January is without doubt a tough month. The weather’s been dreich and miserable, and we’re all supposed to be starting out on some ‘new me’ regime, whether it’s weight loss, Veganuary or setting targets for all kinds of ambitious personal goals, just when the instinct to eat lots, coorie in by the fire and shut out the cold and dark, is at its strongest.
Such healthy, self-improving aims and motivation are very commendable and to be praised, but for a deep sense of well-being and achievement, how about this for a New Year challenge? Countless people have told me over the years how they wished they could play an instrument, bemoaning having quit childhood music lessons or lamenting never having got them in the first place. If you’re one of them, then why not start learning?
It might seem daunting at first, the idea of putting yourself out there as a new learner; many older folk might even have been told at school that they were tone deaf, couldn’t sing or were un-musical (thank goodness the days of such approaches to teaching are long gone!), so may still feel that music is not something they’re capable of.
Starting out to learn a new skill of any kind is both exciting and scary. When Bruce and I started the fiddle school Blazin’ in Beauly, we knew from our own experience, as both tutors and students, there were lots of adults keen to learn. We were completely bowled over though when one hundred and twenty participants turned up from all over the world - before the days of easy event promotion on social media - to be taught by the musicians in Blazin’ Fiddles.
What we learned along the way however was that adult learners can often feel vulnerable and insecure. Swapping the roles of able, earning, parents, professionals, grandparents, businesswomen, teachers etc for that of pupil is like being sent back to school. Suddenly capable, confident people feel nervous and afraid of making mistakes.
I’ll never forget the shy middle-aged man who asked me somewhat timidly, as I managed our information desk, who would look after his fiddle when he went for lunch? The answer of course was him - he was responsible for his own instrument at all times - but his question made me realise just how much it must have felt like first day at school for him.
Over the years we instigated numerous sessions and workshops to address this feeling of insecurity and to nurture confidence in our adult music students, including slow jams, groupwork, talks and masterclasses on technique, instrument care etc. Of course, what that chap and his fellow students quickly found was that everyone was in the same boat!
Happily, what happens in adult learning classes is that a great sense of camaraderie soon develops, there is no rivalry or competitiveness, and a mutual support network evolves. People support and help each other, tutors are invariably friendly, enthusiastic types, and classes can be a whole lot of fun.
The sense of achievement and satisfaction from gaining new skills is immense and, in the case of music, the feeling that you’re getting the hang of an instrument and managing to play some tunes, is second to none! Good craic with classmates, with whom you perhaps start going to the pub afterwards for a wee session, means you get to know each other, make new friends, develop bonds with them from being all in it together.
All these, perhaps unexpected, benefits of an adult learning class constitute great boosts to mental health and sense of wellbeing. At time goes by and your playing develops, you might create an informal ceilidh band, play at functions, and go together to weekend workshops and festivals like Fèis Rois’s Adult Fèis in Ullapool on 1st – 4th May this year. I promise it’s so much fun!
So, don’t delay! There will be instrument and song classes happening somewhere near you, as most Fèisean offer a range of tuition for children and adults. Also check the websites of Highlife Highland and other traditional music organisations for their regular classes and workshops. Good luck!
(First published by Scottish Provincial Press 24th January 2020)
Details of the founding of fiddle school Blazin' in Beauly can be found on the Projects tab of this website.