal opinion. But perhaps since no one can turn back the clock and the decision to build Mareel, everyone’s energy would be far greater used thinking of ways to make Mareel and it’s impressive facilities work for our Islands.

    Life is so much better when you think positive!

    Karen Goodlad

  • Ian Tinkler

    • August 17th, 2012 13:42

    Karen Goodlad, What word would you use to describe the person or people (idiots) whom have just cost Shetland Arts a cool £10,000. All at a time when Mareel box office is yet to take one penny! The same people now employ 25? persons to man an unused facility which now runs about two years behind schedule. This at a time when we can not afford music tuition in schools! The word I would like to use would not be printable, what word would you choose Karen? I am open for your advice? I would emphasise my comments are aimed at the management and decision takers of Mareel. They are the idiots, not the staff whom past events are out with their control. Sorry to be incredibly offensive but this waste of public funds is an offence to the people of Shetland. I can find absolutely nothing positive about Mareel at this time, can you Karen?

  • Gary Robinson

    • August 17th, 2012 22:26

    Robert Lowes is right when he states that the Council’s Capital Fund can’t be spent on service provision. But it can’t be spent on anything that isn’t a council asset either. In spite of the council funding around 50% of the Mareel project, it’s 100% owned by Shetland Arts. For that reason Mareel should never have been put on the Council’s Capital Programme. Ultimately, it was grant funded with around £5m coming from the General Reserve Fund and just shy of £1m coming from the Shetland Development Trust.

    Those reserves are sometimes described as the council’s “discretionary reserves” and they could be spent on music tuition or anything else that the council decrees to be in the interests of the inhabitants of Shetland. However, at present, those funds are disappearing at an alarming rate as they bridge the £35m gap between the council’s annual income and it’s expenditure – mainly on the revenue account. Until such time as the finances are put back on an even keel it will be impossible to spend more on things that aren’t core local authority functions.

    It should be noted that the balance of funding for the Mareel project came from external sources – including the Scottish Arts Council and Highlands & Islands Enterprise.

  • Kay Wheatcroft

    • August 18th, 2012 14:26

    floccinaucinihilpilification. perhaps.

  • Carl

    • August 19th, 2012 22:04

    I think I speak for many in saying: Ian Tinkler – give it a rest.

    We all know where you stand on this issue, and are bored to death of wading through your (virtually identical) “contributions” to debate on every single related news story.

    Mareel is happening. Young people in Shetland are tremendously excited. If you can’t find that positive, you’re a sad little man.

    Carl Pickard

  • David Spence

    • August 20th, 2012 9:08

    Mr Tinkler.

    I have been tempted as no doubt many have to comment following your antagonistic posts but have decided it is pointless as you clearly have no grip on reality at this point.

    The only negative things I can see about Mareel are your comments here.

    Mareel is a long overdue much needed facility which has come at just the right time to provide a much needed boost to the local economy. The childish name calling should be reserved for those too blinkered to be able to see that.

  • ian tinkler

    • August 20th, 2012 9:44

    I think I well let the Mareel project speak for itself. It has and is doing so now. Shambolic!

  • Gordon Harmer

    • August 20th, 2012 11:54

    David what happened to freedom of speech, something people of your political persuasion are always harping on about.
    It makes a change to hear you thinking that something will be a boost to the local economy, are you sure you have not been taken in by a capitalist ploy?

  • Ron Stronach

    • August 20th, 2012 12:12

    Whether it’s a blessing or a curse its still way behind it’s completion date, hasn’t held an event, had to cancel two events so far, looks out of place as the outside design in my opinion is dreadful. So dreadful my friend wants to paint a mural on it.

    That is reality and it does smack of incompetence!

  • ian tinkler

    • August 20th, 2012 12:23

    “Mareel is happening. Young people in Shetland are tremendously excited. If you can’t find that positive, you’re a sad little man.” I am very sad at the state of Mareel, Carl. As for Shetland young people, many may be excited at the prospect of Mareel opening, however at this time it is shut. These young people have been sadly very let down and left disappointed again and again, I am very sad for them. That is hardly positive. Need I list all the events Mareel Stakeholders have promised only to cancel? They go right back to the “Tall Ships”. What a truly sad record, now we at this late stage find Mareel is unsafe. Look at the various promises of opening dates from Shetland Arts, look at those booked artists whom have had to cancel or relocate. That is what is so very sad.

  • Geordie Hunter

    • August 20th, 2012 12:32

    No doubt Mareel will be a fabulous facility which will bring a much needed new entertainment venue to Shetland. However, whilst I am sure the young people of Shetland are tremedously excited I do wonder will this facility actually breakeven? If not, what will the defecit be and who will fund it given Shetlands current fiscal plight? Also in this modern world of accountability what has happened to those who have presided over this overdue and over budget project?

  • David Spence

    • August 20th, 2012 13:28

    I didna even keen I had a political view, let alone any capitalist influences, whatever that means in this context.

    Nothing else matters but simple common sense. Even though it isn’t open Mareel has already been a boost to local events and the economy of Shetland as a whole.

    Those who want to can ignore it and make up as many perceieved negavtives as they want, but facts are facts.

  • Sandy McMillan

    • August 20th, 2012 13:53

    Mareel is what Shetland needs as far as entertainment goes, but the question is can it stand on its own.

  • Carl

    • August 20th, 2012 14:02

    > “As for Shetland young people, many may be excited at the prospect of Mareel opening, however at this time it is shut. These young people have been sadly very let down and left disappointed again and again, I am very sad for them.”

    So by that logic it would be better if they had nothing to look forward to? The time for complaints is over, and has been for quite some time.

    Get a grip.

