Singing in Gaelic, thanks to Sibelius

I started to write about learning new software. But no one learns software for its own sake. Software’s like a second language: you learn it because you have a goal. Even the well-intended “everyone should know how to code” silliness has a goal, which is less about coding and more about something like logical thinking, understanding complex systems, or producing a result that the coder finds worthwhile.

I decided I wanted to write about two things: why I wanted to learn this particular software, and how I’m not learning the way the program’s developers think I should. I’m not even learning the way I might have thought I should. It’s going to take me a couple of posts; this is the first.

What I wanted to learn

Last year, I joined the Victoria Gaelic Choir. Gaelic (Gàidhlig, Scottish Gaelic) was the language of my ancestors and even my grandparents. I know only a few words and phrases, but I’ve know Gaelic singing for a long time–and if you don’t, there’s a list at the end of this post to get you started.

As I said last year, this opened a clutch of challenges. I needed to learn lyrics in a language I don’t speak–one whose spelling and pronunciation aren’t always easy for an English speaker:

O seinnidh mi dàn do dh’eilean mo ghràidh
(O, I’ll sing a song to the island that I love)

“oh shay-nee mee dawn doh yell-un mo gr-eye…”

And before the lyrics, I needed to learn the melody for many songs I’d never heard. (Tune first, words second; trust me.) Even for those I did recognize, I needed to learn the tenor part.

I can pick out a tune or a tenor line on guitar, but that’s not a practical way to learn a choral piece. I seriously considered buying an electronic keyboard, but my son (thank goodness) suggested I experiment with a 30-day trial of Sibelius First.


With Sibelius, I know what I’m doing. Or what I should do.

This $120 package lets you compose music on your computer and share it with others. I didn’t plan any composition, but the features that caused my son to suggest Sibelius include the ability to scan printed sheet music, to create an editable digital score, and to export sound files.

Sheet music to an mp3? Does it work?

Let me show, rather than tell. That line of Gaelic above is from Uibhist Mo Ghràidh (Uist, My Love), an archetypal Gaelic song about the island of North Uist, where my mother’s people came from.

O seinnidh mi dàn do dh’eilean mo ghràidh
far an d’fhuair mi m’àrach nuair bha mi nam phàisd’
Far am bi mo chrìdhe gu deireadh mo là
ann an Eilean Uibhist an eòrna.

O, I’ll sing a song to the isle of my love
where I was raised as a child
where my heart will be to the end of my days
In the Isle of Uist of the barley.

If you want some idea of how I felt when everyone else in the choir knew this, listen to Linda NicLeòid — Linda MacLeod — singing. (I’ll resume below below the video.)

A recording like this demonstrates the melody, and from Wednesday night choir practice I had a nodding acquaintance with the tenor line. But “once a week” takes the idea of spaced practice to an extreme. I needed to hear the tenor part on its own, a lot, so I could practice.

I chose Uibhist Mo Ghràidh for this post to show what I was able to do after working with Sibelius off and on for about three months. Starting with a good copy of the sheet music, arranged for soprano, alto, tenor, and bass:

  • I scanned the music into Sibelius.
  • I edited a few errors the scan didn’t quite catch.
  • From the digital version, I exported audio files for each part and for the four parts together.

Sibelius allows me to choose instruments–which means I can make the audio sound like piano, or like human voices. I went the latter route. Here’s the full choir audio, and here’s the tenor part.

The audio comes out as .wav files. It takes me less than a minute to convert them to mp3s, which I can then send to my phone or share with other members of the choir.

That’s where I went. Next time: how I got there.

It’s taken me a while to write this post, because I kept rethinking what it was I wanted to learn and how I could explain the context. If I had to summarize my own learning goal, it’d be “have the tune for the tenor parts to Gaelic songs I want to sing.”  That’s an oversimplification, but it was also a 14-word target I wanted to hit.

It took some effort before I could hit it, and the process of that learning is what will be in the next post.

