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Viols in Scotland: A National Crisis

Martin Barnett

Having spoken to other viol players at past workshops and playing weekends, a touch of jealousy enters my mind as I hear them describe their weekly consort meetings followed by afternoon tea or a swihave been met with very kind offers of accommodation if I can make one of their future consort meetings but, living in Scotland with a full time teaching job, I can’t commit to the time required to travel down to the parts of England and Wales where viol playing is a more regular occurrence. Scotland, a country two thirds the size of England should be able to host similar opportunities but the sad truth is that one annual viol workshop and roughly 25 players spread across the Country doesn’t leave much hope for the future of the viol in Scotland.

To illustrate the issue further, only half of the Scottish viol owners are regular players which significantly reduces the number of consort opportunities and with the majority of these players nearing or enjoying their retirement, it is becoming likely that one day Scotland won’t have any viol players unless something is done about it.

With reference to the Young Players section in the previous edition of the VdGS Magazine, it is apparent that the only way to prevent the viol quite literally dying out is to target school age pupils and it fills me with a great amount of pleasure to see the viol growing in popularity among the younger generation thanks to the excellent work carried out by the number of skilled teachers and musicians who have successfully promoted the viol as an equal to other instruments. Opportunities available to young people through the Gateshead Viol Consort and the Warwickshire based Gutted Viol Consort (to name only a few) have demonstrated that bringing the viol to the younger generation is not an impossible task, and I believe this is the answer to the future of the viol in Scotland.

As no viol teaching takes place in Scottish schools the expectation then falls to the universities. Interestingly enough, the majority of Scottish universities offering degrees in music own a set of viols but their sporadic use is through the benevolence of other local players who share their time and expertise without any real follow-up or academic encouragement to pursue the instrument further. The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland is fortunate enough to have Alison McGillivray on their staff and anybody pursuing the viol or historically informed performance beyond their degree end up having to leave Scotland due to the absence of any meaningful avenues of postgraduate study.

As a secondary music teacher, I can freely indulge in the promotion of the viol and my pupils enjoy any opportunity to hear it live and are fascinated that an instrument could fall out of fashion when it sounds lovely and looks really cool!” This is a testament to the fact that young people enjoy new and exciting challenges and I am in process of planting the seeds for the next generation of viol players.

As illustrated, viol playing in Scotland has almost come to a grinding halt and if no one else is going to do anything about it then I believe my enthusiasm and role in the Scottish education system makes me a suitable candidate to drive this forward. As ambitious as this may sound I would like to draw upon the inspiration of other youth viol groups and establish Scotland’s first opportunity for young people to develop their instrumental and consort skills as an enhancement to the existing curriculum.

Having been exposed to the viol for the first time over 7 years ago I have enjoyed every new opportunity is has offered me. I originally trained as a viola player and a chance encounter with a visiting baroque viola specialist at university opened the door to the world of historically informed performance- a concept I was only vaguely familiar with at the time. I have since made every effort to attend as many playing weekends and workshops as possible and have enjoyed attending concerts by some of the leading musicians in the field so it’s fair to say that the viol has provided me with a lifelong enrichment and I want to share this with others. I have already set up a beginner consort for adults with no prior musical knowledge and this has proven to be a success. I do this entirely free of charge and pay for all online advertising myself. I have also bought a very small collection of viols which I have used to start adult pupils off with before they decide to hire or buy their own instruments.

I am now ready to take this a step further with young people and having promoted early music to a wide range of ages I am keen to establish Glasgow's first viol consort for young people. I intend to offer weekly lessons taught in a group context to pupils of secondary school age as a way to complement their musical studies and equip them with an additional source of enrichment to enjoy for many years. The expressive and personal ethos of consort playing will be at the heart of lessons and pupils will enjoy learning a new skill while developing an active musical relationship with others which drill hopefully continue beyond their school years.

Lessons will be entirely free of charge to encourage as many young people as possible to get involved but we are in need of donations of any kind to make the project a success.  If you have any unused instruments in any size or condition, easy consort/tutor books, spare strings or would like to contribute towards the cost of hiring venues or viols (e.g. a community hall for a term) then please get in touch via my website at: Glasgow Viol Consort

All donations will be very gratefully received and you will be kept up to date with pupil progress via the website once the project has commenced. Thank you in advance for any assistance you may be able to provide.

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