Academy success helps Merlin buck the trend

Merlin Music Academy, Melrose. From left, Andy and Bridget Gray, owners and students, Donald Knox, tutor, Ian Lowthian, tutor and Amelia Ewing, student.

Merlin Music Academy, Melrose. From left, Andy and Bridget Gray, owners and students, Donald Knox, tutor, Ian Lowthian, tutor and Amelia Ewing, student.

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FROM small beginnings in 2007, a Melrose music shop which has spawned a tuition academy for budding instrumentalists and also promotes high profile live performances, has this week moved to new, extended premises, writes Andrew Keddie.

And its owners believe the expansion, bucking the trend of the retail downturn, heralds both the town and the region becoming major players in the renaissance of interest in Scottish traditional music.

Up until last week Merlin Music, opened in October 2007 by Andrew and Bridget Gray, operated from a cramped shop at the top of Abbey Place in Melrose.

“We were immediately struck by the interest we received both for instruments and sheet music, from people of all ages, wanting to play Scottish traditional music,” recalled Bridget as she and Andrew settled into their new home at Station Gate, adjacent to the library and behind Melrose Corn Exchange.

“We also became increasing aware that we had some of the finest musicians of that genre living here in the Borders.”

Thus, the idea of creating the Merlic Music Academy of Traditional Music, matching willing students with accomplished tutors, began to take shape.

And it received a massive boost in April last year when, after a Merlin-promoted concert in Earlston High School, legendary performers Phil Cunningham and Ally Bain endorsed the project and agreed to become its sponsors.

After talks with Scottish Borders Council, Bridget and Andrew secured an evening hire of Melrose Primary School and lined up the teaching trio of accordionist Ian Lowthian from Ettrickbridge, fiddler Iain Fraser from Jedburgh and guitarist Donald Knox from Roberton.

They came with impeccable credentials.

Ian was one of the first accordionists to graduate from the Royal Academy of Music in London, recording artist Iain taught at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music in Glasgow, while Donald, a full-time musician since 2006, was already Merlin’s resident guitar teacher.

Within weeks of the Tuesday evening classes beginning, the academy was oversubscribed with a waiting list being set up for the fiddle sessions and the number of pupils topping 44 after just a fortnight.

Andrew told us: We now have 60 students and that is really what prompted the search for new premises to bring the retail side of the business and the tuition under one room.

“Our new home is fantastic, allowing us to hold lessons throughout the day and in the evening. It will be a great musical hub for Melrose and a central point of meeting and learning for students from across the Borders.

“We aim to give the town and the Borders a real buzz for music, making the region a major contributor to traditional music.

“Our three tutors are passionate about teaching music and inspiring both adults and children alike to learn or improve their playing skills and our move will enable us to teach more instruments, including piano.”

Meanwhile, Merlin Music is also stepping up its role as a live music promoter with two concerts lined up for next month.

First up at The Wynd Theatre in Melrose on Saturday, June 9, will be singer/songwriter Jill Jackson.

The show is part of Jackson’s tour promoting her new album, Getaway Driver.

On Friday, June 15, Ivan Drever, father of Kris and ex-stalwart of Wolfstone, will appear at Ettrickbridge village hall. He will be supported on the night by the Merlin Academy tutors – Lowthian, Fraser and Knox – who, themselves, scored a hit last year when they combined to entertain at Innerleithen Music Festival.

Tickets for both evening concerts are £12 and are available from Merlin Music on 01896 822376 (enquire on this number also about tuition) or www.borderevents.com

As a special offer, anyone buying tickets for these events will automatically get a ticket reservation for the Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham concert in the Victoria Halls, Selkirk, on Thursday, August 9, when Merlin Academy students will provide the support.