Peter Cope was the founder of BFG and was in every way its leader until he suffered a serious stroke in 2006. Very sadly, Pete died in 2014 without being able to return to the group.  Since 2006 the group has been kept going and indeed has thrived, perhaps because it held on to the ideas and philosophy that Pete developed, almost by accident as he explains below.  So BFG remains an active group of learners of all ages who help each other and play gigs for many events.  In his piece below Pete urged us to "keep it going and keep it fun".  Without doubt we have managed both. There doesn't seem any reason that this will change in the near future.


History and Philosophy Of Blackford Fiddle Group.  By Pete Cope, November 2008

I thought it might be useful, or even mildly interesting to sketch out the history and philosophy of the fiddle group for those more recent converts to the cause, or for those who might be interested in starting a fiddle group of their own.  The history is necessary because I want to make it clear that the group did not come about by working out the philosophy and making meticulous plans and implementing them.  It was more like an evolution based on messing around, getting involved in traditional music and its culture and discussing how to do things with fellow musicians and members of the fiddle group, usually in between playing sets and sipping beverages.  I guess the true origin of the all the music that our fiddlers play would be my school violin teacher, John Clements, I'm not sure whether he'd be pleased or not, but although he was a classical violin teacher with all the baggage that that entails, he was a decent bloke and I'd like to think he'd be pleased. 

Like most people who learned to play an instrument of school I didn't enjoy it and stopped playing the violin as soon as I left, got into listening to a lot of music (mainly classical) with the odd traditional LP.  I learned to play the guitar at university by picking up tips from friends and painstakingly analysing the playing of people like John Renbourne, but I didn't think of the violin until my own children were about seven years old when I thought it would be nice if they could learn to play. As there was no instrumental tuition offered through their school and I couldn't find a private tutor, I reasoned that although I couldn't actually play the violin in any accepted sense of the word, I remembered how to play it. So I could at least show them, without being able to demonstrate any expertise.  This is an unusual approach, and could probably only work in the peculiar and particular context of the family.  I bought a couple of half size violins, to give to each of my twins Emily and Sarah, and of course I started off doing to them what had been done unto me, i.e. giving them formal lessons, after a couple of days I realised that none of us were enjoying this so I started to try and play with them, rapidly moving to the idea of a string quartet where I played the viola, and I got my dad, a talented bloke, to make a small cello for my youngest daughter, Julie.  I now cringe when I look back at this, skin crawlingly middle-class decision. 

We only played music that we had heard on CDs (so the idea of playing by ear, at least to some extent was there from the start) but I still transcribed the music into conventional staff notation, or went to the library and borrowed the dots.  We played every morning before the kids went to school, it although it sounded awful it was unbelievably good fun. This established the idea of practice by playing together, rather than as a solitary activity and I was just amazed at how quickly my children took off and became fluent players.  We played a lot of Bach so they got used to playing fast, which paid off when he made the switch to traditional music.  When we moved to Blackford, they played a bit at school impressing their teachers, because they were much better and much more fluent than anything their teachers had ever seen, but one day they came home and said the school was having a ceilidh and would like them to play some ceilidh music.  At that stage, I wasn't really into traditional music at all, but I vaguely remembered a reel from a Steeleye Span LP I possessed years before.  I couldn't remember its title but I now know it was "The Bank of Ireland", I wrote out the dots and the twins learned it from the music, I worked out a bass part for Julie to play on the cello and we duly played it together.   The first time we tried it I realised there was something missing and I went up to the loft, dusted off my old guitar and strummed along with them to my amazement, it sounded great, classical music needs to be played with precision or it sounds awful and we weren't up to it.  Traditional music is less formal and it doesn't matter if the edges are a bit rough, we instantly converted to playing only traditional music, but we still played every morning, again, the twins made staggeringly fast progress and were soon able to play at ninety miles an hour.  We started playing the odd gig, I then started to think and I thought two things. The first was that I would like to play the fiddle and if my kids could learn then so could I.  I also decided to switch Julie from the cello to the fiddle and I learned alongside her, good fun, but depressing to be so dull and ploddingly slow in comparison with her. The second was if my kids could do it why couldn't other people's kids.  I was, and remain, very dubious about the notion of inherited ability of any sort.  And so in 1996, I started Blackford Fiddle Group. 

