I’ve been on sabbatical for three months and I’m over half way with preparing the materials for my solo album. At the beginning of November, I made an appointment to get feedback on my unsuccessful application for funding the album. I can definitely recommend speaking to funders whenever possible because otherwise you spend time coming up with your own ideas about why you didn’t get the money! I had surmised from my own research that many previous recipients were already further on in their recording careers as well as having had significant nominations for prizes and lots of radio play. I was told my application was really strong but because I had listed my genres as “classical”, “world” and “folk” in that order (without realising that they would subsequently be prioritised in that order), the classical reviewer had stated that the concept and proposed content didn’t seem “classical enough” compared with other classical applications.

Massive lesson learned for me and I’m really grateful to the funders for making feedback available but it’s also made me think a lot about how my music actually does fall between these categorisations without being in one genre specifically. I’ve been veering between feeling slightly displaced and boldly pioneering! Why does music get shoved into these boxes? – for the people who stand to make money out of it and need to carve out specific audiences for it? I don’t really care who my album reaches – I’m not trying to target any supposed “type of person/consumer” in particular, I hope that someone of any age/ability/preference could enjoy it and get something from it. I’d also like to make it as beautiful and meaningful as it can possibly be, with the contributions of other great artists in performing and recording it.

If I’d put “folk” first or “world” first would the same issue have arisen as my music doesn’t really stand in either of those categories completely?

Do audience members really like to be defined in terms of genre classification? Toumani Diabate’s solo kora playing is virtuosically intricate, draws from the very roots of the kora playing tradition and speaks of Mali and of the world. It’s not just “world music”. Do people like being put in boxes any more than this beautiful Kora from The Gambia from around 1848 likes being put in a glass case and being peered at as a world music curiosity (with a broken string as well – the Stradivarius would never be displayed with a broken string).


(Kora from around 1848 in the Paris Instrument Museum which I visited on 12 November)

Anyway, I’m so bloody minded that the last three tracks, oh sorry, “pieces”, I’ve written for the album since getting the feedback at the start of the month draw more heavily on my “classical” training than they might have done – I’m so naughty! I think it was a combination of wanting to do a slight “two fingers” at not being “classical enough” and the joy of composing two piano based pieces which allow for much more modulation and chromaticism as well as writing a really rather strange choral octet which I can’t wait to hear performed.

All the text for the album derives from Celtic and African “folklore” – my own poetry in response to certain themes and texts from the translations of epics in Gaelic and Mandinka. I’ll tell you more about the central theme in the next instalment. I’ve been really getting into researching and reading different epic tales and finding common archetypes and messages. Let’s hope everyone can find something to enjoy! There will be classical, world and folk influences!!!!

I had a really fun time in Paris at the beginning of November visiting my dear friends Marianne Clarac and Cecile Provot who I used to work with at Musique et Sante. I also caught up with Philippe Bouteloup, Musique et Sante’s Director. Between 2007 and 2013 we did some very exciting European Project work around music in hospital settings, pioneering the movement in the UK, Ireland and in Eastern Europe. I’m really proud of having been at the forefront of that work with such inspirational people. On this trip I got to sing Georgian choral music and a Beatles Mash Up with Marianne and a lovely workshop singing group standing in the courtyard of the Louvre Museum led by Stephen Taberner!


I love Paris and felt totally energised being there. Although you might have noted I was a bit cross about the Kora being stuck in a glass case with a broken string in the instrument museum, I did get to hear a Strad. violin being played by the co-leader of the Paris Philharmonic which made me cry my eyes out. The sound was so grave.

I also went to a fabulous Brazilian singalong samba night and got swept up by the gorgeous, predominantly Brazilian, audience who didn’t care at all that I didn’t know the moves or the songs!

The Moma exhibition at Foundation Louis Vuitton is definitely worth a visit. My favourite was hearing Tallis’s Spem in Alium recorded using 40 different microphones for each part and played back in a large circle of 40 speakers which you could move around to hear different lines.

