Case Studies

Melbourne Scottish Fiddle Club with Judy Turner (Founder and Director)

The Melbourne Scottish Fiddle Club is a striking example of how community well-being is enhanced not just through the making of music but through people of all ages making it together. The Club began in 1995 when Judy Turner brought a group of musicians together on a Sunday afternoon to learn and play the fiddle music of Scotland and the Scottish diaspora. The group’s aim was to develop a common repertoire of tunes to play together at community gatherings like pub sessions, weddings and other celebrations. But before long festival organisers came calling and almost overnight the whole mission changed. For 15 years now the Melbourne Scottish Fiddlers have been known not only as a great band but also as a group that nurtures young talent and provides opportunities for anyone to join in. Proof of that can be seen in the current age range of the Club’s teachers, from 14 through to the late 60s.

And then there are the reviews!

Arts Patron, Betty Amsden OAM, says, "I've been involved with classical music for decades, and have seen all sorts of music in the best theatres in the country, and yet I find this Club's music is utterly entrancing. Their concert at this year's Brunswick Festival was one of the best I've ever been to, joyful, exciting and oh so accomplished."

Una McAlinden, Director of the National Celtic Festival held annually in Portarlington raves, "I just love their new CD and for months I couldn't seem to stop playing it. I think their secret is that the members bring together an incredibly diverse range of skills, and freely share their abilities and knowledge with each other from fiddle playing styles, to experience in Scottish and Celtic dance, to accompanying and rhythm sections, along with recognised experts in Scottish music, language and culture. You can see that all members have an ongoing commitment to learning and improving their styles and performance abilities.”

What are your objectives?

“The group has both social and musical objectives. We provide a fantastic outlet for adult learners, for young people and for people who have played music when young and want to reconnect with a musical group. We are quite unusual in allowing for a range of ages and skills that is as wide as could be imagined. We also bring amateurs and professionals together in a winning combination of skill and enthusiasm, and provide a huge range of learning opportunities. We fund our members to attend camps, summer schools and workshops, and subsidise them to take part in our many tours. Ours is a happy inclusive environment where everything is encouraged and creativity is the rule.”

In our 15 year history we have had over 200 members come through the group and have performed at over 20 folk festivals, toured regional Victoria, Tasmania and New Zealand, produced four CDs including the 2009 winner of Folk Alliance of Australia Album of the Year, “Golden Gates”. We’ve encouraged and fostered young talent and many of our young players are National Folk Festival award winners. We also encourage writing by running a Tune Composition Competition annually. The Club has played for many community gatherings and dances, raised funds for bushfire appeals in 2007 and 2009 and for Nepali Health projects, and hosted over 20 visiting national and international teachers for the benefit of our group. We are self funded with the additional bonus of occasional support of small grants from the Victoria Multicultural Commission and the City of Boroondara. Over the Club’s life we have raised more than $100,000 in support of our music and our community.

How does the Melbourne Scottish Fiddle Club improve community life?

Our musical arrangements always strive for an exciting, contemporary sound, while paying respect to the direct lineage of traditional Scottish music both in Scotland and to where the Scots have emigrated, such as Australia, Canada and the United States.

One unique thing about the Club is the mix of ages we have always had, with the result that adults and young people are always learning from each other. The enthusiasm and energy of the kids has been a blessing right from the start, and the group has striven wherever possible to harness and develop their talents.

Many of our younger members now run their own bands, and four of them have won major awards as the best young players in their fields.

We often are called on to perform at community events in the City of Boroondara, and have made a big contribution to the cultural life there and around Victoria for 15 years. Many of our members have been with the group a long time, and some of the positive impacts they report include great fun and enjoyment of a worthwhile activity in a group of people they would otherwise never get to meet, greater confidence with their music, exciting opportunities to play above their accepted standard (most groups tend to exist for players of a pretty uniform standard) and the delight in learning from people of different ages.

Probably the most significant way we improve community life is by spawning similar groups in other States. We were the first in Australia and are now regarded as the mother ship of Scottish fiddling revival here, with groups in Sydney, Canberra, Brisbane, Adelaide and soon Perth all starting partly through our encouragement and inspiration.