    Carl Pickard

  • ian tinkler

    • August 20th, 2012 16:34

    How about a few free music lessons so they can play an instrument or two. Shetland has a fabulous musical heritage and managed long before the arty types wasted so much money. We now cannot afford music teachers yet according to the Mareel promoters it (Mareel) will employ 35 people. Ref
    Shame our children will be reduced to spectators instead of performers.
    Never mind teaching are youngsters to play, let them watch a few arty films have a drink or ten to make Mareel pay its way. That should keep them excited.

  • Bert Morrison

    • August 20th, 2012 20:03

    Admittedly I was never a big fan of the Mareel concept at the outset but it is here and by all accounts is a first class venue which will offer many an enjoyable and memorable night out in the future for those of us who choose to use it. Good luck to it, I hope it proves its detractors wrong. Hopefully those who never seem to be happy with anything apart from moaning might one day spend a little time away from their keyboard and go to enjoy it too. Well you never know?

  • Sandy McDonald

    • August 21st, 2012 9:15

    Hear hear Carl! Some old crusties just love complaining. It will be the skatepark next, then moaning about young hooligans loafing around the street (as they have nothing to do).

    The building of the Mareel appears to have been badly handled but at least we now have a 3D cinema and a world class music venue. Why shouldn’t we have these things? Please build a bowling alley next!

  • Gordon Harmer

    • August 21st, 2012 14:03

    Wise up sandy, here’s an old crusty who welcomes the skate park and would love to see more, such as a bowling ally, artificial ski slope, and a velodrome for cycling and rollerblading. Something every one could use, loafing hooligans and crusties included. Mareel’s cinema is the only bit of the whole development that will be used by everyone in Shetland, young and old. It is supposed to be a center for the arts and for every one, so where are theater goers going to go to get there fill of Gilbert and Sullivan etc etc? Just like before nowhere unless we take a trip to Aberdeen or Glasgow. What this place has cost and what it provides in the way of all the arts plus where it is and what it looks like is nothing more than a disgrace.

  • Jim Ewen

    • August 21st, 2012 14:15

    hi all. i had a job interview last month at Mareel and got a tour of the building afterwards. It is a fantastic building. the auditorium is a great space with state of the art equipment. the staff are working flat out to prepare the spaces and testing of equipment. One of the things you might not know is that the whole building is wired for recording. Any space can provide links from mics to the recording studio and then onto the internet, the potential here is amazing. they also have a dedicated education room with links to the music courses at shetland college. the cinemas are quite brilliant and the smaller of the two doubling up for lectures and other such educational activities. films will be able to be downloaded to the projection booth instead of having to rely on a physical copy being delivered. The seats are very comfortable. i believe it could be the best live music venue north of Glasgow. Shetland should be very proud and i can’t wait to get in and see a gig.
    i didn’t get the job by the way.

  • Lindsay Wiseman

    • August 21st, 2012 14:19

    Please correct me if I’m wrong – but wasn’t it said ages ago that the Mareel’s bar would help subsidise its running costs (strongly suggesting that Shetland would need to become an alcoholic population).

  • Sandy McMillan

    • August 21st, 2012 14:23

    Gordon dont get to excited, ower da roller blading and da rest remember de ticker, hit no as fast as do tinks, hit catches up we wis Aa, do you no think Fiddler on the Roof, is more your style, or Cats some thing a bit soothing.
    Sandy McMillan

  • ian tinkler

    • August 21st, 2012 14:32

    Never mind the building cost, how we pay for the 35 full time staff, to man and woman the place. That could pay for a few good music teachers in our schools. Never mind, Shetland Arts has their shiny new White elephant, I just wonder where the funds to keep this castle in the air flying will come from, anyone out there hazard a guess? Anyway, that said good, luck Mareel and to all who perform in her (looks a bit like an odd ship). Shetland arts for all our sakes “get a grip on reality” you are costing us far too much for the level of competence you are showing. Ref:

  • David Spence

    • August 21st, 2012 16:59

    Haha Ian, please, now you’re reaching comical levels of delusion.

    My personal support of Mareel, for the last almost 30 years (where were all these negative comments then???) has been primarily for the very obvious massive benefit it will be in helping the youngsters all over Shetland learn both our traditional and other forms of music.

    Obviously the boost it will be to the economy will be especially welcome at this time, but is very much secondary to its educational value.

    I’m also a bit bemused by all the references to Shetland Arts in many comments. Sure, they have a big part to play but Mareel is a community venue, with multiple areas available for anyone to hire and put on whatever sort of entertainment they wish, aside from all the other facilities we currently have to go south for meaning all the money flows out the sooth mooth.

    But again, all this is obvious to all but the most delusional. Thank heavens the last council made this one small (by any councils standards, especially ours) good investment decision.

  • Gordon Harmer

    • August 21st, 2012 20:38

    Sandy, old, slow heart or not I would sooner be roller blading, ten pin bowling or coming down a ski slope than sitting on my derriere watching a film. Or for that matter sitting in another bog standard Lerwick bar supping pints to subsidise the income of the great white Mareeliphant.
    I would not mind the chance of sitting on my idle diddle daidle daidle bum and watch the fiddler on the roof. My point is all those millions spent and we are missing that special piece of the arts.

  • Neil

    • August 22nd, 2012 7:25

    Can anyone hire the venue at Mareel and host thier own events / music sessions? IE the Kaleidoscope Disco could hire it and lay on entertainers from South?

    Neil Williamson

  • ian tinkler

    • August 22nd, 2012 11:57

    The Shetland Arts’ offices in Toll Clock Centre will be closed on Friday 24 August, and Monday & Tuesday 27 & 28 August for moving. Thereafter the offices will be based in Mareel. Thank you for your patience. Not bad for an office block! does that not say it all!!!


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