Paganini in Fife

DLockhart small

Fiddler and artist David Lockhart, who died earlier this year, is featured in detail in a dedicated section of this blog. I recently obtained a copy of his autobiography (Lillian King ed., Unforgotten (Kelty, 2006) in which he throws some valuable light on learning to play violin in the Fife mining community during the 1930s. I know from direct experience how such communities in Ayrshire, Lanarkshire, the Lothians and Fife, placed great store on musical participation and expression through brass bands, pipe bands, choirs and, of course, traditional dance music. There are many resonances with the testimony of Midlothian fiddler Chuck Fleming which, once transcribed, will be posted on his page.

The prime loss occasioned by this period [of childhood illness and hospitalisation] was one ultimately to be regretted all my life. I could not cope with school work and fiddle lessons. I’d had three years of lessons and was making good progress, but had to stop. Something had to go.

Broadcast and recorded music was well stablished by 1930, but my motherless home had neither gramophone or wireless. I suppose it was natural for my father to revive or sustain an old Scottish tradition. One day in 1932, a post card came through our door bearing the legend, The Paganini School of Music. At the top of the car was a photograph of a body of children with fiddles and banjo-ukeleles.

The system was simple and eat; lessons were one shilling and six pence a week for the first year, and one shilling a week thereafter. The first year’s extra sixpence paid for the instrument. My father scanned the card and turned to me saying, “Uh-hu, it’s time somebody wis playin something in this hoose – you’d better go tae that.”

Three weeks were spent on the necessary academic training before practical training started. Once the scale of D had been mastered, one returned each week with a sheet of music or a page in out text book marked for practice. I remain puzzled about the nature of this training. Each page contained a tune with its appropriate scale and extracts from the melody, which involved new difficulties i.e. exercises. And there lies the puzzle. Over three years of lessons, no exercise was ever made use of. An impressive repertoire of tunes was established but difficult work was avoided, and certain basic techniques never introduced in their appropriate time.

Did the instructor anticipate the Japanese system of building pleasure and confidence early on, or was parental support ensured by the large number of pupils returning home with a new tune each week. One can imagine a proud parent boasting, “See oor Wull. He’s fairly getting on, he can play twenty seven tunes noo…”

All this is idle speculation, the grim situation attendant upon my early time in secondary school prevented my beginning a fourth year of fiddle lessons. I didn’t importune, though I wondered then, but not now, at my father’s acquiescence. It was probably three-fold. Firstly, he was sensitive and loving enough to appreciate my struggle and spare me the extra; secondly, after three years, I was able to play for a company; lastly, a shilling was the price of two pints of beer. He liked a night out with dominoes and quoits. (pp. 79-80)

I looked into the Paganini School of Music and found that there was such an outfit based in Edinburgh at the Synod Hall Building, Castle Terrace in the early 1930s. Interestingly, the influential music teachers Ruth and Maimie Wadell also operated from rooms there at the time. (Edinburgh and Leith, Post Office Annual Directory, 1933-34, p. 789). I imagine the teacher(s) from the school would hold classes in a range of different locations within easy reach of Edinburgh as well as operating from their city base.