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TOM OAKES AND ROSS COUPER’S WINTER TRAD - Edinburgh - 30 November - 2 December 2018

In this age of austerity, with few grants available for musical projects and with schoolchildren having to pay for music tuition, a new burden is placed on professional musicians and a few volunteers to organise festivals, workshops etc. Their promotions often start out small, but Alasdair Fraser’s Valley Of The Moon week in California attracts hundreds of students of all ages without financial support. Alasdair had to organise an overflow week in Nevada City which has now outgrown VotM, and VotM has spawned similar camps in Ashokan, Skye, Spain and Australia.

Tom Oakes and Ross Couper have begun their contribution to growing and passing on the music with a long weekend event in Edinburgh, Winter Trad. It’s the fourth year and has now grown to 45 students, mainly fiddlers but also flute and guitar players. Kevin Henderson was a guest fiddler, but a flight cancellation meant that he took 21 hours to reach Edinburgh via Manchester at 4am on Saturday.

To attract students, Tom and Ross have to provide “the works” for £115 (youngsters 18-25yrs, £65). They’d like to attract younger students too but they “can't afford all the paperwork and permissions needed for kids.” This is a sad commentary on our society. “The works” includes 19 professional musicians, five simultaneous sessions in various pub locations around the city, and two full days of classes in fiddle, flute and guitar. This all takes place in George Heriot's incredible 1630s private school in central Edinburgh (the inspiration for Harry Potter’s Hogwarts), presumably because the local authority’s central charges prohibit school hire. Heriot was the King’s jeweller and philanthropist who inspired the song, Jinglin Geordie.

Friday night brings life to a Novotel. Ross and Tom whip up a storm with their performance and then Tom, on guitar, forms half of a duo with Irish flute\guitar maestro, Phillipe Barnes. After a couple of sets, they swap over and Phillipe plays guitar behind Tom’s flute - all lovely stuff. Finally, one of last year’s guitar students, Calum Mackenzie Jones from Moray, plays a short set with Euan MacPhail on fiddle. They mix up jigs and reels with Calum’s own songs. Contemporary pop music’s not my thing but these are really good songs and Calum’s voice and guitar are strong. Watch out for him on the main stage at Glastonbury any day soon.

The concert was kept short because Tom knew that everyone was itching to play a session and simply announced: “You know what to do, get on with it.” We obeyed, and left the concert for the session. Despite having recently returned from Broadway, New York, Ross joined in, so the tunes were played three times faster than our usual plod. About 1am I retired to the Sandy Bells session, and there was Ross, already installed.

The classes were great, and two Shetland fiddle tutors were even persuaded to teach Shetland tunes. With hordes of tourists from cruise ship coaches peering through the school railings, desperate to get in, we had the place all to ourselves, and the evening concert was in the soaring Gothic chapel. Ross, Tom and Phillipe recognised the acoustic properties of this magnificent room and emphasised solo airs. We always knew that Kevin Henderson was a master of the slow tune, but Ross surprised us with his lovely clean, emotional tone on a solo air, echoing around the cavernous chapel.

The Saturday sessions were each hosted by pro musicians and a survivors’ session after the Sunday workshops even featured whistle/flute legend Cathal McConnell, a colleague of Kevin in Boys Of The Lough.

This was a fabulous weekend, with Tom pulling out all the stops with his admin. It would be nice to involve young people more and I know that Tom is thinking about this for next year. The only serious omission I could identify was the tragic lack of digestive biscuits among the wonderful range of cakes and biscuits provided at break times. (This omission was soon rectified.) In this age of austerity and bureaucracy, this weekend was a triumph of passion for music, talent and hard work.

Trevor Buck