Those Gaelic songs I promised

Raylene Rankin
(Click for an appreciation from the Halifax Chronicle Herald)

Song may be one of the most enduring ways to preserve and transmit a language. Here are a few examples–the links in the song titles lead to a recording of the song. When I’ve been able to find an online translation into English, I’ve put a link for that as well. (The links are set to open in a new window.)

Shots in the heather

Here’s a Gaelic proverb:

Is iomadh urchair tha dol ‘s an fhraoch.
(Many a shot goes into the heather.)

In other words, when you hunt, you miss. And if you fire indiscriminately, paying no attention to when or why or how, not trying to figure out why you missed, and not turning to anyone else for feedback, you’re  going to continue putting a lot of shot into the heather.

In my personal life, I’ve been sending a fair amount into the ground lately because I’m learning something new. And as I think is often the case, “learning something” really means “learning several different things, and also learning how they work together.”

I joined a choir.

I haven’t joined a choir before, so I’ve been learning different but interrelated things:

  • The lyrics to songs I didn’t know (which so far is “all the songs we’ve been practicing”)
  • The melodies of songs I didn’t know (see above)
  • The tenor part for these same songs

Those are all examples of explicit knowledge: they’re factual things. Learning the tenor part, for example, means learning the succession of tones.

I’m having to learn some tacit skills as well, such as what Maria von Trapp called “minding your own business” — concentrating on your part when other choir members who are not tenors are singing right next to you.

In addition I have to learn pronunciation, because I’ve joined Guth nan Eilean (the Voice of the Island), the Victoria Gaelic Choir.

It’s been a great experience. I ran into the choir when they were performing at the Victoria Highland Games last May. I was especially struck by how clearly they enjoyed what they were singing. It probably helped that I recognized two or three of the songs they sang.

It didn’t surprise me to discover there’s a worldwide community of groups who thrive Gaelic song. I’m especially impressed by people like Kathleen MacInnes and Mary Ann Kennedy who’ve made their language part of their careers.

No, not many people speak Scottish Gaelic. I can’t, except for a few traveler phrases and a handful of songs. But I always want to know the meaning of any song I sing in another language, and the Victoria Gaelic Choir gives me another reason to do that.

Here’s a whole flock of choirs at the Mòd (Gaelic festival) in Paisley, Scotland, last year, singing the unofficial anthem of such choirs:

Togaibh i, togaibh i, cànan ar dùthcha,
Togaibh a suas i gu h-inbhe ro-chliùitich;
Togaibh gu daingeann i ‘s bithibh rith’ bàidheil,
Hi ho rò, togaibh i, suas leis a’ Ghàidhlig!

Praise it, praise it, the language of our country
Give it honourable status
Promote it with spirit, and treat it with affection,
Hi horo, praise it, up with the Gaelic.

‘S i cànan na h-òige; ‘s i cànain na h-aois;
B’ i cànan ar sinnsir; b’ i cànan an gaoil;
Ged tha i nis aost’, tha i reachdmhor is treun;
Cha do chaill i a clì ‘s cha do strìochd i fo bheum.

It’s the language of youth, it’s the language of the aged,
it was the language of our ancestors, it was the language they loved
Although it is now old, it is robust and strong
It has not lost its power, and it has not surrendered to misfortune.



Finding forums and getting Happy

I’ve been doing a little self-directed learning lately. And it came about because someone told me about Larrivée guitars. Although I hadn’t heard of them till a couple of months ago, I can assure you they’re out of this world–one has been on the international space station for years.

I play guitar, not very well. Mostly I strum chords, because I like to sing. But in that conversation I mentioned, my friend encouraged me to think about getting a quality instrument. That suggestion came at a good time; although I’m not quite ready to spring even for a used Larrivée, I did start picking up the somewhat battered classical guitar I bought when I was in college.

