Brought up in West Sussex, Alpha Munro’s musical career began in school, learning violin, piano and guitar. But it was through yearly visits to the family farm in Strathspey that her interest in traditional music began, learning to ceilidh dance and singing Harry Lauder songs round campfires. Through this connection with the Highlands, she met and married Hector Munro- current clan chief of the Clan Munro. Settling in Evanton, Alpha has had a prolific musical career in the Highlands, working in a range of areas.
She was introduced to the fiddle music of the area by Donald Riddell. Riddell was famous in his teaching style, everything was done by ear, which she says, laughing, “was a challenge for someone of classical training!” But she persisted, in doing so gaining a deep understanding of the Highland fiddle style, from one of its masters.
At the same time as this, Alpha was invited to start giving workshops at local schools for children with additional support needs: St Duthus in Tain and St Clements in Dingwall. This is where another one of the main strands of her musical life began- using music, more specifically traditional music, to communicate with and enrich the lives of children who’s experience of the world is very different. In her words: “I think music for the disabled in the old days was quite a rigid process, I came in with ideas of free expression and they seemed to work”.
She developed her own approach, firstly by making things as participatory as possible, abandoning the traditional model of singing with the piano and adopting the use of small hand held percussion instruments. She began to see avenues for using elements of the traditional music of the area she was becoming engrossed in. She was able to link the modes- the different tonalities of traditional music to the patterns, rhythms and colours of speech, thus linking the music directly to the children. Each tonal colour she found inspired a different response.
She puts a great deal of time and effort in to figuring out how to make a benefit from music for each and every individual child. She’s truly passionate about this, saying:
“Music is a tool for communication and I get very excited when children progress. For instance when one member of staff tells me that a child hasn’t reacted in that particular way before or has said something they don’t usually say or they moved in a particular way that they haven’t done before that gives me a kick. I work on creativity, communication and co-ordination and I try in every session to communicate with each child individually. There is a moment when you are improvising while working with these children when you feel you have created a personal dynamic between you. Then you know you have that child in your hands and you can move them in a certain direction. That’s very exciting. So with music you can communicate instrumentally with them and even those with severe sensory deprivations. Sound is one of the first senses to be developed in the womb with the ear developing in the womb first. Sound continues development through communication so we have tonal responses from the outset and of course in learning to speak we use sound”.
At the same time as all of this, she started working for Fèis Rois, after playing in a ceilidh band with Rita Hunter, who at the time managed the organisation. At Rita’s behest, Alpha started teaching weekly fiddle classes.
From this weekly class sprung the Kiltearn Fiddlers. A group Alpha set up to help young fiddlers develop their technique, repertoire and performing experience. Over the years, many well known faces from the trad scene have played in the group, including to name but a few: Mathieu Watson Graham MacKenzie, Lauren MacColl and Katie MacKenzie.
Over the years, the group have done some amazing things. They’ve recorded three CDs, performed at festivals across the UK: Celtic Connections, The Blas Festival, Cambridge folk festival, as well as international trips to France, Denmark, Ireland and Sweden. They’re forged links with a strings group from Harare, Zimbabwe, fundraising to buy new instruments for the group. For Alpha working to make this all happen continues, at the same time as teaching three weekly classes!
She’s also worked extensively with visually impaired musicians. Observing that blind musicians in history were treated very well indeed, she wondered if in the present day, music could be used as a tool for inclusion for people with visual impairments. She formed the Lersinn project, with a group of visually impaired musicians learning about the history of blind musicians, before making a show which they performed across Scotland.
In 2016, Alpha was awarded an MBE for her work. On her passion for music and the community, she says: “I think that getting traditional music in to the community is vital. Traditional music has underpinned society from the beginning. This is the strength of Scotland’s tradition, it still underpins, it’s honoured and celebrated. It’s got something to offer to the rest of the word”.