I had absolutely no idea how it was going to work, but we got a grant of £280 from Blackford Community Council and some interested parents bought fiddles for their children, I can't remember how many children we had to start with but I think it was about ten. At that stage I was not encouraging parents to learn to play, although I did encourage them to attend to help me deal with the unwashed masses who have now matured into such talented, but still unwashed players.  One such early parent helper was Jan who quickly giving in to talking persuasion to bring her guitar along and play with us.  I had to rely on my children to help with some informal tuition and I remain grateful to them for their help in those early days.  I was still wedded to the notion that you needed some kind of tuition to learn. I was also wedded to the notion that you needed to be able to read music, although it didn't take a great deal brain power to come up with the idea of colour-coded music to reduce the obstacle that reading music places in the way of so many learners of musical instruments.  It remains a mystery to me why the formal sector has not developed more inclusive techniques, it really isn't very hard to do. 

The idea of learning by participation came later as I talked to more people and became more familiar with the culture of traditional music, from which we imported the emphasis on and value of playing by ear.  Fairly early on it occurred to me that getting parents to play along might be helpful. First, Jan came along with a guitar, and then Andrew learned to play the guitar so he could play at home with his estimable children, Aly and Freya, both now expert fiddlers. Then he let slip that he had learned to play the flute at school and I nagged at him for about six months to bring the flute down to the group.  Bravely he did so.  It was a classical flute and he hadn't played it for about twenty years and he had to learn to play by ear and to expose himself to the possibility of ridicule. How I wish I'd taken more advantage of that opportunity.  Since then Andrew has become somewhat obsessive and has a large collection of whistles and traditional wooden flutes and is one of the stalwarts of the fiddle group who have kept it going in my enforced absence.  Along with Jan, Andrew became a source of ideas about how to make better learning opportunities for our members.  We soon started to pick up on the importance of authentic performance, learning by ear and going to sessions, we must have been in a small minority of parents who spent time and energy trying to encourage our children to come to the pub with us rather than dissuading them from entering licensed premises.  We had some early disasters; some pubs were ambivalent about having such young people on their premises and we have been thrown out on at least two occasions. 

The fiddle group is now successful beyond my wildest aspirations, thanks to the enthusiasm of its members who have been unkind enough to demonstrate to me how dispensable I was, by going from strength to strength after I suffered a fairly massive cerebral vascular accident or stroke in May 2006. This has prevented me from taking part and to my lasting regret has largely curtailed my musical activities. Initially I had four months in hospital, forcing me to leave what I regarded as my fiddle group to sink or swim. It swam, in fact it broke into the front crawl and positively sprinted. 

I am now in a position to elaborate the philosophy of the group, a philosophy which developed through experience and through working with enthusiastic and creative people.  I will now attempt to spell out what I now think are the key features of our success. In some ways, but somewhat unkindly, I might say look at what the formal school sector does and do precisely the opposite:-

Formal instrument tuition is embedded within the culture of classical music and has the following features:-

1) an emphasis on formal tuition
2) an emphasis on reading music
3) an emphasis on solitary practice
4) the selection of the talented and its inevitable consequence, rejection of the unworthy, justified by apparently limited resources
5) highly structured and constrained performance in formal settings
6) access to performance groups controlled by auditions
7) formal assessment through a graded assessment schem
8) focus on classical music, rooted in a culture not always, or often shared by community
9)  parents' role to "police" and enforce practice, to make children do something which they did not do themselves.

It's only recently that I have sat down and explicated these features of formal school instrument  tuition, and I examine them I am struck by the fact that the fiddle group really does do almost the exact opposite of all these.  So that in the fiddle group:

1) there is very little formal tuition, members learn by participation and from each other and from the occasional workshop which is the closest we get to formal tuition. For a long time our strapline has been "Be Your Own Good Teacher", a phrase I got from interviewing a young and now well-known traditional musician for some early research I was carrying out,

2) although we do use staff notation, our colour-coded introductory system and our emphasis on knowing how the tune goes before you try to learn it (through the use of our introductory CDs), we have progressively moved our emphasis to learning and playing by ear.  Being able to read music is a useful skill but for traditional music, playing by  ear is the norm.  Iif our ceilidh band set up music stands and sat in a formal formation to play it would totally change the character of what they were doing, they invariably stand, or rather dance or jump around, look at each other, and smile or laugh, or sometimes exchange jokes, look at the audience, enjoy themselves as they watch a hall full of people dance to their tune.