For much of that time I’ve kept a couple of books on fingerpicking. Every so often I’ll work through one or the other, and when I sense some improvement, I feel pretty good. In addition, because I’ve been on a Zachary Richard kick lately, I’ve been trying to learn a couple of his songs, like Travailler, c’est trop dur (link to a video and an English translation on my French-language blog).

larrivee forumThat was one track: doing more with my own guitar. A second track was to find out more about Larrivée guitars, and there seem to be few better places than the Larrivée online forum.

When I enter a new community like this, I wander around for a bit and don’t say too much too soon, unless I can contribute something positive, if only to my experience with a guitar-tuning app for Android phones.

I saw that someone on the forum was selling some DVDs–tutorials for fingerpicking. Turns out they feature Happy Traum, a prolific and popular guitarist and instructor. In fact, one of those instruction books I’ve hung onto for so long is his.

Even if you don’t play an instrument, you can get a sense of Happy’s relaxed, encouraging approach:

That sealed it for me, and the DVDs arrived last weekend. As Bill Deterline said, “Things take longer than they do,” so I’m not fooling myself about how quickly I’ll pick up the techniques in the DVDs.

I can’t help but notice the interplay between what’s essentially a lecture–Happy Traum on DVD, explaining and demonstrating–and the invitation to not simply practice, but to actively modify your practice in order to expand you abilities.

Fundamentally, this is a tightly focused relationship. In effect, Happy’s done instructional design around a specific topic: not just “fingerpicking styles” (content alone) but “how to help a beginner learn to fingerpick.”

He can’t see you or hear you, and he probably doesn’t have enough time in his schedule to work with every student one-to-one. Instead, he starts by slowly and carefully demonstrating and explaining fundamentals.  It’s show-and-tell so you can hear-and-do (or at least hear-and-try).

The first thing we should work on is your steady thumb… Keep a bass going relentlessly, so that you always have that pulse underneath your picking… The ability to keep that thumb going while you’re doing whatever else… You have to develop the facility for doing that. It’s kind of like reprogramming your brain…

First thing we’ll do, just do it on one string… Do this with me…

Within a few minutes of that, he adds:

  • “The most basic melody note” — add a treble note by plucking the first string on just the first beat
  • Switch the treble note to the second string, still on the first beat
  • The second string on the first and the third beat
  • “Now let’s try putting a note on the first and second beat, but leave the third and fourth alone.”
  • Same thing, but with the second string.
  • Alternating between the first and second string (first string on the first beat, second string on the third beat).

I don’t want to keep quoting from the DVD, but I do think that attendees at more than one learning conference could profit from seeing how deftly Happy  introduces complexity at a rate that challenges but (mostly likely) doesn’t frustrate the beginner.

(As for badges–when you’re able to get through “Skip to My Lou” at a normal pace, with the steady thumb-beat and the melody in the upper strings, you’ll have all the badge you need for attaining that particular level.)

Probably some people could figure this out on their own, but I suspect that as with so many other fields, beginning guitar players can feel overwhelmed, not knowing what to pay attention to or what’s an optimal way to proceed. Brownie McGhee certainly didn’t learn guitar from a DVD — but Happy Traum learned from McGhee, and depending on your access to an in-person teacher and your interest in guitar, you can learn from Happy’s DVD.

To emphasize the variety of things that people mean when they say “learning,” I often talk about learning a language. Does learning mean mastering basic grammar? Reading literature in that language? Watching movies without subtitles?  It depends on context.

And that’s true with “learning the guitar.” There are some areas that most people would agree on–you probably need to know what standard tuning is, and probably need to know the basic fingering for chords. So there’s explicit knowledge as a foundation for tacit knowledge (it’s one thing to know what the tuning is, it’s another to actually tune). Beyond such fundamentals, there’s the melody or song you want to play, and there’s the integration of all this into a performance.

I’m not performing much yet. One of my mid-term goals is to improve enough that I could try a Larrivée in a store without completely embarrassing myself. We’ll see how that works out.

