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by Vicki

Nyckelharpas at Halsway 2015

20/10/2015 in workshop review

group_small'Harpas at Halsway Nyckelharpa Festival 2015

Wow! What a weekend! For the last four years I've been teaching and organising and arranging and finally I reached my goal - to fill Halsway Manor with nyckelharpa players. When I started to play the nyckelharpa in 2007 we were around 20 in number and it was a distant dream to create something as big and amazing as this.

So we now have a new record for numbers of nyckelharpas all together in the UK - forty-two players. The previous record set last year was fourteen so as you can imagine I was delighted! Let me give you a run down of the weekend.

I had two other lovely tutors to help me this year Peter Hedlund and Didier Francois. Totally contrasting in their style of playing and teaching I wanted to try to give a well rounded view of the nyckelharpa. All the groups were split amongst the three of us - although I mostly kept hold of the less experienced players. I did find that I missed everyone else though, so I'll change that for next year. On the Friday night we had a lovely little session in the bar. Saturday everyone worked very hard in their groups and after lunch the wonderful Per-Ulf Allmo gave a talk on the history of the nyckelharpa and where current research shows its origins could be. Olle Plahn was our resident fettler and he fettled away on nyckelharpas with sticky keys and fixing other problems here and there.

In the afternoon I fulfilled another wish - to have an ensemble. With just over an hour to prepare our tunes for the concert, time was very tight, but everyone did a wonderful job of pulling together the music I'd selected. The concert was good fun and of course we performed my arrangement of The Halsway Schottische for nyckelharpa ensemble. After the concert we had a little ceilidh followed by more sessioning. fan-Small

Sunday was a bit more informal with people selecting their groups and I got a session with the people I'd not seen, which was lovely. We had our traditional procession and because the weather was so good we managed to process throughout the grounds and have our photograph taken on the steps. We processed back into the manor for fika the music and our numbers filling the hall. I have to admit I did well up a little at this point. Luckily I managed to compose myself before having to speak to everyone again to organise the traditional harpa wheel.

This year because of the number of instruments and the shape of the hall we attempted a vague fan shaped pile of nyckelharpas on the floor. I wasn't very good at laying them down in a way that presented them well. Whether or not we attempt a proper wheel next year I'm not sure. It was quite nerve wracking trying to keep everyone away from it to protect the instruments - so it could be that this last 'shoal of harpas' is the last picture. Or maybe not...

olleTo finish the weekend we all met in the Long Room and played at little of what we'd done for the weekend for everyone, the three makers all presented their instruments and finally it was time to say our farewells and go home.

I learnt a lot over the course of the weekend and since I've been back I've been debriefing and planning for next year. Can we beat 42 players? There are over 60 beds at the manor itself and with camping and caravans it should be possible to make the weekend bigger and better! I have a beginners/less experienced weekend in April at Halsway (numbers limited to 12) and then anot
her full on festival weekend on the first weekend in September. So I hereby pronounce bookings open for both weekends. We can set another record 12 months from now!

Below is a little video playlist from the weekend. Bookings are now open for the Nyckelharpa Festival at Halsway Manor. There are still a couple of places left for the smaller beginners/less confident weekend in April. Click here for details!


by Fiona

‘Harpas at Halsway Manor 2014

29/01/2015 in workshop review

stairsHarpas at Halsway has joined various festivals as a 'must do' entry on our calendar at the start of each year. Having attended all three so far I know each time I would have hated to miss the next one! Right from that moment of driving through the gates into the grounds of Halsway Manor there is that lovely feeling of belonging, homecoming and anticipation, all rolled into one. The surroundings are beautiful, the people very friendly and the music fantastic.

The weekend starts with a meal in the Manor dining room followed by a relaxed evening of session playing and getting to know each other - work starts in earnest on the Saturday morning, although Vicki always gives the complete beginners an initial lesson on the Friday. We have had different ways of splitting the group to accomodate the different ability levels, but everyone has had the choice to work at their own level as well as being stretched! Just the opportunity to play together makes the weekend worthwhile but add into that the new tunes, the input on playing technique and Vicki's enthusiasm and warmth and you have the recipe for success!

