Ruth Flavin

Ruth has taught at both Fountainhall and Stow schools. She gives private music tuition in piano and harp. She was a founder member of Junior Accoutic Music and now runs monthly folk sessions in Cloudhouse café.


I'm 62 years old. I was born in Harpenden in Hertfordshire in 1955. My earliest memories of music are of my mother singing. She belonged to a light operatic society. She loved singing and she would sing about the house or whistle all the time. If we were in the car going somewhere, if one of us felt a bit sick, my mother would say, “Well, let's start singing. That will stop you feeling sick.”

My mother was a housewife and mother to us two girls. At one time she was secretary to Arthur Swinson who was the writer of, “Doctor Finlay's Casebook.” She typed out all his scripts for him. His wife was very into drama and started up an arts centre in St Albans and my mother was heavily involved in that, taking classes of drama and improvisation and putting on plays. She did a bit of English and Drama teaching in school as well. She had pupils at home for speech training also. She was a very bright sparkly person who talked and laughed a lot, was very engaging and very friendly and outgoing. There were always things happening and plenty of fun with my mother around.

My father was a quiet man, ten years older than my mother. He was a dentist and a man of few words. If you asked him a question, there would be a silence while he pondered what he was going to answer and then he would come out with it. He was very reliable and steady. My mother was the opposite in many ways and so they complimented each other. He would be the one who stayed at home in the evening happily while my mother went off to some drama linked group or a poetry reading. She absolutely loved poetry.

My sister is nearly four years older than me. We would sing things together. She was great at making up poems and songs and we would often give little concerts for our parents or neighbours. At primary school the music teacher was called Miss Tangy. We did a lot of singing, but we would also be given percussion instruments and we would have to play them in time to her piano playing. Sometimes you would get a drum and sometimes a cymbal. There were quite a large number of percussion instruments that would get passed around.

I remember singing all the usual nursery rhymes like Baa Baa Black Sheep – Wee Willy Winkie – Three Blind Mice – Sing a Song of Sixpence -Ring a Ring of Roses, (which I learnt later in life came from plague time in London.) There were party game songs we sang also such as - In and Out the Dusty Bluebells - which was a kind of dancing game that involved weaving in and out of the arms of children holding hands in a circle with arms up.

In the playground there were more rhymes than songs. There were skipping rhymes.

My Mother said I never should
Play with the gypsies in the wood
If I did she would say
Naughty little girl to disobey

At some stage people realised that it wasn't politically correct to use the word gypsy in this way, so it would be changed to another word. But these ideas of seeing the gypsies as undesirable and maybe dangerous would of course get into your subconscious and it's little surprise people grow up with prejudices!

Eeper Weeper chimney sweeper
Had a wife but couldna keep her
Had another, didna love her
up the chimney he did shove her

There were clapping rhymes also like

A sailor went to Sea sea sea
To see what he could see see see
But all that he could see see see
Was the bottom of the deep blue sea sea sea

There were rhymes to decide who was 'It' if you were going to have a game of chase.

One potato two potato three potato four
five potato six potato seven potato more
O-U-T spells out so out you must go
Because the king and queen say so

We went to church each week and sang the hymns. Singing together is a very spiritual thing. If you don't get this in church nowadays then coming together with the community and singing in a choir becomes very important. We didn't have a choir at primary school. At secondary school there was a choir, but it was almost all school boarders who were in it. There were boarders at the school as it used to be an independent school. It had turned grammar school the year I started there, but it continued to take boarders. The day pupils didn't want to put in the extra time for choir rehearsals as we went to school six days a week. We had Saturday morning school and if you were in the team you had sports engagements Saturday afternoon. We were also expected to attend the school chapel at least once a month on a Sunday.

At home and in the car, we sang songs like - Oh you Never go to Heaven - and we sang rounds like - Frere Jacques. These developed our ear for harmony singing. I also remember singing – Early One Morning just as the Sun was Rising – and - There was a Frog Lived in a Well, Whipsy Diddledee Dandy Dee.

I learnt a lot of rounds and songs when I got involved with Colony Holidays for Schoolchildren, as a monitor. We were sent on courses to prepare us for leadership roles. We learnt handicrafts, games and a huge repertoire of songs. I had been on these holidays when I was about 10 and for several years in a row. Then as a young adult I trained to be a leader and took part in at least three holiday camps. I used the songs, games, handicrafts and skills that I learnt from Colony Holidays with my own children and in my own teaching later. They were invaluable. Colony Holidays would take over a great big country house for about ten days and send maybe 80 kids, supported by 10 trained adults plus a cook and nurse. The organisation stemmed from Colony de Vacance in France. One of the teachers at my secondary school, Chris Green, set up the British branch in the 1960s. The organisation is still running today although it is now called ATE Super Weeks.

