Update June 2018: taking a break

Taking a break

I am currently taking a break from creative music workshops for the first time in 10 years and have no current plans to resume in the foreseeable future. While this has decision was instigated by budget cuts in 2017, the need to reset my work-life balance has been overdue and I don’t think I would have taken the break otherwise. The last 12 months have helped me appreciate this.

It has been a very special journey and I have been fortunate to meet many amazing people who have inspired and helped me along the way. Teachers, musicians, visual artists, non-formal educators, storytellers, hospital staff, support workers and arts administrators — many undervalued, but all helping to enrich the lives of others.

This support has allowed and encouraged me to develop my ideas and approaches to working with and teaching music. Importantly, these ideas and approaches still remain and are used in the classrooms where I teach special needs children.

This isn’t the end, however. It is a hope that this new found time will allow me to develop new projects, whatever the setting.


My teaching of traditional flute and whistle is unaffected by this decision. The weekly classes have become monthly workshops that take place on Saturday afternoons throughout the year.

Meanwhile, FluteFling Scottish Flute Weekends is now in its 5th successful year. It has expanded to Aberdeen and other collaborations are in the pipeline.

For more details on these activities, please visit the FluteFling website.

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Summer 2016 update

Wishing Tree at Samye LingFollowing on from a second successful series of Storytelling with Music workshops in East Lothian, I am pleased to say that this looks set to continue after the summer.

The Wishing Tree is inspired by the traditional Border ballad Thomas the Rhymer and I will be adding another traditional tale to offer alongside this.

Photo of a Wishing Tree at Samye Ling (c) Gordon Turnbull

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A quick New Year update

I am only taking on a few small projects at the moment due to family commitments. The Wishing Tree project will be running in East Lothian Primary Schools up to Easter following on from a successful block of workshops last year.

This is my first foray into storytelling but picks up on many ideas that have been used in previous projects. There are plans to develop this further using other traditional tales, but they are on hold for the time being. FluteFling classes are currently on sabbatical, but a third Scottish Flute Day will return in May.

Image: Winter star (c) Gordon Turnbull

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Recent and current projects: Fragments of Red

Fragments of Red

I had conversations about this project from Summer 2013, but it wasn’t until January 2014 that I had the chance to become actively involved. Fragments of Red was the third of three events that took place in the Scottish Borders abbeys of Jedburgh, Kelso and Melrose as part of The Fragments Project.

Taking as its inspiration a fragment of a medieval manuscript of monastic music recently discovered in Hawick (The Hawick Missal), the project invited ways of exploring the sites and the manuscript in new ways, from local writing groups and artists to composers and school children. Supported by Historic Scotland and Scottish Borders Council, it was devised and led by Tim Fitzpatrick of The Red Field. The performance was on 4th April, leading up to Easter and in keeping with the original time and setting for the Missal.

My own role was to work with P5-P7 children from Melrose Primary School to create music that referenced both Melrose Abbey and the Hawick Missal. This music was to be performed at the Fragments of Red event alongside new choral music by Grayston Ives and performances by Dudendance.

After a number of workshops that explored making music out of word rhythms inspired by the abbey, the children composed music for hand bells that referenced the scale of the Hawick Missal. This was then featured at the event as a call to gather the audience and lead them in a procession around Melrose Abbey between performances of the choral pieces. Finally, the children led everybody through the streets to Melrose Parish Church for concluding performances and recitals.

The children responded well to the project and enjoyed the creative and performance processes. As I had to work alongside an evolving format for the event, I decided on short repeating pieces that could be incorporated in a modular fashion according to the needs of the overall performance.

The hand bells ringing out in the ruins of the abbey at twilight were very atmospheric and the resulting performance by the children drew favourable comments as they concentrated hard and were absorbed by the event. My thanks to the children for giving up their time and to the school for their help. Jane Gaze, the Local Learning Officer for Melrose Abbey was an amazing facilitator and I was delighted to be working alongside her once again.

Photos: (c) Gordon Turnbull

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Autumn round-up: KinderConcert, sharing and projects

A round-up of recent project news, sharing and other events.


I was pleased to be invited to participate recently in a KinderConcert performance in Edinburgh. Performing solo to a small group of children and parents, I introduced my various wooden flutes and whistles while playing some different forms of Scottish traditional music. I was delighted with the response as we all rowed through Hebridean seas together, sought seals, pretended to be dogs, marched, danced and ceilidhed for half an hour or so.

It’s not quite the type of concert I usually do as my life as a traditional musician and teacher of children don’t directly overlap that often. But it was a good mix of my different experiences and I enjoyed bringing them together immensely. It was friendly, well organised and very relaxed, making it a natural thing to have some fun at the same time.