MedalsThe days are nicely split into different sessions concentrating on areas such as types of tune, chords, finger exercises, bow technique and looking after the instrument, punctuated by tea and coffee breaks and meals and the opportunity to hear what non playing partners have been enjoying in the local area. On the Saturday evening we have been treated to a brilliant concert each time, which was also attended by some of the locals. In the past we have shared the Manor with the pipers society, so the concert has been pipes and harpas, with many memorable performances from Vicki and Jonny as well as the piping tutors. Last year our group then indulged in the light entertainment of the Harpa Olympics, where events such as the Svingrumpa Marathon caused much hilarity! All were awarded gold medals at the end, (specially made by Vicki using ribbon and chocolate coins!) and the prize of another great tune and dance session.

Harpa-WheelThe Sunday provides lots of opportunities to recap new material and play in parts with rounds or arrangements created by Vicki, and last year we processed across to coffee to serenade the pipers! After a wonderfully tasty Sunday lunch we had a gentle afternoon and finished about three thirty with a devonshire cream tea, our brains stretched to their maximum!
The next one is booked and waiting - it feels very exciting to think about taking over the whole Manor and filling it with harpas - thank you, Vicki, for taking the brave leap!


by Vicki

International Days of the Nyckelharpa

26/01/2015 in workshop review

The 11th International Days of Nyckelharpa - Burg Fürsteneck, somewhere vaguely near Frankfurt
Cost: €330 - €380, includes tuition fees, accomodation and meals

This is a huge residential nyckelharpa course. Seventy nyckelharpa players in the same castle (not a huge castle, more a fortified manor house, but it has a lovely tower). To get to the International Days in time I flew Lufthansa from London and arrived at the airport railway station and met up with the Swedes. I was grateful to have company to help me find my way, but I think I would have been ok in finding my way. The train journey to the castle is around 2 hours and is easy enough, just one change and a taxi ride and you're at the castle.

I was booked as a tutor and as it was my first time at Burg Fürsteneck I was unsure what to expect. Would it be like my Halsway weekends? What was the standard of playing going to be like? Would I have prepared enough material? It's hard to write up about the weekend - there was so much happening and going on that it would be a really long essay!

On the first (Thursday) evening everyone gathers in the main hall and all the tutors get to introduce themselves and play a little. This is where the students all get to make their final choice as to which tutor they're going to spend their time with. Was I petrified? Absolutely. I played safe. My chosen topic for the weekend was British music on the nyckelharpa - I chose to play a couple of well trodden session tunes. I have never ben so scared! Not only were my heroes in the room also playing for the students, but I was in a room with 70 other nyckelharpa players. It was an incredible room to be in.

From this point on the weekend flew past. The first workshop session is on that Thursday night. and you stay with the same group until Sunday morning. There are a two sessions (called short workshops) where you can change tutor and learn something new. It was great for me to teach some tunes to the different groups and get a feel for the differing standards. I taught jigs, reels, slip jigs. I even taught a simple dance. In the evenings there is time to drink beer and session. There was the usual Swedish tune session and I started more traditional British session, but these tunes aren't so well known on the continent yet, but I'm pretty sure this is going to change. The makers take over one room and each display their instruments and talk about them. The concert on the Saturday night is open to the general public and each tutor gets to perform and some ensembles get to perform together. The standard of playing was incredibly high and it was wonderful to see so many different styles and genres represented.

There were eight tutors and students ranged from complete beginners to very advanced. Swedish music, British music, classical music, early music, ensemble music. There really was something for everyone.

I was booked as a tutor, so I can only give a tutor's eye view of the weekend, but I'd certainly love to be a participant and may well try to get to the castle in future years as a student. That won't be next year - I'm back as a tutor again. I'd better head off down to the pub and brush up on more British session tunes!

Laxön Nyckelharpa Course

29/09/2014 in workshop review

viewLaxön nyckelharpa/fiddle course  Älvkarleby, Uppland, Sweden
11-17 August 2014
Teachers: Leif Alpsjö, Edward Anderzon, Pietrus Dilner
Cost: SKR 5,850 (about £500) which includes tuition fees, accommodation, and most of the meals.

