Saturday, September 26, 2015

Kathryn Tickell talks about Northumbrian music, about the fiddle and the Northumbrian pipes

On August 11th 2015, I met Kathryn Tickell in the bar of Dartington Hall, Totnes, Devon, UK.  Today’s foremost exponent of the Northumbrian pipes, she is a fiddler, composer, performer and recording artist, Ms. Tickell was awarded the OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List of 2015 for her extraordinary career.

PH: Kathryn Tickell, where were you born?

Kathryn Tickell: Well, this is a bit of a strange question, as everyone thinks I was born and brought up in Northumberland (the northernmost county of England) because everything I do musically is about Northumberland, but I wasn’t. I was born in Staffordshire. (You get born wherever your mother happens to be at the time.) My parents had moved away from the northeast of England, looking for work. We left Staffordshire when I was 6 months old, so I really have no memory of that or any connection to that area. Then we moved to Lincolnshire, which I do remember. But I think that the fact that I lived away from Northumberland when I was small has actually been crucial to what I do.

PH: Why?

KT:  Because none of my cousins, who have all lived in Northumberland all their lives, have gone into the music. They are not so concerned about the traditions. But because my parents had moved away (my mum was only 18 when she had me) and she was very homesick and so was my dad, I was brought up sticking to the Northumbrian traditions and memories of where they came from (as do all transplanted communities) far more than if we had actually stayed there. That’s what happened to me. My parents were so strongly connected to the northeast and they weren’t there, so they talked about it a lot more than if we had actually stayed there. Also, every single holiday we would go back to Northumberland to the village. There were generations from that area on both sides of the family. So, although we were living in other places, I was always brought up that Northumberland was home. My grandparents there were interested in music. I would play tunes for them and they would ask me for certain tunes that they remembered.

PH: What music do you remember hearing at home?

KT: My dad sang all the time. He sang border ballads, songs of Northumberland. My mum played the concertina and we had the Northumbrian Pipes Society Tune Book, in which a lot of the tunes are written about places; so my dad, who can’t read music, would be looking through the book and find, for example, “Sweet Hesleyside” and my mum would play the tune, because Hesleyside was a place he remembered from his childhood.

PH: When did you return to the northeast?

KT: When I was seven, and it felt like I was going back to where I was from.  It was “going home”. That has been pretty fundamental to me.

PH: What was your earliest training in the pipes and fiddle?

KT: They didn’t really do training at that time. (Now you can do a university degree in folk music). There wasn’t really any accepted means or form of tuition. However, I did get my granddad’s piano when I was five (he moved from the farm to old people’s bungalows and the piano did not fit in, so I got it). I learned to read music in my piano lessons. Then I started playing the tin whistle, which meant I could then play the traditional tunes that my mum and dad knew.  But I really wanted to play the fiddle and got a violin at school (back in the days when the government gave you free music lessons) and was having school lessons in the classroom, just sawing away at it. I remember the first day I got the fiddle, bringing it home and trying to pick out by ear some of the tunes that I already knew.  I just put up with the school violin lessons because that is how I got the violin, but what I really wanted to play was folk music.  As far as “training” in folk music goes, I was lucky, because my maternal grandparents are from a very rural area and a lot of their friends they went to school with, people in the family, were the traditional musicians – the older generation. So I already knew them and would go to their houses, sometimes my granddad would take me, I would just get my fiddle out, they would get their fiddles out and we would just sit and play for hours. So I learned by osmosis, really, by playing those tunes with them and when you play a tune so many times with somebody you just pick up their way of playing it. Sometimes I now play those tunes differently with the band, but if I go back to the village (my uncle doesn’t play much anymore) occasionally at new year, he will get his accordion out and a couple of other people in the family will get instruments out and I then play those tunes exactly as they do, as I originally learned them 30 or 40 years ago. That was the training – just to be in with the real tradition-bearers, as I would call them now. (At the time it was just my uncle Alan or my granddad’s friend. I didn’t even know it was called “folk music” or “traditional music”. It was the music that was around me, so that is what I played.)

PH: How did you come to learn the Northumbrian pipes?