3) we use the term "practice" quite differently.  For us practice is not the solitary repetition of soul destroying exercises and scales, but is the authentic practice of music and is most often carried out in groups by playing music with friends or peers

4) I am happy to say that we totally reject, and have always rejected the notion of selection. The scarcity of resources is related to the insistence on formal tuition, paying expensively trained tutors means that access to play musical instruments is necessarily limited.  Furthermore, selection is based on a notion of inborn musical ability which we just do not share.  A crucial part of our ethos and the values that we all share is that anybody can learn to play.  Selection is a barrier and we focus on the removal of barriers. Our fundraising activities enable us to loan instruments to anybody who wants to play and our focus on participatory learning means that we do not use  our resources on paying for individual tuition

5) performance for us is rooted in the traditional music notion of "having a tune", a concept, unknown in classical music, which means friends gathering together to enjoy playing music as a social activity.  Performance is enjoyable and informal, performers are encouraged to tap their feet to engage with others, to exchange smiles and grins to show one another that they're enjoying themselves.  Our members get to understand the importance of playing in sessions which means that we have a very high rate of continuation after younger members leave us and go to university and so on.  This is not so of formal school instrument tuition, in fact, we have a very low dropout rate throughout.  This is to do with the emphasis on fun and enjoyment.

6) performance is open to anybody who wants to take part.  This is true even of the ceilidh band where we have to be conscious of quality because we charge significant fees, which are fed back into the group  resources, nevertheless membership of the ceilidh band is based on self-selection, anybody who can play the repertoire at the appropriate speed for dancing can join the ceilidh band. This has never given us any problem, the ceilidh band acts as a spur to improvement for our younger members, nobody has ever joined it, who was out of their depth when it came to performing "in anger", so to speak. (For a full description of how the ceilidh band runs see the BFG Big Ceilidh Book, published by in 2008.)

7) it follows, that we have no need for formal assessment. Members assess themselves, using as a benchmark, their more capable peers and sometimes the performance of professional music groups.

8) our focus is on traditional music, a form of music much appreciated by most communities within Scotland.  In practice we have tended to play as much Irish music as Scottish but the two cultures have many connections.  Irish traditional musicians tend to play faster, especially reels, and this appeals to the more kamikaze younger members of the group, whilst the old fogeys hang on for grim death, but nevertheless enjoy surviving as they usually do. 

9) we are now very clear that we expect parents to participate on an equal footing with their children.  This gives them the pleasure of seeing their offspring rapidly outstrip them, slightly frustrating but usually highly rewarding

Oddly enough, this is the first time that I have attempted to lay out our principles and our philosophy and I would welcome comments from group members, but I hope I have made it clear that the philosophy emerged from our practice rather than the other way round.  I am grateful to the many musicians with whom I have had the privilege of playing, but I would especially like to mention Ryan Thompson (a.k.a. Captain Fiddle) who took me to so many sessions in New Hampshire and in Boston, and talked with me at great length about learning to play musical instruments, Ryan is a very interesting character who learned to play the fiddle twice, once right-handed and again left-handed.  If you're interested in his story, Google "Captain Fiddle", I am also grateful to the Carnegie Trust who funded what turned out to be an enjoyable and informative research trip to the States.  Most of all, I am grateful to the members Of Blackford Fiddle Group who took an ill-thought-out and daft idea and made it work.  I owe many people thanks for their support since my cerebral vascular accident (stroke) enforced my departure from the fiddle group in2006.  I particularly want to thank those who gave me unconditional help, disabled people want help without judgement.  My children have been unstintingly supportive, special thanks go to Fi Doherty who has acted as my chauffeur,  ironed  my clothes, and generally made herself indispensable, but at the top of the list for thanks must go my Bernie who held out her hand and pulled me out of the black pit of despair and has shown me that there is an alternative and equally fulfilling life to be found, after the seeming devastation and desolation  of stroke.   To all the members of the fiddle group, I should finally say keep it going and keep it fun. I am already indescribably proud, sometimes almost to the point that my heart seems to burst with delight at what we have achieved together.  To anybody who thinks they would like to do likewise, I would say, go for it.  We will help as much as we can, but you have to be prepared to adapt and make it up as you go along.  You are more musical and more creative in every way than you think.

Pete Cope November 2008