This is a residential course on the beautiful island of Laxön and as far as I know happens every year in August – it certainly has taken place each of the four years I’ve been playing the nyckelharpa, but this last summer was the first time I’d made the journey. Peter Webb, my travelling companion, was a veteran, having been the previous year. Another member of Nyckelharpa UK who attended the course this year and the year before was Nana Ogashiwa.

Most of the thirteen students attending the course this year were nyckelharpa players, but there were also a few fiddlers. English, Japanese, German, and Swedish nations were represented – all the teaching was in English. Peter and I had opted not to risk our harpas on the plane as there was an opportunity to rent a harpa for the week. I was able to find one that was identical to the one I have at home, by the same maker (Elov Jansson). Peter was interested in buying a new harpa, so the week gave him plenty of time to make the right choice (which, as is often the case in these matters, turned out to be the first harpa he picked out).

The first day (Monday) is given over to arriving and settling in to the hostel which provides both accommodation and teaching space. After dinner the evening is about getting to know each other, and, of course, having a session! We also made our acquaintance with a word that was to prove of great significance over the course of the week – ‘fika’! If you have been to Sweden you will know all about this. It is a coffee break with added comestibles, which could be cake, or biscuits, or cheese and crispbread. Whatever it involves, it seems it has to happen at least five times a day, not including mealtimes! (I had come prepared with some decaff teabags as I can’t take that much caffeine in one day.)

The course began on Tuesday morning, and the first task was to split the students into groups depending on level. The determining factor was – are you confident you can tune your instrument? The majority of us put our hands up, but a few admitted to being uncertain and so they formed a separate group. There was also a Swedish couple who had recently bought each other fiddles, their first instruments – for their eightieth birthdays! As virtually complete beginners they constituted their own group!

fikaThe week is overseen by Leif, a ‘riksspelman’ (‘national fiddler’) and the man behind, from whom I bought my harpa. Now in his seventies, Leif is a highly respected player and teacher who has written tuition books for the harpa. Alongside him were Edward, an ebullient chap with a great handlebar moustache and a vigorous playing style, and the young Pietrus, who had recently achieved the title of riksspelman at the unusually tender age of 17. Pietrus’s role was officially that of ‘assistant teacher’. There was to be another assistant, Marja, but unfortunately she was hospitalized on the morning the course began and was unable to take any further part. If we needed any proof of the prowess of Leif, Edward, and Pietrus on nyckelharpa it was supplied in spades at a teachers’ concert on the Thursday evening.

Leif’s approach is very much geared towards teaching technique. As he says, anyone can learn a tune any time, so he chose simple and/or familiar tunes (like Polska efter Båtsman Däck) and focused on bow hold, left-hand thumb position, attacking the strings, and getting a good consistent tone mostly with fairly minimal movement of the bow. I found myself having my bow hold virtually completely reconstructed. As a fiddler I was accustomed to placing my pinkie on the bow, but this I was told was quite wrong.

A morning of intense work with Leif was followed by lunch and then an afternoon of teaching from Edward. A great player in his own right, Edward is almost the complete opposite of Leif. He likes to use the whole of the bow with great, dynamic, sawing movements – and yes, he puts his pinkie on the bow. Having just been told not to do this, I was a bit confused! But it goes to show that there are few absolute rules in folk music, and if something works for you then it is good. This was very much Edward’s approach, and he concentrated more on teaching us new tunes and encouraging us to play out with confidence and style. As it happens, I had already begun to feel the benefit of the non-pinkie bow hold and so was determined to stick with it, and now it feels quite natural.

sessionAnd so the days quickly fell into a pattern. Up at 7 to take a walk in the early morning sunshine around the forested island. Then breakfast, lessons with fika breaks, lunch in the nearby restaurant, lessons with more fika, dinner in the hostel, and playing for fun and dancing in the evening (and fika). The island is surrounded by rivers and a reservoir, and the name ‘Laxön’ means ‘Salmon Island’: if you were lucky you could spot salmon leaping from the churning waters by the dam, or herons perched on rocks. The buildings on the island were formerly an army barracks, but have been transformed into hostels, restaurant, café, craft shop, and the like, and all round the island are tourist notices informing the visitor of the local history, in both Swedish and English.