How do you get and keep young people in the mix?

This is probably the secret of our strength as a club – and it’s different from the club we modelled ourselves on in the American city of Boston where kids were separate and not ever encouraged to lead or solo or teach. The young people in our group range from 9 (right now) to about 20, but there are also a number who have been with us almost since the start, and are now in their late 20s. We don’t know how to categorize them!

We had a period where we played Port Fairy and the National Folk Festival pretty often (we hope to do so again) and kids at those festivals would see the group and decide it was their way into the scene. They mostly already had an interest in this music through their families, and they liked the idea of being part of it.

The performances have always been a strong motivator for the young players, but they’re also drawn to the other opportunities. For example, we sponsor them to go to fiddle schools pretty much anywhere (several have been to the US, two to Scotland, two to Spain) and every year we award prizes to the best young players to attend the summer schools here in Australia and NZ, as well as subsidizing anyone who wants to attend the Easter School at the National Folk Festival in Canberra.

It’s really all about linking them into a world that is fun to be part of.  They make friends, they go away to camps and on tour, they are provided with great adult mentors and supporters, and their whole world can be changed and shaped by being “allowed” into this scene of players. The youngsters get phenomenal opportunities and encouragement to play solo, to arrange sets, to write their own tunes and to teach .

Sometimes it happens that a new adult player will rock up and find a young player of 15 teaching, and back away because it doesn’t seem “proper” to them. Mostly our adult players love having the young ones teaching because they are so quick and musical. It’s safe to say that we have produced some of the best young players and teachers in this country, through using the method of total encouragement.

We also challenge them to take on roles they thought were beyond them and then watched them rise to the occasion. But there are some who will never want to solo and never are really able to teach, but they get other fun out it being around the group.

As they grow out of their teens they can have periods of being too cool for the group, and indeed as they get much better as players they either like the idea of giving back or not. We encourage them to teach (2010 has been the Year of the Next Generation) and actually pay them for the teaching they do in the group.

We have also hosted workshops with just about every leading fiddler who has come to Melbourne over the past 15 years, so all the players, young and old, benefit from getting close to these international master fiddlers.

What does the mix of ages mean for the dynamics of the group, the music it creates and the outcomes for the players?

Having these young kids in the group means the level is always getting higher. Adult learners and amateurs usually reach (or have already reached) their level pretty quickly, and stay there, whereas the young are constantly learning and soaking up the music, then they go off exploring.

We used to say “its easy for them, they have nothing else in their heads!” and to a certain extent this is true, but its more the case that their minds are open.

So now the young players who have their own bands are into pop, rock, jazz, bluegrass, Irish, Cape Breton, Quebecois – pretty much anything other than Scottish, as, for many, that represents what they did as kids. Luckily for us they mostly feel enough loyalty that they keep coming back to teach and help out. So while they keep pushing the standard, the adults are also carried along with them.

But that’s not the whole story as the kids in turn learn all sorts of skills from us adults, as well as having a whole set of alternate parental types in their lives to promote them, brag about them, laugh with (or at) them, take them places and generally act like favourite aunts and uncles.

The committee is an area where we have yet to engage many young people in any serious way. So the admin and direction setting is done by the adults, with occasional input from the youngsters. Generally this mix works well and means that musically and organisationally we are always working to better the group, and to find new ways to present the music.

How has your program grown or changed over the last three years?

While the leadership still rests with adult players and a highly committed management and fundraising committee, in recent years our young players have taken much more of the initiative and have led us into other realms, as they are very open to and excited by American and Canadian fiddling. Their teaching skills develop at a rapid rate once they are given the opportunity, and they are now in demand as paid teachers at fully commercial music camps and schools.

We have branched out even further musically by learning to sing in Gaelic from Dr Ron McCoy our resident Gaelic expert and some of us have also learned to do rudimentary step dancing from a few of our members. We focus much more on songs these days, and encourage our members to solo and join in group singing as well as solo and group fiddling.

