Interview with Duncan Gardiner of Fiddlesticks – Coming to a School Near You! (If you’re in Melbourne…..) – Part 2

Here’s the second part of my interview with the fabulous Duncan Gardiner of Fiddlesticks, touring Melbourne and Victoria this month.

If you missed it make sure you check out Part one. And be sure to check back in the next couple of weeks for the third and final part.

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So you wrote quite a bit of music then specifically for the shows – how was coming to writing that music, with that particular audience in mind, particularly with some of the other stuff you write?

It was tricky. Part of the process was trying to find music which was originally composed for violin, guitar and cello. There’s very little. A lot of arrangements, but not that much original music.

And then the music also had to have some kind of educational value and musical interest, so it had to be engaging for kids. That’s why we arranged pieces like the Grieg and the Khachaturian, also we do a tango La Cumparsita, the famous tango. For the rest of it we thought, well I’ve already composed this piece called Brandy Snap, for guitar and violin, I could add a cello part.

And then I had already just composed a simple little round, which uses sol-far, do-re-mi, and I thought that would actually really, really work. So I just adapted it for our project. It kind of fell together.

And then there’s a piece by Paganini, which is the only classical work composed specifically for our trio. And it just sort of seems to come together and you make it work. It’s a minuet and trio so we talk about the costumes they would have worn, and the dance steps they might have done.

What have been some of the highlights been in the shows you’ve done already?

Oh gosh, I think there have been so many moments you know. Just the sheer joy of watching the kids enjoying the music. I mean I’ve had so many kids run up to me after concert and just say “classical guitar is so cool”. You would never hear there – half of my students want to learn electric guitar, because the classical guitar isn’t cool enough. But to have kids in remote communities, in remote mining towns where there’s basically no live music to listen to and we rock up in our van in the dust and the heat, to have the kids say classical guitar is so cool is like a big achievement.

But we’ve also had some schools where they haven’t really had instrumental music and they’ve been really, really excited to learn the new instruments. We told Musica Viva and they actually sent those schools maybe 10 violins.

So now this remote school, in a little mining town, 10 kids have got the opportunity to learn the violin themselves.

One time we were in Broome in this remote school, called La Grange, one of the first remote schools in WA, all Indigenous kids, they actually came, they drove an hour and a half to perform a piece at our concert. But there’s so much shame apparently in performing – it’s just part of their culture where they feel somehow a great deal of shame in being onstage. It’s a lot of pressure to perform perfectly, otherwise they get laughed at.

So at the last minute they decided they didn’t want to perform, it was just too much pressure. So we said what if Fiddlesticks were to perform with you, and so we ad a little practice, we had to learn the song having never heard it before in about five minutes. We tuned up their guitars, which were about a tone flat, up to concert pitch. And we actually managed to do it.

I was so proud of these kids. They were all teenagers, so kind of had their own unique problems, as well as their own stigma and shame for some reason from performing in front of a crowd. And we did this performance, and it was just so special. And then Musica Viva gave them a handcrafted guitar. Moments like that are just so special, you just don’t get to do that in normal concert making.

And you forget how many kids get to see you. Hopefully the legacy remains with the kids and they know that music making can be wonderful and enjoyable and fulfilling. That’s our aim – it’s not to make virtuosos, it’s really just to share our love of music, and show other people that music is to be enjoyed.

So how long have you guys been performing together as Fiddlesticks?

This is our 5th year. We had a year of the process of leading up with auditions, and having to develop up the show. We had workshops with the likes of Richard Gill, and all of the people from the Musica Viva offices came to WA to help us develop the show. We had to record the pieces that we perform, both audio and video, and it goes onto this thumb drive which is kit we developed with all of these activities that teachers can use. It’s basically a semester’s worth of classroom materials that they get when they book the group. So it’s not just these guys rock up and give a concert, they have an opportunity to actually use these resources on this thumb drive.

So that took about a year, and we’ve now covered a lot of miles and been really interesting.