On the Wednesday we were told that we would be performing as a group as part of an open-air concert on the island early on Thursday evening. We would do some tunes as an ensemble, but we could also split into smaller groups to do whatever we liked, and so we started to talk about what we might do. Jokingly, Peter said, ‘And Ed will do a tap dance!’ Equally jokingly, I replied, ‘Not a tap dance, but I could do a morris dance!’ To my surprise this was taken as a serious suggestion, and the next thing I knew I was inventing a dance to perform at the concert. There wasn’t anyone around who knew any morris tunes (shame on you, Peter!), so the solution was to put together something that could be danced to a Swedish tune, and I chose the Gånglåt from Äppelbo as a morris-friendly tune, which Leif would play for me on his nyckelharpa. So at breaktimes between lessons on the Wednesday and Thursday I could be seen outside the hostel developing my routine. I got some curious looks from passers-by as I danced solo, without any music, just the tune in my head. I had brought no bells or whites as I wasn’t expecting to do this, but managed to borrow a couple of hankies from Peter.

On the evening of the performance, as well as playing in the general ensemble Peter and I teamed up to do a short spot as a nyckelharpa (me) and flute (Peter) duet, playing a couple of tunes from Vicki Swan’s ‘24 Tunes in the Swedish Style’. Nana sang a beautiful Japanese song along with her compatriot Kazuhiro. Then as I limbered up for my morris ‘jig’, of course it started raining! I told the audience this was entirely appropriate as morris dancers often have to perform in the rain in England. But the rain was only light and the jig was warmly received! And Leif enjoyed it so much he asked me if I would do it again at the Byss-Calle festival on the Sunday.

Formal lessons continued until Saturday lunchtime, and from then on we were free. A trip was organized to a village (Strömsberg) that is now like an industrial and agricultural museum, wherconcerte you could watch charcoal being made or beer being brewed (and chat to the brewer), or visit the iron foundry museum or the museum of farm equipment which included over 600 elk antlers on display! A very pleasant fika in warm sunshine at the riverside café was the perfect conclusion to the afternoon.

Our last day was centred around the Byss-Calle festival in Älvkerleby. Byss-Calle was a native of the village, and the festival is an annual gathering of musicians and dancers in his honour, organised by Leif. It begins with a church service where nyckelharpa players and fiddlers play at various points. If you were good enough you could join them to play the likes of Eric Sahlström’s ‘Andakten’ or Byss-Calle’s ‘Byggnan’. Neither Peter nor I felt up to this, but Nana joined in, along with a young German called Johanna (who made her own instrument and is currently setting herself up as a professional nyckelharpa maker). The church ceiling is decorated with angels playing various instruments, including a nyckelharpa – the paintings are dated 1503.

After the service the festival goers moved to a field to play a few tunes around the Byss-Calle monument, and then the festival took place in a grassed courtyard surrounded by barns. You can put your name down to do a ten-minute spot and if you play a Byss-Calle tune you get a signed certificate! Peter and I, along with Swedes Susanne and Marianne from the course, did B-C 32 and a couple of other tunes and proudly accepted our certificates!

angelAnd I did the morris jig again. This time, the rain waited until five minutes after I’d finished, and then it lashed down for twenty minutes! As I said to my colleagues, that’s the power of the morris …

We had some lunch, and then wandered around the festival, where in every nook and cranny small groups of musicians could be seen having mini-sessions, with many nyckelharpas present. But all too soon it was time to say our goodbyes and head for Älvkarleby station to take us to Arlanda airport. Peter had made his harpa purchase and was delighted to discover that he could take his new acquisition in its soft case on the SAS flight as hand luggage. (Worth bearing in mind if you are planning a trip to Sweden with nyckelharpa!)

It was a lovely week, with many great memories, and much to work on when I got home. At first I was resistant to the idea of changing my left-hand thumb position, but I have persevered and now it is instinctive and I wonder how I ever played any other way. As well as the fine teaching, special mention must go to Marianne, who cooked the evening meals, and Per-Ulf, who dealt with any requests, including going into the village to find postage stamps! And to Peter, who, as a seasoned campaigner, was kind enough to arrange the flights and guide me through the complexities of air travel. Friendships were formed that will endure, and if it happens again next year I will be hoping to go. Only, this time, I’d better take my bells with me!

Summer 2014

If a Swede invites you to sample the fermented herring, I suggest you politely decline.