Breathing up Collective Sound: The Lake School

Quinn Hames, playing one of his many instruments

Quinn Hames, playing one of his many instruments

A FEATURE by Roslyn Hames

The Lake School of Celtic Music, Song and Dance is an annual camp held during the first week of January (2-7 Jan.) across tiny Koroit, a historical town of many Irish connections on the south-west coast of Victoria.  The event offers a high level of tuition in the building blocks of the Celtic tradition.  Students come from as far at the Northern Territory to learn traditional instruments and voice, music sessions, song writing, dancing, pub singing, ceilidhs, Irish language, poetry readings, literature analysis, bread making, kids and youth specialty events, theatre, concerts and films; and then there is African music (more on that ring-in later).  The vision and focus of the school is firmly on what conveniences the tutors and students, and that includes the timing.  Gig opportunities tend to be in low demand this time of year.  With an event launch a few months earlier in destinations outside of Koroit, be it Melbourne or Apollo Bay, punters set their sights on it.

This was our second year as Lake School students.  Last year I mostly chaperoned my musical 11-year-old son from harp lessons in the morning to bodhrán after lunch and then on to the cuckoo, African music, prior to dinner.  We had a ball taking it all in.  I found myself a reluctant beginner guitar student having never played the instrument in my life.  My son had signed up ready to try, but as I took the guitar out of its case, he announced that he had enough on his plate and that I was to do it instead.  We quickly swapped places, tutor Dan West put me at ease, and by the end of the week there I was up on the stage managing nerves with my fellow beginners, guitars in arms and raw fingers poised to give our all to Sam Amidon’s version of R. Kelly’s Relief.  Afterwards, dazzled by our progress, I made a solemn promise to myself to find a local teacher and to play on.  However, come February, guitar packed away gathering dust, it made sense that if I had any hope of converting some of that Lake School star dust back into my reality, I should pick up the instrument of my childhood, the violin, and learn to fiddle proper.  I acquired a humble instrument and took some lessons early in the year.  Come 2 January 2016, my fingers softened again, but I could smell the magic and was ready to toughen up.

2015-01-02 18.24.46Speaking of magic, there are many beautiful things about Lake School.  The first is the immersion theory to education.  Why learn an instrument in a formal class when, as a kid, you can nail the Celtic tune book whilst grappling Moreton Bay figs?  This is due to being surrounded by music from the moment we unpack our tent.  The kids race off and reconnect, climb the century-old trees in the adjacent historic botanic gardens and play in the camp playground; and music drifts in earnest from under canvas awnings strung with fairy lights.  Next to our tent, the family of twelve conduct their day with music as they get ready, come home, lounge about and prepare meals, only canvas separating us from them.  We listen and learn without realising it.  Still, I barely acknowledge them from over my furious fiddling and alternate grappling of the tin whistle, taught by Nick Martin.  In the communal kitchen someone is mastering a piece on harp.  The campsite showers are often alive with beautiful harmonies.  We are immersed in music.

We drift to sleep on our first night to the sounds of evening magpies and tunes.  A small gathering of wood flutes and whistles blend from under trees in the distance.  A muted fiddle races through the Butterfly from a cramped campervan.  Closer are two harps, one the mentor and the other more tentative.  Guitars lead with a gallop, but a button accordion sails across with something small and nostalgic, a leaving tune perhaps.  Vibrations of acoustic sound as they meld together under the stars and rest in the night’s breath.

Beyond the campsite, various lessons and sessions offer an audible river though the town as one moves from one venue to the next.  At the Senior Citizens in the morning, dare to open the door on a poverty of pipers lead by Jack Brennan, all meaty and nasal.  The lack of movement of the seated group is at odds with the high energy of the reel, although their eyes fire with concentration and joy.  Following on, the children have their lessons in the afternoon, again with great focus and progress, tunes building over the week, twigs gathered to construct a house.

Supervised children are also welcome to join in the adult classes, and it is this blending of ages and abilities that also make Lake School super special.  I’m a new fiddler and as I play I make eye contact with a set of older smiling eyes.  We collude on the joviality that comes with losing the race to remember what comes next as the pace picks up.  I turn and watch in fascination at some of the younger players as they absorb and give back to our tutor, the amazing Cathy Blake, like breathing up into our collective sound.   The Celtic tradition of learning by listening-looking-following-joining-embellishing, not by “reading” the dots-and-line drawings on a page, proves what can be freely achieved in a week.

Us fiddlers then pick up a tune from Cameron Hibbs, a touring and recording artist fresh back from Woodford Folk Festival, part of the band Tolka.  Other tutors and session masters such as Paddy Fitzgerald on accordion are internationally respected; in the past the likes of Martin Hayes have graced Koroit for workshops, although the notion of the superstar visitor is more serendipitous rather than an intentional headline to sell tickets.  We all play together.  Music is everywhere.

Our connection is further enhanced at the campsite and evening events where insight and encouragement is passed on.  The joy is re-lived by the anecdote of tricky fingering, fancy picking or a position move.  Then as the kids build friendships, be it with other children or with adults from their cohort, so do the parents, and a community is meshed.

