Academy strains under the weight of musical renaissance

Merlin Music Academy
Merlin Music Academy

THE future of Scottish traditional music in the Borders seems assured, judged by the take-up of places at a new evening tuition academy launched a fortnight ago.

The project is the brainchild of Barbara and Andy Gray, who run the Merlin Music shop in Abbey Street, Melrose.

“We have both been struck since we opened four years ago at the interest we have received, for both instruments and sheet music, from people of all ages wanting to play Scottish traditional music,” explained Barbara.

“We were also only too aware that we have some of the finest musicians of the genre living here in the Borders.”

The idea of creating a local academy, matching willing students and accomplished tutors, began to take shape, receiving a massive boost in April 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 patrons.

Merlin then began talks with Scottish Borders Council to secure an evening hire of Melrose Primary School and lined up the enviably accomplished teaching trio of accordionist Ian Lowthian from Ettrickbridge, fiddler Ian Fraser from Jedburgh and guitarist Donald Knox from Roberton.

Ian was one of the first accordionists to graduate from the Royal Academy of Music in London and is now an acclaimed performer, composer and teacher.

Recording artist Iain has taught at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow, while Donald, a full-time musician since 2006, is the resident guitar teacher at Merlin Music.

The weekly sessions take place every Tuesday throughout the school session from 5-8pm with all ages and levels of ability catered for.

Andy told us: “Already the fiddle course is oversusbscribed and we’ve set up a waiting list, while the guitar and accordion courses are also very popular.

“At our second session last week, we had a total of 44 students which I think is remarkable.”

That success, however, means that Barbara and Andy are now looking to expand the courses which are currently available in 10 weekly blocks at a cost of £14 per 45-minute lesson, inclusive of instrument use and teaching materials.

““We have been overwhelmed with the response which confirms that traditional music is alive and well in the Borders and will be for many years to come,” said Barbara.

She revealed that Merlin has entered into negotiations with its bank regarding a sponsorship deal which would allow more courses to be provided, possibly at other Borders venues, and would also cover the cost of fees of disabled children and those from less well off families.

She added: “We didn’t think we would be at this stage already, but the academy has really taken off, which is very satisfying.”

To find out more about the academy, call 01896 822376.