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I sat in last week on the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) BA Music Residential at Mareel.

Three accomplished Shetland musicians were given part of an ancient Tam Lin folk tale and were tasked with creating a piece of music which acted as a soundtrack for the story.

“I hope we’ve done enough”, said Suzanne Briggs, one of the participants (and Shetland Arts Wellbeing Choir leader) about the assignment, in which students from UHI campuses all over Scotland were given a different part of the same story to interpret in their own way.

Not the types to always do things conventionally, Briggs, Barry Nisbet and Natalie Cairns-Ratter used stomping boots to record a heartbeat, a piercing scream in the auditorium and, amazingly, were allowed to use the actual town hall bells for a part of their recording. They were surprised to find out the bells could be sounded from a tiny wooden keyboard, something usually reserved for the Guizer Jarl apparently.

The only orthodox methods used were traditional fiddles and flute playing. Midi drums were also implemented to great effect.

Despite how busy the trio had been, they were tremendously helpful as I took notes on their journey, taking time to talk me through techniques and explaining why they did certain things.

The style of the track was dictated by a 30-second intro they were given by UHI. After hearing the recording, they debated about what it evoked in them.

The completed piece counts towards their ensemble work in their overall course.

Cairns-Ratter said that working with others to a time constraint was challenging but very rewarding. The group agreed and felt this was probably the biggest obstacle.

Briggs felt that she had to hear the recording to truly “get” the Scots dialect, as it did not jump off the page at her in written form.

They cited the facilities at Mareel as a huge benefit in their three-day project, Nisbet saying it had “been brilliant” coming in to work on it.

The triumvirate also spoke at length about how flexible the UHI courses are, allowing for your own time management and freedom. Family commitments, touring and musical practice would get in the way of a usual university course but UHI give really highly acclaimed teaching – in both person and Skype – allowing those with less time for a full-time educational timetable to get the same tuition as those in cities and universities around the country.

They praised the multi-genre nature of the course – no type is valued higher. They spoke highly of the ability to prioritise what is important to you at that time.

The finished piece that I was lucky to hear was a refreshing, engaging and interesting interpretation of the much-imitated Tam Lin folk story. Barry Nisbet, Natalie Cairns-Ratter and Suzanne Briggs were all very friendly and allowed me to see the sophisticated steps and their unconventional methods of creating a stirring soundtrack.


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