Now that I live in Scotland, I’ve inevitably become interested in Scottish traditional music. I’ll never be an expert, but the haunting melodies, and the beautiful Scottish dialect, are a great source of inspiration.
In 2017, I attended a concert at the chapel adjacent to Innerpeffray Library, near Crieff. This is a magical place that has attracted people since Roman times. In fact, a large field next to the river Earn just a few metres away, is known to have been an important Roman camp – perhaps the last one before they stopped their relentless march North. I like to harbour an image of Roman soldiers looking at the snow-capped mountains and deciding ‘C’mon guys, this is far enough. It’s been years since we had an Italian summer, and these guys put haggis on pizza for crying out loud!’
I recently arranged some Celtic tunes for solo guitar, including the melody to which the Rabbie Burns poem ‘Ae Fond Kiss’ is often sung. The original title ‘Mo run an diugh mar an dé thu’ roughly translates as ‘My Love Today as Heretofore’. The library houses some first editions of the Burns collections – these being some of the rarest books in Scottish historical study. What better, or more inspiring place to record and film a performance?
I’d like to thank Lara and her knowledgeable team of volunteers for their generous welcome. I was also very privileged to have been permitted to handle and browse through some of those early editions. I recorded three pieces – the last one on a bit of a whim! Here’s ‘Ae Fond Kiss’, recorded on September 2nd, 2021.
Like most guitarists and guitar teachers, I work in a school
one day per week where I have individual pupils and a guitar ensemble class. I
have come to love running the ensemble and I now see it as being central to my
work as a teacher.
Learning guitar can be a lonely pursuit. My wife, Kirsty, is a violinist and she often reflects on the great days she enjoyed as a teenager, when orchestral playing was at the hub of her musical and social life. There’s every reason for guitarists to take the same approach.
Much of what we teach is done to develop the technique and
musicality of our pupils. A good tutor book will contain pieces which develop
both hands without strain. Pentatonic-inspired pieces are particularly good for
this as they are easy to sing and memorise, as well as tending to be idiomatic
for the instrument.
One of the obstacles is finding ensemble repertoire that serves a pedagogic purpose. It is for this reason that I tend to make my own – many of which are published on SMP press. I’d like to show some which have been particularly successful.
I tend to arrange music which is popular and timeless. This
often translates as ‘pop’ melodies. I see no problem whatsoever in making
interesting arrangements of music in any style. Why should we be hostile to
pop? I once saw a collection of classical period music for guitar quartet where
the editor had divided parts of simple Sor studies across several instruments.
For the average pupil, this was about as motivating as a three-day Health and
Safety seminar in a cardboard box factory. I pity the poor kid who played open
E for 16 bars in one particular arrangement.
Firstly is my arrangement of Hallelujah. The careful
listener will hear that I have created parts in harmony to the main melody.
There is also call-and-response contrapuntal writing added at the chorus.
Finally, the Guitar 3 part is intended for beginners but due to the key
selected, they get to play the main tune. I tend to add chords to my
arrangements as I have some pupils coming to the class with a strong technical
ability but having only ever played chords. As I address their weaknesses in
their one-to-one sessions, I put their strengths to use in ensemble.
Nearly every guitar teacher has pupils of a wide range of
abilities. Therefore it makes a lot of sense to vary the difficulty of the
parts. The challenge lies in making them stimulating for all.
Next is my arrangement of The Sound of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel. The listener will notice that the melodic parts are again spread across the guitars. The original key of E flat minor (played with a capo) has been replaced for a far more friendly A minor. Chords are again included. The challenge was creating musical variety in the absence of the lyrics. Varying texture, octaves and rhythms was, I hope and believe, the solution.
My arrangement of Imagine by John Lennon is quite new but introduces a number of concepts to the learner. Firstly, a key of four sharps. The melody is limited in range so the learner approaches this by playing in a fixed position rather than worrying about remembering the sharps. This is the approach taken by professionals as you will know so why not introduce the concept now? The two main melodies are shared across the guitar 1 & 2 parts. Guitar 3 is for a beginner in my group and guitar 4 for a player who also plays bass guitar so the challenge I’ve written is rhythmic. The slides and slurs in Guitar 2 sound tricky but have been fingered in areas which make them easy and exciting. I have many primary-school kids playing this part with no difficulty.
I have also taken popular folk melodies and treated them to
classical procedures. My arrangement of Carrickfergus for guitar ensemble uses
modulation, chord substitution and counterpoint.
Finally, we live in an age where our learners are very comfortable with technology. With an investment of less than £50, I have taught myself how to make split-screen films. My learners can access these when they are practicing. Parents like to see a teacher engaged in the process at all hours of the day too!
You can find the films, downloads and audio excerpt of many arrangements here. Let me know your thoughts.