Distance learning: a musician prepares for an annual island gathering

  • Published on: 24th April 2019
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In this week’s An Lanntair blog, musician Alan Murray looks forward to this Thursday’s UHI Music Showcase.

It’s that time of year again. The locals might not know it, but for a few years now the last week of April has seen musicians from all over Scotland (all over the world, actually) make the journey to Stornoway. It’s the end-of-year gathering for Applied Music students at the University of the Highlands and Islands, and once again it culminates in a showcase concert at An Lanntair on Thursday 25th.

As one of those students, I’ll be making the journey up from Glasgow tomorrow, stopping off on Skye to see the parents before getting the ferry to Tarbert. Perhaps it’s because I’m an islander living in the city, but I always enjoy this trip – it feels a little like a holiday. If it wasn’t for the fact that I have a week full of workshops and performances ahead of me – one of which I’m being examined on – it basically would be a holiday.

In any case, it’s a joy to get back up north. I’m a third year on the BA Applied Music course, and a freelance musician. I’ve had a bit of a roundabout route to studying and working in music, but after years of working a variety of jobs it became clear — or at least unavoidable — that I should aim at pursuing this creative career. I’m part of The Brogues Ceilidh Band, and I also have a duo with my wife Grace called Two Far Flung. One of my favourite parts of the work just now is writing songs and tunes; I love telling stories and describing places through music.

This is an area I’ve particularly enjoyed developing as part of the UHI course. I’ve been sitting here trying to work out how to describe the Applied Music course in one paragraph. I think it is best described as a community. This is quite something, given that so many of the students are distance learners, but it is a testament to the work that the staff have put in to creating such a welcoming environment.

For the distance students like me, most of the teaching is delivered via video-conference technology. This requires you to be quite self-directed, but means that you can stay based in your own community, wherever that might be. Then, four times a year, we all gather together for a few days of workshops and performances.

The Stornoway residency is the longest of these gatherings, and a great chance for us to catch up and see (or indeed hear) what everyone’s been up to. It’s a lovely atmosphere, and An Lanntair has a wonderful musical buzz about the place. The showcase concert is a definite highlight every year. It’s a truly exciting bunch of musicians enrolled on the course at the moment, and the range of music on display always leaves you inspired, having heard something you’ve never heard before.

Right now, though, I’ve got a fiddle recital to prepare for, an essay to write, ferry tickets to print and band admin to attend to. Just the usual, really. The sun’s shining in Glasgow, and I’m looking forward to seeing the sea tomorrow. Not too long now.