The KinderConcerts monthly programme is an informal and low key opportunity to introduce children up to the age of 9 to a range of musical experiences. Other performers have included solo cello and a classical string ensemble is planned.


I was recently at a Figurenotes Good Practice Day run by Drake Music Scotland that was invigorating and inspiring from a teaching perspective.

I have been aware of Figurenotes music notation for a couple of years and have been experimenting with the system a little in that time. The system uses shapes and colours for notes and was developed in special schools in Finland. Drake Music Scotland have piloted its use in Scotland and provide support and resources for those using it.

This term I made a decision to make it more central to the music lessons at one of the schools where I teach Music. There have been some very quick success stories, even from children who may have been hard to reach. I came away with some ideas on how to take things further in the classroom and look forward to using them.

Figurenotes Good Practice Days are full of creative opportunities and practical advice and support for using the Figurenotes notation system. This was the second one that I have attended and it is highly recommended, with chance to share and network with others as well. I live round the corner from Drake Music Scotland, but some of the people attending had come from elsewhere in Scotland, England and even Sweden. The next one takes place in February 2014.

Edinburgh Youth Music Forum Swapshop

On the subject of continuing professional development,  I was pleased to have the opportunity to attend a EYMF Swapshop last month that was led by Caroline Wilkie who uses Orff Schulwerk approaches with early years. I have long had an interest in Orff Schulwerk, but it is better known in Europe and the USA than in the UK and opportunities to attend events on my doorstep don’t come by too often.

It just so happens that Caroline is an associate musician with Drake Music Scotland and includes Figurenotes in her work. It was a positive, playful and immersive experience, which is often the best way to introduce ideas based on music, language and movement, with some time for reflection both during and afterwards.

If a teacher is the greatest resource in a classroom, then events like this necessarily induce a personal response in that participant that then feeds into future lessons and activities. It’s important therefore that the participant has a sense of the experience, because that can drive the future teaching.

While these sharing events are not formal educational CDP in a conventional sense — they don’t speak about teaching requirements or targets, for example — that are very important in addressing the creative (and important) elements that underpin the spirit of the Curriculum for Excellence. Non-formal education embraces these approaches very readily and it is a cornerstone of the Musical Futures programme, which has attempted to bring these values into secondary education.

The next Swapshop takes place on 29th October. Full listings on the EMYF website.

Scottish Flute Project

One project I am working on is research on Scottish traditional flute playing. After some interest from an introductory article I wrote for The Flow website some time ago, I interviewed three prominent Scottish flute players in August 2012 in order to delve a little deeper into the subject. What I didn’t foresee is that my schedule would relegate this project to the backburner for over 12 months.

This term I have managed to restructure my time and I have now transcribed two of the interviews at a total of 17,000 words. After I have transcribed the final one, I will be in a position to distil them into an article that I hope will shed light on some of the many aspects of playing traditional music on the flute in Scotland. What is clear is that there is much more to learn and discover and that this project is only at the early stages. I look forward to discovering more.

Collaborative projects

I am at present developing a couple of collaborative projects with Jane Gaze, a Borders visual artist and arts/ history educator. We have worked together previously and it is intended that these projects will bring together historical, musical and visual creative strands together with a sense place in the Borders, all working within the Curriculum for Excellence remit.

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September news roundup

Things have been quite busy and while we’re now five weeks into the Autumn term, the blog has been quiet, so time to catch up a little.

The biggest news is that FluteFling has now moved to its own dedicated website and you can catch up with all traditional flute and whistle teaching activities there. There is no Scots Music Group whistle class this term, but hopefully it will be back in January. Meanwhile I have taken on some one-to-one tuition and continue with the Portobello Music School traditional whistle classes.

The Flow will continue as a resource for traditional flute players and I hope to be able to finally make some long-needed changes there and add more material.

I am also continuing with teaching P1 creative music classes at Portobello Music School on Saturday mornings where we have fun with music, movement, stories and games.

Meanwhile I continue to teach music in two special schools in West Lothian and have been exploring working with Skoogs and Figurenotes as part of the classes.

Photo of Autumn Colours in the Tweed Valley (CC) by Ian Britton.

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Flute and whistle music from Hailes Castle

The recording of this year’s summer excursion of students from FluteFling groups and the Scots Music Group is now available to play and download.

The flutes and whistles were recorded in early June at Hailes Castle in East Lothian. On these trips we like to play tunes from our common repertoire and enjoy the space and surroundings. These aren’t concerts and aren’t really sessions either, although they are informal. We had some nice comments from passers-by.