And now, a word from Gramma

I’ve really enjoyed the wide-ranging comments on Monday’s post about throwing like a girl. I keep relating Tamar Haspel’s effort to throw a ball farther and faster with other goals that people choose, complex ones that don’t have an end point.

What I mean is, it’s one thing to say, “I’m going to learn to do quadratic equations.” That’s a pretty specific goal, and (I assume) at some point you can do any one that’s handed to you.

Many things that adults set out to master — with “master” being a very flexible word for “develop a satisfactory level of capability” — lack those crisp boundaries. Like learning a language other than your native one.

For now, though, I want to pick up on Tamar’s closing comment:  “You’ll have to excuse me, because I need to find a violin teacher.”

Naturally, this reminded me of Margaret Ann Cameron Beaton. She was the maternal grandmother of Natalie MacMaster, part of an extended family of Cape Breton musicians (like cousin Andrea Beaton, uncle Kinnon Beaton, and uncle Buddy MacMaster). Natalie’s album In My Hands includes the track Gramma, with a pair of Irish fiddle tunes. The track opens with a recording of Margaret Ann at the age of 91. Although I’m putting a transcription here, you ought to listen to the clip to hear not only her warm Cape Breton accent but her shimmering wish that she’d learned to play:

Margaret Ann Cameron Beaton (“Gramma”)

I wasn’t rich enough to get a violin when I was young. But if I happened to have the money, boy, oh boy, I would be a violin player. My god, I just — I was alive with it.

Up in the err

I’m experimenting with changes to this blog.  Mostly they have to do with the theme.  If you’re not a blogger, that’s the collection of WordPress files that controls the appearance of the blog–not just the arrangement of colors and typefaces, but also the display and position of features like those you see in the sidebar (“latest posts,” “latest comments,” and so on).

I really liked my longtime theme, Simpla.  The white space went well with the blog’s name.  But it hasn’t been updated in a long time, and it’s not widget-aware.

For the three people still reading, a widget is a little drag-and-drop control.  For example, with the old theme, to have drop-down list for displaying archives by month, I had to edit the PHP code for the sidebar and add this:

<<id="archives"><h2><?php _e('The last few months'); ?></h2>
 <?php wp_get_archives('type=monthly&limit=6'); ?>
 <!-- END ARCHIVES -->
 <!-- Archive dropdown -->
 <h4>Or any month at all:</h4>
 <select name="archive-dropdown"
 <option value=""><?php echo attribute_escape(__('Select Month')); ?></option>
 <?php wp_get_archives('type=monthly&format=option&show_post_count=1'); ?> </select>

Nothing to it.

WordPress widgets in action
(click to enlarge)

Using more up-to-date themes (like Suffusion, which I’m experimenting with), you can add or delete widgets without having to worry about forgetting an angle bracket or a semicolon.

The example on the right is taken from this blog as I write.  Suffusion allows for multiple sidebars–the spaces outside of the main post area.  I dragged five different widgets into Sidebar 1; the order in which I place them is the order in which they appear.

That example includes the Archives widget, which I left open to show how easy it is to customize the title and to say whether you want the archive as a full list, or as a dropdown.  Since I’ve been scribbling on this Whiteboard for more than 5 years, I didn’t think the full list was the best option.

The Series TOC widget (second from last in the example) is another benefit I get from a more up-to-date theme.  I’ve written several post series, and the widget automatically displays titles for the first post in each one.  When I begin another series, I don’t have to do anything to update that table-of-contents; as long as I’ve named the series (through another WordPress gizmo called  a plugin), the widget will include the new title.

As I tinker with changes, cosmetic or (I hope) substantive, I’ll probably make mistakes, which is why I say things will be up in the err for a while.  And I do have some grunt work to do–that random quote, which I’m fond of, can’t retrieve the 300-odd quotes stored in the database.  It looks like I may have to re-enter them one at a time.