Sun, 05/31/2009 - 12:24
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Talk to professional fiddlers, and you’ll soon see the range of what they do. There’ll be solo  performing, of course, band work, tuition, recording, film and TV contracts, judging competitions, composing, researching, and maybe even instrument-repairing. A few fiddlers, though, will tell you how they also move into other genres, perhaps to back a rock or jazz singer. Some will have had (or still have) a career in classical music as well; Irish fiddler Mairéad Nesbitt, formerly of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, comes to mind. One Scottish fiddler who fits exactly into this ‘mixed genres’ category is Douglas Lawrence. He’s a man who’s been a long-serving member of the Scottish National Orchestra, he’s performed with Yehudi Menuhin, and he’s accompanied David Essex and Belle and Sebastian. He’s played with the Whistlebinkies and in traditional music festivals across Scotland he’s won almost every fiddle competition he’s entered: he was actually banned from one for winning it too often! He’s been described as ‘one of Scotland’s living treasures’ for the quality of his playing, yet isn’t known very well even at home. This is because of his having been out of the scene for quite a while, following a serious illness. Thankfully, he’s on the mend - and this is his story.

He was born in Buckie, a small fishing town in between Inverness and Aberdeen; for a fiddler, that’s a good part of Scotland to come from, arguably being the country’s richest area for traditional music, not to mention for song. For instance, one of Scotland’s eighteenth century fiddle giants, William Marshall, was born in Fochabers, barely a dozen miles from Buckie.

Douglas’ first musical influence was his grandfather. A forester, his greatest love was fiddles – playing, collecting and repairing them. “If a fiddle needed fixing, he was the one in the area to do it. I’ve actually got one of his still. He gave me my first instrument. He was self-taught and always encouraged me, like my mother and father did, even though they weren’t musical themselves”. Actually, it was encouragement from his parents that set Douglas on the path he would eventually follow... 

“It was a chance remark of dad’s to the school music teacher, that I’d be getting fiddle lessons locally. ‘No, no, no!’ said the teacher. ‘If Douglas is going to learn the fiddle, it must be with Hector MacAndrew in Aberdeen. Don’t you do anything, I’ll arrange it’. And he did. I was lucky he was so helpful, some teachers wouldn’t have been when it came to ‘mere’ fiddle playing... I actually had a good grounding at that school. I’m grateful, you need to reach a reasonable standard before you can even attempt to play fiddle. Fiddle tunes are so much more difficult than the normal school repertoire”.

Perhaps it was as well that the twelve year-old Douglas didn’t initially know too much about Hector MacAndrew. If he had, he might have refused to meet him, for MacAndrew had a tough reputation: if he liked you, fine, but if he didn’t, you’d be shown the door very quickly. But he was, everybody acknowledged, a superb musician; Douglas’ grandfather would describe him in later years as ‘without doubt the only player of Scottish music’. Probably, MacAndrew himself would have agreed with that. He was proud of being directly in line to Niel Gow himself: he had learned the fiddle from his grandfather, who in turn had learned from James Mackintosh, Gow’s last pupil. 

“My teacher warned me what to expect. So I went along, very nervous, and there he was, not very tall, but with great presence. He told me to play. I did, then he said, ‘Aye, that was fine, come back in a month’. That was all! So, my father would take me to him every month, on Saturdays. We’d all usually watch the football in the afternoon. One time, the crowd’s language was pretty colourful and MacAndrew asked my father, ‘Should Douglas be hearing  words like that?’ Perhaps that was him being a bit fatherly to me.

“I studied with him for eleven years, the best experience of my musical life. After him, I did classical violin at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, then joined the Scottish National Orchestra. I’ve no doubt that MacAndrew’s teaching helped me work with conductors and accompanists later: fiddle and violin complement each other. I remember my last meeting with him, in 1979. I went to see him and he told me to get my fiddle out, I thought for a strathspey, but no, he wanted Bach. I played the unaccompanied B minor Sonata. ‘Aye, that was fine’, he muttered, just as ever! Then we played Scottish music. He died a year later”.