I’ve just come back from a weekend with musical friends – happy times jamming with drums, voices and stringed instruments of different sorts! We also got to hear DhakhaBrakha live in Bangor. This Ukranian group are my current favourite artists – such an impeccable, incredible performance. We got to model our hats with them on stage afterwards!


You can watch a live performance/interview with the group on KEXP here

Right, I’d better get back to my kora training – still working on my thumbs and trying to apply some more complex thumb work on the traditional West African songs that will feature on the album…more next month and a very Happy Christmas and New Year to everyone! Here’s a beautiful French carol that we used to sing every year at school to get you in the mood!



Yesterday the clocks went back and we gained an extra hour. This is what being on sabbatical feels like – gaining precious time. It’s been almost 2 months now and I’m just starting to settle into a new way of being. I’ve never had such an extensive period of complete “time out” on my own – I never had a gap year for travelling as many young people do and I’ve worked full time since graduating from University up to the grand old age of 44! I was very lucky to receive both a Winston Churchill Fellowship and a Finzi Award for travelling but both of these trips had very set agendas and required detailed analysis of how project aims were met.

So this precious time, generously supported by Katherine McGillivray Get a Life Fund, is a completely new experience and a massive luxury. I really do feel like I am getting a life! Not having to hare around on public transport to far-flung concerts, workshops and projects has afforded me time for mindful reflection on the past, physical exercise on my new mountain bike and at the gym, catching up with inspirational friends and enjoying time at home with my cat Geoffrey!

Of course, I have objectives for the sabbatical: to improve my kora playing and knowledge of the kora and its history, to build my compositional portfolio and to explore funding streams for my performance and healthcare work. Being able to creatively work on these objectives without a pressing sense of deadline is immensely liberating but also quite an unusual experience. I’ve had to consciously stop beating myself up for feeling like I’m not working hard enough just because I’m not panicking over looming deadlines and burning the midnight oil!

It’s hard to reprogram negative ways of thinking – “I didn’t practise hard enough today – will I ever be able to play that complicated polyrhythm”, “is that song good enough for the album?”, “only a few months left and then it’ll be over”, “there are so many virtuoso Kora players – what’s the point?”. However, this reprogramming of myself is proving to be a really vital part of the sabbatical. Reframing negative thought processes and embracing a positive ‘going with the flow” attitude – letting myself take time with my practise and creativity and learning to congratulate myself on achieving small milestones.

Since I got back home from 3 weeks in Eigg, I’ve started to make quite significant strides in improving my thumb technique on the Kora. I’ve been having “What’sApp” lessons over the last few weeks with Muhammed Saho my teacher who has been passing on exercises which involve fast, ornamented phrases. These are the kinds of phrases that the index fingers find relatively easy but the lazy thumbs are less inclined to tackle. I’m trying to develop little “brains” in my thumbs so that they are much more aware of what they are doing rather than stabbing away in the dark! These ornamentations and their specific articulations are very traditional for the kora and any griot listening should hopefully appreciate my desire to play in a more authentic way whilst also writing new music for the instrument.

I’ve also managed to distil a theme for my solo album from an extensive amount of research, watching documentaries and reading. I’m not going to reveal this in its entirety quite yet but I will do soon! I’ve realised that if I try to write “lyrics” they can sometimes sound a bit contrived and simplistic (Note to self – maybe a bit too derogatory but somewhat true!). I’ve therefore been experimenting with writing poetry and then setting this to music and this is quite an exciting new way of working. The poetry doesn’t need to have a fixed metre, stanza length or to rhyme. This means that the melodies that arise from it are freer in movement and there are more opportunities for word painting and alliteration within lines rather than the words following a preset melody. I’ve written 3 tracks so far and have another poem to set. I’ll be arranging these for kora, strings, voices and percussion.

I didn’t get the first funding I applied for to record the CD and, in the bid not to beat myself up, consoled myself with the knowledge that most of last year’s recipients were already very well established with several albums out, radio play and Mercury nominations! I am going to try and find other more realistic sources of funding for this debut album and have been compiling a list of prospects. Rather than just doing the bog standard album tour, I’m keen to collaborate with other artists/producers to develop the musical material into a small scale, easy to put on theatre production that could tour unusual venues…watch this space!

