Each year I like to book some ukulele or guitar weekends and holidays where I can meet up with old friends and have the chance to play music together.
Earlier this year I booked a Guitar Retreats course to Tresco Island and spent 4 terrific days on this small island, part of The Scilly Isles, learning from my good friend Paul Nicholas who was the tutor for that week. My second guitar related trip of the year was to take me all the way to The Dordogne in south west France.
I was meeting two friends who had also been on Tresco at Edinburgh Airport where we took a direct flight to Bergerac. The flight was delayed and as we waited I got chatting to a fellow passenger who regularly took the flight and was extremely sceptical about it to the extent that she was convinced that delay after delay would be announced and finally it would be cancelled, which, according to her, was not unusual with our carrier FlyBe. Fortunately, her gloom and doom were completely unfounded and we took off some 30 minutes late.
When we arrived at Bergerac we were met by Johnny, our host for the week, along with his two dogs Teddy and Babou who went with him everywhere. We had a short wait at the airport for our tutor Colin Wilson who was flying from Exeter. Colin has produced over seven albums of published songs so far both as an individual and collaboratively, including an album with Phil Beer from “A Show Of Hands”. I've been on his courses before and knew him to be an excellent tutor. When we arrived at La Perdrix in St Martin de Riberac around quarter past ten in the evening I was pleased to see a number of familiar faces as well as a few new ones. I was looking forward to this week.
Being a peely-wally Scot I was a little apprehensive about the sun and heat in the Dordogne, but I needn’t have been so anxious as our accommodation, La Perdrix a wonderful 13th century monastery, has thick stone walls which keep the rooms cool even in temperatures around the mid 30s and grounds with many leafy nooks and crannies so it is always easy to find shade. The monastery has been added to many times over the centuries and along with alterations and improvements carried out by Johnny, it's now a rambling maze of a place spread over three floors and three buildings crammed with the most interesting of stuff.
On the first morning the group was divided into three smaller performance groups and after a typically leisurely French breakfast prepared by Dominic, the most fantastic chef for the week, tuition started. The format for teaching days was very much the same, Colin would give a song to each group to practise and learn. Whilst the songs were familiar we were given the additional task of coming up with our own arrangements based on ideas from Colin and Stuart (the owner of Guitar Retreats). Each evening after dinner we would perform these songs to the tutors and the other groups and the following morning we would watch videos of the performance and discuss how we might improve them. Stuart had arranged for us to perform at a local cafe, The Cafe du Palais, in Riberac on Friday night to a local audience so there was a wee bit of pressure on us and him.
It wasn’t all guitar and singing. Stuart and his wife Sharon had organised a couple of outings during the week for anyone who was interested. On Tuesday we spent the day in Aubeterre sur Dronne, a beautiful little village with an underground church cut from the rock which wasn't just a fascinating, remarkable place but was blissfully cool and a welcome break from the 35⁰ heat outside. After the visit to the church we made our way down to the River Dronne where Dominic had prepared a picnic for us and where we could cool off in the water and enjoy the artificially made sand beaches common to many French rivers. I had taken my guitar and there was also a ukulele so we spent part of the time entertaining (or annoying) ourselves and the locals.
On Thursday evening we had our final practices and advice from Colin and Stuart to help us make the performance go as well as it could. Each group had chosen their two strongest songs and along with contributions from individuals, pairs and other grouping as well as from Colin and Stuart, the playlist was written up. We were ready to go.
On Friday morning we had our second trip of the week to the local market in Riberac where we also had the chance to check out our gig venue. On Friday afternoon some of us had decided to take a walk in the woods around Le Grand Etang de La Jemaye, just south of Ruberac and enjoy the cool of an ice-cream in the shade by the lake. Then it was back to La Perdrix to give some time to practice individual performances have an early dinner, gather up the gear and make our way to the venue.
After a couple of minor hiccups at the start of the set, the show went extremely well and was much enjoyed by our audience, which included the grand-daughter of Sir Clive Sinclair. Every group and individual performed brilliantly, so much so that the owner of the Cafe du Palais has booked The Perdrix Players for next year!
The week was one of the best Guitar Retreats I have been to. It was great to meet up with old friends, catch up with their news and enjoy their music, playing and company. I also met some great new friends who I know I will keep in touch with. In fact I am to visit one of them in Moscow either later this year or Spring next year! They really are a great bunch of people from all walks of life including a wonderfully eccentric, mad, Welsh/French writer Jean Bonnin whose equally eccentric and mad, surrealist novels many of us purchased.
I’ll be back next year for more!