The two others who are coming over to Melbourne are actually our deputy fill ins. They’ve actually been filling in for two years now! The original Fiddlesticks members had babies and they can’t tour, so they do the Perth concerts, but they just can’t be away from the kids.

And you see the trio continuing on?

Yeah! There’s so much for us to do, we’ve been getting more enquiries, and we do some public concerts as well, not just schools. I’m interested actually to consider branching into also taking music into hospitals and to kids hospitals.

Seeing as our show is already purposefully designed around children I thought why not. It’s all about taking music to the places where people can’t normally access music. Just redesign the show a little bit. I think it would also be very rewarding for us and vital thing for kids.

And also perhaps aged care – again so different, and also so rewarding, knowing that it’s having some effect on the audience. For me, the music can be a form of therapy. For me to be able to share my joy of the music too.

How did you guys come up with the name Fiddlesticks?

Well, I think it’s just a fun word. And because we perform for schools we wanted something fun. Obviously a violin can be called a fiddle if it’s playing folk music and as do play some folk music. And a lot of the kids call the bow a stick – so Fiddlesticks just seemed to have a good ring to it.

When we do some public concerts I sometimes feel a bit silly calling it Fiddlesticks, but I think it has a nice, fun sound to it.

Doing the show, having done it countless times, how do you keep things fresh?

Well, normally after each show we find ourselves debriefing a little bit and we’re always updating. We wrote a script that we wanted to learn like it was almost a theatre show, and then we discovered that the questions we were asking weren’t getting the responses we wanted. So we wanted to then shape the questions that we’d get the right answer.

Every year we redo the script, and for Hong Kong we had it then translated, and we had to make the script so to the point that the translator didn’t get stuck. And so we rejgg the script all the time. Sometimes we change the order of the pieces in the show, so we’re not just going through the motions.

Because we all know the music from memory by name, if I’m not speaking or doing anything you can just look out into the audience and really listen to the responses from the kids, and really enjoy it so much.

I also remember that each of the kids is hearing the music for the first time so it has to be fresh for them. It doesn’t matter if we’re onto our 100th show, or whatever, it has to be fresh, vibrant and alive. So I just always remember that.


Interview with Duncan Gardiner of Fiddlesticks – Coming to a School Near You! (If you’re in Melbourne…..) – Part 1

I had the pleasure of a fabulous conversation last week with Duncan Gardiner (whose recording with his mimi duo project I’ve previously featured on the blog) talking about his educational music project Fiddlesticks and their 30+ date tour here in Melbourne this month.


Fiddlesticks features Duncan Gardiner (guitar), Rachael Aquilina (violin) and Anna Sarcich (cello). Each of the members of Fiddlesticks are established soloists, chamber musicians, orchestral players and composers/arrangers having each performed with the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra and the West Australian Opera. Fresh from a glittering concert tour of Hong Kong for Premiere Performances of Hong Kong, 2016 has seen the trio perform across the most remote areas of the North West’s Pilbara and Kimberley regions as well as up-coming concerts across Melbourne and regional Victoria.

Fiddlesticks have given concerts in virtually every Western Australian town performing between 50-100 In Schools concerts for Musica Viva in Schools each year. Individually, they have toured internationally to countries such as the U.S., Japan, Scotland, England, Italy, France, Spain and Croatia.

Each of the members have recorded extensively, in particular Duncan, who has released 4 critically acclaimed studio albums. They are all graduates of the Western Australian Academy of Music and the University of Western Australia.

Read on for part one of my interview with Duncan…..

Tell us a bit about yourself – who is Duncan Gardiner?

I’m a freelance musician, I play guitar, classical guitar that’s what I do as a performer, but I play all sorts of instruments as well and I compose music. So that’s actually really where my true passion lies is in writing music. I find it’s the least stressful thing you can do. Obviously there’s nothing stressful about sitting in the comfort of your own home writing music.

I do perform a lot and I teach, I teach about 4 days a week. I’ve got about 40 students, and I love just immersing myself in all aspects. I do enjoy performing professionally, but as I said I do sometimes just enjoy playing recorder in community groups and things like that. I just really love music. I do do all sorts.