KT:  There was somebody doing a Saturday morning kind-of folk music workshop in a local arts centre. Most people went along with guitars, fiddles and accordions but the man who was leading it played the pipes. At some point every Saturday morning he would take me and a young lad aside to listen to us – perhaps for 10 minutes – and just give us a quick couple of tips; then we would go back in with everybody else and I would get my fiddle out again. And whenever I would go to play a tune to my maternal granddad (he didn’t play any instrument, but he really knew the music and he had been brought up with it) he could hear if I was doing something incorrectly. He didn’t have the musical language to tell me what it was that was wrong or how to make it right, but he would say “that bit…there is something not right there” and I had to kind-of figure it out. When I corrected it, he would say “that’s right. That sounds good. You sound just like” whichever piper he was thinking of.  That’s how I would know I had got it right. So there were plenty of people around to comment if you did something very wrong and give you a hint about how to do it right. But, mostly you just learned by being there.

PH: Did you have any later conservatory or university training?

KT: No, no. But I did piano to grade 8 and violin to grade 8, because I was getting the lessons at school, and also, because I loved music, I assumed I would do O-level and A-level music to complete my school studies.  But then I discovered that the music we did in the school music lessons had absolutely no connection at all to anything I did musically outside of school. What we were learning at school seemed to me to be a cross between mathematics and a crossword puzzle. There was nothing that chimed with me at all. Also, the music teacher at high school was not the best I now realize in retrospect.  And yet today I still refer back to certain things we learned in those lessons; now I can see how it fits together. But I did think of going to university, assuming one should do music because that is what you love, but this is quite a long time ago and, when I went to do auditions and interviews at universities, most of them just wouldn’t have me because the instrument I played was not a recognized instrument, and I was told: “That is not a musical instrument”. They would have taken me if I had wanted to play classical violin only or if I were to reapply and put piano down as my main instrument. (I had given up the piano at age 13.) Good tuition on the classical violin would have been really helpful, but I didn’t take kindly to being told that the instruments on which  I played and the music that I loved were not acceptable.  So I didn’t go to university, which is probably just as well because I wouldn’t have made the most of it. I had had enough of education at that point. Going to university seemed to me just a “rite of passage”. If I were to go now, boy would I make the most of it! I would love to do Composition and really immerse myself in it. I have not got the time for it now. 

PH: But have you had any training in Composition?

KT: Yes, since then I have had formal training in Composition.  I have gone to people and paid for their time and private lessons  – nothing very organized, actually. There was one piece that I was writing for a classical ensemble and I got a bit stuck with it, so I found somebody who knew how to do those things and went to his house three or four times and found a way through that piece. And, about 15 years ago, I came here to Dartington Hall. Somebody had advised me to apply to the Advanced Composition course. Judith Weir was leading it (Not brought up listening to classical music, I had never heard of her). It was one of those courses where you apply, send samples of your work and she would choose eight people to be on the course, so she could work with them in depth. She chose me as one of the people and I was absolutely terrified! I thought it would mean all sitting at desks with pencil and manuscript paper and harmonizing Bach chorales. But it wasn’t and she was very inspiring and very respectful of my music, where I came from and she thought that I had something to offer with that. And also, the Schubert Ensemble of London was there to play through some of the music the composers were writing, so I got to try some different things that were outside of my normal musical experience and to hear somebody play it. And again, the ensemble was really supportive and the players were saying they could hear a musical voice that they hadn’t heard before. I think it was the influence of the folk music coming through, however hard I was trying to write something that was “totally contemporary classical”. You can’t help it when that is your voice. You can do all the things they tell you to do, but you are still going to have the “accent”, and I think that is a strength!  That was a really helpful course.

PH: Do you write down your compositions and arrangements?

KT: That depends who I am composing and arranging for. I didn’t used to, but, obviously if it is for classical musicians, you have to and I have written things for orchestra: I did a piece for the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, which was exciting, because it is a huge orchestra.  For my present group – The Side – where there are two classically trained musicians, I write out a lot more things. At the beginning, they wanted things to be written, so I had some things that were completely scored out for them, with exactly what I wanted them to play, but I always knew that that was not the way I wanted to band to work. What’s the use of having good musicians with their own ideas and then you’re telling them what to play. So I always said to them that even though I have scored out a part exactly, this is only the beginning of it and that they can feel free to change and embroider it. However, if someone goes too far from the form, we will not be playing as a team. When she came into the band, Louisa the ‘cellist, actually thought that we went on stage and made it up as we went along; she has been quite astonished at how much rehearsal there is and how precise the arrangements are.

PH: When putting a piece together, how free can you be with the band now?

