Running a Music Retreat with Adult Learners

Guest blog by Mairi Campbell
Mairi Campbell is a singer, multi-instrumentalist and teacher who runs Lismore Music Retreats as well as performing in a variety of different contexts and experimenting with voice and recording techniques.


Guest blog by Mairi Campbell

Mairi Campbell is a singer, multi-instrumentalist and teacher who runs Lismore Music Retreats as well as performing in a variety of different contexts and experimenting with voice and recording techniques (find out more).

Each course has up to eight participants who begin their weekend by crossing the Firth of Lorne to the island and making their way to the wee cottage from where I host courses.

2255909_origMy teaching draws on many influences: In terms of technique, Paul Rolland’s pedagogique violin work is fantastic,  but there are many other threads that I draw from.  I’ve had wonderful instrumental teachers who were important early influences:  Csaba Erdelyi at the Guildhall, (violist), Kreisler String Orchestra, and Michael Beeston.  Traditional music influences have come from many sources also, but primarily Cape Breton violinists and their warm and gentle guidance; dances on Lismore;  Freeland Barbour (accordion) of the Occasionals; Hamish Moore (pipes) and other friends who are wonderful musicians too.

I see a certain degree of  frustration among adult learners.  They have often been taught in big groups and, without individual attention, they strive for a better tone, smoother bowing, better intonation, easier hold, and struggle with many other issues.  So, over cups of tea, and punctuated with bowls of soup and simple grub, we attend to body actions in playing, rather than specific tunes, and they can address the root causes of their difficulties.  For instance, if a fiddler can allow their arm weight to move through the elbow, through the wrist and into the bow, jittery bow is sorted and a fuller tone is achieved.  Another example is left hand position.  If we work on the principle that we want all the fingers to be able to move in first position without moving the wrist  every time you use the 4th finger, it means a subtle adjustment – usually not much, but enough to easily support four fingers rather than only three.  The principle is that the larger parts of your body support the extremities.  Spine supports the arms, arm supports the hand, base knuckle support the fingers…..fingers’ downward action is counterbalanced by the upward thrust of the left elbow….

Another challenge is speeding up tunes.  The bow gets bossy and tries to take control, and the hands get out of sync.  There are lots of ways of addressing this. One of them I find the most effective is ‘leading from the left hand’. This can produce remarkable results so that timing, tone and feeling for the tune can all shift surprisingly deeply.

So the weekend gives the fiddler an armoury of ideas for meeting their challenges and gives them ideas and ways to work for the rest of the year.  Many players continue with their weekly lessons but sign up to a Lismore course for a boost.

Facilitating ‘cross-fertilization’ of the group is important as it allows the group to support itself and uses music as a means to explore this.  I don’t teach tunes as it takes up too much time and can separate mixed ability groups.  I use what the student prepares.  They each bring one tune and those eight tunes become the repertoire for the weekend.   The less advanced have a chance to hear the more advanced players, and everyone get the opportunity to return to basic principles and explore ways of accompanying the less advanced players. Supporting each other in the group and thinking of ourselves as a ‘band’ for the weekend is a lot of fun!

4241247_origSometimes a player needs the experience of playing solo in front of the others.  By the end of the weekend after many solo turns most of the fiddlers are much more relaxed about playing alone.  There is no judgement.  You are where you are and that’s it.  At all times in any case, the other fiddlers are involved in either trying to learn part of your tune, maybesinging or playing along, helping to keep time, or working on one aspect of their playing throughout another’s ‘time’.

The kitchen is the classroom.  It’s just big enough for all of us and is handy for me to give the soup a stir or cut up a few onions.  Integration is the key!  Cooking, teaching – it’s all the one thing.  It’s supporting my little community in that cottage and going with the flow.  If soup needs stirring when there’s a tune on the go, then stir it while singing the tune.  Why not?  Fewer boundaries.  It’s not complicated.  I’m no great cook and a creature of habit so if something works I stick to it.  I’ve just about mastered the Saturday night curry!

Talking of Saturday night, that’s ceilidh night when my friends and family from the island come over to the cottage for a knees-up!  It usually adds another ten to fifteen bodies into the wee space, with blethers in the kitchen and tunes in the living room.  It’s hard to find words to describe this night, it’s so special to me.