Lights to guide me through the fog

At the beginning of November I gave my wedding speech in the upper gallery at Kelham Island Museum in Sheffield. Our wedding day fell on the feast of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. At the end of my speech I looked out on to the candlelit guests spread across the large yellow brick Victorian hall. I told the story of Diwali, the lights being lit to guide Rama and Sita home from exile and I asked all those there to be lights guiding my family on our way through life.

Over the last few weeks I felt I needed some of that light and guidance. My world had become so busy. Applying for PhD’s, job hunting and maybe not succeeding, preparing for baby number 2, learning new band tunes and generally trying to be a good husband and father. I started to feel that I was making no progress and my dream of making music a central part of my life was slipping away. My head felt foggy with no clear path to follow.

Feeling wiped of all energy I mindlessly noodled around the internet and came across a TED talk by Eric Whitacre. Eric is one of the most successful living choral composers and many will have come across his virtual choir works. He has sold millions of albums and won several Grammy’s. His compositions are aurally and visually breathtaking, but what caught my imagination was his journey into music. He had little music education and was unable to read music when he joined the choir at the University of Nevada. He talks about singing a Mozart piece for the first time and it being like switching from black and white to technicolour.

His light bulb moment encouraged me to consider mine, hearing the Asturian group Tejedor for the first time and the subsequent adventures my love for Asturian music has taken me on. This morning I put a Tejedor CD on and sounds and smells and sights of Asturias came back to me. It reminded me of meeting great musicians there and my friends playing a Tejedor muiñeira at our wedding. It made me smile and lifted my shoulders up straight. The room felt full of light and the fog began to clear. If Eric can start his musical journey without any formal education and get to where he wanted then why can’t I? Thanks for inspiring me Eric Whitacre, I think I will go and play some flute.

Tell me about your ‘light-bulb’ moments and music that you love.

If you need some inspiration and light take a look at the Eric Whitacre TED talk, listen to some Tejedor or even book a flute lesson with me:

Book a Flute or Whistle lesson with me.

Eric Whitacre TED Talk


Back to School with TradDad… Sitting my LCM Grade 8 Trad Flute Practical Exam

My heart is thudding in the 30 degree heat of the first fiercely hot summer day. My pal Angela Durcan has entered me for the exam and told me that I won’t have a problem. I’m the only candidate to turn up without a parent for comfort and support. I’m 46, it’s going to be fine. The examiner sits in front of me with his poker face. I hand him my programme of pieces and repertoire list for him to choose from later. The tiny space is unforgiving as the two of us compete for all the air the room can give. I try to remember the little techniques that keep me calm. Both feet on the floor, solid and rooted to earth. Squeeze the flute hard and let go, remembering how light and relaxed your hands need to be. Breath from your diaphragm, enjoy the moment and in the back of your mind visualising how great it will be to have finished strongly and successfully. He asks me to start playing.

Killavil Jig and Ships in Full Sail. I’ve been playing them for ever, a safe start. No response from the examiner’s face. Ok, go again. The Coulin, keep focused think sad, play just the once over and into the Kildare Fancy Hornpipe. Play without fear, a few variations. I’m at the Ceili Band Competition, on stage. Concentrate. Back in the room again and keep it nice and steady. Phew. The sweat is dripping off me now. Reels now, don’t lose the head. Roaring Mary going good. A few niggles from the back of my brain. You’ll go wrong, you’ll mess up, what’s for tea? My heart’s going even faster, I start having palpitations. That massive coffee and huge jammy biscuit was a really bad idea. My heart is going to stop. But I pull back to focus. Get my feet rooted and imagine my shoulder muscles relaxing. The flute feels like it is playing itself. Trust in what you know. How have I done? Still can’t gauge it from the man. All I can remember are the mistakes.