Our program now includes a special session each month, and at each gig, for the “Cool Young People” which is led by some of our best young players. We are able to repay them with subsidies to camps and schools overseas. Our musical repertoire is more diverse and more sophisticated than ever before, as witnessed by the Folk Alliance of Australia Album of the Year award won by our latest CD 'Gates of Gold' which was also featured album of the week on the Daily Planet and has received a good amount of airplay on folk radio shows.

How do you balance the demands of being musically excellent with providing an open-door, participatory activity? How important is public performance as an incentive to improve musically?

We have never had auditions and always encourage people to come along and try and make their own decision. This has led to a really wide range of ability, because confidence and commitment play a big part. In fact we always tolerated some players (not so many now, but certainly earlier) who were basically faking throughout, just in order to keep the ethos alive.

These people often became invaluable and much loved members of the group or they just took themselves out of the group, as they didn’t like the feeling of not keeping up. We have a couple of key players who have been professional players, in both the rhythm and melody sections, and they drive the arrangements and enable people to play way above their normal level, and if they were to drop out or lose interest we would be a totally different group. Our guitarist is a world class player who has always been generous in getting arrangements together and teaching the less experienced players their parts.

Public performance and recording are probably the two things that we find get people playing outside their normal skill set. Once when we had the Port Fairy gig, I insisted no-one was allowed to play if they needed to read the music – i.e no music stands on stage. Everyone had to learn all the repertoire by heart. This was a real turning point for the group and is the thing I always recommend to other instrumental groups. It meant the players lifted their heads and could see the audience, and thus they all got the feedback and knew they were a part of a really entertaining concert, and that reward just fed right back to the group.

Recording is really important for improvement – it’s easy to convince people to practise as they don’t want to be the one who spoils a particular track. After four CDs we have a good pattern and people who want to be part of the CD know they have to get all the music off pat or take themselves out of a particular recording for a particular track. The sense of group responsibility for the sound is developed hugely by touring, and we have often got our stuff very tight by touring, before recording it. We have also been able to include some world renowned players in our recording projects and festival performances by being opportunistic when they are touring. We have become friendly with many great players, and that in turn feeds back to the quality of playing.

What's the most difficult part of running MSFC?

Just keeping up with all the demands on top of full time work and large family – when our kids were small we used to include them in the group, one on flute, one on sax or drums and one as a singer. Now they are way too cool (and too good by their own admission!) to be regulars but they still get dragged out from time to time.

Money used to be an issue but we were lucky that our first CD sold well and paid for the second, and since then we have always had a healthy little bank balance enabling us to keep our fees really low ($60 per year) and subsidise all the tours and workshops. The Club always has something new on the go, lately it’s our Shetland Exchange which is funded by a donor and going to make a whole lot of players much stronger in this particular type of fiddling.

How do you manage conflict in the group?

We don’t have a lot of dissent though we do have a robust debate - they used to call me the benevolent dictator, and sometimes the fiddle fascist!

We have not really had any serious conflict – we have a great committee which is very stable. The President and I have been in our roles working together on the project for 14 years now and, as we are totally different and complementary personalities, that seems to work really well. Also we have many parents of kids in the group now playing with us and partners play a key role too, with stage management, photography, front of house and so on.

Is it volunteer-run? Does anyone get paid? How is it managed?

It’s volunteer run but in some years (maybe 8 of the 16) a few people have been paid a small annual stipend. Nowadays we pay an hourly rate to young people from our group who teach. We also pay outsiders for weekend camps, workshops, travel to gigs and so on. We are an incorporated association and we have an annual meeting and elect office bearers. Luckily we have a great committee for the regular stuff as well as a “ladies auxiliary” for tours.

Judy’s tips and ideas

  1. Do something you love, and attract others with your enthusiasm
  2. Whenever possible, engage professional or expert players with your group - if you handle it right everyone feels good and learns from the involvement
  3. Find a way to make money so you can invest in your players - they and the group will benefit way more than you could ever value financially.
  4. Try not to obsess about standards - enthusiasm conquers all!
  5. Get incorporated - people take you more seriously