I’ve also been exploring funding options for my “So Many Beauties (SMB)” healthcare project (dementia/neonatology) which will move into phase 2 once the sabbatical is over. I hope to establish SMB as a CIC and to really build this programme of work so that my portfolio is 50% healthcare work and 50% performance/composition work. Seeing the impact of music on people with dementia and also families with premature babies has been such a transformative experience for me. The premiere of the oratorio So Many Beauties was also met with such incredible critical acclaim that it makes absolute sense to try and develop this work further.

So I’ve certainly not been idle over the last three weeks but equally I’m learning not to over saturate myself with expectations and pressures. It takes time to change the way you work – the way you think about and approach work. I’m so grateful to have this opportunity to take more time and hope I can adjust my working life post-sabbatical so I’m not feeling so pressurised and anxious as I have been in the past. I hope to gain a good work-life balance in the future, to have projects in healthcare that are more local and require less travel and to have put something new and beautiful out there on the music scene.

Here’s a sketch of one of the new tracks from the album as an appetiser in the mean time! Actually, I take that last statement back, time isn’t mean – it’s generous if it’s used mindfully! This track isn’t in my new poetic style but the lyrics are drawn from a prayer for pilgrims from the Celtic collection Carmina Gadelica.

Eigg sketches

I’ve uploaded some of the unedited field recordings I captured whilst I was in Eigg last year (August 2016). You can listen to them here:

My creative batteries are charging up for the sabbatical time ahead being here in this incredible setting.

The enchanted Isle of Eigg

It’s been an epic start to my sabbatical, coming to the Isle of Eigg for three weeks to let off steam romping round the Autumnal landscapes, sharing a fair few drams with old and new friends, reflecting on the last year of musical projects and beginning to assimilate themes and content for a new solo album.

Eigg is my place of pilgrimage. I am utterly in love with its lochs, brooks, forests, glades, shorelines, cliffs, bracken, pastures, rainbows, storms, tides. The people aren’t bad either!

How brilliant to have a proper holiday here after such an intense year of work! I was so lucky to be joined by dear friends Olga, Geri and Dave in the first week, staying in the incredible Laig Beach Bothy. We were joined by the stupendously marvellous Stephen Taberner of the Spooky Men’s Chorale who we lured from Glasgow using various forms of emotional blackmail. Watching him magic people into music making was hugely inspirational and I’ve learned a lot from observing and also being participant to his approach.

I’ve explored new parts of the island and played my kora outside in the balmy Autumnal sun. Today I’m writing a funding application to support the recording of the new album so fingers and toes will be crossed for a favourable outcome.

I’ll be collecting all the recordings from last year’s work on this site in due course as well as blogging about the sabbatical and posting ideas for the album but, in the mean time, here is a live recording of the title movement from the oratorio So Many Beauties co-composed by me and people with dementia which premiered at Manchester Cathedral in April 17.  Thanks to Stephen Kilpatrick from Salford University who recorded the live performance.


Holly’s Sabbatical Blog

Generously funded by Katherine McGillvray’s Get a Life Fund, I’ve started a 7 month sabbatical as of today! This time will be spent practising the kora and working on compositions with a view to recording a solo album in April 2018 and then going on tour. I’ve decided to leave Facebook as it becomes quite time consuming and so I’ll be keeping a log of my activities and adventures on this site.

I’ve had a lovely first day today, writing some new technical exercises for the kora – “cat on the shoulder” and “the lion is full of dignity”. These are to get my thumbs working a bit better!

I’ve also started a new composition, read The Sunjata Story (Penguin Epics) and watched Jali Alaji Mbye telling the Story of the Kora (click on link to view).

I’ll be updating reasonably regularly. I’m off to Scotland in two weeks time to the beautiful island of Eigg so I’ll take lots of photos so you can see why I have fallen in love with it!

Kora blankspace