Northumberland is in the far north of England, a place of high moor and hills, North Sea coast, Hadrian’s Wall and Scottish border. It is a land where the music reflects those influences and melds them into a Celtic style all its own. It is the home of Kathryn Tickell, who plays the Northumbrian pipes and the fiddle.
She’s taken her music, both music she’s written and music from the traditions of Northumberland, to places as varied as Uganda and Nova Scotia, to festivals, art centers, and concert halls across the world. She’s often asked to give workshops and master classes while traveling. Several years ago, Tickell made the decision to make teaching a regular part of her time at home in the north of England, as well. As things turned out she ended up teaching students at university level, as well as teen aged players in a folk orchestra and school children just having their first taste of music in the classroom. She finds it all fascinating.
“I teach university students who are on the traditional music course at Newcastle University, that’s often one on one tuition on pipes or fiddle. Then there is Folkestra, which is a youth ensemble from the north of England. It’s based in the Sage Gateshead music center up here. For many years they have had an ensemble for the region’s young classical players,” Tickell explained. “The students would go through their school orchestra and then their county youth orchestra and then the top ones from the county youth orchestra would go into Young Symphonia. There wasn’t an equivalent for other sorts of music. Now Sage Gateshead has set up Folkestra, which is the folk equivalent, and they’ve a big band ensemble too and a wind band and various other things like that.” These students come from across the northeast of England.
Her smallest students are middle school and primary school children. “The youngest ones are about seven, going on up to eleven or twelve,” Tickell said. “That is going in right at the beginning. I usually have about fifteen of them, all different levels, just fiddle players, and we have about an hour a week.” The school system decided to build on local interest in a folk festival, and that’s what got Tickell involved in the first place.
“The festival is an informal thing, not one that anybody gets paid to do, everybody just gets up and does a song or a story,” Tickell said. “They wanted to encourage the kids to feel involved in their own traditional music.” She finds that her youngest students “don’t even seem aware of whether it is traditional music or folk music. They just think it’s a fiddle class and if you want to play fiddle that’s what you do. There’s no pressure on them, they just play their tunes and go home.”
The tradition lingers in her students’ lives, though, and that sometimes comes out in unexpected ways. “I try to teach them Northumbrian tunes, tunes that are written about places they know or written by people they may know. One child wanted to learn a slow tune, and I thought of a tune called Lament for Ian Dickson, and the child went home and came back the next week and said ‘Ian Dickson was my grandad!’ They have different surnames, he died before she was born, I had no idea,” Tickell said. “But you’re actually teaching the kids their own heritage — there’s a waltz called Rothbury Hills, and where the school is, it’s in the middle of Rothbury hills. So they hear the tune, they look out of the window, and they’re just surrounded by it all.”
Tickell herself grew up in that area, which is about thirty miles outside Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Whether touring internationally, collaborating with classical or pop or folk musicians, playing for a packed concert hall, or working with a class of ten year olds, the landscape and heritage of Northumbria are sources which ground Tickell’s understanding, and which she enjoys sharing with the next generation . “I play as part of a tradition. That tradition is something that is very alive, to me,” Tickell said. “I have more confidence in being able to experiment, to work with other artists, to teach, knowing I have that.”
photograph of Kathryn Tickell copyright Kerry Dexter