29/09/2014 in workshop review
Laxön 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!
The week is overseen by Leif, a ‘riksspelman’ (‘national fiddler’) and the man behind nyckelharpa.com, 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.
And 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, where 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!
And 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!
If a Swede invites you to sample the fermented herring, I suggest you politely decline.