Tunes, lyrics, Hogg and Burns: a late January update

The January workshop couldn’t have taken place without a nod to Robert Burns and it turned out that much of the music we covered had lyrics or associations with words.

Gordon demonstrates how to engage the diaphragm while playing the flute. Photo (c) Oonagh O’Brien

We also tried out some different flutes and whistles and explored learning to use the diaphragm.

When playing while lying down, the diaphragm has to be engaged. The sensation is then recreated when resuming a vertical position in order to better support the breath.

Other technique covered included rolls, cuts and strikes and longer phrasing.

Leaving Lismore

We began with Leaving Lismore as a slower piece to warm up. A retreat march in D by Mrs. Martin Hardie (of which nothing seems to be known), there is a harmony for fiddle by Christine Martin from Breakish, Isle of Skye that I have adapted for flutes and whistle. There are some good opportunities for simple decoration and space to concentrate on tone and breath support.

Once we had the slow waltz feel down, we tried introducing the harmonies to good effect, with the whistles adding to the range of sound. While I have taught this tune before, it was new to the group and is one of a few pieces that might be suitable for working on as an ensemble.

Kye Comes Hame

A strathspey I have never heard others play but is undoubtedly related to When the Kye Comes Hame, a song written with James Hogg (“The Ettrick Shepherd”) and first published in 1822 in his novel The Three Perils of Man. There’s a good historical overview of the song at the National Library of Scotland web site which suggests that the tune may have already been well known.

I learned my version many years ago via Kerr’s Merrie Melodies and I think it was the lyricism of the tune that appealed to me at the time, although I was unaware of the song at that point. Being aware of the lyrics can often help with phrasing and is often recommended for slow airs that derive from songs. However, without the words, the opportunity opens to emphasise the rhythm and bounce of the tune.

In D, this tune goes well with Leaving Lismore.

Here are the Tannahill Weavers with their version of the song:

Green Grow the Rashes

Green Grow the Rashes O is a poem of 1787 by Robert Burns with a very long and detailed history. Some information here from the Scottish Country Dancing perspective and also some lyrics analysis from this website, which says there were three other pre-existing versions that Burns took as inspiration.

However the Traditional Tune Archive has more on the melody that can be traced back to 17th Century lute collections and became known in a different format as Grant’s Rant. As the Grants were traditionally in the Rothiemurcus area, this might suggest it is from the heart of strathspey country.

I had thought that the version we learned is based on one from Donegal, but listening back to my sources which have some of the Scotch snaps shaved off, I think that other influences may have overridden it. Our version is more like a Highland or west coast strathspey, in its bounce and punch and certainly not at all like Dougie McLean’s wistful version of the song, which shows how versatile a melody it is.

Our version is in G and sits on flutes and whistles nicely, with opportunities for typically Scottish short rolls on the G in particular. This tune goes well after Kye Comes Hame.

Flutes at this afternoon’s workshop. @tribeporty

A post shared by Gordon Turnbull (@gordontheflow) on

Och Is Duine Truagh Mi

While looking through some teaching material that Rebecca Knorr gave to me a few years ago, I came across the west coast pipe reel/ port a beul Och Is Duine Truagh Mi (Alas I am a forlorn man). It’s a lovely tune that was recorded by the influential Ossian a good few years back, with Iain McDonald on pipes, flute and whistles.

Rebecca’s version is in G to sit on the whistle more readily, which is how we did it, but I also provided music and a recording of it in A, which is how it would normally be played. The version in G features long G rolls and follows nicely out of Green Grow the Rashes, keeping the key but changing the rhythm.

It’s a really useful skill to know a tune in more than one key, particularly if you know it well. It’s like seeing someone in different clothes in that it brings out different parts of the personality. However, it also builds up technical skills in terms of fingering and anticipation. Neither the A version nor the G version are particularly difficult on flute or whistle, but if you try it out you will have to think of different fingering and phrasing transitions which is useful.

Niall Kenny on The Session says he got this from Allan McDonald (Iain’s brother, who with Dr Angus McDonald make up the three piping brothers of Glenuig ) and that it may originally hail from Scalpay.

There are some lyrics to the reel and I have found a couple of intriguing versions, one with pipe variations. This first one has a slightly different title, but features whistles as well as pipes played by Seoanaidh MacIntyre with Ross B. Wilson on keyboards. There are two variations on each part, effectively making it a six part tune. The video includes the sheet music:

The second version is by fiddle and harp duo Jenna Moynihan & Mairi Chaimbeul:

Dhomhnuill a Dhomhnuill

Dhomhnuill a Dhomhnuill is a piece of mouth music (port a beul) from the isle of Skye that I learned from Gaelic singer Michel Byrne. This was part of the repertoire for The Big Squeeze Ceilidh Band for many years when we both played in it together. We didn’t spend much time with it, but it would go well after Och Is Duine Truagh Mi in either key. I taught this reel a couple of years ago and at the time wrote about it here.

February workshop

The next workshop will take place on Saturday 24th February and will be taken by Sharon Creasey. It’s a rare chance to spend some time with Sharon, who plays Boehm system flute as well as whistle.