Thanks again to Alan Chan (flute), Vicky Pearson, Usui Miyoko and Pierre-Marie Costa (whistles) for helping to make it such a memorable day.

FluteFling and the Scots Music Group whistle class return in September. Thanks to all the students for your music this year. Have a great summer and I look forward to seeing you again soon.

Photo of flutes and whistles at Hailes Castle by Gordon Turnbull



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End of Term: a Breton Waltz revisited

FluteFling finished for the summer with a Breton waltz. Valse de Galorn is a relatively simple tune in E dorian (has just two sharps*) that I also taught last year.

I learned the tune from a recording of Shegui entitled In the Wind (1982) and there is a great interview with their flute, whistle and bombarde player John Skelton on Brad Hurley’s web site. John had no title for the tune, but it was one of two from the playing of Breton band Galorn.

Digging about a bit more, there is version of the waltz played very differently by Galorn on Youtube as part of a set. Lovely flute playing, but I have no idea about the personnel. My version is much slower than the original and possibly slower than that played by Shegui.

I have re-recorded the tune on flute and whistle for this term and another recording is on The Flow web site with the resources, which include harmony lines for other flutes and whistles. As usual with these, the harmonies are a work in progress and are best viewed in that light.

* Thinking about modes, this website for slower players has a useful guide to modes and what they mean.

Have a great summer full of music and good things. FluteFling classes will resume Thursday 12th September. Details to follow in due course.

Photo of Shegui album cover (c) Rock of Ages website.




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A brace of Irish reels: The Humours of Ballyconnell and The Drunken Tinker

We finished off the term for the FluteFling Improvers group with two strong Irish reels that are great for building up technique and lifting a session. They both make use of arpeggios to create a riff that drives the music along.

The Humours of Ballyconnell is a three part reel in D that fits well on flute, whistle and uilleann pipes alike. Affectionately known in Scotland as The Humours of Billy Connolly, it is named after a small town in County Cavan that sits on the Shannon waterway near Lower Lough Erne, close to the border with Northern Ireland. It’s a place I have been to many times when traveling to places like Clare and Roscommon and it is often a good stopping off point for getting Euros and lunch.

I can’t recall where I first heard this tune, but there is a great recording of it by Noel Hill and Tony Linnane in 1978 that features Matt Molloy on flute and is highly recommended.

I don’t know much about the history of the tune, but in a discussion on The Session, Aberdeen flute player Kenny Hadden says:

I remember discussing this tune with Fintan Vallely some years ago. He said he’d come across it in “Neil Stewart’s Collection Of Scottish Music”, published around 1765, and that it was called “The Duke Of Atholl’s Rant”, which means it was being played in Scotland over 200 years ago. He plays it on a tape he made called “The Starry Lane To Monaghan”, which also features quite a few other tunes from the same collection.

It’s an interesting thought. Certainly the tune structure is common in Scottish reels of that period, but is it is most certainly an Irish reel now. Also on The Session is a link to O’Neill’s Maggot, a tune that appears to be The Humours of Ballyconnell in jig form. Maggot is word that used to mean a whimsical idea or even an inpiration (look out for the left-handed flute player in the link, original source here).

Incidentally, the word Humours appears in many Irish tune titles and can be taken to mean the ‘spirit’ or character of a place or object.

The Drunken Tinker is a reel that would go well after The Humours of Ballyconnell and it doesn’t get played very much. I first heard it on a recording by Irish band Oisin (not to be confused with Scottish band Ossian) and I think that Altan have also recorded it at some point. Again, it features arpeggios that help drive the tune along.

The resources for these tunes can be found over at The Flow website as usual

Photo of Ballyconnell waterways by Michael Hanisch, some rights reserved.

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Summer flutes and whistles at Hailes Castle

Last Sunday saw the summer excursion of the Edinburgh-based FluteFling and Scots Music Group traditional flutes and whistles. We boldly returned to Hailes Castle in East Lothian, having endured a very wet trip last year and couldn’t have had better weather.

On these trips we like to play tunes from our common repertoire and enjoy the space and surroundings. These aren’t concerts and aren’t really sessions either, although they are informal.  As usual, we recorded the experience and I am hoping we will be able to share some of this year’s music too.

Just a small group this time round, not all of whom knew each other. Thanks to Alan Chan (flute), Vicky Pearson, Usui Miyoko and Pierre-Marie Costa (whistles) for helping to make it such a memorable day. Our previous trip was in December to Dalmeny Kirk and we look forward to other trips later in the year.

Photo of FluteFling Ensemble at Hailes Castle (c) Gordon Turnbull

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