Student reviews

Sore Fingers Summer School 2003 by Hamish Sutherland (dobro)

Getting there

My Sore Fingers week in England was enormous fun and started when I got to Heathrow on Friday morning after an extremely jolly flight from Stockholm. One of the BA hosties took a fancy to my Aussie accent or something and insisted on plying me with Bin & Gitter Lemons until "I hardly couldn't shtand up". Have I come to Paradise I wondered? Nope, just London and off to pick up a guitar that I'd arranged to borrow for the week.

Next day (Saturday) I climbed on the Kingham train at London Paddington at about 2 PM and had a few surreptitious plays on the train to while away the time. Discovered that the guitar I'd borrowed was an amazingly awful example of the Resonator Guitar species. Sounded more like a banjo on some of the strings. But I digress... We got as far as Oxford and a young bearded chap and his lovely blonde girlfriend got on the train with their bikes. (Very civilised that: you aren't allowed to take a bike on the train in Sweden, and if you do send it as rail freight (a) it costs a small fortune and (b) it probably doesn't arrive at the same time as you do!).

After some desultory chit-chat it turned out that they too were bound for Sore Fingers and were able to give me some tips about getting to Kingham and the school, since they'd "been there yesterday". What I didn't know then of course was that he was Matt Flinner, one of the world's absolute top Bluegrass mandolin players and teacher of this year's mandolin class.

When you get out at Kingham there's a bus that takes you the 2 miles from the station to the centre of Kingham which turned out to be a thatchy sort of village on the edge of The Cotswolds, and not at all the large-ish town that I'd imagined. So there I was, suitcase in one hand, dobro in the other, no taxis for 100 miles or so wondering how the Sam Hill I was going to manage the 1_ miles to Kingham Hill Boarding School on that narrow Oxfordshire country road. As luck would have it I was rescued by Anita and Carol, two old-time banjoists who kindly offered to take my stuff in their car, there not being room for me as well. Suitably fortified with Kingham Inn fruitcake and tea I hoofed it down the narrow road to the school and the check-in queue. On first sight it felt like I'd come to an old people's home. Nearly everyone seemed to be as ancient as me, or even older. But no, turns out there were quite a lot of younger ones too. After queuing for an hour and getting the wrong name badge (how was I to know that there was another "H" in the dobro class, whose name is, well, ...H!) I was sent off to accommodation in Bradford House, one of the somewhat more remote houses in the school complex.

Life (back) at boarding school

I was in a dormitory with 5 others, an experience that brought back stark memories from my own time as a boarder at The Kings School in Sydney. You had to climb a ladder to get to your bunk, and there was a desk and lamp built in underneath. Sort of an Instant Study. Very whippy compared to the long rows of hard iron beds we had at school in Paramatta! It was very hot at night as the heating was turned on full blast and the organisers didn't dare turn it off for fear of not being able to restart it "in case". It happened one year apparently, they managed to get the heat switched off and then couldn't turn it on again when the weather suddenly turned nasty, the result being that everyone did a big freeze for a few days. Having been forewarned I remembered to bring some earplugs (and forgot to take a towel) so the nightly truly amazing range of snores didn't bother me too much. No doubt I contributed with a few of my own! That side of things worked quite well. We had access to a little kitchen and could brew the odd cup of tea/coffee, and a boot room where we had a jam session on the very first night. Then there was the "No Banjo Playing After Ten o'clock Please" rule which everyone seemed to obey. Probably because we were all up in the School Pub anyway, playing away madly until 2 or 3 in the morning. Well, some of us did, though I couldn't manage to stay up any later than about 12:30, tuckered out from trying to keep up with the Old-Time banjo players.

There wasn't an awful lot of time allocated to meals so you very quickly learn to get to the Refectory some minutes before opening. With a couple of hundred people to feed the queues can get quite long. I had my own Emergency Travelling Breakfast Vegemite Ration in my pocket every morning. Which generated a good deal of amusement in some quarters amongst the ranks.

We seem to have been flat-out busy all day. Long lessons in class, practising with the scratch band for the forthcoming student concert, short jam sessions after lunch and at coffee breaks and longer ones in the evenings, concerts, and evening seminars on Other Instruments (what they call "dip ins"). Only Tony from our dormitory did what the rest of us probably should have done, spending an hour or so in the evening practising things learnt in class that day.

About scratch bands

Joining a scratch band and inflicting the resulting musical (and sometimes sartorial) chaos on your tutors and fellow students at the student concert is all part of the fun. So on the very first day we were assembled in the Great Hall and invited to get on with forming a band, the only rule being that the band had to include an Autoharp (a separate species at SFSS who kept themselves to themselves the rest of the time). Some who'd been there previously knew right from the start who they wanted to play with and set off forthwith.

