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.