My musical journey - the early years

It's been a long and winding path to this point of running a music agency, being a violin player in a String Quartet and Fiddle player in a barn dance and ceilidh band, passing through engineering and even hypnotherapist on the way.

At school my interests were science and music. The school was excellent for both, and permitted both paths to be followed. This was very unusual for a school, even today. Undoubtedly this flexibility was because the first head was a chemist and bassoon player and the second head was a mathematician and fellow of the Royal College of organists. My violin teachers were all eastern European, or had lived and worked in Eastern Europe and this affects my style of playing even now.

My first teacher, at Junior School, was a wonderful Armenian ex Halle Orchestra violinist, who would come out into the playground to play games with the children during break (something that would risk him being labelled rather badly in today’s Witch-hunt society, where anyone who talks to a child is labelled a paedophile. He wasn't.)

His teaching methods were unconventional, though they were great fun. An example is the use of his cigarette lighter. Children find it difficult to hold their hand in the correct fingering position when playing a violin ( It's a ridiculous instruments to even attempt to play). When any child let their hand position falter, he would get out his cigarette lighter, adjusted to the maximum flame and threaten jokingly to singe any incorrectly positioned hand. Everybody thought it was funny, nobody got upset, and they learnt fast. Can you imagine this being done nowadays and him keeping his job!

My next violin teacher was a Czech violinist, and after that at university an English orchestral freelance player, but one who spent a year or two in Eastern Europe playing with Gypsy fiddle bands . It is him who taught me the very energetic but physically balanced style of playing, were the dynamics of the movements are designed to give perfect balance. He said that Gypsy Fiddler's always use this, not for advanced technical reasons, but because after a few bottles of vodka you would fall over unless you played in this way!

Also during my school days I played in The County Youth Orchestra. This was an exceptionally good Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Hirsch for many years. It offered week long residential courses during holidays, went on tour to places like Germany and Norway during the summer holidays and was of exceptionally high standard. It was a great privilege, particularly seeing how so much of music education has collapsed throughout the UK in recent years. In addition to orchestral playing I played classical duos with another violinist at the school, but didn't know at the time anything about string quartets or ceilidh bands that would eventually become an important part of my music. Also, at this time pop music and jazz was another foreign world.

But all too soon school days end, it was time to make career choices and go to university. Most of my friends were musicians and going off to the Royal College music or the Royal Academy of Music and the like. This was an attractive route for me, but I also enjoyed engineering and sciences. So which way to go was a quandary. The decision was based on practicalities. I decided that if I became an engineer, I could still play music for enjoyment but if I became a musician, I wouldn't be able to play engineering for enjoyment. So off I went to Reading university to study first of all physics, and then engineering science.

But even from the engineering department there were musical opportunities. I took violin lessons within the music department, joined a locally chamber orchestra of exceptional standard, that was conducted by my then violin sheet teacher. I even took part ( with success) in the music department’s annual competition.

Using my engineering skills and together with a friend of mine we ran a disco, complete with psychedelic light machine ( a truly novel device back in those days) that would be periodically blow up in the shower of sparks. ( The result of using reject thyristors, just because they were cheap. Thyristors had only just been invented back then. Health and safety wasn't quite as it is now either.)

It was at this time that I got into folk music. I started off by playing for the University Playford dance group. It was great fun because it allowed me to dress up. Powdered wig, long tail coat, knee breeches, buckled shoes, lovely. It wasn't such a big step from classical music, a Playford orchestra / band is not so different really from the music played buy a string quartet performing Haydn or Mozart. In fact many of the movements of a Hydn or Mozart string quartet are labelled as dances, (regrettably often the performances bear no relation dance music. Classical musicians should all play folk music, it could certainly lead to some more inspired performances.)

My first step towards the more traditional folk music was to play for the University Morris Men. At first the seemed good, with outings ended up in the pub. Then it got less good. Many events tended to be in the winter, playing in snowy graveyards, with memories of fingerless gloves and frozen fingers trying to knock out a rather repetitive English folk tune. The end came when I started to do some Morris dancing myself. Great fun, great tradition, but the routine of thwacking each other’s sticks seem dangerous for the fingers and threatened to the bring my career as a violinist to an abrupt end.

So I moved on to conventional ceilidh and barn dance bands. I joined a band that was led by a superb accordionist and church organist. Although the band was not a university band, and played throughout the south of England, it did have connections with the university dance groups.

This was also the regular band for the Tony O'Sullivan Irish dance group. This was perhaps a precursor to the more recent Riverdance group. We played regularly for demonstration dances and Irish events around London and the South.

The University also had a Scottish demonstration dance group, which we played for. Together with the Irish, Scottish, and English dance groups, we performed at the Sidmouth international Folk Festival ( this was in the days when it was a large and famous festival before and sad collapse and more recent resuscitation). We were also invited out to play at the Monaco international Folk Festival. ( A great experience being put up for bed and breakfast by the prince and princess!)

We also played for events such as Burns night and St Patrick's Day. I also had a salutary introduction to how extreme some people can be with their view of folk music. We were doing a Burns night event at a large government establishment, where we were playing for three separate dance teams and then for the general Ceilidh in the evening. The dance teams we're doing the complex Scottish dancing, Strathspeys and the like. When it came to the evening session of general dancing, the dance teams were also taking part and wanted to continue with the complicated dancing. It became clear that the majority of the 350 dancers could only cope with strip the Willow, Gay Gordons and the like, but we're not up to the highfalutin dances. Some of the dancers we're not even up to the more basic Scottish dances and it was clear that people were not going to enjoy themselves. Our caller ask for a Show of Hands for who wanted to do the simple Scottish Dances with maybe a few easy English dances thrown in. The vote was overwhelmingly in favour of what the caller proposing. Everybody start to have a really good time, except for two of the dance teams. They marched up to us to complain that this was not right for a Burns night, and could not be tolerated. We explain the reasons for the change and pointed out that people were really having a good time that, but this is not acceptable. Two of the dance teams promptly got into their coaches and left. The third team, excellent dancers but a good natured lot, stayed on and helped with the dancing. Whenever I organise a Scottish ceilidh I am minded of this event, and make sure that we understand the capabilities of the Dancers and that they understand what they can or cannot manage.

Another great thing about playing with this barn dance band was that it brought in some very useful income, being on a very limited grant. This time that I met the person who was to become my wife. I can well remember her selling programmes the Sidmouth Folk Festival in her little yellow mini skirt. Those were the days!