My father's parents lived five miles away in St Albans. My maternal grandparents lived around the corner and up the road in my early childhood. Later in time we lived beside them. My grandmother loved both poetry and music.

I started piano lessons when I was six and my sister did too. If somebody came to the house, we would be asked to play. I wasn't nervous when I was small. Taking piano exams wasn't useful and proved be a very nerve-wracking experience. The exams were held in a hall with rebounding acoustics, very different from our own living room. The piano stool was too low for me and piano keys had a much firmer touch than I was used to. The examiner was always unsmiling and stern. I attribute the nerves I suffer from when performing in front of others on ,musical instruments today to my experiences at piano exams in my youth.

I had a very happy comfortable childhood. I don't remember thinking much about the future. I lived very much in the present and assumed adult life would be as easy and comfortable as my early life had been. My mother suggested I went to secretarial college. That was the last thing I ever wanted to do. I wasn't a very organized person myself and the thought of having to organize someone else and take down their words didn't appeal to me ..... I didn't want to be second in command to anybody. At home we had no brother and we were just two girls. My mother was the 'go do it' person in the family and my father very much in supportive steady role. I never felt that the men around should be better than me or tell me what to do. At the time when I went through school, they were striving to make girls equal. It was quite a shock growing up and discovering that out in the big wide world the rest of the universe hadn't quite got there yet. I had gone to a single sex primary school, but secondary school was co ed. There were no boys in my life when I was young.

At secondary school I was friendly with a girl called Rosie. Her mother was a music teacher. She was a widow and home life was not easy. Rosie introduced me to the guitar at the age of maybe 13, 14. I stopped piano lessons at this stage. Playing the guitar was a musical revelation to me. The relationships of the chords put meaning to the theory I had been taught. We used to sing together and swap songs. The Beatles were of course a huge influence on us as teenagers. My mother taught drama and had a good reel to reel tape recorder. We used this to make recordings from the radio. We didn't have a television at home until I was about 16. My grandmother had a television, so I would sometimes pop across to her to watch. Top of the pops would be watched weekly. The Monkees were popular in my young teens. The Rolling Stones I grew into later on. Simon and Garfunkel, Tom Paxton, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan were all at the fore at that time. Don Maclean and Led Zeppelin were later when I was at college. Then there was Bob Marley who was ringing out all over Africa when I was out in Nigeria teaching in the mid 70s. ‘No Woman No Cry’ could be heard in every city. We wrote down all the songs we sang in long hand. My experiences in Africa were character forming and of great interest. They inspired me to write a few songs while I was there.

After returning to Britain most of the songs I've written since have been to aid teaching. I have songs to help children remember spelling rules. I've made up a song for Stow. When doing topic work with the children I would often make up a song to help kids remember facts about whatever topic we were doing. Tunes come easily to me. If I don't write them down, I lose them easily too. I find music profoundly moving. I can be very easily brought to tears by a beautiful tune or song. I have written a tune for each of my grandchildren.

There were classical records in the home when I was growing up. I think we first got a record player when I was about eight. We were not at first allowed to touch it. It was my father's domain. I remember him buying Acker Bilk's, Stranger on the Shore. My sister and I only had a handful of records ourselves. We used the tape recorder to gather music.

Some of my favourites would be

Joni Mitchell's - Blue
You’ve got a Friend – James Taylor and Carol King

I love folk music, but also jazz and classical music. I love to see the interaction between musicians and this spontaneity is found mostly with folk and jazz music. The getting together and jamming is wonderful to take part in and to watch.

We've just started a folk session down the road here in Cloudhouse cafe on the first Sunday afternoon of each month. It's from 3 in the afternoon until about 6. The Gordon Arms has a session on the 3rd Sunday of each month which we regularly attend also.

I haven't mentioned the impact Africa had on me yet. After teacher training college I got a job with Voluntary Services Overseas and found myself in Nigeria teaching in an all-girls school in the village of Yelwa, Sokoto State. Every African seems to have an innate sense of rhythm. Their singing is full of resonance and they seem to have an in-built ability to harmonize spontaneously. At the most simple, you might experience a man in the market place tapping away a rhythm with a stick on a calabash and singing gently. You would see many home-made primitive instruments made from whatever materials were available, from the three string makeshift fiddle to nails flattened, mounted on a gourd and used to ping out a tune. Talking drums were commonly used and the rhythmic patterns linked with speech to form a communication method between villages. One of the most amazing experiences of my life was when I was travelling through Ghana and came upon a funeral procession in the middle of the street. There were four drummers in the centre of a circle of dancers. Each drummer produced a different rhythm which came together with the other rhythms to produce an intricate rhythmic pattern. Each drummer changed and developed his drumming rhythm. It was totally hypnotic. It was impossible not to join in dancing, as we were indeed encouraged to do. It was mesmerizing.