He picks the March into the Reel. The Lilac always makes me want to go fast but I take it steady and keep it lively. Think Hup! Think NYAH! ‘That worked well as a march but it’s actually an O’Carolan air’. He liked it! It’s whizzing by now. ‘Two five minute presentations on particular musicians and their styles please’. Seamus Tansey…Sligo…. ornate… controversial.. wide cuts…. Kevin Crawford… Birmingham… Clare……thank you. ‘I’ll play you four bars of a tune twice, play it back to me’. Done. Name the type of tunes, slip jig, hornpipe, yes, yes. Barndance? No, mazurka. Hello, is there anyone home? What was I thinking, it’s a disaster but at least it’s over. ‘Play me a cut, tap and roll’. How did I do? We’ll let you know. When can I resit? LCM Grade 8 Trad music performance flute exam done. I walk out into a sticky Manchester afternoon, exhausted but relieved. My results come a few months later and I pass Grade 8 with Distinction.

It gets me thinking about the point or value of exams in traditional music. I took it to demonstrate that I had a high standard of musical skill when applying for my Ethnomusicology PhD. How can you measure a folk tradition and if anyone is any good? I’m still not sure and what the balance is between performance and skill. You can be a great player but a terrible performer. What it did give to me was a structure on which to hang my skills, review them and ultimately develop them. I’ve often been in sessions and couldn’t think of more than a few sets of tunes. Pulling my repertoire together for this made me realise how much I actually knew. It made me consider technique, reminded of all the things I talk about when teaching or coaching. Relaxing, visualisation, setting targets, regular practice. I am definitely an improved musician after going through the experience.

If you want to know more about LCM Grades for Trad Music or would like help and guidance with preparing and entering for them get in touch with me via the traddad for hire page.

Tinkling in the Street

Tinkling in the Street.

Celeste Playing Street Piano on Argyle Street Sheffield
Celeste Playing Street Piano on Argyle Street Sheffield

One of the highlights of a very damp week in Sheffield was stumbling across the Street Piano on Argyle Street. I always like to take a different route home, perhaps like members of the Piano Liberation Army in days gone by (more of that in a moment). But for me it’s not a security measure more a matter of my nosey nature and terrible sense of direction. As I pushed baby Celeste up the hill a piano chained to lamppost came into my sight. ‘Play Me’ daubed on the facia made it impossible to resist. Some keys worked, some just made a ‘plonk, some in tune, some not. Celeste was mesmerised as was I.

I am partial to the sound of a piano sensitively vamped in a good Irish celli band. It’s a sound that transports me back to childhood fleadhs. Band uniforms of stiff white shirts, blue nylon trousers, and shiny black shoes. Sweaty hands clenching instruments tightly with the sound of clumsy reels bouncing round the gym hall of some drab secondary school.   The heavens opened once more and we dashed home. But I was intrigued about the idea of a street piano.

Searching around on the net gave some clues. The piano was placed on the street by Val Regan, a local choir leader and musician for a limited period during September and locked over night to prevent lubricated revellers presenting their world premiers of the piano masterworks.

The Street Piano concept was turned into a worldwide phenomenon by artist Luke Jerram, placing his first piano in Birmingham in 2008 and inviting passers to ‘Play Me I’m Yours’. There are now over 500 pianos placed in public spaces worldwide. Sheffield though can perhaps claim to be the origin of the Street Piano. In the early noughties a piano was placed on Sharrow Vale Road and people were invited to play. The piano become a landmark but was eventually stolen. A replacement was donated after a public appeal. Shortly afterwards the Local Council stepped into have the piano removed. A campaign to save it ensued, including the formation of the Piano Liberation Army, a shadowy bunch of well meaning piano enthusiasts. The threat of removal was withdrawn and the Liberation Army dissolved without a single veggie burger being thrown in anger. The final victor was mother-nature, as the ravages of the Sheffield seasons finally resulted in the piano falling apart.

The Argyle Street piano well be disappearing soon so go and have a public tinkle.