Douglas would be twenty years with the SNO. Music of all sorts was his world. He met his future wife through it, a Russian pianist called Anna who was on an exchange to Glasgow from the St Petersburgh Conservatoire; the couple now have a son, who’s eight. “She’s performing and teaching in schools and universities, now, I do some teaching, too, and I look after the housework and Alexander. He’ll be kicking a football somewhere or practising piano, which he’s just started”.

Even when in the SNO, Douglas was playing traditional music. He’d joined The Whistlebinkies and toured with them throughout Scotland, and in Ireland and Germany. He calls it ‘a great experience’, being with them. He was playing other sorts of music, too.

“Well, yes, if you’re a musician, you take what work’s offered. So when a call came from David Essex - this was 1978 - that he needed accompaniment for a song, off the Binkies went. It wasn’t a problem, I was used to accompanying, I did it for the Gaelic Department of the BBC... I like it, often I’ll just sit at the piano and listen to harmonies, you’ve got to understand harmony. If you play a fiddle you’ll sometimes do double-stopping, but there’s no point playing one chord if your accompanist is doing another... The song was Are You Still My Own True Love? and it’s part of my only claim to fame: I think I’m the only fiddler who’s ever played on all four BBC radio channels on the same day. The song was on One, I was on Benny Green’s show on Two, Three was an SNO performance and Radio Four, that was a programme about Niel Gow called The Odyssey”. 

As well as being in the limelight, he was busy bringing on other fiddlers: for he didn’t just compete at festivals, he judged their competitions as well.

“Competitions are a very good way to learn, for anybody. I always tell my pupils, ‘Compete if you want, or just watch, but always listen, to learn what’s good and what’s bad’. When I was around sixteen, I loved to hear these guys competing, ‘though they were old men to me. Their standard was good and certainly, they stuck with their music, unlike many young players now. I mean, I judged a young fiddler at Musselburgh Festival recently, I thought he had the best sound I’d ever heard.  But apparently he’s not playing any more. Why??? Still, at least the youngsters have the chance nowadays. I remember Menuhin saying to me, ‘Every child needs music, every one’... That was the time when he’d just played the Bach B minor Partita and turned to me and said, ‘Douglas, this piece is Scottish fiddle music’... Well, I myself think Bach is the foundation of all Western music. Menuhin agreed, so would Mendelssohn. MacAndrew always said, ‘Play your Bach’, so now I make sure my pupils can play the dance movements from the Partitas. It proves you shouldn’t have rigid categories in music”.

Now that his main occupation is teaching, the values and techniques of teaching are often to the fore in his conversation. He has views, for example, about whether people should learn by ear or from music. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he favours the latter.

“I know Aly Bain and others don’t like to read music, they never have. But I believe reading notes helps. I teach them first in case there’s some bowing or rhythm instructions to go in later. By then, the notes should be firmly in the brain. You can teach by ear, but it’s terribly slow, phrase by phrase. Worse, mistakes can creep in. Take playing pipe marches, their note patterns often look very similar: once a mistake has crept in, it’ll be hard to remove it from your brain. I think my method works: put it this way, six pupils of mine have won the Glenfiddich Competition, like Paul Anderson, Rory Campbell, Ross Thompson and Maureen Turnbull”.

He hasn’t any favourite tunes for teaching purposes – ‘or at least, I’m not revealing them!’ he says. He prefers using ten examples (each a couple of bars long) of the bowing likely to be needed for different tunes. “You’ll find many bow movements in certain tunes like strathspeys. You could have four semi-quavers ya-da-da-dum. One person will do it all slurred, another like a Kalashnikof rifle, rat-ta-ta-tat. Or you could do it two parts slurred and two separated. It’s all about which part of the bow you aim to use, whether one down and three up, or you can play a down bow at the point, like in Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique. Perfectly possible. One thing is vital – make every note matter, make every one different. I had a pupil yesterday, I had him play five consecutive B flats. I said, ‘Make them all different’. It can be done, even with six. You must work things out beforehand. It’s pointless starting a pipe march and ending up at the part of the bow you don’t want to be at. You must know how to get out of things before they happen. ‘Plan an escape route’, I tell my pupils, ‘like you would learn to control a skid in a car’”.

