Starting as a secondary school music teacher in Stromness, Jean Leonard went on to be closely involved in the huge renaissance of learning and playing traditional music that’s taken place on Orkney in recent years. She was part of the effort to set up and run the Orkney Traditional Music Project, which since 1998 has seen hundreds of young people and adults go through its ranks, some going on to successful careers in music in their own right.
Her own training in music started at a young age. Growing up in Dumfries, her family were passionate about music, so it wasn’t long before Jean started taking piano lessons. Her sister, who had already been learning for three years, was delighted to finally have someone to play duets with. Keeping up with her sister brought Jean on very quickly, and by the time the end of her school days were approaching, she was an accomplished pianist, for whom further study and a career in music was a very real option.
On leaving school, she entered the then Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. There primarily as a pianist, she also took lessons with renowned Austrian violist Freida Peters, who years previously had escaped to Glasgow shortly before Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938.
In some ways, the viola was the greater challenge of Jean’s time at the Academy. She’d taken up the instrument through school orchestra camps, but had not received the same fundamental instruction as she had on piano. It was only when she started lessons with Peters that this became clear. Much to Peters’ frustration (as she could still play very well), Jean insisted on going back to the beginning and meticulously re-learning the instrument, putting in place the technical and musical foundations that would allow her to progress much further. This time spent mastering the viola would become greatly important to her later work on Orkney.
Upon graduating, she started work as a music teacher. First of all moving back to Dumfries, and then to Kirkcudbright. After a few years, inspired by holidays on Scotland’s west coast, and feeling the need for a change, she moved to Orkney, to take up a secondary teaching position in Stromness.
She was immediately a great fit as she took on the Stromness music department, and quickly began to see results – from her first higher music class, Two pupils went on to study Violin and Piano respectively at the RSAMD, and another to study clarinet at the Royal Northern College of Music.
Soon her work started to extend beyond the classroom. The council had recently started to appoint instrumental instructors, which was rapidly increasing the number of young people playing instruments on the island. Buoyed by this, Jean began organising summer camps, bringing in guest tutors, eventually leading to the creation of a full youth orchestra on the island.
Everything so far had occurred in a classical vein. Traditional music was less familiar to Jean, until some pupils from her after school violin group started to attend the local strathspey and reel society. Her husband Andy, an accordionist and member of the group, encouraged her to bring more of her students along, and incorporate traditional music into her teaching.
Later, the seed of the idea for what eventually became the Orkney Traditional Music Project was sown when on of Jean’s accordion playing friends from the Strathspey and Reel Society told her of how she wished that there was something similar for accordions as what was on offer for fiddlers and people playing classical music.
This request coincided with her taking early retirement. Now with some extra time, Jean put together a lottery funding application, and was successful in securing a grant to bring guest accordion tutor Ian Lowthian to the island for a period of three years. This was where the Orkney Traditional Music Project started, and from where it has continued to grow over the years.
Formally established in 1998, the OTMP has provided tuition in fiddle and accordion to hundreds of Orcadians, contributing greatly to the continuing health of traditional music on the island. The project engages local tutors to deliver weekly lessons throughout the year, as well as bringing visiting musicians to their annual summer school. Participants benefit from top quality teaching in repertoire and technique, as well as regular performance opportunities, at home and further afield.
As Jean sees it, this experience in performing is crucial: “Confidence is key. It’s no use waiting until they can play before going on stage, we try always to get them used to performing from the start. If someone wants to do a gig or anything I can help, but it’s about them realising that it can’t be done without putting the work in first”. As much as anything though, her work as a teacher and through the OTMP has been about creating a sense of fun and joy in learning and playing music.
The results of her approach are clear to see, a notable example being her former pupil Kristan Harvey, who upon leaving school, the OTMP and Jean’s tutelage, went on to study violin at the then RSAMD, then going on to win the BBC Young Traditional Musician of the Year Award in 2011. Upon hearing Kristen play, a contemporary from Jean’s own days at the RSAMD remarked upon the similarities he heard between her playing and that of Frieda Peters, all those years ago.
Jean retired from the OTMP a few years ago, but is still helping over thirty young people in their music learning each week. Her induction into the Scots Traditional Music Hall of Fame isn’t the first recognition of her many years of work either. In January 2020, she received a MBE in the Queen’s New Year Honours for services to the community and music in Orkney. A well deserved recognition of her huge contribution to music making on the island. In her own words: “When I first came up here, the fiddles were all hanging on the walls. Now you can’t get a local fiddle for love nor money!”