Every morning starts with the birds of Koroit.  When the thinking is that the output of Lake School is more Australian than Irish, the birds have to be a part of the equation.  I’m certain that, in Koroit, there is a gang of three sulphur crested cockatoos that take up posts triangularly around Koroit at around 5:30am.  There is Sergeant, Capt’n and Ol’ Mate.  Of course, our location offers ideal perches for Ol’ Mate in the tenacious conifers, especially directly above our tent it seems.  At dawn, Ol’ Mate starts with an almighty screech, like a response to a coffin opening of its own accord, and it echoes from the other two points of the polygon across the town, bouncing back and forth, north and west, like the sky tearing apart.  Then several dozen corellas crescendo in Mexican waves.  I hear one settle very close to the tent.  As it chews on something, I’m sure it is saying “malarkey” in its crotchety tenure, true of itself.

I start to feel it after four days, skull echoing cockatoo speak in Irish, muscles aching from accelerated learning and playing.  My bow feels like it weighs 40 kilos, and my neck and chin are sore where I have been clenching my fiddle instead of providing soft support and leverage, like a limestone ledge.  I feel lopsided.  My fingertips, too, are numb and tough.

2015-01-05 12.31.18Harp workshops held by Cath Connelly take place in the historic Koroit Railway Station.  It is a beautiful, cool venue with high ceilings, solid walls and surrounding gums with the odd cranky koala registering intent.  The walls feature photocopies of newspaper articles from 140 years ago, grotesque details of high tragedy on the railroads.  For the week, the cool room is filled with the celestial music of massed harps (and cake, courtesy of Lake School Chaplain and harpist, David O’Brien) in the morning, and Irish language with Eamon Naughton, and poetry with Colin Driscoll in the afternoons.  The harp workshop is one of many examples of the breadth of age and skills of participants.

2015-01-03 09.59.09This is a nice segue into the African music workshop lead by Andy Rigby, and what it thinks it is doing alongside a Celtic summer school program.  Andy instructs in a range of traditional musical instruments (many produced from his kit bag of wearable marimbas and percussion, and pipes, all constructed from PVC pipes, feather boas, and other odds and sods), to re-create Kwela music, skiffle-like jazz tunes from southern Africa from the 1950s, catchy as all hell.  The style turns on the penny whistle, but its characteristic of community engagement, cultural vernacular and evolving a tune into art, or not, somewhat means that it can, for now, hitch its kite to Lake School.

In fact, the street procession from Mickey Bourke’s to the Koroit Historical Society for the annual school photo, with its captivating higher-register tunes in C major attracts most of the punters with their various Celtic instruments adding to the beats, with costumes of colour and texture mean that the melodies, harmonies and rhythms with the sun, flies and corellas create a fairly compelling school moment.

Lake School was the result of a conversation between Program Director, Felix Meagher, his wife Christine, and local Val Cookson about taking their children to the Willie Clancy Summer School in Ireland, now into its 44th year.  Jamie McKew, the Director of the Port Fairy Folk Festival, suggested having such an offering in Koroit instead.  And so with some funding from the Moyne Shire, the first Lake School took place in 2000.  Patronage has steadily built over the years from 30 to 50 patrons to now nudging 300 who converge on the tiny town perched behind the Tower Hill reserve of inactive volcano crater and spheres.  The campsite fills completely sometimes trickling over to the nearby sports ground.  All spare rooms and houses are at capacity.  Funding is mostly derived from the modestly-priced ticket sales for the event supplemented by sponsorship support.  The management Committee are made up of people who care about the event and understand it as a whole.  Decisions are made for the spirit of the event, not for self-interest or promotion.  Volunteers brace the work to make the unimaginable logistics seamless for the rest of us.

The question now is how to grow without losing the intimacy and how to do this.  All subjects are highly relevant to Celtic culture, and all appreciated.  Songs, stories, dances, plays, organising, issues of community, and music are a part of our lives in some way.  Lake School may reach to Irish origins, but is an event of the new country.  It welcomes and acknowledges Country, and plays both the Australian and Irish anthems, and embraces the integration of all of its art forms into something new.  It posits the building blocks of a culture and uses these as models of education.  What we find in the first week of January, after the tent and instruments are packed in the car, people and community leave off do their thing together as a result.  Perhaps Lake School is a form of social activism providing tools for lasting social connections and cohesion through music.

The Stars of the Lake is a form of Celtic music Olympics, an incubator of the new realisations of the melting pot of Celtic trad-contemp.  For the past few years, small groups of musicians (who have made themselves known to the committee) have been brought together for four days in a small room with the brief to create a functional band with songs and tunes to wow the punters.  They are known as the Stars on the Lake (and heroes to us humble campers), but evolve their name to the likes of Tolka or the Drowsy Maggies or, this year, Anatole Road.  Tentacles of beauty reach far beyond Koroit.  The kids leave dazzled, and rest of us in awe and pocketing enough magic to propel us through to January 2017.

For a full history, list of tutors, previous programs, and award recipients, please see


Roslyn  Hames

Roslyn Hames manages a small IT start-up by day and teaches tap dancing by night.  She is a long-term committee member of Bloomsday in Melbourne and sings with acapella group Half Past Nine in Geelong.  Roz also plays the fiddle.  Her 11-year-old son, Quinlan, plays harp, piano, cello and sings.  He will play harp as part of A Terrible Beauty: Poets and Poems of the Rising to commemorate the centenary of the Easter Rising at the Celtic Club in April.