KT: Occasionally I play them a tune and they then have to work something out. They are fine with that now. And then, sometimes I would give Louisa my line, so she had the tune to see but not to play, and maybe a chord progression or a bass line, so she had something to go on. She may even choose a bit of the tune but play it half time or quarter time underneath me doing the bass melody. It’s quite creative. We are all finding ways to work together. Amy, the accordionist, and I are using more notation than we normally would  and the others two are using less than they normally do.

PH: Is all your composing based on folk music?

KT: Yes. That’s the thing I have come round to. When I started to compose I was trying to get away from the eight-bar melodies and the traditional forms. I wanted to break out of that and push myself to get away from those, but whenever I did, it was still informed by the traditional music that I had grown up with. But then also, I think I was trying too hard to be something that I am not, which was good at the time, because it pushes you to be different, but I realize now that if people are asking me to compose for a classical ensemble, it’s because they want something with a folk music influence. So I am now much less hard on myself about trying to eradicate all of that. And also, it’s nice to get a bit of tune. I was hoping that the players of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain would go back to their rooms and play this bit of tune, having something to take away with them, that stands on its own and that they could play together. So there is a little underlying motivation there to expose them to folk tunes.

PH: Going back to your playing, I understand that performing is in your genes.

KT: Yes.  My dad loves performing…you can’t stop him! He is not trained and has no musical knowledge, but he can perform. He has that ability to perform anywhere, to stop traffic basically, and he regularly does it. If he thinks of a song, he can be in the middle of a street and he will start reciting or singing something, drawing people to him. He’s not doing it on purpose…he just does that, and my granddad was the same with storytelling. It’s just something about some magnetism that they have, which I don’t have to the extent that they did. But sometimes I can feel it coming through, a little bit of this power that they had.

PH: Would you like to talk about your early performances?

KT: Yes. To start off with, when I was probably about ten, I used to play (it might have been) the penny whistle, my dad would sing and my mum would play the concertina. We would play a couple of tunes, accompanying my dad probably in unison. We would perform a couple of very small things at the local village hall, if they need it – for raising money or church things, those very small-scale performance opportunities where nobody gets paid to do it and there are a lot of amateurs there, each doing ten minutes or so. That’s how I started performing and it was important. Then I started playing the pipes and went into a few of the competitions. We didn’t have exams or anything in piping but there are competitions that have been going for many, many years. In those competitions, you are expected to play in traditional style. You don’t go messing around with fancy notes and jazzy things – you play in style. I was starting to win those when I was about 13. I had won all the major competitions, so then people started asking me to play solo - again, a few tunes for a charity event – but gradually I started doing things where they would pay expenses. A man called Alistair Anderson, who plays the concertina and Northumbrian pipes, was already a professional musician. That was quite an eye-opener to me, to see someone who was a solo instrumentalist going around playing in folk clubs. (Most instrumentalists accompanied singers or played in a band.) I thought that maybe I could do that, although I hadn’t really thought it through.  However, Alistair started taking me and a couple of the old traditional players I had learned from to festivals at which he was playing; so, as well as his own playing, he would bring in the older generation and the younger (i.e. me. I was about 16 then.) Through doing that, I started playing at a few folk festivals outside Northumberland.  There weren’t many young people playing traditional music in England at that time, so I was noticed, I think, because of my age and I was playing very traditional music from a specific area.

PH: How did you make the transition to a career?

KT: In an interview for a folk music magazine I was asked whether I was going to do this as a career. Having never really thought about it I said yes, and was then very worried about going home and telling my parents that I wasn’t going to go to university, even if I had been accepted. I was going to give this career a go. Actually, they were not fussed, they themselves had not studied at universities and it seems they had already thought I might take folk music on as a career, although they didn’t want to put the idea in my mind. Well, I thought that my decision to be a professional musician would mean that it would happen miraculously and that lots of people would ask me to do concerts, but of course they didn’t.  So I didn’t have very much work and I didn’t have any money, but then I met a man who was working as a booking agent. It wasn’t his main job, but he booked tours for a few musicians and he booked a few solo tours for me. Nobody had really heard of me, but Alistair Anderson said I was all right and I was only charging 15 pounds per performance; a folk club can risk that.  I must have done okay because I was booked again. I think that being a soloist was helpful in those early times; if there had been two of us I don’t think they would have risked that money. So I worked very, very hard for a few years just soloing in folk clubs, a very good apprenticeship, and then I got a band.