Me and my little girl playing with shadows

My post ‘Walking in the shadows of Don Quixote and Alan Lomax’ got me thinking about shadows. Yesterday was a cloudy late summers day in Sheffield and there were fascinating shadows everywhere. My daughter was more interested in the other children and the various slides in the parks. Let me know what you think of the photo’s.Celest and Daddy on the SlideCeleste upside down in ShadowCeleste and Daddy in Shadow at a fenceShadow celeste and meCeleste and Daddy in the Park sun light

A week in Asturias Part 1 – Walking in the shadows of Don Quixote and Alan Lomax

Shadows in the Park

I put it out there to friends and contacts that I wanted to work on something inspiring and linked into my love of Asturian traditional and folk music. An offer came back from my friend, and project director extraordinaire, Lorna Fulton to work with her on a project with the University of Newcastle to raise the profile of the University’s copy of the Alan Lomax Archive.

Alan Lomax was one of the great music collectors of the 20th Century, bringing to prominence the likes of Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie. He also spent several months during 1952 collecting music in Asturias, northern Spain.

I said yes to the offer and with some funding from the Arts Council and logistical help from family and friends, I flew to Asturias to find out what was happening now in the trad/folk scene, make some links and if possible do some field recording.

My first challenge was that my key music contact in Asturias had gone to ground. Lesson one, never rely on one contact. I had a good idea of who a number of musicians were from a previous trip and I had contacts to chase up from Facebook and numbers given to me by friends. My Camino pals, Zach and Paula, provided me with bases in Fuentes and Gijón / Xixón, lovely food and great interpretation skills. My Spanish is improving, but I still have a long way to go.

Responses to my requests to meet were few in the first couple of days. I was feeling a little dejected. I skulked around Arriondas and Ribedesella feeling like the world was against me and I was really missing my family at home. I was wondering, what Alan Lomax would do in this situation, when I was approached by an odd looking character. His trouser legs were too short for him, his head was shaved, his belly hung out and his body language was wide open if not a little awkward. ‘Hey Don Quixote’ he shouted several times, pointing wildly at my moustache. I told him I had no Spanish and thought that would put him off but he asked me if I spoke English. I was very guarded, thought he wanted something from me. He asked me my name; I told him it was John. He told me his name (Juan), shook my hand and welcomed me to Asturias. I walked on quickly and sat in a cafe.

After some reflection it dawned on me that I had been completely closed to Juan, had judged him without giving him a chance and I hadn’t seen the opportunities, professionally and personally, staring me in the face. Walk with an open heart, I had learned on the Camino de Santiago. Alan Lomax would probably have seen an opening to ask some questions. What’s going on in this town? Where is the music? Where are the musicians? Can you introduce me to them? This was simple, obvious stuff that I had lost in the midst of my self-pity and defensiveness. Lesson two, open yourself up to people.

Angry with myself and remembering that I was being paid to be the ‘Professional Stranger’ I did what any self respecting Ethnomusicologist would do, I ordered a cake. Fortified by the Casadielles (fried pastry filled with walnut and anise and covered in sugar) I made a ‘to-do’ list and got on with it.



Trad Dad

Gazing up at the sky over Santiago de Compostela I felt everything was possible now. After a 1000km of walking across Spain on the Camino de Santiago my body was lean and my mind refreshed. Pilgrim stories bounced around my head interweaving with the ever present soundtrack of ‘Celtic’ Galicia. I would never return to the humdrum life.

Back in England, despite my best intentions, I took an easier route. Jumped back on the work express took the pay cheque. But all the time something told me that other worlds were possible. I fell in love; a daughter came into my life. Her whole being constantly threw at me questions about my integrity, about walking the walk as I had challenged so many people to do since my Camino experience.

So I jumped off the express where I thought the landing would be soft enough and decided to follow my heart, inspire my daughter and keep the flame lit that my partner recognised in me when we first met.

This blog is a record of my thoughts, actions and results as I work towards my dream of another world filled with the sounds, smells and tastes of the Iberian Atlantic Coast, a happy growing family, a PhD and lots and lots of flute playing.

Watching the tragic events unfolding in Santiago de Compostela over the last two weeks in July 2013 my heart was deeply saddened but I was reminded of that night sky in the city of stars and the gift of life that I had. So this is me getting on with it, the Camino has only just begun.