Whatever a fiddler does with music, he says, he or she should make it interesting. There are numerous ways to do this, he explains, and it’s even more important for what he considers basically uninteresting music. Number One in this category, for him, is the Cape Breton variety.

“I don’t like the style. I don’t believe the people who play it when they say that it’s special  because it came over with Scots two hundred years ago. I don’t believe they can claim God-given rights to all our traditions. I don’t believe our ancestors would have been playing that sort music then. Alright, Cape Breton has a place, but there’s no depth to any of it that I’ve ever heard. Besides, it’s normally played too fast. It reminds me of the story of Robert Reid, a great old piper from way back. He had a pupil who played too fast. ‘That’s-right-laddie’, he said, ‘just-play-as-fast-as-you-can-and-hide-all-your-mistakes!’ Too many fiddlers play too fast nowadays. From school onwards, I was always taught to play within my ability. I teach my pupils that now. When I’m judging, I want people playing to their strengths. Don’t try and be Paganini, you’ll fail. I can play twelve notes a second in his Moto Perpetuo, that’s pretty fast but it’s meant to be there and it’s under control. You could do sixteen a second, but you wouldn’t deserve any prizes for it. If somebody plays fast but un-rhythmically, believe me it won’t sound as fast as music played slower but more rhythmically. Remember Clint Eastwood: ‘A-man’s-gotta-know-his-limitations’!”

If he knows that he doesn’t like Cape Breton music, he certainly knows what he likes of  his own country’s. It’s no accident that a large portrait of Niel Gow presides over his living room. “Niel was in that Golden Age, and Nathaniel Gow, William Marshall (MacAndrew’s favourite), Robert Mackintosh, all these boys were first class... Music that’s stood the test of time... And I like Simon Fraser’s tunes, and his collecting increased the repertoire fantastically. They’re sometimes difficult, like The Scolding Wives Of Abertarff because of its bowing. Not many tunes worry me now, but some of Scott Skinner’s can be a bit nasty. Actually, I think they’re sometimes rather un-violinistic, too many pyrotechnics”.

Asked about contemporary fiddlers that he admires, he says, “Aly Bain, I particularly like the way he thinks tunes out. Then for Ireland, there’s the late Seán Maguire, wonderful. I like Jay Unger as a musician. Other people? Well, if Barbara Dickson and Steve Harley were fiddlers, they’d be bloody good ones. I suppose I really like best the musicians who take trouble with every single note. Is that enough names?”

He’s got plans for the future, he says, like doing more teaching. “These workshops can be very worthwhile, especially for kids. There are people doing great work, like James Alexander (‘though he’s too modest about his contribution) who takes the Fochabers’ Fiddlers. We had the same music teacher at school. I did some fiddle school teaching in the Borders, Newtown St Boswell’s, James helped. It’s amazing what the kids achieve in a week. It was for the Scottish Amateur Music Association. I’ve also taught the practical side of a Distance Learning project in St Andrews whilst Jim Hunter did the theory side of Scottish music – that was good”.

Recording is currently in his sights. He’s made only one CD to date but says he has material for many more. “My first one was done in about three hours, mostly just one take. I’m actually not keen on studio recording, though, some stuffy little room... No, I believe a recording should be made as a performance happens. A while ago, Sony had a really good way of recording the SNO. They’d record all our concerts in their entirety, in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, wherever, then they’d choose the best one to release. It was a real breakthrough. I’d want something similar: just me on a stage, being recorded, before an invited (and preferably paying!) audience, playing for fifty minutes, a bit of talk about the tunes. Then later, people buying the CD could say, ‘That’s how it was, I was there, I even remember the night, what was on the news’. That recording would really matter to them. I think that’s how music should be. I’ll be doing something a bit like that in May, I’ll be playing up at Fyvie Castle (where MacAndrew worked) for the Robbie Shepherd programme. Dennis Morrison will be my accompanist. Alright, these legs and joints of mine are still sore, but they’re getting better. And my hands are nearly back to normal – so I think it’s time for another concentrated assault on the nation’s ears”.

Steve McGrail