PH: What advantage does having a band give you?

KT: With a band you can start exploring more of the harmonies and all the things I was kind-of hearing in my head but couldn’t do in solo playing. And also it is so much nicer being with a band. So there was no looking back from there.

PH: Your programs have been very varied.

KT:  I think that over the last 15 years or so I have done quite a lot of different projects and I like a challenge.  So if anything comes in where somebody asks me to do things I am not quite sure how to do or what I could possibly bring to that project, my rule is that I always say yes to those because you have got to put yourself out of your comfort zone. When you are a bandleader you are in charge, so you can make sure there is nothing in the repertoire that you can’t do. Obviously, you will bring to the band things you want to play and that you can play but putting myself in other situations is good. Yet following  every time I do a bit of a way-out contract I then, quite unintentionally, come back and do something very traditional. There must be something in me that wants to explore those wild extremes, like jazz, for example, but then I need to refuel, to get the batteries recharged up again and go back to the tradition. And then I can go off and do something else. Looking back on my career, some of the projects I have done have been wildly off course. I think this tendency has been a bit annoying for some of my very loyal audience members, who might just wish I would play nice tunes on the pipes. But, on my website, I am always very clear about stating if a program is not traditional Northumberland music, which annoys the promoters, but you have got to be honest.

PH: Who are your audiences?

KT: I think some of them come from people who like traditional music and have been with me since I was doing the folk club work; some people are ex-patriot Northumbrians (or have family from there) and come for that reason and along the way I have acquired  some people who were just interested in different sorts of music and who are prepared to give something new a try. There is not a huge youth following. Most of my audiences are made up of middle class, middle-aged people.

PH: Do you have any contact with the new generation of musicians?

KT: Yes.  Teaching at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, I do a lot of work with young musicians - mentoring them and teaching them.  I think that I have an influence on them and then they go out and make their own careers. Well, it’s ironic that I teach at a university, but it is kind-of interesting. I am a lecturer on the Folk- and Traditional Music degree course, so I do some one-to-one teaching of pipes or fiddle and I do a lot of work with the ensembles, especially in the later years of the course. With the more experienced students I do arrangement and composition work with them. I have taught different modules, such as Traditional Music, Historical Contexts. All of these things are good because they make me set down the knowledge that I have. When you have grown up in the tradition, you don’t realize how much knowledge you have amassed. Some student might ask me about a little-known Northumberland musician, such as John Robson, and it turns out that he is a relation of mine! Then you realize that the people you grew up with are the people the university students hold in this high esteem as the tradition-bearers. Some of the people I learned from have been dead for 20, 30 years, so they are already “legends” almost.  And, being brought up by my dad and all the singing, I now realize how much I have learnt about the song traditions.

PH: How do your performance ideas germinate?

KT: My blessing and my curse is that I have too many ideas. I tend to have an idea, think it through completely and, once I have it all sorted out – exactly what the idea would be, how much it would cost, how I would make it happen, what the instruments would be, who I would look to do it -  it goes to the back of my mind.  Some ideas sit there for decades, some will never be realized and for some of them you just wait for the catalyst, like someone who comes into your life to make it happen. There are too many ideas and too little time.  The Side has come from a few separate ideas that culminated and have come together to become this band.

PH: What immediate plans do you have?

KT: I have a new youth band that I am going to be starting, which is going to be pretty heavy-duty mentoring. (I had a youth group I worked with for twelve years; the momentum is there now and that’s the time to let someone else work with it. Now, reaching 18, some of the players will go to the university, some will go out as professional musicians and some will do something completely different.) This new group will be a springboard for young people into a professional career as a musician. That’s what I am looking forward to.

PH: When it’s not music, what interests you?

KT: I like reading and do it when I get the chance. To be honest, there is not very much time in my life. I like being at home with my family – cats and dogs and children, my partner, just being part of that.  I like cooking and drinking wine.


  1. Many thanks for this very informative interview. Ever since hearing The Keel Row on a Brittania Kids video the Northumbrian pipes have had a space between my ears. KT has expanded that space immeasurably. Pipe on!

  2. Funny that the interview was held in Totnes in Devon, my name is also "Tickell" and our branch of the family originated from that little town.
    Wonder if Kathy knows that she has Scottish kin?