Report by Alan Parker
It was with great excitement that I leapt out of bed on the 18th of January, because after a whole year of waiting, the Southern Cross Celtic Summer School was finally upon us once again.
We managed to cram three of us (part of a contingent of six Gippslanders), along five sets of pipes, one fiddle, and camping supplies to last a week into the one car whereupon we set off on our journey!
After a (mostly) uneventful drive to our new home for the week, we arrived to the welcoming sunshine of the Campaspe Downs (just 15 minutes south of Kyneton) - it's worth noting now that the weather over the week was very agreeable and reasonable compared to the previous year of > 40ºC!
Other than getting reacquainted with the sights, sounds and people of the school, the only formalities for the first night were the traditional tutors' concert, and the assorted sessions later in the evening.
There was a full to bursting program of tutors and classes for the year, featuring (in no particular order): Chris Duncan and Emma Nixon - Scottish Fiddle; Dave O'Neill - Irish Fiddle; Catherine Strutt - Scottish Piano; Jeremy Dunlop - Celtic Guitar; Mike Watts - English Concertina (the Piping Club's own multi-talented Sarah Wade is a tutor for English Concertina, but was double booked this year); Andy Rigby - Tin Whistle; Jane Thompson and James Rigby - Traditional Singing; Dave Alleway - Folk Harp; Luke Plumb - Celtic Mandolin...
...and finally, our very own Pat Lyons on Irish Pipes!
The concert featured the usual impressive array of masterful playing, as well as some more out-there performances - particularly Andy Rigby on the aptly named "Dag-pipes" consisting of a foot pump (think inflatable swimming pool) bellows, repurposed "goon bag" as the main pipe bag, chanters made from light-weight aluminium tubing, a drone from PVC conduit, all of which was held together with duct tape and half of the Bunnings garden sprinkler range. The combination of which resulted in a truly spectacular sight (and sound) to behold.
The 2015 class lineup for the pipes featured Pat Lyons and Giles Bettison as our mentors, with newcomers Anna Graham, Ian Currie, school regular Darri Anderson, and finally Piping club regulars Andrew Teusner, along with yours truly.
Each day afforded a "formal" class for the mornings where Pat and Giles covered the great and expansive world of pipering, from technique, rhythm, and style through to music theory, the deep relationship between Irish music and language.
Whilst technique, and musical aspects are a given for any music school - one thing that is truly unique about the piping class, and thanks in no small part to Pat's tireless efforts once the lessons had ended, was learning essential knowledge and skills relating to how pipes work, keeping them working, maintenance, tuning, and reed making.
Arguably the most important things any piper (Uilleann, Smallpipe, or whatever!) really has to learn - those of us in Aus in particular where other pipers and pipe makers are not always nearby - is knowing how to fix and maintain your pipes, as well as knowing how they should sound and feel to play when they are playing well.
Time and distance between lessons can be long, so you don't need to be working twice as hard as you already need to against an instrument that won't cooperate!
...but I digress.
In our lessons, we covered an impressive amount of ground in such a short time, including all of the fundamental ingredients of piping technique, such as cuts, rolls, crans, pops, triplets, slurs, open, closed, staccato and legato playing, along solving world peace and the general meaning of life, the universe, and everything.
After classes (I won't mention the catering- it's still too painful) we spent time jamming and learning to listen - often absorbing many hours of watching videos and listening to recordings of great pipers, talking about their styles and building our appreciation for the instrument and music as a whole.
Each night there were relaxed informal sessions, the two dedicated of which were the Scottish in the big room and the Irish in the green room. After the first night, inevitably splinter groups broke off and all sorts of eclectic and wonderful sessions happened, not just limited to Celtic music or conventional instruments. Many of the students, as well as the tutors are multi-talented and multi-instrumental leading to all sorts of unique fusions of music - from oboes, to clarinets, bass concertinas and even the eccentric and oh so Swedish nyckelharpa! ...and even if you didn't make it to the sessions, there was always a late night of shooting the breeze with a glass (or 5) of whisky on offer back at Father Jack's lodge.
On the Thursday night session preceding the final day, the Irish session was shown a rare treat as the pipers turned out en-force to shake things up (typically due to transport and temperature the pipes are ditched in favour of whistles and a bottle of red). This caused quite a stir (in the good way!).
Despite the craic, the reason for rolling out the pipes for one last session was also bitter-sweet. Because after telling you all of this, this school was the last Southern Cross Celtic Summer School.
As is tradition, on the last day each class played a concert for all involved to share some of what we'd learned.
The pipers started with Giles and Andrew playing the Swallow's Tail and Curragh Races on the flat-pitch pipes, followed by myself and Darri with An Londubh is an Chéirseach (The Blackbird and the Thrush), then we finished with a number all together playing Fead an Iolair (The Eagle's Whistle) - joined by some surprise guests, including Andy on the Dag-pipes, Jess Foot on the Oboe and Lynda on the vacuum cleaner (there's another story behind that one!).
The Piping Contingent
Each class put on a fantastic show, highlights including Swedish Polskas, African whistle tunes, and a surprise "flash mob" playing Beth's Fiddle Scarf - a tune written by Dave Alleway as a tribute to Beth Sowter - the driving force behind the school without whom (along with her husband Mike) there would be no school. I'm not ashamed to admit emotions were high and there was more than one misty eye in the room.
Probably one of my favourite parts of the day, though, was the surprise prepared by the singing class. They had written a song throughout the week to sing on the last day, all about the school and the people there - what a way to finish.
Although the school is over, there are already rumblings in many camps that something (or things) new are on the way. Although this particular chapter has closed, the community that has formed around the school over the last 17+ years is strong, and there's no way, I'm sure, it could die out... not to forget, too, that a strong and lively bunch of Celtic musicians has been meeting at the Koroit Lake School, with its own strong contingent of pipers headed up by Jack Brennan and Nick Martin.
Once again I want to acknowledge and thank Beth Sowter and Mike Watts - without whom, none of this would ever have happened!
On reflection, it really is pertinent to highlight the importance of movements like these - and the Celtic Piping Club, too as instrumental (excuse the pun) in keeping people connected - both with each other, and with the music.
Whilst Campaspe is done and dusted, piping in Australia is going strong, not just Irish, but Lowland and other forms seem to be growing bigger and stronger, so we can all share in being a part of that.
The Class of '15
I'd like to close out my report by thanking and acknowledging the tireless and passionate work of Pat Lyons both at the school and in the months between. As was said by Mike on the penultimate day - Pat has run the Uilleann Piping class at the Celtic Southern Cross school for over seventeen years. The longest running class of its kind in the southern hemisphere producing many quality pipers. I'm sure my fellow students would join with me in agreeing that we were bloody lucky to be learning in a time where we had access to a such a great school, and equally great tutor to get us on our feet, when, just a few decades ago, there we'd be on our own.
Go raibh math agat!
Photo Credits: Annie Pawley, Mike Watts, Phil Green