I wouldn’t consider myself to be one of those solo recital guitarists. I prefer chamber music, making music with other people. Still can be great, very serious music making but just not the whole pressure of performing solo. It can be very lonely – I’ve done that obviously studying.

So obviously you like performing in that group chamber music setting – that’s an excellent segue into talking about your trio Fiddlesticks. How did the three of you come together?

Musica Viva actually approached us, who were a group of musicians who had been involved in stuff in the past. It was the cellist who was approached, and they basically said “hey we’d like you to form a group, doing school concerts”.

One of the women who worked at Musica Viva was a classical guitarist. She said, you know, the classical guitar is one of the most popular instruments in schools in Australia, particularly in Perth, and we don’t have a single classical guitarist on the books. She said I know this guy called Duncan, maybe you guys could form a trio or something.

So we still had to audition and basically we formed with the sole purpose of doing concerts in schools. And then obviously the repertoire was chosen around that. We had a brief and that was to do on hour educational concerts in schools, for kids aged between Kindy and Year 8.

So it was combining two passions of mine, actually all three really – performing, composing (because I write music for it) and also education.

I think we’ve given probably this year alone probably 40 or more concerts, and of course in Melbourne we’ll be giving about 35 or something. So it’s a large number each year. Normally it’s in Western Australia, but of course this year we’ve toured across Hong Kong as well, and now interstate.

So Fiddlesticks are coming to Melbourne doing 35 different schools?

Yes, that’s right. We’ll be in metro city Melbourne for the first two weeks, and then the last week we’ll going and doing something in country schools. But even with the metro schools I think some of them are out 50 or 60km out of the city.

The three of you are coming to Melbourne on the back of some recent performances in Hong Kong and WA, what can these lucky kids look forward to?

Well, they’re going to get all sorts. What we do is weave story-telling into the show and we get the kids to use their imaginations. So we play pieces like In the Hall of the Mountain King and so we play the piece of music and we ask the kids how has the composer told the story with the music. So how did the music make it sound like the little boy was creeping, how did he make it sound like trolls were then chasing him,.

We play a piece by Khachaturian call Sabre Dance and so I have this plastic sword and we build the story of a heated battle between two female warriors. Because it looks as if the violinist and the cellist have swords. So we talk about that.

And there’s a tango in the middle. Ooh, what else is there? Some of my music, a Scottish-inspired piece. The kids learn all about Loch Ness and imagine the story of Duncan going up through the moors and the stuff around Loch Ness. It kind of opens up the kids imaginations, but directly through music.

It always has a very educational purpose – this is called accelaerando, or this is called rubarto, or arco or pizzicato, this kind of stuff.

We play the pieces of music from start to finish, we perform each item, and at the start we say “this is Rachel, can anyone say what instrument she plays?” Then the kinds answer and we say “let’s listen to Rachel play the melody on her violin”.

And we introduce the cello and we say “Anna can play the melody on her cello too”, and they can hear the difference between the cello and violin playing the same thing. We then play the bass line, and ask them what they noticed about the bass line – it’s low, or it’s deep or whatever.

Then I do this thing, a guitar demo, where I demonstrate strumming and pizzicato on the guitar and percussion. And then I get them to determine the quality of the strumming – it’s energetic, whereas pizzicato is quieter and muted. I get them to say the word muted eventually.

I play the Libra Sonatina by Dyens. At the end it has some crazy stuff, like tapping and strumming, and strumming the strings at the head of guitar, and I finish with that. So they get up close and personal with the instruments.

Then at the end of the show we actually get them to sing a song that I wrote. We sing the whole thing together, and they have these fruity maracas that they shake. It’s really really fun.

Check out some of the fab music that the lucky students of Melbourne can look forward to this month with Duncan’s composition Brandy Snap:

Watch this space for the second part of my interview with Duncan, and learn about some of the touching highlights of his performances with Fiddlesticks.