I met my husband out in Nigeria. We married the next year and my next musical influence was of Irish music. Nick plays melodeon, tin whistle and moothy and has a large repertoire of Irish tunes and bits of songs. This led me further towards folk music. Clannad was at its height in the folk world in the late seventies when we were living and working in Manchester. There was plenty of Irish music there and I remember attending a Clannad concert. Watching the interplay of the band members who were all from the same extended family was fascinating. We saw De Danaan too.

Soon after getting married we moved to Scotland, so the Irish music led neatly into the Scottish music. I love the progressive Scottish folk music as well as the more traditional sound. I had 5 children in quick succession, so my music then centred upon developing my own children's musicality. We moved into a house in Torrance, near Glasgow. The previous owners left a piano behind which was very gratefully received. My eldest showed a lot of interest in music from an early age. This led me to get involved with Dalcroze music teaching. I attended a training course in London and later set up my own classes in my living room after we had moved to Eskbank. I took groups of ten children at a time for 40 minute lessons involving singing, moving to music and lots of games to develop their sense of pitch and rhythm. Word got around and soon several nurseries had enlisted me to come in and train their staff or work with their children. On moving to Stow, I set up classes in the town hall and in Old Gala House in Galashiels. They were called Sound Start. The classes were for children between 3 and 6.

When we arrived in Stow, we found a lovely village school which we were very happy to send our children to. Mr Jones, the headteacher, was very strong in physical education and the children became involved in all sorts of outdoor activities. However, this was a period where music at school was not foremost, although I have learnt that it had been excellent in this area in the past. Our children, who were already playing instruments, did not have the support that learning and playing with other peers can bring. Prompted by a friend who was telling me that her daughter just played her fiddle alone in her bedroom, having no one else to play with, I started to formulate an idea. At this stage we had got to know quite a few musical people in the village. There was Kathy and Andy Stewart, Tom Bonnar, Alan Bertram, Lizzie Watson, Lesley MacLaren to name just a few. I asked Kathy Stewart if she would be interested in joining with me to start up a weekend traditional music school using Stow Town Hall as our premises. Kathy was very enthusiastic. We put out flyers round all the local Borders schools. Junior Acoustic Music, (JAM) was launched in 1991.

We had Bill Muir to teach harmonica, Lizzie Watson for fiddle, Charlie Gorman for banjo, Don Cameron for guitar, a flute player called Norman Chalmers who came down from Edinburgh, Kathy for singing and I did some guitar teaching too. We signed up over sixty children on the first day. We would start together in the main hall with singing and rhythm games and then separate into groups for instrumental tuition. The last twenty minutes we would come back together again to play what we had learnt in a big session. It was very successful, many children going on to carry their gained musical expertise with them into later life. At some stage the organisation moved down to Langlee Centre where we were offered free accommodation.

The response from the education department was to introduce more traditional music teaching into the schools. In Selkirk there was funding for traditional instruments. At a later stage clarsachs were bought for use by schoolchildren and a teacher found to start off some young players.

When my youngest child was three, I got a part time job at St Mary’s School in Melrose and taught music there for 6 years. Following this I taught at Lilliesleaf and then Fountainhall school for a further 6 years. I then did a two year stint teaching drama as a peripatetic teacher in many Borders primary schools. My final post was at Stow school where I taught until I retired.

When the children were still quite small, we would be asked to play and sing as a family to entertain various groups. James played cello, Christopher – guitar, Mairi Louise – violin, Francis – melodeon (only two tunes.....but he played them well!), Katy Ellen – violin, myself – guitar and Nick melodeon, harmonica and tin whistle. We'd quite a repertoire of Scottish and Irish songs. We also played at the Stow Folk club quite regularly. Tom Bonnar had set this up, initially in the Howf attached to the Royal Hotel. It was well attended and much enjoyed by local people. There was a constant stream of excellent visiting musicians, supported by local players.

Two of my children studied music at university. Mairi Louise runs her own music school down in Surrey and her own children play violin and cello too. Now I am retired and have time to spend on myself. I have taken up the clarsach and have become involved with the Edinburgh clarsach society. I play with a group of ladies once a month as well as playing at local sessions in the Borders. I also teach piano in the village which I greatly enjoy. I sing with the local community choir, The Galawater Singers and have accompanied Turas, a Border's based Gaelic choir, on a couple of occasions for their concerts.

When asked to become involved in the local archive group, Music in the valley was an obvious choice for me to research. Music has been one of the greatest sources of joy in my life, bringing me friendship, excitement, relaxation and inspiration, supporting my passage through the years along life's rich and varied pathway.