All the rest of us were assigned a band by the organisers with the inevitable result that there were (reputedly) terrible internal arguments and fights about who would play/sing what and when. Dobro players were in short supply so one unlucky lot got me. The White Doves we were called. The first couple of days practise were spent with the rest of the group singing THAT (i.e. Oh Brother) version of "A Man of Constant Sorrow". A Constant Sorrow indeed despite Anne's 5-string banjo doing it's best to keep things cheerful. I sat there with my little guitar in my lap and was largely (and appropriately) ignored. Can't say that I absolutely LOATHE that song exactly, but after several hours of screaming boredom felt forced to threaten them with suggestions for a solo rendition of "Mull Of Kintyre" and "can't you sing some other #�%!?-ing song?" by way of protest. Trouble is of course that they were all bigger than I was...

The girls did find another song called "Are You Missing Me" which was great fun to sing & play along with so we did that as our second song. Some of the tutors volunteered for Scratch Band Tutor duty and popped up from time to time to give us a bit of coaching and advice. In my case that mostly consisted of "Can't hear the dobro" (thank heaven for small mercies I say). Come the Student Concert everything went swimmingly until I lost a fingerpick bang in the middle of a solo (guess which song THAT was). Quite puts you off your dinner that does. But the rest of the band carried it off very well and we didn't lose a beat as far as I could tell. The dobro seems to be something of a scarcity and all the other dobro players rightly got heaps of applause for their soloing efforts.

About the dobro class

Sally van Meter turns out to be a thoroughly charming person with no particular non-musical axes to grind and a rare gift for language that makes you suspect she would have been a very good author had she not got involved with music. Lessons with Sally were simply great fun. We learned quite a lot of new tunes (I did anyway), my favourites being "Faded Love" and "Ashokan Farewell". Eminently suitable stuff for attempting to reproduce that brilliantly clear vox humana sound that Sally does oh so beautifully and effortlessly. She taught us lots of (for me) new dobro tricks too - how to "tune" a dobro with the rear neck strap pin, palm harmonics, vibrato, playing in tune (!), bar slants and pick blocking. Any pre-conceived notions I had that I had even the remotest idea about how to play the dobro were very smartly dispatched.

After about five minutes into the first session on the first day! Most of the others in the class had played for several years and could even play in tune (mostly). You sit in a semicircle in the classroom, Sally demonstrates something, everyone gets a bit of a chance to try whatever it is, then around it goes, one by one. Everyone has to have a go while Sally (and everyone else) listens. "The Circle Of No Escape" I seem to remember someone calling it - "...now it's YOUR turn Hamish..." With only 7 months experience I was by far the greenest in the dobro class but despite that managed to get through it all somehow, and thoroughly enjoy it too. Mostly thanks to Sally who was the very soul of good-natured banter ("shut the Sam Hill up Hamish") and patience. Only once did I have to say "no thanks" when my turn came around - we were doing something (fast bar pull-off exercises I think) that I was too tired and inexperienced to cope with.

If ever I have to sit in front of a (music) teacher again I hope that teacher will be Sally or someone like her. She has a huge sense of fun, seems to totally enjoy teaching even us beginners and doesn't make a fuss about the things that music teachers usually inflict on their students (theory, more theory, scales, bar slants etc). And of course she played like an angel and tried to get some of her magic touch to rub off on us.

The end

I almost cried when it was time to leave Kingham, saying goodbye to Sally, to my new-found mates and life back at boarding school. It was such fun; even the School Food tasted almost like I remember it did 45 years ago! Better perhaps, though I dunno how anyone over the age of 16 or so can eat fried bread for breakfast... My cholesterol levels soar away with beating wings just thinking about it!

As luck would have it one of my classmates (Rick) was headed for London and gave me a lift in his car. Just as well, there was a railway strike on at Paddington.

Perhaps the only down side of the whole business was that it left me feeling somewhat sad from all the dismal tunes we played and more than a little discouraged by my inability to make reasonable noises on the dobro. It's not until you sit in a class with a lot of other similarly-inclined pickers that you find out just how little you really know!

Sad to say I don't think we'll be seeing Sally next year as the organisers have a policy of not inviting the same teacher more than two years in a row and this was her second time.

I know I'll be back like a shot for more dobro next year if she does get invited again.

Come to think of it, I'll probably be there anyway. It's just too much fun to miss!

Back to reviews